Why Were The Early Christians Persecuted and What Were The Effects of This Persecution?

The persecution of the early Christians started with Jesus Himself when He was crucified. Soon after, the Apostles and Disciples that were spread throughout the world were persecuted by Paul (then known as Saul) and other members of the Jewish community, as recorded in the first few chapters of Acts. The first recorded martyr is in Acts 6:8 - 7:60 with the stoning of Stephen. This persecution of Paul continued until even he converted to Christianity. On many of Paul's missionary journeys thereafter, he was persecuted by Roman authorities and imprisoned many times too. It is likely that Paul was persecuted under the rule of Nero's reign before he was executed. Although, the book of Acts has no mention of the persecutions by Nero, who came into power in 54 AD around the time Paul was in Ephesus. While Nero was in power, in the year of 64 AD, a great fire started in Rome that burned down massive parts of the city which devastated the Roman Population. The fire was suspected to have been started by Nero himself (whose sanity was in question) and rumours started to circulate around Rome about him that he 'had played his lyre and sang, on top of Quirinal Hill, while the city burned. (Tacitus, Ann. xv; Suetonius, Nero xxxvii; Dio Cassius, R.H. lxii.)'1 Nero needed a scapregoat to pass the blame on to for the fire; and he chose to lay blame on the Christians - a group hated for their apparent abominations. By doing this, Nero made the already existing suspicion of Christians even greater, and quite possibly increased the hatred towards the Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Nero then on persecuted Christians in terrible ways, as Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian, recorded in his Annals (xv. 44): 'they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night'2 because of their 'hatred for humanity'. Although, throughout the persecutions, Christianity continued to spread and as Tertullian of Carthage stated: 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church!'3 Christians were also often punished for natural disasters, like earthquakes, and also
1 2

Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nero - 16/01/06 Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nero - 16/01/06 3 D. Allen, The Unfailing Stream, pp.15

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for a defeat in battle because, according to the Romans, the Pagan gods were offended by the Christians and were punishing the people. From this time on, Christianity 'was regarded as 'religio illicita' (an illegal or unauthorised religion)'4 although no actual edict had been issued against the religion. Nero's persection was short-lived and only in a concentrated and local area, but this was to mark the first official persecutions against Christians in where the government acknowledged a difference between Christians and Jews. After Nero's death in 68 AD, being a Christian became a capital crime and Christians were then persecuted by the successing Emperor, Domitian, at the end of the first century. Domitian had been given a recognitian of divine honours through military victory. Although other Emperors that were to be given this same title (namely, Decius, Valerian and Diocletian) had not taken it literately, but considered disloyalty to them and the gods as treason against Rome. He was even reported to have killed members of his own family on charges on Jewish manners or those that were Christians. Domitian did take his 'divinity' seriously, so much so that he signed letters with 'Your Lord and God Domitian'. Because of this, Emperor worship became more popular and the churches, mainly in Asia, suffered because of this. The reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 -180AD), the great philosopher-king, was described as 'a well-educated, just, kind, and admiable emperor'5 but he had no sympathy towards Christianity and no probably thought of it as superstition. Marcus Aurelius was part of the stoical school which held the belief that they should have 'calm acceptance of all occurrences as the unavoidable result of divine will or of the natural order.'6 Even with this school of though, Marcus Aurelius considered Christianity as dangerous to the welfare of the state; so a law was passed punishing anyone with exile that tried to influence people's minds, which was undoubtedly aimed at the Christians. During his reign, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was martyred and then later in his reign there is record of new decrees so that Christians could be accused easier. The Emperor Severus was probably did not have any personal dislikes towards Christians, but as the Church was gaining power and was getting many new

4 5

D. Allen, The Unfailing Stream, pp.13 ReligionFacts - http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.htm - 17/01/06 6 http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=stoical - 17/01/06

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converts, which was leading to a popular dislike and anti-Christian feeling, this led to persecution in Catharge, Alexandria, Rome and Corinth around 202 to 210 AD. In the time of Decius as Emperor, he persecuted and killed Christians from the winter of 250 AD to the spring of 251 AD, and during that time he martyred the Bishop of Rome, Pope Fabian. Gregory of Tours writes about these persecutions in his book called "History of the Franks", which was written a decade before 594 AD. He wrote: "Under the emperor Decius many persecutions arose against the name of Christ, and there was such a slaughter of believers that they could not be numbered." (Book i.30-31)7 While under Decius' rule, he ordered an edict that stated that all citizens were to do a sacrifice to the Emperor before a Roman official to obtain a certificate (libellus) proving that you had done so. People refusing to do the sacrifice were arrested and executed. This kind of persecution created a moral crisis for the Christians as they could aquire a certificate by bribing a Roman official. But the dilemma came because it was a bit of a grey area as to whether Christians should save their own life by buying a certificate, even though it was clear that they should never bow to a false god. There were many Christians that did go against this edict, and they were then arrested and executed. Then there was a problem of Christians that had given sacrifices to the Emperor, or bought a certificate to save their lives; some churches were unsure whether they should be accepted back in or not. Most churches, it would seem, were accepted back, but some groups refused them back into the churches. But while the government were thinking they were doing society a favour by killing off Christians, the general public opinion was one of condemnation towards the governments actions and violence; but at the same time, the public admired the martyrs' submissive resistance to threat, thus strengthening the Christian movement throughout Rome. In 253 AD, Valerian came to power and made it so all Christian clergy had to sacrifice to the Roman gods, then in 257 AD, an edict was passed so that the punishment against Christians was exile, but then in 258 AD another edict was passed making the punishment death.

7

Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians - 16/01/06

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The persecution by Valerian ended when he was captured by Persia and was suceeded by his son, Gallienus, who revoked his father's edicts. The last, and major persecution known as the "Great Persecution" happened under Diocletian's rule, in 303 AD. A fire broke out in Diocletian's palace twice and the Christians of the household were accused and badly abused for it. Diocletian's wife and daughter, who were Christians, were forced to sacrifice to the gods and the Overseer of the church in Nicomedia, along with two Christian counsellors were put to death, despite the protests of innocence by the Christians. There was a second edict issued by Diocletian that ordered the arrest of all Christian leaders, because of uprisings in parts of his domain which he thought were started by the neighboring kingdom of Armenia, which had just officially accepted Christianity as the national religion. Diocletian planned to destroy the Church by arresting all the leadership, hoping that 'bereft of shepherds, the flock would wander away of it's own accord.'8 Diocletian issued four edicts over the time of 303 - 304 AD,9 which ordered the burning of Christian books and churches but promised that he would not spill any blood. But 'in actuallity, the Diocletian persecution turned out to be extremely violent'10 which had the opposite effect and made the martyr's faith even stronger. Then the following year, Diocletian fell seriously ill and was dying. In 311 AD, Galerius, Diocletians junior colleage, issued a decree; he gave back all previously stripped privileges to the Christians and then 'concluded with a pathetic request that they remember him in their prayers.'11 Two years later the persecutions officially ended with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD when Constantine came to power and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To conclude then, it would seem that throughout all of the history of the early church, that the reasons for the persecutions against Christians does vary quite a bit from personal reasons to justifying it with keeping the peace in the Empire and for political reasons and popularity with the people.
8 9

R. Daniel, This Holy Seed, pp.247 304AD: an edict was passed punishing all Christians by death if they did not offer sacrifices. (R. Daniel, This Holy Seed, pp.247) 10 ReligionFacts - http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.htm - 17/01/06 11 R. Daniel, This Holy Seed, pp.248

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Despite the regular persecution of Christians and the Church by the Romans, the ones who gae their lives as martyrs did not ever die in vain - even as the trials and torture became worse. All this just increased and generally strengthened the Christians faith and made the Church stronger, because the blood of the martyr, is indeed, the seed of the Church.

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Bibliography
Allen, D., The Unfailing Stream, (Kent, England, Sovereign World Ltd; 1994)

Alexander, P., Alexander, D. (eds.) Lion Handbook to the Bible, The, Third Edition, (Lion Hudson Plc; 1st edn, 1973, 2nd edn. 1983, 3rd edn. Hbk. 1999, Pbk. 2002)

Daniel, R., This Holy Seed, (Herts, England, Tamarisk Publications; 1992, 1993)

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