A perspective on Christian Persecution in the Roman Empire
by Robert Randle
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In the controversial new book, "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom," University of Notre Dame Professor of Christianity Candida Moss says that many of the stories of Christians defying an imperial world power to the point of death is mostly exaggeration and historical embellishment. No populist movement, be it religious, political, or otherwise, is immune from occasional literary and oral propaganda or expansion. The idea of suffering is almost hardwired into the believer’s spiritual DNA, especially thousands of years ago, but does such a mindset promulgate the kind of behavior leading to a predictable outcome that is in conflict with societal values and expectations? The most important component of Roman society was respect for law and the Pax Romana, or civil peace. Since the empire was heterogeneous and consisted of people from many different ethnicities and cultures with disparate religious beliefs and practices, it mattered not to Roman officials what they did as long as they weren’t trying to undermine the social order and break lawful ordinances and statutes as administered by the local authorities.
The Roman religion was more or less a civil one where every citizen was to respect deity only as far as it pertains to ensuring the welfare and prosperity of the state or empire, and not so much about having ‘faith’ in or experiencing a personal relationship with any of the Roman gods as such. To offer sacrifice on one of the altars was more or less a pledge of allegiance to the state, and to Caesar as the representative head of government, ruler of the people and commander of the Roman legions, and to faithfully abide by all laws as a loyal Roman citizen. Whether a person believed in the gods was not so much an issue, but when someone chose to show public disdain for the practice through some overt action, it was seen as not supporting societal values or norms, and being against everything that Rome offered; like freedom, peace, prosperity, security, and so forth.
I am not aware of any decree that someone was required to worship any member of the Roman pantheon of gods or if there were temples dedicated to them where attendance was compulsory. There were various cults associated with many pagan religious practices as well as the more esoteric and mystery religions of Egypt, Babylon, or Greece. The thing is, though, why were these groups able to operate under the radar of the government and the Christians singled out for such horrible mistreatment? A possible answer could be the “overemphasis” on persecution, suffering, trial, imprisonment, and tribulation narrated in the Scriptures and taught by the early followers of Jesus’ disciples and apostles where the actions that believers take or the way they live among people, created the kind of violent reaction from others in society where martyrdom becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Also, another point is found in Acts 17: 6b, 7 which reads: “These men have caused trouble all over the world [empire]. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees [laws], saying that there is another king, Jesus.” Now think upon that statement for a moment. What upset the people and authorities were not Christian believers practicing their religion but rather breaking the laws, and most importantly, saying that there was another king besides Caesar.
Let’s try and look at how this might have looked to the average Greek or Roman citizen. If Caesar is not a true king then his rule is illegitimate because there is someone else who is a legitimate or true king; in fact someone who is King of kings.. If Caesar is a usurper, imposter, or unauthorized to rule then his laws or creeds are null and void. Ignoring heretofore royal and legal decrees as well as saying that there is a higher or greater throne to pay allegiance to would doubtless be viewed as subversive, insurrection, anarchistic, and the whole structure of governance throughout the empire could unravel, destroying the Pax Romana. Whenever an authoritarian, autocratic regime is in jeopardy of some kind of potential threat or revolt sometimes extreme measures have to be taken to discourage such attacks by setting an example to warn future dissidents of the consequences of rebellion; and also because most leaders are insecure and fearful of assassinations, poisonings, or other measures to get rid of them.
It is time to make some comparisons and contrasts, starting with the apostle Paul:
Acts 21: 38
“Aren’t you that Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists (“jihadists or insurgents”) into the desert some time ago?”
Acts 24: 5
“We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world [empire]. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect.”
Romans 13: 1-5
Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong [rebellion, rioting, insurrection, anarchy??]. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong [disobey the laws], be afraid. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath [cruel, inhumane, violent treatment or torture] to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of punishment.
NOTE: Do the authorities include living in obedience to corrupt authoritarian, democratic, socialist, communist, illiberal democracies, and dictatorships who deny civil liberties, civil rights, and perpetrate ‘genocide’ and “ethnic cleansing” violating international human rights laws as war criminals?
1 Thessalonians 4: 11a
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and mind your own business.
1Timothy 2: 1-3
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone-for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior.
1 Peter 2: 13-14, 17
Submit yourselves for the LORD’s sake to every authority instituted among men; whether to the king, as the supreme authority [in the empire], or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. Show the proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear, honor the king [earthly ruler, government official or ruler].
1 Peter 3: 13-14a
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even “IF” you should [not always will] suffer for what is right, you are blessed.
While not wanting to minimize the noble sacrifices of the nameless Christian martyrs who are not listed in the books of classical or medieval history or writings of the Church Fathers, there is the other side of the story that has to be acknowledged, too. After Christianity became the state religion by a pagan Roman Emperor who saw a vision of a “cross” in the sky the persecuted became the persecutors. Pagans who did not submit to belief in Jesus as the Son of God were treated with abuses that were just as vicious, brutal, and merciless as the ones they had received when the shoe was on the other foot. In fact, hundreds of thousands who resisted the word of God at the edge of a sword or barrel of a gun were slaughtered, and their lands taken as well as all the precious minerals and other goods or resources to fill papal coffers and royal treasuries [kings and queens who funded the expeditions of conquest and conversion to find riches in new undiscovered lands] in the home countries of Christian missionaries and explorers. Christians even punished other believers deemed as ‘heretics’ who did not go along with the theological party line through torture, banishment, seizure of property, and execution. It is not a pretty picture and of course it is much easier to sell if it is one-sided and through the experience of ‘victimology.’
Another important thing to look at is the earthly life of Jesus in His contemporary time. He lived under an occupation force of a foreign world power and hegemony, and the people are anxious for deliverance so much that they lived with a siege mentality. The people were desperate as evidenced in Luke 3: 15, where it says: The people were waiting expectantly [with a sense of urgency or importance] and were wondering in their hearts if John might be the Christ [“Messiah/Deliver’]. Interestingly, Jesus did not give attention to the political situation of the day, although He mentioned frequently about the “kingdom of God.” As human nature proves, though, anxiety, frustration and impatience can spill over into clashes with authorities, civil disobedience, and if it is not contained by a strong show of force, sometimes excessive, can lead to anarchy and the destruction of state political, social, religious, and economic institutions.
Applying this analysis to Christian martyrs, it is entirely possible that quite a few of them might have been massacred due more to “anti-social” conduct and not strictly because of their [superstitious] religious beliefs and practices. What needs to be kept in mind is proportionality of the punishment to the offense and was government action arbitrary or capricious, and over how long of a time frame. Notwithstanding, believers come in all types and there could have been a few influential radicals whose fiery rhetoric can fan the flames of people’s discontent, much like the leaders of al-Qaida or the Taliban. Consequently, someone can walk into the arena or coliseum and be torn apart, one limb or body part at a time from a half-starved animal, or have their flesh burn away while in the center of a bonfire because they want to go to heaven and see their LORD Jesus. This seems to be one side of an extreme anti-life perspective that sees the entire world as evil and nothing for good, but it may very well be that such severe punishment is more the result of law-breaking than faith- practicing.
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