Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Roman Perception of the Early Christians

One could say that the relationship between Christians and Rome got off to a rocky start. Notwithstanding Christ's own relations with Roman citizens such as Jairus in Luke 10:40-56 or the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13, His first encounter with the Empire of Rome ended with His crucifixion. Many early Christians would follow Him to similarly ignoble deaths. As Henri Daniel-Rops writes, "The term `Christian' was virtually synonymous with `execution victim' from the beginning."1 However, the Roman perception of this Christian population would develop over several decades until their identity became distinct from the Jewish population with which Rome was more familiar and at ease.

Even before Christians became a large population in Rome, they must have raised eyebrows in the eastern Empire. Several passages in Acts describe St. Paul's missions to Asia Minor and the encounters he had with Diaspora Jews and with local gentile populations. Christians would have been suspect if only because the Jews seemed to be at unrest whenever a Christian appeared in their midst. In Acts chapters 13 through 15, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium go so far as to follow Paul to other cities and to incite the crowds there to violence against him. Paul had already been stoned and left for dead once. In Philippi, a Roman colony, Roman magistrates beat and jailed Paul and his companions on behalf of the gentiles (Acts 16:19-40). Clearly at this point, Paul and his companions were still considered to be Jews by those in Philippi who raised protests against them. Later, in Thessalonica, the Jews again incited the crowds and pitted the Christians against the Roman authority (Acts 17: 6-8).

In Corinth, Paul encountered a hostile Jewish crowd who took him before the Roman tribunal (Acts 18: 12-15). In this chapter, two items suggest that Rome still considered Christians to be Jews. First, verses 2 and 3 mention Aquila and Priscilla who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius. That Aquila and Priscilla became Christians at some point is clear from verse 26. However, when they actually converted is unclear-whether it was during Paul's stay with them or whether Paul's acquaintance with them is due to their conversion while in Rome. A document from the early second century suggests that Claudius may have expelled the Jews because of the unrest due to the Christian sect's presence in Rome. Suetonius, the imperial secretary of Emperor Hadrian2, mentions the following: "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."3 This name "Chrestus" is assumed by many to be a misspelling of Christus.4

Second, when the Jews presented Paul to the proconsul, Gallio made clear that he saw this matter as an internal affair among the Jews, and he refused to be drawn into it (Acts 18: 14). Nero's exploitation of hostility toward Christians suggests that he was aware of differences between the two groups, but how he understood them to be distinct is unclear. Tacitus' reference to Christians in The Annals makes no concurrent mention of Jews.5 Nero took advantage of the apparently well-known animosity toward the sect following the fire in Rome in July of the year 64. Daniel-Rops notes that popular suspicion drove Nero to seek a scapegoat, and the Christians (being even less popular than the Jews) provided a convenient one.6

Given the history of the early Church, the antagonism between the Jews and the early Christians is not surprising. However, Christians had also alienated themselves from other Romans by virtue of the strangeness of their beliefs. As Daniel-Rops points out, the apocalyptic language of the early Church itself may have been part of the problem.
[I]t must be taken into consideration that the language of Christianity, which was something of a mystery to the non-initiated, may well have acted as a disturbing and almost provocative influence, with its great pictures of divine wrath, of sinful cities being devoured by the flames, of universal conflagrations: with all that apocalyptic symbolism with which St. John was soon to score his themes.7

Nonetheless, Nero's persecution had less to do with the nature of Christian identity than it did with his need to find some group to implicate in the fire of July 64. When Domitian later turned against both the Jews and Christians, his reason appeared to be more out of a general sense of distrust and suspicion toward several groups. Daniel-Rops notes that Jews and Christians were clearly viewed as two distinct groups by this time, albeit with a common practice in the worship of and belief in one God.8 While Jews and Christians shared this one element in common, how Christians engaged their faith would be central to Rome's developing response toward them.

By the time of Trajan's reign (from around 98 to 117 AD9), several facts are clear. First, the Christian faith had spread far beyond Judea and had established a foothold in Rome, as Tacitus mentions in The Annals.10 Second, the early Church comprised mostly manual laborers and craftsmen from the lower classes;11 by Domitian's time, it had clearly begun to infiltrate the aristocracy.12 Finally, the sporadic but ongoing persecution of Christians appears to have been based on legal precedent, although no specific anti-Christian legislation is known to have existed until the third century. Christians by this time were no longer treated as Jews but as dissidents from Judaism. Professing Christian faith in itself had become a crime.13 To this point, one would be hard pressed to explain why this status would be the case, with the exception of a few notable points. Although being a Christian in and of itself required no direct act against the state that could be of itself a crime, Christians clearly created dissension among some quarters. As the biblical evidence suggests, and as Suetonius' historical note indicates, Christians and Jews did not mix well, and whenever they did mix, public disorder often followed. What is more, the pagan populace also found Christians abhorrent, as evidenced by both Paul's encounter with the pagan artisans of Ephesus in Acts 19 and Tacitus' description of Christians as "a class hated for their abominations" and who were convicted not for setting Nero's Rome on fire but for "hatred against mankind."14 The lack of actual criminal behavior notwithstanding, Rome would be inclined to see Christians as threats to the popular order.

Another difference between Christians and Jews exacerbated the situation. While Jews tended to keep to their own traditions and not seek to convert non-Jews, Christians actively proselytized and sought converts. This activity meant that the Christian populace increased outside of ethnic bounds, drawing from the pagans in the local populace. As in Ephesus, this activity would provide an economic motivation to the pagans' antipathy. Conversions from the pagan population meant that fewer worshipers would buy livestock or graven images. The spread of Christianity, then, was a threat to the livelihoods of pagan merchants and craftsmen. Cross-cultural proselytization also made containment problematic. Jews were identifiable by their ethnicity and their unique practices, but anyone could be a Christian. As mentioned before, Christianity also had begun to transcend class distinctions. While Judaism may have increased due to an individual conversion here or there, Christianity rapidly expanded both horizontally and vertically. For pagan craftsman and merchants, this rapid change caused economic instability. For the Roman authority, this change had other implications.

Because Christians worshipped the one true God and not the pantheon of civil gods of the Romans, they denied to Rome what Rome considered its due and what citizens of the Roman and Greek states had always considered their civic responsibility. Rome had a policy of tolerance toward pagan religions, and Eastern mystery cults were quite popular with the cosmopolitan Roman population.15 Rome was not concerned about pagan religions because adherents to these sects did not resist taking part in the civic festivals and cult of worship. As Daniel-Rops notes, the difference in the Christian mindset was the point of contention:
Christianity refused to be considered along with all the other cults that derived from Asia. Even in those elements where some semblance might have been found between it and them, it worked assiduously to differentiate itself from them. Its God destroyed the pagan gods; He did not mix with them. This alone was enough to make the Roman mind resist the newcomer.16

Christians came and caused division, just as Christ predicted: "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three" (Luke 12:51-52). Christians caused division in society, division that could be exploited by the emperor (as in the case of Nero) but which could also be exploited by others. Christian intransigence in this matter also indicated that adherents to this new faith considered Roman authority to be less than absolute. In an era in which Roman authority was to become more centralized and more dominating, such a presence in the realm would become intolerable.17

Although Rome came to understand too late to effect a change, they did seem to grasp the threat that this sect with their transcendent authority, the one true God, posed. Rome had a few useful tools for gaining compliance to its will: death, exile, and torture. However, as temporal means, these methods swayed only those Christians whose faith was insufficient. For those fervent believers who ran headlong rejoicing into martyrdom, death meant only a quicker release to be with God and to enjoy the beatific vision. To compound Rome's dilemma, this ardor and passion increased the rate of conversions, so the very means by which Rome kept its populace in line was a catalyst for the growth of Christianity. As Tertullian wrote in The Apology, "The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed."18 When Constantine finally extended religious tolerance to Christians in the fourth century, one might still wonder whether he performed the act in magnanimity or in capitulation.

1Henri Daniel-Rops, The Church of Apostles and Martyrs, vol. I (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1962) 205.

2"Suetonius," Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia, June 2006 ed., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suetonius.

3Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum-Divus Claudius, trans. J. C. Rolfe, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, ed. Paul Halsall, 1999, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suet-claudius-rolfe.html, chapter 25.

4The following editorial note appears inline in the Internet Ancient History Source book: "Another form of Christus; see Tert. Apol. 3 (at the end). It is uncertain whether Suetonius is guilty of an error in chronology or is referring to some Jew of that name. The former seems probable because of the absence of `quodam'. Tacitus, Ann. 15.44, uses the correct form, Christus, and states that he was executed in the reign of Tiberius."

5Tacitus. The Annals. Book 15: A.D. 62-65. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Tac.+Ann.+15.44. Perseus Digital Library Project. Ed. Gregory R. Crane.. Tufts University. June 10, 2006. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

6Daniel-Rops, vol. I, 200-202.

7Ibid., vol. I, 202.

8Daniel-Rops, vol. I, 202.

9"Trajan," Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia, June 2006 ed., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trajan.

10Tacitus, The Annals. Book 15: A.D. 62-65, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Tac.+Ann.+15.44, Perseus Digital Library Project, ed. Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University, June 10, 2006, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

11Marvin O'Connell, "Lecture 2: Apostolic Succession-First Persecution," Two Critical Moments in Catholic History, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00902.htm. To be fair, not all share O'Connell's characterization. A recent book by Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), suggests that most growth in Christianity came from the merchant and upper classes.

12Daniel-Rops, vol. I, 216.

13Ibid., 209-211.

14Tacitus, The Annals. Book 15: A.D. 62-65, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Tac.+Ann.+15.44, Perseus Digital Library Project, ed. Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University, June 10, 2006, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

15Daniel-Rops, vol. I, 191.

16Ibid., 192.

17Ibid., 211.

18Tertullian, The Apology, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html, Early Christian Writings, June 2006, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com, chapter 50.

Works Cited

Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Church of Apostles and Martyrs. Vol. I. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1962.

O'Connell, Marvin. "Lecture 2: Apostolic Succession-First Persecution." Two Critical Moments in Catholic History. http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00902.htm. June 10, 2006.

"Suetonius." Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. June 2006 ed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suetonius. June 10, 2006.

Suetonius. De Vita Caesarum-Divus Claudius. Trans. J. C. Rolfe. Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. Ed. Paul Halsall. 1999. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suet-claudius-rolfe.html. June 10, 2006.

Tacitus. The Annals. Book 15: A.D. 62-65. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Tac.+Ann.+15.44>. Perseus Digital Library Project. Ed. Gregory R. Crane. Tufts University. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu. June 10, 2006.

Tertullian. The Apology. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html>. Early Christian Writings. June 2006. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com. June 10, 2006.

"Trajan." Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. June 2006 ed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trajan. June 10, 2006.
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