Towards the end of John 15, as part of the Farewell Discourse (John 15:18–16:4) , Jesus told his disciples that they will be hated by the world for his names’ sake. Gentiles disliked Jews for some of the same reasons for why they disliked Christians: both groups were exclusive. In a multi-cultural world filled with gods and various philosophies, Christians were called ‘The Way’. But the idea of Jesus being The Way to the Father (John 14:6) is offensive to the unregenerate mind. The exclusive claims of Jesus and his followers were/are viewed as simplistic, backwards, ignorant, naïve, arrogant, bigoted, and even hateful. The Christians preached there was only one name under heaven by which men could be saved (Acts 4:12). They told the Gentile pagans they were wrong and challenged them to recognize Christ alone as God and Savior (Acts 17).
Christians would not burn a pinch of incense and swear by the genius of the Caesar. They were not willing to simply add their neighbor’s deities to a pantheon, as a sort of a cultural common courtesy. The early church would not go this direction, despite the many cultural obstacles in front of them; least of which was the fact they followed a convicted criminal (see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). Simultaneously, the leaders of Judaism steadfastly denied – and even attacked them. In John 16, Jesus told his followers they would be cast out of the cultural centers of worship (the synagogue) and even killed by people who thought they were performing an act of service to God by killing them. NOTE: Here is a sermon I preached on martyrs from the Gospel of John called “I HEART HATERS”
The result of the earliest Christians rigidness was twofold: many martyrs and many conversions. In the now famous words of Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”(Apologeticus, Chapter 50). I give an example of one such account in this brief video here.
“Christians”, writes Robin Lane Fox, “attracted blackmail and slander”. Fox goes on to say that “‘atheism’ was the basic cause of their maltreatment” – the pejorative term atheist being applied to Christians is generally not seen as the mob literally thinking the Christians believed in no god(s) but rather that they rejected all the officially recognized gods – essentially reducing their faith to a godless or an atheistic one. An example may be the trial under Domitian, circa 70 AD, where Flavius Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla are executed for “atheism” and “Jewish practices” (Dio Cassius 67.14.1-3; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.18.4). There is some question whether they were Jewish or Christian but the weight of the evidence seems to favor the latter. The “Christians refused to concur” with the “forms of contemporary cult” and to the average Roman, “their lack of respect was intolerable”. To make matters worse, Christians not only mocked the gods (in the vein of the prophet Isaiah) but equated them to demons.
This could be dangerous because “if a god was dishonored, he might send his anger against the community” by withholding good things or sending bad things, as in “famine, plague, or drought”. Fox relays that in the fourth-century “no rain, because of the Christians” was “proverbial” (see Pagans and Christians: Religion and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century A.D., When the Gods of Olympus Lost their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 425). There is reason to believe that Christians were faulted for catastrophes in Asia Minor, specifically earthquakes (152 AD) and plagues (165 AD). Similarly, an Imperial decree (circa 166-168 AD) “to offer sacrifices to the gods so that the empire could survive a plague and invasions by German tribes may have led to mob reactions against Christians in certain locations” (see “Persecution” by Mark Reasoner in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 910).
Many local Roman officials could care less what Christians did in their spare time; they just wanted the Christians to comply with such gestures as offering a pinch of incense to the gods and saying a few words in honor of them. Others were more forceful: they demanded the Christian to also curse Christ. For example, see the Martyrdom of Polycarp, (8.2; 9.2; 10, 1), circa 155 AD. For the most part, though, they could still worship Jesus as they liked; what they could not do was display a rebellious attitude towards their rulers or a disrespectful attitude towards the gods of Rome. These actions were unpatriotic – even treasonous – and could have a negative impact on the cohesion and long-term survival of the Roman Empire.
The mobs were especially concerned with the anger of the gods. To some politicians, this was notion was merely the superstition of the crowds. Marcus Aurelius – who despised Christians – thought this way. Many followers of the gods had their favorites and could be quite passionate in their zeal towards the deities. According to some scholars, association or affiliation with Jesus (as in the name ‘Christian’) coupled with rejection of the gods is what may be seen as the “two outward marks” identifying “the earliest Christians”. This “refusal to worship set a clear boundary between [them] and their neighbors” (Paul Corb Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New York: Oxford, 1994), 105). The Christians disrespect towards the gods and the state was an extreme affront to Roman religious and political sensibilities – especially if it resulted in (super)natural disasters. Tertullian has a classic quote to that effect: “If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’” (Apology chapter XL. Translated by S. Thelwall).
One of the main reasons early Christians were persecuted was because they refused to burn incense to a statue of the Emperor and swear by his “genius”. They were viewed as subversive and unpatriotic, which helped put them on the fast track to martyrdom. Because they didn’t take part in what historians call the Cult of the Emperor, they were suspect. The Emperors demanded to be called Lord but no Christian would call them by this title – as it was reserved for Jesus alone.
Traditionally, historians have labeled ten different periods prior to Constantine as ones of persecution. The last one under Diocletian lasted from about 303 to 313 AD and was the only one that was Empire wide and systematic. Some of the Emperors ignored or even tried to protect Christians, such as Trajan (53-117 AD) in Epistles 10.97 and his successor Hadrian (76-138 AD) in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.9.1-3.
The first period of persecution was under Nero. After the Great Fire in Rome, Nero needed a scapegoat because the populace (wrongly) thought Nero was responsible. Nero (rightly) assumed Christians were hated enough to take the blame. Tacitus speaks of the Christians as a class of men hated for their incendiarism but even more so for their antisocial ways and their hatred of mankind. Suetonius, in a much shorter passage, speaks of Christians as people following a depraved superstition. Tacitus describes how Nero lit Christians on fire in his garden, dragged them around in chariots, threw them in bags with snakes, crucified them, placed them in animal skins on them and threw them in arenas with wild beasts. It is likely that during this time, approximately 67 AD, that both Peter (crucified) and Paul (beheaded) were martyred in Rome. The Neronian persecution was centered in Rome and although it was intense, did not last long.
Another Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued a policy of persecuting Christians and may have even been alluded to in the Book of Revelation, circa 96 AD. We see a glimpse of persecution from the letters of Pliny the Younger, writing around 112 AD. Pliny was a governor in Asia Minor and was writing to the Emperor to help forge a policy for prosecuting Christians.
Things intensified in 249 AD when Decius became Emperor. Decius desired to restore Rome’s glory but a great hindrance in this area was that Rome had abandoned her gods. This line of thought led Decius to order that worship of the gods was now mandatory. To obey, people were now required to sacrifice burn incense before a statue and receive a certificate. This policy was enforced off and on in the following years and in different degrees of intensity throughout the Empire.
JULIAN the APOSTATE
As far as pagan critics of the ancient church, Flavius Claudius Julianus was the last (pagan) man standing. Julian was an undercover pagan who came out of the proverbial closet when he took the purple (he reigned from 361-363 AD). Rodney Stark describes Julian as a “puritanical, ascetic, and fanatical pagan” (Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 194). Julian sincerely loved the old gods and despised the ‘Galileans’, whose “haughty ministers neither understood nor believed their religion” (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin Press) 1776, 1994 … 2.23.864.). Julian saw Christianity as an innovation and its founder as insufficient. An example of this attitude comes from one of Julian’s letters, in which he tells of his plan to pen a paper panning the “divinity falsely ascribed to … that new-fangled Galilean god” (Epistles 55.). True to his word, Julian found the time to write a three-volume polemic against Christianity: Against the Galileans (This work was destroyed. Portions were preserved in Cyril of Alexandria’s rebuttal, Contra Julianum, written between 412-444 AD).
Julian did not execute any Christians directly but he did allow mass executions of Christians to take place in Syria (Pierre Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 44) and Alexandria (Polymnia Athanassiadi, “Persecution and Response in Late Paganism: The Evidence of Damascius” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies 1993, 113:1-29, 13.). In Heliopolis, some pagans ripped a group of Christian virgins from limb to limb and then tossed their remains to swine (Johannes Geffcken, The Last Days of Greco-Roman Paganism (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing, 1920/1978), 144.). Julian did nothing about these injustices and even gave the Imperial nod to the torture of some bishops and others he personally ordered into exile. Julian reinitiated pagan celebrations, complete with mass sacrifices (H.A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 434-436) and he eliminated funding for churches while financially supporting pagan institutions. He switched out Christian with pagans in many government jobs and outlawed teachers who were Christians to instruct in the classics, saying: “if they think the classics wrong … then let them go and teach Matthew and Luke in the church” (Epistles 36; the text of this order is in Codex Theodosianus 13.3.5).
Emperors prior to Julian had wielded Roman law against the Christians but these men were all conservatives trying to maintain the status quo; most of them had very little knowledge of the Christian faith and were not well-informed critics. Julian was different in that he knew about Christianity, hated it, wanted to stamp it out, and longed to see a pagan revival in its stead. However, when all was said and done, Julian failed to revive paganism. Even though he only reigned for 18-months, he will forever be known as Julian - the Apostate.
Summary of pagan criticism:
- The doctrine of the resurrection is absurd
- There are contradictions in the Scriptures
- Atheism is widely held
- Christianity is the worship of a criminal
- Christianity is a novelty
- Christianity evidences a lack of patriotism
- Christians practice incest
- Christians practice cannibalism
- Christianity leads to the destruction of a society
For more on this, here is a Backpack Radio episode we did on THE TOP 10 CRITICS of the EARLY CHURCH. (This list is from the helpful “The Arguments of the Apologists” in Robert C. Walton’s Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005), Chart 15.)
From this recap, we can get a good sense of why Paul said what he said in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” All this raises the question: what resources did the early Christians have to offer potential converts other than the promise of persecution or at the very least extreme ridicule? In the physical, the answer is nothing. But John 16:33 and Hebrews 11:35–40 provide some of the answer. This fact only serves to dispel the notions of people become Christians to make their lives easier (the only caveat: if by “easier” one means more fulfillment, joy, and peace, then OK).
Christianity has always had its critics – and it always will. Celsus, an early opponent of Christianity, wrote: “Like all quacks they [the Christians] gather a crowd of slaves, children, women and idlers. I speak bitterly about this”. Early Christianity was largely comprised of the lower classes, women, and especially slaves. Only later did members of the aristocracy join because it was fashionable, due to Emperor Theodosius I making Christianity the state religion at the very end of the 4th Century. The church of Christ has withstood all of these attacks – and it always will.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I selected some events I felt were interesting and noteworthy.
03 AD-The Birth of Christ brings the Head of the Church to the world
30 AD-The Death, Burial, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. Pentecost fire from the Holy Spirit falls on the 120 gathered in Upper Room
44 AD-James is martyred by the way of beheading under Herod Agrippa II
46 AD-Paul’s 1st Missionary
49 AD-Paul’s 2nd Missionary
50 AD-Jerusalem Council solves the “Gentile problem”
53 AD-Paul’s 3rd Missionary
59 AD-Paul’s 4th Missionary
64 AD-Burning of Rome by Nero, who blames it on the Christians
65 AD-Persecution of the misunderstood Christians under Nero intensifies
68 AD-Paul’s martyrdom by way of the sword under Nero
70 AD-Fall of Jerusalem by the Roman General Titus
95 AD-More Roman persecution under Domitian
132 AD-Jews rebel against the Romans under Bar Kochba
135 AD-Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans
150 AD-Gnosticism, a heretical teaching that plagued the early church, reaches its peak
250 AD-persecution goes from local movements to widespread (universal)
300 AD-Christianity spreads to 10%-15% of the whole Roman Empire
303 AD-The Great Persecution. Diocletian issues first edict for official persecution of the Christians and presided over the most extensive persecution of Christians to date
313 AD-Edict of Milan by Constantine & Licinius legalizes Christianity, grants toleration
325 AD-Nicaea: Ecumenical council initiated by Constantine to deal with Arianism, other divisive issues; solves Easter controversy. Golden Age of the Church Fathers (apologists and polemicists) commences
311-400 AD: The Donatism Controversy Schism in N. Africa regarding how to properly deal with church members who were seen as “traitors”
361 AD-Emperor Julian “The Apostate” embraces Neoplatonism
367 AD-Athanasius’ Easter Letter Festal letter outlined our New Testament canon
370 AD-Basil of Caesarea popularizes the monastic life
381 AD-Council of Constantinople declares Montanists pagans; Christianity state religion
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vocab Malone is a semi-retired hip hop artist and slam poet. He is Pastor of Teaching and Evangelism at Roosevelt Community Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is pursuing a D. Min at Talbot. He has been married for 10 years and has adopted three boys. Vocab and his wife enjoy going to Comicon in full cosplay. He can be heard every Sunday night on Backpack Radio on 1360 KPXQ. Follow him on Twitter @VocabMalone