We take a look at why & how Christianity came under suspicion in the Roman Empire, the Martyr mystique and 3 important church leaders; Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, & Polycarp.

Episode 4. This week’s episode is titled “Martyrs.”

Modern marketing tactics first produced, and now feed contemporary culture’s obsession for “the newest thing.” The label “New & Improved” is a frequent feature in packaging.

The opposite was the case in 1st Century Rome. The Romans, and really most of the ancient world, were suspicious of the new and novel, especially when it came to ideas. They had tremendous respect for tradition, believing what was true had already been discovered and needed to be preserved. Innovation was accepted, but only in so far as it did not substantially alter a thing.

The religion of the Greeks and Romans was sacrosanct precisely because it was ancient. Though Judaism, with its fierce devotion to only one God was incompatible with the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods, was tolerated by the Romans precisely because it was ancient.

Also, while Jews were fiercely loyal to their religion & became violent when attempts were made to convert them to paganism, they were not as a rule engaged in making converts of others.

Christianity’s early struggle with Rome began in earnest when Judaism officially denounced the Christians and banish them as a movement within Judaism. This took place shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Until that time, the followers of Jesus were considered as a kind of reform movement within Judaism. But toward the end of the 1st Century, Rome realized the Jews had divorced themselves from the Christians. Christianity was something new; a religious novelty; so, under suspicion.

And whereas Judaism tended not to proselytize, Christians couldn’t help winning others to their faith. This brought Christianity into scrutiny by the authorities. The more they investigated, the more concerned they grew. Christians believed in one God like the Jews. But their God had become a man. Christians had no idols, practiced no sacrifices, had no temples. These were yet more religious innovations that fired suspicion. The Christians seem to be so reductionist in their practice they were accused of being atheists.

As we saw in the previous episode, the paganism practiced by most people of the Empire in the 1st & 2nd Centuries wasn’t so much out of a heart-felt devotion to the gods as it was out of a sense of civic duty. “Respect the gods by visiting their temples with the proper offerings, or suffer their wrath.” à Well, every new Christian meant one less pagan throwing their appeasing bones to the gods. Some began to worry the growing neglect of the gods would lead to trouble. And indeed, whenever a drought, flood, fire, or some other catastrophe ensued it was inevitably blamed on “Those atheists = the Christians.”

“The Christians to the lions,” became a frequent solution to the ills of the world.

The concern of the pagans was well-founded. Not because their gods were angry, but because in some places so many had become Christians the pagan temples were nearly empty.  Acts 19 tells us this happened in Ephesus and a letter from the Governor of Bithynia in the early 2nd Century repeats the concern. This led to a growing call for punishment of the Christians. A few would be rounded up and put to death to prove to the gods the earnestness of the pagans to appease them.

Other factors that encouraged hostility towards believers was their secrecy. A description of Christians by Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan in A.D. 111 is enlightening. Pliny had already executed some Christians based on little more than their scandalous reputation. He’d given them an opportunity to recant but when they refused, Pliny saw this rebuff of his mercy as a provocative stubbornness worthy of the highest form of punishment. But after a flurry of such executions, Pliny had 2nd thoughts: Was the mere reputation of Christians dangerous enough to warrant their arrest and trial? So he wrote his friend the Emperor Trajan, asking for advice.  Here’s a quote from Pliny’s letter. After describing some ex-Christians who recanted their faith, Pliny gives their report on what they’d done as Christians.

“They affirmed the whole of their guilt was that they were in the habit of meeting on a fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to commit any wicked deeds; no fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it. After which it was their custom to separate, then reassembled later to partake of food — but food of an ordinary an innocent kind.”

A little later Pliny adds that to verify this report he secured through the torture of 2 slaves that this was an accurate description of Christian meetings and that nothing more needed to be added. Pliny called Christianity a “depraved and excessive superstition.”

Though harmless to us, it was that reference to the Christians meeting before dawn that proved a problem. While it looks to us as a commendable reference to their diligence and earnestness, it was highly suspicious to Romans. As a rule, they forbade meetings after dark. Day was the time for such meetings. To meet at night was suspect. No good could come of it. You met at night because you had something to hide.

So why did Christians meet before daylight if it raised suspicions. The answer lies in the composition of their Fellowship. For the most part, they were commoners and the poor who had jobs they had to begin early. The only time available to meet was before the workday began.

These early meetings of the church were only open to Christians. Secrecy breeds gossip and soon wild rumors were going round about the abominable things the Christians must be doing. Their communal meal, called the Agape or Love-Feast, was recast by gossip as a wild and debauched orgy. Communion was said to be ritual cannibalism. But the real shocker was that when Christians met, social distinctions like rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, were subsumed under an appalling equality. Many critics of Christianity saw this as a dangerous subversion of the national order & Christians were cast as radical revolutionaries.

For a society that lived in constant fear of a slave uprising, anything seen as encouraging slaves to think independently was considered perilous.

Another source of trouble for Christians was their Jewish origin. Even though Judaism worked hard to distance itself from the followers of Christ, in the mind of the average Roman, the Church was a Jewish thing. In many places Jews were the main accusers of Christians to the authorities. But this failed to dislodge Christians from their Jewish roots. The bloody and troubling Jewish Wars of the 1st & 2nd Centuries created great hostility between Romans and Jews, which spilled over onto Christians.

During the 2nd & 3rd Centuries, believers were arrested and executed on no worse crime than being accused of being a Christian. Hauled before a judge, they were given the opportunity to recant. They could do so by invoking the names of some pagan deities, offering a sacrifice to the image of the Emperor, and cursing Christ. If they refused this threefold evidence of being a pagan, they were led off to execution.

One story is illustrative. In the mid-2nd Century during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, a woman became a Christian. Marital problems led to her divorce. Resenting her, the husband accused her of being a Christian. She was arrested, as was her pastor for being a co-conspirator with her in causing the changes that caused the divorce. The pastor’s name was Ptolemaeus.

The jailer was cruel & tried to force Ptolemaeus to turn from his faith. Ptolemaeus resisted and the day of his trial arrived. The judge, Urbicus, put it straight to him, “Are you a Christian?” Ptolemaeus admitted he was. Urbicus pronounced him guilty and Roman justice being swift, he was led off to immediate execution.

As he was being led away, a spectator, Lucius by name, rose to speak. He challenged Urbicus’ decision. Lucius asked, “Why did you pass such a sentence? Was this man convicted of a crime? Is he an adulterer, a murderer, a robber? All he did was confess that he was a Christian!”

The judge replied, “It seems you are also a Christian.”

Lucius answered, “Yes, I am.”

Urbicus had the guards seize & haul him off to be executed along with Ptolemaeus.

At this, a 3rd man rose, issuing a similar challenge. When Urbicus asked if he was also a believer the man admitted both his faith and disbelief that death could ensue for no more reason than a name. But Urbicus believed he was well with in his authority to execute all 3 of these men for no more reason than that they claimed to be Christians.

This story, duplicated thousands of times throughout the Empire during the 2nd & 3rd Centuries drives home the fact that Christianity was little understood by the pagan world.

There is no sure way to know how many believers were put to death during the first 3 centuries of the church. Rome didn’t follow a consistent policy of persecution. Some emperors were lenient while others practiced virulent opposition. Ten of the emperors enforced an official policy of oppression and persecution; from Nero in A.D. 64, to the worst under Diocletian & Galarius in the opening years of the 4th Century. And even though some emperors enforced opposition to Christianity, their policies were rarely Empire-wide. It was up to the provincial governors to implement the rule and many simply ignored it, realizing it was bad policy.

Though estimating the number of martyrs is difficult, we can set the number somewhere between 1 and 3 million over a period of about 250 years.

Despite the threat of death, the church continued to grow. As one oft-quoted church father put it, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” While the authorities remained ignorant of what Christians believed, many of the common people discovered from conversation with Christians what they believed and found it attractive. More than attractive, it was convincing. They also came to faith, knowing that doing so might lead to the ultimate test.

As the years went by and Christians were made the object of public shame by using them for entertainment in the gladiatorial games, more & more began seeing their neighbors and friends on the sand, waiting to be ripped apart by wild beasts. It became personal. And pagans who knew the martyrs to be level-headed, reasonable people of solid moral standing began to question the policy of Rome to hunt these people down & kill them.

Slowly but surely a sea-change began to swing public opinion away from persecution. By the dawn of the 4th Century, sympathy had eased the hatred of Christians whose resolute faith in the face of prolonged suffering had recast many of them as heroic.

4 replies
  1. Billy Bartlett
    Billy Bartlett says:

    Among all the changes that came through the history of the Church, most seem to come from a reaction to abuses of some kind or another. The Potter is at work and always brings the right man at the right time.


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