Why were the early Christians persecuted?


This well-worn question needs to be re-analyzed into the following three subsidiary questions.

First, for what reasons did the government (i.e. the organs of state, broadly speaking, the emperor, the senate, officials, and provincial governors) persecute? Secondly, for what reasons did ordinary pagans (i.e. the general populace) demand persecution? Thirdly, we need to examine the concept of martyrdom. There is the problem of distinguishing what constitutes persecution and what constitutes voluntary martyrdom.

Before examining these issues I offer some necessary points of clarification in section two.


In his correspondence with Trajan, Pliny uses the terms superstitio and hetaeria in his characterization of the Christians. We need to bring these terms into focus.

In its most familiar sense, the term superstitio referred to beliefs and practices that were alien to the Romans. According to writings attributed to Plutarch (Moralia 166c-170c), the superstitious person is one who fails to bring to bare his intellect on these matters giving rise to groundless fears, fanaticism and an absolving of ones free-will. These sentiments are echoed by Cicero (Nat.D. superstition was the irrational fear of gods “whereas religion consisted in pious worship”. The superstitious man’s gods were capricious unlike the divine providence of the Roman deities.

There was a definite functionality to Roman religion – the maintenance of social order and the well being of the Empire. The superstitious person neither honored the gods nor benefited mankind. The criterion of truth in religious matters was custom and tradition, a conservative cast of mind that prefers the familiar to the unknown. Polybius (VI:56) viewed religion as a force for inculcating civic virtue and public discipline, and that this religious devotion was the mark of Roman superiority. To be pious was to believe in the gods of the city-state – the duty Socrates was accused of failing to observe – and even more than believing in them, respecting them. Roman religion therefore emphasized the public practice of ritual: nonconformism and irreligiousity went hand in hand. Piety embraced both senses of reverence for familial and the city cultic sense, but should not be confused with a theocratic emphasis on a set of beliefs and ethics. Cicero (Nat.D. 1.3-1.4) wrote that ‘in all probability, the disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social cohesion among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all virtues’ and new or foreign gods need official sanction to be accepted.(De.Leg. 11.8)

The term hetaeriais usually rendered as ‘political club’ or ‘association’ (Wilken 1984: 34) much like a professional guild or funerary society (Dodds 1965: 137). Tertullian appropriated the terminology of these fraternities to make a prima facie case for the Christian communities being just one of many of these associations. Despite his preference for the word corpus rather than ecclessia, we know that it was Tertullian’s conviction in the superiority of Christian association compared with those of the pagan.

The term paganus refers to the rustic, the peasant, and from Cicero onwards could denote townspeople (Jones 1963: 18). Chuvin (1990: 9) suggests that pagani or pagans are best viewed as ‘people of the place, town or country, who have preserved their local customs, whereas the alieni, the people from elsewhere were increasingly Christian.’ This interpretation is consistent with the notions of conservatism in cultural and traditional matters and of setting the parameters for nonconformism. Chadwick (1990: 152) points out that the word remained a colloquialism and did not penetrate Biblical or liturgical literature. If the object of worship was the maintenance of pax deorum, linking religion to political and social order, it is very tempting to infer that the grounds of persecution were political rather than religious.(Frend 1965: 105 uses the term ‘treaty relationship’)


On the question of the juridical basis of the persecution of the Christians I use Barnes (1968: 34-50) as my guide. Barnes’ task is to survey the primary sources of evidence without the filters of later hagiography and modern exegesis obscuring the topic. Both Barnes and de Ste. Croix (1963: note 18) regard modern bibliographies for the most part as worthless as their remit is too broad. Barnes therefore circumscribes his excavations by stating that ‘vague references to a lex against the Christians (such as Athenagoras, Legatio 7; Tertullian Apol. 4.4ff) will be disregarded; they show merely that Christianity was illegal not how it came to be so.’ The upshot of Barnes’ survey centres on Trajan’s rescript to Pliny: after Trajan’s rescript, if not earlier, Christianity was a crime in a unique category. Unlike other criminals Christians were punished for being a Christian and not for having been a Christian, an anomaly in Roman law (de Ste. Croix 1963: 9, 20; Frend 1965: 165), and on any reading, is highly ambiguous. Trajan’s famous edict instructing Pliny not to actively seek out Christians and further that anonymous denunciations should be disregarded, only gives a partial definition to the law when stated negatively, leaving so much open to arbitrary individual discretion. It is important to note as de Ste. Croix (p. 28) points out, that the positive facet of Christianity was never officially assailed except for Christian’s contumacious incompliance to acknowledge other gods. Baring in mind the earlier comments made regarding religious conformity, this had to inevitably locate the clash between Christian and pagan. In support of this, de Ste. Croix makes the interesting observation that those who held doctrines of a ‘recognisably Christian character’ and even calling themselves Christians, for example the Gnostics, were spared persecution. It could only be that the Gnostics paid outward respect, thereby appearing to accommodate the Roman gods. As was mentioned earlier, ‘belief’ was conditional on practice or ritual and that was a sufficient condition for conforming. How then was this charge of being a Christian prosecuted under ‘due process’ of law? It is popularly held that Roman law is the single most impressive and admirable achievement of Roman civilization. This achievement however, at least in de Ste. Croix’s view, is primarily confined to private law and the related laws of property. It is quite evident that immense deficiencies in public law manifested itself in the cognito extra ordinum, giving magistrates so wide a discretion, that even the slightest hint or ambiguity of ‘being’ Christian led to prosecution. Such scope to prosecute made the law inherently arbitrary. As de Ste. Croix (1963: 17) says, in fact no legal foundation was necessary ‘other than a prosecutor, a charge of Christianity, and a governor willing to punish on that charge.’ We need however to be cognisant, as Barnes pointed out, that most of our information derives almost entirely from Christian sources which had a vested interest in recording martyrdom and that there needs to be a healthy level of scepticism in these matters. Both Barnes (1968: 34) and de Ste. Croix (1963: 15) reject the idea put forward by Melito that a correlation existed between ‘bad’ emperors who persecuted and ‘good’ emperors who didn’t. There are two problems with this claim. First, understandably, apologist writers are operating on an extremely narrow criterion of good or bad: there is more to judging the adeptness of an emperor than whether or not he countenanced persecution. Secondly, linked to this, persecution might only have been instrumental to real politik or statecraft (in a Machiavellian way; The Prince XVII) even for a ‘good’ emperor.


To ask why the government persecuted is in effect to ask why the general populace demanded persecution. Much of the discussion has unavoidably been pre-empted. Roman religion entailed public worship to maintain the pax deorum of the community averting disasters (natural disasters such as floods, draught, earthquakes etc.) that could befall the community. Failure to comply, therefore, undermined the security and well being of the community at large. In the need to pacify public disquiet, the government was obliged to ‘persecute’ those whose actions threatened the well being of the community. Herein lies a major and perhaps irresolvable problem of exegesis. I’ve already hinted at the difficulty involved in determining whether or not the persecution was politically or religiously motivated. De Ste. Croix holds that the motives for government persecution were essentially religious in character. He supports his thesis by pointing to the Gnostic immunity from persecution. The pax deorum being the prime Roman social value invites charges that Roman religion was superficial and insincere, leading one to infer that persecution had to be politically motivated. However, both Barnes (1968: 49) and de Ste. Croix (1963: 30) are at pains to emphasize that Roman religious sentiment were no less real or powerful than our modern conception of religious belief and practice. (c.f. Janssen 1979). De Ste. Croix does offer the Marxist analysis that ‘religion was above all an instrument by which the governing class hoped to keep the reins of power in its own hands.’ Though this analysis is perfectly valid and may well have been the case, I’m not convinced that such an analysis can be consistently applied to what is a pre-capitalist society. (see Momigliano’s comments 1963: 4 on Marxist analysis). I think a definite tension arises when on the one hand de Ste. Croix asserts that the motives for government persecution were ’essentially religious’, yet on the other hand he acknowledges that it was a prime social value to maintain the pax deorum. Both are inextricably linked and as such I see no reason why even if religious sensibilities were threatened in the first instance, why persecution cannot be viewed as being politically motivated, when the ultimate consequentialist concern had to be the maintenance of the pax deorum, and religion was instrumental to that aim. Even on de Ste. Croix’s own Marxist account, religion was instrumental to political power. In any event a typically pious individual of any class would cherish the benefits of social stability that their religious sensibility ensures.


The concept of martyrdom is deeply ambiguous both within the modern and ancient worlds and is therefore incumbent upon the scholar to draw some conceptual distinctions thereby elucidating the question of persecution. Is martyrdom simply a case of persecution and subsequent execution? How does ‘voluntary’ martyrdom differ from suicide? Though Amundsen (1989: 100-116) is primarily concerned with the philosophical, theological and ethical implications of martyrdom, the distinctions he draws are equally valid for our purpose. Amundsen offers four distinct possibilities a Christian might be confronted with under persecution:

1 denying Christ (apostatizing)

2 fleeing possible martyrdom

3 acquiesce to martyrdom when the only escape is option 1

4 seeking, provoking or volunteering for martyrdom.

Even without reliable figures, the statistical possibility of cases spread across these four options, offers a real challenge to apologetic sources as to the scale of persecution and martyrdom they would naturally claim. It would not therefore be too provocative when de Ste. Croix (p. 22) suggests that ‘the seeking out of Christians . . . need not have been nearly as vigorous as we might otherwise have assumed from the evidently large numbers of victims.’ De Ste. Croix makes the astute point (p. 20), that after all, ‘the essential aim was to make apostates, not martyrs . . . a governor who really wanted to execute Christians would be careful to avoid torturing them, lest, they apostatize and go free.’


By way of a conclusion Barnes (1968: 50) says that ‘it is in the minds of men, not in the demands of Roman law, that the roots of persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire are to be sought.’ Barnes is making the crucial point that despite the deficiencies of Roman public law, persecution was not a requirement of Roman law. I would argue contrary to de Ste. Croix, that the State (any variant, modern or ancient) needs as a precondition of its viability, loyalty from those living within its domain, and that the Christians might well have appeared to be a threat to the State.


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