Response to From the Beginning
||Let There Be No Christians!
"The prevailing wisdom is that Christians met in private dwellings because of Roman persecution. But Christianity was not usually an underground movement - Rome was multi-cultural, largely tolerant of other religions and accepted all sorts of religious buildings across its far flung empire. Roman harassment was sporadic, and strife against Christians in some provinces largely related to Jewish sectarianism or idol manufacturers. Systematic Roman attacks upon Christians did not occur until about 250 AD, and apparently was directed towards the political and cultural ambitions of the early Catholic church."
The paragraph quoted above can be found in the section of Prue's website entitled Home Worship. In it Prue attempts to diminish and therefore disregard the reasons why early Christians met in homes. It is her contention that they actively and purposely chose to meet in homes because of some divine mandate from Jesus, even though there is no such proof of this in the New Testament. I will examine the assertions made by Prue, sentence by sentence.
"The prevailing wisdom is that Christians met in private dwellings because of Roman persecution."
Actually, one reason why Christians met in private dwellings has nothing to do with persecution at all. In one of His parables Jesus compared the church to that of a grain of mustard seed in which this "least of all seeds" becomes the greatest of all trees (Matthew 12:31-32). Even the mighty Giant Sequoia, which can grow to over 300 feet tall and 20 feet wide in diameter, begins as a tiny seed. In the same way, the initial number of Christians meeting together was relatively small enough that it was not necessary to have large buildings dedicated for worship. Besides, the Jews already had their synagogues and the pagans already had their temples, but the first Christians had no such pre-existing infrastructure in place. For this reason some Christians continued to meet in the synagogue until the final break from Judaism while others met in private homes, among other places.
Logistical considerations notwithstanding, it is disingenuous for Prue to imply that persecution came solely from the Romans. St. Stephen was killed not by Romans but by his fellow Jews who brought him before the Sanhedrin. In fact, after St Stephen was martyred, "...there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles." (Acts 8:1). At various times the Apostles were imprisoned for preaching the gospel, and legend has it that they ultimately met their deaths by martyrdom. St. Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy to die the same way Jesus did. Clement of Rome noted, "By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars [Peter and Paul] of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death." (1 Clem 5:2).
St. Paul was a Jew of Roman citizenship who persecuted the church, but after the scales of disbelief fell from his eyes and he became an Apostle he suffered terribly and often at the hands of the Jews. How many times was Paul attacked, beaten, imprisoned, stoned and left for dead, chased out of town, or otherwise harassed by Jews? Some of them even conspired to kill him, vowing not to eat or sleep until they had done so:
"The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshipers and the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas..." (Acts 13:50)
Also, the New American Bible's introduction to the Book of Revelation says it is "an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martyrdom." And surely it is not necessary to remind Prue who persecuted and ultimately caused Jesus to be crucified? Even during His years of ministry our Lord had to be careful "for fear of the Jews" who were trying to kill Him (John 7:1,13).
"the Jews from the province of Asia noticed him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd, and laid hands on him, shouting, 'Fellow Israelites, help us. This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people...'" (Acts 21:27-28)
"But Christianity was not usually an underground movement - Rome was multi-cultural, largely tolerant of other religions and accepted all sorts of religious buildings across its far flung empire."
Celsus, who wrote against Christians, had the following assessment: "ignorant people, joining the vilest population, the Christians bring down the honorable and the noble" (True Discourse). So, to say that the Roman Empire was "largely tolerant" of other religions is misleading. With the exception of Judaism, the Romans would allow their conquered subjects to keep their own gods only as long as they were incorporated into theirs and agreed to worship them all. Judaism was tolerated as a religio licita because they were considered a nation with its own laws and its own national God. This does not mean, however, that Romans were "largely tolerant" of Jews. In 70 A.D. they sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, killed over a million Jews, and took thousands into slavery. The Jews' first major revolt in 113 A.D. resulted in hundreds of thousands dead. A later revolt led by Bar Kochba in 132 A.D. resulted in over a half million Jews killed, thousands sold into slavery and the rest scattered all over the world in the Diaspora. In 135 A.D. more serious persecution began where "they were forbidden, upon pain of death, from practicing circumcision, reading the Torah, eating unleavened bread at Passover, etc." Finally in 200 the Emperor Severus forbade religious conversions to Judaism (from religioustolerance.org). I suppose it could be said that the Romans largely tolerated the Jews at those times when they weren't killing, enslaving, or otherwise persecuting them.
As long as the early Christians were regarded as simply another Jewish sect the Roman Empire was unconcerned; however, it is obvious in the New Testament that many Jews had no intention of accepting Jesus as the Messiah and His followers called Christians. It is in the Acts of the Apostles that we see the divergence of the two faiths, and as a result Christianity began to be seen with a different eye by Roman leaders. Many attempts were made by Christian apologists to defend their people such as Tertullian who, writing in 197 A.D., documented that Christians had been persecuted since Nero (who reigned 54 to 68 A.D.):
"This name of ours took its rise in the reign of Augustus; under Tiberius it was taught with all clearness and publicity; under Nero it was ruthlessly condemned...Now, although every other institution which existed under Nero has been destroyed, yet this of ours has firmly remained righteous, it would seem, as being unlike the author (of its persecution). Two hundred and fifty years, then, have not yet passed since our life began. During the interval there have been so many criminals; so many crosses have obtained immortality; so many infants have been slain; so many loaves steeped in blood; so many extinctions of candles; so many dissolute marriages."
Because Christians refused to worship the pagan gods, they were viewed with suspicion and hostility for being atheists. The historian Seutonius records that Domitian (reigned 81-96 A.D.) killed members of his own family for being an atheist (Domitianus, xv). In fact, such refusal meant that it was simply illegal to be a Christian, as can be determined from the letter of Pliny to the Emperor Trajan. Pliny was the governor of Pontus/Bithynia (in northern Turkey) from 111-113 A.D. who wrote a letter to Trajan asking for advice on how to prosecute Christians. He explains how he has proceeded so far:
- Ad nationes I, 7
"...in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished."
The emperor responded by assuring Pliny that he had observed "proper procedure" in dealing with those who had been "denounced" as Christians. He added that Christians should not be sought out; if they recanted and agreed to worship the Roman gods they were set free, but if they resisted they would be punished. In other words, deny your God, or suffer the consequences (now, that's tolerance for you!). Even though Trajan adds that these kinds of cases should not be sought out, the fact that merely being a Christian is worthy of denouncement illustrates the pervading anti-Christian culture early on. The historian Philip Schaff notes the following about Trajan's law:
"Belonging to the later Stoical school, which believed in an immediate absorption after death into the Divine essence, he considered the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, with its moral consequences, as vicious and dangerous to the welfare of the state. A law was passed under his reign, punishing every one with exile who should endeavor to influence people's mind by fear of the Divinity, and this law was, no doubt, aimed at the Christians. At all events his reign was a stormy time for the church, although the persecutions cannot be directly traced to him. The law of Trajan was sufficient to justify the severest measures against the followers of the "forbidden" religion."("Persecutions under Marcus Aurelius. a.d. 161-180.", History of the Christian Church, 2.2.20)
According to the Journal of Roman Studies, "Christianity was illegal and its illegality was assumed or reaffirmed by every emperor of the second and early third centuries" (LVIII (1968), 32 ff.). The general rule was widely recognized as Christiani non sint, or "let there be no Christians".
"Roman harassment was sporadic, and strife against Christians in some provinces largely related to Jewish sectarianism or idol manufacturers."
It has been customary to list ten major persecutions (which Augustine parallels with the Ten Plagues of Egypt in his City of God, 18:52):
|Nero||64-68 A.D. |
|Domitian ||81-96 A.D. |
|Trajan||112-117 A.D. |
|Marcus Aurelius ||161-180 A.D. |
|Septimus Severus||202-210 A.D. |
|Decius||250-251 A.D. |
|Valerian||257-259 A.D. |
|Maximinus||235-238 A.D. |
|Aurelian||270-275 A.D. |
|Diocletian||303-324 A.D. |
Things had already gotten so violent that St. Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to give advice to the persecuted in his first pastoral letter: "But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name" (1 Pet 4:16, cf 12-17). The same motivation could be said to exist for St. John, the author of the Book of Revelation, who wrote of "the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held" (Revelation 6:9). Recall that St. John was exiled to the island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony, for being a follower of Christ. Not counting the additional persecutions Christians during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 A.D.) and the reign of Gallus (251-253 A.D.) and undoubtedly numerous other events unaccounted for, it has been estimated that in the first 3 centuries there was 129 years of persecution and 120 years of peace. In a world where it was illegal to be a Christian and your people had been persecuted for more years than not, I doubt it would be of much comfort to those who suffered to be told that what they were enduring was just "sporadic". It has been said that 33 of the first 34 popes were martyred. Imagine if 11 of the first 12 presidents of the United States had been assassinated - there would be considerable unease on the part of Americans due to such "sporadic" catastrophies.
"Systematic Roman attacks upon Christians did not occur until about 250 AD, and apparently was directed towards the political and cultural ambitions of the early Catholic church."
The growing Christianity movement was considered a threat to Roman society because it opposed the pax deorum, the peace of the gods. They considered religious activity to be a social obligation that maintained unity among the people and appeased the gods. Because they did not participate, the governor Pliny viewed Christianity as a "superstition taken to extravagent lengths". Accordingly, natural disasters, wars, plagues and other problems were attributed to Christians since they did not worship at the pagan temples. Because of their refusal to offer sacrifice to their gods, the Romans considered them to be practicing malefica, or bringing of evil; for example, Nero blamed the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. on the Christians, the result being, as Tacitus records, that a multitudo ingens (immense multitude) of Christians were persecuted :
"Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind." - Annals 15.44
Tacitus goes on to say that these Christians were "a blameworthy people who merited such original torments" and in the later centuries things only got worse: "As never before, the motive of the Great Persecution which began in 303 was the total extirpation of Christianity: it was a struggle to the death between the old and new orders" (Grant, The Roman Emperors). Incidently, persecution took more forms than than just martyrdom - Christians were put in prison, had their land and property confiscated, and were exiled or forced into penal servitude in the mines. Various edicts by emperors resulted in the confiscation of church property, copies of scripture burned, meetings for Christian worship forbidden, and church buildings destroyed. The historian Eusebius records:
"This was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian in Dystrus (which the Romans call March), when the feast of the Saviour's passion was near at hand, and royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches should be razed to the ground, the Scriptures destroyed by fire, those who held positions of honor degraded, and the household servants, if they persisted in the Christian profession, be deprived of their liberty." Hist. Ecc viii 2.
The Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. by Henry Wace (1836-1924) provides a glimpse of the conditions of Christian life under Roman rule, namely under Diocletian:
"At break of day the prefect, attended by officers and secretaries, went to the church of Nicomedia while Diocletian and Galerius watched the proceedings from the palace. The doors were broken open. Search was made for the image of the Christian's God, which they expected to find there. The books were burned, the church sacked. Fear of the fire spreading made Diocletian shrink from burning the church, but a body of pioneers with axes and crowbars razed it in a few hours. Next morning an edict ordained that (1) all churches were to be demolished; (2) all sacred books burnt; (3) all Christian officials stripped of their dignities, and deprived of civil rights, and therefore rendered liable to torture and other outrages; while Christian men who were not officials were to be reduced to slavery. A Christian who tore it down, with the sarcastic 255exclamation, "More triumphs of Goths and Sarmatians!" was seized, tortured, and burnt alive at a slow fire. Shortly after, a fire broke out in the palace and suspicion fell upon the Christians, notably upon the palace eunuchs. The use made of the occurrence to work upon Diocletian's fears justified the impression of Christian writers that it was a device contrived by Galerius and executed by his slaves. All who were suspected were examined by torture; within a fortnight there was another similar alarm, and now there was no limit to the old man's fury. His wife and daughter were compelled to free themselves from suspicion by joining in sacrifice. The eunuchs of his household, before so trusted, Dorotheus, Gorgonius, Petrus, were put to death. The persecution raged throughout the province. Some were burnt, some drowned, some thrust into dungeons. Altars were set up in every court of justice, and both parties to suits compelled to sacrifice. A second edict ordered that all the clergy, without option of sacrifice, should be imprisoned. Anthimus bp. of Nicomedia was beheaded (Eus. H. E. viii. 6). Hierocles as author and magistrate silenced by torture those whom he failed to convince. Letters were sent to Maximian and Constantius in the West, urging them to adopt like measures. The former was but too willing an instrument. The latter, more humane and disposed to a policy of toleration, was compelled to join in destroying the buildings of the Christians, and was glad if he could save their lives (Lactant. de Mort. Persec. cc. 12-16). Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
While there may have been periods of relative peace, Christians were constantly at risk of persecution by Romans who looked at them with a cruel combination of scorn and distrust. While some persecutions were local instead of systemic, the fact remains that it was illegal to be a Christian because that meant they would (could not) not worship any god but the One True God. They started out as a small group of believers who did not need a church building. Even after they grew in number they still could not compete with the mighty Roman Empire, so their only political and cultural "ambition" was survival - not surival of individuals, but of the Christian faith. Ignatius, Justin, Polycarp, the Martyrs of Lyons and countless others suffered for the gospel (many of them welcoming martrydom). They lived the words of St. John when he wrote, "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you." (John 15:20).
- Clay Randall, August 11, 2006.