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The myths of Christian persecution

“Christians love to feel persecuted. It is part of their origin story”
Bill Maher

We have all learned in school and heard from the pulpits that during the 3 first centuries AD, Christians were the victims of an unprecedented attack from the Roman Empire, when hundreds of thousands of believers were martyred following Jesus’ example, refusing to disown what they knew was the Truth. Christians believe they were persecuted because they were Christians and that they were used as scapegoats whenever something went wrong. They were thrown to the lions for the amusement of the Romans, turned into slaves, had their fortunes confiscated and forced to hold secret catacomb meetings until their triumph, when their religion was made the dominant one all around the western world. Christianity is presented as a religion forged in fire.

But is this what actually happened? The historical sources available on the “persecutions” are at best fragmentary and usually unreliable. Eusebius is commonly the only source, but Eusebius was a Christian polemicist and, according to his own words, we cannot ensure that he had anything other in his mind than idealizing the birth of the Christian Church from the blood of the faithful and its martyrs. He writes in his Praeparatio Evangelica: “it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment”, and concerning the victims of the Great Diocletian Persecution: “we have decided to relate nothing concerning them except the things in which we can vindicate the Divine judgment”.

In reality, the so-called “persecutions” were local incidents and took place, as a rule, for months, not years.

"Triumph of Faith Christian Martyrs in the Time of Nero" by Eugene Romain Thirion. The Colosseum was built 16 years after the Great Fire of Rome. (photo)
“Triumph of Faith Christian Martyrs in the Time of Nero” by Eugene Romain Thirion. The Colosseum was built 16 years after the Great Fire of Rome. (photo)
  • 64 AD was the year of the famous Great Fire of Rome. The fire probably started by accident (not such a peculiarity, as it was burned again in 69 and 80) but Nero was blamed and it was said (by Tacitus) that he in turn blamed Christians to divert attention from him, throwing them to dogs after covering them with the skins of beasts or burning them alive. But, at the time, there were no “Christians”, not just because they hadn’t got the name “Christian” yet, but because the idea of a “Christian” did not exist as something separate from the rest of the Jews. Jesus’ followers were, as Jesus himself, Jews. At the time there were already many sects of Judaism that argued among them on political and religious matters and the Jews that followed Jesus were no exception. Only at the end of the 1st century did the followers of Jesus start to call themselves “Christians”, so when Tacitus says that Christians were accused by Nero for arson (and also when the writer of the ‘Gospel of Luke’ and the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ mentions a persecution of Christians by Jews), he is making an anachronism. In fact, it is not plausible that in the time of the Great Fire the followers of Jesus were considered as a different and distinct group. For the entirety of the first century it is unclear whether the Roman emperors were even aware of the existence of “Christians”. Therefore, since they were not even recognized as followers of a separate religion, it is highly improbable that they were known enough and hated enough for Nero to pick them out as scapegoats. Since the source of this “persecution” is Tacitus (not a completely reliable source) who writes around 115 AD, his descriptions show rather the prejudice against Christians during his own time and not the previous century. In any case, even if the facts were those that Tacitus lays out, this would be an isolated incidence and not legislation against Christians or a wide-range witch-hunt, that should have taken place if we want to talk about persecution.
“Departure of Cats from the Circus” by Jean-Leon Gerome (photo)
“Departure of Cats from the Circus” by Jean-Leon Gerome (photo)
  • Concerning Domitian’s persecution (he ruled from 81 to 96), the only evidence we have is provided by Eusebius, whose narrative is widely disputed as cursory and untrustworthy (Timothy D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians”). Domitian was taxing Jews and the Christians would deny paying as they no longer considered themselves as being Jews. Surely the Romans did not accept this self-appointed tax exemption and treated the Christians as any other who would not pay. Punishment for those who don’t pay taxes, even if they are Christians, cannot be considered persecution of Christians. As above, even if the persecution and martyrdom stories are real, they concern isolated instances and we cannot speak of persecution of the practice of a religious dogma. Up to Domitian’s era there is no reference to any sort of legal ordinances.
Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Divi Nervae filius Augustus;18 September 53 – 9 August 117 AD (photo)
Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Divi Nervae filius Augustus;18 September 53 – 9 August 117 AD (photo)
  • The first pieces of actual evidence of Christian “persecution” emerge in 112, in the correspondence between the Roman emperor Trajan and the governor of Bithynia, Pliny. Among the 124 letters that have been saved between the two, where Pliny asks Trajan for advice on administrative matters, there is a brief conversation on how the governor should handle Christians in courts. The very existence of this correspondence, including this conversation, shows that there was no general guideline on how to treat Christians. The governor would not ask for advice if there were such guidelines, but Pliny didn’t even know how to act. Although the reason these Christians appeared in the court is not mentioned, both Romans agree that Christians should not be sought out. So there was no general rule of hunting down Christians and Trajan thinks that it is not possible to set down a general rule as a fixed standard. In case, however, a Christian would be tried (no matter the reason) he would be obliged to prove he worshipped the Roman gods, or be put to death. Pliny would give them three chances to declare their faith to the official religion and he says: “whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished”. So, it is not the Christians who are punished, but the disobedient ones. When he writes worried on the loss in revenue and the impact on the local economy from the desertion of the temples and the diminishing of animal purchases for sacrificial reasons he says: “The contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities, but also the villages and farms”. The fact that he refers to Christianity as a “superstition” shows us that he didn’t even consider Christianity to be a legitimate religion; actually he didn’t care for the content of the Christian dogma, as he says in his letters. The only things that mattered to him were the financial and administrative consequences it had and the submission to the status quo.
  • On the “persecution” by Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus, there is hardly any evidence, and any violence that might have occurred is attributed to local authorities and not an imperial edict. The problem remains that our only source is Eusebius, who as we saw earlier is not regarded as a trustworthy historian.
"It will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment", Eusebius, Christian historian, “Praeparatio Evangelica” (photo)
“It will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment”, Eusebius, Christian historian, “Praeparatio Evangelica” (photo)
  • In January 250 AD, roman emperor Decius issued an edict that ordered all under his dominion to sacrifice to his name. Those who complied would get a certificate (libellus), as proof of their sacrifice. Decius’ edict was not particularly addressed to the Christians, but to all his subjects. The reason for issuing the edict was the advocacy of social cohesion. When Decius took control of Rome he had to deal with political adversaries and a divided empire. The fact that he wasn’t of noble descent (he was born in modern Serbia) made his acceptance in Rome more difficult. So he started a campaign to reinstate traditional Roman values and reinforce the vision of Pax Romana. His interest in the Imperial Cult was a part of this campaign. By forcing his subjects to this religion, he wanted to bring back the glorious days of Rome and turn the focus on their leader, having them show their devotion to him. The certificate was all about social conformity and civil obedience and did not certify that its holder was not a Christian or that he denounced Christ. The edict was about prosecution, not persecution. Also, it is not clear to what degree the people were being called to produce the certificate or what kind of punishment those who could not suffered, or how many the victims were among those who refused to comply with the edict, which was in effect for barely 18 months.
“Daniel in the Lion’s Den” by Briton Riviere (photo)
“Daniel in the Lion’s Den” by Briton Riviere (photo)
  • Valerian in his 258 AD edict ordered the death of Christian priests and bishops, and Christian senators and officials, if they wouldn’t apostatize. First of all, it should come as a surprise that not even a decade after the previous “persecution” by Decius Christians appear to have ascended so high in the social ladder to hold official positions even in the Senate. How could that happen if the same government that systematically hunted down Christians let them earn such esteem? Concerning the edict, it is the first evidence of legislation aimed exceptionally against Christians. But not all Valerian’s interest was targeted at officials, not the entirety of the faithful. His aim was the integrity of the Roman government and the constraint of influence of a possibly destructive (in his eyes) group. As a measure it may appear to be an extreme one (and of course it was), but we should not forget that even today in certain states of the USA atheists cannot hold office (by law), in Britain the king could not marry a roman-catholic until 2011 and in various western democratic countries it seems like a necessity for officials to take a religious oath. Only a minimal number of people appear to have died as a result of Valerian’s edict, which was canceled in 260 upon his death, merely two years after it was issued.
“Faithful Unto Death” by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1856-1935) (photo)
“Faithful Unto Death” by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1856-1935) (photo)
  • Diocletian’s rulings were the closest thing to what we have come to know about persecutions against Christians. With his 303 edict, Diocletian made it illegal for Christians to gather, confiscated their property and holy texts, and turned free Christians into slaves. The degree of savagery and the extent of the persecution differed regionally. In the West only a portion of the legislation was enforced and even then somewhat sporadically. The persecution seems to have died out during 304 and was officially ended in 306 by the emperor Constantine, who not only freed Christian slaves but also restored their confiscated property to them. It progressed more firmly in the East, in North Africa, where, in 304 AD, a new edict required all subjects of the empire -men, women and children- to gather in public spaces and offer sacrifices. Whoever would not comply would be killed. What is curious is that even Eusebius mentions North Africa incidents almost in passing. Even in the story of the Martyrs of Palestine only 16 of the 99 martyrs appear to have been sought out by the authorities, which leaves us guessing that the rest possibly offered themselves for martyrdom, a kind of conduct that in those days would happen occasionally and only later was condemned by the Christian Church as an action similar to suicide. The truth is we don’t know how cruel the persecution was, but we know that the edicts were not uniformly imposed and that even in the East, where Christians say it was most brutal, the faithful were rarely sought out. In any case, it seems like the persecution was stopped by 305 with the end of Diocletian’s rule, and was continued by Maximinus II from 311 to 313. It is calculated that 3,000 to 3,500 Christians were killed and not hundreds of thousands (even millions) as is arbitrarily suggested in Sunday schools and Christian sites. We must also not forget that Diocletian was not aiming exclusively at Christians. Already by 296 AD he was asking for the death of the Manicheans and the burning of their texts. Even the Christians, later when they were in power, asked the emperor to strip them of their civil rights (381 AD).
“The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer” by Jean-Leon Gerome (photo)
“The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer” by Jean-Leon Gerome (photo)

All these atrocities should be examined in the context of the period they took place in. The Roman Empire was not the democratic, open society that today’s western nations strive to be. One could be executed in a cruel and imaginative way for such frivolous offenses as burning crops or disturbing the nocturnal peace. The violence Nero brought forth against the Christians after the Great Fire of Rome should not come as a surprise given his own violent idiosyncrasy and the general rules of roman punishment.

Therefore, with the exemption perhaps of the climax of the Great Diocletian Persecution (303-305), nothing in the treatment of Christians by Romans can justify the wide-spread myths that are being taught at schools and sermons. The image we have of a Christian persecution that led the faithful to violent deaths by the thousands and lasted 3 centuries cannot be a realistic one given that, as we saw, Christians were not the victims of a continuous Roman threat, locally or otherwise, and also that the Romans were, generally speaking, tolerant concerning religious doctrines (at least compared to other ancient peoples, like the Seleucids).

There was forbearance and adaptation of foreign religions into the Roman polytheism (like the Greek Olympian gods). When Rome conquered a city or a region, it incorporated elements of the local religion and allowed the indigenous people to practice it relatively undisturbed, as long as it didn’t dispute the laws of the empire. The Romans did not have a problem with harmless practices like baptisms and hymns. They had a problem with those aspects of Christianity and other religions that likened treason, revolution or violation of traditional laws and values of the empire. For example, the threatening, for an imperialist state, idea of a conscience objector was unheard of in Rome before the Christians. When a judge ordered a Christian to obey the laws of the land and he replied “I only obey God’s Law”, it sounded like sedition and subversion of the civic, not the religious, status quo. The fact that the Romans misinterpreted practices like “drinking Christ’s blood” and “eating Christ’s body” for cannibalism and references of “brotherly love” for incest, did not help to clarify the nebulous image they had of this mystical religion. Even slaves of Christians (yes, Christians had slaves) accused their masters of cannibalism and sodomy.

“A Christian Dirce” by Henryk Siemieradzki (photo)
“A Christian Dirce” by Henryk Siemieradzki (photo)

The Christians that lived during Constantine’s reign and later on, did not grant pagans with the religious tolerance they were asking for themselves for generations. Stories about Christians destroying pagan shrines and temples and attacking pagan religious centers are extremely common. With the legalization of Christianity, the believers were transformed from “lambs into lions” (as H. A. Drake puts it). They didn’t see a difference between them and the martyrs of Decius’ of Diocletian’s persecutions. “There is no crime for those who have Christ” (Shenoute, 5th century monk).

Today we can witness how the apparent martyrdom origins of Christianity and the sense of injustice concerning the persecutions are infesting the believers’ mentality and behavior and lead them to acts of revenge. It is the belief of being hunted that forces one to attack. The language of persecution and martyrdom is the language of war.

The feeling of being persecuted gives the believer a sense of righteousness. In Christian terms, if you are persecuted, you must be doing something right. And if your life is in danger, your beliefs have even more value. Your actions more legitimacy. The rhetoric of persecution justifies and necessitates reciprocal violence; this is why it is important to let go of this, false, part of history.

“Moss reveals how the popular misconception about martyrdom in the early church still creates real barriers to compassion and dialogue today.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“Moss reveals how the popular misconception about martyrdom in the early church still creates real barriers to compassion and dialogue today.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 

You can read more about the realities of Christian life in the early Roman Empire in Candida Moss’ excellent book The Myth of Persecution, How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.

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