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     Christianity and the Roman Government

Christianity and the Roman Government

1. In matters of religion, Rome was normally tolerant and permitted, even protected local or ethnic cults. Thus Judaism was a religio licita, and authorized religion. At the same time, Romans were traditionally wary of voluntary religious societies (collegia) that practiced their rites in private. Members of such groups were likely to be suspected of taking blood oaths that pledged them to crime and sedition. For such a dangerous association, Christianity became a very likely candidate, since it was not a traditional religion and could not claim the same recognition as, for example, Judaism. What is more, Christians gathered in private, and openly refused all participation in pagan religious observances. This marked them as not only being suspect, but also as dissenters in any polis where they dwelt.

2. Thus Pliny wrote to the emperor about the problem using language evidencing this same reaction. They "gather before daylight" "and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as god" and then bind themselves "with an oath". After torturing two slave girls who were deaconesses in order to find the truth, he reports "I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition" (Epistle 10.96). He does not doubt that Christians are guilty of "secret crimes" but is uncertain whether they are to be prosecuted for these crimes or for "the mere name" (for simply being Christian). (10.96). These documents indicate that it was not imperial policy but popular hostility that instigated the early persecutions. At Lyons and Vienne in Gaul it was the rage of "an infuriated populace against its supposed enemies and foes" (Eusebius, Ecc Hist v.1.8) which started the persecution in 177AD, and at Rome, Justin the Christian apologist was not sought by the authorities but was betrayed to them by a fellow intellectual, the Cynic philosopher Crescens.

3. In the face of persecution, imprisonment and death, the death of a martyr, a "witness", was viewed as a glorious culmination of a struggle that led to eternal life. When the slave-girl Blending hung in the arena at Lyons, believers "saw in the form of their sister him who was crucified for them" and knew that all who suffer for the glory of Christ have for ever fellowship with the living God" (Ecc Hist Ibid; v.1.4.2; see also 1 Peter 4:1)

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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