persecution of early Christians under the Roman Empire is a matter of great interest and intrigue to many, even today; as is the matter of distinction and distrust between early Jews and Christians. Furthermore, the ironically similar behavior of orthodox Christians towards heretics rouses the curiosity of many scholars. This paper will discuss the effect of Christianity on Romans and their perceptions towards Christians, Christian perceptions and treatment of Jews. The relationship between orthodox Christians and heretics will also be discussed.
Rome before Christianity
The empire of Rome, at the time of Christ's birth, was one of the two greatest kingdoms and was steadily continuing to flourish and expand, even then. Soon, it covered most of what we now know as Western Europe. The conquered land began from Spain in the west and ended in Syria in the east, while the great countries of England, France and Greece, and the Middle East also came under its influence.
Due to differences in regions, cultural and religious diversity was common and widespread; from the Druids of Britannia to the sidelined Zoroastrians of Persia and the Jews of Judea to the 'mystery' religions, these beliefs coexisted under the rule of the Romans. All these beliefs existed side by side for so long that syncretism of these fundamentals was almost inevitable and was readily accepted by almost all. Syncretism, the fusion or combining of different sets of beliefs or ideas, is the reason why the Roman god, Jupiter and the Greek god, Zeus are names associated with one deity -- the chief of all gods. Although many differences between both gods are present, since both of them share key qualities, the people of the Roman Empire began to see the two as similar to one another due to repeated exposure to either belief. This was further expanded upon, when Jehovah of the Jews and the sky god of the Gauls were seen as the Jewish and French equivalent of the Greco-Roman chief god, respectively.
Here it can be seen that polytheism was not only allowed but was encouraged, as the Romans' main concern was the discipline of their rule and any such idea that enabled them to go about their reign efficiently was supported; polytheism allowed those within the Empire to embrace many different gods without asserting the supremacy of a single deity and ensured no one religion to be superior over any other. Now one might wonder why, in a vast kingdom where many contrasting religions and beliefs are being practiced, Christianity was the only one that was singled out and considered strange and wrong to the point that those who followed Christianity were cast out and victimized. It is indeed a valid question and by looking at this radical change, as Christianity rightly was, through the perspective of Romans, this paper seeks to understand the reasoning behind the overwhelmingly negative behavior of Romans towards early Christians.
There were some major and distinct differences between the polytheistic religions and Christianity, which led the Romans to regard Christianity with wariness and suspicion. "Where Christians were staunch believers in life after death, only Homer had ever given mention to a possibility of life after the end of one's time in the material world, and that too was vague and insubstantial" (Bainton, 97). The polytheistic religions that ruled the land were concerned simply with their time in the world and how they spent it, and a strange and foreign notion as that of the 'afterlife' was immediately met with rejection and contempt.
The concept of sin, once again, was not present in the major Roman religions and no action was considered to be an obstacle towards the road to salvation as that, itself, was a tale of fiction to the Romans. In direct contrast to this, Christians (and Jews) believed firmly in the consequences of misdeeds or sins and their actions and general behavior were always influenced by their belief in the idea of divine punishment for their wrongdoings.
Where Christianity built its foundation on orthodoxy, or believing correctly, other religions based themselves on the idea of orthopraxy, which is to practice correctly. "Polytheistic Romans were all about the rites and rituals pertaining to everyday activities in their lives; farmers would perform sacrifices that would be completely different in both timings and procedure from those performed by a statesman" (Bainton, 99).
The accuracy of performing these rituals was stressed highly and tales of swift, harsh consequences in case of neglecting or incorrectly carrying out the prescribed method of appeasing the relevant gods make up a good part of Roman literature.
Roman attitude towards other religions
Polytheism became the standard for Romans and unsurprisingly, when Christianity began to raise its head and expand its wings, it was met with firm resistance. However, it cannot be said that Romans were wholly intolerant of religions that differed from the norm; Zoroastrianism and Judaism were monotheistic in nature and yet both were accepted, and even made exceptions for, under Roman rule. Although an argument can be made that Zoroastrians belonged mainly to Persia, a part of the Roman empire that was politically independent of Rome, which is why it was not challenged and attacked, this does not hold true for the Jews.
The Jews were opposed by Romans simply due to the rigidity of their monotheistic beliefs; however, they were still well and truly left alone by the Romans, except in instances where the Jews interfered and disrupted the order of their reign. Syncretism allowed Romans to become flexible and open to new beliefs since their major incentive of taking over a new region was not conversion, but expansion of their territory, and as long as a religion posed no threat to their governance, it was acknowledged and allowed.
The Jews were not persecuted due to their religious beliefs and the only opposition they faced by the Romans were in incidents that were politically charged. The great Julius Caesar himself made allowances for the Jews, in the form of exemption from paying taxes and becoming part of the Roman army in the Sabbatical years. It is rather clear that although the Romans were wary, as most would have been, when faced with foreign and unique concepts, they were not as openly hostile towards any particular religion as they were towards Christianity. We are now faced with the question of why and how this came to be.
The Romans' perceptions of Christianity
"Before Paul's endeavors of spreading Christianity's message in Asia Minor and Judea began to result in large numbers of converts, Christianity was simply an extension of Judaism to Romans and was barely given any notice to as a separate set of beliefs. Thus, when the relationship between the Jews and the Romans began to fray, it affected Christianity in a negative manner as well" (Simmons, 2012).
The Jews were driven out of Rome due to the nefarious actions and disturbances caused by a man named Chrestus, according to Roman biographer Suetonius. Some historians and scholars are of the opinion that Chrestus could be the erroneous spelling of Christus while most are of the thought that the real reason behind the exile of the Jews was actually the friction between early Christians and Jews. The very first persecutions and attacks against Christians were in fact carried out by the frontrunners of the Jewish community, and this was further exacerbated by the Romans.
When the message of Christianity began to gain support and popularity, at first, the Romans were not really surprised or affected as we are now at such a novel and strange idea. This is because Classic Roman literature consists of tales similar to that of Jesus, the son of God born to a mortal virgin woman -- Romulus and Hercules are two of the most famous examples of this. The major difference that roused the Romans suspicion and anger was the stern belief in a single deity and while the Jews had similar basic beliefs, early Christians were far keener and eager in their efforts to spread the message of Christianity and actively participated in the conversion of the general Roman population.
Another source for general incredulity of the Romans about the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion by Roman officials was the lack of believable witnesses; the testament of a group of women and supporters of the executed were not to be relied upon for authentic accounts of such an unbelievable story. Furthermore, due to the absence of the concept of sin from the polytheistic system of religions that influenced the Roman Empire, the depth and true meaning of the idea that Jesus Christ sacrificed himself so that the sins of humankind may be washed away was completely lost on the Romans. The steady and sure rise of Christianity and the continuing conversions greatly irked the Roman officials as such a large part of their kingdom was being lost to a faction that was previously not even classified as a threat; they begun to fear…