FIRST CENTURY PRESSURE

 

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." You will see this truth demonstrated all year. As Christianity's message reached out into the Empire, it confronted its culture. The evangelists and preachers stood before Rome, the world's most powerful Empire. Rome was magnificent. At its heart, however, it was corrupt, decadent and depraved. When the preachers challenged Rome, they felt its might directed against them.

Should we be surprised that the church faced difficulty? Why should the servant be greater than his master? Jesus predicted tribulation for his disciples. Speaking to His immediate disciples in John 16, Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). New Testament Scriptures describe the early believers' trouble.

You can understand Jewish persecution. Love and hatred are both strong emotions. Jews persecuted Christians because they were similar. Jews persecuted their brothers who became Christians because they thought Hebrew believers abandoned Judaism. Why Rome? This page seeks to answer that question.

I. Rome faced difficulty in its attempt to maintain its world position.

During Christ's lifetime, the world enjoyed the Pax Romana, the "peace of Rome." Rome's might held together peoples of various languages, cultures and backgrounds. In some regions, Rome maintained peace through sheer force. In such regions, the Procurator, or military governor, reported directly to the Emperor as supreme military commander. In other areas, the Romans allowed greater citizen participation. Governors responsible to the Senate ruled pacified regions. While rebellion threatened military provinces, the Romans feared rebellion would break out elsewhere at any time. Anything which contributed to imperial instability concerned Rome!

Rome’s anxieties arose from numerous sources. While Rome presented a facade of strength, wealth and power, festering decadence hid just below the surface. Emperors enjoyed an opulently luxurious court but all the trappings hid wickedness and decay. Here are nine marks of Roman decadence.

Rome trusted a multiplicity of Gods. Some of these were the mystery cults. You could find religions even more openly wicked. In Corinth, vestal virgins sold their bodies for money. In Ephesus, the Ephesians worshiped a goddess of fertility, Diana or Astarte (Ashtaroth of the Old Testament). Most heathen worship centered around immoral activities.

Rome faced serious erosion of family ties. Prior to the first century A.D. few Romans divorced. Roman Senators enjoyed particularly stable homes. Then one Senator divorced his wife and opened the floodgates. By Jesus' time, divorce became so common that many openly ridiculed marriage.

Romans expressed an inordinate desire for luxury. Wealthy Romans lived a sumptuous lifestyle even by our own standards. Much of this wealth derived at the expense of others. In addition, the Romans were never satisfied.

Human life became cheap. The Empire operated on the enslavement of others. Romans owned so many slaves that they lived in constant fear of a slave revolt. Slave revolts were not unknown. Spartacus led a brief, but intense, revolt before the first century. At one point, a master could put his slave to death for inconsequential reasons. By the first century things were changing but life was still cheap.

Roman abortion practices revealed a disrespect for life as well. Physicians prescribed various medications to induce abortion. Rather than using abortants, many Romans exposed their children. That is, they took infants into the country leaving them to die by exposure, to be found by others or by wild animals. Quite often Romans found exposed infants and raised them as slaves or servants.

Roman society displayed overt sexual deviation and perversion. Homosexuality increased dramatically. Homosexuality always marks the decline of a civilization. Historians believe Nero "enjoyed" young boys. Nero enjoyed the stage and most Roman actors lived a gay lifestyle. Others were bisexual.

Pornography and perversion in art were common. Romans demonstrated no modesty about exhibiting their sexual preferences. For many years only archaeologists entered Pompeii because its residents portrayed pornographic scenes on bedroom, dining room and outside walls of their homes.

Drunkenness became common. By Christ's time drunkenness was quite common. At one time Romans considered drunkenness illegal.

Government by personality rather than law led Rome into cultic practices. Prior to 44 B.C., Rome enjoyed a republican form of government. The Senate controlled the government's legislative and financial functions. The Senate appointed Emperors during times of national emergencies. These positions were always temporary until Julius Caesar! After Caesar’s rule in 44 B.C., Emperors became a permanent fixture. The Senate ruled by law, the Caesars by personality. Most Romans didn't care! As long as the government continued the dole and the games no one cared.

Rome placated the masses by paternalism. Large landowners eventually swallowed up small farms. Large farms proved more efficient and Rome needed food for its citizenry and 6 million slaves. The dispossessed farmers moved into the cities. Once there, they found no work. Violent gangs roamed the streets, crime rose and violence flared. The government provided rations and the circus to occupy them, placate them and entertain them.

Not only could you find evidence of moral and social decline, but Rome faced political problems, too. Three different power structures constitute the Roman government: the Emperor, the Senate and the Army. Since the Emperor was the Army's supreme commander, it usually served his interests. From the first through the fifth centuries, the Senate and Emperor engaged in a continued power struggle resulting in national instability.

By the first century A.D., the Emperor was a permanent fixture. Up to Nero's time, A.D. 54-67, successors inherited the Imperial throne. (At one time the Senate selected the Emperor, then it became a hereditary office.) Nero, however, had no heir. This fact threw the whole succession issue into question. In quick succession, the Army, or portions of the Army, proclaimed and overthrew three men: Galba, Otho and Vitellius. The Army selected Rome's first stable Emperor after Nero, Vespasian, when he was busy fighting a war against the Jews. When Vespasian returned to Rome to assume imperial command, his adopted son, Titus, took command of the Roman army in Judea. Titus followed Vespasian to imperial power. Rome tried several solutions to the succession problem, but none proved acceptable. The inability to effect smooth imperial transitions also contributed to political instability.

In times of instability, the Roman Emperors tried to maintain some stability by maintaining religious uniformity. Roman leaders, whether in the Senate or imperial chair, believed one empire required religious stability. Rome recognized a plurality of gods, a fact which seems contradictory to uniformity of faith. When Rome recognized any religion they simply added it to their official pantheon. When Rome conquered an area they assimilated their gods into their pantheon unless the worship entailed some "outrageous" activity. Therefore, Roman religious stability rested squarely on its pantheon.

Christianity didn't fit! During Christianity's first two decades Rome tolerated it. They saw Christianity as one of the several Jewish sects. Since Judaism was the religion of Palestine, Rome recognized it as a legal religion. By the time of Paul's trial in Rome, however, Rome saw Christianity as something quite different. Therefore, Romans considered Christianity a "religio illicita" -- an illicit or illegal religion. As such, it was seen as subversive and could be targeted for elimination.

II. Rome seeks to stamp out Christianity.

Rome did not find Christianity suspect overnight. Once they saw it as separate from Judaism it was "fair game." They only needed an excuse to attempt to eliminate the new faith.

The first excuse for persecution came when fires broke out in Rome during the summer of A.D. 64. Nero was Emperor. He became Emperor in A.D. 54 when his adopted father, Claudius, died. During his early years, two moderate regents, Seneca and Burrus, provided guidance and direction. When both men died, Nero became extravagant. Financing this extravagance proved difficult. Nero confiscated private property whenever he pleased, executing those who resisted. He became deluded thinking he was a great stage star. The fires resulted from another Neronian extravagace. Nero dreamed of rebuilding Rome into a monument to his greatness. Rome needed an urban renewal program; at the time it was largely a shanty town. Nero envisioned great palaces, temples and marble buildings. When the fires began, they destroyed about 40% of the city.

In his delusion, Nero believed the fires, followed by massive rebuilding, would be immensely popular. He was wrong! No one really knows why Nero chose to blame Christians for the conflagration. Some believe his wife's Jewish advisers suggested it. Some think he took advantage of the fact because many Romans knew Christians talked about the earth's coming destruction by fire. Such teachings cast immediate suspicion upon them. Whatever the reason, the government arrested and cruelly tortured believers. Examples can be seen in Tacitus [see Bettenson's, pp. 1-2]. Even Romans believed Nero went too far. During the Neronian persecution, Rome hunted down and executed Peter and Paul, known sect ringleaders.

Nero's persecution was limited to Rome. In other words, Nero and the Roman citizenry carried out a vendetta against Christians. Paul may be the only Christian hunted down outside Rome, assuming his release from imprisonment in A.D. 63. Once this storm ended upon Nero’s death, there seemed to be little effort to continue the persecution.

Later in the first century, another Emperor, Domitian (A.D. 81-96), instituted a more serious persecution. Domitian saw Christianity as an unlicensed religion and ordered its persecution in A.D. 91. This persecution arose partly because of Domitian's insistence that he be recognized as deity prior to his death. Rome usually deified an Emperor after his death. Romans accorded such recognition primarily as a patriotic gesture, but the idea offended Christians and they refused to accord deference to the Emperor. In addition, Domitian hated Jews and anything Jewish. Since Christianity arose from Jewish roots, he hated Christians as much as Jews. He directed his persecution against Jews and the Christian community.

During Domitian's persecution, the Apostle John, now quite aged, went to Patmos in exile. His words in Revelation bear directly on the intensity of Domitian's persecution. He wrote:

Babylon the great, mother of harlots. . . drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

The persecution ended when Domitian died. Domitian's persecution, however, swept through the whole Empire. Even at that, the intensity level varied in different areas. Although persecution lasted five years, some regions never felt Rome's heavy hand. The persecution's intensity depended largely on the local bureaucracy. Bootlickers and political opportunists made sure persecution proceeded with vigor. Others less ambitious were less inclined to inflict suffering on their fellows. Furthermore, fewer believers populated the far western reaches of the Empire and it took too much effort to ferret them out.

Interestingly, there is some reason to believe the new faith reached into the Emperor's own household. According to contemporary documents, Domitian condemned Flavius Clemens, a cousin, to death on the charge of atheism. Romans commonly used this charge against Christians. It wasn't that Christians believed in no God, they didn't believe in Rome's gods.

Other reasons existed for Christian persecution. Here,  I want you to know that if the church's evangelistic efforts failed, Rome would never have noticed them. Evangelistic successes caused strife among the Jews. Rome then saw Christianity as distinct from Judaism and, therefore, illegal. When the excuses presented themselves they were taken. Once persecution began it took little effort to continue them. Yet Rome couldn't stamp out the church: it continued to grow steadily!

 

 

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