Christianity Essay, Research Paper
Christianity is defined as, “A major religion, stemming from the life, teachings, and death of Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ, or the Anointed One of God) in the 1st century AD.” (Shelton) It has become the largest of the world’s religions. Yet in Ancient Rome in the first century A.D. they were not welcome. Christians were burned and tortured, and persecuted for just over three hundred years because of their beliefs. Why? We may never fully know, but I believe it was mostly out of fear. Fear of the new, and fear of change.
Christianity derived from Judaism. More specifically it derived from Jesus Christ who was Jewish, in the first century A.D. Judaism was a racially exclusive religion whose members did not attempt to make converts among non-Jews. (Shelton) This is one of the reasons that Jews went so long without being persecuted. Even Augustus was considerate toward there religious beliefs, and did not deny any Jew of Roman citizenship. He also would move the monthly grain doles to another day if they happened to fall on a Jewish Sabbath, but this peace did not last for long. The Jews blatant refusal to worship any God but there own began to anger the emperor Tiberius, so he therefore sent out a decree of persecution. (Shelton) Many Jews were forced to burn their religious vestments, and were sent to provinces with harsh climates. Others were forced into life-long slavery. During this time the Christians began to break away from the Jews. The Christians believed in spreading their “sacred mission” to the entire world, and believed in accepting any person who wanted to convert to Christianity. This went directly against Judaic belief therefore they split into two religions. (Starr)
Early persecutions were sporadic, caused by local conditions and depending on the attitude of the governor. The fundamental cause of persecution was that the Christians conscientiously rejected the gods whose favor was believed to have brought success to the empire. The Christians were not respectful toward ancestral pagan customs as the Jews had been. Their preaching of a new “king” sounded like revolution. The opposition of the Jews to them led to breaches of the peace. Thus the Christians were very unpopular. Paul, one of Christ’s apostles, sermon at Ephesus provoked a riot to defend the cult of the goddess Artemis. In 64 A.D. the Christians were accused of setting a fire that destroyed much of Rome. (Shelton) The emperor Nero, happy to have a scapegoat, and a reason to kill Christians ordered a vast multitude murdered. This incident was the first time that Rome was conscious that Christians were distinct from Jews. But there was no formal senatorial enactment proscribing Christianity at this time. Nero’s persecution was local and short. Soon thereafter, however, the profession of Christianity was defined as a capital crime, though of a special kind because one gained pardon by apostasy, rejection of a faith once confessed, demonstrated by offering sacrifice to the pagan gods or the emperor. Soon the Christians were accused of secret rituals, such as eating murdered infants. This was due to the secrecy surrounding the Lord’s Supper and the use of the words body and blood. Although it is ironic that the Roman people would be so worried about the Christians making sacrifices, when they so often did it themselves. It was out of fear I believe that the Romans, and all the people of the pagan belief accused and murdered so many Christians at this time. They were also accused of sexual promiscuity, due to the practice of Christians calling each other “brother” or “sister” while living as husband and wife. The governor of Bithynia in AD 111, the younger Pliny, told the emperor Trajan that to his surprise he discovered the Christians to be guilty of no vice, only of obstinacy and superstition. Nevertheless, he executed without a qualm those who refused to apostatize. (Shelton)
Distrust of Christians was increased by their detachment and reluctance to serve in the imperial service and in the army. During the 2nd or 3rd centuries, Christians found themselves the object of unpleasant attention. In 248 A.D., when Germanic tribes threatened the empire, popular hostility culminated in the persecution under the emperor Decius. (Starr)(Shelton) He declared by edict all citizens were required to offer sacrifice and to obtain from commissioners a certificate witnessing to the act. Many of these certificates have survived. The requirement created an issue of conscience, especially because certificates could be bought by bribes. However even this did not help many Christians escape savage slaughter. Under renewed attack in 257 A.D., the great bishop-theologian Cyprian of Carthage was martyred by Valerian. (Shelton) Valerian, however, became a Persian prisoner of war, and his son Gallienus issued an edict of toleration restoring confiscated churches and cemeteries. The Christians prospered from 261 to 303. (Starr) In February of 303 A.D. the worst of all persecutions erupted under the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius. In 311 A.D. the persecutions ended because of Galerius strangely enough. On his deathbed he repented for his cruelty, and ordered an edict of toleration. In 312 A.D. Constantine, a rival for emperor put the fate of a battle that would either win him the crown or kill him in the hands of the Christian god. He won the battle and the throne. Soon after, in 313 A.D. peace was reached with the Edict of Milan, a manifesto of toleration issued by the joint emperors Licinius and Constantine. In 392 A.D. Theodosius I banned all non-Christian rites. Therefore making Christianity the official state religion.(Shelton)
As one looks over this history, it is hard to believe that Christianity survived at all. The Romans were so afraid of a new religion, and the bad things that it might bring to the empire that they killed thousands of people. It was this fear that kept Rome from advancing, and kept the Christians in hiding. It is my belief that if tolerance had been Rome’s agenda from the beginning, that many conflicts could have been avoided. When it comes down to it ironically enough everyone should have just followed the Christian saying, “Do unto others, as you would have done to you.” (Luke)
Luke. Holy Bible. Jeruselum, 56 A.D.
Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Roman’s Did. Oxford Press: New York, NY, 1998.
Starr, Chester G. The Ancient Romans. Oxford Press: New York, NY, 1971.