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Part 2: Opposition and Persecution
30CE to 313CE
 Why
did the Jewish sect The Way, founded
on the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth, find
so many adherents so quickly and yet attract
so much opposition at the same time?
In the early days of the
Roman Empire, gods such
as Janus, Jupiter, Juno,
Mars and Vesta symbolised
the powers of nature. They
were agricultural gods.
Religion was a contract: I’ll
give so that you may give”.
Romans worked hard to
preserve the “peace of the
Gods” through sacrifices
and other religious
ceremonies. Disasters were
seen as expressions of
anger or unhappiness by
the gods.
There were
thousands of gods.
As Roman power expanded,
the influence of Greek
religion became strong.
Greek culture and the Greek
language still dominated
Roman culture.
Paul’s letters and the Gospels
were written in Greek.
Greek thought and logic was
the basis of a classic
education and the format of
the writings of the New
The Romans began to worship
Greek gods such as Apollo.
Greek myths surrounded
these gods.
Christianity was born at a time
when the Roman world was
growing tired of the “old”
religions and people were
seeking new belief systems.
Many Gentiles were attracted to
Judaism and believers who
worshipped the Jewish God but
did not convert, became known
as “the God Fearers”. Many of
these in turn became Christians
when Paul convinced the Jewish
sect to accept Gentiles without
requiring conversion to Judaism
Roman emperors such as
Augustus tried to revive the old
religion and even had themselves
declared gods.
Many religious and pseudoreligious cults flourished,
especially in the harbour towns.
Paul found ready hearers in
harbour towns and in Athens
appealed to their search for the
“unknown God”.
The cult of the Egyptian pair Isis
and Osiris, with their son Horus
were popular household gods.
Depictions of Isis and Horus bare
strong resemblance to Christian
depictions of Mary and Jesus.
Horus was later changed to
Serapis and was widely
The Pantheon, a temple
dedicated to all Gods, is a
symbol of that society’s search
for new forms of belief.
The Christians were not the
only ones who ate a
memorial meal for their God
by sharing bread and wine.
The mystery cult of Mithras,
the bull, favoured by Roman
soldiers also shared bread
and wine, believing it to be
the body and blood of their
Other religions favoured the
sensual, with cults to
Dionysius and Bacchus,
focusing on sexual and food
Strongly present among the
upper classes and Emperors
was the worship of Sol, the
sun, whose birthday was
December 25th.
In 274 CE Emperor Aurelian
declared worship of Sol to be
the state cult. Christians
borrowed the halo and the
date from this cult for their
own “Son” God. The Emperor
Constantine also favoured
Within Judaism there were a
number of groups or sects
who emphasised different
aspects of the religionPharisees, who sought purity
of worship and living;
Scribes who sought to
preserve and interpret the
Law of Moses;
Zealots who sought the
return of the Jewish state
and military overthrow of
oppressive invaders;
Essenes who rejected
tradition lifestyles and
sought lives of austerity,
celibacy and prayer;
and the followers of the Way
of Yeshua who believed the
Mashiah had come.
Theories vary as to why the
early Christian movement
gained so many converts.
It is believe the Jewish “priests”
who sought conversion after
Pentecost were Essenes, whose
lifestyle closely resembled that
of the first Christians.
One of the reasons so many in
Jerusalem followed the Way was
that in this sect, people shared
their possessions, lived modestly
and were led by unpretentious
leaders like Peter and James
who were more acceptably
ordinary men and women than
the lofty, very wealthy priests of
the Temple.
The Way was also
popular with slaves,
women, servants and
lower classes because
all were treated
equally and love of
each other was the
key belief.
Reaction to the new Jewish
sect ranged from initial
threat and suspicion from
ruling Jewish classes, ridicule
for people who worshipped a
crucified God by some
pagans, disinterest in a
“peculiar people”, mainly
lower classes, who seemed
harmless enough, to disgust
& horror by those who
believed the worst rumours
about them.
Ironically, for many Romans,
Christians were atheists and
traitors who did not believe
in the Roman gods or observe
Roman festivals.
This Roman Graffiti from
the Palatine Hill, c 240 CE
says :Alexamenos worships
his God”
As with Jesus himself, tensions
arose quickly between the new
sect and religious authorities.
The bread and wine memorial
meals which Christians believed
became the body and blood of
the Lord was abhorrent to
traditional Jewish thought and
Conflicts arose when the
Christian community used the
Temple for ostentatious actions
(Acts 3:1-4:4). Stephen was
accused of speaking against the
Temple and the law and was
stoned to death to become the
first martyr. Paul nearly met the
same fate when he was accused
of bringing a pagan Greek into
the temple.
The Acts of the Apostles
records Jewish opposition
to the Christian message in
Jerusalem (6:9-7:6);
Pisidian Antioch (13:50) and
Corinth ((18:12-17).
Emperor Claudius expelled
all Jews and Jewish
Christians from Rome in
49CE , probably for tumults
between Jews and
The Romans were not
intolerant of other religions,
respecting and even legalising
those accepted as being of
ancient tradition.
Tacitus, described as a
“careful” historian, records the
persecution of Christians by
Nero, who sought to blame
them for the fire of Rome in
Tacitus describes Christians as
“hated by the general public
for their abominations” who
followed a “deadly
superstition” that had been
“checked” but had broken out
Christians could live with
defamation, ridicule and exclusion
from office. A mid second century
piece of graffiti from the school of
the imperial pages on the Palatine
Hill in Rome ridicules a Christian as
venerating an ass-headed God on a
But Christians were also considered
as atheists, enemies of the state,
the senate and the people of Rome.
By refusing to venerate Roman gods,
they were tempting retaliation and
Peter and Paul may have died as
martyrs around 67/8 CE, possibly as
part of Nero’s horrific persecution of
Christians and possibly arrested with
information supplied by feuding
Christian groups as indicated by
Clement of Rome in his letter to the
Corinthian church.
Emperor Domitian in 95-96 CE
acted against some members of the
Roman nobility accused of “drifted
into Jewish ways” (considered a
reference to Christianity being a
Jewish sect.)
However, Domitian did not widely
persecute Christians whom he
considered to be “simple folk” and
not a threat to the state. He ended
his persecution of Christians.
Emperors Trajan and Hadrian
insisted claims against Christians
be tested in court and anonymous
denunciations and slanderous
attacks be ignored.
The Colosseum became the focal
point and symbol of use of
Christians for “sport”- against
gladiators, wild beasts, scourging
and the “frying pan”.
Christian writers such as
Justin Martyr (d. 165CE);
Iraneus(d. 202); Minucius
Felix(c 150-260) Tertullian(d.
220) and others again and
again refuted accusations
against Christians of
abominations such as baking
babies in bread, eating human
flesh, drinking blood, sexual
orgies and incest.
It is possible Christian
practices and terms were
misinterpreted, or they were
associated with other
“perverse” cults such as
Mithraism and Bacchanalism.
Persecution of Christians
occurred under the following
Claudius (41-54) Expelled Jews
and Christians from Rome for
disturbing the peace.
Nero (54-68) Used Christians as
scapegoats for the Great Fire
of Rome in 64. His tortures of
Christians disturbed even
Romans who disliked them.
Domitian (81-96) Had himself
declared “God the Lord” and
exiled and persecuted Jews
and Christians who balked at
proclaiming him “lord of the
Trajan (98-117) Relatively
temperate, he became the first
emperor to persecute Christians
as fully distinct from Jews.
Ignatius of Antioch was one of his
Marcus Aurelius (161-180) A
magnanimous philosopher who
eased harsh laws to protect the
weak and helpless, he still
allowed anti-Christian literature
to flourish, which resulted in
fierce persecutions in various
regions. Justin, the first Christian
philosopher, was martyred under
his reign.
Septimus Severus (193-211) A soldier,
devotion to Mithras flourished under his
reign. Initially accepting of Christians, in
202 he forbade further conversions to
Judaism and Christianity. Persecution
followed in North Africa and Egypt.
Perpetua and Felicitas and Clement of
Alexandria perished in his reign.
Maximinus (235-238) There was a brief bout
of persecution under this emperor.
Decius (249-251) Wished to restore
traditional polytheism and devotion to
deified Roman Rulers. Instituted Empire
wide persecution of Christians .
Demanded Christians have a Certificate
of Sacrifice confirming they had
performed one pagan observance.
Valerian (253-260) Inherited an Empire
out of control, with plagues, civil
strife and invasions. He blamed
Christians. Ordered clergy to
sacrifice to the gods of the state.
Burned Christian leaders (Pope Sixtus
II and Lawrence), confiscated
property of Christian senators and
Christian tenants of imperial estates
were sent to the mines.
Diocletian (284-305) A great organiser,
he set out to totally extinguish
Christianity- the final struggle
between the old order and the new.
Ordered all Christian churches and
books burned, worship was