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 Testament. 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 first. 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 worshipped. 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 God. Other religions favoured the sensual, with cults to Dionysius and Bacchus, focusing on sexual and food orgies. 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 Sol. 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 practice. 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 Christians. 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 54CE. 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 again. 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 cross. 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 disaster. 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 emperors: 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 earth”. 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 victims. 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 forbidden.