When the Romans chose to execute Jesus, they didn’t have many legitimate reasons to oppose him or his followers; however, after Jesus’ death his following grew and so did the Roman’s opposition. Prior to his death, Jesus’s movement was not viewed as a serious threat to Rome, because it consisted of a small, obscure group that had no army, weapons cache or known agenda to challenge the empire’s occupation. In other words, the Romans had no imminent reason to fear Jesus or his followers. During his lifetime, however, Jesus the teacher was primarily a problem for the Jewish High Priests. He openly questioned their authority and challenged both the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ interpretations of the laws of Moses. He provoked the High Priests and they were motivated to quiet him. They appealed to the Romans, and Pilate chose to make an example of Jesus and condemned him to death by crucifixion but neither the Romans nor the High Priests foresaw the notion of Jesus the Messiah (Cole and Symes 183). Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen their resurrected leader, and they spread that message along with his beliefs to the people throughout the regions beyond Judea. In the textbook, Western Civilization, the authors state, Jesus’s execution might have been the end of the story if not for his followers, who asserted that he had risen from the dead before being taken up into heaven (Cole and Symes 183).
The Romans opposition to Jesus’ movement after his death was far greater than it was during his lifetime. Once Jesus’ movement, experienced greater growth, it eventually garnered two widespread, official persecutions that were ordered by emperors. As the movement continued to spread to non-Jewish territories for several centuries, Christians eventually included diverse groups of people. Those people didn’t conform or meet the Roman’s behavioral expectations. The growing Christian population was insubordinate, because they refused to worship the Roman gods, they didn’t recognize the divine authority of the Roman Emperor, and they were accused of gathering in secret to plot and practice evil, deviate behaviors.
Today, we recognize that Jesus was the founder of the most historically significant religion of Western Civilization (Ehrman 195). Therefore, it may seem logical to assume in 2018 that he was a huge celebrity during his lifetime and he had the inclination to incite massive, rioting crowds to protest the Roman Empire’s occupation. Upon closer scrutiny, however, that assumption can be ruled out, as it is inaccurate. Jesus was not a revered celebrity during his lifetime. In fact, there are no existing writings about Jesus from pagan writers (i.e., those who were neither Jewish nor Christian) that survived from the first century of the Common Era (Ehrman 195). Per Bart D. Ehrman, nothing written by any pagan author of the first century so much as mentions Jesus’ name (Ehrman 195). Perhaps the absence of early, non-religious written material is indicative that Jesus and his followers were not well known to multitudes of people during his lifetime. It may also be logical to assume that they were not a very significant problem for the Romans while he was alive.
Not long after Jesus was put to death, Paul began preaching the salvation message to the gentiles and it was instrumental to the growth of Christianity; however, the salvation message that won the hearts and minds of the gentiles also resulted in some unintended consequences. In A.D. 34-35, five years after the resurrection, when Paul was a relatively young man (though we have no certain information about the date of his birth), his life was turned around through an encounter with the risen Christ on a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus (Wilken 18). Paul claimed that the resurrected Jesus instructed him to stop persecuting his followers and tasked him to spread the gospel message to the gentiles. That event was transformation for Paul. He converted from a dedicated persecutor of early Christianity into a prolific advocate. It can be argued that throughout the entire history of Christianity from the first century to our own, no figure except Jesus has proved to be more important than the Apostle Paul (Ehrman 260). Once the Christians accepted the notion that the problem is sin, which is understood to be a transgression of God’s law; the solution is Christ’s death and resurrection, which are to be received by faith, they have accepted Jesus a deity and no longer a man (Ehrman 324-325). Because the Christians worshiped Jesus, a criminal, that the Romans executed for treason, they set themselves up to become targets for Roman opposition.
In a little over three centuries, Christianity grew from obscure beginnings in a small Roman province to become the official religion of the empire, so one could assume that the Romans were constantly persecuting them to oppose their growth; however, that wasn’t the case (Cole and Symes 180). Instead, Christians were tolerated by Roman officials, except when local magistrates chose to make an example of someone who flagrantly flouted authority (Cole and Symes 189). That is because for two centuries the movement wasn’t large enough to matter. It’s estimated that by the end of the first century Christians made up less than one percent of the Roman Empire’s population. Two hundred years later, in the year 300 Christians made up 10 percent of the population, approximately six million people (Wilkin 65).
In the big scheme of things, Christianity was a relatively new, slow growing, insignificant religion and its followers had strange beliefs, but that didn’t rise to the level of being significant enough to sustain a steady campaign to eliminate them. For the most part, the Roman Empire tolerated the Christians during the first century, but that shouldn’t be confused with embracing them. The Romans were easily inclined to suspect the integrity of any social group which seemed to be secretive. Christians were admonished to hate life in this world, and they talked of the world in a way difficult to understand. They talked also of the end of this world A confusion of terms and the other-worldliness of Christian teaching may account for the popular notion these enthusiast, who practiced their religion so intensively, actually hated their fellowmen (Urch 257-258). They were also falsely accused of practicing cannibalism, incest and performing sacrifices, partly because their rituals were misunderstood and partly because false rumors were spread. For example, the communion sacrament required participants to consume wine and bread which symbolized the blood and body of Jesus. This practice was misunderstood and fueled the rumor that Christians practiced cannibalism.
For the first two hundred years that Christianity existed, there was only one persecution that was initiated by the reigning Roman emperor. Nero blamed Christians for a fire that occurred in Rome in 64 and he persecuted them as punishment. As rule, however, it was a time akin to a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell (Cole and Symes 190). A governor called, Pliny the Younger, wrote a letter to the emperor, Trajan to seek advice on how to handle the situations when Christians were accused before him. His policy was to give them ample opportunity to denounce Christianity, pledge allegiance to the emperor and recognize the Roman gods. If they did so, they were released. If they refused to do so multiple times, they were sentenced to execution, and that was due to their stubborn, unwillingness to declare Rome as the highest authority and denounce Christianity. Emperor Trajan responded to Pliny and verified that his policy was aligned with the emperor’s expectations.
The first general persecution of Christians began in January 250. The date is noteworthy. Christianity had been around for more than two hundred years, yet this was the first systematic effort on the part of imperial authorities to force Christians to give up their beliefs and worship the Roman gods (Wilkin 65). It’s been said that timing is everything and Christianity came about at an opportune time. For the most part the Roman empire was running smoothly for the first two centuries; however, in the third century, things were not as well. The Roman societies’ problems were many, defeats in war, incursions of peoples living on the borders, monetary collapse, floods, famine, plague. The whole period was one uninterrupted series of confusion and calamity, wrote Edward Gibbon, the historian of the decline of the Roman Empire (Wilkin 66). In 250, emperor Decius made it mandatory for all the citizens to pay homage to the Roman gods. He believed it was necessary to show appreciation for Rome’s past success and it would also bring favor in the future. Unfortunately for the Christians, he believed that people who participated in newer religions, like theirs, were a threat to the Rome’s stability. Many Christians refused to obey the emperor’s decree and thus, they were imprisoned, tortured or killed.
Cole, Joshua, and Carol Symes. Western Civilizations: Their History & Their Culture. combined, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2000.
Wilken, Robert Louis. The First Thousand Years. Yale University Press, 2012.
Urch, Erwin J. Early Roman Understanding of Christianity. The Classical Journal, vol. 27, no. 4, 1932,pp. 255“262. JSTOR,JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3289799.