A review of Church History cannot escape the word ‘martyr’, which springs up in every age and in every place. The fact that untold millions have been killed for their faith in Christ is a staggering phenomenon, which will only continue, until Christ returns. As we consider the history of the early church it is appropriate to put some of that persecution into perspective.
The world into which Jesus Christ was born was under Jewish administration, with Roman oversight. Rome had conquered Palestine, but they relied on the existing local systems and structures to maintain the local order and peace. Roman soldiers intervened when the will of the Emperor needed to be enforced, or to maintain Roman authority if the local leaders could not handle it.
The New Testament history reveals that the Jewish religious authorities were unsettled by the emergence of the new religious characters of John the Baptist and Jesus. We have accounts of their interrogation of John and their persistent opposition to Jesus.
So it is no wonder that, following Christ’s resurrection, Pentecost and the birth of the church, the Jewish religious hierarchy was quick to engage in opposition to the early church.
Saul of Tarsus
A prominent young man (I was going to say ‘zealot’ but that has a specific meaning in New Testament times), named Saul, gave increased impetus to the Jewish opposition to early Christians. He was instrumental in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. He was also involved in seeing other Christians killed, imprisoned, pressured to blaspheme and so on.
When Saul was converted to Christianity, by miraculous encounter with the Risen Christ, some of the impetus against the Christians was probably diminished for a time. But it wasn’t long before there were Jewish plans to kill Saul (who we remember best by his name Paul).
Throughout Paul’s ministry he consistently faced opposition from the Jews. Reading the book of Acts we are left with the impression that the church’s main antagonists were the Jews.
Initially Christianity was seen by the Roman authorities as an off-shoot of Judaism. Jewish leaders were often told to deal with Christianity themselves, as it was a matter of their own religion. This accounts for the energy which the Jews put into persecuting those who followed ‘the way’.
Jewish persecution of Christians in Rome became so intense that in 51AD the Roman authorities expelled Jews from the city, since they were behaving as disruptive trouble makers.
Initially the Roman authorities functioned as protectors of the Christians, especially in the case of Paul, who was a Roman citizen due to his birth at Tarsus. The Roman leaders refused at times to hear the Jewish claims against Christians, seeing it as simply a matter of semantics and competing religious claims in their own localised religion.
Christians, however, became an increasing presence and concern to Rome, since the faith was spreading quickly and widely, and Christians refused to acknowledge any other deity, including the Emperor.
Roman persecution of Christians was first unleashed by Nero, following the Fire of Rome in 64AD which destroyed about three quarters of the city. Nero faced suspicion for having part in the fire, and so it seems he chose the Christians as his scapegoat. There is no reason to suggest that Christians had any connection with the devastating fire at all.
Nero attacked Christians with savagery, even using Christians doused in flammable liquids as torches to light up his gardens. While it cannot be confirmed it is understood that both Peter and Paul were killed in Rome at this time.
Roman persecution of Christians continued to varying degrees until the time of Constantine’s conversion. Toward the end of the first century Emperor Domitian came to power and persecuted both Jews and Christians. In 98AD Trajan became Emperor and instituted a policy of not hunting out the Christians, but putting them to death if they came to the attention of the authorities.
The symbols of early Christian persecution are usually those of the Colosseum, and the Roman catacombs. This is a worthy connection, since Roman Emperors delighted in making public sport of killing Christians.