Persecution in the Early Church

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In this essay I am going to research the area of persecution in the early church, I will be exploring where persecution began, what caused it and how the Christians themselves responded to what was happening. I will do this with a particular focus on the role the emperors of Rome During the first and second century. Persecution of the church in the empire can be split into two main periods, the first being the persecutions under the Emperor Nero in AD 64 leading through until Decius’ reign in AD 250. The second period is from Decius’ reign to the end of persecution from the Roman Emperors under Constantine. Firstly it is important to look at the background of early Christianity to understand what was happening. From the beginning Jews had a view that Christianity was not a new religion but was instead a heretical sect within Judaism. It is for this reason that in most of the New Testament it is the Jews who persecute the Christians and seek refuge under the Roman officials. However, as the church gained more converts from the Gentile population and the number of Jews in ratio to this shrank, the distinction between both religions became much clearer. It was this view of Christianity as a separate religion that was the beginning of two and a half centuries of persecution from the Roman state, starting at the time of Nero and lasting until till the conversion of Constantine. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity is an interesting one and something that should be explored to gain better understanding. An important phrase to include is ‘religious licita’ which was coined by Tertullian when talking about the Roman tolerance of Judaism as a permitted religion. Usually the Romans did not interfere with the religious practices of people as they were content to add new deities to the pantheon that already existed and they were continually expanding the pluralistic religious environment of the empire. The Jews caused somewhat a problem with their strict monotheism but the Romans respected the antiquity of the Jews as people so were willing to give special statues the them when it came to matters in religious areas, which was not without friction as the Jews worked hard to keep things like this. When Christianity was first introduced it was automatically merged together with the Jewish religion, consequently, the Jewish people protested to the Roman authorities, to which resulted in Christianity becoming a new sect and thus no longer subject to legal protection. 1

The actual persecution of Christians did not begin on religious grounds, but rather from a social and political stance. Long before Christianity was heard of the state had a well developed policy for dealing with foreign religions so this was therefore not a new problem. With the Roman state being so large the only way it could remain united would be if it recognized the local customs, tribal laws and the religious convictions and practices of the people it governed. Rome did this as a matter of policy and was seen as a way to prevent potential problems such as revolts and instead secure the obedience and loyalty of the people who lived within its boundaries. If we focus on the Emperors that ruled over Rome during the first and second century we get a better understanding of the different reasons of why persecution was taking place. If we take a look at Nero who Tertullian writes about saying:- ‘Consult your own records: there you will find that Nero was the first to let his imperial sword rage against this sect [Christianity] when it was just arising in Rome. We boast that such a man was the originator of our pruning, for anyone who knows him can understand that nothing would have been condemned by Nero unless it were supremely good.’ 2

Nero reached the Roman throne in October of 54 AD, we see that just ten years after his accession to the throne people were despising him and it was not long before rumours that he was mad started to circulate. This then...
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