Persecution: Christian Experience

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The atoning and vicarious nature of Jesus' sacrifice provides the main link between Jewish and Christian outlooks toward persecution and martyrdom. In Mark 10:45, a possible reminiscence from Isaiah 53:1012, Jesus proclaims that he "came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." It is, however, in the Johannine literature that the term martyr ("witness") moves quickest from its ordinary secular meaning to the Christian sense of "blood-witness." Numerous passages (e.g., Jn. 3:11, 5:3033, 18:37, and 1 Jn. 5:10) present Jesus in terms of witness to the truth or to his Father, while others associate witness to Jesus with the Paraclete (Jn. 15:26, cf. also 14:26) standing in opposition to the world, convincing the world of sin and judgment. Witness to the Crucifixion was revealed in "blood and water," and had in addition the missionary purpose "that you also may believe" (Jn. 19:3435).

The association of the Holy Spirit with suffering and persecution because of witness to Christ was emphasized in the synoptic Gospels (Mk. 13:11 and parallel Mt. 10:19). By the end of the first century ce, these ideas had become fused into a single idea of martyrdom. Martyrs conquered (Satan) "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony [marturias ], for they loved not their lives even unto death" (Rev. 12:11). Theirs was a personal witness to the truth of Christ's claim to be Messiah and a token of the closest possible identification with their Lord. In the early years of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Christians in Rome said that he would be truly a disciple of Christ when he had been found "pure bread of Christ" (chap. 4). "It is better," he urged, "to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth" (6.1).

The concept of martyrdom formulated in these years proved to be long lasting. In particular, its association with the spirit of prophecy, opposition to the world (not only to the Roman Empire), and its connection with the coming of the end of this world can be seen in the Acta martyrum of the second and early third centuries. Thus, in 177, the anonymous writer of the Acta of the martyrs of Lyon understood the persecution that assailed the congregation there as "foreshadowing the coming of Antichrist" (that would precede the end of this age). (See Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, hereafter cited as H.E., 5.1.5 and following.) As for the martyrs, one was described in the anonymous letter as the "Paraclete of the Christians" (5.1.9). Their witness and confession placed them in direct contact with Jesus himself, and while not "perfected" until dead, they were able to "bind and loose" as partakers in Christ's sufferings. The martyrs of Lyon were not followers of Montanus, whose movement, which began in Phrygia in 172, illustrated the close connection between prophecy, eschatology, and martyrdom. Their recorded outlook, however, indicates the strong undercurrent in the same direction among orthodox communities during this period. At the end of the century, this can be illustrated from the church in North Africa. Around 197, Tertullian proclaimed in Apologeticum 50.16 that martyrdom, as the baptism of blood, wiped away all postbaptismal sin. A decade later (c. 207), as a Montanist, he asserted in De fuga in persecutione, chapter 9, that it was the only form of death worthy of a Christian, for in that event Christ, who had suffered for the Christians, might be glorified.

The idea of martyrdom developed against the background of occasional severe, if local, persecutions. Jesus had warned his followers to expect persecution (Mt. 10:17). Like that of the prophets of Israel, his blood would be poured out. Until the Gospels attained their final form with the passion narrative, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:112 was the perfect type of Christ. The earliest enemies of the Christians were the Jews, who regarded them as belonging to a dangerous, subversive movement in their midst. The martyrdom of Stephen in about 35 was followed by the persecution under Herod Agrippa around 42. Although Agrippa died in 44, over the next fifteen years Jews did everything possible to impede the preaching of Christianity by Paul and his friends among the synagogues of the Diaspora. They portrayed Paul as "a mover of sedition among the Jews throughout the world" (Acts 24:5), and first in Corinth and then in Jerusalem attempted to have him executed by the Roman au-thorities.

Luke and Acts show that the authorities themselves were by no means hostile to Paul and his preaching but rather regarded Christianity as an internal Jewish matter that was not their concern. What then was the cause of the Neronian persecution in Rome in 64 ce?

Persecution and Toleration in the Roman Empire

Little is known of the Christian community in Rome during Nero's reign, but three factors seem relevant. First, Nero was desperate to find a scapegoat for the conflagration that he was suspected of causing. Second, official and popular opinion in Rome reprobated any threat to the majesty of the Roman gods by foreign cults, including Judaism. Jews were also suspected of misanthropy and incendiarism. Finally, by 60 ce, Jewish hostility toward Christianity had spread to Rome.

Tacitus's account of the savage repression of Christianity (Annales 15.44), written some sixty years later, may have been influenced by Livy's detailed account of the suppression of the Bacchanal conspiracy of 186 be (Livy, History of Rome 39.819). The Christian movement was also regarded as a conspiracy by adherents of a foreign "false religion" (prava religio ), one of whose aims was to set fire to Rome. In both cases, self-confessed adherents were put to death; in particular, the Christians were executed in a cruel and theatrical way, their death designed as a human sacrifice to appease the wrath of the gods. A generation later, the writer of 1 Clement appeared to blame this catastrophe on the "envy and jealousy" of the internal enemies of the church, namely, the Jews.

Although the Neronian persecution was not extended to Italy and the provinces, it put the Christians on the wrong side of the law. Tacitus believed that Pontius Pilate was justified in ordering Jesus' execution, and that the "deadly superstition" of Christianity deserved punishment. His contemporary, Suetonius, listed the repression of the Christians among Nero's police actions of which he approved (Nero 16.2). For him the Christians were guilty of practicing black magic as well as of introducing a "novel and dangerous religion." Suetonius did not, however, connect the persecution with the fire at Rome.

In the second century, Melito of Sardis and Tertullian named Domitian (r. 8196) as the second persecuting emperor. Domitian's repressive measures, however, in 95 aimed at discouraging forcibly members of the Roman nobility from "lapsing into Jewish ways." By this time, however, the authorities were distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews "who were living like Jews," a group that must have included Christians, and Christianity was illegal. The Book of Revelation indicates savage persecutions by Jews, the local populace, and the authorities in the province of Asia (western Asia Minor). In 112, the correspondence between the emperor Trajan and his special commissioner (legatus pro praetore ) in the Black Sea province of Bithynia shows that Christians were liable to summary execution if denounced to the authorities. Pliny reports that their obstinacy in the face of questioning was an aggravating circumstance. Faced with apostasies, Pliny asked the emperor what he was to do, giving his opinion that Christianity was nothing worse than a perverse superstition and suggesting that leniency would restore the situation. Trajan replied that while Christians were not to be sought out like common criminals they were to be punished if they persisted in their refusal "to worship our gods." If they recanted, however, they were to be freed.

Instructions (rescripta ) issued in 124/5 by Trajan's successor, Hadrian (r. 117138), directed the proconsul of Asia, C. Minicius Fundanus, to condemn Christians only if found guilty of criminal offenses in a court of law. They were not to be subjected to clamorous denunciations, and they had the right of turning against their accusers a charge that proved to be false. These two decisions established the policy of the imperial authorities for the remainder of the century. They had the effect of discouraging prosecutions, and Christians enjoyed relative tranquillity until the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161180). By then, however, the official reluctance to pursue Christians had begun to yield to the force of popular suspicion of them, as reflected in charges of incest, cannibalism, and atheism. They were also held responsible for natural disasters that demonstrated, it was believed, the anger of the gods. The result was a series of severe local persecutions, such as the martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna in about 166 and the "pogrom" of Lyon in 177. In about 178 an informed Platonist writer, Celsus, without mentioning specific popular accusations directed against the Christians, mentions membership in an illegal organization, lack of civic sense, and subversion of traditional social structures through active proselytism as additional grounds for unpopularity and justification for oppression.

In the first decade of the third century, the increase in the number of Christians resulting from a more aggressive missionary policy resulted in persecutions in Carthage, Alexandria, Rome, Antioch, Corinth, and Cappadocia. In Carthage and Alexandria the rage of the mob seems to have been directed against converts. Eusebius associated these persecutions with the emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193211), and it is possible that that emperor reacted against the rising tide of mob outbreaks in some of the main cities of the em-pire by prohibiting conversion either to Judaism or to Christianity.

Between 212 and 235 Christians enjoyed a further period of quasi toleration under the emperors of the Severan dynasty. The revolution that removed Alexander Severus on March 22, 235, saw the beginnings of a new policy. Severus's supplanter, Maximinus Thrax (235238), liquidated the Christian servants and officeholders at his predecessor's court and struck at the Christian leadership, sending the pope, Pontian (235236), and the antipope, Hippolytus, into exile in Sardinia, where they both died.

In 238 Maximinus fell to a revolution inspired by landowning interests in North Africa. The next dozen years saw a period of Christian expansion and prosperity that provoked growing antipathy on the part of the pagans. In 248 there was a massive popular assault on the Christians in Alexandria, but the change of emperor that took place in the autumn of 249 resulted in the first empire-wide persecution. C. Quintus Messius Decius, who took the surname Trajan (r. 249251), was a good general and believed firmly in the traditional values of the Roman state. He was convinced that the Christians were responsible for the disasters that had befallen his predecessor. In January 250, he ordered that the yearly sacrifice made to the Roman gods on the Capitoline hill should be repeated throughout the empire, and almost simultaneously he had prominent Christians seized, whether clergy or laity. On January 21, Pope Fabian was tried before him and executed. A similar fate befell Bishop Babylas of Antioch; Cyprian of Carthage and Dionysius of Alexandria escaped only by going into hiding. This phase was followed by the establishment of commissions in the towns of each province to supervise sacrifices to the gods of the empire and the emperor's genius. The process extended from February and March in Asia Minor and North Africa to June and July in Egypt. Some forty-three libelli (certificates) given to those who sacrificed have survived on Egyptian papyri. Few Christians resisted. If Decius had been able to give his undivided attention to the repression, the church might have been in serious danger. The peril, however, was already over when the emperor met his death at the hands of the Goths in June 251.

Hostility was continued under the emperors Gallus and Volusian in 252 and 253, but in 257 their successor Valerian (253260) made a massive effort to force Christians to acknowledge and respect the Roman gods. This was the object of Valerian's first edict (summer 257), although the contributory factors may have included a desire on the part of the authorities to lay hands on the wealth that the church was believed to have accumulated. The church's leaders were arrested, interrogated, and deported. The edict also forbade Christians to hold services and to frequent their cemeteries, but otherwise left them alone. A year later, however, the emperor decided on severer measures. An imperial order reached Rome early in August 258, ordering that clergy should be executed, that Christian senators should forfeit their status and property, that a similar fate should befall highborn women, and that civil servants should be reduced to slavery. On September 14, 258, Cyprian of Carthage was summoned from his relatively comfortable place of exile to confront the proconsul of Africa. After a brief trial he was condemned as the ringleader of "an unlawful association" and as "an open enemy of the gods and the religion of Rome" (Acta proconsularia ).

Persecution continued through 259, but ended with Valerian's capture by the Persians near Edessa in June 260. His son and successor, Gallienus, sent instructions in 260 and 261 to provincial governors to restore the property of the church and free its members from further molestation. The church, though not technically religio licita ("lawful religion"), had at last achieved a recognized status.

For more than forty years this situation continued. Church and empire moved closer together. In Nicomedia, the capital of the emperor Diocletian (284305), the cathedral stood in full view of the emperor's palace. Why Diocletian decided to force the issue with the Christians nearly twenty years after he had seized power is not known; but the connection with the anti-Christian sentiments of his caesar, Galerius, and with his own policy of bringing uniformity in every aspect of the life of the peoples of the empire through the establishment of a common currency, prices, taxation, and legal framework seems clear. The great nonconformists, the Christians, could not be allowed to opt out. The Great Persecution of 303312 (303305 in the West) was preceded by a number of repressive acts (298302) designed to remove Christians from public positions. On February 23, 303, the emperor posted an edict at Nicodemia, ordering the surrender of all copies of the Christian scriptures for burning and the dismantlement of all churches. No meetings for Christian worship were to be held. Christians were also disbarred from being plaintiffs in lawsuits, and lost all honors and privileges, but there was no death penalty, for Diocletian wanted no more Christian martyrs. In the summer of 303 other edicts followed, first directing that Christian clergy should be arrested and imprisoned, and then that they should be forced to sacrifice and thereafter freed.

So far only the clergy had been seriously affected, but in the winter of 303304 Diocletian became incapacitated by illness following a visit to Rome to celebrate his twenty years' rule. Galerius took over control of the government and in the spring of 304 issued an edict ordering everyone to sacrifice to the immortal gods. This phase of the persecution saw numerous martyrs in North Africa, especially in Numidia, and a hardening of attitudes between Christians and pagans. Diocletian recovered from his illness, but was persuaded to retire from the government, which he did on May 1, 305, to live another eleven years in a magnificent military palace at Spalatum (Split) on the Adriatic coast.

The new emperors, Constantius in the West and Galerius (with Maximinus as his caesar) in the East, pursued contrasting religious policies. Persecution ceased in the West, but was restarted in the East after Easter 306. Successive edicts were accompanied by efforts by Maximinus to reorganize the pagan cult on a hierarchical basis. However, enthusiasm among the pagans was waning, and Galerius, struck down in the spring of 311 by a mysterious, deadly illness, issued an edict of toleration on April 30, a week before he died. This "Palinode of Galerius" accepted the fact that the great majority of Christians could not be brought back to the worship of the Roman gods, considered it better for the empire that they should worship their own god than that they worship no god at all, and accorded them contemptuous toleration. "Christians may exist again, and may establish their meeting houses, provided they do nothing contrary to good order." They were also asked "to pray to their god for our good estate and their own, so that the commonwealth may endure on every side unharmed."

Meantime, in the West Constantius had died at York on July 25, 306, and his son Constantine had been acclaimed augustus by the soldiers. Though he had to be content with lesser honors for the time being, Constantine gradually increased his power, until in the spring of 312 he was ready to bid for the control of the whole of the West. He invaded Italy, defeated the usurper Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome (October 28, 312), and was hailed "senior augustus" by the Senate the next day. He was already strongly influenced by Christianity and, whatever the vision he saw on the day before the decisive battle, he was determined to end the era of persecution. In February 313 he met his fellow augustus at Milan, and together they published the famous Edict of Milan. Christians received, together with all the other subjects of the empire, complete freedom of religion, but they and the Summus Deus were regarded as the positive force and contrasted with "all others." Insensibly the scales had tipped toward Christianity as the official religion of the empire. By the time Constantine moved east, in 324, to challenge Licinius for control over the whole Roman world, the "immortal gods" of the Romans had been displaced as patrons and protectors of the empire. The religious revolution was complete. The church's intensive ramifications through town and countryside alike, coupled with a firm organization and a continued underlying enthusiasm for martyrdom, at least among a minority of the faithful, had proved too strong for the pagan empire.

Persecution of Heretics and Dissenters

Constantine's religious policy was founded on unity. The Christian God could not be served by two or more rival groups of ministers. Only one such group could be accepted as representing the true catholic (universal) church. At the same time, however, the strains and tensions resulting from the Great Persecution had exacerbated existing divisions in the church and caused new ones. In the West, the North African church had been divided since 311 between factions supporting or opposed to the new bishop of Carthage, Caecilian. In Egypt, there were divisions between the Melitians and adherents of Alexander, bishop of Alexandria. Persecution directed against opponents of the church supported by Constantine was not slow in coming.

Constantine and his sons saw themselves as the custodes fidei ("guardians of the faith") of the empire. This involved the suppression of paganism and dissenting views such as those of the Donatists in 346347, and measures against individuals, like Athanasius of Alexandria, who was exiled in 356. A generation later, after the free-for-all toleration under Julian (r. 361363), the emperor Theodosius I in 380 published the general edict Cunctos Populos, by which the Christian religion as adhered to by Pope Damasus and Peter of Alexandria was decreed to be the sole legitimate religion of the empire.

Cunctos Populos is one of the turning points in the grim story of religious persecution. Those who did not accept that law forfeited their civil rights and were liable to punishment by the state. It was followed by a series of laws reiterating penalties against heretics, which reached a climax in June 392, when the emperor ordered heretical clergy to be fined ten pounds of gold and decreed that places where forbidden practices were occurring should be confiscated if the owner had connived. Pagans fared equally badly. In February 391 a law sent from Milan to Albinus, the praetorian prefect of the East, took up the legislation against paganism by the emperors Constantius II and Valens by prohibiting all sacrifices and fining people of high rank or official position who entered temples. This paved the way for a more comprehensive law late in 392 that banned every sort of pagan practice under very severe financial penalties. Informers were to be encouraged.

This framework of imperial legislation provided the means by which leaders of the catholic church were able to suppress their opponents. If, in the East, church and state formed one integrated whole under the emperor, in the West the "two swords" theory of the separate authority of church and state required the church to regard the secular power as its protector and sword against its enemies. In his long struggle against the Donatists, which lasted from 393 to 421, Augustine gradually built up a justification for the repression of religious dissent by the state. In 399 he identified the Donatists as heretics and urged that if kings could legislate against pagans and prisoners they could legislate against heretics. In 405 Augustine had imperial legislation against heretics applied to the Donatists. Denial of testamentary rights and floggings with lead whips were to be meted out to the obdurate. In 408, Augustine confessed that he was now convinced that Donatists should be coerced into the unity of Christ and quoted the Lucan text "Compel them to come in." After the proscription of the Donatists by law in 412, Augustine added to his arguments justifying persecution the statement that coercion in this world would save the heretics from eternal punishment in the next.

"No salvation outside the church," a doctrine preached by Augustine in 418 in his sermon addressed to the people of the church of Caesarea (chap. 6), implied a right to convert forcibly or otherwise the church's opponents. The precedents established in the Donatist controversy by Augustine passed into the armory of the catholic church through the Middle Ages and into Reformation times. The Albigensian crusades of 1212 and 12261244 witnessed terrible massacres in centers such as Béziers and Carcassonne where the heresy flourished. In 1244 the defenders of the last Abigensian stronghold, Mont Ségur, were burned alive by their victorious enemies. More than a century and a half later, in 1415, the same punishment was inflicted on Jan Hus at Prague.

In the Reformation, persecution of opposing churches was accepted by all parties. Henry VIII burned the Protestants Thomas Bilney and Robert Barnes; Mary Tudor sent some three hundred Protestants to the stake between 1555 and her death in November 1558; Calvin ordered the burning of Servetus in 1541. Unwillingness in the Roman Catholic Church to concede that "error has any rights over truth" prolonged the period of persecution of Protestants into the eighteenth century. The bloody repression of the Calvinist Camisards in the Cévennes following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the repression of Protestants in the Palatinate in 1715 and in the diocese of Salzburg in 1732 are reminders that religious persecution did not end with the formal conclusion of hostilities between Protestants and Catholics at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Even in World War II, the Ustasi government in Croatia unleashed what may be hoped to be the final spasm of religious persecution against the Orthodox minority in Bosnia. On the other hand, Christianity itself has been the object of persecution by the Hitlerite and Communist regimes. These persecutions have so far failed in their aims, but among Christians themselves it is to be hoped that the growth of the ecumenical movement and the decrees of Vatican II may help banish this blot from history.

See Also

Cathari; Constantine; Constantinianism; Cult of Saints; Donatism; Heresy, article on Christian Concepts; Reformation.



The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Translated by Herbert A. Musurillo. Oxford, 1972. Includes useful introductions and bibliographical notes.

Lanata, Giuliana. Gli atti dei martiri come documenti processuali. Milan, 1973. No English translation, but contains excellent bibliographical notes and evaluation of manuscript traditions.

Lawlor, Hugh J., and John E. L. Oulton. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea: The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine (19271928). 2 vols. Reprint, London, 1954. The best English text of Eusebius's Martyrs of Palestine.

Secondary Literature

Barnes, Timothy D. "Legislation against the Christians." Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968): 3250.

Barnes, Timothy D. "Pre-Decian Acta Martyrum." Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 19 (October 1968): 509531.

Baynes, N. H. "The Great Persecution." In The Imperial Crisis and Recovery, a.d. 193324, vol. 12 of Cambridge Ancient History, edited by S. A. Cook et al., pp. 646677. Cambridge, 1939.

Brown, Peter R. Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine. London, 1972. Contains important studies of Augustine's attitude toward religious coercion.

Emery, Richard W. Heresy and Inquisition in Narbonne. New York, 1941.

Frend, W. H. C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Oxford, 1965. Includes a bibliography of works published before 1964.

Grégoire, Henri. Les persécutions dans l'Empire romain. In Mémoires de l'Académie Royale de Belgique, vol. 46, fasc. 1. Brussels, 1951. Stimulating, like everything Grégoire wrote, though occasionally wrong-headed.

Hardy, E. G. Christianity and the Roman Government: A Study in Imperial Administration (1894). Reprint, London, 1925. Fine piece of work by a classical scholar.

King, Noel Q. The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishment of Christianity. Philadelphia, 1960.

Kitts, Eustace J. Pope John the Twenty-Third and Master John Hus of Bohemia. London, 1910.

Knipfing, John R. "The Libelli of the Decian Persecution." Harvard Theological Review 16 (October 1923): 345390.

Moreau, Jacques. La persécution du christianisme dans l'Empire romain. Paris, 1956. Revised and published in German as Die Christenverfolgung im römischen Reich, "Aus der Welt der Religion," n. s. 2 (Berlin, 1961). A perceptive and stimulating statement by one of Grégoire's pupils.

Shannon, Albert C. The Popes and Heresy in the Thirteenth Century. Villanova, Pa., 1949.

Sherwin-White, Adrian Nicholas. "The Early Persecutions and Roman Law Again." Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 3 (October 1952): 199213.

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. "Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?" Past and Present 26 (November 1963): 638. The best short account of the persecutions and their causes.

Vogt, Joseph, and Hugh Last. "Christenverfolgung: 1, Historisch" and "Christenverfolgung: 2, Juristisch." In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, edited by Theodor Klauser, vol. 2. Stuttgart, 1954.

New Sources

Bowerstock, Glen Warren. Martyrdom and Rome. The Wiles lectures at the Queen's University at Belfast. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Cassidy, Richard J. Paul in Chains: Roman Imprisonment and the Letters of St. Paul. New York, 2001.

Cavanaugh, William T. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ.Oxford and Malden, Mass., 1998.

Ellis, Jane. The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History. Bloomington, Ind., 1986.

Ferguson, Everett, ed. The Church and State in the Early Church. New York, 1993.

Hillar, Marian. The Case of Michael Servetus (15111553): The Turning Point in the Struggle for Freedom of Conscience. Lewiston, N.Y., 1997.

Loades, David M., ed. John Foxe and the English Reformation. Proceedings of a Colloquium held July 46, 1995, at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1997.

Waugh, Scott L., and Peter D. Dieh, eds. Christendom and Its Discontents: Exclusion, Persecution, and Rebellion. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

W. H. C. Frend (1987)

Revised Bibliography