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Persecution Of Christians Essay

2112 words - 9 pages

During the first half century after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman government including governors in the eastern provinces took no active measures against Christians. The attitude of the higher Roman authorities had always been that Christianity was merely a sect of Judaism, and as such, were entitled to share in its privileges as a recognized religion. In 64 A.D. this attitude suffered a severe alteration. On July 19, 64 A.D. occurred the great fire of Rome. Half a million people were left homeless. Popular rumor persistently asserted that the fire was started by incendiaries acting under the orders of the Emperor Nero. It was said that Nero wanted the city burnt down so he could ...view middle of the document...

In general, the provincial governors had wide discretionary powers of jurisdiction, but knowledge of Nero’s actions may have set a precedent in regards to the handling of Christians and may have also encouraged local enemies of Christians to try to persuade a governor to accept their accusations and proceed against the accused on the assumption that they were guilty of conduct detrimental to the interest of the Roman State. Pliny was faced with this problem when he was sent as Legatus Augusti to reorganize the troubled province of Bithynia-Pontus in 110 A.D. In a letter to the Roman Emperor at the time Trajan, Pliny asked for a clarification or more definite instructions regarding Christians. Specifically he wanted to know if they should be punished because he had never taken part in a trial concerning Christians. At the onset of his governorship he executed anyone who had been accused of being a Christian. He released those who denied they were Christians and those wiling to invoke the Gods, sacrifice to them and to the Emperor’s statue, and to curse Christ. But he was unsure if he should release them, hence he asked Trajan for his opinion. Trajan’s reply did not lay out any universal rule. Instead his reply was as such:
“…it is not possible to lay down some general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved to be guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and quite clearly proves it, that is by worshiping our gods, he shall gain pardon because of his change of mind, despite having been under suspicion in the past. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution, since they set the worst precedent and are unworthy of our times.”
Trajan adhered blindly to the principle of the routine administrator, that a practice once covered by precedents, must continue. He missed the opportunity to regulate an official position regarding Christians, like Augustus when he exempted the Jews from Caesar worship. The practical effect of Trajan’s response was that in the second century, sporadic executions of Christians continued although under Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) and Antoninus (A.D. 138-161) the Christians enjoyed a lull in being persecuted.
Unfortunately this lull would not last. By the mid 2nd century Christian refusal to take part in the cult of the Emperor or the pagan gods led to a widespread feeling that the Christians were enemies of the “community” and therefore threatened its security. They became the scape-goats for all kinds of public disturbances and disasters like famine and disease. Under Marcus Aurelius (161 180 A.D.) the persecutions resumed, however, they were not as systematic or organized as they had been or were to be. By the time of Marcus Aurelius, the number of Christians had substantially increased, especially in the major cities of the Empire. Popular sentiments against the enemies of...

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