Rome: an early persecutor of the church?

Christians have traditionally believed that Roman persecution of the church began soon after Christ left this earth. However, another look at the evidence suggests that Christians in the first century were relatively free from persecution by the Romans; it was the Jews who treated them with contempt. In fact, the restraining influence of Stoicism may have caused the Romans to protect the infant Christian church.

Samuele R. Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is professor of religion, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article is a synopsis of a paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature. A fuller version will be published in Andrews University Seminary Studies.

It is generally assumed that the Roman government largely ignored Christianity until A.D. 62, that is, up to approximately the first half of Nero's reign, treating it at best as one of several Jewish sects. This article argues instead that Rome early recognized the basic differences between the politically-oriented Jewish Messianic movements and the nonpolitical nature of Christianity, and that Rome's basic policy toward Christianity during this period was one of tolerance.

Tiberius and Christianity A.D. 14-37

The trial of Jesus during Tiberius' reign represents the first major confrontation between Roman authorities and the Founder of Christianity. The Gospels and Acts unanimously exclude any direct Roman interest in Jesus' condemnation, placing the initiative for Jesus' trial and condemnation exclusively upon Jewish authorities. 1 The fact that Pilate intervened ruthlessly against those suspected of sedition against Rome while he exonerated Jesus from the grave charge of political insurrection suggests that he detected in Jesus' Messianic movement no anti- Roman political motivation. (See Luke 13:1; Josephus, Ant. 18.3.1; 18.4.1.)

Luke indirectly supports this conclusion by his account of Pilate's policy toward the first Christian community of Jerusalem. The Roman governor could hardly have ignored the conflict that erupted between the popular new Messianic movement and the Jewish religious authorities. The latter tried to suppress the new movement by jailing the apostles (Acts 4:3; 5:18) and by stoning Stephen to death (chap. 7:57-60) without due authorization of the Roman governor. Luke places the responsibility for this persecution entirely upon the Sanhedrin, giving the impression that the Romans were indifferent to what was happening (see chaps. 4:5, 15; 5:17, 27, 40, 41; 6:12; 7:57).

It was customary for governors to report to the emperor any new developments in their provinces, 2 and according to Tertullian (about A.D. 200), Pilate sent Tiberius a report. 3 Tertullian's account, as well as various forgeries purporting to be letters from Pilate to Tiberius, pictures Pilate's report as dealing not only with the trial and condemnation of Jesus but also with subsequent events indicating His divinity. 4 On the basis of this report, Tertullian says, Tiberius proposed to the Senate the consecrate) of Christ—His inclusion among the deities of the Roman pantheon and His admission to the cult of the empire.

Some scholars have rejected the historicity of Tertullian's account, primarily because they believe that Christianity could hardly have attracted imperial attention at such an early date (about A.D. 35). 5 Recent studies, however, have argued in its favor. 6 The existence of such a report is presupposed by Tacitus' accurate knowledge of Pilate's condemnation of Christ as well as by Justin Martyr's reference to the Acts of Pilate and by the various apocryphal versions of the same Acts produced at a later date. Moreover, Tertullian could hardly have fabricated the story of Pilate's report and of Tiberius' proposed consecratio of Christ, when he mentions these events incidentally and when he urges magistrates to "consult" their records to verify his account (Apology, 5). Pilate's report and Tiberius' proposal are dated by Eusebius in his Chronicon to A.D. 35. 7 The violent anti-Christian persecution, which, according to Acts, was stirred up at that time in Palestine by the Sanhedrin, could explain why Pilate deemed it necessary to inform Tiberius about the events that led to the establishment of Christianity and its conflict with Judaism.

If Tiberius really did propose to the Senate to accept Christ among the Roman deities, he could well have been motivated by both superstitious and political considerations. The mysterious "wonders" surrounding Christ's death and resurrection, which the Emperor learned from Pilate, and presumably also from his Samaritan chronographer, Thallus,8 could well have favorably predisposed him toward Christ, especially in view of his superstitious faith in astrological signs and his skepticism toward the traditional religion.9 Politically, Tiberius may have seen the possibility of offsetting anti-Roman sentiment among Jewish masses through a legal recognition and consequent penetration of Christianity—a pacifistic movement that taught: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Matt. 22:21). *

Tiberius' proposed consecratio of Christ was, however, rejected by the Roman senate, presumably because the senate was jealous of its own prerogatives in the matter. Tertullian views this negative decision of the senate as the genesis of anti-Christian legislation. The emperor "held to his opinion" and neutralized the possible negative consequences of the Senate's refusal by "threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians" (Apology, 5). The "accusers" Tiberius had in mind were presumably the Palestinian Jewish authorities who had launched a bitter attack against the followers of Christ (Acts 8, 9). Roman officials had not yet taken punitive actions against Christians.

How did Tiberius' action affect Christians, especially in Palestine, the epicenter of the conflict? Josephus informs us that Vitellius, the Roman Governor of Syria, "came into Judea, and went up to Jerusalem" (about A.D. 36) and "deprived Joseph, who was also called Caiaphas, of the high priesthood, and appointed Jonathan the son of Ananus, the former high priest, to succeed him" (Ant. 18.4.3.). The removal from office of Caiaphas by Tiberius' legate may well account for the sudden change from a situation of "great persecution" (Acts 8:1) to one of "peace." "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up" (Acts 9:31). Vitellius' action could represent the implementation of Tiberius' policy of tolerance.

Caligula and Christianity

A.D. 37-41 During the reign of Tiberius' successor, Caligula (A.D. 37-41), the situation for Christians remained practically unchanged. We have no indication that Caligula had any dealings with Christians. But the severe conflict that developed between the Jews and the emperor on account of his senseless effort to install a statue of himself within the Temple of Jerusalem may have indirectly contributed to peace for the Christians (see Josephus, Ant. 19.5.2,3). The Jewish authorities, concerned at this critical time about their own survival could not afford planned actions against Christians. Presumably, during the reign of Caligula the Christian mission reached out beyond the Jews in Palestine and Antioch to convert Romans, such as the centurion Cornelius (chap. 10:24,34,35), as well as Greeks (chap. 11:20).

Claudius and Christianity A.D. 41-54

The reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54) can be characterized as a restoration of Tiberius' policy of religious tolerance. To the Jews, Claudius restored their religious privileges by edict in A.D. 41 and placed Judea directly under a Jewish king, Agrippa I (A.D. 37-44). Claudius' policy toward Christians can be deduced primarily from the actions taken by his magistrates when dealing with them. For example, Luke suggests that the temporary cessation of direct Roman control over Judea during the reign of King Agrippa 1 marked the immediate resumption of persecution against Christ's followers: "Herod the king laid violent hands upon some. . . . He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also" (chap. 12:1-3). The situation changed at Agrippa's death (A.D. 44). Judea returned under direct Roman control and, according to Luke, the Palestinian church experienced no significant persecution until Paul's arrest (about A.D. 58). 10

Luke makes it evident that in the diaspora the Roman administration favored the expansion of Christianity by restraining or hindering the Jewish persecution of the church. In Cyprus, for example, scene of the first Christian encounter with Roman authorities outside Palestine (about A.D. 46-47), the proconsul Sergius Paulus, in spite of the dissuasion of a Jewish prophet Bar-Jesus, "summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God" (chap. 13:7). The curiosity of this Roman official for the Christian message, which he accepted, suggests not only a favorable disposition toward Christianity but also some prior knowledge of it, possibly through government channels.

Other sources suggest that government circles knew of Christianity. About the middle of the first century, the historian Thallus, a Samaritan Hellenist attached to the imperial court, endeavored to explain as a natural phenomenon (solar eclipse) the three hours of darkness that accompanied Christ's death.11 A Roman inscription prior to A.D. 38 mentions a certain Incundus Chrestianus, a servant of Tiberius' sister-in-law, Antonia Drusi. 12 The name Chrestianus, a frequent misspelling of Christus, suggests a Christian affiliation. More significant is the possible conversion to Christianity of Pomponia Graecina, niece of Tiberius and wife of Aulus Plautius, the conqueror of Britain. Her conversion is suggested by Tacitus' reference that she was accused of "foreign superstition" (superstitio externa), 13 a charge frequently leveled against Christians. Another indication is provided by the burial of a Christian descendant, Pomponios Grekeinos, in the catacomb of St. Callistus. Such indications suggest a knowledge of and interest in Christianity among some persons of the imperial and senatorial circles.

This conclusion is supported by Luke's account of the action taken by certain Roman officials toward Christian leaders. The proconsul of Achaia, Junius Lucius Gallic (brother of Seneca), ignored the charge leveled by the Jews in Corinth against Paul, of "persuading men to worship God contrary to the law" (Acts 18:12), declaring the matter to be merely "questions about words and names and your own [Jewish] law" (verse 15). Similarly in Ephesus, civil authorities took measures to protect Christian preachers. While the town clerk exonerated Paul's associates, Gaius and Aristarchus, from the charge of sacrilegious acts against Artemis (chap. 19:37), the "Asiarchs . . . who were friends of his [Paul], sent to him and begged him not to venture into the theater" (verse 31). The Asiarchs were the representatives of the provincial cities to the commune of Asia and thus they represented the closest link between the provincial administration and the Roman government. That the Asiarchs and the Ephesian magistrates would advise and protect Paul and his associates from the fanaticism of the crowd reflects an under standing on their part of the harmless nature of Christianity and an implementation of the tolerant Roman policy toward it.

Nero and Christianity until A.D. 62

Roman policy toward Christianity during the first half of Nero's reign (until A.D. 62) appears to have been basically a continuation of the Tiberian-Claudian tradition. Note, for example, the way Roman officials handled the arrest of Paul, as well as the execution in A.D. 62 of James, "the Lord's brother," not to be confused with James, the brother of John, who was martyred by Herod in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:1,2). The arrest of Paul in Jerusalem in the late spring of A.D. 58 was for security reasons. The Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias (chap. 23:26), rescued Paul from an infuriated crowd that was attempting to lynch him because they falsely believed that he had profaned the Temple.

It is noteworthy that, according to Luke, neither the tribune Claudius Lysias nor the procurators Felix and Festus or King Agrippa II took seriously the charges of profaning the Temple or sedition (Acts 23:29; 24:5,6). Presumably, these Roman officials knew of the nonpolitical, irenic nature of the Christian Messianic movement. Felix, for example, had a "rather accurate knowledge of the Way" (verse 22). On the basis of this knowledge, the procurator adopted a diplomatic course of action, putting off the trial indefinitely, while at the same time keeping Paul in prison with "some liberty" (verse 23) in order "to do the Jews a favor" (verse 27). The same desire motivated his successor, Festus, to advise Paul to be tried in his presence in Jerusalem before the Sanhedrin (chap. 25:9). These compromise measures reflect the imperial government's concern to avoid antagonizing Jewish religious sentiments, thus fueling unrest and revolts. Yet, even these political considerations did not induce Festus to hand over Paul to Jewish authorities for condemnation. His awareness that Paul "had done nothing deserving death" (verse 25), apparently restrained him from granting to the Sanhedrin the right to try the apostle.

Further mention must be made of the execution of James and other leaders in A.D. 62. According to Josephus, the high priest Ananus was able to have these church leaders prosecuted and executed during the time between the sudden death of Festus and the arrival of his successor, Albinus (Ant. 20.9.1). The fact that the high priest took advantage of the temporary absence of a Roman procurator to act suggests that this official's presence prevented such actions. In fact, the new procurator Albinus, while yet in Alexandria, wrote to Ananus, strongly condemning him for his course, and Agrippa for the same reason had him deposed from the high priesthood. By moderating and restraining Jewish persecution, Roman authorities favored the expansion of Christianity.

Paul's Roman imprisonment and trial offer further insight into the attitude of Roman authorities toward Christianity. Luke speaks of the freedom the apostle enjoyed while a prisoner: "And he lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered" (Acts 28:30,31). Paul implicitly confirms Luke's account when he speaks of the gospel among praetorian guards and "Caesar's house hold" (Phil. 1:13; 4:21). If Paul's first trial took place in A.D. 62, as numerous scholars maintain, it is conceivable that the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus and the stoic Seneca were influential in determining Paul's first acquittal, since they were Nero's key advisers until that year and part of his consilium. 14 The late Christian tradition of an alleged correspondence between Paul and Seneca suggests the possibility that Seneca became acquainted with Paul, especially since Seneca's beloved brother, Gallic, did hear and acquit Paul in Corinth in A.D. 51 and since Paul himself claimed to have had Christian friends within "Caesar's household" (Phil. 4:22).

Roman tolerance toward Christians ended in A.D. 62. The change in Nero's policy is indicated and/or was influenced by several concomitant events: the mysterious death of the prefect Burrus; the removal of the restraining influence of stoic advisers such as Seneca; Nero's repudiation of his lawful wife, Octavia, in order to marry his Jewish mistress Poppea; and the emperor's break with the senato rial class.

The stoic idealism that influenced Roman emperors and administrators may provide a clue for the early Roman tolerance toward Christianity as well as for Christian respect for the Roman government. Although Christianity and Stoicism differed profoundly in their religious conceptions, they were strikingly similar in their view of moral values, civil rights and duties, and belief in the nondeity of the emperor. 15 These common ideals may have influenced Roman officials to reject the popular anti-Christian charges of sedition and sacrilegious acts and to understand that the Christian movement posed no threat to the security of the state. On their part Christians refrained from attacking Roman policies. The apostolic writings urge submission to and respect for "governing authorities" as being "instituted by God" (Rom. 13:1). The only anti-Roman Christian voice is to be found in the book of Revelation. This reflects the new political climate in which the theocratic demands of the later first-century emperors (Nero, Domitian) collided frontally with the exclusive Christian acknowledgment of the lordship of Christ.

In the second century when Christians faced the contempt not only of the masses but also of intellectuals and magistrates, they remembered and appealed to an early Roman tolerance. Melito of Sardis, about A.D. 175, argued that Roman intolerance toward Christianity began with Nero. 16 This argument, often repeated by the Apologists, 17 can hardly be treated as a fabrication of second-century Christian apologetics.

Thus it seems that until the earlier part of Nero's reign (about A.D. 62) the Roman government favored the expansion of Christianity by restraining anti-Christian hostile forces. Paul apparently sensed that the restraining function of the Roman government was soon to cease, when he wrote: "For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way" (2 Thess. 2:7).


* Scripture quotations in this article are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952, © 1971, 1973.

1 See Mark 14:1; Luke 23:1-25; John 11:47-50; 18:38; 19:6; Acts 3:13, 14, 17. On the responsibility the New Testament attributes to the Jews for the accusation and condemnation of Christ, see Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament  (Philadelphia, 1979); Gerard Sloyan, Jesus on Trial (Philadelphia, 1973).

2 Evidence of extensive correspondence between governors and emperors is provided by The Letters of Pliny. The letters inform Trajan about practically all new developments in the province of Bithinia, and ask for guidance on a great variety of questions.

3 Tertullian, Apology 5, ANFIII: 22; cf. chapter 22. Justin Martyr, in his Apology, twice (chaps. 35 and 48) appeals to the "Acts of Pontius Pilate" to substantiate his account of Christ's crucifixion. It is hard to believe that Justin would challenge the Romans to verify his account by reading the Acts of Pilate, if such a document was not in existence or not readily available. The existing versions of the Acts and Letters of Pilate are an obvious Christian
forgery, but probably they are based upon a genuine historical tradition.

4 Speaking of the darkening of the sun at the time of Christ's crucifixion, Tertullian says, this account "you yourselves [Romans] have. . . still in your archives" (Apology 21, ANF III: 35). Eusebius also explicitly says that Pilate "gave an account also of other wonders which he had learned of him [Christ], and how, after his death, having risen from the dead, he was now believed by many to be a
God" (Church History 2, 2, 2, NPNF 2nd Series I:

5 For example, J. Beaujeu, in his article "L'incendie de Rome en 64 et les chretiens," Latomus 19 (I960): 33ff., rejects the historicity of Tertullian's account, treating it as a pious Christian fabrication of the late first century. E. Volterra at first rejected but then accepted the authenticity of Tertullian's account (see, Scritti in onore di C Fezzini
[Milan, 1947], vol. I, pp. 471ff.). F. Scheidweiler believes that the letter from Pilate to Tiberius mentioned by Tertullian must have been "an apocryphal Christian document" that was known to the writer ("The Gospel of Nicodemus," in New Testament Apocrypha, ed. Edgar Hennecke [Philadelphia, 1963], I, p. 444).

6 An extensive and cogent discussion is provided by Marta Sordi in "I primi rapporti fra lo Stato romano e il Christianesimo," Rendiconti Accademia Nazionale Lincei 12 (1957): 58-93; and "Sui primi rapporti deli'autorita romana con il Christianesimo," Studi Romani 8 (1960): 393-409; and II Christianesimo e Roma, Institute di Studi
Romani 19 (Bologna, 1965), pp. 21-31. Marta Sordi argues convincingly in favor of the historicity of Tertullian's account regarding Pilate's report and Tiberius' proposal to the senate. She views the negative decision of the senate as the juridical basis of the later persecution of Christians. Vincenzo Monachino defends basically Sordi's view in Le persecuzioni e la polemica pagano-cristiana (Rome, 1974), pp. 21-24. SeealsoO. Papini, II Cesare della crocifissione (Rome, 1934), pp. 40ff; C. Cecchelli, Studi in onore di Calderini e Paribeni (Milan, 1956), pp. 351ff.

7 Eusebius, Hieronymi Chronicon, in Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller 47, ed. R. Helm (Leipzig, 1956), pp. 176-177. Eusebius' Chronicon is used by the seventh century Byzantine author of the Chronicon Paschale to establish the consular A.D. 35 date for Pilate's report, under the consulate of Gallus and Nonianus (Chronicon Paschale, ed. L. Dindorf in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae [Bonn, 1832], p. 430).

8 On Thallus, see below, note 11.

9 The Roman historical Dio Cassius gives the following account of Tiberius' interest in astrology and magic: "Tiberius, moreover, was forever in the company of Thrasyllus and made some use of the art of divination every day, becoming so proficient in the subject himself, that when he was once bidden in a dream to give money to a certain man, he realized that a spirit had been called up before him by deceit, and so put the man to death"
(Roman History 57, 15, 7-9, nans. Earnest Gary [Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1924], p. 153). Suetonius says that Tiberius was indifferent toward gods and religions, devoting himself rather to mathematics and magic (Tiberius 69). Tacitus also informs us that Tiberius was instructed at Rhodes in the science of the Chaldeans (The Annals 60, 20). On the influence of the astrologer Thrasyllus upon Tiberius' policies, see Frederick H. Cramer, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics (Philadelphia, 1954), pp. 92-108.

10 It is noteworthy that Luke connects the death of the persecuting king with the Christian expansion: "He [Agrippa I] was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God grew and multiplied" (Acts 12:23, 24). Presumably with the return of Judea under direct Roman control, the Sanhedrin was prevented from taking action against Christ's followers.

11 Thallus' explanation is reported by Julius Africanus, whose text has been preserved by the Byzantine historian George Syncellus (c. A.D. 800) and has been published by E. Schurer, Geschichte desjudischen Volkes im ZeitalterJesu-Christi (Leipzig, 1909), Vol. Ill, p. 494. The significance of the fragmentary testimony of Thallus is noted by F. F. Bruce, who remarks: "It is worth noting that about the middle of the first century A. D. the traditional
story of the death of Christ was known in non-Christian circles at Rome."—The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1958), p. 137.

12 Corpus Inscriptionum Latinorum (Berlin, 1863-1893), Vol. VI, n. 24944.

13 Tacitus, The Annals 13, 32. On the charge of "superstition" used against Christians, see, for example, Tacitus, The Annals 15, 44; Suetonius, Vita Neronis 16; Pliny, Letters to Trajan 10, 96.

14 Tacitus describes Burrus and Seneca as Nero's key advisers until A,D. 62 (The Annals 14, 52).

15 For a perceptive comparison of the similarities between Stoicism and Christianity, see J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (New York, 1896), p. 173.

16 Cited by Eusebius, Church History 4, 26, 8.

17 See Tertullian, Apology 5; Ad nationes 7; Sulpicius Severus, Chronica 2, 29, 3.

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Samuele R. Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is professor of religion, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article is a synopsis of a paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature. A fuller version will be published in Andrews University Seminary Studies.

December 1982

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