The Roman response to Christianity varied from severe persecution to an attitude of “Don’t ask … don’t look for them.” This latter attitude was initiated by the Emperor Trajan. Before we discuss Trajan it needs to be noted that the Roman Empire was a huge place, and obviously, people couldn’t travel nor communicate at the speed at which they can now. So while persecutions may have been very visible in Rome and major Roman cities Romans in fringe areas were very possibly very accepting of Christians. Persecution really varied from place to place and time to time.
Bithynia was an area on the modern shore of what is now Turkey. And in 111 Pliny the Younger was appointed its governor. Pliny was neither a despot nor a pagan fanatic. He appears to have been a fair man, an educated man who simply wanted to do a good job as a Roman governor. And as soon as he was appointed governor he noticed a problem. There were so many Christians in the area that the temples were being underused and the sellers of animals for sacrifices were hurting for business. Pliny began investigating, and started bringing Christians before him for examination.
One of the policies of Roman conquest was that it did not try to change everything in the places that it conquered. Rather, it was relatively tolerant of the beliefs and systems of its conquered peoples. Its approach was to build the Roman cities in the newly conquered lands as well as to introduce Roman customs and laws that it believed would foster a peace Empire wide. As part of its policy on tolerance Roman citizens had to be accepting of Roman religion and thus worship all the gods. You could worship your God as long as you worshiped Roman gods.
When Pliny brought Christians before him he demanded that they follow these practices: “they pray to the gods, burn incense before the image of the Emperor, and curse Christ – things he had heard true Christians would never do. Once they met these requirements he simply let them go.”[i]
When confronted many did recant. However, many did not. Pliny felt that he had a large problem as there were a lot of Christians in his jurisdiction. If the Christians were Roman citizens they were sent to Rome. But of those that were not he had them executed as the law required.
However, with this being a continuing problem, and with Pliny considering himself fair and just, he sought to find out just what crimes these Christians were really committing, besides just being really stubborn about not worshiping Roman gods. He found out that they gathered before dawn to sing hymns. He found that they took oaths not to commit thefts, adultery or other sins. He found that they had been meeting for a common meal but had discontinued those when authorities had outlawed those meetings. What he didn’t find were real crimes.
Pliny actually tortured two female ministers to grill them on what their activities really were, looking for treason, sedition, i.e., real crimes. Not surprisingly, he found out they weren’t really committing any crimes other than not worshiping all the gods. So he suspended operations and wrote to the Emperor Trajan.
Trajan was Emperor from 98 to 117. But his response to Pliny’s request lasted well into the middle of third century.
Trajan’s response was simple and quick. “When it comes to the punishment of Christians, there is no general rule that is equally valid in all circumstances. On the one hand, the nature of their crime is such that the state should not waste time seeking them out. On the other hand, if they are accused and refuse to recant, they should be punished. Those who are willing to worship the gods should be pardoned without further inquiries. Finally, anonymous accusations should be disregarded, for they are of bad legal precedent and are unworthy of this age.”[ii]
This was a political response. It acknowledged that Christians were not committing crimes against citizens, or of the state for that matter, other than not worshiping Roman gods. But the problem was no one could be allowed to flaunt the law. By being required to worship Roman gods, and refusing to do so, they were showing contempt for the law. By not burning incense to the Emperor they were showing contempt for the Roman concept of who the Emperor was.
Knowing this policy of Roman law regarding their faith required Christians to expend considerable effort, first of all, not to offend possible accusers. If no one accused you, you could live your whole life freely worshipping the Lord as you saw fit. But a lot of activities had to be hidden from possible accusers.
Secondly, Christians needed to develop a strategy for educating Roman society in general as to their true nature. The strategy they developed was to write apologies. Today apology takes the meaning of saying “I’m sorry”. But the word apology actually comes from the Greek word apologia meaning defense. The second and third centuries especially produced numerous Christian apologists defending their faith, and in so doing also changed the way the Christians thought about their faith. In defending the faith Apologists had to explain Christianity in terms that Roman Society would understand. Comparisons had to be made, for example, to other religions and philosophies, to show what was considered offensive in Christianity was actually found in religions and philosophies that already existed and were accepted in the empire. This, however, opened it own cans of worms as using existing religions and philosophies introduced concepts and terms that were outside the realm of what the participants of original Christianity discussed.
Also at issue was the attitude of Roman aristocracy against the kinds of people who were Christians at that time. While it is true there were a few higher ranking Romans, business people, and so forth the majority of Christians were from the lower classes, and were considered a crude ignorant lot. In fact, because of that, Christianity itself was considered a foolish, crude religion practiced by a bunch of barbarians.
As a result apologists and the early church fathers often got involved in discussions to show the superiority of Christianity to the religions whose gods they had to worship or be executed. But the discussions worked in some places to integrate Christianity both with pagan cultures and practices and with Greek philosophies.
Yet something needed to happen for believers striving to live their Christian faith for Christ in the environment where simply being Christian could get them executed under a long standing Roman policy.
[i] The Story of Christianity, Justo L Gonzalez, HarperOne, HarperCollins, New York, 2010 p.50