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Old June 16th, 2016, 10:40 PM   #1

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Imperial Persecution of Christians: Historical Evidence?


To what extent does all the available evidence indicate that the persecution of Christians by the [pagan] Roman Emperors is historical fact, and to what extent have these episodes been embellished or fabricated? There have been many references to these persecutions in many threads. The idea here is to examine the issue in a little more depth with specific regard to the historical evidence underpinning these episodes of persecution.

As I see it there are nine claimed Imperial persecutions, and they may be summarised (with their ancient historical sources) as follows:

The Nine Claimed Pagan Persecution of Christians

1. * Nero 64 to 68 Tacitus' Annals XV.44 (11th century) Tertullian, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Eusebius, Augustine
2. _ Domitian 89 to 96 Dio Cassius (67.14.1-2); execution of Flavius Clemens for "atheism"
3. _ Trajan 98 to 117 Pliny, Letters 10.96; Trajan in Pliny, Letters 10.97
4. _ Marcus Aurelius 161 to 180 Lyon (177 CE), Eusebius HE, 5.1.5,7.
5. _ Septimius Severus 193 to 211 Clement of Alexandria; Perpetua and Felicity; Leonides <<======= (#147)
6. _ Maximinus the Thracian 235 Pope Pontian and Hippolytus banished to the island of Sardinia.
7. * Decius 249 to 251 edict 250 CE re: sacrifice to the emperor with certificate (libellus)
8. * Valerian 253 to 260 edict (257 CE); P. Oxy 3035 (256 CE). "Order to arrest a ChrEstian".
9. * Diocletian and Galerius 284 to 305


Is there a consensus among ancient historians that all these persecutions happened? Has there been a systematic discussion and evaluation of all the available evidence underlying this issue?

To commence the discussion I have summarised one recent author's opinion such that the presence of an asterisk * above denotes a reference to the book referenced below - The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. The * denotes that the author does not dismiss the persecution. NB: The author therefore dismisses _ persecutions with reference to 2,3,4,5,6.


[ame]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_Persecution[/ame]
  • The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom is a 2013 book by Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. Moss's thesis is that the traditional idea of the "Age of Martyrdom", when Christians suffered persecution from the Roman authorities and lived in fear of being thrown to the lions, is largely fictional. There was never sustained, targeted persecution of Christians by Imperial Roman authorities.

To what extent are theses persecutions considered to be historical and to what extent are they considered to be the embellished legends of a later age? What is the evidence supporting either position?

Last edited by Kookaburra Jack; June 16th, 2016 at 10:42 PM.
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Old June 17th, 2016, 01:15 AM   #2

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Something is immediately evident: No. 2 ... it's all to be discussed that Titus Flavius Clemens converted to Christianity ... in the Jewish tradition it's said he converted to Judaism ... Catholics have made him Saint and they even identify him with Pope Clemente I.
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Old June 17th, 2016, 05:06 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kookaburra Jack View Post
3. _ Trajan 98 to 117 Pliny, Letters 10.96; Trajan in Pliny, Letters 10.97
What about Ignatius? He got it in Trajan's reign--it was actually his wish to die a gory martyr's death as Ehrman put it. And he left behind letters.



Quote:
4. _ Marcus Aurelius 161 to 180 Lyon (177 CE), Eusebius HE, 5.1.5,7.
A book on Aurelius considered the shorter account of Justin's trial "clearly authentic" but I dunno. In any case there's no doubt, to my knowledge, he got it c 167 CE.


Quote:
* Decius 249 to 251 edict 250 CE re: sacrifice to the emperor with certificate (libellus)
There's uncertainty whether Laurentias was really "cooked" (assum) or just nailed like others (passum). But again, I don't think anyone doubts he got it. And Cyprian too IIRC.



Quote:
8. * Valerian 253 to 260 edict (257 CE); P. Oxy 3035 (256 CE). "Order to arrest a ChrEstian".
The acccount of Valerian's fate in De Moritibus Persecutorum has zero credibility IMO. Still, I don't think Lanctantius would've painted such a gory picture of the emperor's end if he hadn't been a persecutor.



Quote:
There was never sustained, targeted persecution of Christians by Imperial Roman authorities.
Indeed there wasn't. State sponsored persecution was sporadic. Still, from what I've read, mobs sometimes targeted holy joes even when there was no official effort.
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Old June 17th, 2016, 11:43 PM   #4

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Ralph Ellis has in his works come to the conclusion that the ones persecuted were not people we identify as christians today, but rather people belonging to a sect of Judaism. I believe it was called "the church of Jesus" I could try to search for it in more detail, if needed, but do not have the time to do so now.

The Romans were very tolerant towards other people and their religions - they only wanted them to acknowledge the (divinity of) the caesar first. The jews would not do that. Combine that with the bloody revolts in Judea, and one might get the picture as to who the persecuted people might have been.
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Old June 18th, 2016, 03:00 AM   #5
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The edit button is gone so I'll post to correct some things. Laurentius and Cyprian were executed in 258 under Valerian not Decius. In 258 Valerian ordered all bishops, priests and deacons executed. (No wonder Lactantius later spun a tale of Valerian's supposed awful fate.) Laurentius may have been burned to death but "assus est" might've been originally "passus est."
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Old June 18th, 2016, 01:16 PM   #6
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Cults and Religious groups are very good at playing the victim. So their accounts must always be taken with a grain of salt.
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Old June 21st, 2016, 06:32 PM   #7

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2. _ Domitian 89 to 96 Dio Cassius (67.14.1-2); execution of Flavius Clemens for "atheism"
Quote:
Originally Posted by AlpinLuke View Post
Something is immediately evident: No. 2 ... it's all to be discussed that Titus Flavius Clemens converted to Christianity ... in the Jewish tradition it's said he converted to Judaism ... Catholics have made him Saint and they even identify him with Pope Clemente I.

Domitian

2.1 Dio Cassius (67.14.1-2)

  • And the same year Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor's. 2 The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property.
    Some historians have maintained that there was little or no persecution of Christians during Domitian's time. There is no historical consensus on the matter. Evidence for persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian is slim. Most often, reference is made to the famous account by Dio Cassius (67.14.1-2) of the execution of Flavius Clemens, a Roman consul and cousin of the Emperor, and the banishment of his wife, Flavia Domitilla, to the island of Pandateria, for "atheism" ("athotes") and practising Jewish customs ("ta ton Ioudaion"). Some consider that the references here to "atheism" and "practicing Jewish customs" do not necessarily mean that Flavius and his wife were Christians. Far more probable is that they were converts to Judaism who attempted to evade payment of the fiscus Iudaicus - the tax imposed on all persons who practiced Judaism.
2.2 Anonymous Author of Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian.

  • This text is translated as follows:
    • And when Vespasian was dead, his son Domitian, having got possession of the kingdom. along with his other wrongful acts, set himself also to make a persecution against the righteous men. For, having learned that the city was filled with Jews, remembering the orders given by his father about them, he purposed casting them all out of the city of the Romans. And some of the Jews took courage, and gave Domitian a book, in which was written as follows:--
        • O Domitian, Caesar and king of all the world, as many of us as are Jews entreat thee, as suppliants we beseech of thy power not to banish us from thy divine and benignant countenance; for we are obedient to thee, and the customs, and laws, and practices, and policy, doing wrong in nothing, but being of the same mind with the Romans.
          But there is a new and strange nation, neither agreeing with other nations nor consenting to the religious observances of the Jews, uncircumcised, inhuman, lawless, subverting whole houses, proclaiming a man as God, all assembling together (1) under a strange name, that of Christian. These men reject God, paying no heed to the law given by Him, and proclaim to be the Son of God a man born of ourselves, Jesus by name, whose parents and brothers and all his family have been connected with the Hebrews; whom on account of his great blasphemy and his wicked fooleries we gave up to the cross.
          And they add another blasphemous lie to their first one: him that was nailed up and buried, they glorify as having risen from the dead; and, more than this, they falsely assert that he has been taken up by (2) clouds into the heavens.

      At all this the king, being affected with rage, ordered the senate to publish a decree that they should put to death all who confessed themselves to be Christians. Those, then, who were found in the time of his rage, and who reaped the fruit of patience, and were crowned in the triumphant contest against the works of the devil, received the repose of incorruption.
    The story is generally classed with the non canonical acts. It is late, and seems to have an authorship after Eusebius, because the phrase "new and strange nation [of Christians]" is characteristic of Eusebius. It may be a parody. The Jews would not write a book to the Emperor complaining about a "new and strange nation [of Christians]"; admitting that they crucified Jesus for blasphemy; and complaining that the Christians falsely asserted that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended through the cloud banks above Jerusalem.
Other Articles

2.91 Arthur Ogden published a small tract, which appears to argue against the historicity of the alleged Domitian Persecution of "Christians". 2.92 The Jews, the Christians, and Emperor Domitian - Paul Keresztes, Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Mar., 1973), pp. 1-28



The evidence does not seem compelling to think that Domitian persecuted the Christians.
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Old June 21st, 2016, 06:45 PM   #8

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3. _ Trajan 98 to 117 Pliny, Letters 10.96; Trajan in Pliny, Letters 10.97

Quote:
Originally Posted by starman View Post
What about Ignatius? He got it in Trajan's reign--it was actually his wish to die a gory martyr's death as Ehrman put it. And he left behind letters.
Thanks starman, I appreciate that I should add Ignatius to be complete. I will update this.

However there are major integrity issues with the so-called letters of Ignatius. Consequently the evaluation of the question as to whether Trajan persecuted the Christians will depend on addressing these integrity issues in the Ignatian letters, in addition to that of the Pliny-Trajan correspondence.

Pliny and Trajan on the Christians

Thanks for your comments on the other Emperors.

I will deal with them separately.
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Old June 21st, 2016, 06:50 PM   #9

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4. _ Marcus Aurelius 161 to 180 Lyon (177 CE), Eusebius HE, 5.1.5,7.
Quote:
Originally Posted by starman View Post
A book on Aurelius considered the shorter account of Justin's trial "clearly authentic" but I dunno. In any case there's no doubt, to my knowledge, he got it c 167 CE.

Marcus Aurelius

The purported persecution in Lyon 177 CE was reported as a persecution of Christians in Lugdunum, Roman Gaul (present-day Lyon, France), during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). The sole account of this persecution is a letter preserved in the following:


4.1 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chapter 1:
  • Introduction.
  • 1. Soter, bishop of the church of Rome, died after an episcopate of eight years, and was succeeded by Eleutherus, the twelfth from the apostles. In the seventeenth year of the Emperor Antoninus Verus, the persecution of our people was rekindled more fiercely in certain districts on account of an insurrection of the masses in the cities; and judging by the number in a single nation, myriads suffered martyrdom throughout the world. A record of this was written for posterity, and in truth it is worthy of perpetual remembrance. 2. A full account, containing the most reliable information on the subject, is given in our Collection of Martyrdoms, which constitutes a narrative instructive as well as historical. I will repeat here such portions of this account as may be needful for the present purpose. 3. Other writers of history record the victories of war and trophies won from enemies, the skill of generals, and the manly bravery of soldiers, defiled with blood and with innumerable slaughters for the sake of children and country and other possessions. 4. But our narrative of the government of God will record in ineffaceable letters the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul, and will tell of men doing brave deeds for truth rather than country, and for piety rather than dearest friends. It will hand down to imperishable remembrance the discipline and the much-tried fortitude of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories over invisible enemies, and the crowns placed upon all their heads.
  • Chapter 1. The Number of those who fought for Religion in Gaul Under Verus and the Nature of their Conflicts. 1. The country in which the arena was prepared for them was Gaul, of which Lyons and Vienne are the principal and most celebrated cities. The Rhone passes through both of them, flowing in a broad stream through the entire region. 2. The most celebrated churches in that country sent an account of the witnesses to the churches in Asia and Phrygia, relating in the following manner what was done among them. I will give their own words. 3. “The servants of Christ residing at Vienne and Lyons, in Gaul, to the brethren through out Asia and Phrygia, who hold the same faith and hope of redemption, peace and grace and glory from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” 4. Then, having related some other matters, they begin their account in this manner: The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded. 5. For with all his might the adversary fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever. 6. But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One. And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury; and regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that 'the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us afterward.' Romans 8:18 7. First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace; clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. 8. Then, being taken to the forum by the chiliarch and the authorities of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole multitude, and having confessed, they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.
    ETC ETC ETC ...

    DRIVEL DRIVEL DRIVEL ...

Surprisingly the source known as Tertullian describes Marcus Aurelius as a protector of Christians, and in doing so, makes reference to the "Rain Miracle" ...


4.2 Tertullian, Apology 5:
  • But out of so many princes from that time down to the present, men versed in every system of knowledge, produce if you can one persecutor of the Christians. We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army.
The presumably spurious letter about the miracle is found at the end of Justin Martyr's First Apology.
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Old June 21st, 2016, 06:54 PM   #10

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7. * Decius 249 to 251 edict 250 CE re: sacrifice to the emperor with certificate (libellus)
Quote:
Originally Posted by starman View Post
There's uncertainty whether Laurentias was really "cooked" (assum) or just nailed like others (passum). But again, I don't think anyone doubts he got it. And Cyprian too IIRC.

Decius

In 250, the emperor Decius issued an edict, the text of which has been lost, requiring everyone in the Empire (except Jews, who were exempted) to perform a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate and obtain a signed and witnessed certificate, called a libellus, to this effect.[62] The decree was part of Decius' drive to restore traditional Roman values and there is no evidence that Christians were specifically being targeted. A number of these certificates still exist, one discovered in Egypt, in one person's handwriting



From Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches' Past by Euan Cameron, p.16:
  • It is generally agreed that there was no organised, general, centrally directed persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire before the edict of Emperor Decius in 249, which then only remained in effect until 251 CE ... The only prolonged and very widespread "great persecution" of Christians was that initiated by Diocletian (puzzlingly, long into his reign) in 303 CE. It lasted until 305 in the West, but continued until 311 in the East.
The Libelli of the Decian Persecution - John R. Knipfing
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