Imperial Persecution of Christians: Historical Evidence?

Oct 2018
1,692
Sydney
The author of the document states that it a former ecclesia. Isn't it also reasonable to assume that when an ecclesia. (gathering or assembly of people) ceases to function, it may have had a financial obligation to the state to return all assets to the state?
A political assembly couldn't have assets, since it was not a fixed political organization, but a political process (they also couldn't cease to exist short of the collapse of a town's government), and no church or synagogue in the Egyptian countryside would have been built or financed by the imperial government, and so we shouldn't expect them to owe the imperial government anything upon their dissolution (I should add that, actually, synagogues were not themselves referred to as ecclesiae, but Jewish gatherings were). The fact that this event involves a procurator privatae, a magister privatae and the Prefect of Egypt also suggests to me that what is happening is not happening in isolation, but reflects orders being sent from Alexandria throughout Egypt.



I am aware of its more ancient Athenian usage, however It would be interesting to know more about the useage of this word "ecclesia" at the turn of the 4th century, but in a non Christian context.


Ecclesia: ἐκκλησία). The assembly of the people, which in Greek cities had the power of final decision in public affairs. (Athenian context)
Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898), E, E, Ecclesia

Word frequency information for ἐκκλησία
Word Frequency Information

I would be interested in looking at how the non christian authors use this word. For example from the 3rd century: Cassius Dio, Philostratus, Aelius Aristides.

The problem is that I cannot read the Greek. How do these three authors for example use this word "ecclesia"?

Many thanks.
It's an interesting question. It should be noted that ecclesiae in the sense of citizen assemblies still existed in late antiquity, since cities did not cease to have local political leadership with the advent of Roman rule. My LSJ (the principal Ancient Greek lexicon) lists the following definitions: an assembly of people, a citizen assembly, a Jewish gathering, a church. You mention Philostratus - He happens to be listed in LSJ as an example of ecclesia as citizen assembly.
 
Last edited:

Kookaburra Jack

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,946
Rural Australia

Kookaburra Jack

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,946
Rural Australia
It's an interesting question. It should be noted that ecclesiae in the sense of citizen assemblies still existed in late antiquity, since cities did not cease to have local political leadership with the advent of Roman rule. My LSJ (the principal Ancient Greek lexicon) lists the following definitions: an assembly of people, a citizen assembly, a Jewish gathering, a church. You mention Philostratus - He happens to be listed in LSJ as an example of ecclesia as citizen assembly.
Thanks I will keep looking for information on "citizen assemblies" during the late 3rd early 4th century (contemporary with the papyrus you cited above).
The following provides a collection of background information, but much of it is later that this period:

The Position of Provincial Assemblies in the Government and Society of the Late Roman Empire
Author(s): Jakob A. O. Larsen
Source: Classical Philology, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jul., 1934), pp. 209-220
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: The Position of Provincial Assemblies in the Government and Society of the Late Roman Empire on JSTOR
 
Oct 2018
1,692
Sydney
Thanks I will keep looking for information on "citizen assemblies" during the late 3rd early 4th century (contemporary with the papyrus you cited above).
The following provides a collection of background information, but much of it is later that this period:

The Position of Provincial Assemblies in the Government and Society of the Late Roman Empire
Author(s): Jakob A. O. Larsen
Source: Classical Philology, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jul., 1934), pp. 209-220
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: The Position of Provincial Assemblies in the Government and Society of the Late Roman Empire on JSTOR
Yes, I suppose the age of Diocletian is on the cusp of late antiquity.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,325
Heck. This a demanding response and I apologise for the lack of detail.

(1) What is the evidence provided by Dessau, Hermann. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae ?
I haven't read the sources mentioned.

(2) Eusebius and Lactantius provide the bulk of the evidence. Is this any reason for concern?
Of course. Christians have historically enjoyed the idea of their persecutions - it makes their religious domination all the more substantial in their minds. For instance, the notion that christians were 'thrown to the lions'. Not true. Rome had a general tolerance for religion despite some specific persecution. However, criminals were thrown to animals, and one could prove a christian was a criminal, then prepare the beasts!

(3) Is it not a common political practice that the propaganda of the new regime demonises the old regime?
Fairly common of human behaviour overall.

(4) To what extent are these early persecution stories either late and/or fictional?
Difficult for me to answer that. Granted Nero blamed christians for the Fire of Rome in 64 and had some rounded up and gruesomely set alight as lamposts at night, but note the execution of criminals rather than actual persecution of an entire movement.

(5) What do you consider to be strongest source of evidence that supports the contention that the early persecution stories reflect hisorical events?
Roman law.
 

Kookaburra Jack

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,946
Rural Australia
Heck. This a demanding response and I apologise for the lack of detail.
Appreciate the response caldrail. Thanks.

(1) What is the evidence provided by Dessau, Hermann. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae ?

I haven't read the sources mentioned.
Neither have I.

(2) Eusebius and Lactantius provide the bulk of the evidence. Is this any reason for concern?

Of course. Christians have historically enjoyed the idea of their persecutions - it makes their religious domination all the more substantial in their minds. For instance, the notion that christians were 'thrown to the lions'. Not true. Rome had a general tolerance for religion despite some specific persecution. However, criminals were thrown to animals, and one could prove a christian was a criminal, then prepare the beasts!
Robert M Grant says about Eusebius that "
  • the basic difficulty with Eusebius' work is that it has to be classified as "official history." It therefore contains a judicious mixture of authentic record with a good deal of suppression of fact and occasional outright lies. He wrote it in defence of himself and his friends and their outlook toward the nascent imperial church establishment under God's messenger Constantine.
Our aim and purpose as historians is to develop an understanding of history stripped of its mythology. Are the stories of the imperial persecution of early christians myth? If these stories are fictional accounts how do we account for their fabrication by the New Christan regime?

(3) Is it not a common political practice that the propaganda of the new regime demonises the old regime?
Fairly common of human behaviour overall.
So it is no stretch of the imagination to understand that these persecution stories may have been invented as part of a propaganda exercise by the victors.


(4) To what extent are these early persecution stories either late and/or fictional?
Difficult for me to answer that. Granted Nero blamed christians for the Fire of Rome in 64 and had some rounded up and gruesomely set alight as lamposts at night, but note the execution of criminals rather than actual persecution of an entire movement.
The problem I see with the Tacitus reference to the so-called "Neronian persecution", is that neither Eusebius, Lactantius nor any other earlier source cite it.

These late writers have at last learned, after two centuries or more of ignorance, that Peter and Paul fell victims to Neronian fury ; but they still have no idea that Nero falsely accused the Christians of setting the city on fire, nor do they hint that a "vast multitude" lit up the Roman night with the flames of their burning bodies. Not until the fourth century, in Ep. 12 of the forged correspondence of Paul and Seneca, do we read that " Christians and Jews, as if contrivers of (a) conflagration, when put to death are wont to be burned." But even here the allusion, if there be any, to the Neronian persecution is extremely vague.


In fact no writer cites this passage from Tacitus until an ancient manuscript of Tacitus was suddenly and unexpectedly "discovered" in the church archives in the 15th century. So I dont regard it very highly as evidence for anything. Except for a late forgery by the chuch industry of the 15th century.

Modern European scholarship places the authorship of the Clementine literature c.330 CE. It was this story (and others like it) that provided the story of the persecution of the Apostle Peter (and in some versions Paul) by the Emperor Nero. In this instance later church tradition was guided by the non canonical stories of the Apostles. Damasus hastened to approve of the "historical fact" that Peter was "Here in Rome"!!.

The rise of Christian hagiography then obscured history under fabricated stories for the next thousand years. Bishops would dream a dream and the location of the bones and relics of past saints and martyrs would be revealed, only to be dug and and exhibited by the church industry for the illiterate masses. See Freeman's "Holy Bones: holy Dust". https://www.amazon.com/Holy-Bones-Dust-History-Medieval/dp/0300184301

(5) What do you consider to be strongest source of evidence that supports the contention that the early persecution stories reflect hisorical events?
Roman law.
Roman Law here represents circumstantial evidence. The literary testimony of Tacitus has been discussed. That of Suetonius and Pliny/Trajan has been discussed earlier . The former manuscripts appear at the same place and time as the Latin forgery mill (pseudo-Isidore) while the manuscripts containing the Pliny/Trajan Christian references fall into the same category as Tacitus. They were also suddenly and unexpectedly discovered in the church archives of the 15th century. However unlike the Tacitus manuscript, the Plny ms was immediately "lost" again.

Examining all the evidence collected so far in this issue, it appears to me that we are dealing with a propaganda industry that had its origins in the 4th century and was associated with the Christian revolution under Constantine. The Christian revolution was painted as involving the persecution as an integral part of the ongoing Christian narrative. In the words of TD Barnes: "Constantine carried through a systematic and coherent reformation, at least in the eastern provinces which he conquered in 324 as a professed Christian in a Christian crusade against the last of the persecutor."

Emperor Julian's statement c.361 CE that "the fabrication of the Christians was a fiction of men composed by wickedness" I believe to be a reference in part to the fabricated propaganda of the stories of the imperial persecution of the "Early Christians". I can find no evidence (primary or otherwise) that convinces me that the early persecutions were historical events. Common human behaviour suggests to me that these stories have been invented at the time Constantine rose to power. They were then embellished agains and again for centuries, and placed (with the bones and relics of the martyrs) at the forefront of Christian dogma.
 
Last edited: