Clash of Culture Christianity vs Rome

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First Century AD Christianity found itself at odds with the culture, which dominated the Roman Empire at the time.  Just as the Jewish Maccabees rejected the Greek culture two centuries before, so did the early Christians, who would not pay homage to other gods or to the Roman Emperor. This brought about a clash of cultures, which would ultimately lead to the persecution of Christians.

Christianity was at first viewed as any other alien cult, such as the cult of Isis, which has only received minimal attention, such as banning and expelling the clergy.  The Romans were suspicious of monotheism and as De Ste Croix remarked, “the exclusiveness of the Christians was believed to alienate the goodwill of the gods, to endanger what the Romans call the Pax Deorum” (the peace between gods and humans.) [1]

Christians were, however, good citizens.  Their behavior did nothing to disrupt the overall Pax Romana (peace of Rome).  In fact, the teachings of Jesus and Paul were about “loving enemies” [2]  and being submissive to authorities:

“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. [3]

THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1 Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL
Nero and Agrippa his mother

It seems that Nero took advantage of the gentle nature of Christians for no other reason than lacking a scapegoat. Tacitus when writing about Roman Emperors of the First Century AD, described how the deaths of the Christians were often made for the amusement of others “dressed in wild animal skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.  Nero provided his gardens for this spectacle. [4]

Once suspicions were stirred about Christians, hatred grew and other reasons for their persecution were given.  Although Tacitus did not believe the Christians were guilty of starting the fire, he states that the Christians had become “hated for their abominations” and suggested they were now guilty of “anti-social behavior.” [5]

There are three main reasons that the persecution of Christians continued.  The first is that from the period of Nero and Domitian, a law was made which forbade the practice of the Christian religion.  The second reason is that the Christians offended the government by following an alien cult, and the final reason is that the Christians refused to worship the divinity of the Roman Emperor. [6]

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1

Governors throughout the Roman Empire were allowed to interpret the law as they saw fit as long as they had reasonable grounds.  Pliny, a governor in Bithynia wrote to the Emperor Trajan admitting to punishing, killing and torturing Christians and sought clarification if he was on the right track.  Trajan replied that if people “are brought before you and the charge is proved, they must be punished.” [7]

Pliny gave details of how it was determined if one was a Christian, and he described it as a test.  Those who could carry out this test were free to go because Pliny knew that “a genuine Christian” could not be induced to do so.  Individuals were only released when they had “repeated a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to the statue of [Trajan]…and reviled the name of Christ. [8]

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

It is useful to look at the clash of culture as there are some critics who deny the existence of Jesus, yet here we have written records of Christians only 30 years after the time of Jesus and documentation of a religion considered in the same manner as its Jewish roots, an alien cult, and not at all a Roman cult as some critics wrongly suggest.

It is also sobering that the nature of Christianity has been at odds with other views, not because of “extreme views” as is often suggested as a criticism of Christianity, but merely by not being able to pass a test that only those who weren’t Christians could.

By Tania Fenwick

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • De St Croix GEM Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963
  • Correspondence Between Pliny and the Emperor Trajan Melmoth William (trans) Bosanquet FCT (revised) http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_plinyltrstrajan.htm
  • Sherwin-White AN The Early Persecutions and Roman Law Again
  • Tacitus The Annals Church AJ and Brodribb WJ (trans) http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html
  • Image from Wikimedia Common – Nero and Agrippa his mother.  This scene refers to Nero’s accession as emperor in 54AD and belongs before 59AD when Nero had Agrippa

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[1] GEM De Ste Croix Why Were The Early Christians Persecuted, p24

[2] Matthew 5:44

[3] Titus 3:1-2

[4] Tacitus Annals XV,iiii

[5] GEM De Ste Croix Why Were The Early Christians Persecuted, p8

[6] AN Sherwin-White The Early Persecutions and Roman Law Again, p199

[7] Trajan to Pliny, XCVIII

[8] To the Emperor Trajan XCVII

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