Chapter Two: Rumors and Persecutions

Princes, kings, and other rulers of the world have used all their strength and cunning against the Church, yet it continues to endure and hold its own. John Foxe

Roman Colosseum   link



Dangerous Rumors

Rome had developed an uneasy acceptance of the practice of Judaism. It was considered an ancient faith and its Scriptures were well known. However, the Roman government knew that the Jews were unhappy with the Roman government and consequently, the government was always on the alert for zealots who arose on a frequent basis, calling for the abolition of Roman rule over the Jews.

The Romans did not consider the Christian faith to be a part of the Jewish tradition. The Jewish leaders also rejected this upstart faith, believing that it was heresy. Consequently, like any new fad, rumors began to circulate about the beliefs of these early Christians. These rumors would produce dangerous consequences.

1. Christians were cannibals.

Although the celebration of communion involved consuming bread and wine, the language to describe the ceremony caused confusion to those outside of the faith. Christian referred to this act as eating the body of Christ and drinking the blood of Christ. Those outside the church took such words literally. Many believed that these early Christians were cannibals who sacrificed a human being during their meetings.

2. Christians were immoral.

Christians often said that they loved one another. This was taken in a more literal sense and some believed that their meetings consisted of orgies.

3. Christians were plotting to overthrow the Roman government.

In the beginning, Christians met secretly to avoid trouble with Roman and Jewish authorities. However, this secrecy was misinterpreted and many believed that they were plotting a political and/or religious coup.

4. Christians were ascetics.

Many Christians sold their possessions to help those members who were in need. They also downplayed the acquisition of wealth for personal pleasure. Many wore plain clothing with little jewelry and most women did not use make-up or perfume. Their furniture was simple with no carvings or ivory inlay and their utensils had no jeweled handles.


5. Christians were atheists.


These early Christians refused to worship the panoply of Roman gods. The Romans believed that the gods were angry at the Christians, as well as at the Romans who allowed the Jesus followers some freedom of worship. Consequently, the Romans blamed all earthquakes, diseases, floods, and drought on the suspicious Christians.



Nero and the Christians

Nero became the Roman Emperor in 58 AD which ended with his suicide in 68 AD. His reign was known for both tyranny and personal excesses. He was conceited and arrogant and fancied himself to be both and acting and poetic genius. He was said to have murdered his own mother. Many early writings indicate that Nero ordered the beheading of Paul and some even suggest that he was involved in Peter’s crucifixion.

Rome was a series of cobblestone streets with wooden buildings. Fires occurred quite commonly. However, in 64 AD, a particularly devastating fire destroyed much of the city. Many citizens angrily blamed Nero for starting the fire and rekindling it in order to clear a large area to provide space for a new palace for himself, a colossal structure he named the Golden House.

In order to shift blame from himself, some believe that Nero found a convenient scapegoat in the misunderstood Christians. Tacitus, a Roman historian, records the following in his famous Annals (XV.44) that covered, among others, the reign of Nero. The Annals were written shortly before his death in 117 AD. The description of the torture of Christians is particularly gruesome.

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”


Thus began the First Great Persecution of the early Christians.



More Persecutions

Persecutions would continue until the mid 300s under such emperors as Domitian(~90AD), Marcus Aurelius (~ 177AD), Valerian (~253AD) and Diocletion (~284AD).

The martyrdom of Polycarp


A particularly notorious persecution took place in A.D.155 in the city of Smyrna. This incident was well documented. The death of Christians in the arenas combined both sport and slaughter. In this particular instance, great crowds gathered to watch Christians being forced to fight wild animals.

Some of the spectators began to call out the name of Polycarp, an elderly bishop who had been head of the Smyrna church for many years. Cries of “Burn him, burn him,” rang out. The Proconsul sent two soldiers to bring Polycarp to the arena. When the officers found him, they were impressed with his gentleness and his old age. When he asked for time to pray, they agreed, and ate a meal prepared by Polycarp while they waited.

When the officers took Polycarp to the arena the Proconsul urged Polycarp to curse Christ. “Do that and I can let you go free,” he said. Polycarp’s answer has become legendary: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

The Proconsul then threatened to throw Polycarp to wild beasts. “Send for them,” the bishop told him. “We are not permitted to turn from right to wrong, but changing from cruelty to righteousness is a noble thing.” At that the Proconsul shouted to the crowd, “Polycarp has confessed he is a Christian.”

The mob went wild. Some rushed to nearby workshops and gathered wood for a fire while others pushed Polycarp toward a stake. They brought nails, intending to nail the bishop to the stake but put them aside when Polycarp told them his God would enable him to endure the flames. The fire, when lighted, vaulted out like a sail and did not touch Polycarp. Alarmed, the Proconsul ordered a nearby officer to kill Polycarp. The bishop thus died from a soldier’s sword.

The Smyrna church sent out a letter telling of the bishop’s martyrdom. This incident, along with many others, began to turn the tide of opinion. The Roman pagans marveled at the bravery exhibited by these Christians. Their grace and apparent lack of fear in the face of their impending torture deaths attracted many to the new faith.

As Tertullian, an early Christian writer, stated, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”


Lydia's Corner: 1 Samuel 5:1-7:17 John 6:1-21 Psalm 106:13-31 Proverbs 14:32-33



Chapter Two: Rumors and Persecutions — 4 Comments

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    Nowadays in America, the lies are that Christians want to turn this country into a theocracy, we are prudes, we are anti-science, we discriminate against gays, we are bigots, etc. I have not doubt the far secular left would throw us to the lions if they could get away with it.

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    For your “friends” at the SBC…since we are talking Roman times here, One (little known) statement from the Council of Chalcedon (Canon #15) “No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny.”

    So apparently it WAS accepted to have a woman teach in the early church!

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    That’s fascinating Karl! I’d like to look into this more.

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    Just in case you think the SBC has a corner on the market..found this today

    According to a newly created club in Malaysia, the secret to a successful marriage is simple: an obedient wife who makes sure her husband is sexually satisfied. Launched on June 4 in Kuala Lumpur, the 1000-member strong ‘Obedient Wives Club’ (OWC) has sparked controversy in one of the most modern and progressive Muslim-majority countries.

    The new club says is it can cure social ills and curb divorce rates by teaching women to “obey, entertain and serve their husbands”, thus preventing men from straying into sin. It offers marriage counselling and motivation courses to both men and women, with a “focus on wives”