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Rome and Christians

May 19, 2016

Last night I enjoyed the final instalment of “Ultimate Rome:  Empire without Limit,” written and presented by Professor Mary Beard (Cambridge), which aired here in the UK last night on BBC2.  You can see more about  this episode and the full series here.

In this final episode, which dealt with the final phase of the Roman Empire, she did a good job of explaining how what we label “religion” was fully part of the fabric of social and political life, all areas, and how the many (and many kinds) of deities of the time functioned in the life-world of people.  She also indicated how Roman-era Judaism differed in the rejection of worship of the many deities, but how Romans accommodated this as essentially part of the ethnic peculiarity of the Jewish people.

Then, however, she rightly noted that the early Christians presented a different problem.  They too were expected to demur from worship of the gods in favour of the one deity of biblical tradition.  But they had no ethnic basis or justification for doing so.  The trans-ethnic nature of early Christianity, and the more aggressive spread of it too, made it much more of a perceived threat, as it came to the notice of the Roman-era cultural/political elite.  I discuss this and other related matters in my forthcoming book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, September 2016).  For more information see here.

Of course, in a 60-minute TV programme for a general audience you can’t go far into the complexities of history.  I thought she again did a fine job, however, given the limits of the medium.  But she also triggered a couple of further observations.

First, it isn’t entirely correct to say that we have scant information about what the “pagan” Romans thought about early Christians.  She didn’t mention the correspondence between Pliny (the “Younger”) and Emperor Trajan, which most historians regard as crucial.  There are also comments by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Galen (the famous physician of the day), and much of a full-scale critique of Christianity by the pagan sophisticate Celsus.  I discuss all this evidence in a chapter in my book.  Opinions varied from outright disdain (Marcus Aurelius) to curiosity and guarded admiration of Christian behaviour (Galen), to a determined effort to refute Christianity (Celsus), to efforts to force social and religious conformity (e.g., Pliny).  And the key thing that caused the most worry was the Christian refusal to worship the gods.

Second, as Professor Beard showed examples of the libelli (certificates vouching that you had sacrificed to the Roman gods) required by Emperor Decius (249-50 CE), she noted that we don’t know first-hand why Decius did this.  True.  But it’s really interesting that no previous emperor (or any other government official) ever thought it needed to have people present written proof of sacrificing.  Indeed, I’m not aware that there was ever any necessity to require people to sacrifice to the gods.  If all Decius wanted was to promote reverence for the traditional gods, surely that wouldn’t have required legislation.  After all, reverence for the gods was central to the social life of people, as it had been for centuries.  So, something of novel significance was reflected in Decius’ action of issuing his edict.

As I note in my book, Pliny’s report about his handling of those accused of being Christians (in Pontus and Bithynia, ca. 110-12 CE) seems to reflect judicial innovations not previously attested.  He required those accused to reverence images of the gods and the emperor, and to curse Christ.  If they did so, he let them go.  If they refused, he executed them.  This curious and novel judicial procedure, in short, seems to have been developed specifically to deal with Christians.  It was Pliny’s own idea (he says), but Trajan’s letter in response affirms it as valid.

So, by the very early years of the second century, Christianity was having an effect on Roman judicial procedure, at least under Pliny (and perhaps in other jurisdictions, though only locally enforced).  In Decius’ edict issued about 140 years later, we may have indication of legislative effects of Christians upon the Empire.  It’s an intriguing possibility.

In any case, Professor Beard’s latest series on the Roman Empire (as were her earlier ones)  is very much worth your attention.  The good old BBC comes through again!

(For more on Decius’ decree, see J. B. Rives, “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999):  135-54.)

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  1. Hi Dr. Hurtado,

    Quick question for you. You stated above, “They too were expected to demur from worship of the gods in favour of the one deity of biblical tradition.” I am also reading your book on God in the NT, which addresses the same issue. You have a couple of good sections that deal with 1 Cor. 8:6, for example.

    How is it that a pagan Corinthian (or Roman) convert to Christianity could have participated in the worship of “one God the Father” and “one Lord Jesus Christ” and not believed they were worshiping two deities?

    Would they have seen “God” and “Lord” as speaking of deity in the first case and something else in the latter? Would they have understood 1 Cor. 8:6 as a unification of the deity of the Father and Jesus Christ? Or to put another way, what was it for them that unified Paul’s distinction of the Father and Jesus such that they could affirm the Shema?

    Corby Amos

    • As reflected in Philippians 2:9-11, for example, Jesus’ high status as Kyrios was then expressed as having been conferred by God. So, in this view, the one God now required that Jesus be reverenced as Kyrios. In doing so, therefore, they were obeying the one God, and to refuse to reverence Jesus would be disobedience to the one God. In short, God’s actions and will were the key factors for them. God had exalted Jesus to share divine glory and to be included in the worship given to the one God.

      • Hi again.

        So you think that the former pagan’s affirmation of the Shema in the midst of their binitarian devotion to Father and Jesus was sort of a “divine command” binitarianism and not a “shared divine nature/identity” or “shared divine uniqueness” of Father/Jesus binitarianism?

        Would this approach really fly with a community used to accepting multiple deities – where 1+1=2? To cash this out…”Hey pagans, we are going to worship two ‘persons’, but because the Father commands it, we are still monotheists; we can still affirm the Shema. If you still think there are two gods, you are being disobedient to the Father”.

        Seems like something is missing here. One of the things I am working through is…how your approach isn’t a jackpot for Unitarian theology. Scholars like Dale Tuggy probably salivate at your angle. Any help here would be fantastic!


      • I think that your question presumes the “ontological” categories that came to frame Christian theological discourse in the 3rd century and thereafter. The discourse reflected in the NT, however, seems to me more transactional (focusing on God’s actions toward Jesus) and relational (focusing on Jesus’ relationship to God). Tuggy gets just as frustrated with me and you seem to be!

  2. Actually I found the 4-part series on the Usenet(newsgroups). Some one captured the 4 parts and posted them. I get all my British videos this way. You need a newsgroup reader and an account to get them.

    Thanks for letting me know about this one. I’ve actually sent British DVDs that I made from videos to others.

  3. Bill Combs permalink

    Seem to be available on YouTube in the USA:

  4. Gris Harward permalink

    Any chance there’ll be a Kindle version of your book? For those of us without the space for more paper books.

  5. Michael Brugge permalink

    When St. Paul’s case was thrown out of court in Corinth, that was after the Jews had been expelled from Rome. But the Jews did not lose their exemption to Roman religious law. Something changed from that time until the late 60s, when Christians were executed by Romans. Is there any documentation regarding the change of legal standing? It seems that after Nero blamed the fire on the Christians, after that Christians were no longer considered to be a sect of Jews. I would like to know if there is any reference to a change of legal status for Christians.

    • If (and I emphasize “if”) Jesus-followers were already being referred to (and by outsiders if at all) as “Christians” by the 60s, that could mean only that they were seen as a particular sect or group, not a different “religion” from Jews. Pharisees were also Jews! Based on analogies with other terms, “Christiani” simply = people identified by allegiance with “Christos/Christus”, effectively the “Christ party”.
      Nero’s pogrom doesn’t seem to have been based on, or to have generated, any legislation about Christians. By the time of Pliny the younger, it’s clear that Christians are being arraigned before local authorities, but still no legislation so far as we can tell. They were arraigned most importantly because they demurred from worshipping the gods on which society rested.

  6. Kim Fabricius permalink

    Episode 3 on Roman attitudes to citizenship, migration, and identity is equally fascinating — and hugely relevant given the continuing crisis over immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers. Not that the Roman imperial project offers us a model to be copied, but it does offer us a perspective to be explored — and one that certainly speaks to contemporary xenophobia. That struck me as a subtext of the program when I saw it, and Professor Beard herself reflects upon the issue in a 4-minute+ YouTube clip that should be available even in the colonies.

  7. Mark DelCogliano permalink

    Thanks, Larry, for a judicious assessment as always. If I remember correctly, Trajan approved Pliny’s procedure with one exception, the cursing of Christ. There has been some debate over why Pliny required this, as it seems particulary un-Roman.

    • Trajan’s response doesn’t mention cursing Christ one way or the other. So, it’s hard for me to tell what he thought of it. There have been suggestions that the practice was prompted by locals in Bithynia/Pontus who knew that it was an action particularly suited to smoking out Christians.

  8. Greg M. permalink

    I’m sure you can find it on a torrent site. I have to resort to that when I learn of something aired on the BBC that we’ll probably never get here in the US.

  9. conorhanson permalink

    Given our modern distinction between secular/religious which we anachronistically read into much of history, its nice to see a deeper elaboration on the complex reality that was the Roman Empire during the early years of Christianity. I also had no idea there were specific judicial procedures created to deal particularly with Christians. Very interesting.

    What sort of information do we have indicating what Celsus thought of early Christians? I know there were later works attempting to respond to him, but I’m unfamiliar with his specific critique.

    Thanks for the post, looking forward to reading your new book!

    • Origen wrote a refutation of Celsus in which he quotes large portions, sufficient for modern scholars to prepare a restoration of pretty much what Celsus wrote: Henry Chadwick, trans., Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965); R. Joseph Hoffman, trans. & ed., Celsus, On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

  10. Well, USA folks can go to YouTube. For Episode 3, e.g. where four (4) are listed – at least for right now!

  11. Really good series and her
    voice doesn’t get on my nerves!

  12. Johannes permalink

    If only this series were available outside the UK!

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