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Christianity in Third-Century Alexandria

August 4, 2016

A gem of an essay not often noted today on Christianity in third-century Alexandria: Aline Rousselle, “La persécution des chrétiens à Alexandrie au IIIe siècle,” Revue historique de droit français et étranger 52 (1974): 222-51.

Rousselle considers the references to how Christians were treated, with particular focus on the difficulties experienced in response to imperial edicts in 202 (Septimius Severus), 250 (Decius), and 257 (Valerian).  She highlights the different punishments meted out to various Christians, and proposes that they reflect Roman judicial policy, in which distinctions were made between Roman citizens, Alexandrian citizens, and mere (!) Egyptians.  This means that we can identify the social ranks of the various Christians by looking at the punishments they were given.  Some, especially among the higher clergy it seems, suffered punishments that correspond with higher “honourable” social levels.  This tallies with other indications that by the third century (and likely well before that), individuals of higher social ranks were becoming Christian adherents.

In my forthcoming book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, Sept, 2016; publisher’s link here), I’ve proposed that the extended critique of Christianity by Celsus, and the lampooning of Christians by writers such as Lucian (The Passing of Peregrinus) likely reflect anxieties in upper-class Roman circles about the spread of Christianity among their circles.  Upper-class Romans seem to have been less concerned about what the lower social levels got up to religiously, but were more concerned about perceived deviance in their own social levels.

Returning to Rousselle’s essay, another interesting observation is that, ironically, the flight of Christians in these outbreaks of persecution resulted in the geographical spread of Christianity more widely in Egypt.  From its initial concentration in Alexandria, Christianity thus spread to sites in the Egyptian “chōra“.  Although the essay is now over 40 years published, it illustrates how one shouldn’t neglect older publications.

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  1. Does this mean that correlation can be made between a martyr’s place in church hierarchy and his social rank, via type of execution?

    • Hmm, no, not if I understand your question. We can identify those who held church offices typically because they are specifically identified as such. Rousselle’s argument was that from the type of punishment given we can tell the social class of the recipient.

      • Yet if for some we know their ecclesiastical office and their type of punishment, do we find that most bishops, for example, are of a higher social class?

      • I don’t know that we are able to generalize about the social rank of early bishops. But, clearly, some were Roman citizens (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch and those whom Pliny the Younger sent to Rome for trial), which itself was a somewhat higher standing.

  2. Griffin permalink

    Possibly upper-class notice of Christianity also reflected its increasing presence in literature?

    • I’m not sure what you may refer to. But if you refer to the increasing literary output of early Christianity in the 2nd century and thereafter, such as Justin Martyr’s defence of Christianity (1 Apology), then, yes, that may well have been a factor that made figures such as Celsus feel compelled to try to refute and attack Christianity.

      • Griffin permalink

        Thanks; that is what I was thinking. I’m interested in the social effects of literacy. And the literate class.

        Maybe the popularity of specifically the literate format of the codex, in both Christian and Greek philosophical circles, encouraged pagan commentators to take notice of Christian (codex) writings?

        Any literate or written form in any case, would impact the upper classes. As opposed to the more often illiterate lower classes. And entry into the literate world might contribute to a sort of gentrification of Christianity?

      • Hmm. What “literate format of the codex” in “Greek philosophical circles” to you have in mind? I don’t know of any significant amount of use of the codex for literary texts in 2nd/3rd century pagan circles.

      • Griffin permalink

        I don’t know a lot about specifically early Greco Roman literary use of the codex; Martial is cited. Caesar folded his scrolls accordian style for convenience. One commentator on your blog was alluding to something like this a month or two ago.

        In any case though, any kind of transition from more oral presentation of Christianity, into the literate community, if that’s what happened, would interject Christianity more into a critical sphere. It’s interesting to think about how that might have modified its message.

        As I vaguely recall, most but not all scholars believe Jesus could not read. But most suggest that Paul did.

        And Paul seems to think more abstractly, perhaps? His extraordinarily long dissertations on faith come to mind here. Some manuscripts of his work are dated, by some, as early 100 AD?

      • OK. YOu don’t know much about the ancient use of codices, and yet you want to propose some theories. That’s not how scholars are supposed to work! I’ve treated the relevant evidence in an extended manner in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, esp. pp. 43-93.
        And there wasn’t a shift from an oral to a written stage in early Christianity. By all accounts, both “orality” and “textuality” were features from the outset. And from an early stage also, the young Christian movement in various diaspora cities seems to have attracted some in the office-holder ranks of Roman society. This continued and increased in the 2nd/3rd centuries.

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