Marcus Aurelius and Christians
The question of how to take Emperor Marcus and the treatment of Christians under his rule is fascinating: the Roman Emperor widely regarded subsequently as unexcelled in his urbane learning and sophistication ruled in a time when it appears that Christians were often the object of persecution by officers of the Roman Empire.
This is why I find Marcus Aurelius so interesting. One of the books I’ve recently waded through is a massive biography of Marcus by Frank McLynn. I won’t offer a review here, but compare the reviews by Mary Beard here, and by Tom Holland here. For me, Marcus illustrates well how early Christianity stood out and so was the object of hostility in that period. This is one of the points I emphasize in my new book: Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).
There are statements by Marcus that reflect his disdain for Christians that I cite in my book. But, as argued by Paul Keresztes some years ago (“Was Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?” Harvard Theological Review 61/3 (1968): 321-41), the reasons for the sometimes violent actions against Christians likely also had a good deal to do with the historical situation. In the latter half of the 2nd century the Roman world suffered under a couple of rounds of plague, with many deaths. Such events were naturally seen as stemming from the anger of the Roman gods, and so Marcus urged the population to renew their supplications to the gods to avert their wrath.
But conscientious Christians of the time would have found his decree incompatible with their faith-commitment. For them, the Roman gods were unworthy beings at best, or demonic at worst. In any case, Christians couldn’t readily join in sacrifices to these beings. In the eyes of the wider populace, however, this amounted to “atheism.” Refusing to honor the gods was what “atheism” meant then.
In the view of the officials charged with maintaining social and political solidarity, and securing the favour of the gods, Christians were offenders against all things pious and orderly. The official Roman view wasn’t a “persecution” of Christians, but instead judicial action against people who offended society and whose “atheism” could also imperil the Empire, through bringing the wrath of the gods.
But, however, you slice it, in the reign of this oft-regarded noble Emperor (not simply in times of more dubious characters such as Nero), Christians were objects of official ire as well as popular hostility. This is only one illustration of early Christian distinctiveness.