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Marcus Aurelius and Christians

October 13, 2016

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.

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  1. Joe Hellerman permalink

    First, Larry, I really dig your blog and your scholarship. My comment: I have come to believe that we learn as much reading between the socio-historical lines of ancient literature as we do reading the texts themselves. Religion was deeply embedded in kinship in the Roman world. Conversion to the Jesus movement threatened the integrity of a convert’s family and particularly dishonored the leading male(s) in the family — a profound affront to Roman pietas at several levels. This would suggest that (in addition to official and popular responses to Christian “atheism” in the face of plague and hardship) much of the offense of Christianity had to do with the threat it posed to family honor and solidarity (e.g., The Passion of Perpetua).

    • Oh, yes. As I argue in my new book, it is likely that the tensions caused within families and other circles were more frequent than state opposition, by far. The “social costs” were more frequent than the “political costs”. But, as I emphasize in my little book Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries (Marquette Univ Press, 2016), obviously adherents found early Christian faith worth these costs.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Is there any way of knowing if Christianity was more distinct than other religious groups,of the period rather than simply the one which prevailed (which is itself, admittedly, a distinction, but subsequently secured)? I am not sure how you would measure distinctiveness or its usefulness as an analytical category. What religious groups today could be singled out as distinct?

    • Donald: Focus! My question in my book wasn’t whether early Christianity was “more distinctive”, but how it was distinctive. And I give the specifics in the book. So, you’ll have to read it to get your answers.

  3. Timothy Joseph permalink

    Dr. H.,
    The historical setting is often not considered when evaluating the reasons for persecution of early Jesus followers. Thanks for the thoroughness and insights. Destroyer of the gods, on the Christmas list!


  4. Hugh Scott permalink

    Having read the reviews by Mary Beard and Tom Holland, and not intending to read McLynn’s massive work, I would prefer, if I did read McLynn, to be guided rather by Holland than by Beard. It seems to me, an interested but non-specialist reader about the Roman empire, that McLynn gives us a generally accurate feel for the role of Marcus Aurelius in what was going on in the second-century-AD. empire, Mary Beard seems to challenge McLynn’s right to judge as trustworthy Marcus’s reputation as a DISTINCTIVELY gifted-philosopher-emperor. She seems rather to see his writings as being possibly just one reflection of the floating world of Roman thought and empire-wide activity. She spends her review arguing this, rather than discussing the content of Marcus’s writings.

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