Early Persecution of Christians
Christianity came about in the days of the Roman Empire. This proved to be a very difficult environment for Christians, who were soon labeled “atheists” for not worshipping the Roman gods (including the emperor) and “cannibals” for observing the Lord’s Supper. They were also accused of disrupting business for preaching against animal sacrifices and gross immorality for professing to love their “brothers” and “sisters,” which people assumed was sensual.
The initial persecution suffered by Christians was not state-sponsored. It was the result of local backlash at the hands of Jews and pagans. The book of Acts records the “progression of aggression” from verbal threats (4:21) to physical beatings (5:40) and then murder (7:58). Things escalated from there. A regional king who was eager to please the Jews killed James and imprisoned Peter (12:1-5). Paul was threatened at Iconium (14:6), was stoned at Lystra (14:19), was beaten at Philippi (16:23), and was rioted against at Thessalonica, Berea, Ephesus, and Jerusalem (17:5, 13; 19:28; 21:30).
The first emperor to actively persecute the church was Nero in A.D. 64. He blamed Christians for setting fire to Rome in order to remove mounting suspicion from himself. Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, wrote,
“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. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed” (Annals, 15:44).
John Foxe added,
“When Nero, finding that his conduct was greatly blamed, and a severe odium cast upon him, determined to lay the whole upon the Christians, at once to excuse himself, and have an opportunity of glutting his sight with new cruelties. This was the occasion of the first persecution; and the barbarities exercised on the Christians were such as even excited the commiseration of the Romans themselves. Nero even refined upon cruelty, and contrived all manner of punishments for the Christians that the most infernal imagination could design. In particular, he had some sewed up in skins of wild beasts, and then worried by dogs until they expired; and others dressed in shirts made stiff with wax fixed in axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them” (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, pp. 12-13).
Christians had a shady reputation in Rome. They were regarded by many as members of a subversive organization. This made them an easy scapegoat for Nero. While we do not know how many Christians died at that time, the torture they endured was intense.
Jesus, who suffered persecution Himself, taught that His followers would be persecuted. He said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). Paul added, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Christians are called upon to endure persecution regardless of the consequences (Revelation 2:10).
Stephen (Acts 7:58), James (Acts 12:2), and Antipas (Revelation 2:13) are specifically named as martyrs in Scripture. Tradition says that Paul was beheaded, Peter was crucified upside down, and Thomas was stabbed with a spear. In fact, John was the only apostle who was not executed, though he was exiled to Patmos (Revelation 1:9). John described Rome at the end of the first century as “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Revelation 17:6; also see 18:24). Blood continued to spill in the second and third centuries. Two of the most notable martyrs of that time were Ignatius and Polycarp.
Christianity was fueled by the blood of its saints. Attempts to eradicate the church backfired, as the martyrs loomed larger than the murderers. Choosing to “die rather than deny” was a powerful testimony that led more and more people to the Lord.
Though state-sponsored persecution of Christians was sporadic in the Roman Empire, there were plenty of emperors who did take such action (Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian). The last and most severe of these persecutions is commonly called the “Great Persecution” (A.D. 303-311). State-sponsored attacks on Christians ended with the “Edict of Milan,” which legalized Christianity. It was signed by Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius in A.D. 313.