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§ IV. First Roman Persecution of Christianity. Persecution in Judæa. Death of James, the brother of the Lord.
Persecution always followed step by step in the track of Christian missions, endeavoring to sweep away their glorious results by torrents of blood, and succeeding only in watering and fructifying the buried seeds. We have already seen the outbreak of persecution in Judæa, giving to the Church its first martyrs. Paul had to encounter it in all his missionary journeys. We have left him at Rome loaded with chains, and awaiting his judgment. Up to the year 64 A. D., hostility to Christianity did not assume an official character. Opposition was offered, now in one city, now in another, but the Church was not as yet put under the ban of the empire. Its growth, however, had been so rapid, and its success so marked, that a terrible collision was inevitable with that imperial power which was the stronghold of all that Christianity came to destroy, and in which was personified that ancient order of things, the very basis of which Christianity was to undermine.
This sanguinary collision took place in the latter part of the reign of Nero. Paganism could not have found a fitter representative than this Emperor. Persecutions against the Church must needs break forth at Rome, for the doctrine of the Church was on one essential point directly antagonistic to the theories of the ancient world. In that world, religion was closely associated with political organization. Polytheism had produced, as its natural result, State religions, which trampled on the rights of conscience. The individual had no personal guaranty, and must, under every circumstance, sacrifice himself to the State. Freedom of thought could only exist in the presence of religions thus established, by means of reservations and artifices strongly savoring of hypocrisy. The light in which religion was regarded by pagan antiquity is forcibly described by Cicero: "No one," he says, "has a right to have particular gods; no one may introduce new or strange gods not recognized by the law of the State."213213"Nisi publice adscitos." (Cicero, "De Legibus," ii, 8.) Now the Christians most evidently did proclaim a new god within the empire. This accusation had been already brought against Paul at Philippi. "These men," it was said of Paul and Barnabas, "teach customs which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans." Acts xvi, 21. Christianity was not formally denounced as an unlawful religion until later, but its character of novelty placed it, from the first, at issue with the law. It might, perhaps, have even longer escaped the attention of the Cæsars if these had not been rendered, by a concurrence of events, peculiarly hostile to religious innovation. The Emperors were repeatedly troubled at this period by the inroads of strange superstitions. They were thus made conscious of the agitation of men's minds, and of the dull discontent which was pervading the ancient world. They had repeatedly taken severe measures for the repression of these dangerous novelties, with a view to restore the dignity of the national religion. A senatus consultum was passed in the reign of Claudius, which commanded the priests to attend vigilantly to the renewed observance of the ancient ceremonies of the Haruspices—"lest," as we read in the recital, "the ancient usages of Italy fall into desuetude through the prevalence of foreign superstitions."214214Viderent pontifices quæ retinenda firmandaque haruspicum ne vetustissima Italiæ disciplina per desidiam exolesceret. (Tacitus, "Annals," xi, 5.) It is clear that the imperial policy was eminently unfavorable to the introduction of oriental religions; it was awake and on its guard; Christianity, therefore, was in grave danger. By a strange contradiction, the new religion was rendered obnoxious equally by the features in which it resembled, and in which it differed from, Judaism. On the one hand, it was, by the mass of pagans, confounded with Judaism; on the other hand, the Jews themselves were its most bitter and most subtle foes and calumniators. The Jews were, as we know, objects of hatred and contempt to the pagans. Their spirit of insubordination constantly awakened the suspicions of the imperial power. Suetonius informs us that Claudius had issued a decree banishing all Jews from Rome, as a punishment for their constant agitations.215215Judæos, impulsore Chresto, assidue tumultuantes, Roma expulsit." (Suetonius, "Claudius," 25.) The hypothesis of a tumult incited by the Christians is not tenable. The Church of Rome did not acquire any importance till after this date. Suetonius is, then, in error when he accuses the Christians of rebellion; but the decree issued by Claudius cannot be brought in question. It was, then, no recommendation to the Church to pass for a Jewish sect. But while thus confounded by the majority of the Gentiles with this execrated people, it was vehemently repudiated by the synagogue, which found means at Rome, as elsewhere, to stir up the passions of the populace by artful insinuations against the Christians. The Church was thus at once implicated in the unpopularity of the Jews and made the victim of Jewish intrigues. But there was a deeper reason for the passionate opposition so quickly shown to the new religion, in the incompatibility of the principles of the Christian life with the corruption of the ancient world. Paganism felt itself judged and condemned by a purity of faith and practice of which, till then, it had not had even a conception. Christianity cleaves like a lightning flash the thick darkness of antiquity. At once irritated and humiliated, Roman paganism will treat the Church as Jewish formalism has treated the Lord Christ. "Away with him," rang the cry through the streets of Jerusalem; "Away with him," was now re-echoed from the walls of Rome.
The determining cause of the persecution under Nero was the astonishing success of the new religion in the capital of the world. It had been tolerated so long as it could be ignored. The apocryphal letter from Pilate to Tiberius, which is said to have led that Emperor to propose to the senate to admit the God of the Christians into the Roman Pantheon, has no marks of authenticity.216216This letter may be read in the Apocryphal Gospels, Tischendorf edit., p. 411. See also Tertullian, "Apologia," c. xxi; Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.," ii, 2. It is certain that the Emperors took no heed of Christianity till they were constrained to do so by the popular voice. The first persecution was in reality a satisfaction given to the hatred of the populace. We find no trace of edicts proscribing Christianity in a general manner. Legal persecution was not declared until subsequently. Nero played the part enacted by Pilate in the crucifixion of Christ. He sacrificed the innocent to the blind fury of a misled crowd. He added to his villainy by casting on the Christians the imputation of having set fire to the city. But he only chose them as his victims because public execration was loud against them. "To put to silence the rumors raised against himself," says Tacitus, "Nero laid his own crime on certain persons rendered odious by their heinous offenses, and whom the people called Christians; on these he inflicted the most cruel punishments."217217"Ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos, et quæsitissimis pœnis affecit quos, per flagitia invisos, vulgus Christianos appellabat." (Tacitus, "Annals," xv, 44.) It was this blind and cruel popular hatred which gave occasion for the first persecution. It is important to ascertain the grounds of this animosity, and to investigate the calumnies brought against the Christians.
These calumnies have no connection with the subtle and perfidious accusations of the philosophers. We are brought face to face with popular prejudices in their grossest form. It would be a serious anachronism to transplant into the first century, and into the midst of the Roman populace, the learned objections of a Celsus or a Lucian. Tacitus himself puts us on the track of the charges which, in the year 65, were current in Rome against the Christians. "They were convicted," according to his statement, "not of the burning of Rome, but of the crime of hating the human race."218218"Haud perinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt." We discern in this accusation the confusion, so common, of the Church with the synagogue. The Jews did actually merit this accusation by their intractable pride and arrogant contempt of all other nations. This prejudice against the Christians, arising from a mistaken identification of them with their bitterest enemies, was probably strengthened by warnings uttered by them of a coming terrible judgment of God. They proclaimed the condemnation of sinful humanity; they painted its doom in prophetic pictures; they borrowed the strong colors of the ancient seers to produce a salutary terror. They spoke, doubtless, of those flames of judgment which should consume a godless world. It was easy, by materializing that which was spiritual, to represent them as dangerous conspirators, capable of causing the conflagration they predicted, and of bringing about by their own efforts the accomplishment of their prophecies. Their preaching must have been thus travestied to furnish the shadow of a pretext for the absurd accusation brought against them.
When Tacitus adds, that they were odious for their crimes and abominations,219219"Flagitia pudenda." he doubtless alludes to the infamous reports so long circulated against the Christians, to which Justin Martyr subsequently gave an indignant denial. "Do you believe," he exclaims, "that we devour men, and that, after our evening meal, we extinguish the lights to cover with darkness a hideous debauch?" These very calumnies are repeated in detail in the "Octavius" of Minutius Felix. "Must we not groan," says the champion of paganism, "when men belonging to a wretched, illegal, desperate faction rise up against the gods? a sect loving darkness, hating the day; it is silent in public, but loud in its secret retreats; it despises the gods and mocks at sacred things. Its members call each other brothers and sisters to add incest to idolatry. They drink the blood of a child, divide its members among them, make a covenant over this horrid sacrifice, and are pledged to silence by their common participation in crime."220220"Homines deploratæ illicitæ ac desperatæ factionis. Latebrosa et lucifugax natio. . . . se promiscue appellant fratres et sorores." (Minutius Felix, "Octavius," c. viii, ix.) "We are accused," says Tertullian, "of practicing infanticide in our sacred rites, of then feeding on the flesh of the victim, and concluding our feasts with incest."221221"Dicimur sceleratissimi de sacramento infanticidii et pabulo inde et post convivium incesto." (Tertull., "Apol.," vii.) These quotations from the " Fathers " are a true commentary on the words of Tacitus. In the next century we shall meet again with these vile accusations, with the addition of other yet more treacherous insinuations; but it is obvious that those now cited were the basis of all the rest. It is easy to see that they are a gross misrepresentation of Christian worship, and, in particular, of the Lord's Supper, in which the sacred symbols of the body of Christ were dispensed. The Church had cunning adversaries who knew how to malign her artfully, and who, observing the absence of all outward display in her worship, brought against her the charge of atheism. When we remember that through Poppæa the Jews of Rome had at this time the favor and the ear of Nero, we shall wonder the less at the success of their intrigues. One of the most ancient writers of the Church, Melito of Sardis, undoubtedly had these underhand practices in view when he said: "Nero and Domitian, incited by the councils of certain malicious persons, have endeavored to bring reproach on our religion. They have bequeathed to their successors these false accusations against us."222222Ὑπὸ τίνων βασκάι ων ἀνθρώπων ἀναπέισθεντες. (Routh, "Reliquiæ Sacræ," i, p. 117.) These calumnies would have produced no effect, however, if the Church had not increased in Rome in a remarkable manner. "This detestable superstition," says Tacitus, "broke out on all sides, not only in Judæa, but in the city of Rome itself. Tacitus might have added that it had found its way even into the palace of the Cæsars, for St. Paul wrote to the Philippians at the same period: " My bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places." Phil. i, 13. The presence at Rome of the great Apostle of the Gentiles had been the principal cause of the rapid propagation of the new faith.
It was not possible that the Gospel should be disseminated in the metropolis of paganism without exciting vehement opposition. It could not, for the reasons already pointed out, engage public opinion without inflaming it against itself. Was it not in the world as a burning brand which was to set on fire the rotten edifice of a voluptuous and skeptical society? The self-interested devotees of paganism, men like Demetrius the silversmith, were even more numerous at Rome than at Ephesus. The Church had but to show itself, to be accursed. Nothing is more easy of explanation than this hatred of the Roman people to Christianity, and their eagerness to heap upon it undeserved reproach.
But though the first persecution was popular, it is none the less chargeable on the crowned tyrant who provoked it. Eusebius eloquently says, "Nothing was wanting to Nero but to add to his other titles that of being the first emperor who declared war against Christianity."223223Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.," ii, 25. His object was to divert from himself the suspicions of the people, who justly accused him of having set fire to a great part of the city to gratify a fantastic whim. He caused the Christians to be seized and tortured to compel them to confess a crime of which he himself was guilty. He thought that the spectacle of their death would compensate for that of the conflagration of the city, which had been amusing to none but himself. Blending buffoonery with cruelty, he devised the plan of clothing the Christians in the skins of wild beasts that they might be torn by the dogs. The Emperor assumed at this time an air of the greatest condescension, appearing in the circus in a plebeian garb, and mixing familiarly with the people. Some Christians were crucified; others, having been rubbed over with pitch, were made to serve as torches to light up the imperial gardens.224224"In usum nocturni luminis." (Tacitus, xiii, 44.) This fearful persecution did not extend beyond Rome. It was contrived for the amusement and exculpation of the Emperor, and was one of the awful caprices of that mad despot, who studied crime as a work of art.225225Orosius (vii, 7) asserts, without giving any proof, that Nero's persecution was general.
This first persecution produced a deep impression through the whole Church. Nero became to the Christians the type of Antichrist, and Rome a new Babylon, "the mother of harlots, drunken with the blood of saints." We trace this sentiment in all its vividness in the representations of the Apocalypse, which show us thousands of martyrs around the throne of God, crying for vengeance on the great whore seated on the seven hills. Nero seemed to the Church a sort of personification of the infernal powers leagued against her, and she could scarcely believe at his death that he had disappeared for ever. If we credit the Sibylline oracles, the Church lived in constant expectation of seeing him return from the far East to enter afresh into bloody warfare with the saints.226226"Orac. Sibyll.," iv, 116.
St. Paul was probably put to death during this persecution, at the same time as St. Peter. According to a doubtful tradition, the latter was crucified with his head downward. Clement of Alexandria relates that Peter's wife went before him to death, and that the Apostle, calling her by name, addressed to her these simple and touching words, "Remember thou the Lord."227227Clement, "Stromat.," vii, 736. Caius, who lived at the commencement of the third century, says that he saw at Rome the tombs of the two Apostles, and we have no reason to question his testimony.228228Eusebius, ii, 25. Among the mass of legends associated with the death of the two Apostles is one which, without possessing any historical value, has real beauty. We read in the "Acts of the Saints," that as Peter was trying to leave Rome to escape martyrdom, Jesus Christ suddenly appeared to him. Peter said, "Lord, whither goest thou?" The Lord replied, "I go to Rome, to be crucified." The Apostle understood that the words were to be fulfilled in him.229229"Acta Sanctorum." (Junius, iv, 432.) It was truly Jesus who suffered and was crucified in the persons of his disciples in that fearful persecution. From this assurance they drew all their comfort and strength.
While paganism was thus waging cruel warfare with the Church, Judaism in Palestine was persistent likewise in its hatred. James, the brother of the Lord, was put to death a short time before Peter and Paul. Neither his great popularity nor the unanimous respect he inspired, could avail to save him. The Pharisees were his implacable adversaries. He was, as we have said, a Jew after God's heart, and therefore raised immeasurably above the Judaism of his day; for it was impossible to embrace heartily the old covenant without being led on to the new. Piety so sincere and lofty as his was the crying condemnation of Pharisaism—a condemnation so much the more direct because conveyed under the very form of the old religion.
According to the statement of Hegesippus,230230The account of Hegesippus is to be found in Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.," ii, 23. We quote it from the text as given by Routh, "Reliquiæ Sacræ," i, pp. 209-211. as the influence of James went on increasing day by day, the Scribes and Pharisees sought to lead him into a denial of his faith before the whole people assembled for the Passover feast. "Persuade the multitude," they said, "not to fall into error with regard to this Jesus.231231Πεῖσον οὐν σὺ τὸν ὅχλον περὶ Ἰησοῦ μὴ πλανᾶσθαι, ("Reliquiæ Sacræ," i, p. 210.) We have all confidence in thee, also the people know that thou art a just man, and regardest not the persons of men." They brought him into the Temple and questioned him before the multitude. "Tell us, O thou just one," they said, "tell us what is the doctrine of Jesus?"232232Τις ἡ θύρα. Literally, "What is the door?" that is to say, what admits to the sect? in other words, what is its doctrine? "You ask me," replied James, "of Jesus the Son of man; he is in heaven, at the right hand of the Almighty, and he will come again in the clouds." At these words the many Christians who were in the crowd uttered a loud hosanna. The enemies of James, furious at finding their crafty design turned against themselves, fell upon him, threw him down from the top of the Temple steps, and began stoning him. While the just man was praying for his murderers with his dying breath, a fanatic workman fell on him, and with heavy blows from a stick dispatched him.233233It cannot be denied that in the detail of Hegesippus's narrative there is a certain theatrical air; but in substance the story seems authentic. (Neander, "Pflanz.," ii, 181.) The passage in Josephus ("Archælog.," xx, 9, 1) has no more impress of authenticity than that referring to Jesus Christ. The death of James was followed by a violent persecution of the Churches in Palestine. The letter which was addressed to them at this time by one of the disciples of Paul, probably Apollos, and known under the name of the Epistle to the Hebrews, was designed to strengthen the hearts of the Christians in Palestine under the ordeal of a fiery persecution. Still clinging, as they did, to Jewish prejudices, local and ceremonial, it was to them peculiarly grievous to be driven from the Temple, and compelled to relinquish the regular observance of the worship of their fathers.234234See Note J, at the end of the volume, on the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. It was needful that they should learn from the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews to distinguish between vanishing types and the eternal realities of true religion. Great trials were yet awaiting them, for already the imperial armies were marching upon the Holy City, to make of its ruins the signal monument of the justice of God.
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