Sam Harrelson

Persecutions and Early Christian Identities

Here’s a short thought piece I did in response to W. Ward Gasque’s piece, “The Challenge to Faith” in Tim Dowley’s work, The History of Christianity

Basically, this section covers both the internal and external challenges that faced early Christianity such as persecutions, infighting over doctrinal matters and eventually the canonization/orthodox theological movement. Gasque is covering a great deal of time and space in 12 pages, so most of my points below can be seen as extensions of the issues raised about persecutions in the first and early second centuries but not elaborated on…


W. Ward Gasque spends a brief amount of time (pages 82-85) giving a surface presentation of the persecutions that early members of the Christian movement faced in the first and second centuries before tackling the more documented persecutions in the third century before Constantine ties the Empire to Christianity forever in the compilation The History of Christianity (edited by Tim Dowley). While Dowley spends just a couple of pages on the persecutions under Nero, Domitian and Trajan, I would argue that these events had formative effects on the Jesus movement in this very crucial time of its development into what would become formal and orthodox Christianity by the Nicea.

The context of persecution in the first and early second centuries gives us a suitable lens to examine three interesting facets of the early Christian experience:

1. What do the empire sanctioned persecutions say about Jewish-Christian relations in the formative years of Christianity?
2. What do the persecutions say about the members themselves of the Jesus movement in the first and second centuries?
3. And what are the effects of the persecutions on the development of what would become canonical texts and orthodox theology within the Christian movement?

First, it is beneficial to consider what these various empire sanctioned persecutions tell us about the relationship of Jews and members of the Jesus movement (I hesitate to use the term Christian given that the movement is still in its infancy and the term Christian denotes more of a full-fledged religion and orthodox system of thought rather than what is reflected in the historical record) in the first and early second centuries. What Gasque and others seem to gloss over is the reality that it was still difficult to tell the difference between Jews and the members of the Jesus movement in this time frame. Within the New Testament itself, we are constantly reminded of the conflicts that occurred in the first century between Jews, Judaizers and gentiles in reference to the formation of local communities of faith in Jesus. The writings of Paul (Galatians particularly) as well as Acts and eventually Matthew and John allude to strained relations between Jesus’ followers and Jews as well as Jewish Christians intent on keeping kosher and Torah. Even by the late second century, writers such as the medical doctor and philosopher Galen was lumping the two groups together from his perspective in Rome by referring to “the followers of Moses and Christ (de Puls. Diff. 33).” In other words, defining Christians as a complete and separate group apart from the Jewish faith, even into the earliest parts of the second century, does injustice to the historical, textual and archaeological records that indicate the “parting of the ways1” was not so clean cut and quick in nature. What the persecutions in Rome and the urban centers of Asia Minor (and possibly in Palestine) do tell us is that instead of viewing the entire Jewish and Christian movements as monolithic institutions by the end of the first century, it would be better to look at local circumstances and how Jewish and Christian groups interacted and were seen as different or similar depending on time and place. The events of 66-70 with the Jewish War as well as the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 (and perhaps the anecdotal Council of Jamnia, though I suspect its importance has been over emphasized) helped to lead to the eventual split between Jews and Christians, but this was by no means an empire wide and systematic occurance as attested to by the New Testament, the Patristics and archaeology.

Second, we must consider what the persecutions under Nero, Domitian and Trajan tell us about the persons belonging to the Jesus movement. Clearly, they were a suspect group (in Rome at least) by the 60’s and stood out enough in that community to be recognized as separate scape goats for the fire that destroyed a large piece of Rome. However, with the letters of Pliny to Trajan, we do see that Christians, even under persecution, were otherwise seen as “normal” citizens. In effect, what seemed to make these early Christians stand out was being discovered or confessing to their faith rather than it being outwardly visible that they were followers of Jesus. Coupled with such late first century / early second century works as Revelation and the Gospel of John, the picture of Christians is once again muddied and difficult to portray unless we take into account specific places and times rather than some over-arching definition of what it meant to be a Christian in 100 CE.

Lastly, the empire sanctioned persecutions of Christians during the first and early second century must have had a profound effect on both the faith of the followers as well as the developing ideas of canonical books to be held as scripture and the evolution of orthodoxy that was occurring at this time. The earliest writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, reflect a Jesus movement that is wrought with infighting as to Christologies and relationships to Jews and Jewish-Christians. This carries over to the synoptic Gospels and by the time of the Johannine works, a rather high Christology affirming Jesus’ place as God incarnate has been developed and communicated. While Revelation is normally considered the book most associated with Roman persecution, there are still traces of community issues beyond Christology in both the Gospels and the Epistles. Because of the charges levied upon Christians such as being cannibals and atheists (charges which were not made against the Jews who were exempt from Roman cultic observance due to the high regard the Romans placed on the antiquity of the Jewish / Israelite faith), the ideas of the personhood of Christ and the resulting need to eventually decide on a set canon of writings for all of Christendom (even though this was done for three centuries before that decision was made) were starting to be formalized in response to such experiences as persecutions.

While Gasque covers the bases in setting up the importance of the persecutions on the eventual orthodox Christian faith, there are definite points where more refelection and analysis is needed in order to gain an accurate understanding of the historical, sociological and even theological variables influencing the developing early church during this period. Some of the points I’ve made here will be jumping off points that I will continue to explore in the future.


1 J.D.G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways (London: SCM Press: Philadelphia; Trinity, 1991); idem (ed.), Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways AD 70 to 135 (WUNT, 66; Tubingen: Mohr, 1992).

Posted: 09.02.2008

Email Sam