Ancient Roman sources, some written before the traditional date of Revelation and some written after it, provide very helpful social and legal observations that shed indirect light on the conundrum of the perennial hostility of various cultures toward the followers of Christ. One could quote the Gospel of John where Jesus states, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18), but that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered regarding the reasons that people were hostile to Christians. One of the factors in the complexity of the issue is that the animosities against Christianity are rarely homogenous; they varied from generation to generation, from culture to culture, and from locale to locale. Moreover, if the public face of Christianity varied, then so could the responses to it. A modern example demonstrates how different the public face of Christianity could be even within similar locations. Within less than a half-century and within the same American State, two colleges associated with Churches of Christ existed, one (Cordell College, Cordell, Oklahoma) known for anti-Americanism during World War One and the other (Oklahoma Christian College, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) known for strong ties to conservative Americanism. Some Christians associated with Cordell College were persecuted/imprisoned during World War One for their pacifism, which would not have happened to anyone associated with more nationalistically oriented Churches of Christ Colleges.
However, the diversity of the charges against Christians differed not only because followers of Christ differed, but also because their critics differed. A Christian author named Marcus Minucius Felix, probably of the late second or early third centuries AD, had to refute charges that followers of Christ were cannibals, or practiced incest since they called one another “brother and sister.” The anti-Christian slur from Caecilius Natalis, the pagan detractor that Minucius Felix addresses, that Christianity is a “religion of [sexual] lust” is beyond the pale of belief, unless one wants to believe that same charge when it is made against ancient Jews by anti-Semitic Roman authors.
I want now to focus on one particular kind of criticism of early Christianity, namely that it was seditious and a threat to Roman national security. At Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), for example, fanatical anti-Christians brought political charges against the Christian mission on the basis of accusations whose accuracy (from a Christian perspective) would make a tabloid paper look like the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“ . . . a mob formed and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil” (Acts 17:5-8).
At one level, this slander brought against the Pauline mission in Thessalonica presupposed that a group of Jewish Christians in pagan Macedonia were actually going to try to make a fellow Jew named “Jesus” the Roman Emperor? Really?
Light can be shed on this episode from what is known about the Emperor Cult as well as local patriotism in the early Roman world. Until about forty years or so ago it was very common to hear ancient historians and New Testament scholars characterize emperor worship in the early empire as a dry, perfunctory, religious duty, devoid of any true devotion or personal loyalty to the emperor and his family. This older view has now largely been overthrown. This reversal of understanding arose from the discovery of more inscriptions and papyri, better understanding of imperial temples in urban landscapes, and less “monotheistic” assumptions about emperor worship.”
Based upon the major work left to us by the Roman Emperor Augustus (Res Gestae Divi Augusti, The Achievements of the Divine Augustus), we know that cities and provinces regularly took an oath of allegiance to the emperor and his family. One such “pledge of allegiance” was discovered in central Turkey, dating from the year 3 BC. Those inhabitants of Paphlagonia swear in the presence of “Zeus, Earth, Sun, all the gods and goddesses, and Augustus himself” to make decisions about friends and enemies based upon someone’s attitude toward the Roman Emperor and his family. Moreover, this loyalty to the emperor continues “all the time of my life,” and it is so comprehensive that it includes one’s “word and deed and thought.” According to this pledge, a loyal subject is to report not only possible actions against the emperor, but even words that are spoken against the emperor and his family.
This emotive oath include words of self-condemnation if the oath taker fails to uphold the obligations of loyalty mentioned in the oath. It is stated in these powerful terms of devotion, “I pray that there may come upon myself, my body and soul and life, my children and all my family and whatever is of use to us, destruction, total destruction till the end of all my line and off all my descendants.” It is little wonder, then, that such xenophobia and hysteria occurs in some locations when early Christian evangelists proclaimed that Jesus is Lord or King, terms also used to designate the Roman Emperor.
Link to English translation of Greek oath of allegiance