Papyri and the First Systematic and Empire Wide Persecution of Christians

Quest Post this week is from Clint Burnett.  I am delighted to have a friend and former student write this week’s post. Clint has academic training that has given him the opportunity to study the historical backgrounds of early Christianity.  Clint has completed the MDiv degree from Harding School of Theology and the Master of Sacred Theology (STM) from Boston University.  He is currently enrolled in the doctoral program at Boston College, working on a PhD in Biblical Studies.  Clint has had opportunity to combine work done in a graduate course in papyrology at Harvard University with his longstanding interest in the mistreatment of early followers of Christ during the Roman Empire.  He was kind enough to write up a post about one aspect of the persecution of early disciples for this blog on the book of Revelation (Clint also has a blog that looks at material cultural and the historical context of early Christianity, which you can find at

Egyptian Papyri and the Persecution of Christians 

For the first 220 years of the movement, no empire wide, systematic persecution of Christians occurred. While there is evidence for persecution of Christians from the earliest days of Christianity (e.g., the testimony of Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, the book of Revelation, the Neronian persecution of Christians in Rome in the AD 60s), these persecutions seem to have been localized, and with the exception of the persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperors Nero (AD 54-68), Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), and Maximinus Thrax (AD 235-38), not state sponsored, i.e., the Roman government did not actively seek out Christians. It seems that most Roman officials were content to follow the modus operandi of the Emperor Trajan. That is, when Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan c. AD 110 and asked him what he should do about Christians, Trajan instructed the governor of Pontus-Bithynia, “These people (i.e., Christians) must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them proved, they must be punished” (Pliny, Letters 10.97; translation from LCL, Betty Radice).   


Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Decius
Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Decius

Nevertheless, the Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, who assumed the surname of Trajan (Trajanus), abandoned Trajan’s modus operandi with regard to Christians in AD 250. It is important to note the historical backdrop of Decius’s persecution. The third century AD was a time of constant upheaval for the Roman state. In a time span of 50 years, there were 18 emperors with only one dying of natural causes. The Romans (and most of the inhabitants of the empire) worked with the assumption that if the empire is in a state of chaos, then the gods are not happy. Thus in order to restore peace and order, the Romans attempted to propitiate their gods and return order to their world. One way in which Decius attempted to do so was to have everyone in the empire worship the gods. While Decius was not necessarily singling out Christians (other people were persecuted as well), because Christians refused to worship the Roman gods this resulted in a pogrom against Christians in which: “[Christian] leaders were arrested, imprisoned, and executed. Sacrifices were then ordered, and all citizens of Rome had to make offerings to the gods and in return received certificates guaranteeing their actions and their safety” (Matthew Bunson, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, 170). These certificates are known as libelli (singular libellus).

This persecution not only resulted in the death of numerous Christians, but also it divided the church in Northern Africa, for some Christians purchased official Roman documents known as “libelli pacis” (i.e., a formal government communication of peace) that declared the holders had made the proper sacrifices to the pagan gods, thus exempting them from further ones (Bunson, Encyclopedia, 320). Other Christians lapsed under the penalty of death and offered sacrifices to the pagan gods. When the Decian persecution ended, both of the above-mentioned groups, called the lapsi for relapsing into paganism, attempted to return to their churches. The churches in North Africa were faced with a difficult decision. What were they to do with those who lapsed? Should they be allowed to return? We can only imagine the emotional uproar and difficulty the returned lapsi caused the faithful Christians who survived the persecution and even lost loved ones to it!

Be that as it may, one of the most fascinating things about the papyrological discoveries of the last 130 years is that we actually have some libelli from the Decian persecution. To date, 46 libelli have been discovered, all from Egypt, and all from AD 250 (Rea, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 58.30).

The first libellus that we will look at is from the Graeco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus (see picture #2):

“To the superintendents of offerings and sacrifices at the city from Aurelius . . . . thion son of Theodorus and Pantonymis, of the said city. It has ever been (ἀεί) my custom to make sacrifices and libations to the gods, and now also I have in your presence in accordance with the command poured libations and sacrificed and tasted the offerings together with my son Aurelius Dioscorus and my daughter Aurelia Lais. I therefore request you to certify my statement. The 1st year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 20” (P. Oxy 4.658; translation taken form Grenfeld and Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 4.49-50).

A few things are interesting about this papyrus and the person who is represented in it. First, the worshiper (whose name is probably Aurelius) must attest to the fact that it has ever been (ἀεί) his “custom to make sacrifices and libation to the gods.” Second, not only does this papyrus indicate that the worshiper must prove his orthopraxy, but also that his children must do the same. We have no idea the age of the two children, Aurelius Dioscorus and Aurelia Lais, mentioned in this papyrus. Nevertheless, they were not exempt from the Decian edict.

The second libellus from Oxyrhynchus dated AD 250 notes the following:

“To the commissioners of sacrifices at Oxyrhynchus from Aurelius Gaion son of Ammonius and Taeus. It has ever been (ἀεί) my habit to make sacrifices and libations and pay reverence to the gods in accordance with the orders of the divine decree (κελευσθέντα ὑπὸ τῆς θείας κρίσεως), and now I have in your presence sacrificed and made libations and tasted the offerings with Taos my wife, Ammonius and Ammonianus my sons, and Thecla my daughter, acting through me (δι᾽ ἐμοῦ), and I request you to certify my statement. The 1st year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messus Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Epeiph 3. I, Aurelius Gaion, have presented this application. I, Aurelius Sarapion also called Chaeremon, wrote on his behalf, as he is illiterate” (P.Oxy 12.1464; translation taken from Grenfeld and Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 12.190).

Of particular interest in this papyrus is that when we compare it with the previous one, there seems to be a standardization of the libelli. Like our previous one, the worshipper has to state, or rather to sign off because he is illiterate, that he has always (ἀεί) sacrificed to the pagan gods. This similarity is probably the product of the composition by professional scribes or amanuenses (singular amanuensis) who actually authored the document. This is clear in that the scribe names himself at the conclusion: “I, Aurelius Sarapion also called Chaeremon, wrote on his behalf, as he is illiterate.” Furthermore, this particular papyrus evidences deviation from the above libellus, for the scribe adds the phrase that the sacrifice is “in accordance with the orders of the divine decree (κελευσθέντα ὑπὸ τῆς θείας κρίσεως).” Thus this is evidence from material culture that the Decian persecution was not a fable, or something that later Christians blew out of proportion. Rather, it is a testament to the manner in which the denizens of the empire viewed the decrees of their emperors, i.e., it was a “divine decree.” Finally, it is not as clear in this libellus if Aurelius Gaion himself could represent his family, just his daughter, or neither, for the scribe uses the ambiguous prepositional phrase “through me” (δι᾽ ἐμοῦ) to describe Aurelius’s actions. If either of the first two options are correct, then there seems to be have been differences in the way the edict was carried out. While the first papyrus suggests that each member of the family had to sacrifice, this papyrus posits the possibility that the male leader of the household could act for his entire family or for his daughter.

Finally, another libellus from Oxyrhynchus contains the following:

“To the commissioners of sacrifices of the village of Thosbis, from Aurelius Amois officially known as the son of his mother Taamois from the village of Thosbis.  I have continued always (ἀεί) to sacrifice and pour libations to the gods, and since now too in your presence in accordance with the orders I sacrificed and poured a libation and tasted the sacrificial meats along with my mother Taamois and my sister Taharpaesis, I request that (you) subscribe to this fact for me. Year I of Imperator Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, Pius Felix Augustus, Epeiph . . .

(2nd hand) I, Aurelius Amois, have submitted (the application). I, Aurelius . . .ion, wrote on his behalf . . .

Back. “Registration (ἀπογρ(αφὴ)) of Amoitas, mother Taamois” (P.Oxy 58.3929; translation from Rea, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 58.30).

Much like the two pervious libelli, the worshipper was requested to state, or rather to sign off that he had always (ἀεί) sacrificed to the gods. Like the first libellus, it seems that our worshipper sacrificed along with his mother and his sister, i.e., his family. Hence, his family was not excluded from sacrificing. Moreover, with this libellus we are able to see that they were some how archived or “registered (ἀπογραφὴ)” for official government use, which is evident from the writing on the back (or verso) of the papyrus (see picture #4), and that the term ἀπογραφὴ was typically used to refer to a census of some kind. For example, the following papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in which a brother requests that his sister “register” him, most likely for a census, uses both the noun form of ἀπογραφὴ and the verb form:

“To my sister, mistress Dionysia, from Pathermouthis, greeting. As you sent me word on account of the registration (ἀπογραφῆς) about registering (ἀπογράψε) yourselves, since I cannot come, see whether you can register (ἀπογράψε) us” (P.Oxy 8.1157; translation from Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 8.260).

In sum, the evidence from papyri indicates that the Decian persecution was an imperial, “divine” edict. Its purpose was to restore peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire by encouraging all its inhabitants to sacrifice to the Roman gods. While this edict was not passed with Christians directly in mind, it drew out Christians. Furthermore, the libelli surveyed seem to show a pattern of standardization. That is, each libellus contains the term “always” and cognates (ἀεί), and, for the most part, each libellus follows the same pattern. These similarities are best explained as the result of the work of professional scribes.

While this systematic, empire wide persecution was c. 160 years after John composed his Revelation, it provides a framework through which to understand the consequences of persecution, and the purpose for John writing the Apocalypse. If the Christians of the mid-third century were anything like those of the latter part of the first, then they would have been divided. That is, there would have been varying responses from the Christians of the seven churches who faced the social pressure to assimilate to Graeco-Roman culture. Some would have lapsed. Others who had the means would have used their social standing and wealth to by pass, as best they could, any social pressure. Still, other Christians would have suffered and we know of one that was put to death, i.e., Antipas and also the many who were crying out from underneath the altar in heaven. Considering all of this, it is easy to see why John composed his Revelation. He desired to both encourage some believers and to warn others not to assimilate and thus to buy into their culture’s ideological framework.

Papyrus #3                                                                           Papyrus  #4

Picture 3Picture 4

4 thoughts on “Papyri and the First Systematic and Empire Wide Persecution of Christians

  1. Many thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of work with those of us out in the woods far from academic centers. It is sobering and stimulating. It is also instructive for Christians coming under pressure from tyrannical authorities.
    Lindell Mitchell

    1. Lindell, Thanks for your observations. Almost regardless of the particular issue in the ancient church, I find the insights from church history very helpful for the modern church.

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