The early persecution of the church (Revelation 17)

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Illustration: Colosseum in Rome

Persecution was a fact of life for the early Christians. The book of Acts documents the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7) and James, the brother of John (Acts 12:2), and describes Saul/Paul as breathing “murderous threats” against the church prior to his conversion (Acts 9:1). Outside the Holy Land the frequent opposition of the synagogue Jews to Christianity was matched by growing concern among non-Jews. The staunch monotheism of the early Christians would have offended many pagans, who were accustomed to accommodating different gods from all over the world. When the livelihood of pagan religious practices was challenged by the testimony of the gospel, persecution was the consequence (Acts 19). Early Christians were persecuted by Jews for claiming that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and by some Christian Jews for accepting Gentile converts without requiring them to become Jewish proselytes, and they were criticized by Gentiles for their monotheism (Gentiles had accepted Judaism as a legitimate, if peculiar, religion and thus did not officially engage in persecution of Jews).

The central Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” was a particular problem in the Roman empire, because the affirmation of the sovereignty of Jesus was a direct challenge to the absolute rule of the Roman emperor. When the emperor or his representatives called for people to honour the emperor as a deity, Christians could not comply in good conscience. It was inevitable that the Christians’ allegiance to Jesus would trouble the Roman authorities, and the situation finally erupted under the emperor Nero in A.D. 64. Searching for a scape-goat for the fires that had plagued the city, Nero seized upon the Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, 15.44) reported that large numbers of Christians were arrested and killed; some were dressed in animal skins and torn apart by dogs, others crucified and set on fire to serve as outdoor lamps. The abuse was so severe that even those hostile to Christians criticized Nero’s actions.

After Nero the persecution of the church appears to have been more sporadic. While the emperor Domitian is sometimes blamed for broad attacks upon the church, the evidence for such a wide-scale persecution during his reign is insubstantial. (Such systematic persecutions, however, did occur during the ensuing centuries up to the time of Constantine.)

Nonetheless, at least one martyrdom is reported in the book of Revelation (that of Antipas in Revelation 2:13), with a strong implication that more deaths were coming. A few decades after Revelation was written, the Roman governor Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan for instructions on the parameters for punishing confessed Christians. Although Trajan’s reply focused on procedural matters and did not specify the extent of punishment, it is clear that Christianity was perceived as a serious threat to the social order of the early second century Roman empire.

The early Christians no doubt experienced trouble for confessing their faith in their daily lives as well. In the province of Asia, for example, trade guilds would often adopt a pagan god as their patron. Meetings of the guild would thus have involved the worship of this deity, and Christians who refused to participate in that worship might have compromised their livelihood. Many scholars believe that this is the background to Revelation 13:17, in which those who did not have the mark of the beast could neither buy nor sell. Ridicule from neighbours, family tensions and concern over government harassment no doubt contributed to the fear of mistreatment and worse for the early Christians.


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