Persecution of Christianity (AD 33-325)

By James M. Rochford

The Romans typically tried to convert their subjects to their Pagan religion when they conquered them. However, in the case of Judaism in Israel, they took a laissez-faire (or “hands off”) approach. This was due to the fact that the Jewish people were intensely strict in their worship of one God. The Greeks had tried to force the Jews to renounce their theological convictions in 167 BC under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, and this resulted in the bloody and gruesome Maccabean Revolt. The Romans saw no need to make the same mistake. Instead of forcing Paganism on the conquered Jews, they allowed Judaism as a legal religion, as long as the Jewish people agreed to pay taxes to Caesar.

Of course, this resulted in many debates between the different Jewish factions in Israel (see “Judaism in Jesus’ Day”). Should faithful Jews live in peace at the cost of paying taxes to a Pagan emperor? Wasn’t Yahweh supposed to be the one to rule the nation—not Caesar? These questions were so important to Jews of Jesus’ day that he was asked what he thought about the matter personally (see Matthew 22:16-22 to Jesus’ clever response). The eventual tension on this topic resulted in the zealots inciting war against the Romans in AD 66.

Once Christianity began to spread, the question obviously arose very quickly: Are Christians Jews or not? If they are Jews, then they should be protected under the umbrella of Judaism as a legal religion in the Roman Empire. But if they are not Jews, then they should be viewed as prospective rebels against Roman rule, who need to convert to Paganism or suffer the consequences. This question becomes a central feature of the book of Acts, where Luke takes great pains to demonstrate that Christians are really just a subset of Judaism. Read through the book of Acts (chapters 18-28 in particular) to see Paul arguing in this way. Properly understood, he argues, Christians are Jews.

Reasons for Christians being persecuted

Why were Christians persecuted so intensely? There are a number of reasons:

Christians weren’t conformists. Shelley writes, “Men always view with suspicion people who are different. Conformity, not distinctiveness, is the way to a trouble-free life. So the more early Christians took their faith seriously, the more they were in danger of crowd reaction… It was not that the Christian went about criticizing and condemning and disapproving, nor was he consciously self-righteous and superior. It was simply that the Christian ethic in itself was a criticism of pagan life.”[1]

Christians refused to worship other gods. They were strict monotheists. Gonzalez writes, “Syncretism was the fashion of the time. In that atmosphere, Jews and Christians were seen as unbending fanatics who insisted on the sole worship of their One God—an alien cyst that must be removed for the good of society.”[2] This “fanaticism” was uncovered when believers were invited to typical, cultural engagements. The Greco-Roman pagans gave offers to the gods at dinner parties, but Christians felt that they needed to abstain from practices, because there was only one Lord: Jesus. While empire-wide persecution from Rome didn’t happen in the first few centuries, there was tremendous social pressure to reject Christ. Christians had a hard time working construction (because many jobs were building a Pagan temple or shrine); Christians had a hard time sewing clothes (because this was often done to create robes for Pagan priests or priestesses). Even when being a school teacher, Christians were pressured to teach Paganism to students, and in hospitals, Pagan priests would give offerings to Asclepius—the Greek God of medicine (whose snake-staff is the current symbol of the American Medical Association).

Christians had closed meetings. This secrecy led to suspicion by the Roman people. This led to Roman rumors about Christian meetings. The Christian church father Athenagoras claimed, “Three things are alleged against us; atheism, Thyestean feasts, Oedipodean intercourse” (Athenagoras, Legatio pro Christianis, iii, cf. p. 13).

Why atheism? Romans could point to their gods. They erected statues across their cities of their gods. Not so with Christians. Shelley writes, “Christians were accused of atheism. The charge arose from the fact that many within the empire could not understand an imageless worship. Monotheism held no attraction for such people. As a result they blamed Christians for insulting the gods of the state.”[3]

Why incest? Christians were accused of being incestuous, because they only married their “brother” or “sister” in Christ.[4]

Why cannibalism? They were accused of cannibalism, because they ate the “body” and “blood” of Christ. Gonzalez writes, “Since Christians spoke of being nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and since they also spoke of him as a little child, some came to the conclusion that, as an initiation rite, Christians concealed a newborn in a loaf of bread, and then ordered the neophyte to cut the loaf. When this was done, they all joined in eating the warm flesh of the infant.”[5]

Christians were blamed for disasters, because they refused worship of the Roman gods. Remember, in an ancient culture, natural disasters were often thought to be signs of divine displeasure—not naturalistic causes. Thus if a natural disaster occurred, they believed that the gods were angry. And who were the most rebellious against the gods? Christians! Therefore, the Romans would sometimes sacrifice Christians to propitiate (or satisfy) the gods. Early on, Roman emperors didn’t demand worship. For instance, Emperor Claudius refused it (AD 41-54). However, later on, emperor worship became mandated as a way of unifying the empire. Thus those who refused to worship the emperor were thought to be traitors to the State. While Christians would pray for the emperor, they refused to pray to the emperor (see Tertullian, Apology, 30-32). Gonzalez writes, “To refuse to burn incense before the emperor’s image was a sign of treason or at least of disloyalty. When Christians refused to burn incense before the emperor’s image, they did so as a witness to their faith; but the authorities condemned them as disloyal and seditious people.”[6]

Christians had high ethical standards. Greco-Roman culture was savage to say the least, and believers felt that they couldn’t engage in practices that were all too common in their culture. For instance, believers felt that the torture and bloodshed of the gladiatorial games were inhumane. In a second century letter to Diognetus, we read, “Christians are no different from the rest in their nationality, language or customs…. They live in their own countries, but as sojourners. They fulfill all their duties as citizens, but they suffer as foreigners. They find their homeland wherever they are, but their homeland is not in any one place…. They are in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey all laws, but they live at a level higher than that required by law. They love all, but all persecute them” (To Diognetus 5.1–11).[7] Initially, the label “Christian” was a pejorative term. Shelley writes, “Originally, opponents of the church used the term as a derogatory label for the ‘devotees of the Anointed One’ (in Greek, Christianoi). But the believers soon adopted it gladly.”[8]

How extensive was Christian persecution?

While many people picture Christian persecution as an empire-wide initiative of vicious Roman emperors, this isn’t really accurate. Shelley writes, “The picture of defenseless, peaceful Christians standing in their white robes before menacing lions while an amphitheater echoes with the shouts for blood from a Roman throng is largely misleading. Prior to AD 200 Roman attempts to silence Christians were halfhearted at best.”[9]

Of course, Christian persecution was a reality in the first three centuries of the Church, and it was gruesome, but we don’t want to exaggerate what this consisted of.

Persecution in the NT

Persecution is mentioned from one end of the NT to the other. To say that Christian persecution is a mere historical fantasy flies directly in the face of many references to it in the NT itself (Rom. 8:35; 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12; 2 Cor. 4:9; 2 Thess. 1:4; 1 Pet. 3:14-16; 4:12-15; 2 Tim. 3:12). Even if one does not regard the NT as an inspired group of books, one at least needs to regard them as historical documents from the first century. What then do we do with countless references to persecution in the NT itself, which mention persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire?

Persecution under Emperor Nero (AD 54-68)

The Roman Emperor Nero reigned from AD 54 to 68. He took the throne from his great-uncle Claudius in AD 54. He was a particularly sadistic emperor. Picture a spoiled, deranged psychopath who is given unlimited power and resources, and you will be close to the historical Nero.

Nero had his own mother killed in AD 59. When his wife Sabina died in AD 65, Nero had her embalmed, stuffed, and mounted in the Mausoleum in Augustus, so he could continue to see her from time to time. Two years later, he castrated and publicly married a young boy named Sporus. Suetonius records,

He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his home attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife… This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the courts and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images, fondly kissing him from time to time… Even before that, so they say, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing.

He so prostituted his own chastity that after defiling almost every part of his body, he at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he had sated his mad lust, was dispatched by his freedman Doryphorus; for he was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered. (Suetonius, About the Life of the Caesars, chapters 28-29, found here)

Apparently, he did this because Sporus looked a lot like his dead wife (see Cassius Dio, Book 62, Chapter 28, Section 2, found here), and he even called Sporus by Sabina’s name from time to time. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that Nero was a maniac, and he was in power in Rome.

In AD 64, a great fire broke out in Rome, and it lasted for six days. (Many of us have used the “Nero Burning Rom” on our computers, which no doubt gets its name from this tragic event.) After the fire burned down massive sections of the city, Nero needed a patsy—someone to blame. Because Christians were already viewed with suspicion, he blamed the burgeoning Christian movement. He had Christians dipped in oil, and then lit ablaze on crucifixes to light up his nightly garden parties. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus writes,

Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even towards men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual. (Tacitus, Annals, 15:44).

Regarding the Neronian persecution, Suetonius writes,

Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a set of men adhering to a novel and mischievous superstition. (Suetonius, The Neronian Persecution, 64)

Shelley writes, “Many Christians were even crucified. Some were sewn up in the skins of wild beasts; then big dogs were let loose upon them, and they were torn to pieces. Women were tied to mad bulls and dragged to death. After nightfall Christians were burned at the stake in Nero’s garden. The Roman people who hated the Christians were free to come into the garden, and Nero drove around in his chariot enjoying the horrible spectacle to the full.”[10] This may be what Peter was writing about, when he wrote, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you” (1 Pet. 4:12).

While Christians were certainly tormented and tortured in the city of Rome at this time, there isn’t any evidence that believers were killed across the breadth of the Roman Empire. Gonzalez writes, “There is no mention of any persecution outside the city of Rome, and therefore it is quite likely that this persecution, although exceedingly cruel, was limited to the capital of the Empire.”[11] Both the apostles Peter and Paul were killed under Nero’s mania.

Apostolic martyrs

James son of Zebedee. Herod Agrippa 1 killed James by running him through with a sword. This occurred in AD 44 according to Acts 12:2. This biblical account has extra credibility, because it also mentions the death of Herod Agrippa 1, which is also attested by Josephus (see Josephus Antiquities 19.343-50). Blomberg writes of the two accounts, “Josephus is clearly far more expansive than Luke, and not all of the details of the two accounts match precisely. But it is interesting that the two writers independently recognized both a natural and supernatural cause to Herod’s demise, and both also view his death as divine punishment for self-deification.”[12]

James, the brother of Jesus. The Jewish Sanhedrin illegally stoned Jesus’ brother to death in roughly AD 62. The fact that Josephus even mentioned James at all must imply that he was a well-known follower of Jesus. Josephus wrote, “He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”[13]

Peter. Emperor Nero had Peter crucified upside down. Gonzalez writes, “Of all these traditions, the most trustworthy is the one that affirms that Peter was in Rome, and that he suffered martyrdom in that city during the Neronian persecution. On these points, several writers of the first and second centuries agree. We are also told that he was crucified—according to one version, upside-down—and this seems to agree with the otherwise obscure words in John 21:18–19.”[14]

Paul. Since Paul was a Roman citizen, he was not crucified, but was beheaded. Eusebius wrote, “Thus Nero publicly announcing himself as the chief enemy of God, was led on in his fury to slaughter the apostles. Paul is therefore said to have been beheaded at Rome, and Peter to have been crucified under him. And this account is confirmed by the fact that the names of Peter and Paul still remain in the cemeteries of that city even to this day.”[15]

John of Zebedee.He was boiled in oil and exiled to Patmos. This tradition isn’t as certain as the others, and this would not have been under Nero, but Domitian after him. Gonzalez writes, “There is an ancient tradition that claims that John was killed in a pot of boiling oil. But the book of Revelation places John, at about the same time, in exile on the island of Patmos.”[16]

Persecution at Lyons and Vienne

This occurred in AD 177. It is documented in The Epistle of the Gallican Churches—recorded in Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 5:1). There we read, “We are not competent to describe the magnitude of the tribulation here, the extent of the rage of the Gentiles against the saints and the sufferings of the blessed martyrs…. Not only were we excluded from public buildings, baths and markets, but even the mere appearance of any one of us was forbidden, in any place whatsoever.”[17] We find a long description of believers being “hooted at, struck, dragged about, plundered, stoned, hemmed in” and thrown in prison. Believers were accused of “Thyestean feasts” (i.e. cannibalism) and “Oedipodean intercourse” (i.e. incest).

Decius AD 249-251

The Roman emperor Decius was one of the most vicious persecutors of the early Christians. He believed that Rome was falling apart because people wouldn’t stopped worshipping the gods and got their displeasure.[18] He was so intense in his persecution of Christians that he actually tried to create apostates of Christians! Gonzalez writes,

Since Decius’ goal was to promote the worship of the gods, rather than to kill Christians, those who actually died as martyrs were relatively few. What the authorities did was to arrest Christians and then, through a combination of promises, threats, and torture, to try to force them to abandon their faith. It was under this policy that Origen was imprisoned and tortured. And Origen’s case found hundreds of counterparts throughout the Empire. This was no longer a sporadic or local persecution, but one that was systematic and universal. As proof of the widespread application of the imperial decree, certificates of having sacrificed have survived from some rather remote parts of the Empire.[19]

Shelley writes, “Decius commanded all citizens of the empire to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods. Those who did so were given certificates (libelli, in Latin) as evidence that they had obeyed the order. Those who refused to obey and were unable (or unwilling) to obtain false libelli from sympathetic or corrupt officials faced death.”[20]

The libellus (a certificate of sacrifice to the emperor) was discovered in Egypt. Bettenson writes, “The Edict of Decius, 250, commanded provincial governors and magistrates, assisted where necessary by local notables, to superintend the sacrifices to the gods and to the genius of the Emperor, to be performed by all on a fixed day. Many recanted; others bought certificates or had them procured by pagan friends. There seems to have been wholesale connivance by the officials.”[21]

Diocletian (AD 284-305)

When Diocletian took power, the Empire was weakening. The Senate no longer voted on Caesars, and it was a game of intrigue and politics as to who would take power. The new emperor no longer came from relatives of the reigning Caesar. In fact, when someone would rise to power, a man would kill all of the other kin of the former Caesar, so that they wouldn’t make an attempt at the throne.

It was in this political climate that Diocletian took power. Diocletian’s wife (Prisca) and daughter (Valeria) were both Christians, so it seemed that “the peace of the church seemed assured.”[22] But instead, Diocletian turned out to be one of the worst forces against Christianity in history. He sadistically persecuted and tortured Christians. Shelley writes,

No one seems to know exactly why, but Diocletian, two years before the end of his highly effective reign, suddenly ordered the most vicious of all persecutions of the Christians… Then, suddenly, the old emperor ordered his army purged of Christians. Imperial edicts followed, commanding officials to destroy church buildings, prohibit Christian worship, and burn the Scriptures. Bishops were rounded up wholesale, imprisoned, tortured, and many put to death, while the power of the imperial throne was turned loose to wipe out the rest of the Christian community in blood.[23]

Eusebius records, “It was enacted by their majesties Diocletian and Maximian that the meetings of Christians should be abolished” (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, 9:10:8). He also writes, “Imperial edicts were published everywhere ordering that the churches be razed to the ground, that the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, that those holding office be deposed and they of the household be deprived of freedom, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity. 5. This was the first edict against us. But not long after other decrees were issued, which enjoined that the rulers of the churches in every place be first imprisoned, and thereafter every means be used to compel them to sacrifice” (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, 7:2:4). Gonzalez writes,

Whatever the case may be, Diocletian’s fury was not slow in coming, and it was decreed that all Christians in the imperial court must offer sacrifice before the gods. Prisca and Valeria complied, but the Grand Chamberlain Dorotheus and several others suffered martyrdom. Throughout the Empire churches and sacred writings were being set to the torch, and there were areas where overzealous officials followed the emperor’s example and put Christians to death.[24]

Following the example of Decius, efforts were made to encourage Christians to abandon their faith. Accustomed as they were to the relative ease of several decades, many Christians succumbed. The rest were tortured with refined cruelty, and eventually killed in a variety of ways. A number were able to hide, and some of these took the sacred books with them. There were even a few who crossed the border into Persia—thus seeming to confirm the worst suspicions as to their lack of loyalty.[25]

Galerius was one of the emperors at the time of Diocletian. He “thought it was the Christian God cursing him, and lifted the edict of persecution. Galerius died five days after giving the edict.”[26]

What were the results of Christian persecution?

Rather than destroying the burgeoning Christian movement, the persecution tended to spread the faith. This state-run persecution of Christians was so gruesome that public opinion was merciful toward the tortured Christians. Several examples of valiant and brave martyrs only roused public opinion on the side of Christ.

Perpetua. She was persecuted by the Roman Empire. As she stood trial and torture, she said, “Now my sufferings are only mine. But when I face the beasts there will be another who will live in me, and will suffer for me since I shall be suffering for him.” (Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas 5.3)

Sanctus. Gonzalez writes, “A certain Sanctus, when tortured, simply answered, ‘I am a Christian.’ The more he was tortured, the more he persisted in saying nothing but these words. Moved by this and many other signs of courage, some who had earlier denied the faith returned to confess it and die as martyrs. We are not told how many died, but the letter does say that the place where Christians were being held was so full that some died of suffocation before the executioners could get to them.”[27]

Shelley writes,

Persecution in many instances helped to publicize the Christian faith. Martyrdoms were often witnessed by thousands in the amphitheater. The term martyr originally meant ‘witness,’ and that is precisely what many Christians were at the moment of death. The Roman public was hard and cruel, but it was not altogether without compassion; and there is no doubt that the attitude of the martyrs, and particularly of the young women who suffered along with the men, made a deep impression. In instance after instance what we find is cool courage in the face of torment, courtesy toward enemies, and a joyful acceptance of suffering as the way appointed by the Lord to lead to his heavenly kingdom. There are a number of cases of conversion of pagans in the very moment of witnessing the condemnation and death of Christians.[28]

This is why Tertullian could write, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed [of the Church]” (Apologeticum, ch. 50, 13).


[1] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 42.

[2] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 15.

[3] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 45.

[4] Gonzalez writes, “Thus, for instance, Christians gathered every week to celebrate what they called a “love feast.” This was done in private, and only the initiates (those who had been baptized) were admitted. Furthermore, Christians called each other “brother” and “sister,” and there were many who spoke of their spouses as their “sister” or “brother.” Joining these known facts, imagination drew a picture of Christian worship as an orgiastic celebration in which Christians ate and drank to excess, put the lights out, and vented their lusts in indiscriminate and even incestuous unions.” Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 49-50.

[5] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 50.

[6] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 16.

[7] Cited in Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 57.

[8] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 20.

[9] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 40.

[10] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 44.

[11] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 35.

[12] Blomberg, Craig. From Pentecost to Patmos: an Introduction to Acts through Revelation. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006. 48.

[13] Flavius Josephus Antiquities of the Jews Book 20. Chapter 9.

[14] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 27.

[15] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2:25.

[16] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 27-29.

[17] Bettenson, Henry; Maunder, Chris. Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press. 2011. 13.

[18] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 86-87.

[19] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 86-87.

[20] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 80-81.

[21] Bettenson, Henry; Maunder, Chris. Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press. 2011. 14.

[22] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 103.

[23] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 99.

[24] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 104.

[25] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 104.

[26] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 106.

[27] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 46-47.

[28] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 38.