Christian fearlessness under early Roman persecution

Early in the second century, Ignatius of Antioch was executed for his Christian faith at the order of Roman Emperor Trajan.  Ignatius of Antioch was the Christian bishop in Antioch.   Ignatius’ surviving letter To the Romans expresses his fearlessness and eagerness to die.  Ignatius wrote:

I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.[1]

Other Christians under Trajan were similarly fearless of death.  Ibn Abi Usaybiah transmits:

In Andronicus’ “History” we read: “Domitian ruled for sixteen years. After him, the Emperor Nerva ruled for one year, and after him, the Emperor Trajan for nineteen years. The latter reconquered Antioch from the Persians. His vicegerent for Palestine wrote to him saying, “The more Christians I kill, the more they love their religion.”  Trajan therefore ordered him to stop using the sword against them.[2]

Andronicus and his history apparently are otherwise unknown.  According to Eusebius’ Chronicle and a text from the late fifth or early sixth century, Ignatius of Antioch was martyred about 108.  Pliny the Younger, probably writing as governor of Bithynia-Pontus c. 110-113, asked Trajan for guidance on punishing Christians.  Trajan concurred with executing Christians who obstinately clung to their faith, and he advised forgiving Christians who renounced their faith.  The text from Andronicus’ History suggests that Trajan subsequently further eased persecution of Christians.[3]

Christians’ fearlessness in facing torture and death is attested in other early sources.  The indefatigable Christian disciple Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Philippians about 60 GC, proclaimed, “dying is gain.”[4]  In discourses written about 108, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus described “Galileans” (Christians) being fearless of death as a matter of habit.[5] Probably late in the second century, Galen declared, “that {Christians} are free from the fear of death is a fact which we all have observed.”  Tertullian, a Christian scholar writing between 211 and 225 to the Roman Consul Scapula, declared:

Take heed, Scapula, lest we, who undergo such unutterable hardships, should all of us at once break forth and show, that so far from dreading, we spontaneously call for tortures.  While Arrius Antoninus was zealously persecuting the Christians in Asia, they came uncalled, and in one body, before him.  Having doomed some few of them to death, he said to the rest, “Wretches, if you want to die, you have precipices and rope nooses!”  Should the Christians here act like those of Asia, what would you do to so many thousands, men and women, young and old, and of every station, yielding themselves up uncalled at your tribunal! [6]

Early Christians practiced civil disobedience of a radical type.  They welcomed authoritative threats of penal torture and execution.[7]

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Notes:

[1] Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans.  An English translation can be found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, available at the Tertullian Project and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[2] HP p. 145.  Trajan’s Parthian campaign occurred about 113-115.  The vignette on executing Christians turns upside-down the formula or crowd-rally chant for Christian persecutions: “Let there be no Christians” (Christiani non sint).  That expression is thought to date from the second half of the first century.  Christians who were not Roman citizens could be executed locally.  Ignatius of Antioch was transported to Rome in chains to be executed there.  That probably means that he, like Paul of Tarsus, was a Roman citizen.

[3] The most plausible identity of the vicegerent for Palestine is Tiberianus.  He was Roman legate for Judaea from 114-117, and later became known as governor of the first province of Palestine.

[4] Letter of Paul to the Philippians 1:21.

[5] Epictetus, Discourses 4.7.6, discussed in Benko (1984) p. 40.

[6] The Address of Q. Sept. Tertullian, To Scapula Tertullus, Proconsul of Africa. Tr. by Sir David Dalrymple (1790), via the Tertullian Project.  I have edited the text slightly to modernize the English.

[7] While Christian were well-known for being fearless of death, that probably didn’t always mean acquiescing to their own execution.  In the first two centuries after Jesus’ birth, persons who were neither Jews nor Christians, such as Galen, did not readily distinguish between Jews and Christians .  The Kitos War, 115-117, and the extraordinarily intense Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132-136, are known as violent Jewish rebellions against the Romans.  At least some Christians probably also violently rebelled with the Jews against the Romans.

References:

Benko, Stephen. 1984. Pagan Rome and the early Christians. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

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