Most early Christian persecution was from mobs, researcher says

Mon, 03/30/2015


George Diepenbrock

LAWRENCE ­— As Mark Burnett's new NBC mini-series, "A.D. The Bible Continues," premieres on Easter Sunday, creators have hinted how it would depict persecution of early Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire.

A University of Kansas researcher who studies early Christianity and the makeup of the Bible said that while the story of Christian leaders versus the power of the Roman Empire might make for good television drama, it doesn't appear to be a completely accurate depiction. While new religions were met with skepticism in the Roman Empire, most of the violence against the first Christians stemmed from mobs in Roman provinces rather than wholesale persecution coming from leaders in Rome, said Paul Mirecki, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies.

"Most of the violence was not done legally from the top-down. The Romans were not interested in converting people to Roman religion. That's Hollywood," said Mirecki, author of the recent anthology "The Bible in Context." "The Romans were not interested in persecuting people and putting them to the sword. It was unlawful local lynch mobs that were doing that, and some governors looked the other way."

As part of his anthology, released by Cognella Academic Publishing, Mirecki selected 142 texts contemporary with the Bible, including 65 new Greek and Latin translations he conducted as well as updating 55 classic translations.

"These texts allow us to better understand the origins of both Judaism and Christianity and what they were up against," Mirecki said, "and to better understand their historical and literary contexts."

Mirecki translated texts that detailed Roman policies toward new foreign religions, including a decree of the Roman Senate regulating the new religion of Bacchus, who was known as the god of religious revelry and wine drinking. Bacchus followers would have religious celebrations out into the streets until 3 a.m., causing noise disturbances and other problems that often turned into a police issue, forcing the Roman Senate to get involved.

"This is important because it fixates the Roman mindset on how to deal with a new religion called Christianity when they encountered it, a group that also partook of religious wine drinking and had meetings before dawn," Mirecki said.

Early Christians, and many Christian denominations still today, drank wine as part of taking communion in accordance with Jesus' instructions at The Last Supper.

"They begin to understand Christianity in relation to outside foreign religions without looking at Christianity on its own terms. Romans were very concerned when they learned that Christians were drinking the blood and eating the body of their founder," Mirecki said.

But other texts that detail violence against Christians illustrate how it was mostly at the hands of local lynch mobs instead of the Roman government.

“In fact, only for about 10 years of their first 300 years were Christians executed by direct orders from Roman emperors, and then Christianity became a legally protected religion in the year 313,” he said.

Mirecki translated correspondence from the Roman Governor Pliny the Younger, who led modern-day Turkey, to Emperor Trajan in about the year 110. Pliny informs the emperor that he was putting Christians to death in his province because "the people hate these Christians." However, Trajan responds angrily.

"He basically says, 'You're doing what? That's illegal. You can't be doing that,'" Mirecki said.

Instead, Trajan reminds Pliny that suspected Christians were not to be searched "without probable cause for arrest" and that "anonymous written accusations have no legal place in any investigations."

One other text that Mirecki includes in the book and that might surprise most modern-day readers is the second-century "Infancy Gospel of Thomas," which is a humorous story of Jesus' life as a child. Mirecki said in some ways it portrays Jesus as a Dennis the Menace-type character. The story says he educates his teachers and even kills his friends with his powers, but he eventually brings them back to life.

He included it in the anthology because the Gospels in the Bible provide very little detail about Jesus' childhood.

"No one ever accepted the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as Scripture," Mirecki said. "It was meant to be inspiring, and it was meant to be humorous and entertaining. It would be similar to a Jesus movie today. No Bible-believing Christian today would take seriously and give scriptural authority to a Hollywood Jesus movie, but they might think it's great to watch or very inspiring."

In addition to texts related to early Christianity and the New Testament, Mirecki's anthology also features cuneiform, hieroglyphic and Hebrew texts that parallel the Old Testament, including creation stories, laws, poetry, prophecy, wisdom and relevant political documents from surrounding cultures.

"The texts give us a broader knowledge of the political, social and religious context that produced the 66 biblical writings," Mirecki said. "We know a lot more about the background of this religion and its origins than people realize." 

Mon, 03/30/2015


George Diepenbrock

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George Diepenbrock

KU News Service