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JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND ROMAN LEGITIMACY

In response to political and military support from Jewish rulers, Julius Caesar, followed by Emperor Augustus, conferred upon Jews exceptional civic and religious rights.  Jews were exempt from sacrifice to Roman civic gods and Emperor worship prescribed for all Roman subjects, as well as from other civic practices forbidden by Jewish monotheistic beliefs and the Jewish Scriptures.  These concessions were not easily given, and often resented, since such sacrifice and worship provided a symbolic yet politically important means to unify the Empire in spite of cultural differences and celebrate a powerful ruler whose good graces provided protection and benefits for the populace.  Even so, there is no sign that such license granted Jews political independence since the Jewish elite were fully expected to help maintain Roman rule and safeguard Roman interests.

In coping with religious diversity, Romans were generally tolerant.  Although Romans showed no special fondness for Jews because of Jewish religious customs and Jewish rebellions, they generally respected the Jewish religion as a religio licita (legitimate religion) because of its antiquity.  As long as an individual complied with the rules of the Roman state, did not interfere with social conventions, and gained citizenship, "a Roman could be Jewish and a Jew could be Roman" (Goodman 2007a, p. 155).

Matters were very different with the Christians, who had ex hypothesi abandoned their ancestral religions. … The Christians asserted openly either the pagan gods did not exist at all or that they were malevolent demons. … As a result, because a large part of Greek religion and the whole of the Roman state religion was a very much a community affair, the mass of pagans were naturally apprehensive that the gods would vent their wrath at this dishonor not upon the Christians alone but upon the whole community; and when disasters did occur, they were only too likely to fasten the blame on to the Christians" (Ste. Croix 2006, pp. 135–136).

Having abandoned Judaism, Gentile Christianity was thus regarded as an illegitimate superstitio.  A common Pagan complaint was that defection from prevailing tradition shows that Christians represent neither a true nation, people, or tradition, nor do they have "authority for their doctrine" (Conzelmann, p. 100).  "The followers of Christ were usually rebuked for a twofold betrayal: not only had they abandoned the beliefs of their fathers and joined a 'barbaric' religion, but they had changed the faith of the Jews and thereby committed a second kind of infidelity" (Moreschini and Norelli, p. 422).  "If a religion was new, it could scarcely be true" (Ehrman 2012b, p. 132).  Gentile Christians who refused to engage in Emperor worship were hence considered alien elements disloyal to Rome, violating the pax deorum ("peace of the Gods"). 

"The time-honored method of deciding whether a given person was a Christian was the 'sacrifice test' …the individual concerned was asked to sacrifice, offer incense, or make a libation to the gods or the emperor.… The government, as a rule, took actions against Christians only in response to popular clamor or individual delation [accusation]" (Ste. Croix 2006, p. 41).

Thus, persecution, when it occurred, was not for believing in Jesus Christ, or refusing to curse Jesus Christ, but for rejecting the required sacrifice to the civic gods of the Roman Empire, an exemption given only to Jews.  This exemption separated Jews from Christians early on, since St. Paul's Christians were not included, nor did they include themselves, in the Jewish exemption. 

In answering Pliny the Younger's letter on persecuting Christians (Note #2, p. 19), the Emperor Trajan's (98–117 C.E.) instruction is relevant (Judge, p. 361): "Incomprehensible as the activities of Christians were, they could be tolerated providing (as Romans) they did not abandon their national duty of sacrifice to the Roman gods.  The Romans had always understood and accepted that this was impossible for Jews, for whom exemption was secured."  However, to Trajan: "there is no hint that anyone ever tried to suggest [to Christians] such a solution [exemption]."

Similarly, Christians acquitted themselves from a tax (Fiscus Judaicus) imposed on Jews for their 66–72 C.E. rebellion.  When the tax became more liberal and voluntary in 96 C.E., applying only to those who claimed a Jewish religious exemption from Emperor worship, Christians still sought exception to the tax although "it would have spared them two centuries of misunderstanding and haphazard persecution" (Judge, p. 367).

Nevertheless, despite Pagan complaints, Christianity gradually gained popularity and acceptance (Note #22), spreading even among the upper classes "because it could assure them that the new religion would not present a threat to their friendship and family networks, institutions so critical to maintaining aristocratic status.  Such guarantees of status were a significant factor facilitating conversion" (Salzman, p. 15).  From St. Paul onward, New Testament accounts made accommodating to Roman society and authority a significant part of Christian practice.  Thus, in St. Luke's Gospel, the redemption Jesus enacts "is not deliverance from the Roman Empire" but "deliverance from the kingdom of Satan" — only on Jesus' second coming (the "Parousia") will Rome be replaced (Kim, Chapts. 8 and 9; also Notes #21, #22).

Eusebius (ca. 330), "Father of Church History," echoes common Christian notions that, in spite of occasional Roman hostility, the Empire was respectful of Christians, whereas Jews are Christianity's persistent enemies because of their refusal to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah (Ecclesiastical History 3.5).  To the Gentile Christian Church, Roman victories over Jews and destruction of Jerusalem's Temple did not come from Jewish conflict with Roman tyranny, but rather a sign of God's revenge for Jewish intransigence in not accepting "Jesus Christ."  (See St. Justin Martyr, ca. 150, Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew CVIII, ANF vol. 1, p. 253; Origen, ca. 240 C.E., Contra Celsum 4.22; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, ca. 330 C.E., 3.5–8; and also Note #8, p. 62ff.)  It is ironic that Christians could claim God's judgment as the cause for Jewish misfortunes while ignoring God's judgment for misfortunes that befell Christians, such as wars, plagues, and famines.  By some obverse logic, Roman persecution and Christian martyrdom was conceived as the sign of God's redemption (M. S. Taylor, pp. 120–121).

Also notable is that during the Roman persecutions of Christians, the difference between Christians and Jews was of marked significance to the Roman public and authorities.  Christian leaders' resentment against Jews was then fed by Judaism's legality offering sanctuary to Christians persecuted as a non-legal superstition.  "The Jews in Smyrna even offered sanctuary in the synagogues to Christians obliged to sacrifice [to Roman gods] under the edict of Decius AD 150" (Judge. p. 367).  A study of St. Aphrahat (ca. 330) showed that the Saint's attacks on Jews came on the heels of a Persian persecution when Christians "may have been flocking to the synagogue to receive charity and perhaps to Aphrahat's chagrin, something more" (A. H. Becker, p. 305).