No Thought of Compromise!
JEHOVAH’S hand was with the early followers of Jesus Christ. (Acts 11:21) With God’s help, they uncompromisingly pursued an upright course. That they also experienced hostility and even intense persecution is a well-known historical fact.
The integrity of the first faithful followers of Christ has become proverbial. Even at the cost of their lives, they refused to compromise their faith. But why were they treated so cruelly?
Hated Without Cause
Like Jesus, true Christians did not share the aspirations and beliefs of this world. (1 John 4:4-6) Moreover, the growth of Christianity “had been so rapid, and its success so marked, that a terrible collision [with the imperial power of Rome] was inevitable,” notes historian Edmond de Pressensé.
Jesus once applied to himself a prophetic psalm, saying: “They hated me without cause.” (John 15:25; Psalm 69:4) Before telling his disciples this, he had warned: “A slave is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) It would not be easy to follow in his footsteps. For one thing, religious leaders among the Jews would treat Jesus’ Jewish disciples as apostates from Judaism. When it was demanded that Jesus’ followers no longer speak about him, however, they refused to comply and thus compromise their faith.—Acts 4:17-20; 5:27-32.
In testimony presented to the Jewish Sanhedrin shortly after Pentecost 33 C.E., the disciple Stephen was accused of “speaking blasphemous sayings against Moses and God.” Outrageous though the charges were, he was stoned to death. As a result, “great persecution arose against the congregation that was in Jerusalem,” and “all except the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 6:11, 13; 8:1) Many were imprisoned.
The Jews pursued Jesus’ followers “with implacable hatred,” says the book Christianity and the Roman Empire. Why, the Roman government often had to act to protect Christians! For example, Roman soldiers rescued the apostle Paul from Jews intent on murdering him. (Acts 21:26-36) Yet, the relationship between Christians and Romans remained an uneasy one.
Rome Steps Up the Pace
Some nine years after Stephen’s death, the Roman ruler Herod Agrippa I had the apostle James killed in order to curry favor with the Jews. (Acts 12:1-3) By that time, belief in Christ had spread to Rome. (Acts 2:10) In 64 C.E., much of that city was destroyed by fire. Horrendous persecution of Christians followed after Nero blamed them for the disaster in his effort to squelch rumors that he was responsible for the conflagration. Did he set fire to the city as an excuse to rebuild it on more magnificent lines and rename it Neropolis after himself? Or did his empress Poppaea, a Jewish proselyte with known antipathy toward Christians, influence his decision to accuse them? Researchers are not sure, but the effect was fearsome.
Roman historian Tacitus says: “Mockery was added to death; clad in skins of beasts, [Christians] were torn to pieces by dogs; they were nailed up to crosses; they were made inflammable, so that when day failed, they might serve as lights,” human torches to illuminate the imperial gardens. Tacitus, who was no friend of the Christians, adds: “Guilty as they were, and deserving of exemplary punishment, they excited compassion, as being destroyed, not for the public welfare, but from the cruelty of one man,” Nero.
Though it suited Nero’s purpose to accuse Christians of Rome’s destruction, he never banned them or proscribed Christianity as a religion within the State. So why did the Romans go along with the persecution? Because “the little Christian communities were troubling the pleasure-mad pagan world with their piety and their decency,” says historian Will Durant. The contrast between Christianity and the bloodletting of Roman gladiatorial contests could hardly have been greater. An opportunity for the Romans to get rid of the Christians and thus salve their own consciences was too good to miss.
As a world power, Rome seemed invincible. Romans believed that one reason for their military prowess was their worship of all deities. They therefore found it difficult to comprehend the exclusiveness of Christian monotheism and its rejection of all other gods, including worship of the emperor. It was not surprising that Rome saw Christianity as an influence undermining the very foundations of the empire.
The Price of Bearing Witness
Toward the end of the first century C.E., the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos “for speaking about God and bearing witness to Jesus.” (Revelation 1:9) Roman emperor Domitian is believed to have been responsible for this. Despite the pressure brought to bear upon Jesus’ followers, however, by the turn of the century, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. How was this possible? A History of the Early Church says that Christianity was “held together by its ministry.” Like John, persecuted early Christians would not compromise their faith but zealously persisted in speaking about God and bearing witness to Jesus.—Acts 20:20, 21; 2 Timothy 4:2.
Persecution of Christians took a new turn by 112 C.E., two years after Emperor Trajan appointed Pliny governor of Bithynia (now northwest Turkey). The previous administration there had been lax, resulting in disorder. Temples were almost deserted, and sales of fodder for sacrificial animals dropped considerably. Traders blamed the simplicity of Christian worship, for it lacked both animal sacrifices and idols.
Pliny worked hard to restore pagan worship, while Christians paid with their lives for refusing to offer wine and incense before statues of the emperor. Eventually, Roman authorities conceded that Christians “were virtuous folk, but inexplicably hostile to the old religious tradition,” says Professor Henry Chadwick. Though being a Christian remained a capital offense, Jesus’ true followers had no thought of compromise.
Hatred also resulted from “annoyance caused in pagan families by the conversion of individual members,” says Professor W. M. Ramsay. “Social life was made very difficult when one’s neighbour could not conform with the most ordinary convention on the ground that it implied the recognition of pagan deities,” states Dr. J. W. C. Wand. No wonder many viewed the early Christians as haters of mankind or considered them to be atheists.
Growth Brings Greater Persecution
Polycarp, reportedly taught by the apostle John, became a respected elder in the city of Smyrna (now Izmir). For his faith he was burned at the stake in 155 C.E. Roman provincial governor Statius Quadratus convened the crowds. The stadium was filled with hostile pagans who despised 86-year-old Polycarp for discouraging the worship of their gods, and fanatical Jews willingly gathered the firewood, though they had to do it on a great Sabbath.
A torrent of persecution next descended upon Christians throughout the Roman world. Under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, their blood flowed even more freely. If they were Roman citizens, they died by the sword; if not, they were killed by wild beasts in the amphitheaters. Their crime? Simply being Christians who refused to compromise or to renounce their faith.
The modern French city of Lyons grew from the Roman colony of Lugdunum, a key administrative center and the only Roman garrison between Rome and the Rhine River. By 177 C.E., it had a strong Christian community against which the pagan populace rose in fury. This began when Christians were excluded from places of public resort. The mob provoked a riot, and subsequent persecution was so great that no Christian dared to venture out-of-doors. The Roman governor commanded that Christians be found and put to death.
With the death of Jesus’ apostles and the passing of their restraining influence, apostasy began to develop among professed Christians. (2 Thessalonians 2:7) Toward the end of the fourth century C.E., apostate Christianity became a State religion. By then, it had become corrupted and was prepared to compromise and identify itself with the world—something Jesus and his early disciples never did. (John 17:16) Much earlier, however, the Bible canon had been completed, with its record of Christian faith.
Was the suffering and death of thousands of the early Christians in vain? By no means! With no thought of compromising their faith, ‘they proved themselves faithful even to death and were given the crown of life.’ (Revelation 2:10) Jehovah’s servants still feel the heat of persecution, but the faith and integrity of early fellow believers remains a source of great encouragement to them. Hence, modern-day Christians also entertain no thought of compromise.
[Pictures on page 8, 9]
Model of imperial Rome
An altar devoted to the worship of Caesar
Nero: Courtesy of The British Museum
Museo della Civiltà Romana, Roma
[Picture on page 10]
The Bettmann Archive