First Conflicts with the State (Part 4) – Domitian

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The History of Christianity #24

Our Scripture passage today is John 15:18 which reads: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.”

Our quote today is from Athanasius of Alexandria. He said: “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”

Today, we are discussing “First Conflicts with the State” (Part 4) from Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Persecution Under Domitian
Domitian, who became emperor after Titus, at first paid no particular attention to Christians. Why he eventually turned against them is not clear. It is a fact that he loved and respected Roman traditions, and that he sought to restore them. Christians, in their rejection of Roman gods and of many Roman traditions, stood in the way of Domitian’s dreams, and this may have been one of the causes of persecution.

Jews also found themselves in trouble with the emperor. Since the Temple had been destroyed in 70, Domitian decided that all Jews should remit to the imperial coffers the annual offering they would otherwise have sent to Jerusalem. Some Jews refused to obey, while others sent the money but made clear that Roman had not taken the place of Jerusalem. In response, Domitian enacted strict laws against Judaism, and insisted on the offering in even harsher terms.

Since at that time the distinction between Jews and Christians was not clear in the minds of Roman authorities, imperial functionaries began persecuting any who followed “Jewish practices.” Thus began a new persecution, which seems to have been directed against both Jews and Christians.

As in the case of Nero, it does not appear that this persecution was uniformly severe throughout the empire. In fact, it is only from Rome and Asia Minor that there are trustworthy reports of persecution at this time.

In Rome, Flavius Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla, who may have been related to the emperor, were executed. They were accused of “atheism” and of “Jewish practices.” Since Christians worshiped an invisible God, pagans often declared them to be atheists. Therefore, it is likely that Flavius Clemens and Domitilla died because they were Christians. If so, these are the only two Roman martyrs of this persecution whose names are known. But several ancient writers affirm that there were many martyrs, and a letter that the church in Rome addressed to the Corinthians – First Clement – speaks of “the continuous and unexpected evils which have come upon us.”

In Asia Minor, this persecution resulted in the writing of the book of Revelation, whose author was exiled on the island of Patmos. There are indications that many were killed, and for generations the church in Asia Minor remembered the reign of Domitian as a time of trial.

In the midst of persecution, Revelation displays a much more negative attitude toward Rome than the rest of the New Testament. Paul had instructed Christians in Rome to obey the authorities, whom he declared to have been ordained by God. But nor the seer of Patmos speaks of Rome as “the great harlot…drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Furthermore, the hope of a new, heavenly city found in Revelation is the counterpart of the present earthly city; over against the city of Rome, “Babylon the great,” or “the great harlot,” Christians should look to the new Jerusalem, coming from heaven, where God will wipe all tears from their eyes.

Fortunately, when persecution broke out Domitian’s reign was coming to an end. Like Nero, Domitian was increasingly seen as a tyrant. His enemies conspired against him, and he was murdered in his own palace. The Roman senate then decreed that his name should be erased from every inscription, so that there would be no memory of him. In this his enemies succeeded, for history has long seen Domitian as a m