Church History, Lesson 6: Christianity becomes Illegal

Fire of Rome 2The Great Fire of Rome, 64 AD


The Roman Empire enabled Christianity to spread without the effort needed in earlier centuries.  The Empire’s unifying infrastructure aided the Gospel’s expansion of the Gospel: well-laid roads made travel easier, most people spoke Greek, and a mighty army kept the peace.  An Empire runs on unity and order to function well.

For three decades, Roman officials thought Christianity to be a branch of Judaism, a legal religion, and did not want to persecute this new Jewish “sect.”  The historian, Tacitus (56-120 AD), reveals Rome’s obliviousness, reporting a disturbance among the Jews at the instigation of a certain “Chrestus.”  Unable to find this Chrestus, Emperor Claudius expels on Jews from Rome, including Christians.

By 64 AD, some Roman officials began to realize how Christianity differed from Judaism.  More and more, others saw Christianity as an illegal religion, with public opinion turning against this fledgling faith.  For Christians refused to honor the Roman gods.  So, the empire struck back.


6, NeroThe fire

On the night of July 18, 64 AD, a fire erupted at the southeastern end of the Circus Maximus, a popular area for commerce and entertainment, but also a working-class section of Rome.  Summer winds spread the flames, and for seven days the fire raged, leaving 70% of the city in smoldering ruins.

The Roman Emperor, Nero, rebuilt the city—but also seized a substantial hunk of land for himself and built a palace on the site of the fire.  Rumors soon arose accusing the Emperor of ordering the city torched, while he stood on the summit playing his lyre as flames devoured the city below.

Again, Tacitus:

Not all human effort, the lavish gifts of the Emperor, or the intercession of the gods, could banish the sinister belief [that Nero] ordered the fire.  To suppress the rumor, Nero blamed and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations—the Christians.  Christus, from whom the name originates, was put to death by the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, in the reign of Tiberius.  But this pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only in Judea, the source of this evil but even in Rome.

Nero’s purge was the first state-sponsored persecution of Christians in history.  Church historian, Eusebius (260-339 AD) later described Nero in this way: “Once Nero’s power was firmly established, he plunged into nefarious vices and took up arms against the God of the universe.”


How the Fire Affected Christianity

The first wave of Roman persecution lasted from after the fire until Nero’s death in 68 AD.  With barbaric bloodthirstiness, he crucified and set alight Christians by the droves.  Dipped in flammable material wax or oil, tied to stakes, Christians became torches, their bodies lining Roman roads, providing light at night.  Wrapped in animal skins, they became food for sport, torn apart by wild dogs.

The Apostle Peter died in Rome in 64 AD, crucified upside down.  Later, Paul is beheaded in Rome, before Nero’s in June 68 AD, before Nero death.  This wave of persecution only left the Apostle John alive, to pick up the mantle after Mary’s death, whom he cared for based on Jesus’ instructions (John 19:27).

Though horrific, the persecution under Nero was confined to Rome.  Nonetheless, this established a precedent for future Christian persecutions and executions.  The teaching of enduring in the faith became a highlighted doctrine, reinforcing the truth that our citizenship is not of this earth but in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  The persecution had made that abstract concept concrete.

To be a Christian in the first century required not only a heart of faith but also a spine of steel.  The persecution drove many Christians out of Rome and, like the dispersion from Jerusalem and surrounding areas, the Christian faith spread with the scattering of its people.  The persecution also separated the interested from the committed.

In the Empire, the Roman Senate reached its breaking point.  The Senate declared him a public enemy and on June 9, 68 AD, they forced Nero to commit suicide.


How Tacitus Proves Jesus Existed

Some today, like to deny Jesus ever existed.  Tacitus, however, attests to Jesus’ being a real person who “was put to death by the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, in the reign of Tiberius.”  Tiberius reigned from 14-37 AD, and Pontius Pilate was Prefect from 26-36 AD.

Tacitus also asked, without seeking the answer: “Why did Christianity soon break out again after its leaders were executed?”  The answer, according to Christian sources, is because Christ isn’t dead, but is risen.


The Waning Influence of the Mother Church in Jerusalem

In the first Church council, we saw the first Bishop of Jerusalem, James, declare the Church’s verdict on how to deal with the growing influx of Gentiles.  The one who would later to become recognized as the first Pope, Peter (though Paul did precede Peter as the acting Bishop of Rome) even answered to and acknowledged the authority of Jerusalem’s Bishop.

In The Didache, we also saw how adult Gentile converts were catechized into an ethnically Jewish Church.  This period is the apex of the influence of the “Mother Church” within the rest of the Christian world.  Two events, however, will happen within 70 years in Jerusalem, reducing the importance and influence of the Jerusalem Church.


Jerusalem’s Destruction, 70 AD

Tensions always exist between captors and the oppressed.  The Jews despised their Roman rulers, and the Romans returned the hatred.  Rome, with all its many gods, required loyalty to the Emperor and demanded taxes and offerings to be made on his behalf.  For both Christian and Jew, the mandated offerings caused a trial of conscience.

The Roman procurator over Judea, Florus, cared little for Jewish religious sensibilities.  When tax revenues were decreasing, he seized silver from the Temple.  In 66 AD, an uproar grew against him, so he sent troops to Jerusalem to crucify and massacre those who rebelled.

Angered further by the atrocities of Florus, the rebel leaders attacked and captured Antonia Fortress (in the Northeast corner of the Temple Mount) and Masada (Southeast of Jerusalem, overlooking the Dead Sea).  In Jerusalem, the Temple captain declared open rebellion against Rome and stopped the daily sacrifices.  Jerusalem exploded, with the people expelling or killing the Romans.  For a brief time, it looked as if the Jews might win.

Cestius Gallus, the Roman governor of the region, marched from Syria with 20,000 soldiers.  He besieged Jerusalem for six months.  He failed, leaving behind 6,000 dead Roman soldiers and a much weaponry the Jews picked up and later used.

So, Emperor Nero sends General Vespasian to quell the revolt.  He nibbles away at the rebels’ strength, putting down the opposition in Galilee, then Transjordan, then Idumea.  Finally, he nears Jerusalem.

Nero then dies, and the campaign halts, with Vespasian going to Rome to become Emperor.  Titus, his son, takes the war into Jerusalem.  With four legions of soldiers, he lays siege against the city.  It was just a matter of finding or creating a way in or waiting for everyone to starve.  Three weeks later, he controlled of the heart of the city. It would take months, however, before all the city and the Temple were his.6 Masada

Titus may have wanted to preserve the Temple, but his soldiers were burned it, nonetheless, in August 70 AD.  The Romans finally recapture Masada in 73 AD, with only two women and five children remaining among the 960 dead.


  1. How this Affected the Christian Church

Where were the Christians during the Jewish revolt?  They remembering Christ’s warning (Luke 21:20-24):

When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that its desolation has come near.  Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.  Those inside the city must leave it, and those who are in the country must not enter it because these are days of vengeance to fulfill all the things that are written….  Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

When they saw armies surrounding Jerusalem, most of them, but not all, fled.  They refused to take up arms against the Romans and escaped to Pella, a city across the Jordan River.  This led to some increased bitterness between non-believing Jews and Jewish Christians.  Earlier, the two learned to tolerate each other, recognizing the greater earthly enemy was Rome.


  1. What the Date of Jerusalem’s Destructions Provides for the Church

Jerusalem’s destruction shows us the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts were written before 70 AD.  How do we know?  They must pre-date the tearing down of the Temple since they don’t mention this fulfillment of Christ’s prophecies (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 19:41-44, 21:5-37).  Those writers noted when Christ’s others words and deeds were fulfilled.  So, not to do so is out of character for them.

The simplest explanation for this “omission” is that it’s not an oversight.  The Temple’s destruction had not yet taken place when the Gospels were written.  So, this places the dates of composition before 70 AD, contrary to many of the “higher critics.”

Moreover, the Luke’s Gospel and Acts mentions using use sources predating these compositions.  So, this brings the date of the New Testament’s testimony even closer to the events it records.


The Bar Kokba (“Son of a Star”) Revolt

6 Bar KokhbaIt took a while for Jerusalem to recover from its destruction in 70 AD.  The city’s ruin did not, however, kill the messianic fervor among the Jews.

In 132 AD, Simon bar Kokhba began a revolt against the Roman Empire to have a free Israel.  He led a massive uprising when Roman legions were away from Israel and preoccupied elsewhere—when only the Roman occupying force was in Judea (the Roman Empire’s name for Israel).  He led a revolt using a guerilla strategy, with his army hiding in caves and the hills for refuge from Roman attack.

Then (remember the Temple no longer existed and that a synagogue-based Rabbinic Judaism was still forming its identity), the leading Jewish Rabbi was Akiba.  He, with the other Jewish rabbis, all claimed that bar Kokhba was the long-awaited Messiah and that all Jews—even Jewish Christians—were to support him.

A small community of Christians lived in the city, for not all remained at Pella.  During Emperor Hadrian’s reign (ruled, 117-138 AD), the church in Jerusalem was noted to be still made up of “believing Hebrews,” ethnically Jewish Christians.  But these Christians refused to recognize bar Kokhba, declaring only Jesus to be the Messiah.

At first, the revolt succeeded.  Kokhba’s army caused whatever occupying forces were in Judea to leave.  Israel now became an independent nation for two years and even issued its coinage.

Emperor Hadrian responded, forming one of the largest Roman armies ever assembled.  He recalled his best general, Sextus Julius Severus, from Britain.  Legions traveled from as far east as the Danube River, near the Black Sea.  The size of the Roman army was much larger than the army that destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD—13 legions, instead of four!

The Roman army eventually defeated bar Kokhba’s army, who sought refuge in the hills and caves, by using scorched-earth tactics.  They would light fires outside the caves where Jewish fighters were hiding.  The fighters would either die of smoke inhalation or be forced to leave their caves.  After exiting, the Romans fought them until no one was left alive.  By the end of 135 AD, the Jews who died fighting numbered 580,000.  The number who died by famine, disease, and smoke inhalation are unknown.  Around 900 Jewish villages were destroyed.

After that, no Jews were allowed to live within or around Jerusalem.  Judea’s name became Palestine, Jerusalem became Aelia, and Jews began to immigrate to other places to live.  The surviving Jews began to call bar Kokhba, “bar Koziba” (from “son of a star” to “son of a liar”).


  1. The Long-Term Impact of the bar Kokhba Revolt for the Church

The Jewish Christians’ refusal to support bar Kokhba led to an even-greater breach between the Jews and ethnically Jewish Christians.  Rabbi Akiba denounced the Christians.  That was the “last straw” between the Jews and their Christian counterparts.

The Jews stopped using the Septuagint as the Greek-language “Old Testament,” removing the Apocrypha from their Bibles, believing they were all written originally in Greek, not Hebrew.  The Jewish rabbis had long disliked the Septuagint, anyway, because it was too messianic.  Christians were too successful using it to convert Jews into becoming Christians.

We can find Akiba’s declaration against the New Testament and Apocrypha in Tosefta Yadayim (Jewish Oral Law) 2:13: “The Gospels and heretical books do not defile the hands.  The books of Ben Sira and all other books written from then on [Sirach and the other book of the Apocrypha], do not defile the hands.”

Eventually, the Jews made another translation of the Old Testament into Greek, minus the Apocrypha.

6 Is the Apocrypha ScriptureThis led Jerome (347-420 AD) to want to remove the Apocrypha from the translation of his Latin Vulgate.  The Church didn’t allow it, but after the Reformation, Protestant Bibles began to be printed without the Apocrypha starting in the later 1600s.  Today, Protestants just assume the Apocrypha is not part of Scripture because that is all they know.

Up to 135 AD, all the Bishops of Jerusalem were ethnically Jewish.  The next Bishop was a Gentile, named Mark.  Beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, furthered by Judea’s destruction in 135, and a predominately Gentile Church, led to Jerusalem from being the “Mother Church” to becoming one church among many started by the Apostles.


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