Dismemberment by wild beasts, crucifixion, and immolation were but a few of the dangers the early believers faced each day. The mass execution of the Christians by Nero has left a lasting impression on history…
Not only was it during his reign that both the apostles Peter and Paul saw their martyrdom through crucifixion and beheading respectively, but today, beneath the streets of Rome, tucked into tight nooks and crannies across some 900 miles of caves can be found nearly seven million graves. How many, one must wonder, belong to Christians who were executed for their faith during those years? How many moulder in the cool, dark recesses of those catacombs at the hands of those who quite literally persecuted them to death? Only God knows.
Even after Nero, we find that the conflict continued between the Christians and the Roman officials. To this point, history has provided us with a frightening correspondence between the Roman governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, and the Roman Emperor Trajan. Faced with the dilemma the early believers posed to his rule, Pliny sought instruction from Trajan. In part, he wrote:
“I have never been present at an examination of Christians. So, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually dealt out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be carried…For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians; if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for punishment; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought to be punished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens; I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for punishment…. I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians, once they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with images of the gods), and furthermore had cursed the name of Christ. Real Christians (I understand) can never be induced to do these things….They declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to refuse to return a deposit upon demand. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and later to take food of an ordinary harmless kind. But they had in fact given this up since my edict, issued on your instructions which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth from two slave women (whom they call `deaconesses’ by torture. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths… I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you…“
Hatred for the believer in the generations following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a constant, and often deadly, foe. Even so, against the odds the faith persisted, and convert by convert, grew in the hidden dens of believers. The popular “Jesus Fish” we know of today was once used to represent the faith during those times of harsh persecution.
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