Christian identity is, and has been since its conception,

Christian identity is, and has been since its conception, an identity defined by the life and passion of Jesus Christ. I will argue that persecution by the hands of the Roman empire, paradoxically, vitalised this early Christian identity and augmented the Church, despite its intention of eradication. At the zenith of the persecutions by the Romans were the martyrdoms of early Christians, and it is these martyrdoms that had the most profound implications. inspiring Christians into a more steadfast acceptance of the religion, and many non-believers into admiring their devotion and, occasionally, conversion. This contradicts the intent of the Roman authorities, as history indicates that the martyr stories arising from Roman persecution had a radical, but not necessarily negative, effect on the faith and identity of the early Christians. Perhaps the primary reason for this sense of veneration towards those martyred, for the early Christians, are the parallels that could be drawn with the martyrdom of the first Christian, Jesus Christ. The emulation of Jesus’s resolute steadfastness in the face of torture and execution by the early martyrs seemed to affirm the Christian identity of bearing witness to one’s own faith. Strength in the face of oppression certainly seems to be the overriding Christian ethos during the phases of persecution. However, there also existed amongst some radicals the desire to be martyred – a zealousness to receive one’s ‘crown’ and authenticate one’s beliefs in the most extreme fashion.Persecutions of early Christians were haphazard and depended on regime and oftentimes the whims of the pagan population. Yet, the tyranny always occurred as a result of the same irrational fears of the emerging cult. Christians seemed to pose multiple threats to the empire; in particular their refusal to engage in Pagan religious activities – which were seen as vitally important in placating the Gods – therefore proved that Christians intended to thwart the survival and longevity of the empire. Indeed, F.F Bruce quotes Tertullian who asserts in around AD196 that “the Christians are to blame for every public disaster and every misfortune that befalls the people” (Bruce. 180). Thus, despite the haphazard nature of persecutions throughout this period, the overall persecution of early Christianity was defined by an irrational scapegoating, arising mostly from a fear over the rapid growth of the sect, now traversing geographical boundaries. Christians faced “charges of cannibalism and incest” (Ferguson. 55), and this was met with brutal violence, with a “vast multitude of Christians put to death in the most shocking manner” (Schaff. 378). During this turmoil Peter and Paul sacrificed themselves for their saviour, whilst later martyrs included Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch. The irrationality of such persecutions is illustrated via the correspondences between Pliny the younger and Emperor Trajan. Despite Pliny finding no legitimate wrongdoing on the part of the Christians he interrogated, he was nevertheless determined to ensure that they would pay with their lives for their obstinacy. The question remained, however, as to whether the name of ‘Christian’ alone constituted guilt, or whether a specific crime had to have been committed. The conclusion Trajan came to was one where a credible charge against a Christian was sufficient, unless said Christian was willing to reject Christ and invoke a Pagan God. The implications for early Christian identity are clear, in that the believer must either renounce one’s views, or accept all possible forms of persecution and oppression in retaining one’s beliefs. History indicates that most continued in their faith, thus forcing them to invoke an unyielding resoluteness in the face of persecution. Hence, the early Christian identity almost mimicking that of Christ. Polycarp of Smyrna exemplified such resilience, in that even whilst threatened with mauling from wild beasts or perishing in the fire, he refused to renounce his faith: “how can I blaspheme by king and saviour”. Despite the fact that one might assume such persecution would damage the early Christian identity and turn many away from Christ for fear of death, as I have alluded to, quite the opposite occurred. Early Christian apologist Tertullian illustrates the notion of an emboldened Christian identity in the face of persecution – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. That is to say, the implications of persecution against the early Christians were positive for the growth and prosperity of the faith, with the intensity and viciousness of the oppression coinciding with growth in number of the faithful, and a strengthening in faith of those within in the religion. This notion is expressed by the apostle Paul, who affirms that “because of my chains, most… have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” – Philippians 1:14. Thus, it seems that despite the very real threat to one’s life, Christians during this period found strength in their common identity through Christ, and this was enhanced by the persecutions, since the fortitude of those martyred engendered a similar obstinacy in those who admired and also faced potential death. Some believers took a radical approach to the persecutions, with a minority seemingly welcoming martyrdom by damaging and desecrating religious images, and acting dissidently towards high ranking Roman officials, in essence bringing martyrdom upon themselves. Illustrative of this zealous attitude towards martyrdom is Ignatius of Antioch who urged those who could have secured his freedom to “Keep your lips sealed”, wanting to proclaim to the world the sincerity of his faith in a form of words authenticated by deeds. This ultra-passionate facet of early Christian identity was also seen in North Africa where there arose a Christian radicalism, with martyrdom seen as the ultimate, desirable goal. Hence the greeting of ‘may you gain your crown’ amongst believers in Numidia, Southern Algeria (McManners 1990, Pg. 43). As I have already argued, the persecutions aided the proliferation of the early Church. There is an overwhelming sense that the actions and valiance of the most notably brave Christians (i.e. Perpetua who was executed in the arena on March 7, 203) inspired courage in the remainder of the flock. Bruce (1973) tells of another young girl, a slave named Blandina who “strengthened all the others” when she exhausted all the attempts of the Romans to torture her into a renunciation of Christ. In not surrendering, she won adoration from those downtrodden Christians also facing oppression, and those outside of the religion who noted her bravery and questioned whether such resoluteness could have occurred within the framework of a false religion. A striking aspect within the era of persecutions is that despite systematic oppression aimed at the episcopate by Decius in 250, the negative impact on the faith was negligible. John Mcmanners (1990) notes that “the very survival of the Church had been in no small degree due to the coherence and discipline imparted by the episcopate” (bishops). Yet, despite the drive made by Decius against the bishops, in 250 “the church was penetrating upper levels of Roman society; for example, Cyprian Bishop of Carthage. This point is salient since it demonstrates that even in the face of attempts by the authorities to enfeeble the most important aspect for the organisation and survival of the Church (the episcopate), the faith only became deep-seated within society.