Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Church History Lesson 10 (Those Crazy 60's!)

In A.D. 64, Rome burned and Nero launched his persecution of the Christians. By A.D. 68, Nero had lost complete control of the senate and was deposed. He was to be arrested and executed in a most hideous manner, but before that could happen he committed suicide. Suetonius wrote:
Finally, when his companions unanimously insisted on his trying to escape from the miserable fate threatening him, he ordered them to dig a grave at once, and then collect any pieces of marble that they could find and fetch wood and water for the disposal of the corps. As they bustled about obediently he muttered through his tears: "Dead! And so great an artist!"

A runner brought him a letter from Phaon. Nero tore it from the man's hands and read that, having been declared a public enemy by the Senate, he would be punished in 'ancient style' when arrested. He asked what 'ancient style' meant, and learned that the executioners stripped their victim naked, thrust his head into a wooden fork, and then flogged him to death with sticks. In terror he snatched up the two daggers which he brought along and tried their points; but threw them down again, protesting that the final hour had not yet come.

Then he begged Sporus to weep and mourn for him, but also begged one of the other three to set him an example by committing suicide first. He kept moaning about his cowardice, and muttering: 'How ugly and vulgar my life has become!' And then in Greek: 'This certainly is no credit to Nero, no credit at all,' and: 'Come pull yourself together, man!' By this time a troop of cavalry who had orders to take him alive were coming up the road. Nero gasped: 'Hark to the sound I hear! It is hooves of galloping horses.' Then, with the help of his scribe, Epaphroditos, he stabbed himself in the throat and was already half dead when a cavalry officer entered, pretending to have rushed to his rescue, and staunched the wound with his cloak. Nero muttered: 'Too late! But, ah, what fidelity!' He died, with his eyes glazed and bulging from their sockets, a sight which horrified everybody present.

In between the burning of Rome and suicide of Nero, the Jewish revolt against Roman rule began. The war didn’t end until after Nero's death (which in fact escalated the conflict since it emboldened the Jews)

The Destruction of Jerusalem

Today, we underestimate the magnitude and horror of the Roman response to the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70). We view it as something similar in degree to the British torching of the White House (after enjoying a complementary dinner for 40 that had been prepared for Dolly Madison and friends, but abandoned as the canon neared) in the war of 1812.

Prior to its destruction, Jerusalem was a large and formidable walled city. As the Romans began responding to Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70) throughout the land, the population of Jerusalem swelled as many sought safety within her walls.

The historian Josephus was captured by the future Roman Emperor Vespasian who, early in the Jewish Revolt, led the assault on city of Jotapata. Josephus was the General in charge of defending Jotapata. Some accounts state that Josephus survived the ensuing slaughter (following a 45 day siege) by hiding in a deep pit. Josephus claimed that Vespasian spared him because of his incredible valor. Much of what we quote below comes from Josephus’s book The Wars of the Jews.

Jack Van Deventer lists some of the atrocities committed by the Romans in a “dateline” manner, most of the information gleaned from the writings of Josephus.
  • Jerusalem (June 3, 66 A.D.)--"So the [Roman] soldiers did not only plunder the place they were sent to, but forcing themselves into every house, they slew its [Jewish] inhabitants; so the citizens fled along the narrow lanes, and the soldiers slew those that they caught, and no method of plunder was omitted; they also caught many of the quiet people, and brought them before Florus, whom he first chastised with stripes, and then crucified. Accordingly, the whole number of those that were destroyed that day, with their wives and children (for they did not spare even the infants themselves), was about 3,600."

  • Cesarea (66 A.D.)--"Now the people of Cesarea had slain the Jews that were among them. . . [I]n one hour's time above 20,000 Jews were killed, and all Cesarea was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants; for Florus caught such as ran away, and sent them to the galleys."

  • Scythopolis and other cities (66 A.D.)--"The people of Scythopolis watched their opportunity, and cut all [the Jews'] throats, some of them as they lay unguarded, and some as they lay asleep. The number that was slain was above 13,000, and then they plundered them of all they had." "Besides this murder at Scythopolis, the other cities rose up against the Jews that were among them: those of Askelon slew 2,500, and those of Ptolemais 2,000, and put not a few in bonds; those of Tyre also put a great number to death, but kept a greater number in prison."

  • Alexandria (66 A.D.)--These [Roman] soldiers rushed violently into that part of the city which was called Delta, where the Jewish people lived together [The Jews were] destroyed unmercifully; and this their destruction was complete, some being caught in the open field (Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. (Matt. 24:40).), and others forced into their houses, which houses were first plundered of what was in them, and then set on fire by the Romans; wherein no mercy was shown to the infants, and no regard had to the aged; but they went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, till all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 of them lay dead upon heaps. . . ."

  • Jotapata (July, 67 A.D.)--"[T]he Romans slew all the multitude that appeared openly; but on the following days they searched the hiding places, and fell upon those that were underground, and in the caverns, and went thus through every age, excepting the infants and the women, and of these there were gathered together as captives twelve hundred; and as for those that were slain at the taking of the city, and in the former fights, they were numbered to be 40,000.

The widespread slaughter of the Jews continued for several years. Many of the Jews fled to Jerusalem for safety.
24When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" 25All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt. 27:24-25)

The Jews asked that the blood be upon their hands. And so it was. In Jerusalem alone, Josephus records that 100,000 were captured, and 1.1 million killed. This does not include the Jews killed in other cities (as described above) as the Roman Juggernaut pushed forward.

After the Roman armies reached Jerusalem a lengthy siege ensued. The Romans bombarded the city with 90 pound stones hurled as far as 1200 feet by catapult

When the food ran out, civil war broke out among three Jewish factions. Murder and starvation were rampant. Josephus wrote that civil war inside the walls of Jerusalem wrought more carnage than the conquering Romans. People who were thought to have consumed food were sometimes killed and disemboweled in search of food within their stomachs. There were many reports of cannibalism. Many tried to escape starvation by sneaking out of the city. Most were captured by the Romans, killed on the spot and disemboweled: the Romans believed that the Jews hid their valuables by swallowing them. If a father was killed searching for food, his wife and children became targets within the city.

Josephus also described a scene of horror concerning a starving mother. In the midst of the famine she suddenly withdrew her nursing infant from her breast. She killed, roasted and ate half the child, and offered the rest to astonished and horrified bystanders.

It is interesting to read Josephus’ accounts of the events leading up to the war. In addition to "rumors of wars", Josephus records that there was a rise of false Christs and prophets.
There was also another body of wicked men gotten together, not so impure in their actions, but more wicked in their intentions, which laid waste the happy state of the city no less than did these murderers. These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of Divine inspiration…. But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives…( Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.13.)

Note that the Egyptian false prophet appears to be corroborated by the bible, Recall that Paul was arrested (although it was as much a rescue as an arrest) in his last trip to Jerusalem. The commander mistakes Paul for the false prophet Josephus described: "Do you speak Greek?" he replied. "Aren't you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?" (Acts 21:38).

Vespasian arrived to lead the Roman response in the spring of A.D. 67. Nero was emperor (he dispatched Vespasian to squelch the revolt). In A.D. 68, Nero died at his own hand. The following year was a bad one for Rome, the "year of the four emperors" viz. Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and finally stability with Vespasian. When Vespasian returned to Rome, his son Titus took over the military campaign. It was Titus who led the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The siege began in April A.D. 70 and by the end of August the Temple was first occupied then destroyed. Josephus describes the actual attack on the temple:
WHILE the holy house was on fire, every thing was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity, but children, and old men, and profane persons, and priests were all slain in the same manner;

AND now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy. And now all the soldiers had such vast quantities of the spoils which they had gotten by plunder, that in Syria a pound weight of gold was sold for half its former value.

What happened to the Christians?

According to the historian Eusebius (A.D. 260-340) Christians escaped from Jerusalem either before the siege, as the Roman armies surrounded the city, or during a lull in the fighting. The bulk of the Jewish Christians probably left Jerusalem in A.D. 66 when war broke out. For this they would later be branded as traitors by their Jewish countrymen.

By A.D. 70: James had been stoned in Jerusalem. Paul and Peter, had been martyred in Rome, by beheading and crucifixion respectively. Nero was dead. Jerusalem had been sacked, and the temple destroyed, and with its destruction came an end to Jewish temple worship. Over a million Jews died during the wars. It was, in many ways, the end of the Jewish age. We now turn to Rome as the center of the Christian world, and what happened there after Nero’s persecution.

Post-Nero Rome

Nero was identified by the early Christians as the antichrist. This is a fascinating story. It is entwined with that fact that after Nero’s suicide, many in the eastern provinces (where he was popular) did not believe he was dead. Indeed, for about twenty years there arose a series of pretender Neros. After that, the hope shifted into an expectation that Nero would return from the dead to reclaim his sovereignty. This superstition continued almost to the end of the second century. Some attribute the early church identification of Nero as the antichrist as stemming from this pagan superstition.

Who was the sixth king?

This is a provocative side-question arising from the book of Revelation
7When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: "Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come. 9"This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. 11The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.(Rev 17:7-11).

Many identify the kings as Roman emperors on the basis of the "seven hills." Only one city is known throughout history as the "City of Seven Hills:" Rome (Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, and Capitoline). The passage indicates that at the time of writing, five emperors have fallen, the sixth presently reigns, and the seventh has not yet come, but when he does come, he will reign for just a little while.

The most natural counting scheme of Roman kings (emperors) is:

  1. Julius Caesar (49-44)
  2. Agustus (31-14)
  3. Tiberius (14-37)
  4. Caligula (37-41)
  5. Claudius (41-54)
  6. Nero (54-68)
  7. Galba (68-69)
  8. Otho (69-69)
  9. Vitellius (69-69)
  10. Vespasian (69-79)
  11. Titus (79-81)
  12. Domitian (81-96)

This enumeration is not universally accepted (the debate is whether to begin the count with Julius Caesar or Augustus, the first to oficially hold the title), but it is found in various ancient sources including Josephus, who refers to Augustus as "the second" and Tiberius as "the third." This enumeration has Nero as the sixth and "current" king from the perspective of the writer of Revelation places the writing of Revelation much earlier that is often taught, and most importantly it fixes its writing as having occurred before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Note that no enumeration results in Domitian as the sixth king (many believe the book was written during Domitian’s reign, circa A.D. 90). The most biased in that direction is to start with Augustus and skip (as inconsequential) Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. That still results in Vespasian, not Domitian as number six. That is still a much earlier date than many would like—but it is after the destruction of Jerusalem.

What does Revelation say about the destruction of Jerusalem? Nothing. Like with all the books of the New Testament, there is a deafening silence. This is the strongest internal evidence for the early date for Revelation and in fact evidence that all scripture was completed by the time of Nero’s death, If Jerusalem had already been destroyed, with well over a million Jews killed, hundreds of thousands of others in bondage, and the rest scattered, not to mention the temple in ruins, it is reasonable to expect that such a catastrophic event would warrant a mention.

Recovery from Nero’s Persecution

Nero's persecution of the Christians was horrific but not fatal. However, for the next two hundred plus years, until a Christian sat on the throne of Augustus, the story of Christianity is one of a constant struggle against Imperial Rome. It should be noted that the Gentile Christians did not seek confrontation with the Roman state, the citizens of which they desired to evangelize. That had nothing equivalent to the party of the zealots that incited the Jews to rebel. Paul, a Roman citizen, regarded the magistrates as ministers of God in place to contain crime, and Christians faithfully paid their taxes (a recurring source of tension for the Jews.) Even at this early stage, Christians saw the hand of God behind the empire and the infrastructure it provided to help in spreading the gospel. In short, Christians viewed the empire as a good thing, but it had to shake its paganism.

The respect was not mutual. At this time, Christianity was held in low esteem by Roman society. Evidence suggests that it was viewed as a combination of atheism and Judaism. Certainly it was clearly recognized as distinct from Judaism and so it ranked as an illegal cult. Any hope to win official recognition was pointless. Unlike Judaism, which was the religion of a distinct sub-nation with the empire, Christianity was not the religion of any particular nation or people, nor did it boast of any long-established customs. To many it was a vulgar innovation whose religious aspect was probably a fa├žade hiding something worse. Recall Tacitus referred to Christians as "a class of men loathed for their vices", and Suetonius called Christianity "a novel and baneful superstition".

Christians were atheists, in the minds of many, for they worshipped no visible god. And they were haters of the human race, because Christian scruples prevented them from engaging in the normal social intercourse. Also, since the fire of A.D. 64 that launched Nero’s persecution, the imperial police took great interest in their gatherings, forcing them to meet in secret, which increased the perception that they had something to hide. And exactly what were their alleged secret activities? Stories circulated about ritualistic cannibalism and ceremonial incest.

Titus held the throne for only two years, and was succeeded by his younger brother Domitian who would rule for about fifteen years. Both Vespasian and Titus had been revered and were afforded the posthumous honor of being deified. Domitian was despised and in some sense wisely did wait for death for deification, for if he had he would not have received the honor. Instead he declared himself "Lord and God" and demanded the oath "by the genius of the emperor".

Domitian’s reign was characterized by suspicion, and for good reason –he had many enemies in the senate. His deification created a crisis for the Jews and caused embarrassment for the church as well. This only served to increase Domitian’s paranoia. He took some repressive action against the Jews, including increased penalties for proselytizing and severe taxation.

Among those who fell victim to imperial suspicion were his cousin Titus Flavius Clemens, consul in the year 95 and his wife Flavia Domitilla, the emperor’s niece. What is intriguing is that Domitilla was put on trial for this nebulous mix of Judaism and atheism, which many have taken as meaning Christianity.(Probably the real reason Domitian brought charges was to remove a perceived threat, and he used the religious accusations to find a crime the senate would recognize.) Clemens was executed, and Domitilla was exiled. This familial purge is all the more intriguing because the childless Domitian had designated Clemens and Domitilla’s sons as his heirs. Their fate is unknown.

The historian Dio Cassius writes about this period:
At this time the road leading from Sinuessa to Puteoli was paved with stone. And the same year Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor's. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria. (Dio Cassius, History (Epitome), LXVII, 14.

Bear in mind the significance of the possibility is that just thirty years after Nero’s persecution, a Roman family of the highest social and political ranks (and at one point a heartbeat away from the throne) might have been Christians. It bears further examination of the evidence beyond the mere fact that they had suffered the same accusation that is known to have been used against believers.

More circumstantial evidence comes from the historian Suetonius who wrote of Clemens "[he is] a man despised by all for his inactive life." This so-called inactive life, once again, often indicated Christians who withdrew from societal excess.

There is also archeological evidence. One of the oldest Christian burial places in Rome is called Cemetery of Domitilla. Evidence indicates that (1) its usage began at the start of the second century and (2) the land beneath which the burial place was hollowed out belonged to Flavia Domitilla. The burial grounds contain the remains of martyrs and shows evidence of being used for a devotional place up through the fourth century. It seems unlikely that the family land would not have been used as such had Flavia Domitilla not been a Christian.

The point is that by the end of the first century, Christianity have both recovered (from Nero) and changed. It no longer was the exclusive province of the lower strata of the Roman populace.

No comments:

Post a Comment