In the New Testament
Early Christianity began as a sect among Second Temple Jews, and according to the New Testament account, Pharisees, including Paul of Tarsus prior to his conversion to Christianity, persecuted early Christians. The early Christians preached the second coming of a Messiah which did not conform to their religious teachings. However, feeling that their beliefs were supported by Jewish scripture, Christians had been hopeful that their countrymen would accept their faith. Despite individual conversions, the vast majority of Judean Jews did not become Christians.
Claudia Setzer asserts that, "Jews did not see Christians as clearly separate from their own community until at least the middle of the second century." Thus, acts of Jewish persecution of Christians fall within the boundaries of synagogue discipline and were so perceived by Jews acting and thinking as the established community. The Christians, on the other hand, saw themselves as persecuted rather than "disciplined."
Inter-communal dissension began almost immediately with the teachings of Stephen at Jerusalem, who was considered an apostate. According to the Acts of the Apostles, a year after the Crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was stoned for his alleged transgression of the faith, with Saul (who later converted and was renamed Paul) looking on.
In 41 AD, when Agrippa I, who already possessed the territory of Antipas and Phillip, obtained the title of King of the Jews, in a sense re-forming the Kingdom of Herod, he was reportedly eager to endear himself to his Jewish subjects and continued the persecution in which James the Greater lost his life, Peter narrowly escaped and the rest of the apostles took flight.
After Agrippa's death, the Roman procuratorship began (before 41 they were Prefects in Iudaea Province) and those leaders maintained a neutral peace, until the procurator Festus died and the high priest Annas II took advantage of the power vacuum to attack the Church and executed James the Just, then leader of Jerusalem's Christians. The New Testament states that Paul was himself imprisoned on several occasions by the Roman authorities, stoned by the Pharisees and left for dead on one occasion, and was eventually taken to Rome as a prisoner. Peter and other early Christians were also imprisoned, beaten and harassed. The great Jewish revolt, spurred by the Roman killing of 3,000 Jews, led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the end of Second Temple Judaism (and the subsequent slow rise of Rabbinic Judaism ), and the disempowering of the Jewish persecutors. According to an old church tradition, which is mostly doubted by historians, the early Christian community had fled Jerusalem beforehand, to the already pacified region of Pella.
Luke T. Johnson nuances the harsh portrayal of the Jews in the Gospels by contextualizing the polemics within the rhetoric of contemporaneous philosophical debate, showing how rival schools of thought routinely insulted and slandered their opponents. These attacks were formulaic and stereotyped, crafted to define who was the enemy in the debates, but not used with the expectation that their insults and accusations would be taken literally, as they would be centuries later, resulting in millennia of Christian antisemitism.
By the 4th century, John Chrysostom argued that the Pharisees alone, not the Romans, were responsible for the murder of Jesus. However, according to Walter Laqueur, "Absolving Pilate from guilt may have been connected with the missionary activities of early Christianity in Rome and the desire not to antagonize those they want to convert."
In the Roman Empire
Persecution of the Christians.
Under Nero, 64–68 AD
The first documented case of imperially supervised persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (54–68). In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Some people suspected that Nero himself was the arsonist, as Suetonius reported, claiming that he played the lyre and sang the 'Sack of Ilium' during the fires. In the Annals of Tacitus, we read:
...To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Chrestians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (emphasis added)
This passage in Tacitus constitutes the only independent attestation that Nero blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome, and while it is generally believed to be authentic and reliable, some modern scholars have cast doubt on this view, largely because there is no further reference to Nero's blaming of Christians for the fire until the late 4th century. Suetonius, later to the period, does not mention any persecution after the fire, but in a previous paragraph unrelated to the fire, mentions punishments inflicted on Christians, defined as men following a new and malefic superstition. Suetonius, however, does not specify the reasons for the punishment; he simply lists the fact together with other abuses put down by Nero.:269
From the 2nd century to Constantine
In the first two centuries Christianity was a relatively small sect which was not a significant concern of the Emperor. The Church was not in a struggle for its existence during its first centuries, before its adoption by the Roman Empire as its national religion. Persecutions of Christians were sporadic and locally inspired.
One traditional account of killing is the Persecution in Lyon in which Christians were purportedly mass-slaughtered by being thrown to wild beasts under the decree of Roman officials for reportedly refusing to renounce their faith according to St. Irenaeus. The sole source for this event is early Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea's Church History, an account written in Egypt in the 4th century. Tertullian's Apologeticus of 197 was ostensibly written in defense of persecuted Christians and was addressed to Roman governors.
Trajan's policy towards Christians was no different from the treatment of other sects, that is, they would only be punished if they refused to worship the emperor and the gods, but they were not to be sought out. The "edict of Septimius Severus" touted in the Augustan History is considered unreliable by historians. According to Eusebius, the Imperial household of Maximinus' predecessor, Alexander, had contained many Christians. Eusebius states that, hating his predecessor's household, Maximinus ordered that the leaders of the churches should be put to death. According to Eusebius, this persecution of 235 sent Hippolytus of Rome and Pope Pontian into exile but other evidence suggests that the persecutions of 235 were local to the provinces where they occurred rather than happening under the direction of the Emperor.
Under the reign of Emperor Decius, a decree was issued requiring public sacrifice, a formality equivalent to a testimonial of allegiance to the Emperor and the established order. Decius authorized roving commissions visiting the cities and villages to supervise the execution of the sacrifices and to deliver written certificates to all citizens who performed them. Christians were often given opportunities to avoid further punishment by publicly offering sacrifices or by burning incense to Roman gods, and were accused by the Romans of impiety when they refused. Refusal was punished by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and executions. Christians fled to safe havens in the countryside and some purchased their certificates, called libelli. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept these lapsed Christians.
The Christian church, despite no indication in the surviving texts that the edict targeted any specific group, never forgot the reign of Decius whom they labelled as that "fierce tyrant".
Some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Roman authorities tried hard to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death."
According to Droge and Tabor, "in 185 the proconsul of Asia, Arrius Antoninus, was approached by a group of Christians demanding to be executed. The proconsul obliged some of them and then sent the rest away, saying that if they wanted to kill themselves there was plenty of rope available or cliffs they could jump off." Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian's Scorpiace and in the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch but was not the only view of martyrdom in the early Christian church. The 2nd-century text Martyrdom of Polycarp relates the story of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who did not desire death, but died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire miraculously failed to touch him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp advances an argument for a particular understanding of martyrdom, with Polycarp's death as its prized example. The example of the Phrygian Quintus, who actively sought out martyrdom, is repudiated.
According to two different Christian traditions, Simon bar Kokhba, the leader of the second Jewish revolt against Rome (132–136 AD) who was proclaimed Messiah, persecuted the Christians: Justin Martyr claims that Christians were punished if they did not deny and blaspheme Jesus Christ, while Eusebius asserts that Bar Kokhba harassed them because they refused to join his revolt against the Romans. The latter is likely true, and Christians' refusal to take part in the revolt against the Roman Empire was a key event in the schism of Early Christianity and Judaism.
The Great Persecution
These persecutions culminated with the reign of Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third century and the beginning of the 4th century. The Great Persecution is considered the largest. Beginning with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy, the persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face immediate execution. According to legend, one of the martyrs during the Diocletian persecution was Saint George, a Roman soldier who loudly renounced the Emperor's edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes claimed to be a Christian by declaring his worship of Jesus Christ. Though Diocletian zealously persecuted Christians in the Eastern part of the empire, his co-emperors in the West did not follow the edicts so Christians in Gaul, Spain, and Britannia were virtually unmolested.
This persecution lasted until Constantine I came to power in 313 and legalized Christianity. It was not until Theodosius I in the later 4th century that Christianity would become the official religion of the Empire. Between these two events Julian II temporarily restored the traditional Roman religion and established broad religious tolerance renewing Pagan and Christian hostilities.
Martyrs were considered uniquely exemplary of the Christian faith, and few early saints were not also martyrs.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural". Attempts at estimating the numbers involved are inevitably based on inadequate sources, but one historian of the persecutions estimates the overall numbers as between 5,500 and 6,500., a number also adopted by later writers including Yuval Noah Harari:
In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians.
In the Sassanian Empire
The Sassanian policy shifted from tolerance of other religions under Shapur I to intolerance under Vahrans and apparently a return to the policy of Shapur until the reign of Shapur II. The persecution at that time was initiated by Constantine's conversion to Christianity which followed that of Armenian king Tiridates in about 301 A.D. The Christians were thus viewed with suspicions of secretly being partisans of Roman Empire. This didn't change until the fifth century when the Nestorian Church broke off from the Church of Antioch.
Zoroastrian elites continued viewing the Christians with enmity and distrust throughout the fifth century with threat of persecution remaining significant, especially during war against the Romans.
Kartir in his Kaba'yi Zartust inscription dated about 280, refers to persecution (zatan – "to beat, kill") of Christians ("Nazareans n'zl'y and Christians klstyd'n"). Kartir took Christianity as a serious opponent. The use of the double expression may be indicative of the Greek-speaking Christians deported by Shapur I from Antioch and other cities during his war against the Romans. Constantine's efforts to protect the Persian Christians made them a target of accusations of disloyalty to Sasanians. With the resumption of Roman-Sasanian conflict under Constantius II, the Christian position became untenable. Zoroastrian priests targeted clergy and ascetics of local Christians to eliminate the leaders of the church. A Syriac manuscript in Edessa in 411 documents dozens executed in various parts of western Sasanian Empire.
In 341, Shapur II ordered the persecution of all Christians. In response to their subversive attitude and support of Romans, Shahpur II doubled the tax on Christians. Shemon Bar Sabbae informed him that he could not pay the taxes demanded from him and his community. He was martyred and a forty-year-long period of persecution of Christians began. The Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon gave up choosing bishops since it would result in death. The local mobads with the help of satraps organized slaughters of Christians in Adiabene, Beth Garmae, Khuzistan and many other provinces.
Yazdegerd I showed tolerance towards Jews and Christians for much of his rule. He allowed Christians to practice their religion freely, demolished monasteries and churches were rebuilt and missionaries were allowed to operate freely. He reversed his policies during the later part of his reign however, suppressing missionary activities. Bahram V continued and intensified their persecution, resulting in many of them fleeing to the Byzantine Empire. Bahram demanded their return, sparking a war between the two. The war ended in 422 with agreement of freedom of religion for Christians in Iran with that of Mazdaism in Byzantium. Meanwhile, Christians suffered destruction of churches,
renounced the faith, had their private property confiscated and many were expelled.
Shah Yazdegerd II (439–457) had ordered all his subjects to embrace Mazdeism in an attempt to unite his empire ideologically. The Caucasus rebelled to defend Christianity which had become integrated in their local culture, with Armenian aristocrats turning to the Romans for help. The rebels were however defeated in a battle on the Avaryr Plain. Yeghishe in his The History of Vardan and the Armenian War, pays a tribute to the battles waged to defend Christianity. Another revolt was waged from 481–483 which was suppressed. However, the Armenians succeeded in gaining freedom of religion among other improvements.
Accounts of executions for apostasy of Zoroastrians who converted to Christianity during Sasanian rule proliferated from the fifth to early seventh century, and continued to be produced even after collapse of Sasanians. The punishment of apostates increased under Yazdegerd I and continued under successive kings. It was normative for apostates who were brought to the notice of authorities to be executed, although the prosecution of apostasy depended on political circumstances and Zoroastrian jurisprudence. Per Richard E. Payne, the executions were meant to create a mutually recognised boundary between interactions of the people of the two religions and preventing one religion challenging another's viability. Although the violence on Christians was selective and especially carried out on elites, it served to keep Christian communities in a subordinate and yet viable position in relation to Zoroastrianism. Christians were allowed to build religious buildings and serve in the government as long as they didn't expand their institutions and population at the expense of Zoroastrianism.
Khosrow I was generally regarded as tolerant of Christians and interested in the philosophical and theological disputes during his reign. Sebeos claimed he had converted to Christianity on his deathbed. John of Ephesus describes an Armenian revolt where he claims that Khusrow had attempted to impose Zoroastrianism in Armenia. The account, however, is very similar to the one of Armenian revolt of 451. In addition, Sebeos doesn't mention any religious persecution in his account of the revolt of 571. Story about Hormizd IV's tolerance is preserved by the historian al-Tabari. Upon being asked why he tolerated Christians, he replied, "Just as our royal throne cannot stand upon its front legs without its two back ones, our kingdom cannot stand or endure firmly if we cause the Christians and adherents of other faiths, who differ in belief from ourselves, to become hostile to us."
By Jewish tribes in Yemen
In AD 516, a tribal unrest broke out in Yemen and several tribal elites fought for power. One of those elites was Joseph Dhu Nuwas or "Yousef Asa'ar", a Jewish warlord mentioned in ancient south Arabian inscriptions. Syriac and Byzantine sources claim that he fought his war because Christians in Yemen refused to renounce Christianity. In 2009, a documentary that aired on the BBC defended the claim that the villagers had been offered the choice between conversion to Judaism or death and that 20,000 Christians were then massacred stating that "The production team spoke to many historians over 18 months, among them Nigel Groom, who was our consultant, and Professor Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary, a former professor of archaeology at the King Saud University in Riyadh." Inscriptions documented by Yousef himself show the great pride that he expressed after killing more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran. Historian Glen Bowersock described this as a "savage pogrom that the Jewish king of the Arabs launched against the Christians in the city of Najran. The king himself reported in excruciating detail to his Arab and Persian allies about the massacres that he had inflicted on all Christians who refused to convert to Judaism."
In the 4th century, the Terving king Athanaric in ca. 375 ordered a persecution of Christians.