Dr. Travis Williams discusses the dangerous conditions for Christians in the Roman Empire at the time of the writing of I Peter during the second session of the Theologian-in-Residence series.
The dangerous conditions for early Christians in Asia Minor living in a world where their religion was effectively illegal were explored during the second session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College.
Dr. Travis Williams, assistant professor of religion at Tusculum, is leading the annual series, a study of New Testament epistle of I Peter. The annual lecture series is sponsored by the college with partial funding from Ron Smith.
In the lecture series, Dr. Williams is focusing on the “why” of I Peter – why it was written and why it was written in a certain manner. “We need to understand the social situation to be able to understand why the letter was written,” he said.
Biblical scholars are of a consensus that the epistle was written in response to persecution of the early Christians in the Roman provinces in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The letter of I Peter was written as a circular letter to be read and distributed to a number of churches in Asia Minor.
In looking at the historical context of I Peter, early Christians were facing persecution for their behavior in a society in which religion, the worship of the traditional Greek and Roman gods and of the Roman emperor, was a part of almost every facet of life.
In I Peter 4, the author tells his readers that because they no longer live the way they did previously, those who live around them are surprised they no longer join them in their “wild, reckless way of living,” but heap abuse on them.
What the early Christians were not doing goes back to their Christian identity, Dr. Williams said. Some Christians stopped going to the Roman Games, which often included the punishment of criminals by animal mauling, the meetings of voluntary associations and meals. He explained that the meetings of voluntary associations involved the worship of the gods and the meals, which could be for a celebratory occasion, were often held in the temples to the Roman gods and often involved heavy drinking and other debauchery.
Christians also did not worship the Roman emperor. However, he said, what caused more issues for early Christians was not worshiping the traditional gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon, which led to them being blamed for natural disasters by their neighbors. There are incidents recorded in which church meetings were interrupted by people coming in and trying to force the Christians to make sacrifices to the gods, he noted.
Another cause of the persecution was in the legal realm, as Christianity became effectively illegal as some point in the first couple of centuries of the church, Dr. Williams said. “While no laws prohibited Christianity, a Christian could still be tried and executed for being a Christian.”
The nature of that legal persecution has been misunderstood by Biblical scholars, Dr. Williams said. The prominent scholarly position is that the persecution at the time of I Peter was localized, sporadic and not governmental, but rather harassment from the general population. That position is based on a premise that official Roman government persecution did not begin until around 250 C.E.
However, Pliny, a provincial governor in Asia Minor who ruled in about 112 C.E., 50 years after the writing of I Peter, sent a letter to the emperor Trajan about what to do about people who are accused of being a Christian before him in court. Pliny mentions in his letter that he has not attended any trials of Christians, which indicates that they have occurred previously, and seeks Trajan’s guidance.
Pliny tells Trajan he has executed those who have declared they are Christians and let those who recanted go free. Trajan responds that he has done correctly, but also tells him not to seek out Christians to arrest them, but handle cases as they are brought before him. Williams noted that Pliny asked for the emperor’s guidance on almost every question, so he must have felt confident to have Christians executed without seeking approval from the emperor.
In the time of Paul, Christians were charged with disturbing the peace rather than for being Christians. During Paul’s time, Christianity was seen as a sect of Judaism by Roman authorities and was protected somewhat.
However, Dr. Williams said, something had changed by the time of Pliny, a change that came during the reign of the emperor Nero, who ruled before I Peter was written.
Nero had a plan to tear down buildings in parts of Rome that had become slums and rebuild these areas, but this plan met resistance. However, Nero had his henchmen torch buildings in these areas anyway, but the fires spread and burnt large portions of the city. The emperor needed a scapegoat, Dr. Williams explained, and Christians, a group that was already disliked, became that scapegoat.
Christians were charged with the fire and executed, he said. Nero was known for tying Christians to poles at his dinner parties and setting them on fire for entertainment as well as light for the parties.
While it was dangerous for Christians, there were some safety nets for them during the time of I Peter – it could be expensive for someone to bring a charge against them due to travel to where a governor was holding court and if a person recanted their faith, their accuser could face execution for bring a false accusation.
The types of persecution that people faced could also differ by their status in society. For example, a slave could face harsh treatment such as beatings by their owner with no recourse as slaves had no rights. A believer who was the wife of an unbeliever, he said, might face divorce and lose their children or be beaten by her husband who had the legal right to do whatever he wished to his wife.
About 85 percent of people in Asia Minor lived in poverty and the loss of even one or two customers by a small businessman who becomes a Christian might mean that his family goes hungry, he might eventually lose his business and go to the poor house to pay his debts. A person of that held a place of position who became a Christian might face losing that respected place in society and be charged as a Christian in court by his former colleagues.
Dr. Williams will continue his study on Tuesday, Feb. 18, with a session exploring the social strategy of I Peter and how the epistle responds to the persecution. The series will conclude on Tuesday, Feb. 25, with a look at the function of good works in the text.
The sessions begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum College campus. There is no charge to attend the lecture series, but reservations are required as lunch is provided in the college’s cafeteria. For more information or to register, please call 423-636-7304 or email email@example.com.