Book Reviews

Roman Attitudes toward the Christians

From Claudius to Hadrian

John Granger Cook Tubingen 2013-06-13

How was the early church viewed by the ruling authorities and its non-Christian neighbors? The usual approach to this issue is to read uncritically an ancient source or two and draw conclusions, or read a secondary source that to various degrees has interacted with the question. Cook has evaluated the important available evidence and has provided a critical analysis and sober conclusions. This is not simply a secondary source that has interacted with some primary sources. Cook has competently analyzed and commented on all the available important evidence as well as much less significant material. Concerning the ancient sources Cook correctly notes that “Theologians [by which one may assume he means those involved in both biblical and theological studies] sometimes read this material too quickly” (p. 2). This might also be said about classicists who enter the field of biblical studies. Cook does not approach the sources in a casual or uncritical manner. Rather, he applies the traditional historical-critical method (p. 2) and critically analyzes his sources before coming to conclusions.

Chapter 1 discusses the emperor Claudius (AD 41–54), under whose reign may be the first extrabiblical mention of Christians. The main source is the second-century writer Suetonius; however, his source was probably much earlier. Much of the chapter is devoted to identifying “Chrestus” in the famous passage in Suetonius, Claudius, 25.4: “Claudius expelled the Jews, who were constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, from Rome” (p. 14; cf. Acts 18:2). Although Cook’s defense of the positive identification is excellent, the reviewer is still not persuaded. Suetonius who wrote this statement long after the events would not have misspelled this name if it appeared this way in his source.

The chapter on Nero is much longer, due in part to a detailed phrase-by-phrase critical exegesis of much of Tacitus, Annals, 15.44, on the fire in Rome and the subsequent persecution of the church (pp. 39–81). Nero’s persecution was not official nor empirewide. However, it was terrible. The Tacitus passage even notes the pity the Romans had for the Christians during this time, despite Tacitus’s and probably the prevailing view that Christians were generally terrible people and worthy of punishment simply because they were Christians. All the extant sources about Nero and the fire were written long after the event, most of them in the early second century. What is clear from these sources is that the Romans viewed Christians as superstitious, those who practiced shameful and degrading things, and who were guilty because they were viewed as being against society (“haters of the human race”) (see Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Much of Cook’s work in this chapter discusses these (and other) charges and the types of suffering the Christians endured (pp. 46–83). Additional material in this chapter includes discussions of Peter and Paul’s deaths (probably under Nero) and a possible reference to Nero in the book of Revelation.

Chapter 3 is about Domitian (AD 81–96), the emperor under whom the final books of the New Testament were probably written (including Revelation; however, Cook seems to maintain that some books were written later, pp. 108, 136, 292). Although Domitian seems to have encouraged belief in his own divinity (pp. 112–17 present an excellent survey of this issue), little evidence exists that a significant persecution was aimed at Christianity during his reign. Persecution against Christians probably occurred at the hands of local governments, not by the emperor.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the reigns of Trajan (AD 98–117) and Hadrian (AD 117–38). The Trajan chapter is the longest in the book because of the famous correspondence between the emperor and Pliny the Younger in which the trials and punishments of Christians are discussed (Pliny, Letters 10.96–97). Cook’s treatment of the letter by Pliny (10.96) is very detailed (with background information, pp. 138–227). Apparently Pliny (and others during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian) viewed Christians as those who left their Roman faith (p. 251). Essentially Pliny’s letters suggest that Christians were not to be sought out, but if they were brought before the magistrate and would not deny Christ, they were to be punished. Anyone interested in this correspondence is well served by this chapter. The chapter on Hadrian primarily discusses a decree from Hadrian to Minicius Fundanus, governor of Asia, which was attached as an appendix to Justin’s Apology. Cook maintains that this is genuine (pp. 279–80). Hadrian’s policy here generally follows Trajan’s.

The final chapter includes a sad commentary on Christianity. Here Cook briefly explores the way Christians treated pagans and Jews once they gained power (pp. 281–90; see also pp. 92–94, which includes heterodox and heretical Christian sects). Unfortunately the Byzantine church seems to have acted in the same way toward pagans and Jews as the Romans did toward Christians. Laws were passed against non-Christian activities but local clerics could go beyond these to persecute these other groups. This short chapter is not the purpose of this book. More is needed here to give a more complete picture of this topic.

The volume concludes with a twenty-eight-page, small-print biblio-graphy including ancient sources, databases, CD ROMs, websites, and modern works. This is followed by four helpful indexes: sources (organized by type and corpus), ancient individuals, modern authors, subjects. Ancient sources are prominent throughout the entire volume. These are often quoted extensively. In most cases both the original language quotation and an English translation are included. The book is readable and includes extensive documentation and discussion in footnotes.

In summary Nero’s persecution was horrible and although it happened primarily in Rome, the first official empire-wide persecution took place under Decius (AD 249–251). Local persecutions occurred at various times. For the most part Christians were seen by their neighbors as superstitious, unwilling to participate in the Roman system, and as atheists. Though seen as guilty of crimes, they were usually not actively pursued and punished (although this was always a possibility at the local level). Ultimately laws could be used to prosecute Christians, but for the most part the attitude of the Romans toward Christianity seems to have driven them to persecute Christians (p. 290).

This book gives the most up-to-date and thorough presentation on how outsiders viewed the earliest church. Cook is to be commended for the enormous amount of work he has put into this volume. It is a great service to anyone interested in this topic.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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