The oppressors and the oppressed
Today’s history snippets: An 86 year old Turkish man was snatched from his home by religious fanatics forcing him to worship their god, set alight in front of a crowd and pierced with a spear. A 15 year old French slave girl tortured for days, thrown around by a wild beast and killed with a dagger. Two young Tunisian mothers stripped naked and given to wild beasts in public before being stabbed in the throat.
Today many view Christianity as a white oppressive male religion. Despite the fact countless Black and Asian women are converting to Christianity in areas of intense persecution such as Africa and China in the present day while countless Anglo Saxon males are turning away from churches.
Christianity began through oppression but maybe not how you’d expect. Jesus was killed. Paul was beheaded, James killed with the sword, Peter crucified. The first evangelists were females.
Roman historian Tacitus spoke of the persecution of early Christians, “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths… burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.. (Annals 15.44)”. The suffering of early Christians is also attested by Shepherd of Hermas, Melito of Sardis, Dionysius of Corinth, Hegesippus, Eusebius, Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, Pliny, Josephus etc.
Early Roman graffiti (Alexamenos) likens Jesus to a donkey who received honour
While Augustus Caesar was known as Divi Filius or Son of God, his religion died out while that of a dying oppressed man spread dramatically. What Jesus brought to the world was vastly different to Caesar- humbling himself for the good of others. As non Christian historian Tom Holland described in Dominion, “Christ, by making himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave, had plumbed the depths to which only the poorest, the most persecuted and abused of mortals were confined (p. 69).”
Compare this to the common elitist oppressive view in the Roman world at the time which Holland describes, “To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior: to be marked as womanish, barbarian, servile. While the body of a free-born Roman was sacrosanct, those of others were fair game (p. 81).” Holland goes on to describe how masters were entitled to use their slaves’ bodies as they pleased with the Latin word meio meaning both ejaculate and urinate. Both activities were simply meeting the need of a master.
Yet, as Holland notes, to be Christian meant to suffer “as Christ had done, to be beaten, degraded, and abused, was to share in his glory (p. 81).” The two worldviews could not be more different. Which one was oppressive?
Here are 3 quick historical events:
(1) Blandina the Slave Girl (died 177 AD aged around 15)
Blandina died in what is now known as Lyon, France. Emperor Marucs Aurelius allowed for Roman citizens who continued in their faith to be executed by beheading. Christians were falsely accused of cannibalism and incest.
Blandina refused to recant her faith repeatedly claiming she was a Christian and committed no wrongdoing. She was tied to a stake in the arena in Lyon with wild beasts roaming around her. She later faced a brutal scourging, thrown on a red hot grate and covered in a net before a wild animal threw her into the air with his thorns before she was killed with a dagger. Even the so called heathens at the time couldn’t remember anyone tortured to such an extent. Christians martyred during this period of the Gallic persecution were refused a proper burial with their rotting and broken bodies thrown to the wild dogs on the streets.
(2) Perpetua and Felicity (died 203 AD aged in early 20s)
Vibia Perpetua died in her early 20s in what is now Tunisia soon after being married and nursing an infant son. In prison she was joined by Felicity, a young slave girl who was pregnant at the time. Perpetua regularly breastfed her young son while imprisoned and had refused to deny her faith despite her father’s persistent efforts. Perpetua remained at peace while in prison encouraging others to stay strong in the faith.
Perpetua and Felicity were stripped naked and placed in nets in an amphitheatre for food for the wild heifer. Yet, even for the crowd this was too cruel an act as the guards then placed simple tunics to cover both of their bodies while in the theatre. Perpetua was later stabbed by a guard in the throat and as the guard started to tremble Perpetua helped him guide the sword through her throat to finish the task he was given.
(3) Polycarp (died 155 AD likely at age 86)
Irenaueus and Tertullian claim Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle who in turn was Jesus’ disciple. Polycarp was in a home when Roman guards came knocking on his door. He asked the guards if they wanted anything to eat and if they would allow him some time to pray. Understandably, the guards were shocked that such a gentle but frail man in his mid to late 80s would be the topic of vicious interest from the authorities. Polycarp was asked several times to offer worship to Caesar but refused. In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as courageously saying on the day of his death: “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong.” For refusing to burn incense to the emperor, Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced with a spear.
THE WAY FORWARD
Do Christians being prepared to die for their faith show Jesus rose from the dead? No. We will address the resurrection in our next post (subscribe for free to the Substack newsletter if you wish to read this). However, what these events show is that these early Christians were sincere. They didn’t receive any worldly benefit for believing. They didn’t make it up to oppress people or gain riches or power or sex. They might have been deceived but there is no chance they were intentionally deceiving as another shred of skin was ripped off by a Roman guard or another litre of blood dribbled down their back during a scourging. What do you think they were dying for? Was what they said about Jesus true or were they deceived beyond belief wasting their precious years on earth?