Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Breaking news: Early Christians were impious atheists . . . (NT 3.2),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=272.
in the eyes of some angry Greeks and Romans, that is.
Followers of Jesus, like others devoted to the God of the Judeans, were among the most odd inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world when it comes to their attitudes towards the gods of others. Virtually everyone agreed that there were many gods, and that each home, association, city, ethnic group, or empire might have its own favourite deities without denying others. Few beyond those who honoured the Judean God were concerned with denying the legitimacy of other gods or with questioning other peoples’ practice of honouring their own gods, even if they looked down upon people from another ethnic group or place.
Monotheism was not the norm in antiquity. It was an anomaly. As a result, some Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and others had difficulty making sense of the Judean focus on one god, which seemed to them the equivalent of denying the gods altogether, of “atheism”.
Despite other ways in which they made a home in the Greco-Roman world, this is where the early followers of Jesus were at odds with surrounding culture, and it could be a source of harassment, abuse or even violence. In times of trouble or catastrophe, fingers began to point at those who failed to honour the gods properly, at the “atheists”. The gods were punishing people through natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fires, because the gods were not being honoured fittingly and atheists like the followers of Jesus were being blamed.
This is why, in part, the emperor Nero could choose the Christians as a scapegoat for the fire that took place in Rome in 64 CE (see these sources and translations see Early Christians through Greco-Roman eyes). The Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 109 CE) relates how rumours were spreading that Nero had intentionally started a fire in an area of town where he had hoped to rebuild and renovate (Tacitus does not like Nero, by the way). To distract away from these rumours, which Tacitus implies were true, Nero was looking for someone to blame and he chose “a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). Tacitus relates how these “superstitious” Christians were tortured and killed in a disturbing display, a display that was so over the top that it went well beyond any “hatred” that the populace had, or upper class disdain Tacitus had, for these little known worshippers of the Judean God and followers of an obscure criminal executed under Pontius Pilate (as Tacitus would put it).
A similar dynamic relating to the Christians’ failure to honour the gods seems to be at work behind the accusations brought before the governor Pliny the Younger in a northern province of Asia Minor (c. 110 CE). This Roman governor, like other authorities, knows very little, if anything at all, about this obscure group devoted to one “Christ”. This even though Pliny had spent previous decades in important imperial positions in Rome itself. What he does know from locals who brought charges against the accused is that followers of Christ will not honour other gods, including the emperor as a god:
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your [emperor Trajan’s] image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do (Pliny, Epistle 10.96).
So the denial of other gods was perhaps the most important source of conflict and the strangest thing about devotees of the Judean God and of Christ. So far, I’ve not mentioned any cases where Christians are explicitly called what is implied in the cases discussed so far, namely “atheists”. Actual martyrdoms of Christians were not very common, but when anger towards Christians reached the point of violence and death, other Christians were careful to remember the deceased who were considered martyrs, “witnesses”.
One such remembrance in the form of a story related in a letter from one Christian group to others is the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written in the decades following Polycarp’s death in the 160s CE). It is here that we find the explicit charge of atheism. The angry crowds shout out “away with the atheists!” in reference to the Christians. And, when Polycarp is brought before the Roman governor (proconsul) of Asia for final trial, Polycarp turns the accusation on his accusers (something more than “I know you are but what am I” is going on):
“Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant saying, ‘Have respect for your age,’ and other such thngs as they are accustomed to say: ‘Swear by the Genius [guardian spirit] of Caesar; repent, say, ‘Away with the atheists!’ So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, ‘Away with the atheists!'” (Mart. Poly. 9.2; trans. by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer and revised by Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992]).
Similar charges of “atheism” and “impiety” were brought against Christians in Lyons in France in the 170s CE (see H. Musiurillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972], 64-65). The perception of early Christians as atheists was not uncommon.