2015.03.04: James Corke-Webster, Christian Suffering Under Rome

Speaker: Dr James Corke-Webster (University of Durham)

Title: “You will be led before kings and governors because of my name”: Exploring the Realities of Christian Suffering Under Rome

Date, time, location: Wednesday 4th March 2015, 17.30, MB3201 (Minerva Building)

Abstract: This paper will explore the nature of early Christian “persecution” under the Roman Empire. Where once it was believed that Christianity was the subject of a permanent ban, scholarship over the last century has moved towards seeing Christians as victims of spontaneous and occasional local unrest rather than continuous, targeted brutality from a central government. The final stumbling block to such minimalist positions has been the evidence of the so-called “Pliny Trajan correspondence”. This correspondence includes a letter sent by the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus in the early 2nd century AD to the emperor Trajan on the subject of the Christians, and the response it elicited. The dominant reading of these letters maintains that they prove the illegality of Christianity from this point on. This paper will present a re-reading of the letters as evidence only of an overexposed governor’s attempts to shut down as swiftly as possible a local situation that has shifted under his feet and is threatening to run away with him, which elicited a local and limited response from the emperor in Rome. There is no convincing evidence that they established a widely used precedent for the treatment of Christians under Roman law. Traditional interpretations of the letters derive from reading them alongside Christian evidence which often has its own ideology of “unjust suffering”. In closing then I will turn to the earliest known readers of the correspondence, the Christian authors Tertullian of Carthage (in the early 3rd century) and Eusebius of Caesarea (in the early 4th), whose misleading presentations of these crucial ancient documents pre-empt – and perhaps inspire – modern misunderstandings.