ACTIVE hostility to the Christian Church is a matter which is clearly relevant to our enquiry into the circumstances which led to the formation of the New Testament; for the attacks of opponents both give rise to certain types of document embodying defence or counter-attack, and also afford, from time to time, clues to chronological order and circumstances. The basic Christian Creed, 'Jesus is Lord' or 'Jesus is Christ' might well find a setting in a persecution context as well as in a baptismal;and elaborations of that confession may be indicative of a particular period.
When we were considering the Church's explanation of itself, we found that it was vis-a-vis Judaism that such explanation was, in the main, required. And similarly the thesis of this chapter (which is concerned not so much with question and reply as with active attack and defence) is that Judaism bulks by far the largest among the antagonists of Christianity which have left their stamp upon the New Testament. It is a tragedy that 'the Israel of God' should have found its chief opponents from within Judaism – a tragedy made the more poignant when pre-Christian Judaism itself had had so noble a roll of martyrs to its credit, and indeed non-Christian Judaism was to continue to suffer at least obloquy and ridicule for its faith concurrently with Christianity.But that is the fact. And, as we have already seen, the Christians were quick to realize that the persecution of a minority by the majority of the religious community to which they belonged was a phenomenon already deeply embedded in the Jews' own history: which of the prophets had not their forefathers persecuted (Acts vii. 52)? To make the situation more complicated, it appears to be true that the non-Christian Jews were most prone to persecute the Christians when Judaism was itself under attack by the Roman imperial authorities. The times when there was most tolerance were precisely the times when external pressure was at its least. Relations between Christians and Jews were strained to breaking-point most naturally when it was dangerous for the one to acknowledge any contact with the other.
In the New Testament there are allusions to persecution, whether as forecasts or as narratives of events, in the Gospels and the Acts; and the other documents chiefly concerned are 2 Thess., the Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews, 1 Pet., and the Revelation. It will be well to look at these in turn.
All four Gospels contain allusions to impending antagonism against Christians, both on the private level, within households, and, publicly, on the level of both Jewish and Gentile courts (Mk xiii. 13 pars., Matt. x. 22, Lk. xii. 11, xxi. 12, Jn xvi. 2).It is relatively immaterial, for our purposes, whether or not these allusions are genuine prophecies or whether they sprang, post eventum, from the actual occurrences. In either case they stand for the recognition of the elements of conflict at the heart of the Christian situation. The Fourth Gospel actually depicts the excommunication, during the ministry of Jesus, of the blind man who had received his sight. For refusing to declare Jesus a sinner, he is banished from the synagogue (ix. 34). It is questionable whether there is any inherent reason for declaring this to be unhistorical (xii. 42 mentions excommunications again in passing); but it is certainly described in terms which make a type for all baptizands out of this blind man, who receives his sight through washing, at the behest of Jesus, in water described as (divinely) 'sent', and then is expelled by the Jews; and later in the same Gospel, excommunication and even death are promised to the faithful followers of Jesus (xvi. 2). (See above, pp. 94 f.)
Whether or not these allusions are post eventum, it is impossible to deny that Jesus himself was brought to book before both Jewish and Gentile tribunals. E. Stauffer has even made a persuasive case for the view that, long before his trial – indeed, during much of his ministry – the Jerusalem hierarchy and the rabbinic authorities had been systematically spying on him, setting traps for him, and collecting evidence against him as a teacher of error, and that he eventually came under their discipline on these grounds (see note 2, p. 41). In that same Chapter ix of St John, the Jews are said to have agreed (v. 22) that anyone who confessed Jesus as Messiah should be banned from the synagogue.
The pattern of Jesus' own life, with its provocation of fierce antagonism and its undeviating courage, was recognized by Christians as the norm for the lives of them all:
Run the great race of faith and take hold of eternal life. For to this you were called; and you confessed your faith nobly before many witnesses. Now in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Jesus Christ, who himself made the same noble confession and gave his testimony to it before Pontius Pilate, I charge you to obey your orders irreproachably and without fault until our Lord Jesus Christ appears, (1 Tim. vi. 12-14.)
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, born of David's line. This is the theme of my gospel, in whose service I am exposed to hardship, even to the point of being shut up like a common criminal; but the word of God is not shut up. And I endure it all for the sake of God's chosen ones, with this end in view, that they too may attain the glorious and eternal salvation which is in Christ Jesus. Here are words you may trust:
'If we died with him, we shall live with him;
If we endure, we shall reign with him.
If we deny him, he will deny us.
If we are faithless, he keeps faith,
For he cannot deny himself '.
(2 Tim. ii. 8-13.)
Yes, persecution will come to all who want to live a godly life as Christians, ...
(2 Tim. iii. 12.)
From the very beginning, therefore, Christians who had their eyes open set out on their way expecting antagonism and persecution. And, indeed, it had already been the lot not only of Jesus himself, but of John the Baptist, and of all the messengers of God before them. The story of the persecution of Christians is continuous with the story of their predecessors under the old dispensation, and they had ready to hand a considerable Jewish literature of martyrdom. In the books of Daniel and Judith, and in the Maccabaean stories, they could read of Jewish witness before the heathen; while in the legends of the Prophets were the patterns of heroes suffering at the hands of their own people. The writer to the Hebrews found solace in both. And simultaneously with the rise of the Christian literature, Philo the Jew was writing his indictment of Flaccus and his account of the deputation to Caligula, monuments of the contemporary Jewish witness in the face of pagan opposition.
So in the Acts the narrative of actual persecution begins: and from start to finish it is instigated by the Jews. When the Gentiles do join in, it is only in the unthinking manner of excited mobs (once, at least, their indiscriminate violence recoils upon the non-Christian Jews who are attacking the Christians, Acts xviii. 17), or because they momentarily imagine that their political peace is threatened. It is the Jews who are really the aggressors. (This is written in full and penitent realization of the terrible reversal of the roles in later history, when Jews suffered indescribably at the hands of Christians, as well as at the hands of atheists or men of other religions.) If one asks what New Testament references to the persecution of Christians are inescapably and demonstrably to be referred to Gentile action, there are extraordinarily few. Even the one reference which at first looks explicit, in 1 Thess. ii. 14, addressed to Christians at Thessalonica suffering at the hands of their own fellow-countrymen (ὑπὸ τῶν ίδών συμφυλετῶν) just as the Jewish Christians had suffered at the hands of Jews, tells us little to the contrary. Commentators in loc. such as Milligan and Rigaux are not prepared to interpret συμφυλέται rigorously in a racial sense, but think that it need only be a term of locality (so the' Ambrosiaster' reads concivibus), and, if so, might actually include Jews. It would then, presumably, be necessary to interpret Ίουδαῖος also locally, as ' a Judaean'. At most, even if we do assume here the persecution of Gentile Christians by Gentile non-Christians, there is no reason to interpret it in a sense contrary to the circumstantial account of this persecution at Thessalonica in Acts xvii. 5, where Jews are expressly named as the instigators of others – as with the martyrdom of Polycarp a century later (see E. Stauffer, Theology of the New Testament (Eng. trans., 1955), note 65, citing Mart. Polyc. xiii. i). The reason why, in this same passage in 1 Thess. ii, the final doom is said to be overtaking the Jews has been interestingly discussed by E. Bammel, ['Judenverfolgung und Naherwartung', Z.Th.K. 56 (1959), pp. 294 ff.] who conjectures that it was the expulsion of Jews from Rome that led Paul to think that the final denouement was imminent. If this is correct, it throws a significant side-light on the interrelation between the persecutions of Jews and Christians.
There is no need here to dwell at length on the stories of persecution in Acts. It is enough to recall that, over and above the Thessalonian persecution just mentioned, all the others in Acts, from the persecution conducted by Paul before his conversion to the persecutions suffered by Paul and others, are uniformly traced to Jews or Jewish instigation, except a joint attack by Jews and Gentiles at Iconium (xiv. 5), and the attacks at Philippi (xvi. 19 ff.) and Ephesus (xix. 23 ff.). The one at Philippi starts for purely mercenary reasons and significantly ends with a complete vindication of the apostles and abject apologies from the Roman authorities. So at Ephesus, it is commercial anxiety that precipitates the attack, and it is civic authority that declares it unjustified. When Roman local judicial procedure does come upon the scene, it is (with the special exceptions of Philippi and Ephesus) invariably the result, as with the trial of Jesus himself, of agitation by the Jews; it invariably leads to a verdict of 'not guilty", and if a Roman official, such as a Felix or a Festus, does try to play into the the hands of the Jews, it is confessedly unconstitutional and immoral. The allusion to Roman beatings in 2 Cor. xi. 25 (τρίς ἐραβδίσθην) need not fall outside such situations as these.
So far, then, as our only New Testament narratives go, there is no predisposition to expect other than Jewish origins for persecution. And if it is objected that the Acts is biassed in this respect, because it is a studied apologia to the Roman government, the burden of proof rests with those who try to discredit its reliability here. What do our other documents reflect?
Within the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Tim. is the only one containing more or less direct allusion to persecution. In 2 Tim. i. 8, ii. 3, iv. 5, Timothy is bidden accept his share of the suffering involved in the preaching of the Gospel; in ii. 9-12, he is reminded of the apostle's own sufferings as typical of confessional Christianity, and again in iii. 11 they are mentioned, with the corollary, 'Yes, persecution will come to all who want to live a godly life as Christians'. But although the apostolic example admittedly includes imprisonment, which, as we know was generally not Jewish but Roman (Acts v. 18, xii. 4 are exceptions), it has to be remembered that in so far as it was Roman it was protective custody rather than penal. The point of the example, therefore, is simply that the apostle is suffering for his Christian witness even to the length of imprisonment: there is no necessary implication that what Timothy is facing is Roman persecution. On the contrary, the apostle's own predicament is traceable entirely to Jewish antagonism; and indeed Gal. v. 11, vi. 12 had already expressly referred to 'persecution' for not 'preaching circumcision'. The same applies to the allusion in 1 Tim. vi. 13 to the example of Jesus himself, who, before Pontius Pilate made his noble confession. The point need lie in no more than the courageous witness before a high authority; it is no necessary deduction that Timothy is himself facing persecution from the imperial authorities. That the threat of such persecution is by this time a real one may, however, be surmised from the Christology of these epistles. It is well known that they use terms and titles for Christ (e.g. 'God our Saviour' and his 'appearing') which, far more explicitly than those of the acknowledgedly Pauline Epistles, seem to have an eye upon the rivalry of an imperial cult. It is not difficult to believe that the menace of this rivalry is here throwing its shadow over the Christian consciousness: but it is impossible to be sure of more.In Tit. iii. 1 Christians are still urged to be obedient to government authorities.
What of the persecutions alluded to in the Epistle to the Hebrews? The most explicit allusion is in x. 32 ff., where the readers are bidden recall the former days when, after their enlightenment (i.e. their conversion and baptism), they endured a great Marathon of sufferings, whether they were actually themselves made a spectacle as they endured insults and afflictions, or whether they took the side of others who were being subjected to such treatment; for indeed – it continues – they had shared the sufferings of the prisoners and had submitted to the seizure of their property. Further, that there were still, at the time of writing, Christians suffering imprisonment and distress is indicated by xiii. 3, where the readers are exhorted to remember such and to enter with them into their distresses; by xiii. 18 f., which hints that the writer himself may be a prisoner, though expecting release; and by xiii. 23 which announces that Timothy 'has been released". Finally, in xii. 4, in the course of an extended exhortation to the patient endurance of disciplinary suffering, they are reminded that in their conflict and struggle with sin they have not yet reached the point of shedding their blood; and xiii. 7, the allusion to their leaders' faithful departure from life, looks uncommonly like an allusion to the martyrdom of their original leaders.
All this, whatever its obscurities in detail, at least yields a clear picture of Christians suffering violence and put in prison, both in the past and present, with the possibility of martyrdom ahead of them, and perhaps its example behind them. So far as can be seen, this would all be satisfied, in every detail, if one postulated, as has been suggested already, that the origins of this Christian group lay in the circle of Hellenistic Christianity in Jerusalem to which Stephen had belonged and of which he had even perhaps been the founder and martyr-hero. If, as the Acts tells us, a severe persecution had ensued, leading to a dispersion – a Christian 'diaspora' – there is every reason to believe that many members would have cause to look back on the seizure of their property, on imprisonments (such as Paul himself inflicted in his role as scourge of the Nazarenes, Acts viii. 3, ix. 2, xxii. 19, xxvi. 22, Gal. i. 13), and on other sufferings; while at the present time they would be still liable, like Paul the Christian apostle and many other contemporaries or near contemporaries, to similar treatment. There is no trace here of any circumstances that need have lain outside the scope of Jewish violence or even Jewish constitutional procedure against heretics within their midst. There is not the slightest hint of anything that requires state persecution to account for it. Even if we assume that the writer was, and Timothy had been, in Roman custody, this still need be in no way different in origin and circumstances from St Paul's Roman imprisonment to which he was driven by Jewish opposition (Acts xxviii. 19).
As for 1 Peter, this is a well-known storm centre of dispute. Here and here only in the New Testament we meet express allusion to potential suffering ῳς Χριστιανός, 'for being a Christian' (1 Pet. iv. 16), and that, in contrast with suffering as a murderer or a thief or a criminal (κακοποιός – or 'a magician'?) or as ἀλλοτριεπίσκοπος. The last term is of uncertain meaning; but it is sufficiently clear at any rate that, whereas the Christians are warned against the scandal of becoming involved in penalties for ethical misconduct, they are told not to be ashamed if the charge is simply that they are (to use the opprobrious or scornful term invented by their opponents) Christianoi. Indeed, they are to welcome it as a chance to bring honour to God for the name (ἐν τὦ ὀνόματι τούτὡ). It is not surprising that this has been interpreted as a reference to some situation in which it was actually an indictable offence to be a Christian, and the celebrated correspondence between Pliny and Trajan (c. AD 112) has been appealed to as the closest parallel. Pliny (Ep. x. 96) actually enquires 'whether punishment attaches to the mere name (nomen ipsum) apart from secret crimes, or to the secret crimes connected with the name' (flagitia cohaerentia nomini), stating that he had, in fact, condemned some simply for persisting in the claim that they were Christians, because he believed that 'in any case obstinacy and unbending perversity deserve to be punished'. The Emperor replied that, although they were not to be sought out, yet, if properly accused and convicted of being Christians, they must be punished unless they recanted. The distinction here drawn between' the name itself and crimes associated with the name seems at first sight to provide a striking parallel to the passage in 1 Pet. And it has been noted furtherthat the exhortation in 1 Pet. iii 15 f. to give one's Christian witness boldly but with meekness and deference (ἀλλὰ μετὰ πραύτητος καὶ φόβου) is reminiscent of Pliny's objection to the opposite qualities, pertinacia et inflexibilis obstinatio, in the Christians whom he condemned. It must be observed in passing that pertinacia and obstinatio, if they mean inflexible adherence to the Christian confession, are not really incompatible with meekness and deference, and that the Christians condemned by Pliny do not in fact seem to have shown any qualities other than 1 Pet. approves: this particular parallel is, therefore, more apparent than real. But the main question is whether 1 Pet. reflects a situation in which to be a Christian was itself an indictable offence.
That to be a Christian might lead to suffering is clear enough (although in 1 Pet. iii. 13 f. this is declared to be unlikely). The only question is whether the suffering in view is the constitutional sentence of a Roman or a Jewish court, or is the rough justice of unofficial action. It can, of course, be argued that, since in 1 Pet. iv. 15 'as a Christian' is parallel with 'as a murderer', etc., it follows that being a Christian is an indictable offence comparable to being a murderer. But it is extremely questionable whether this is a fair inference. The word 'suffer' can include both the penalties of a sentence in a court and the sufferings (say) of victims of mob violence; and the phrase in 1 Pet. iv. 15 might mean: 'do not get into the courts for criminal conduct or even suffer unpopularity or violence for anti-social behaviour of any sort; but if you suffer unpopularity or violence for being a Christian, there is nothing to be ashamed of – rather it is an opportunity to bring honour to God for the name'. More probably still, however, even the charge of murder and the rest is not meant to reflect a constitutional indictment in court but is typical of the taunts of popular spite, that Christians are murderers, cannibals, fornicators, and atheists (see, e.g. Tacitus, Ann. xv. 44. 25; Tertullian, Apol, passim); and that what the writer means is that Christians must give no handle whatever for calumnies of this sort: they must be beyond reproach in conduct; their only offence must be their allegiance to Christ.
Thus, on careful scrutiny, there is nothing even here to warrant the assumption of a setting or a date in which Christianity was an officially indictable crime; and the conditions are satisfied by precisely the circumstances we have already seen in the Acts: Jewish agitation leading to general unpopularity and suspicion, and then to mob violence, if not to Roman intervention. It remains, however, entirely possible that at the time of this writing pagan opposition to Christianity is gaining in intensity, even without official backing, as it becomes more evident that the Christians will not acquiesce in the imperial cult. Long before any official Roman persecution eo nomine need be invoked,one may imagine situations in which some Christian communities were threatened, others actually subjected to unofficial persecution, private antagonism, and mob violence: and, as a matter of fact, a case can be made for 1 Pet. containing two letters of encouragement, one addressed to Christians under the threat of such attack, the other especially designed for Christians in the actual flame.
There remains the Apocalypse. It is widely recognized that Rev. xiii contains allusions to the emperor cult, veiled as thinly as possible – perhaps too thinly for prudence. Moreover, the titles of Christ in this writing seem (like those in the Pastoral Epistles already mentioned, but to an even clearer degree) to reflect a studied rivalry with the Emperor. Yet even here it is a remarkable fact that, as distinct from other parts, the letters to the seven churches (Rev. i-iii), unless it be in the one allusion to a Christian martyr at Pergamum 'where Satan lives' (ii. 13), reflect only Jewish antagonism. From within the Church, they reflect plenty of scandalous concessions to Gentile immorality: the Christian communities are clearly battling against the inroads of terrible antinomian licentiousness; but so far as danger from without goes, it is entirely located in the bitter antagonism of Judaism – those who call themselves Jews but are in reality the synagogue of Satan (ii. 9). Not a scrap of evidence can be extracted from these letters – if we were to confine ourselves to them – that persecution connected with the imperial cult has begun, unless we believe (and why should we?) that Antipas' death can have been for no other cause. From Chapter xiii one does gain a different picture. Rev. xiii. 16 seems to suggest actual civic disability or boycotting of some sort attaching to a refusal to accept pagan ways. But this is not to be found in the seven letters.
Thus, up to the end of the New Testament period (if that is where this part of the Apocalypse belongs chronologically) the Jewish opponent is in the forefront. But it is certainly difficult to escape the impression that Rev. xiii, and allusions elsewhere in the Apocalypse also, indicate that the state has now begun to attack in earnest. Even if Chapter xiii is interpreted as a prescient lampoon on the essential antitheism of the statebefore ever its attitude began to be expressed in active persecution, there are still all the allusions to martyrdom: vi. 9, vii. 14 (probably), xii. 11, 17 (introducing Chapter xiii), xiv. 1-5 (perhaps), 13 (probably), xvii. 6, xviii. 24, xix. 2, xx. 4. The Revelation is essentially an 'exhortation to martyrdom", and it is difficult to imagine it taking its final shape except in face of the actual experience of persecution, and difficult to account for all martyrdoms alluded to (whatever we may make of ii. 13) merely in terms of Jewish executions or Jewish and Gentile mob violence, especially when such words as 'butchered', ἐσφαγμένοι (vi. 9) and 'beheaded', πεπελεκισμένοι (xx. 4) are used. This is surely not comparable to a situation such as that in which a mere lynching may take place. It seems, thus, as though the reader of the New Testament is allowed to witness the transition from the earlier 'unofficial' persecutions to the beginnings of 'state persecution', in the sense that by the time the Apocalypse took final shape Christians were already being sentenced to death in Roman courts. But it still does not follow that anything like a concerted persecution had yet been seen in Asia Minor, or even anything on the scale of the outburst in Rome under Nero.
Conversely, it needs to be remembered that Emperor worship in some sense had already appeared before the birth of Jesus. Startling though this may seem to the modern mind, the deity of the Emperor might even have been recognized in a sense by Christians. C. D. Morrison makes this point in The Powers that Be (1960), p. 99, and summarizes what was generally believed by all, including Christians, in the words: '... the ruler was both divine by appointment and human by birth'. So (pp. 131 ff.), among the early Emperors, he clearly distinguishes the fanatics, Gaius and Nero, from others who did not in the same way claim personal divinity. But the question that concerns us at the moment is not when the Emperor was first deified, or what shades of meaning might attach to the idea, but when and where a refusal to join in the cult became a threat to Christians. It was Domitian (AD 81-96) who demanded the style 'Master and God';and it is under him that the provincial concilia in Asia Minor, which were concerned with the encouragement of the worship of Rome and Augustus and the supervision of richly endowed games accompanying the religious festivals, are likely to have become a menace to religious liberty. Dio (Ixvii. 13) tells of a certain Juventius Celsus (cf. Pliny, Ep. vi. 5. 4) who was accused of conspiracy and only escaped by worshipping Domitian. But Trajan, who succeeded Domitian, adopted a very different attitude, as we know from the famous correspondence with the younger Pliny, already mentioned (Ep. x. 96, 97). Thus Domitian is peculiar within the New Testament period; and while it is not unlikely that the Fourth Gospel reflects a consciousness of the rivalry between Caesar and Christ (xix. 12 – you cannot favour Jesus and be a friend of Caesar; xx. 28 – Domitian's very style, 'my Lord and my God!'), this in itself does not necessarily imply organized persecution.
We shall proceed shortly to consider some of the questions attaching to this subject. But first, the findings thus far may be summarized in the words of J. Munck (Christus und Israel, 1956, p. 46, my trans.): 'The earlier postulate of a first period free from persecution, which was terminated under Nero by a repressive persecution on the part of Rome must ... give place to the postulate that the Church was persecuted from the very beginning; at first by the Jews, partly by their own judicial proceedings or through accusations before Roman tribunals, partly by taking the law into their own hands and committing murder, and then later by the Roman state. In the transition to this later period, it was possibly again the Jews who led the way, in that the case against Paul seems to have had as its purpose to direct the attention of the Roman officials to the fact that Christianity was no sect of Judaism, but a new religion which (like every other new oriental religion) was illegal.'
This brings us to a consideration of this deferred question – the relation of Christianity, quite apart from persecution, to the imperial cult; and with this question goes, as we have seen, that of the relation of Christianity to Judaism. Within the first century of the Christian era, the two most shocking years, in the eyes of world monotheism, both Jewish and Christian, must have been AD 40 and 70. In AD 40, Caligula made plans for the erection of his statue in the Temple (Josephus, B.J. II. x. i) – an insane act of provocationwhich was deferred by the courage of Petronius until the danger was mercifully averted by the emperor's death. But the very intention must have inflicted a deep wound on the sensibilities of Jew and Christian alike; and whatever may be the date of the relevant phrase in Mk xiii. 14, it would certainly have been recognized as particularly significant just then. B. W. Bacon made an exceedingly ingenious attempt to arrange Mk xiii and the Matthean and Lucan parallels in their relative order round this crisis; but whatever one makes of the dating of these documents, and of the other most obviously relevant passage, 2 Thess. ii, there is no doubt that the year 40 must have seemed a religious crisis of such magnitude that many Christians may well have thought that the challenge to Christ had reached its climax and the End was imminent.
We must digress for a moment to consider 2 Thess. ii:
And now, brothers, about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and his gathering of us to himself: I beg you, do not suddenly lose your heads or alarm yourselves, whether at some oracular utterance, or pronouncement, or some letter purporting to come from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way whatever. That day cannot come before the final rebellion against God, when wickedness will be revealed in human form, the man doomed to perdition. He is the Enemy. He rises in his pride against every god, so called, every object of men's worship, and even takes his seat in the temple of God claiming to be a god himself.
You cannot but remember that I told you this while I was still with you; you must now be aware of the restraining hand which ensures that he shall be revealed only at the proper time. For already the secret power of wickedness is at work, secret only for the present until the Restrainer disappears from the scene. And then he will be revealed, that wicked man whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, and annihilate by the radiance of his coming. But the coming of that wicked man is the work of Satan. It will be attended by all the powerful signs and miracles of the Lie, and all the deception that sinfulness can impose on those doomed to destruction. Destroyed they shall be, because they did not open their minds to love of the truth, so as to find salvation. Therefore God puts them under a delusion, which works upon them to believe the lie, so that they may all be brought to judgement, all who do not believe the truth but make sinfulness their deliberate choice.
(2 Thess. ii. 1-12.)
Other suggestions apart, there are two rival interpretations of this passage which claim attention. One, recently revived, is that what prevents the arch-antagonist of Christ from openly showing his hand is the fact that the necessary evangelization of the world (Mk xiii. 10-14 (?), Matt. xxiv. 13-15) is not yet complete. 'That which restrains' (NEB. 'the restraining hand') is, on this interpretation, the missionary situation, the impenitence or non-conversion of areas of the pagan world: God in his long-suffering is waiting for them to be brought to the truth (cf. Lk. xviii. 7 (possibly), Acts xvii. 31, Rom. ii. 4, 1 Tim. ii. 4, 2 Pet. iii. 15). But, even if this might otherwise be plausible, it is extremely difficult to see how the masculine ὁ κατέχων (NEB. 'the Restrainer') can be fitted into this sense: it will have to mean the apostle and his missionary colleagues, in so far as they have not yet achieved their task! The alternative interpretation (going back to Tertullian and many others after him)is to take the restraining power to be the Roman law and order, which prevents the outbreak of state persecution (or of persecution by Jews – so E. Bammel loc. cit. in note i, p. 109) against Christians; and the masculine, the one who restrains, might then be the Emperor himself (Claudius) or some governor to whom the allusion would be recognizable. It was indeed after the removal of such restraints and in the reign of Claudius" successor, Nero, that the great antagonist did really come out into the open. And this interpretation still seems the more plausible, despite the vigorous opposition of O. Cullmann (e.g. in Christ and Time, (Eng. trans., 1951), 164 ff.), who maintains that the other (which in some form goes back, as he there points out, to Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret, and was revived by Calvin) is far more probable. For a criticism of the latter position combined with a cautious reserve about the former, see B. Rigaux's commentary on the Thessalonian Epistles (1956), 276 ff.
At any rate, the future denouement referred to in 2 Thess ii is described in terms which may well have gained significance from the attempt of Caligula, so nearly realized, only some ten years earlier, to do just what is here predicted. And, returning now to this Caligula crisis, we have to admit that, at such a time, instead of drawing together in face of the common threat to their common faith in one God, Jew and Christian are more likely to have been conscious of estrangement. If the Jews were in for persecution, they had no desire to be embroiled with the doubtfully loyal sect of the Nazarenes; and if the Christians' faith was menaced, they, on their part, could not meet the danger in exactly the same terms as their Jewish neighbours, for their allegiance to the one God was couched in terms quite alien to the Jews – the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
But that crisis passed, and even as soon after it as the writing of Romans, Paul was able to declare that the state derives its authority from God and that a mark of a good Christian is that he should be a law-abiding citizen. Indeed, this would not in any case have seemed to be contradicted by Caligula's madness.The famous saying of Jesus, 'Pay Caesar what is due to Caesar' (Mk xii. 17 and pars.) was still as appropriate as when it was first uttered. Even more noteworthy, in view of the discussion above, is the occurrence of similar sentiments in 1 Pet. ii. 13 ff. –
Submit yourselves to every human institution for the sake of the Lord, whether to the Sovereign as supreme, or to the governor as his deputy. ... For it is the will of God that by your good conduct you should put ignorance and stupidity to silence;
and in i Clement Ixi. i f. (despite the references to persecution in i. 1) –
Thou, Lord and Master, hast given them [our rulers and governors] the power of sovereignty through Thine excellent and unspeakable might, that we knowing the glory and honour which Thou hast given them may submit ourselves unto them, in nothing resisting Thy will!
If the Epistle to Titus is late, the exhortation to obedience in Tit. iii. 1 –
Remind them to be submissive to the government and the authorities, to obey them. ...
is also noteworthy.
But far more striking than the passing of the crisis of AD 40 and the maintenance of a Christian ethic of state loyalty is the remarkably small trace left upon the New Testament by the major crisis and disaster of the Jewish war and its culmination in AD 70. One reason for this is perhaps to be found in the fact (as B. W. Bacon pointed out) that 'it was the Synagogue, not the temple, which was the real opponent of the Church; and the effect of the disappearance of the worldly-minded Sadducees, with their outworn sacrificial ritual in the temple, largely divorced from the true religious life of the people, was really on the whole to strengthen essential Judaism' (The Gospel of Mark (1925), 81).
But another reason may perhaps be that there is extremely little in the New Testament later than AD 7O.It has yet to be demonstrated beyond doubt that Matthew's Gospel is later; even if it is, there is less scope here for signs of the situation if (as is here maintained) that Gospel was a genuine attempt to reconstruct the story of Christian beginnings. Lk.-Acts may or may not be later. The notorious allusion to the siege of Jerusalem (Lk. xxi. 20) is not proof positive that the words were written after the event. And even if the Acts is concerned, if not primarily yet inter alia, to demonstrate that Christianity is true Judaism and should thus be unmolested by the state and had in fact always been acquitted by Roman law, this proves little or nothing as to its date. As a matter of fact, this particular aspect of its apologetic may easily be exaggerated: if Christianity as true Judaism had really Leen its primary theme, would its author have gone to such pains to underline the abolition of circumcision as a rule? As for the Epistle to the Hebrews, it has already been argued (above, pp. 44, 53) that it fits best in a period before – perhaps shortly before – AD 70. The Pastoral Epistles and the Johannine Gospel and Epistles are of uncertain date: probably after 70, but it is difficult to say how long after. All that can be said is that the Fourth Gospel contains much that would be particularly telling in view of the destruction of the Temple, yet does not underline it heavy handedly; while the Johannine and Pastoral Epistles simply do not make significant allusions. Within the New Testament, then, only the Apocalypse, likely on other grounds to be late, is really striking for its reticence about the events of AD 70, though outside the New Testament there is i Clement, equally striking for its reticence. In Revelation one might have expected not only a reference to the vindication of God's martyr-prophets in the city where their Lord was crucified (Rev. xi. 8), but a description of her destruction on the analogy of the doom-song on Babylon-Rome in Chapter xvii. One can only assume that Bacon's observation just quoted – that it was Pharisaism and the synagogue that mattered – is here illustrated most clearly: not the judgment on Jerusalem, but the vindication of God's Israel over 'the synagogue of Satan' is what really concerned the Christian. It might be a different matter if we had any literature from the Jewish Christians who escaped to Pella – if indeed this is a historical event. It is hard to believe that a Judaistic type of Christianity which had itself been closely involved in the cataclysm of the years leading up to AD 70 would not have shown the scars – or, alternatively, would not have made capital out of this signal evidence that they, and not non-Christian Judaism, were true Israel. But in fact our traditions are silent: either, as has been said, there is less of the New Testament than is generally imagined that belongs to a date later than 70, or else, when the disaster fell upon the centre of Judaism, the spiritual core of its adherents consolidated so rapidly the already familiar argument that the heart of their religion was not in sacrifices but in prayer and almsgiving, that the Christians found little change of front in their essential opposition, and therefore found little occasion to appeal to the destruction of the Temple in their apologetic.
To conclude. The New Testament as a whole reflects plenty of attack from antagonists, but little that was official or state-organized. What can be identified is mainly Jewish rather than imperial; and the manner and degree of it varies from place to place and from situation to situation. Relations between Christianity and Judaism depend in part on the relations at any given time between Judaism and Rome. These are the main factors to be borne in mind when trying to discern the genesis of 'persecution-documents'.