The Christian presence in the Roman Empire was a troubling feat to many of those in power and who governed the land. Not only did the Romans feud with Christian believers during this time, many of the rulers subjected the Christians to persecution. This level of persecution and conflict is evident in the Pliny’s Letter to Trajan and in the Martrydom of Polycarp. Although, both pieces are different in content, they are both similar in nature. For example, in Pliny’s Letter to Trajan, he describes his troubles and interrogations with the Christian people in his nation, which is Asia Minor or modern day Turkey. In this letter, he explains to Trajan how he is handling the situation of Christians in Asia Minor. He says to Trajan that he conducts interrogations based on random hints or suggestions. If the suspected Christian refuses three times that he/she is not a Christian, then the subject is executed. The most interesting point in this process is that Pliny gives the subjects three chances to revoke their allegiance to Christianity. This shows that Pliny is hesitant about executing people, because above all they are Roman citizens. This is similar to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which Polycarp was subject to persecution and was a martyr in the end. The Romans typically persecuted Christians not out of hate, but they feared their allegiance to another faith and not worshiping the traditional Roman gods. Also, many Roman rulers feared sedition or plot from the Christians; the bottom line is the Romans feared their faith. Polycarp is amongst one of the earliest and arguably most famous martyr of the early Christian times. Polycarp with his writings and influential apostolistic nature, led the groundwork for the early Christian church. As a result for his avid influence and faith, Polycarp was subject to execution; he was burned at the stake but then stabbed to death after the flame did not work. Furthermore, in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, to the Roman Emperor , he attempts to write an apology in defense for the Christians in the Empire. He asks the emperor to reconsider his persecution just solely on the title, Christian. Martyr believes that if there is any wrong doing or evil inflicted by the Christian subject, then the person can be subject to punishment, but it important for the welfare of the empire to not persecute Christians, just because of the title. Additionally, Martyr clarifies the false accusation that Christians are not loyal to the empire. He verifies that Christians do not want to be a part of another kingdom and or revolt against the Roman Empire. All of these early encounters of Christians with the Roman Empire helped shape the Christian identity in the early stages. By being persecuted, Christians valued a sense of community with other fellow Christians; as this relationship grew, the sense of identity among the Christian group got stronger. The Roman attempt of persecution backfired and only helped to lay the groundwork for the early establishment of churches and strong communities.
Plinyâ€™s letter demonstrates somewhat of a reluctant tolerance of Christianity. Writing to Trajan, he elucidates a policy of leniency toward Christians who recant their beliefs, as well as those anonymously accused. Christians with â€œpertinacity and inflexible obstinacyâ€ incur punishment, although Pliny seems to take issue with them primary for practical reasons, such as loss of state credibility (Pliny, 1; Gonzalez, 52). In this way, Pliny appears ambivalent as to the nature of Christianity, asking â€œwhether the name of being a Christianâ€¦ should be punished?â€(Pliny, 1) Trajan, ordering that state resources not be expended on hunting them out, responds with similar equivocation.
By contrast, Polycarp, ahead of his martyrdom, offers a clearer understanding of Christian identity. He sets faith above life itself, saying about Jesus, â€œfor eighty-six years I have served him and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me…â€ (Gonzalez, 54). Indeed, he considers his martyrdom a blessing, ordained by God (Gonzalez, 55). Thus, even while Romans took a generally more lenient approach toward Christians, certain believers seemed to favor persecution, seeing it as a test of faith. This required a strictly antagonistic view of the Roman empire, allowing for little common-ground.
Unlike Polycarp and earlier martyrs, Justin takes a conciliatory approach to Greco-Roman beliefs, seeking to connect Christian and classical thinking. In particular, he highlights the Greek understanding of â€œLogos,â€ signifying all reason and order, and translated as the â€œword.â€ (Gonzalez, 64). This fits with the doctrine of Christ as the incarnate word of God, writes Justin, who describes Jesus as â€œReason himself, who took form and became man.â€ (Gonzalez, 65; Justin, 245). By affirming the Logos, classical thinkers to some extent affirm Christ, according to Justin. In fact, he takes his oppressors to task for being â€œwithout deliberation, driven by unreasoning passionâ€ seeming to posit himself and his fellow Christians as perhaps the better â€œGreeksâ€ (Gonzalez, 244). Likewise, in his writings, Justin refers to classical philosophy to give precedent for Christian theology, putting unique emphasis on the pagan mind (Justin, 255).
Ultimately, Justin, Pliny, and Polycarpâ€™s perspectives indelibly shaped Christian attitudes, yet were incompatible. This became more apparent as the church and empire increasingly elided. After Justin, attempts to link Christian and non-Christian philosophy became more common, particularly after the conversion of Constantine. Christians like Eusebius of Caesarea considered the meshing of church and empire to be a divine gift and broke with the mentality of the early church (Gonzalez, 145). At the same time, others stuck to a more inimical line of thinking and explicitly invoked the example of earlier martyrs (Gonzalez, 147). Many of these proto-monks sought out isolation and couched their mission in terms of a new kind of death for Christ, holding to austerity as their fellow Christians embraced newfound security. Hence, with these early tracts, the issues that would more profoundly split the church and complicate Christian identity were already evident.