About John Lilburne







1548 Mon 3 Sep 2001

I have been writing this essay today. Most of the {footnotes} I have not listed are from Stark's book.

CH101 Essay of 1000-1500 words, due 5 September 2001, by John Lilburne.
Discuss the nature and consequences of persecution of the early Church.

The persecutions of the early Church were ineffective and served to strengthen the Church. There was an extraordinary rise of Christianity from a small group to become the dominant faith of Western civilization.

In a homily on 18 April 2000, (at a Mass for the Association of Principals of Catholic Secondary Schools) Archbishop Pell said: "And finally I wish to commend to you "The Rise of Christianity", a study of the first three hundred years of Christian history under the pagan Roman emperors by a contemporary agnostic sociologist, Rodney Stark. It has important lessons for us today. " {1 From the internet: http://www.melb.catholic.aust.com/thought/homily.htm on 3 September 2001.} I have made extensive use of this book in this essay.

The most dramatic of the persecutions was martyrdom. In writing about the execution of Christians by Nero in 64, Tacitus wrote:

Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.{2 Tacitus, Annals XV, 44 (published about 115) from Jean Comby, How to Read Church History Volume 1 (London, SCM Press, 1985) 38.}

In The Martyrs of Palestine, Eusebius identifies Procopius as "the first of the martyrs". The governor ordered him to make libations, he refused, and was beheaded. {3 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996) 163.} The governor arrested other bishops to use torture to make them recant:

Some were scourged with innumerable strokes of the lash, others racked in their limbs and galled in their sides with torturing instruments, some with intolerable fetters, by which the joints of their hands were dislocated. Nevertheless they bore the event.{4 Eusebius, quoted ibid, 163.}

Another aspect which may be called "persecution" is associated with belonging to a religious group. Rodney Stark explains "stigma" and "sacrifice":

Religious stigmas consist of all aspects of social deviance that attach to membership in the group. A group may prohibit some activities deemed normal in the external society (drinking, for example), or it may require other activities deemed abnormal by the world (shaving one's head, for example). By meeting these demands, members deviate from the norms of the surrounding society. Sacrifices consist of investments (material and human) and forgone opportunities required of those who would gain and retain membership in the group. Clearly, stigma and sacrifice often go hand in hand, as when the stigma of highly unusual dress prevents normal career development.5

Rodney Stark, using "rational choice theory" concludes "sacrifice and stigma were the dynamo behind the rise of Christianity - the factors that created strong organizations filled with highly committed members ready to do what needed to be done."6

Why are stigmas and sacrifices rational? They overcome two problems faced by a religion, which Rodney Stark calls the "Credibility Problem" and the "Free-Rider Problem".

A compensator is a proposal for gaining what is wanted, rather than the thing itself.7 People prefer the reward itself, rather than the compensator, but this is not always possible. An example of a "compensator" is parents promising a child a new bike for a room being kept tidy. Rodney Stark writes:


But if the value of religious compensators cannot be known with certainty in this world, how can humans estimate the risk of investing in them?

He explains that this happens through social interactions. They are perceived as less risky "when it is promoted, produced, or consumed collectively". Hence religion is a social phenomenon. Testimonials are used and they are especially persuasive when they come from a trusted source. They are more persuasive when the testifiers have relatively little to gain, or better yet much to lose. From this Stark concludes: "Martyrs are the most credible exponents of the value of a religion, and this is especially true if their is a voluntary aspect to their martyrdom."8

Stark writes:


Free-rider problems are the Achilles' heel of collective activities. ... Let me state this as a proposition: Religion involves collective action, and all collective action is potentially subject to exploitation by free riders.9

He gives examples of this, including

... a visit to the nearest liberal Protestant church usually will suffice to discover "members" who draw upon the group for weddings, funerals, and (perhaps) holiday celebrations, but who provide little or nothing in return. Even if they do make substantial financial contributions, they weaken the group's ability to create collective religious goods because their inactivity devalues the compensators and reduces the "average" level of commitment.10

So to overcome this "free-rider problem" in a religious situation there are sacrifices and stigmas. These create a barrier to entry into the group and tend to increase the participation of those who do join.

The martyrs provide a dramatic example of sacrifice. Stark asks: "how could a rational person accept grotesque torture and death in exchange for risky, intangible religious rewards?" Part of the answer is that some did not:

Eusebius reported that when the first group of bishops was seized, "some indeed, from excessive dread, broken down and overpowered by their terrors, sunk and gave way immediately at the first onset" (The Martyrs of Palestine 1, 1850 ed.).11

Another part of his answer is that persecutions rarely occurred:

There was surprisingly little effort to persecute Christians, and when a wave of persecution did occur, usually only bishops and other prominent figures were singled out. Thus for rank-and-file Christians the threat of persecution was so slight as to have counted little among the potential sacrifices imposed on them.12

The public nature of martyrdom would have been a factor. Stark describes how Ignatius of Antioch was condemned to death during the reign of Trajan (98-117). He made the journey from Antioch to Rome under guard, receiving public adulation and writing his letters. To the Christians in Rome he wrote:

The truth is, I am afraid it is your love that will do me wrong. ... Grant me no more than that you let my blood be spilled in sacrifice to God. ... I am writing to all the Churches and state emphatically to all that I die willingly for God, provided you do not interfere. I beg you, do not show me unseasonable kindness. Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts .... (Epistle to the Romans, 1946 ed.).

Stark writes "Ignatius was reaching for glory, both here and beyond. He expected to be remembered through the ages and compares himself to martyrs gone before him, including Paul ...".13 Stark emphasizes: "martyrdom did not merely earn rewards in the world to come, while promising only posthumous honor in this world. Instead, martyrs were often very highly rewarded prior to their final ordeal. For example, just as Christians flocked to meet and to venerate Ignatius on his journey, so too did they flock to prisons to adore and shower food and services on many others the Romans selected for martyrdom."14

Martyrdom was a group phenomenon. Stark quotes Eugene and Anita Weiner: "All martyrs were on a stage. Some suffered remorse and recanted but those who could take the pressure were assured of eternity, at least in the memories of the survivors."15

The persecutions, therefore, were ineffective in stopping the growth of Christianity. Chadwick wrote: "Persecution, so far from driving the church underground, had the opposite effect. When one governor in Asia Minor in the second century began persecuting the Christians, the entire Christian population of the region paraded before his house as a manifesto of their faith and as a protest against the injustice."{16 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, (London, Penguin, 1967) 55.}

Stark writes: "... had Roman repression been so consistent and severe that the Christians actually had become a hidden underground movement, this book would not have been written. A truly underground Christianity would have remained insignificant."17 But Rome provided for a large degree of religious freedom and a plurality of religions. Christianity was able to get a significant place for itself against the opposition of paganism, which shows there were signs of weakness in paganism.18

The back of Rodney Stark's book includes the following comments by Andrew Greeley: "The thesis - that Christianity was a success because it provided those who joined it with a more appealing, more assuring, happier and perhaps longer life - may anger many readers and force all readers to stop and think." In stressing the rationality of martyrdom I agree with Archbishop Pell that his book "has important lessons for us today".


Chadwick, Henry.The Early Church, London, Penguin, 1967.

Comby, Jean. How to Read Church History Volume 1 ; London, SCM Press, 1985.

Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 3 September 2001.