The following passage from Robert Hughes' Rome examines the Christian understanding of what it meant to be living in what they were certain represented the end times. (See the 24th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.)
Christianity did not believe that such prophecies, promises, and threats were in any way metaphorical. They were truthful in essence, and soon would be in fact as well: not in the distant future, but imminently, within this generation. Rome was doomed to be destroyed in a few years, in a few decades at most. The New Testament had not been written yet, but such beliefs were preached, described, made part of the essential public lore of the new religion and its adherents. To them, it made perfect sense, because it was Revealed Truth. But it also made sense to the Roman authorities, sense of a different kind. It meant that the Galileans wanted this promised destruction...
The last couple sentences are a little bit of an eye opener for me. It doesn't, of course, excuse any of the Roman persecution or brutality, but it demonstrates at least a pretext of rationalization--rather than simple sadism and evil. To make an aside here, I think it's worth pointing out that different emperors held different levels of tolerance for the Christians. Madness and vile hatred clearly fueled Nero's attack upon them, for instance, but others weren't quite so ferociously intent on murdering them; they didn't understand the new and mysterious sect.
Speaking of Emperor Nero, I encourage you to read Father Bruce Vawter's short book, Revelation: A Divine Message of Hope. It does a splendid job exploring the religious and symbolic context of the book of Revelation, demonstrating it as an important offer of hope for the early persecuted Church. I also suggest that passages such as Mark 13:32 and the issue of the Second Coming potentially reveals an incredible insight into the humanity of Christ. Was there, for instance, a lack of intimate knowledge visible in chapters such as Matthew 24? Did Christ Himself believe the Second Coming was coming within a matter of years? He might have been speaking metaphorically, but, either way, it offers a fascinating insight into the mind of Christ.
Returning to the main topic of exploration here, I think it's also helpful to read the following excerpt from a letter of reply from Emperor Trajan to Pliny the Elder. This is taken from The Great Documents of Western Civilization by Milton Viorist, a wonderful Christmas present from my late uncle Phil Rand.
You have adopted the proper course, my dear Secundus, in your examination of the cases of those who were accused to you as Christians, for indeed nothing can be laid down as a general ruling involving something like a set form of procedure. They are not to be sought out; but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished--yet on this condition, that whoso denies himself to be a Christian, and makes the fact plain by his action, that is, by worshiping our gods, shall obtain pardon on his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may be. Papers, however, which are presented unsigned ought not to be admitted in any charge, for they are a very bad example and unworthy of our time.
I'd like to particularly draw your attention to that last sentence, which I've highlighted here. This is yet another example of the importance of the rule of law to the Romans; even the Christians had rights--well, before some emperors, at least.
|Painting by Peter Paul Rubens|