BEN: Bruce Longenecker has now brought forth reasonably clear evidence that the graffito in Pompeii that uses the word Christianos makes clear that the term was being used of Christians (whether insiders or outsiders) in that city in the 60s or 70s. This would seem to comport with the literary evidence about the term being used in Antioch. This is important because it means that outsiders saw this group as something distinctive from Judaism in general in some ways, and presumably insiders did as well. Comments?
LARRY: That Pompei graffito has been the subject of controversy for over a century. Part of the problem is that we have somewhat different transcriptions of it, and in any case the term that is taken often as “christianoi” isn’t completely preserved. I have no personal difficulty, however, if the graffito is authentic, and if it means that (1) there were Christians in Pompeii prior to the city’s destruction, and (2) that they were referred to as Christians.
BEN: I gather from the first chapter that you are not enamored with the recent popular attempt by Candida Moss and others to downplay, and in some cases dismiss the notion of the persecution of early Christians in the first four centuries of Christianity. Granted of course, that in later hagiography the extent of persecutions was exaggerated in various cases, but it seems to me indisputable that there was persecution of Christians, even if it was somewhat sporadic and not systematic or Empire wide. Further, it seems to have often been initiated by rulers of various sorts ranging from Herod Agrippa to Diocletian, not just by irate pagans or Jews. Why do you think it is that there has been so much recent scholarly push back against the view that there was considerable animus against Christianity off and on almost from the outset of the movement, push back even to the point of accusing some more traditional scholars on this point of having a persecution complex, like various early Christians? I agree there is a difference between pressure, ostracism, rejection, and outright persecution, prosecution, and execution, but the evidence suggests to me that all of this happened to one degree or another from place to place and time to time, and precisely for the reasons Tacitus and Suetonius in the first two centuries suggest— it was perceived as a threat, as a dangerous religion superstition, and attempts to minimize such negative reactions are not historically accurate. Comments?
LARRY: Moss alleged that the incidence of actual state-sponsored executions of Christians has been exaggerated in some modern accounts, and also (and actually as important in her complaints) that some styled themselves “martyrs” in an exaggerated manner. I can’t go into her case/complaint, as it seems as much concerned with today as with early Christianity. But I do take the view that prosecution of Christians by Roman authorities seems to have been mainly localized, intermittent, and not an Empire-wide threat to most Christians, at least not until the third-century pogroms of Decius and Diocletian. Far more frequent were the various forms of what I call “social” abuse suffered by believers at the hands of their own families, acquaintances, etc. And I agree that the main reasons for such “social” and for “political” abuses were that Christians and their faith-stance were seen as odious, socially disruptive, anti-religious, and, yes, dangerous. That’s a major point in my new book.