Still more than the Jews, Christians were a puzzle to the Roman world. Officials did not know too well how to deal with these eccentrics who refused to adhere to the Roman way of life. The general populace resented their very difference and was quick to hold them responsible for any untoward happening. In fact, the Christian commu­nity presented all the features of an “alternative society”; as such, Christians posed a threat to Roman society and were feared for their vague power. They managed very well to irritate the traditionalists who governed and peopled the empire, by the “abomination” of their prac­tices

and their refusal to participate in the prescribed religious rituals.

Roman administrators of the second century were perceptive enough to differentiate between Jews and Christians and usually treated them dif­ferently. For instance, Nero in 64 saw Christians as a group distinct from Jews and acted against them; then Nerva (96-98) exempted Christians from the capitation tax imposed on ordinary Jews as a pun­ishment for the revolt of 66-70. Rulers were often quick to impose the death penalty on Christians.

Intellectuals of the time did not hide their contempt for the new believers and their strange doings, and were prone to think of them according to firmly fixed stereotypes. Their beliefs were deemed irra­tional, their “scriptures” of poor quality, their behavior disrespectful of honorable conventions. They were accused of “hatred of the human race”[1] due to their repressive morality, their imputed neglect of civic duties (e.g., their reserve concerning military service and their unre­served encouragement of procreation), and their lack of fear before vio­lent death. Christians were generally perceived as scorning respect for the ancestral customs.

On the other hand, and this could have counted in their favor, Christian groups offered definitive analogies with other groups or asso­ciations that indeed were tolerated, such as burial societies, philosophi­cal sects, various confraternities of like-minded people pursuing a common interest (be it trade, worship, or even drinking), voluntary associations and clubs. Nevertheless Christian communities were labeled “unauthorized” clubs. Tacitus thought he was in the right in branding Christianity a “deadly superstition”; others kept denouncing the “execrable” practices of Christians. All approved of the treatment meted out to their founder and his disciples. Throughout the second century Christians complained that their actual behavior and doctrines were never really examined; presumably they would have been found quite unobjectionable.

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