Believe it or not, early in the decades following Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection, His followers were considered unpatriotic atheists by the most powerful government in the world, Rome.
As Ryan Leasure writes on The Poached Egg on this Palm Sunday, Roman Emperors expected subjects to bow down to the Roman pantheon of gods in an act both of loyalty to Caesar and religious piety.
Christians — in a dramatic act of separation of church and state —refused to worship the Roman gods and were thus viewed officially and by many Romans as atheists. But there was also an economic angle involved, as Leasure explains:
“In the early second century (AD 112), Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan asking for his advice on how to handle the growing influx of Christians in his area.
“More than that, he was concerned about how the pagan temples had all but been deserted because of Christianity’s influence. His initial reaction was to persecute them for their anti-Roman behavior.
“But to make sure he was doing the right thing, he sought the advice of the emperor. Here is a portion of his letter where he describes the Christians’ effect on the culture:
“‘For there are many (Christians) of every age, of every rank, and of both sexes, who are now and hereafter likely to be called to account, and to be in danger; for this superstition is spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages, also, which yet there is reason to hope may be stopped and corrected.
‘To be sure, the temples, which were almost forsaken, begin already to be frequented; and the holy solemnities, which were long intermitted, begin to be revived. The sacrifices begin to sell everywhere, of which very few purchasers had of late appeared.'”
As the Gospel of Matthew makes clear in the 21st chapter, something similar was involved on the first Palm Sunday when Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, went to the temple and there caused an uproar by throwing over the tables of the merchants and money-changers:
“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.’”
The pigeon reference was to the practice in the Jerusalem temple of selling “acceptable” sacrifices for those seeking atonement for their sins by performing the required rituals.
Leasure continues and explains why complaints like those of Pliny led to those “atheists” known as Christians being executed, often in the most horrible says, including being thrown to wild beasts.