Finding Fault with the Domitian Persecution

domitianIn some circles, the book of Revelation is entirely centered around the terrible and historical persecution of Christians at the hand of Domitian, who was emperor of Rome from 81 – 96 A.D. Domitian is believed to have persecuted Christians for a short spell in the year 96 A.D., the same who believe such a thing also believe that the book of Revelation was written in that same year. I find it hard to believe that the Holy Spirit was still providing prophecy nearing the 2nd Century, and that the perfect Word of God was not yet completed, but others readily accept that. What I find more strange is the conviction that Domitian was a persecutor of Christians.

I ask you to read carefully the following quotations:

“Domitian instituted a persecution against Christians on the charge of atheism, that is perhaps, refusal to participate in emperor worship. It was short, but extremely violent. Many thousands were slain in Rome and Italy, among them Flavius Clements, a cousin of the Emperor, and his wife, Flavia Domitilla banished.” – “Halley’s Bible Handbook” by Henry Halley.

“Domitian (c. 81-96) is the emperor who has gone down in history as the one who bathed the empire in the blood of the Christians.” – “Worthy is the Lamb” by Ray Summers.

“There was no persecution before, or after him to compare to that of his reign”“The Bible Way” by Ken Butterworth and John Shaver.

After reading such intense quotations, I imagine that you and I have been enticed to see the historical record of such a dreadful event. But wait… there isn’t one. The terrible circumstances that the above scholars have referenced and so many others have restated, even from the pulpits, is the perpetuation of falsified information which began humbly, many years ago, but has since grown into an idea, like that in the above quotes, that is so extreme, so violent, and so overwhelming, that Hollywood could easily make an R-rated movie out of it. But, my friends, it is not true. I know so many who have sincerely advanced this fictional tale. A harmless tale? No, not when fiction is preached as truth. It causes a great amount of harm when it is used by some as the key to interpreting scriptures in Daniel, Revelation, and a few others. Because of the advancement of this idea, the book of Revelation has been given an interpretation that is built on a foundation that happens to be a lie. Such an interpretation that a number of my brethren have accepted. I encourage those who are caught up in this, as I was years ago, to look closer into this matter.

There are three Roman sources that were contemporary with that age who spoke of the persecution of Christians. First is Pliny the Younger, who served in the Senate under Domitian, spoke of putting Christians on trial during the reign of Trajan after Domitian, but is silent on the idea that Domitian ever raised a brow toward a Christian. Next is Suetonius, the great Roman historian, who wrote the histories of the first twelve Caesars, including, of course, Emperor Domitian as the twelfth. Suetonius lived from 69 -122 A.D, thus living as an adult under the reign of Domitian. Suetonius gives record in his histories of the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero (64 A.D.), and in such record, he imputes his own personal contempt for the Christians. Yet, although it seems it would please him to write of such, he mentions nothing of Domitian laying a single finger on a Christian. If the above quotations are true, that Domitian bathed the whole empire in the blood of Christians, I think Suetonius would have given record of such a profound event; but he is silent. The final witness is the Roman historian and senator Tacitus (56 – 120 A.D.). He lived under the reign of Nero as a child and under Domitian as an adult. He gives us the most detailed record of the persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero; how Nero covered some Christians in animal skins and released dogs to tear them to death, others he crucified, and others were placed in Nero’s garden at social affairs, where they served as lamps, having their clothes dipped in wax and being lit on fire. Tacitus also demonstrates his own contempt for the Christians, yet he also says nothing of Domitian doing anything to even one Christian, though he served in the Senate during Domitian’s reign.

So then, if there is no contemporary evidence of a Domitian persecution, where has the idea come from? It came primarily from a Catholic bishop of the 4th century, named Eusebius. Eusebius wrote a history book about the “church” of the first three centuries. Now, I personally have a problem trusting, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the writings of a Catholic bishop on the subject of truth and the New Testament. Add to that, that he is not an eyewitness of the New Testament times, but writes about things that happened 300 years beforehand, using references of men from the second and third centuries, like Melito, Tertullian, and Hegesippus, whose works have not survived except that which Eusebius has written in his book; impossible to substantiate the claims. And many have also called out the inaccuracies of Eusebius throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, I will provide the information that Eusebius records about the Domitian persecution.

Eusebius quotes Melito, bishop of Sardis, saying “Nero, and Domitian, alone, stimulated by certain malicious persons, showed a disposition to slander our faith.” He also quotes Tertullian, “Domitian too, who was a good deal of a Nero in cruelty, attempted it, soon stopped, restored those he had banished.” Both references to Melito and Tertullian do not allude to a single Christian life being slain, but marked Domitian as one who slandered Christians and banished some for a brief period before freeing them. Eusebius also gives his own input, saying, “in this persecution, it is handed down by tradition, that the apostle and evangelist John, who was yet living, in consequence of his testimony to the divine word, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos.” So there is still no bloodshed mentioned yet, but even so, Eusebius is telling us that Domitian banished John to Patmos, on what reliable source? “It is handed down by tradition.” This info entered into the Catholic Church and passed by word of mouth until it reached Eusebius 250 years after John was on Patmos. And we interpret scripture based on this testimony? I cannot.

The other great source often quoted to confirm the vast and bloody persecution by Domitian is the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who wrote in 210-229 A.D., saying “and the same year Domitian slew among many other Flavius Clemens the consul, though he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor. The complaint brought against them both was that of atheism, under which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were killed and the remainder were at least deprived of their property.” This quote may or may not be reliable, and is first found in the writings of an 11th century monk. It is evident in the statement that we shouldn’t even be talking about it right now because it has nothing to do with Domitian persecuting Christians, but some of the Jews, just like his father Vespasian did, and his brother Titus, in working to rid the empire of the Jews. Some unfortunately are grasping for straws, saying that Cassius Dio did not recognize the difference between the Jews and the Christians, and that he actually meant that Domitian slew Christian, not Jews. I find it challenging to accept that, seeing how Roman historians 150 years before Cassius Dio knew the difference between the Jews and the Christians, such as Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny. How could he be so misinformed as a historian of the 3rd Century? Christianity was not of the Jews so much as it was of the Gentiles anyway. So again, I think we are beating the air.

The conclusion, Domitian may or may not have ever laid a finger on a Christian. Further, nothing is ever said, even among unreliable sources that he ever drew the blood of a single Christian. But today, we say Domitian is the emperor who has gone down in history as the one who bathed the empire in the blood of the Christians.” And we base the book of Revelation on that setting. Friends it is no wonder that so many brethren say they can’t understand Revelation. I agree that it is very challenging to understand the book when using falsified information as the key of interpretation; I tried it, and struggled for a number of years trying to harmonize the Word with the setting of a Domitian persecution, before I recognized the error. The book is much easier to understand when not cramming the puzzle pieces together.


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