One of the most hardest problems which the patricist and classicist share is the problem of understanding why Christian was such a problem for their pagan neighbours. After all, paganism could deal with a lot of different gods at the same time. The Romans, for instance, could absorb cults from all over the Empire and not even break a sweat; objecting only where human sacrifice or dangerous extremes in behavior were encouraged. In fact, they could even deal with Judaism which was every bit as adamant on the issue of reserving its worship only its own god. Yet, Christianity presented a problem which unsettled most Romans and, at particular times, encouraged persecutions- first merely local, but later empire-wide. What was it about Christianity which made it so hard for the Romans to live and let live?
This is, of course, an old problem. I'm sure the Christians at the time were wondering why they were such an issue. And, of course, there were plenty of explanations (i.e. the apologists) for why Christians weren't a problem. There are also many, many modern explanations for this unusual Roman policy to the Christians; many of which turn on the problem of how such a 'religiously tolerant' Rome could persecute Christianity in the way it did.
So, these thoughts have been in my head since I started reading Paula Frederiksen's Augustine and the Jews a few weeks back. I'm really only half way through this excellent book and, of course, intend to review it when I finish (perhaps in April). However, in her first two chapters, Dr. Frederiksen deals with this issue with exceptional clarity. In her first chapter, she embarks on an elegant discussion of how pagan religion worked. This is a source of considerable problem for a historian of antiquity because it is all too easy to import our own understanding of (primarily) monotheistic religions and either assume that this worked similarly for pagans for many gods or dismiss the experience of the Romans because it doesn't live up to ours. Twisting our heads around how polytheism works is a major challenge and one that continually needs to be revised as we realize more and as we realize more ways in which we have distorted the evidence by our own religious (or anti-religious) assumptions.
However, I think Frederiksen is right on target when she notes four characteristics of paganism in the Roman period. First, she notes that, in the Roman political system, people encountered a wide diversity of gods because of the sheer size of the area ruled by Rome. Further, this was not because the Romans were religiously 'tolerant' as we would understand it, but rather the fact that Rome ruled many people meant that they also incorporated many gods (p.10). Second, the ancient assumption about the various gods was that they did exist and they needed to be dealt with somehow (p. 10-13)-. This has interesting implications especially because it looks like the relevant question for pagans wasn't whether such and such god existed, but rather how powerful were they and did they need to be brought on one's own side. Third, Frederiksen suggests that piety in the Graeco-Roman world was about honouring one's ancestral gods (p.13) Fourth, the multiplicty of ethnic gods was also balanced by the civic cults and the imperial cults which focused some religious energy towards the wider community and empire (p.13-15.). Given that failure to perform one's religious duties could bring down the wrath of the gods or god on the whole community or empire, it did matter if someone slighted a god. The stakes of renouncing a god or gods didn't just affect one's own life, but the lives of one's neighbours and fellow-citizens.
The implications here, I think, are important for our problem. This is particularly important when we consider points three and four. . Certainly, it explains why Judaism could be tolerated, even after the three major Jewish revolts of the late first and early second centuries AD. While Judaism formally refused to worship the civic and imperial cults (Frederiksen notes that some Jews, at least, disregarded this refusal and did worship the civic and imperial gods), it had the virtue of being an ancestral cult. That is, the Jews could still be described as being pious and doing their bit for the city and empire because they were interceding with their god for the wider community's benefit. Mind you, pagan converts to Judaism weren't off the hook because they were abandoning their ancestral cult and, thus, their civic responsibilities for a foreign cult.
This also explains why the mystery cults weren't an issue either. The mystery cults were always an add-on, so it was understood that one should continue to both one's ancestral gods and the civic/imperial ones. The assumption here continues to be religious pluralism, so nobody (mortal or divine) should be offended by it.
Further, this interpretation explains why Gentile Christians were such a problem. By insisting that a Gentile Christian should stop worshipping their ancestral gods and worship God (in anticipation of an eschatological promise made to the Jews that the nations would worship the God of Israel- p.37), Christianity also opened itself to charges of encouraging atheism, not in the sense of not believing in the gods (early Christians and Jews did believe that the gods existed and had power. It was only that God had more power and right to be worshipped), but in the sense of failing to perform one's ancestral religious duties. This failure meant that, potentially, one's city and empire was at greater risk because of Christian impiety. So, when something did go wrong, Christians were naturally blamed because of their blatant irreligion. This explains both the localized persecutions of the second century and the empire-wide persecutions of both Decius and Diocletian. The persecutors were primarily interested in getting the gods back on their side by encouraging worship of the gods and by punishing those were derelict in their duties, but who were also very aware that the Christians were the main culprits in the dereliction which annoyed the gods. So, in a paradoxical fashion, the persecutions weren't about hurting Christians (it was about getting the gods back on side) and were about punishing Christians (because of their dereliction of duty).
All this makes sense, I think, and I think it an enormous advance over previous interpretations. I suspect that our own post-modern assumptions about foundational belief and pluralism may be distorting some of our understanding here (for instance, did it matter what a pagan believed about their god or gods? what did it mean to decide on a patron god, either individually or in the civic arena?). Yet, its virtue is that this interpretation takes seriously the experienced reality of the Graeco-Romans and explains why that reality had as a result the marginalization and persecution of Christians.