Is it true that Domitian demanded Christians to offer a sacrifice?
Question: (note, this is actually a series of two questions and responses)
We’ve been studying the book of Daniel here in Athens, GA. I’m teaching a lesson to the women, primarily using information from your book. In studying what information I could find online about Domitian, I could not find anywhere that he demanded disciples to offer sacrifices to him as a god or had a empire wide policy of destroying the church. I also read some of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, but didn’t find that exact information. Did I miss it? This is mentioned of other emperors that followed later. Could you share your source for that information. I didn’t see it listed in the book. Also, I read from the Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum–Domitianus, c. 110C.E. translated by J.C. Rolfe. In this translation there is a difference from the translation you quote from, the difference being that the " being recalled to the divine couch" is made referring to his ex wife, not his father’s concubine. See the following: " From his youth he was far from being of an affable disposition, but was on the contrary presumptuous and unbridled both in act and in word. When his father’s concubine Caenis returned from Histria and offered to kiss him as usual, he held out his hand to her. He was vexed that his brother’s son-in-law had attendants clad in white, as well as he, and uttered the words "Not good is a number of rulers" [Iliad, 2.204]. XIII. When he became emperor, he did not hesitate to boast in the Senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had "recalled her to his divine couch" ["Pulvinar" here means the couch for the images of the gods; cf., Aug. xlv.1]. " From what I’ve read I understand his ex-wife to be Domitia. I’m really trying to understand all these things and am finding that history is messy and reflects the historian and his personal views. Any help you can give on your statements about Domitian is appreciated!
I am so impressed with your attention to detail and commitment to bring Daniel alive. This is my quick reply while giving a test and not having access to my notes. First, Domitian demanded to be addressed as "My Lord God Domitian" but did not demand that sacrifices be offered directly to him, at least as far as I know. The commandment to all Christians to offer sacrifice did not come until the persecutions of Galerius and Diocletian in the 250s and 300s. As for the persecutions of Domitian, we have the word of Eusebius on that, but I will have to send you the reference a bit later—I am in class!
John, Thank you so much for your speedy reply! My original question came from a statement made in your book that "Domitian specifically demanded of Christ’s disciples that they offer sacrifice to him as a god." (see page 125 in the first printing, April 2000) and on page 123 that "Domitian…was the first to institute a definite empire-wide policy of destroying the church of Christ." It was these statements that I couldn’t find references for, only references concerning some banishments and some trials. What I have found agrees with your email comment that it isn’t known if he did demand sacrifice. Has that statement been corrected in current printings? Or did I misread it? I’m attaching some good debates by church of Christ brothers that I’m sure you will find interesting (if you aren’t already aware of them!) concerning Domitian and persecutions during his reign. Again, thank you for taking the time to reply.
Here is a short passage from my new book on Church History. It deals with this question. More below:
The persecutions by the Jews and Romans did not just focus on Paul. Both the apostle James and James the brother of Jesus were killed. Luke tells us about the murder of James the apostle by Herod [Antipas or Agrippa?] in Acts 12:2. Josephus, the Jewish historian, recorded the martyrdom of James “the Just,” the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem in AD 62. The stoning of James was instigated by the Jewish leader Ananus. A number of Christian writers, including Origen and Eusebius, tell us that Peter was crucified upside down by Nero. Antipas was martyred for his faith in Pergamum. (Revelation 2:13) Probably the persecution instigated by Domitian was the most wide spread during this time. Eusebius describes this persecution happening in the 15th year of Domitian, making it about AD 96, telling us that secular historians confirm the accounts of this persecution. According to Eusebius, this persecution caught up the apostle John in its net. We know from John’s own testimony (Revelation 1:9) that he was exiled to the island of Patmos. We can only imagine what it was like in the primitive church to live under nearly constant threat of arrest and to have the apostles and many of the other leaders picked off one at a time. Surely one positive effect was to keep the church pure. Members of questionable commitment to Jesus presumably left out the back door in times of trouble. —————  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XX.9
As for the references in Eusebius, it is Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III.17,18 Here Eusebius both describes the persecution and tells us that he got the information from historians who were definitely not Christians.
I read part of the article you sent me. I believe that it is possible for biblical scholars to concede far too much to the skeptics. There is a tendency for scholars to automatically completely discount anything written by any Christian, no matter who and no matter what they said. This is such an unsupportable bias for many reasons. First, it presumes that Christian writers are far less honest and reliable than pagan writers. This is obviously not supported by the evidence. I would say that if anyone would remember the persecutions of the church, it would be the church. Clearly John remembered the persecution of Domitian. He is an eyewitness of the persecution. This is the reason he was exiled on Patmos. The fact is that extant Roman sources give us information about an extremely small proportion of all the things which happened during the Roman Empire. The fact that historian X does not mention the persecutions of Domitian against the church is not strong evidence that it did not happen.
The author of the paper you sent me makes the obvious and reasonable concession that lack of evidence for an event neither proves it happened or that it did not happen. However, he seems to forget that one extremely trustworthy contemporary reports the persecution–namely John. Perhaps he fails to not this because it is out of fashion for scholars to admit they believe Christians are reliable sources of information. In addition, there is Eusebius who tells us that more than one pagan author who he read also reports the persecution in the time of Domitian. Like I say in my church history, the persecutions of the first century were minor compared to those in 256 and 305. That is true, but we should recognize that Pliny tells us that Roman law had already established that Christians were an outlawed group in his time, even though the policy, normally was to leave the Christians alone unless others brought them forward. Most likely, this policy began with Domitian.
So, I believe that I can conclude with a very high level of confidence that a significant persecution was begun–one which spread far from Rome–at least to Ephesus. In any case, Revelation is clearly both a record of the persecutions under Domitian and a prophecy of more to come.
I checked my most recent edition of Daniel. It still has the statement which should be reworded. Thanks for finding this error for me. Domitian insisted on being addressed as "My Lord God Domitian" but the requirement for all Romans to offer a sacrifice upon request was a later event, in the third century. So, I will make this correction in the next edition.