How to Read Church History. Chapter Two
I. Christians in a Hostile World First to Third Centuries
The numbers of Christians were increasing daily and the Jews couldn’t understand why they were no longer Jews. Christians presented a problem to the empire. The secrecy with which they surrounded their worship made people fear the worst. Christianity came from the East, thus they were immigrants that formed a sect and that was viewed as dangerous to the status quo. The persecutions of Christians began. Anti-Christian writings have come down through Christians who used them to refute them.
A. Common Slanders
1. There were three main accusations against the Christians:
a. They were atheists! They did not take part in the traditional or imperial worship. It was assumed that they had no religion. This mind set was unheard of in these ancient times. It threatened the stability of the city. They people thought that their rejected gods would come to destroy the empire through floods, earthquakes, plagues and invasions by hostile tribes. Christians were thought to worship some sort of donkey or a crucified thief.
b. Christians practiced incest! When they got together for their evening meals, it was only to indulge in orgies, and the worst kinds of wickedness between ‘brothers and sisters’.
c. They were cannibals! The flesh and blood which they consumed was that of a child victim of ritual murder.
B. Objections from philosophers and politicians
1. While the gossip mongers continued to spread the rumors about Christianity, the intellectuals began to refute this new religion on intellectual grounds. Celsus, in the second century and Porphyry in the third, launched their attacks in three directions.
a. Ignorant and Pretentious Poor–they recruited from the socially inferior classes of people. They concentrated on women, children and slaves. Christians sapped both marital and parental authority.
b. Bad Citizens–they did not participate in the empire’s worship. They rejected military and magistracy service. Caesar was currently fighting the Germans on the banks of the Danube and if all citizens acted like Christians there would have been no empire.
c. Christian doctrine was unreasonable–the incarnation is nonsense. God who is perfect, unchangeable, would never allow himself to become a tiny baby. The resurrection was nothing but a monstrous lie. The four accounts of the passion of Christ contradict themselves. Christian ceremonies were immoral. Even if interpreted allegorically, the Eucharist was still a cannibalistic ritual. Even Christian sects condemn each other for the other’s practices.
C. The Christian’s reply to their detractors
1. Christians wanted to defend themselves. In their writings they tried to give a clear presentation of their beliefs and practices in order to dispel the rumors. These writings are called “apologies”. which means defense or justification.
2. The Apologists–wrote for those who did not share their faith–the emperor, magistrates, the intelligentsia, public opinion. They Hellenized Christianity and Christianized Hellenism. This is the first time Christianity looked at its own theology.
a. Justin of Rome (140 AD to 150 AD) one of his most famous passages written to Diognetus, portrays Christians as the soul of the world. Just as the soul, according to Greek anthropology, gives life to the body, so Christians make the world alive and give it a meaning.
b. Tertullian of Carthage(197 AD)–he pointed out the injustices of the accusations against Christians. He demolished them one by one.
c. No secrets among us–we can describe to you our celebrations. We go about freely. We carry on the same activities as you do. We eat the same food as you do. We wear the same clothes that you do. We only refuse to go to your temples and the events at the amphitheatre.
d. You are the ones with despicable customs–You practice infanticide and abortions, things forbidden to Christians. You exalt sexuality, wife swapping and tell stories of your gods and their amorous adventures.
e. Christianity is a reasonable belief–by linking Christian doctrines with the Old Testament, the apologists intended to show that Christianity was older than Greek philosophy.
See Handout #25
f. Christians are good citizens–Acts 17 & 18–We do not look upon the emperor as god, but we obey him and pray for him. We are the first to pay our taxes. The apologists never ceased proclaiming their loyalty to the empire.
g. Christians in the administrative system and in the army– Tertullian affirmed Christians were everywhere, even in the army. A decade later he changed his mind and said that ‘no Christian could be a soldier for the emperor and remain Christian’. Because the early Christians believed that Christ was coming again very soon he advocated a complete break from the world whose end was near. Military service was not compulsory, but for those already in and converted to Christianity were caught in a difficult situation since military service was for twenty years. Church discipline required that the soldier must refuse to take the military oath or to kill, since that was a form of idolatry. It was not easy.
II. The Persecutions
The apologists failed to convince their audience. When the empire looked for causes of misfortunes, the riots against Christians prevailed. This began the persecutions.
A. Persecution and martyrdom–today this conjures up images of blood, torture and death to countless numbers of Christians, but this is too generalized.
1. The many meanings of ‘persecution’. Christians were not persecuted for three centuries. Persecution took various forms. Nero persecuted those Christians within the city of Rome. Diocletian’s persecution extended to the whole empire. Christians did not spend three centuries worshiping in catacombs. In effect, Christians lived in an era of real insecurity, but at the same time they enjoyed long periods of religious peace.
2. What is a martyr? Greek–‘witness’. A Christian does not set out to be a martyr, though he might sometimes be required to become one. He avoids persecution. But when he is arrested, he remains a witness until the end, following Jesus in his passion and death. The martyr suffers as Jesus suffered. The martyr dies as the master dies. The martyr is resurrected with his master.
3. Stories of unequal value. We know of martyrdom from non-Christian writers such as Tacitus and Pliny and of Christians like Cyprian of Carthage and Christians of Lyons in 177 A.D. All of these sources are trustworthy.
B. The persecutions of the first two centuries.
The first two centuries were free of general persecution and there were no definite laws concerning Christians. Persecutions remained localized and were very limited in duration. I’ll mention a few well known ones.
1. Nero, the first imperial persecutor. The historian Tacitus tells us that Nero persecuted Christians in Rome because he needed a scapegoat for the burning of the city in the year 64 A.D. No one believed they were responsible, but they suffered for it anyway. It is believed that Peter and Paul were the victims of Nero.
2. The age of Trajan (98-117 A.D.). The letter of Pliny to the emperor Trajan tells of the pursuit and execution of Christians in his province. Pliny was the governor of a province, but he is uncertain about to what extent he should execute Christians. His letter gives us details about the life of the very early Christian community. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred by Trajan, but the circumstances surrounding his death is uncertain.
3. The age of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.). He was a philosopher-emperor and the one to martyr Justin and Polycarp, who was a disciple of John. With Polycarp we have the first evidence of the cult of the relics of martyrs. In the letter from the Christians of Lyons to their brothers in Asia there is a moving account of this persecution. A popular riot, the arrest and execution of about 50 Christians. Among them Pothinus (bishop), deacon Sanctus and Blandina. This letter is the oldest proof we have of the presence of Christianity in Gaul.
4. Under which law? In the Roman empire there is a distinction between lawful and unlawful religions. Judaism was lawful, Christianity was not. Christianity was seen to be the means of threat to the empire because they were known as fire-raisers, murderers … etc… There was no mercy in the law of those days. The amphitheatre needed participants and Christians were good sport.
C. Third century persecutions; decrees against Christians.
1. Towards the end of the second century cracks in the empire’s foundation began to show. Civil war, danger from invasions of the barbarians, inflation and a decrease in the population. The emperors wanted a tighter grip on the populace and implemented emperor worship. Christians remained loyal to the empire, but absolutely refused to have anything to do with this. Emperors began making legislation against the divisive Christians in the empire.
a. A law of Septimus Severnus (193-211 A.D.). The emperor tried to stop the growth of marginal religious groups by forbidding conversion to Judaism and Christianity on pain of severe punishment. The catechumenate was illegal and Christians were rounded up by the police in 202 A.D. The martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity in 203 A.D. happened at this time.
See Handout #32
b. From Decius (249-251 A.D.) to Valerian (253- 260 A.D.). The emperor Decius proclaimed that all citizens to remain loyal to him, sacrifice to the gods of the empire and obtain a certificate stating that they had done such in 250 A.D. That was the beginning of the first general persecution of Christians. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, gives us an account of those who surrendered and the deeply troubled life of the community in Africa. When calm was restored the Christian communities were divided on how to deal with those who renounced Christ in order to save their lives and those who were martyred for their faith. Valerian tried to unite the empire against the Persians and Christians were thought to be an alien body of people. In 257 A.D. he forbade priests from celebrating worship in cemeteries. Those who refused were put to death. Cyprian and his deacon Lawrence died at this time.
c. Calm after the storm. Valerian was captured and killed by the Persians and the Christians viewed this as just punishment from God. In 261A.D., the emperor Gallienus issued a decree of tolerance and for forty years there was relative peace for Christians. The numbers of Christians increased rapidly, particularly in Asia Minor and many churches were built
D. The last persecution in the Roman empire.
1. The later empire, a totalitarian regime. In 285 A.D. Diocletian began a complete restoration of the empire. He divided it up into four sections with four emperors forming a tetrarchy. The ninety- six provinces were divided up into twelve dioceses. Taxation to the extreme was implemented to finance huge building construction and large armies. It became a police state with emperor worship at its peak. Religious dissidents were hunted down; first the Manichaeans, (297A.D.) and then the Christians.
2. Doing away with the Christians. The refusal of Christians to become soldiers upset Diocletian. Christianity endangered the old and traditional society and this explains why this was the last and most terrible of persecutions. From February 303 A.D. until February. of 304 A.D. the edicts came one after another with each being more severe than the last. They destroyed sacred books, places of worship, confiscated Christian property and sent them to the mines or death.
3. Turning point.–From 306 A.D. Diocletian’s political system began to break down. There were now seven emperors all fighting again one another. In 312 A.D. Constantine wiped out all of the other emperors except Licinius who became an ally. It is said that Constantine saw a glowing cross in the sky bearing the words ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ Constantine converted to Christianity. He had Christ’s monogram inscribed on the royal banner.
4. General peace for the church (313 A.D.). In 313 A.D. the two emperors, Constantine and Licinius in the east promulgated the “Edict of Milan”. The letter recognized complete freedom of worship for all the citizens of the empire, of whatever religion. Churches were returned to the Christians and all religions were put on an equal footing. Not to last long, the victor becomes the persecutor. The Christian church became known as the Church of Constantine and the empire became known as the Christian empire.
5. The number of martyrs.–How many were there? The figures are greatly exaggerated. It was nothing like the holocaust of Germany. It was nothing like the genocide of American Indians, but it did amount to several thousand over the years.
6. Witnesses to freedom of conscience. It is more an important and interesting exercise to consider the meaning of the word martyr, and of this witness in which our church has its roots. The martyrs were witnesses to Jesus, but we cannot separate them from all the other witnesses who mark out the centuries down to our own time. Together they are witnesses to a freedom of conscience maintained until death in the face of a totalitarian power.