Monday, September 26, 2011

A Summary of Persecutions

"There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials by a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the Word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has ever know. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won." ~ Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol III: Caesar and Christ (pg. 652)

Back in February I wrote a post called "The Drama of Persecution." Since then, it has continued to be one of the more popular posts on my blog and has sparked some good discussion with friends. I thought it might be helpful to summarize the persecutions that the Church went through in the first four centuries.

The early Church historian Eusebius claims that there were ten persecutions of the early Church from the time of Christ to his time (fourth century)—those under Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Decius, Valerian, Gallienus, Diocletian, and Galerius. This is not entirely accurate. This does not include the persecution by the Jews or the persecutions of the emperors after Constantine like Licinius and Julian, but it certainly covers the majority of the persecutions. Modern historian Philip Schaff suggests that this traditional number was proposed because of an allusion to the ten plagues of Egypt or the ten horns of the Beast making war with the Lamb. Later Church fathers like Augustine also rejected this number. Augustine rejected the attempt to number the persecutions at all: "When I think of these and the like things, it does not seem to me that the number of persecutions with which the church is to be tried can be definitely stated." I think Augustine is right in that it is difficult to establish lines defining persecutions in compartments of history. I think, however, when looking at the persecutions of the early Church it is helpful to think of them in five major sections—the persecution by the Jews, persecution by the Empire before 250 AD, persecution by the Empire after 250 AD, the Great Persecution under Diocletian, and, finally, persecution after Milan.
The Jewish Persecution
The first mode of persecution that the Church encountered was not from the Roman Empire but from the Jewish people, which lasted from about AD 33 to AD 64 (though there were residual persecutions of the Christians by the Jews after this time). At this time the Christians were still considered a sect of Judaism and therefore the Romans were content to leave the situation up to the Jews. The Jews persecuted the Christians because to the Jews the Christians were blasphemous and their blasphemy was spreading quickly. The Jews could not counter the Christian movement with debate and turned to physical persecution, as is shown in Acts 6 with Stephen, the first martyr.

When the Jews accused Stephen, they twisted his words and the words of Christ to make it seem like he was malevolent towards the Jews. Stephen responded not with malevolent words but with a reasoned argument. The Jews hated what he said and stoned him. While they were stoning him, he did not respond with a vengeful spirit but instead asked God to forgive him. Such was the reaction of many of the martyrs in the early Church.

Another that the Jews martyred was James "the Righteous," or James "the Just." He was the brother of Christ and one the elders at Jerusalem. He was also martyred for blasphemy but not in the same way. He was taken by the Sanhedrin and questioned before many people. The Sanhedrin tried to coax him into saying that Christ was not the Messiah knowing, since so many respected James, if he did deny Christ many would follow. He did not do as they wanted, in fact people were beginning to listen to him so they threw him down and stoned him. As they were stoning him, he was praying for them and one person watching even shouted, "Stop! The Righteous One is praying for you." At that, they busted his head with a club.

Most of the Jewish persecutions were designed to eliminate the competition of Christ. They saw Christ as blasphemous and to make matters worse, many were becoming Christians. They tried to scare people away by persecuting the Christian leaders. There were others killed by the Jews but these two descriptions show their plan in persecution and the way that the persecuted responded to their assaults.

Persecution by the Romans
There were several reasons why the Romans persecuted the Christians but they all were related to the fact that the Romans viewed the Christians as disloyal and just very odd. The Romans considered themselves generally very tolerant. There were many religions in Rome that were sanctioned; they did not have a problem with almost any religion as long as it did not come between the religious followers and the Roman state. They tested this loyalty and united Rome in one common religious practice by instigating a state religion—emperor worship. If you complied with this, you were generally okay in the eyes of the Romans.

The Christians were seen as disloyal for four basic reasons. First, God is not content to be one of many gods so the Christians would not sacrifice to the emperor. They were not fulfilling the one Roman religious request—emperor worship. Second, the Christians would not serve in the military because of an aversion for blood shed. This made it appear that they did not care about the protection of the state. Next, the Christians would not normally hold a state office, again making it appear that they did not care about the good of the state. Finally, the Christians met at night or early in the morning! No one was allowed in their secret meetings except the baptized! This kind of secrecy did not sit well with the Roman government. The Christians had a higher allegiance than the emperor and they were very secretive. This made it appear to the Romans that the Christians were trying to form a state within the state.

The Christians were also viewed as just plain odd. There were rumors of incest in their secret meetings. This was probably just the "Kiss of Peace" or "greet one another with a holy kiss," but if you had never been to a meeting, already were a little suspicious, and heard about brother kissing brother you might construe this to be incestuous. They were also accused of being cannibals. The Christians got together in their secret meetings and ate the flesh of their leader! They drank His blood! This reaction is, again, somewhat understandable if you were not allowed to go to their meetings and heard someone say that their leader said to eat His body in remembrance of Him.

Barry Baldwin makes an interesting statement about one other possible Roman motivation for their distrust of Christians. He asserts that since Christ was a Jew, the Romans were more suspicious. The Jews were tough adversaries. Like the Christians, the Jews believed in one god, while the Romans accepted many. According to Baldwin this did not help their reputation in the eyes of the Romans. He says, "The Romans respected tough enemies and none came tougher than the Jews. This allied with their uncompromising religion—a source of puzzlement and resentment to the more theologically complacent Romans—had an important consequence. The Romans would have been much less worried by Christ and his message had He not been a Jew."

All of the above gave the Romans reason to hate the strange Christians. It also allowed the Romans to use the Christians as scapegoats. The times and levels of persecution varied throughout the early Church's history but the reasons for each persecution were not very unique. They mostly stemmed from suspicion of the Christians and their perception that the Christians were just very different, too different.

Persecution by the Empire before 250 AD
The reason that 250 AD was chosen for a dividing line is that before this time persecution was sporadic and not empire-wide. There was a great deal of persecution and it was very brutal at times, but it was localized and not all-encompassing.

Nero was the first emperor to persecute the Christians. His persecution is often portrayed as the worst, but this was not the case when one considers the breadth of later persecutions. While Nero himself was particularly brutal and did initiate the first persecution of the Christians, his persecution was localized mainly to the city of Rome itself. It appears that he first instigated persecution in order to take the focus off himself. There was a fire in Rome in 64 AD that destroyed much of the city and it was rumored that Nero had set the fire himself. (This we know from Tacitus.) Since there was already a great deal of mistrust of the Christians, Nero saw them as a perfect place to shift the blame. He accused the Christians of setting the fire that destroyed much of Rome and instigated persecution of them. No one really knows whether or not Nero set the fire, but it is fairly clear that he instigated the persecution to take the blame off himself, whether this blame was deserved or not. It was at this time that it became officially illegal to be a Christian in Rome. Nero had Paul executed by beheading and had Peter crucified. It is also said that Nero burned Christians as lights for his garden. Fortunately, Nero did not live much longer after he instigated persecution—he died in 68 AD.

Domitian ruled from 80 to 96 AD. Persecution did not break out under his reign until 95 AD and the motive is not completely clear but we can infer a few things. At this time, Christians still would not sacrifice to the emperor and swear loyalties to him. This was particularly an insult to Domitian because he, unlike most of the other emperors before him, actually thought of himself as a god. He even had the senate address him as one. Therefore, the Christians denying sacrifice to him was probably a great personal insult. There is also evidence of a coup around this time. This made Domitian very paranoid. That combined with the insult of the Christians not worshiping him could have been his motive for persecution. He instigated a reign of terror, but it was mostly confined to the city of Rome. Many Christians were killed during this time, but again, it did not last very long since he died in 96 AD.

Trajan was the next emperor of Rome to persecute the Christians. His was unique because he was the first emperor to initiate an organized persecution of the Christians. We can see this in a letter from Pliny, governor of Bithynia. He wrote to Trajan detailing the way he was handling the very annoying Christians in his area. The tone of his letter suggests that he was looking for a "pat on the back," as if he was adhering well to Trajan’s policy. Trajan did not want Christians to be actively hunted, but if they were accused then they were to be brought to trial. At their trial the Christian was to be asked three times if he was a Christian. If he answered yes to all three, he was convicted and sentence to execution. Many Christians died under the reign of Trajan, but they died proudly, standing up for their faith in Christ. Eusebius mentions that when Simon, the Bishop of Jerusalem, was asked if he was a Christian he immediately answered yes three times. He did not seem to see the point in hearing the same question multiple times and made it immediately clear that he was a Christian. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was also executed during the reign of Trajan. Ignatius welcomed martyrdom and actually spoke out against anyone trying to save him. Trajan’s persecution lasted from 110 AD to 115 AD.

Marcus Aurelius ruled about 50 years after Trajan from 161 to 180. It is possible that Christians would not have received much persecution from Aurelius had it not been for Fronto, Aurelius’s stoic teacher. (There is evidence in several manuscripts discovered in 1815 that Fronto and Aurelius were lovers, which, if true, would add passion into the motive.) Several key figures were martyred under Aurelius’s reign including Polycarp and Justin. Polycarp met his martyrdom with dignity and honor and never once dishonored Christ. It is reported by Eusebius that when Polycarp was set upon the pillar and burned that the flame flowed around him like a sail. A soldier had to stab him in order to kill him. In 177, there was a massive execution in Gaul. More than 100 men, women, and children were rounded up and sent to be executed in an amphitheater. Many of those apostatized, and those that did not were brutally tortured and killed. Eusebius describes the torture and death of a slave girl, Blandina. Blandina was first tortured for more than a day until her torturers were exhausted and could think of nothing else to do to her. She was then placed on a cross as food for beasts, but they would not touch her. She was then tortured again beside a young boy whom she encouraged to keep the faith. She was then thrown to a bull. None of these things killed her or made her deny Christ. She was finally executed having beaten those who tried to get her to apostatize. Another man was made to sit in a red-hot iron chair and baked to death. While he was in the chair he said, "Look, you say we are bloodthirsty but you are cooking me." Clearly, the charge of cannibalism was probably on his mind. During this persecution there were many who turned away from Christ, but there were many more that stood firm for the Lord and, in the face of horrible torture, never denied their Savior.

Severus ruled from 193 to 211. Severus’s policy against the Christians was not personal, but he did not do much to hinder the populace from enforcing the laws on Christians that had existed long before his reign. It is said that Severus actually had some Christians in his household and protected them but this is uncertain. There were many executions across the Empire during the time of Severus—in Alexandria, Thebaid, Lyon, Eqypt, Madaura, and several other places. Eusebius describes the numbers by saying, "untold numbers were being wreathed with martyrs' crowns." Leonides, thought to be Origen's father, was martyred under the reign of Severus.

Persecution by the Empire after 250
It was in this period that persecution was no longer localized in small areas but empire-wide as a matter of policy. It was often the deliberate policy of the emperors to persecute the Christians in all areas of the Empire. This was the darkest time in the persecution of the Church not only because the persecutions were so harsh but also because many apostatized because of the harshness.

The first to make a deliberate, empire-wide persecution of the Church was Decius, 249 to 251. Decius believed that Rome could only survive if the classical culture was restored. Christians were a constant menace to this because they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, particularly the emperor himself. Decius issued an edict that all had to offer a sacrificeto the Roman gods for the well-being of the emperor before the local magistrate and receive a libellus (a proof of sacrifice). This had to be done once a year. If you could not present a libellus, then you were sentenced to death. Many Christians would not sacrifice and a great deal of persecution followed. The Bishops of Rome, Antioch and Jerusalem were executed as well as many others. Not all Christians, however, withstood this storm. Many bought their libellus on the black market. They did not actually sacrifice but told the government that they did. Others went even further and actually sacrificed. This persecution was the first to actually weaken the Church. The estimate of martyrs during this time is high, in the thousands. The estimate of apostasies, however, is even higher than that. Soon after this started, however, Decius met an early but providential demise. His edict died with him.

The next emperor to issue and empire-wide persecution was Valerian. In 258, he issued decrees that all bishops had to sacrifice and forbade Christians from assembling. Many bishops, presbyters, and deacons were martyred during this time—Cyprian of Carthage, Fructuosus of Tarragona, Lawrence of Rome, and many others. Death was not the only punishment. Many Christians in the imperial household were sent in chains to perform forced labor on the imperial domains. These edicts were hard on Christians, but taken in comparison to some of the others of the past this was not the worst persecution the Church had suffered.

The final emperor in this section is Gallienus, 260 to 268. Under Gallienus persecution actually seemed to die down. There were still persecutions and martyrdoms throughout the empire but not to the scale of the recent past.

The Great Persecution
It is said that the sea is always the most calm right before the storm. This could be applied to the relationship between the Christians and the Roman state until Diocletian,287 to 305.

In 297, the Great Persecution began. It was a result of a few Christians and a pagan ceremony gone bad. The ceremony produced a bad omen after several Christians had made the sign of the cross at the ceremony. The pagans blamed the Christians for the bad omen and thus started the Great Persecution.

Diocletian was pressed by Galerius to issue official persecution and in 303; he did in the form of four edicts. The first edict in 303 was to terminate Christianity. During other persecutions up until this point there had been an element of toleration, however small, but with this edict any idea of toleration was crushed. Christian churches were burned and many Bible texts were destroyed. Later, the second edict was issued that called for the imprisonment of all clergy. So many clergy were imprisoned that the jails ran out of room. Then, in the third edict, Diocletian decided to offer amnesty at the price of a sacrifice to the Roman gods. Very few took him up on this offer. So, Diocletian issued the death penalty for any who would not sacrifice or any Christian caught in any kind of religious activity. His goal was to destroy anything and everything associated with Christianity. Some Christians reacted as boldly and heroically as those who had come before them. Some faltered and sacrificed. Others fought back. In particular, some Christians in Nicamadea burned one of Diocletian’s palaces. Diocletian prompted responded by rounding up 268 Christians and executing them.

When Diocletian retired, in 305, Galerius took his place in the East and Constantius took the place of Maximian in the West. Galerius continued the heavy persecution of the Church but Constantius was less brutal. He seemed to be content to simply burn a few churches.

In 311 Galerius was struck with a severe illness. Under pressure from his wife, he issued an edict of toleration to all Christians. He even asked Christians to pray for him. This edict continued until Maximus replaced Galerius. He tried to reinstitute the persecutions but had little success. Thus ended the Great Persecution.

Persecution after Milan
This dividing line was chosen because of the importance of the Edict of Milan. After Constantine defeated Maxintius at Milvia, in 313, the Edict of Milan was issued. This edict declared Christianity to be a legal religion. The Church thought this would be the end of persecution but it was not quite yet.

Linsinius, Constantine’s ally, reinstated persecution in 314. Constantine would not have this and attacked Linsinius and defeated him. Strangely enough, however, Constantine allowed Linsinius to keep the region of Thrace under his control. Linsinius, again, reinstated persecution. Constantine came back in 324 and crushed Linsinius, keeping the entire Empire for himself.

Finally, in 360 Julian the Apostate tried to bring back the supremacy of the pagan religions and reinstitute persecution of the Church. Julian is called "the Apostate" because he was supposedly a Christian and converted to paganism. However, from private letters sent to Libanius we can gather that Julian was never really a Christian. Upon his "conversion" to Theurgy he tried to re-emerge the Hellenistic culture of the old Roman Empire. His persecution was not designed so much to destroy Christianity but to drive it out of public office and put the power of Christianity back into the pagan hands, the state that it was in before the Edict of Milan.

The Early Church and its Martyrs
In the beginning, the early church gave a great deal of respect to its martyrs and it was rightly deserved. Their veneration for the martyrs and their faith was natural for a culture that was growing up in persecution. There was a battle between Christ and the state and every time a martyr was made Christ won. Martyrdom was viewed so highly that it was even sought by some as a goal. It was often said of martyrs that they "found fulfillment" in their death. Eusebius tells the story of Origen's childhood and tells how his mother had to restrain him from following his father's footsteps and plunging head-first into martyrdom. Soon, however, the laud rose to an un-Scriptural level and eventually degenerated to worship of the martyrs and their relics.

In a letter from Polycarp in 155, he shows the initial respect for the martyrs. His letter does not really show signs of an unhealthy admiration but this was still early on in the Church. Polycarp says, "...we can neither ever forsake Christ, who has suffered for the salvation of the whole world of the redeemed, nor worship another. Him indeed we adore as the Son of God; but the martyrs we love as they deserve for their surpassing love to their King and Master, as we wish also to be their companions and fellow-disciples." During this time, not only the martyrs were paid particular respect but those who were imprisoned or tortured were also admired. Those who survived persecution had an equally greater respect for those who were martyred. Eusebius reports that when they returned to their church, if people tried to call them martyrs they would rebuke them saying that they did not deserve such admiration. Once they were reintegrated into their church their voices carried much more weight than the average member. This shows the hero view of the martyrs and the sense of respect that was given them by the Church. Soon this respect turned into a kind of deification.

Soon the Church not only began to regard the martyrs with high respect but also their remains and any kind of relics they left behind. Polycarp's bones were considered of highest value to the church in Smyrna. Other martyrs' remains were treated the same way. Their possessions were viewed as relics and eventually were thought to contain healing powers. The British historian Bede relays a story of the Bishop of Gaul going to Britain and performing miracles by the power of bones from a martyr.

The regard of the martyrs as heroes evolved into viewing them as superhuman but sub-deity. In the third century, the blood of the martyr was thought to be a cleansing substitution for baptism. Their own blood and the fire of the stake were thought by some to atone for the sins of the martyr. Later it was thought that the grace that the martyrs received was ample and that it could be shared with others for atonement, thus almost replacing Christ with the martyr. It was even thought that, much like the saints, the prayers of martyrs carried more weight than those of the normal Christian. Respect had grown so great that the Church could not see flaws in its own doctrine.

Well, that is a relatively brief summary of the early Church persecutions ("relatively" brief because, though this is one of my longer posts, it does cover 350 years fairly quickly). I hope it has given you a better idea of how God spread the Church in the midst of, even because of at times, persecution. It was said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. I think that is true.

This has been a historical overview. If you want my theological overview, see my earlier post on the subject.

By His Grace,

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