HISTORY of the CHRISTIAN CHURCH *

 

 

CHAPTER II:

PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANITY AND CHRISTIAN MARTYRDOM.

 

"Semen est sanguis Christianorum."—Tertullian.

 

–––––

 

 § 12. Literature.

 

I. Sources:

 

Eusebius: H. E ., particularly Lib. viii. and ix.

Lactantius: De Mortibus persecutorum.

The Apologies of Justin Martyr, Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and Origen, and the Epistles of Cyprian.

Theod. Ruinart: Acta primorum martyrum sincera et selecta. Par. 1689; 2nd ed. Amstel. 1713 (covering the first four cent.).

Several biographies in the Acta Sanctorum. Antw. 1643 sqq.

Les Acts des martyrs depuis l’origine de l’église Chrétienne jusqu’à nos temps. Traduits et publiés par les R. R. P. P bénédictins de la congreg. de France. Par. 1857 sqq.

The Martyrol. Hieronymianum (ed. Florentini, Luc. 1668, and in Migne’s Patrol. Lat. Opp. Hieron . xi. 434 sqq.); the Martyrol. Romanum (ed. Baron. 1586), the Menolog. Graec. (ed. Urbini, 1727); De Rossi, Roller, and other works on the Roman Catacombs.

 

II. Works.

 

John Foxe (or Fox, d. 1587): Acts and Monuments of the Church (commonly called Book of Martyrs), first pub. at Strasburg 1554, and Basle 1559; first complete ed. fol. London 1563; 9th ed. fol. 1684, 3 vols. fol.; best ed. by G. Townsend, Lond. 1843, 8 vols. 8o.; also many abridged editions. Foxe exhibits the entire history of Christian martyrdom, including the Protestant martyrs of the middle age and the sixteenth century, with polemical reference to the church of Rome as the successor of heathen Rome in the work of blood persecution. "The Ten Roman persecutions" are related in the first volume.

Kortholdt: De persecutionibus eccl. primcevae. Kiel, 1629.

Gibbon: chap. xvi.

Münter: Die Christen im heidnischen Hause vor Constantin . Copenh. 1828.

Schumann Von Mansegg (R.C.): Die Verfolgungen der ersten christlichen Kirche. Vienna, 1821.

W. Ad. Schmidt: Geschichte der Denk u. Glaubensfreiheit im ersten Jahrhundert der Kaiserherrschaft und des Christenthums. Berl. 1847.

Kritzler: Die Heldenzeiten des Christenthums. Vol. i. Der Kampf mit dem Heidthum. Leipz. 1856.

Fr. W. Gass: Das christl. Märtyrerthum in den ersten Jahrhunderten. 1859–60 (in Niedner’s "Zeitschrift für Hist. Theol." for 1859, pp. 323–392, and 1860, pp. 315–381).

F. Overbeck: Gesetze der röm. Kaiser gegen die Christen, in his Studien zur Gesch. der alten Kirche, I. Chemn. 1875.

B. Aubé: Histoire des persécutions de l’église jusqu’ à la fin des Antonins . 2nd ed. Paris 1875 (Crowned by the Académie française). By the same: Histoire des persécutions de l’église, La polémique paÿenne à la fin du II. siècle, 1878. Les Chréstiens dans l’empire romain, de la fin des Antonins au milieu du IIIe siécle (180–249), 1881.  L’église et L’état dans la seconde moitié du IIIe siécle , 1886.

K. Wieseler: Die Christenverfolgungen der Cäsaren, Hist. und chronol. untersucht. Gütersloh, 1878.

Gerh. Uhlhorn: Der Kampf des Christenthums mit dem Heidenthum . 3d ed. Stuttgart, 1879. Engl. transl. by Smyth & Ropes, 1879.

Theod. Keim: Rom und das Christenthum. Berlin, 1881.

E. Renan: Marc-Aurèle . Paris, 1882, pp. 53–69.

 

 § 13. General Survey.

 

The persecutions of Christianity during the first three centuries appear like a long tragedy: first, foreboding signs; then a succession of bloody assaults of heathenism upon the religion of the cross; amidst the dark scenes of fiendish hatred and cruelty the bright exhibitions of suffering virtue; now and then a short pause; at last a fearful and desperate struggle of the old pagan empire for life and death, ending in the abiding victory of the Christian religion. Thus this bloody baptism of the church resulted in the birth of a Christian world. It was a repetition and prolongation of the crucifixion, but followed by a resurrection.

Our Lord had predicted this conflict, and prepared His disciples for it. "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. They will deliver you up to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you; yea and before governors and kings shall ye be brought for My sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father his child: and children shall rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for My name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved." These, and similar words, as well as the recollection of the crucifixion and resurrection, fortified and cheered many a confessor and martyr in the dungeon and at the stake.

The persecutions proceeded first from the Jews, afterwards from the Gentiles, and continued, with interruptions, for nearly three hundred years. History reports no mightier, longer and deadlier conflict than this war of extermination waged by heathen Rome against defenseless Christianity. It was a most unequal struggle, a struggle of the sword and of the cross; carnal power all on one side, moral power all on the other. It was a struggle for life and death. One or the other of the combatants must succumb. A compromise was impossible. The future of the world’s history depended on the downfall of heathenism and the triumph of Christianity. Behind the scene were the powers of the invisible world, God and the prince of darkness. Justin, Tertullian, and other confessors traced the persecutions to Satan and the demons, though they did not ignore the human and moral aspects; they viewed them also as a punishment for past sins, and a school of Christian virtue. Some denied that martyrdom was an evil, since it only brought Christians the sooner to God and the glory of heaven. As war brings out the heroic qualities of men, so did the persecutions develop the patience, the gentleness, the endurance of the Christians, and prove the world-conquering power of faith.

 

Number of Persecutions.

 

From the fifth century it has been customary to reckon ten great persecutions: under Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian. 12  This number was suggested by the ten plagues of Egypt taken as types (which, however, befell the enemies of Israel, and present a contrast rather than a parallel), and by the ten horns of the Roman beast making war with the Lamb, taken for so many emperors .1 3  But the number is too great for the general persecutions, and too small for the provincial and local. Only two imperial persecutions—those, of Decius and Diocletian—extended over the empire; but Christianity was always an illegal religion from Trajan to Constantine, and subject to annoyance and violence everywhere.1 4 Some persecuting emperors—Nero, Domitian, Galerius, were monstrous tyrants, but others—Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Diocletian—were among the best and most energetic emperors, and were prompted not so much by hatred of Christianity as by zeal for the maintenance of the laws and the power of the government. On the other hand, some of the most worthless emperors—Commodus, Caracalla, and Heliogabalus—were rather favorable to the Christians from sheer caprice. All were equally ignorant of the true character of the new religion.

 

The Result.

 

The long and bloody war of heathen Rome against the church, which is built upon a rock, utterly failed. It began in Rome under Nero, it ended near Rome at the Milvian bridge, under Constantine. Aiming to exterminate, it purified. It called forth the virtues of Christian heroism, and resulted in the consolidation and triumph of the new religion. The philosophy of persecution is best expressed by the terse word of Tertullian, who lived in the midst of them, but did not see the end: "The blood of the Christians is the seed of the Church."

 

Religious Freedom.

 

The blood of persecution is also the seed of civil and religious liberty. All sects, schools, and parties, whether religious or political, when persecuted, complain of injustice and plead for toleration; but few practise it when in power. The reason of this inconsistency lies in the selfishness of human nature, and in mistaken zeal for what it believes to be true and right. Liberty is of very slow, but sure growth.

The ancient world of Greece and Rome generally was based upon the absolutism of the state, which mercilessly trampled under foot the individual rights of men. It is Christianity which taught and acknowledged them.

The Christian apologists first proclaimed, however imperfectly, the principle of freedom of religion, and the sacred rights of conscience. Tertullian, in prophetic anticipation as it were of the modern Protestant theory, boldly tells the heathen that everybody has a natural and inalienable right to worship God according to his conviction, that all compulsion in matters of conscience is contrary to the very nature of religion, and that no form of worship has any value whatever except as far as it is a free voluntary homage of the heart. 15

Similar views in favor of religious liberty were expressed by Justin Martyr, 16 and at the close of our period by Lactantius, who says: "Religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected. Torture and piety are widely different; nor is it possible for truth to be united with violence, or justice with cruelty. Nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion." 17

The Church, after its triumph over paganism, forgot this lesson, and for many centuries treated all Christian heretics, as well as Jews and Gentiles, just as the old Romans had treated the Christians, without distinction of creed or sect. Every state-church from the times of the Christian emperors of Constantinople to the times of the Russian Czars and the South American Republics, has more or less persecuted the dissenters, in direct violation of the principles and practice of Christ and the apostles, and in carnal misunderstanding of the spiritual nature of the kingdom of heaven.

 

 § 14. Jewish Persecution.

 

Sources.

 

I. Dio Cassius: Hist. Rom. LXVIII. 32; LXIX. 12–14; Justin M.: Apol. I. 31, 47; Eusebius: H. Eccl. IV. 2. and 6. Rabbinical traditions in Derenbourg: Histoire de la Palestine depuis Cyrus jusqu’à Adrien (Paris 1867), pp. 402–438.

II. Fr. Münter.: Der Judische Krieg unter Trajan u. Hadrian. Altona and Leipz. 1821.

Deyling: Aeliae Capitol. origines et historiae. Lips. 1743.

Ewald: Gesch. des Volkes Israel, VII. 373–432.

Milman: History of the Jews, Books 18 and 20.

Grätz: Gesch. der Juden. Vol. IV. (Leipz. 1866).

Schürer: Neutestam. Zeitgeschichte (1874), pp. 350–367.

 

The Jews had displayed their obstinate unbelief and bitter hatred of the gospel in the crucifixion of Christ, the stoning of Stephen, the execution of James the Elder, the repeated incarceration as of Peter and John, the wild rage against Paul, and the murder of James the Just. No wonder that the fearful judgment of God at last visited this ingratitude upon them in the destruction of the holy city and the temple, from which the Christians found refuge in Pella.

But this tragical fate could break only the national power of the Jews, not their hatred of Christianity. They caused the death of Symeon, bishop of Jerusalem (107); they were particularly active in the burning of Polycarp of Smyrna; and they inflamed the violence of the Gentiles by eliminating the sect of the Nazarenes.

 

The Rebellion under Bar-Cochba. Jerusalem again Destroyed.

 

By severe oppression under Trajan and Hadrian, the prohibition of circumcision, and the desecration of Jerusalem by the idolatry of the pagans, the Jews were provoked to a new and powerful insurrection (a.d. 132–135). A pseudo-Messiah, Bar-Cochba (son of the stars, Num. 24:17), afterwards called Bar-Cosiba (son of falsehood), put himself at the head of the rebels, and caused all the Christians who would not join him to be most cruelly murdered. But the false prophet was defeated by Hadrian’s general in 135, more than half a million of Jews were slaughtered after a desperate resistance, immense numbers sold into slavery, 985 villages and 50 fortresses levelled to the ground, nearly all Palestine laid waste, Jerusalem again destroyed, and a Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, erected on its ruins, with an image of Jupiter and a temple of Venus. The coins of Aelia Capitolina bear the images of Jupiter Capitolinus, Bacchus, Serapis, Astarte.

Thus the native soil of the venerable religion of the Old Testament was ploughed up, and idolatry planted on it. The Jews were forbidden to visit the holy spot of their former metropolis upon pain of death. 18  Only on the anniversary of the destruction were they allowed to behold and bewail it from a distance. The prohibition was continued under Christian emperors to their disgrace. Julian the Apostate, from hatred of the Christians, allowed and encouraged them to rebuild the temple, but in vain. Jerome, who spent the rest of his life in monastic retirement at Bethlehem (d. 419), informs us in pathetic words that in his day old Jewish men and women, "in corporibus et in habitu suo iram a Domini demonstrantes," had to buy from the Roman watch the privilege of weeping and lamenting over the ruins from mount Olivet in sight of the cross, "ut qui quondam emerant sanguinem Christi, emant lacrymas suas, et ne fletus quidem i eis gratuitus sit." 19 The same sad privilege the Jews now enjoy under Turkish rule, not only once a year, but every Friday beneath the very walls of the Temple, now replaced by the Mosque of Omar. 20

 

The Talmud.

 

After this the Jews had no opportunity for any further independent persecution of the Christians. Yet they continued to circulate horrible calumnies on Jesus and his followers. Their learned schools at Tiberias and Babylon nourished this bitter hostility. The Talmud, i.e. Doctrine, of which the first part (the Mishna, i.e. Repetition) was composed towards the end of the second century, and the second part (the Gemara, i.e. Completion) in the fourth century, well represents the Judaism of its day, stiff, traditional, stagnant, and anti-Christian. Subsequently the Jerusalem Talmud was eclipsed by the Babylonian (430–521), which is four times larger, and a still more distinct expression of Rabbinism. The terrible imprecation on apostates (pratio haereticorum ), designed to deter Jews from going over to the Christian faith, comes from the second century, and is stated by the Talmud to have been composed at Jafna, where the Sanhedrin at that time had its seat, by the younger Rabbi Gamaliel.

The Talmud is the slow growth of several centuries. It is a chaos of Jewish learning, wisdom, and folly, a continent of rubbish, with hidden pearls of true maxims and poetic parables. Delitzsch calls it "a vast debating club, in which there hum confusedly the myriad voices of at least five centuries, a unique code of laws, in comparison with which the law-books of all other nations are but lilliputian." It is the Old Testament misinterpreted and turned against the New, in fact, though not in form. It is a rabbinical Bible without inspiration, without the Messiah, without hope. It shares the tenacity of the Jewish race, and, like it, continues involuntarily to bear testimony to the truth of Christianity. A distinguished historian, on being asked what is the best argument for Christianity, promptly replied: the Jews. 21

Unfortunately this people, still remarkable even in its tragical end, was in many ways cruelly oppressed and persecuted by the Christians after Constantine, and thereby only confirmed in its fanatical hatred of them. The hostile legislation began with the prohibition of the circumcision of Christian slaves, and the intermarriage between Jews and Christians, and proceeded already in the fifth century to the exclusion of the Jews from all civil and political rights in Christian states. Even our enlightened age has witnessed the humiliating spectacle of a cruel Judenhetze in Germany and still more in Russia (1881). But through all changes of fortune God has preserved this ancient race as a living monument of his justice and his mercy; and he will undoubtedly assign it an important part in the consummation of his kingdom at the second coming of Christ.

 

 § 15. Causes of Roman Persecution.

 

The policy of the Roman government, the fanaticism of the superstitious people, and the self-interest of the pagan priests conspired for the persecution of a religion which threatened to demolish the tottering fabric of idolatry; and they left no expedients of legislation, of violence, of craft, and of wickedness untried, to blot it from the earth.

To glance first at the relation of the Roman state to the Christian religion.

 

Roman Toleration.

 

The policy of imperial Rome was in a measure tolerant. It was repressive, but not preventive. Freedom of thought was not checked by a censorship, education was left untrammelled to be arranged between the teacher and the learner. The armies were quartered on the frontiers as a protection of the empire, not employed at home as instruments of oppression, and the people were diverted from public affairs and political discontent by public amusements. The ancient religions of the conquered races were tolerated as far as they did not interfere with the interests of the state. The Jews enjoyed special protection since the time of Julius Caesar.

Now so long as Christianity was regarded by the Romans as a mere sect of Judaism, it shared the hatred and contempt, indeed, but also the legal protection bestowed on that ancient national religion. Providence had so ordered it that Christianity had already taken root in the leading cities of the empire before, its true character was understood. Paul had carried it, under the protection of his Roman citizenship, to the ends of the empire, and the Roman proconsul at Corinth refused to interfere with his activity on the ground that it was an internal question of the Jews, which did not belong to his tribunal. The heathen statesmen and authors, even down to the age of Trajan, including the historian Tacitus and the younger Pliny, considered the Christian religion as a vulgar superstition, hardly worthy of their notice.

But it was far too important a phenomenon, and made far too rapid progress to be long thus ignored or despised. So soon as it was understood as a new religion, and as, in fact, claiming universal validity and acceptance, it was set down as unlawful and treasonable, a religio illicita; and it was the constant reproach of the Christians: "You have no right to exist." 22

 

Roman Intolerance.

 

We need not be surprised at this position. For with all its professed and actual tolerance the Roman state was thoroughly interwoven with heathen idolatry, and made religion a tool of itspolicy. Ancient history furnishes no example of a state without some religion and form of worship. Rome makes no exception to the general rule. "The Romano-Hellenic state religion" (says Mommsen), "and the Stoic state-philosophy inseparably combined with it were not merely a convenient instrument for every government—oligarchy, democracy, or monarchy—but altogether indispensable, because it was just as impossible to construct the state wholly without religious elements as to discover any new state religion adapted to form a substitute for the old." 23

The piety of Romulus and Numa was believed to have laid the foundation of the power of Rome. To the favor of the deities of the republic, the brilliant success of the Roman arms was attributed. The priests and Vestal virgins were supported out of the public treasury. The emperor was ex-officio the pontifex maximus , and even an object of divine worship. The gods were national; and the eagle of Jupiter Capitolinus moved as a good genius before the world-conquering legions. Cicero lays down as a principle of legislation, that no one should be allowed to worship foreign gods, unless they were recognized by public statute. 24  Maecenas counselled Augustus: "Honor the gods according to the custom of our ancestors, and compel 25 others to worship them. Hate and punish those who bring in strange gods."

It is true, indeed, that individuals in Greece and Rome enjoyed an almost unlimited liberty for expressing sceptical and even impious sentiments in conversation, in books and on the stage. We need only refer to the works of Aristophanes, Lucian, Lucretius, Plautus, Terence. But a sharp distinction was made then, as often since by Christian governments, between liberty of private thought and conscience, which is inalienable and beyond the reach of legislation, and between the liberty of public worship, although the latter is only the legitimate consequence of the former. Besides, wherever religion is a matter of state-legislation and compulsion, there is almost invariably a great deal of hypocrisy and infidelity among the educated classes, however often it may conform outwardly, from policy, interest or habit, to the forms and legal acquirements of the established creed.

The senate and emperor, by special edicts, usually allowed conquered nations the free practice of their worship even in Rome; not, however, from regard for the sacred rights of conscience, but merely from policy, and with the express prohibition of making proselytes from the state religion; hence severe laws were published from time to time against transition to Judaism.

 

Obstacles to the Toleration of Christianity.

 

To Christianity, appearing not as a national religion, but claiming to be the only true universal one making its converts among every people and every sect, attracting Greeks and Romans in much larger numbers than Jews, refusing to compromise with any form of idolatry, and threatening in fact the very existence of the Roman state religion, even this limited toleration could not be granted. The same all-absorbing political interest of Rome dictated here the opposite course, and Tertullian is hardly just in changing the Romans with inconsistency for tolerating the worship of all false gods, from whom they had nothing to fear, and yet prohibiting the worship of the only true God who is Lord over all. 26  Born under Augustus, and crucified under Tiberius at the sentence of the Roman magistrate, Christ stood as the founder of a spiritual universal empire at the head of the most important epoch of the Roman power, a rival not to be endured. The reign of Constantine subsequently showed that the free toleration of Christianity was the death-blow to the Roman state religion.

Then, too, the conscientious refusal of the Christians to pay divine honors to the emperor and his statue, and to take part in any idolatrous ceremonies at public festivities, their aversion to the imperial military service, their disregard for politics and depreciation of all civil and temporal affairs as compared with the spiritual and eternal interests of man, their close brotherly union and frequent meetings, drew upon them the suspicion of hostility to the Caesars and the Roman people, and the unpardonable crime of conspiracy against the state. 27

The common people also, with their polytheistic ideas, abhorred the believers in the one God as atheists and enemies of the gods. They readily gave credit to the slanderous rumors of all sorts of abominations, even incest and cannibalism, practised by the Christians at their religious assemblies and love-feasts, and regarded the frequent public calamities of that age as punishments justly inflicted by the angry gods for the disregard of their worship. In North Africa arose the proverb: "If God does not send rain, lay it to the Christians." At every inundation, or drought, or famine, or pestilence, the fanatical populace cried: "Away with the atheists!  To the lions with the Christians!"

Finally, persecutions were sometimes started by priests, jugglers, artificers, merchants, and others, who derived their support from the idolatrous worship. These, like Demetrius at Ephesus, and the masters of the sorceress at Philippi, kindled the fanaticism and indignation of the mob against the new religion for its interference with their gains. 28

 

 § 16. Condition of the Church before the Reign of Trajan.

 

The imperial persecutions before Trajan belong to the Apostolic age, and have been already described in the first volume. We allude to them here only for the sake of the connection. Christ was born under the first, and crucified under the second Roman emperor. Tiberius ( a.d. 14–37) is reported to have been frightened by Pilate’s accou