POTENTATES AND PRESSURES

 

James, the Lord's half-brother, wrote, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him" (James 1:12).

Early Christians leaned heavily on this and similar passages. Persecution did not cease with the first century's close. What sort of Emperor led Rome in persecuting Christians? Historians generally agree that the best Emperors persecuted Christians! Those Emperors cared deeply for the Empire's welfare. Bad Emperors focused on their own pleasures and cared little for the Empire.

In this lecture, we note Emperors of the second century and their persecutions--or lack of persecutions. Intertwined with this I hope you catch something about how Romans saw these early Christians. At the end of the lecture, I hope to summarize the reasons for persecution.

I. Trajan (A.D. 98-117)

Trajan is a military man and Nerva's (A.D. 96-98) adopted son. Immediately after Domitian's death in 96, the Senate appointed Nerva as Emperor. He reigned for two brief years spending most of the time looking for a competent successor. He found that man in Trajan, a capable military leader and administrator.

Letters written from Pliny the Younger to Trajan best illustrate Roman attitudes towards Christians during this period. Pliny, a Roman official, was stationed in Pontus. We date his most famous letter at ca. A.D. 112. Evidently friction existed between Christians and non-Christians in his region. Peter indicates such friction existed as early as A.D. 67 (see 1 Peter 2:12). Pliny, knowing Rome found it essential to deal with troublesome religious groups, heard that Christians "were accused of clandestine rites involving promiscuous intercourse and ritual meals in which human flesh was eaten." Some libertine and Gnostic groups during the period possibly engaged in exactly such bizarre acts. Upon investigation all Pliny found was superstition.

Pliny reports everything he found to Trajan. He then described his procedure for dealing with Christians asking the Emperor's approval. Pliny followed a Roman legal procedure known as cognitio extra ordinem which means that he simply summoned Christians before him, heard the evidence, and passed judgment. After warning the prisoners they would be executed upon confession, he asked them if they were indeed Christians. Hearing a definite admission, he ordered them executed. Pliny also stated that accusation was insufficient warrant for death. He designed a test to determine a suspect's beliefs. Statues of the Emperor and the Capitoline gods were erected and they were asked to pray and make an offering of wine and incense to the Trajan's statue followed by reviling Christ's name. Pliny then released those who did so and executed those who refused.

II. Hadrian (A.D. 117-138)

Trajan selected Hadrian, another capable military leader, as Emperor. Like Nerva, Trajan adopted Hadrian providing a rightful "hereditary" successor to the Imperial Throne.

During Hadrian's reign Christianity received some protection because congregations could register as burial societies. Such societies, or clubs, enjoyed a tradition among Romans. Various Roman guilds, political groups or religious groups formed such societies which provided decent burials for their members. Pliny referred to Christians as hetaeria (political club) in his letter. While some clubs had political functions, most did not. Virtually every club included some form of religious worship and each had its own patron deity. As long as Christianity looked like a harmless burial society it remained untouched. When the church took on the aura of a "secret society" worshiping a forbidden deity, Rome persecuted it.

Hadrian adopted a policy much like Trajan's, but he ran a looser ship. Hadrian tolerates absolutely no anonymous tips about Christians. Only when accusers come forward and "guilt" proven does he take action. He makes it possible for those falsely accused to sue at law their accusers. Hadrian seems to say government should proceed only if Christians break the law. At this time, however, refusal to worship the Emperor is a legal offense. Still, there unless there are proven cases little persecution occurs.

III. Antonius Pius (A.D. 138-161)

Like his predecessors, Hadrian adopted another military leader, Titus Aurelius Antionius, as his successor. He later receives the name "Pius" because he set out to deify his adoptive father. Rome bestowed names as rewards for great deeds. He receives the name Pius as a reward for family efforts, not religious ones.

Antonius Pius continues Hadrian's policies. That is, no one seeks Christians and accusations must be proven. Still, Christianity is illegal, so Rome punishes members of the sect when they are discovered. As long as things run smoothly Rome took little action.

An interesting event in Alexandria illustrates this beautifully. During Pius' reign, Alexandrian Jews openly persecuted Christians. Pius first tries to stop this action but since the Jews have political clout he allows it to continue. Christians are dispensable--they are illegal and unpopular so let them face the music. But Rome did not instigate the search or the persecution!

During this time Polycarp (A.D. 155) dies a martyr's death. Polycarp is the "bishop" of Smyrna in Asia Minor. A fierce hater of heresy, Polycarp boldly refuted false doctrine. At an advanced age Rome arrested him and ultimately executed him. [see Bettenson's, pp. 9-12]

IV. Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180)

Aurelius is another "adopted son" who became Emperor. Apparently, Christians respected both Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Pius, a genuine gentleman, held the Empire's best interests in mind. Writers characterize Aurelius as sensitive, devout and intellectual.

During Aurelius' reign, however, the Empire experienced tremendous pressures. By A.D. 170 Parthians were restive and the rebellion rocked the Rhine-Danube frontier. Rome had enjoyed the Pax Romana for so many years the warfare came as a shock. Why was this happening? Pagan religious and political leaders answered, "The gods are angry!" Christianity's growth continues unabated and Aurelius determines the gods won't be placated until they are firmly dealt with. He enacts a truly general persecution in order to force a return to the observance of the old Roman deities.

The persecution falls hardest in Lyons and Vienne in A.D. 177. During this persecution Ponthianus, the 90-year-old bishop of Lyons is arrested and beaten. Before he could be "roasted" he died from the beating.

Aurelius' persecution also provides us with the story of Blandina. Blandina, a 13-year-old servant girl, found herself arrested along with her mistress. Both women professed Christianity and stood firmly for their faith. Some observers expected Blandina would break but the soldiers wore themselves out trying to wear her down. Turning to Sanctus, a deacon, they tortured him by applying red hot plates of brass to the most tender parts of his body. He too stood firm. After torture many believers were thrust back into stinking suffocating dungeons. Conditions were so bad many died of suffocation in these sink holes. Finally, the authorities took those remaining, including Blandina, to the amphitheater. There they killed Blandina by placing her in a net where a bull repeatedly gored her.

Aurelius could not understand the Christians' stubbornness. Since they refused to offer incense to the Emperor they must be disloyal and planning rebellion. Such recalcitrance was indeed worthy of death!

V. Commodus (A.D. 180-192)

Aurelius died when Commodus, Aurelius' natural heir, was 19. Preferring sensual pleasure and athletic pursuits to administration, Commodus scorned the Senate, bribed the Praetorian Guard and generally gave little thought to affairs of state. During Commodus' reign the Empire entered recession. Trade slacked off, brigands terrorized travelers and deterioration set in. A crisis came in A.D. 192 when, facing an empty treasury, Commodus ordered the murder of Roman patricians he could confiscate their land. Plotters strangled Commodus on December 31, 192. The plot involved his mistress, a wrestling partner and the Praetorian Guard.

Commodus demonstrated little concern for Christians. Marcia, his mistress, was said to be a Christian. As his mistress she intervened and secured release of numerous Christian captives. She arranged for Callixtus' release. Callixtus was a wealthy Christian's slave who embezzled his master's money then sought martyrdom of avoid punishment. Callixtus disrupted a Synagogue service thinking the enraged Jews would kill him. His master intervened and Roman officials sent Callixtus to the Sardinian mines. Marcia sent a list of names for release to the mines. Somehow Callixtus' name got on that list and he was released. He then returned to Rome, became a deacon in the church and ultimately became bishop of Rome.

The Roman physician Galen shows that Christianity operated openly for a time. Galen considered Christianity a philosophy. He noted Christianity's relationship to Judaism and refused to see the new faith as superstition. Rather he dignified it as a "school" treating believers respectfully. By doing so, Galen gave Christianity a boost toward acceptance.

VI. Pertinax, Julianus

Pertinax and Julianus followed closely after Commodus. The Praetorian Guard assassinated Pertinax and sold the throne to Julianus. A soldier then killed Julianus. Following all this the Army in the east selected Septimius Severus.

VII. Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211)

Severus had no real objection to Christianity. In fact, he hired a Christian nurse for his son. As you might expect, he did not engage in persecution early in his rule. Later he changed his mind.

At the time Romans produced fewer and fewer children. Since Roman citizens were important to the Empire's power this was seen as a serious threat to the state's health. Severus attempted to strengthen the family giving married men tax breaks and encouraging large families.

At the same time, the church pushed celibacy. Christians considered it honorable to devote oneself to Christian service and refuse to marry. Following Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians 7, the church held that serving Christ meant freedom from the demands of a family.

In addition, Severus tried to stabilize the frontier borders but Christians stated believers should not serve in the Army. The problems are related! Fewer citizens meant fewer soldiers and when Christians refused military service manpower decreased even more.

In A.D. 202, Severus decided to control the church. He issued a decree forbidding Christians and Jews to proselyte. He actively persecutes believers in North Africa, a hotbed of radical ideas about celibacy. A number of Christians die in Egypt; among them was Leonidas, Origen's father. Origen wanted to die with his father and would have except his mother prudently hid his clothing. Shortly afterwards, appealing to Matthew 19:12, Origen made himself a eunuch.

Severus' persecution lasted only a short time and once it ended the church entered a 50 year period of peace.

Why were Christians persecuted? For several reasons.

 

1. It was an illegal religion. It was not the religion of a particular people and it appealed to every man undermining the religions of various areas.

2. It was new. Romans hated novel things.

3. Romans considered Christians atheists.

4.     Christians were unsociable and definitely unpatriotic.

5.     Christians met in secret, and all sorts of bizarre tales surfaced including cannibalism, incest and strange sexual practices.

6.      Romans saw themselves as religious. Their religion focused on the traditional gods who guaranteed well-being. Christianity seemed a condemnation of this devotion as patently false.

Tacitus could, therefore, describe Christians as "the enemy of mankind." By saying this he meant they were an affront to his social and religious world and world view.

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