Persecution in the Early Church

A review of Church History cannot escape the word ‘martyr’, which springs up in every age and in every place. The fact that untold millions have been killed for their faith in Christ is a staggering phenomenon, which will only continue, until Christ returns. As we consider the history of the early church it is appropriate to put some of that persecution into perspective.

Jewish Opposition

The world into which Jesus Christ was born was under Jewish administration, with Roman oversight. Rome had conquered Palestine, but they relied on the existing local systems and structures to maintain the local order and peace. Roman soldiers intervened when the will of the Emperor needed to be enforced, or to maintain Roman authority if the local leaders could not handle it.

The New Testament history reveals that the Jewish religious authorities were unsettled by the emergence of the new religious characters of John the Baptist and Jesus. We have accounts of their interrogation of John and their persistent opposition to Jesus.

So it is no wonder that, following Christ’s resurrection, Pentecost and the birth of the church, the Jewish religious hierarchy was quick to engage in opposition to the early church.

Saul of Tarsus

A prominent young man (I was going to say ‘zealot’ but that has a specific meaning in New Testament times), named Saul, gave increased impetus to the Jewish opposition to early Christians. He was instrumental in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. He was also involved in seeing other Christians killed, imprisoned, pressured to blaspheme and so on.

When Saul was converted to Christianity, by miraculous encounter with the Risen Christ, some of the impetus against the Christians was probably diminished for a time. But it wasn’t long before there were Jewish plans to kill Saul (who we remember best by his name Paul).

Throughout Paul’s ministry he consistently faced opposition from the Jews. Reading the book of Acts we are left with the impression that the church’s main antagonists were the Jews.

Jewish Persecution

Initially Christianity was seen by the Roman authorities as an off-shoot of Judaism. Jewish leaders were often told to deal with Christianity themselves, as it was a matter of their own religion. This accounts for the energy which the Jews put into persecuting those who followed ‘the way’.

Jewish persecution of Christians in Rome became so intense that in 51AD the Roman authorities expelled Jews from the city, since they were behaving as disruptive trouble makers.

The Romans

Initially the Roman authorities functioned as protectors of the Christians, especially in the case of Paul, who was a Roman citizen due to his birth at Tarsus. The Roman leaders refused at times to hear the Jewish claims against Christians, seeing it as simply a matter of semantics and competing religious claims in their own localised religion.

Christians, however, became an increasing presence and concern to Rome, since the faith was spreading quickly and widely, and Christians refused to acknowledge any other deity, including the Emperor.

Roman persecution of Christians was first unleashed by Nero, following the Fire of Rome in 64AD which destroyed about three quarters of the city. Nero faced suspicion for having part in the fire, and so it seems he chose the Christians as his scapegoat. There is no reason to suggest that Christians had any connection with the devastating fire at all.

Roman Persecution

Nero attacked Christians with savagery, even using Christians doused in flammable liquids as torches to light up his gardens. While it cannot be confirmed it is understood that both Peter and Paul were killed in Rome at this time.

Roman persecution of Christians continued to varying degrees until the time of Constantine’s conversion. Toward the end of the first century Emperor Domitian came to power and persecuted both Jews and Christians. In 98AD Trajan became Emperor and instituted a policy of not hunting out the Christians, but putting them to death if they came to the attention of the authorities.

The symbols of early Christian persecution are usually those of the Colosseum, and the Roman catacombs. This is a worthy connection, since Roman Emperors delighted in making public sport of killing Christians.

Constantine Imposes Christianity on Rome

Constanine the Great was born Flavius Valerius Constantinus, at Naissus, Serbia (so states Christian History Magazine, No. 27, page 23). But the year? “Probably 272”, however others put the range as from 274 to 288. His father was Constantius Chlorus, a Roman officer, and his mother was Helena, a concubine and a woman of inferior birth.

Emperor Diocletian had sought to frustrate the power of the Praetorian Guard by dividing the Roman Empire into four empires governed by tetrarchs. However this situation quickly led to rivalry among the various tetrarchs.

Constantine’s father was made the new Emperor of the West, on the resignation of his own father.

During that process Constantine recognised the weakness of Diocletian’s system, and when he became Western Emperor, or Caesar, on his father’s death, he sought to keep out of the rivalry.

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However the situation deteriorated after the death of the Easter Emperor, Galerius and Constantine found himself compelled to fight for his throne against Maxentius. Having been reluctant to engage in war over several years, Constantine made haste to confront his opponent, despite his weaker forces. His men were more highly disciplined and gained the advantage in several battles as he marched toward Rome for battle with Maxentius.

Their armies clashed at the famous Battle of Milvian Bridge, October 28, 312. (See the post for October 28, 2007)

According to two Christian writers, Constantine had a dream on the eve of that battle which convinced him to adopt a Christian emblem – and wage war with his rival, trusting in the Christians’ God. He had his men decorate their shields with the sign of the Cross.

Despite being heavily outnumbered Constantine won and Maxentius drowned in the Tiber River. Constantine became the new Emperor – and he professed Christianity. He quickly proclaimed the Edict of Milan, jointly with the tetrarch Licinius, early in 313, which approved Christian worship. The persecution of Christians which had been a reign of terror under Diocletian and Maximian was now ended. Christians were released from prison and from the mines. Many who had abandoned the faith to avoid persecution now returned, repentant.

Constantine also convened the great Council of Nicea in 325AD, where over 300 bishops gathered to deal with the Arian heresy.

Initially Constantine allowed Licinius, the sole surviving tetrarch appointed by Diocletian, to keep his power. Constantine married his sister to Licinius. However Licinius conspired against Constantine and 10 years of fighting ensued until Licinius was executed.

Constantine was then the sole and undisputed supreme ruler of the Roman Empire. He moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople.

As part of his on-going support for Christianity, Clergy were exempted from taxes, Sunday was set aside as a day of worship … and his dear mother, Helena, made a trip to the Holy Land, where she found “the true cross” and a host of other relics.

Among his other achievements, he had Crispus, his eldest son, executed, and Fausta, his wife for 20 years, drowned in a hot bath! (Miller’s Church History, page 202).

He issued coins dedicated to the ‘sun god’ – and he was baptised by an Arian bishop shortly before his death on 22 May, 337.

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Athanasius Defends the Nature of Christ

Athanasius was exiled after a riot in Alexandria, which erupted on February 9, 356AD.

Athanasius, hero of the Arian controversy some 20 years before and now Bishop of Alexandria, suddenly found his church surrounded by 5000 soldiers. As doors were being smashed the bishop “calmly turned to his assistant and bade him read Psalm 136”. As the church was desecrated by the mob, Athanasius was “successfully bundled out of the church into a side street”.

The Arians installed their own bishop, but Athanasius, fleeing into the desert, still found ways in which he could minister to his flock. For six years he suffered exile (wearing a worn-out sheepskin coat that once had belonged to the hermit monk St Anthony!) and then came his return to Alexandria to a jubilant community.

Born around 298AD, Athanasius lived in Alexandria, Egypt, which is on the Mediterranean coast and was the chief centre of learning in the Roman Empire. When Athanasius was in his teens Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan transformed Christianity from a persecuted religion to one with official sanction.

At the same time Athanasius was taken under the patronage of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, thus becoming engaged in Christian ministry. He was most likely schooled in the famous “catechetical school” of Alexandria, which boasted such illustrious teachers as Clement and Origen. He also became an acquaintance of the famous hermit, St Antony.

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While Athanasius was to become the Bishop of Alexandria he is most famous for his dogged resistance to the Arian heresy.

At about 319AD an Alexandrian priest, Arius, began to teach that Christ did not exist until God begat him. As a newly appointed Deacon and as secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius refuted Arius, pointing out that the begetting of Christ speaks of an eternal relationship, not a temporal event.

Arius was condemned by the Egyptian bishops and relocated to Nicomedia. From there he promoted his position to bishops throughout the world. The controversy raged for years, prompting Emperor Constantine to call the Council of Nicea (325AD) to resolve the matter.

At that council Athanasius, although not a bishop, had the strongest voice in upholding the fundamentalist position. However it was important to formulate a non-ambiguous creed, so the phrase “of one substance with the Father” became the defining distinction. This was one of the early formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity.

While the council was a victory for Athanasius the tensions were far from over, as the Arian supporters won favour with successive Emperors. So it was that Athanasius, who soon became Bishop of Alexandria, endured continued opposition. We owe our hold on this key truth of the Trinity today to Athanasius’ determination to resist all compromise.

Thus Athanasius has been called “the Father of Orthodoxy” because of his staunch adherence to the doctrine of Christ being of ‘the same essence’ as the Father. Arians denied this.

The Dictionary of the Christian Church says “almost single-handedly Athanasius saved the church from pagan intellectualism”. He was hounded through five exiles (the incident mentioned above being his third!) over a period of 17 years.

After his fifth exile he continued in Alexandria, refuting heretics, building churches, rebuking rapacious governors, comforting faithful bishops, and strengthening the orthodox everywhere, till at length, in the spring of 373, “in a good old age” (his late seventies) he ceased from all his work.

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

St Martin of Tours Brings Christ to a Pagan World

St Martin of Tours Day is celebrated in many churches on November 11, “possibly the anniversary of his funeral” (The Spreading Flame, by F.F. Bruce, pages 350-351).

This biographer assures us that St Martin “belonged to the true evangelical succession” (ibid, page 350).

He was born in Hungary about AD 317 to pagan parents. His father was a military tribune in the Roman army and in Martin’s early years he went with his father to his posting in Pavia in Italy. When Martin reached his teens he was enrolled in the Roman army becoming a cavalry officer.

Following the conversion of Constantine Christianity had been a favoured religion in the military camps and Martin was inclined toward it.

His regiment was soon sent to Amiens in Gaul and this is where “the most famous incident in his life” took place … a meeting with a half-naked beggar at the gates of the city one very cold day. Moved with compassion Martin cut his scarlet officer’s cloak in two and gave the beggar half. That night he dreamed – or was it a vision? – of Christ wearing the very cloak he had given away. A voice spoke, “Martin has clothed Me with this garment.”

As a result young Martin was baptised into the Christian faith, returned home to win his mother to Christ, and following his release from the army sought to study under St. Hilary, a wise and pious bishop in Gaul with an excellent reputation as a theologian was. When he learned that Hilary was in exile by the Arians he resorted to an island in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea. There he pursued a life of piety and self denial.

In 361, when Hilary returned to Gaul, Martin hurried to join him at Poitiers and gained permission from him to set up a solitary life in a desert region now known as Liguge. Many monks gathered around him forming a community which later became the celebrated Benedictine Abbey of Liguge.

When the Bishop of Tours died in 371 Martin was the chosen successor but he ignored all who came to invite him to the post. Finally a ruse was created to get him to the city. A nobleman called Martin to urgently visit the man’s dying wife. Martin hurried to the city, unsuspecting, and was there hailed as the new Bishop.

From that post he became famous as a healer, exorcist and missionary. “He was active in winning non-Christians and travelled extensively. He believed that no-one was so depraved that he was beyond the scope of God’s pardon…” (History of Christianity, by K. Lattourette, page 231).

His fame spread. He was loved by all … except some bishops! … and he continued to exercise a wide influence.

“Out from Tours as a centre he led an army of monks through the land destroying idols, pagan temples – and preaching,” writes Elgin Moyer (Who Was Who In Church History).

Whilst acting as bishop he refused a throne and preferred to sit on a small wooden stool. His principles of self denial still held him. He lived in a small cell not far from Tours and other monks joined him there, creating yet another monastery.

Whilst the stories of many of the ‘saints’ of the early church are encrusted with legend and superstition, there is good reason to believe that Martin of Tours was a true child of God.

Following a last visit to Rome, Martin went to Candes, one of the religious centres he created in his diocese. There he was struck by the malady which ended his life. Ordering himself to be carried into the presbytery of the church, he died there in 400 (according to some authorities, more probably in 397) at the age of about 81. To the very last he displayed that exemplary spirit of humility and mortification which he had ever shown.

A church built over Martin’s sarcophagus was attacked by Protestants in 1562, due to their opposition to the reverence given to a man and his relics. Then in 1793 the atheistic French Revolution saw to the total destruction of the building and the construction of a road on the site, to frustrate further veneration of the ancient saint.

Over 1000 years after Martin’s death the Luther family in Germany named their little son after this remarkable monk.”!

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Battle of Milvian Bridge Changes Christendom

This is the day that the “Battle of Milvian Bridge” took place – in AD 312.

It was this historic battle, won by Constantine and his armies, which led to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. Bear in mind that one uses the word ‘Christianisation’ in its broadest term.

The Milvian Bridge crossed the Tiber River, which was part of the western defences of Rome. The bridge was first built by Gaius Claudius Nero in 206 BC. In 63 BC the bridge was the site of an ambush by agents of Cicero.

Serbian born Constantine was at this time one of six contenders for leadership of the Roman Empire, following his father’s death in York, in Britain. Constantine marched on Rome and his forces met those of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.

Constantine’s victory was not the only significant event of that day. He claimed to have seen a vision at midday on that same day, seeing a Christian Cross superimposed on the sun, and the words “In This Sign, Conquer”, “In hoc signo vinces”.

Following his decisive victory, Constantine went on to become Emperor of the Roman Empire. He then made Christianity legal. Constantine claimed to be a Christian, and the changes that followed were momentous.

Persecution ceased. By March, AD 313, the Edict of Milan was published granting religious liberty to all, restoring previously confiscated church property and protecting Christian people from persecution. The Lord’s Day was set aside as a day of rest and worship. Favours were granted to the clergy. Churches were built.

Miller, in his Church History, records that in one year, in Rome, 12,000 men and women were baptised … “and a white garment, with 20 pieces of gold, was promised by the Emperor to every new convert of the poorer classes…” (page 194).

Three years after his victory at the bridge a triumphal arch was built with words telling how Constantine saved the republic ‘”by greatness of mind and impulse of divinity.” Roman troops then carried a pennant bearing the monogram of Jesus – the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” standing for the word “Christ”.

Within several years Constantine sponsored the Council of Nicaea to negotiate a statement of orthodox Christian belief that could be recognized across the Empire. The Nicaean Creed continues to be used today.

Some ‘state churches’ regard these events as a triumph in the history of the Christian faith; others, of ‘free church’ persuasion, are more likely to regard it as “almost as calamitous as the fall of Adam and Eve.”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.