The Early Church – Chapter 2 (The Apparent End of Christian Persecution)

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The Apparent End of Christian Persecution

The first ‘Empire-wide’ persecution was under Domitian (Emperor 81-96AD).

He was the younger brother of General Titus who sacked Jerusalem in 70AD.

Domitian (picture) was naturally inclined to cruelty, which was illustrated when he slew his brother. It is said that his nephew Flavius Clemens also suffered the same fate.
Both Jews and Christians refused to give homage to the godhead of Domitian, or offer sacrifice before the image, therefore he executed them.
He enforced persecution, on this basis, adding “That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, would be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion.” If famine, pestilence, or earthquakes afflicted any of the Roman provinces, the Christians bore his fury.

Domitian also sought to remove the entire lineage of the Jewish King David. He knew of the rumor that a king from the line of David would one day sit in his stead. So like Herod, because of this perceived threat, he sought out and murdered any citizen known to have proceeded from David’s genealogy.
The Apostle John was exiled to Patmos about this time.

Domitian killed anyone he took objection to. For example, he killed his secretary Epaphroditus because he believed, 27 years prior, Epaphroditus had supposedly helped Nero commit suicide.
He also put to death some of his Roman senators, either through malice or to confiscate their estates. As a result, some remaining servants, made alliance with the Emperor’s wife Domitia and conspired to kill him. It is recorded that Domitia’s servant struck the first blow before the others joined in, and Domitian met his death.

When the news reached the Senators, they tore down all the images of Domitian in their chambers, and ordered all statues of him, and all inscriptions mentioning his name, to be destroyed throughout the empire. He was denied his state funeral.

By 112AD things went from bad to worse when persistence in Christianity alone became a capital offence. Christians had no option but to met for worship in Catacombs – 600 miles of underground mole-like tunnels where they buried their dead (no land was given to Christians for burial).

Ten generations were buried in the catacombs. Archaeologists later found many inscriptions of Scripture including “the word of God is not bound”.

At Lyons, in 177AD, during the fifth of the ten Roman Persecutions, those who had been scourged, branded, and exposed to wild beasts, chose to humbly disown the name ‘martyr’, preferring to confine that exalted title to Christ, saying of themselves: “we are but mean and lowly confessors”. The word martyr implied they were “a true witness of Jesus in word and deed”, to which they dared not claim.

In 249AD Emperor Decius (picture) Emperor 201-251, made Caesar worship universal and compulsory for every race and nation within the empire for two reasons.

1. Many of the pagan temples were being emptied due to Christian converts.

2. A test of political loyalty, and sign of good citizenship.

When an another outbreak of the Antonine plague of 165AD, emerged in 251 (called the Cyprian Plague after the bishop of Carthage), Decius had another bow to his armor to enforce full allegiance because any plague was believed to have been the result of someone, or some group, upsetting the Roman gods.

At its height between 251 and 266 the plague was said to be taking up to 5,000 lives a day in Rome. Just as the Jews were to later suffer the blame in the 14th century for the Black Death, here the Christians received the wrath of the empire for the Cyprian Plague.

Tertullian wrote: “If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, If the sky doesn’t move or if the earth does, if there is famine if there is plague, the cry is at once: “The Christians to the Lions”.

The anti-Christian legislation of Decius was more far-reaching in its effects than any previous persecution. The texts of his edicts have not survived however evidence of their brutal execution does. The object of the emperor was not the extermination of Christians necessarily, but the complete extinction of any religion that would not sacrifice to the emperor’s image (the symbol of the goddess Roma).

Many bishops, including Fabian (bishop of Rome) and the bishops of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, were martyred as well as many of Decius’s own guards. Theologians Origen and Cyprian were persecuted, however were not killed.

On the other hand, those who were willing to recant from “the Christian sect” were to prove their allegiance by offering oblation to idols whereupon they would receive a document (libellus) authenticating their renunciation. Historian H Chadwick states: “the number of apostates especially among property owners was immense”.

When Decius perished in a marshland during a war with the Goths in 251, the persecution ceased.
Almost immediately, the question of readmittance to the Church for the many scores of people who had committed ‘apostasy’ was fiercely debated. “What should be done with professing Christians who had denied their faith to escape persecution?” In contrast, the awe of those faithfully martyred, tortured or sent into exile was enormous.

Subsequently, policies of “re-admittance subject to penance”, and the use of the ‘treasury of grace’ obtained by the martyred, were conceived and discussed for the first time – although not formalized until Augustine’s influence in the fifth century.

One of the worst persecutions came during the reign of Diocletian (picture) 284-305AD, the emperor who had just subdued the long-standing enemy of Persia. During the greater portion of Diocletian’s reign, perhaps as a result of him having a Christian wife, the Christians enjoyed peace and prosperity. In fact, Eusebius (historian) who lived at this time wrote “the glory and the liberty with which the doctrine of piety was honored”, and that “many were flocking to the Church”.

Diocletian inaugurated a Caesar to rule the Eastern Roman empire by the name of Galerius. It was under the influence of Galerius the last of the Early Church persecutions began. In 302 he attempted to purge the empire of all Church buildings, all scripture and Christian literature. Further edicts of 303 and 304 inflicted torture and banishment upon Christians if they would not offer sacrifice. The cruelty with which these edicts were enforced, and the vast numbers of those who suffered for their faith was testified by Eusebius. Galerius went as far as massacring an entire population of a town who professed to be Christian. Many historians believe the Diocletian/Galerian persecution was the most severe of the ten Roman persecutions recorded.

After seven years of prescribing persecution, and nearing his death having failed in his pursuit of ridding the empire of Christian influence, Galerius, issued the Edict of Toleration on 30 April 311 commanding that Christians be tolerated.

This officially ended the period of Early Church persecution.

The TEN major persecutions under Roman rule are identified with the following Emperors:

Look out for Chapter 3


About Omar Carter

Hey Guys, My name is Omar and I'm just here to love through Christ teachings. View all posts by Omar Carter

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