BEFORE the end of the apostolic age the followers of Christ suffered severe persecution at the hands of the Roman emperors. The first great persecution, that of Nero, probably had no other origin than the capricious cruelty of that infamous ruler. The persecutions of his immediate successors were prompted by passion rather than by principle; it is not till the reign of Trajan that we find persecution for the first time adopted intelligently and deliberately as a fixed imperial policy. This emperor, in his letter to Pliny, governor of Bithynia from 109 to III, directed that Christians should not be sought out nor proceeded against on anonymous accusations; but when accused by a responsible person they should be tried, and on conviction should be put to death.
To understand these persecutions by the better of the Roman emperors—and, as a rule, the higher an emperor's character the more severely he persecuted the Christians—we must look at the Roman laws. Religion was from the earliest times a matter of statecraft in Rome. There was a State religion, and public worship of the State deities was conducted by the magistrates. The worship of foreign gods was prohibited on pain of death by the Twelve Tables, the earliest code of laws among the Romans, and for a time this prohibition seems to have been absolute; but as other nations were conquered and absorbed a liberal policy was shown toward the religions of the conquered peoples. By act of the Senate these national deities were given recognition; temples in their honor could be established in Rome, and their devotees had equal rights with Romans, but were forbidden to make proselytes. Until a religion was thus formally recognized, it was forbidden (religio licita), but on such recognition it became a tolerated religion (religio licita). Christianity was at first supposed to be a form of Judaism, which as a national religion was tolerated and even protected by the emperors; and accordingly it was at first treated as religio licita. Soon, however, its real nature came to be known. It was found to be exclusive of all other religions; it not only made proselytes, but by its rapid progress it threatened the overthrow of the State religion. It was, therefore, religio illicita, and to embrace it was a capital offense.
Moreover, Christians were suspected of disloyalty. They avoided military service. Their conscientious refusal to offer divine honors to the emperor—which was done by throwing a little incense on the fire burning before his statue, to the Roman an act like the taking of the oath of allegiance among us—was misconstrued into political hostility. There were severe laws in the empire against clubs, secret societies and the like; no association was lawful unless specially licensed, and the emperors were so jealous of these clubs, as affording opportunities for conspiracy, that Trajan actually refused to sanction a company of firemen in Nicomedia. The Christian church was constructively an illegal secret society, since it was an organization not sanctioned by the emperor, that held frequent private meetings; and in order to protect themselves, the Christians held these meetings with great secrecy.
It was not mere wanton cruelty, therefore, that led the emperors to persecute the Christians, but a fixed State policy. But nevertheless, popular hatred at times waxed hot against the Christians, and emperors occasionally persecuted to gratify this hatred, based on ignorance and slander. Public opinion is not without influence, even in a despotic government. A saying that passed into a proverb was: Deus non pluit-duc ad Christianos (the heavens do not rain—lead us against the Christians). Tertullian probably exaggerates little when he says: "If the Tiber overflow its banks, if the Nile do not water the fields, if the clouds refuse rain, if the earth shake, if famine or storms prevail, the cry always is, "Throw the Christians to the lions!' "
Ten persecutions are mentioned by the Christians of this period and by many historians, of which three are specially remarkable for bitterness and general prevalence through the empire. In the second century persecution was spasmodic and unmethodical, nevertheless the reign of Marcus Aurelius is remembered as one of great suffering by the Christians. It is not certain that he ordered persecutions or sympathized with them, but thousands became martyrs. The first general and systematic persecution throughout the empire was that begun by Decius Trajan (249-251). The authorities were especially severe with the bishops, and Fabian of Rome, Alexander of Jerusalem, and Cyprian of Carthage, are some of those who perished in this persecution. Diocletian began the last great persecution, which raged during the years 303-311. His edicts required that all Christian churches should be destroyed; all copies of the Bible were to be burned; Christians were to be deprived of public office and civil rights, and must sacrifice to the gods on pain of death.
The Christian literature of the first three centuries records the heroic death of many devout believers, but no story is more touching than the martyrdom of Perpeuta and her companion Felicitas, as told by Tertullian, Vivia Perpetua was a matron of Carthage, about twentytwo years of age, and had an infant son. She was wellborn and well-educated, Of her husband the narrative tells us nothing, but we may infer that he was, like her father, a heathen. After being apprehended, her father and brother used all their arts of persuasion to induce her to recant, but in vain. When brought before the procurator, he besought her thus: "Spare the gray hairs of your father, spare the infancy of your boy, offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperor." She replied: "I will not do so." The procurator said: "Are you a Christian?" She replied: "I am a Christian." The procurator then delivered judgment on the accused, Perpetua among them, and condemned them to the wild beasts. The story of the martyrdom, somewhat abridged, follows in Tertullian's words:
"The day of their victory shone forth, and they proceeded from the prison into the amphitheater, as if to an assembly, joyous and of brilliant countenances. For the young women the devil prepared a very fierce cow. Perpetua is first led in. She was tossed and fell on her loins; and when she saw her tunic torn she drew it over her as a veil, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering. So she rose up; and when she saw Felicitas crushed, she approached and gave her her hand, and lifted her up; and the brutality of the populace being appeased, they were recalled to the gate. And when the populace called for them into the midst, they first kissed one another, that they might consummate their martyrdom with a kiss of peace. The rest indeed immovable and in silence received the sword-thrust; but Perpetua, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly, and she herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit. O most brave and blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!"
Early in the fourth century it became apparent that Christianity was stronger than the Cæsars, and could not be destroyed. The long contest ended with the surrender of the emperors. In 311, an edict of toleration was published, confirmed 323, and with the triumph of Constantine in 323 as sole emperor, Christianity became practically the established religion of the empire. In spite of the persecutions to which they had been subjected, the Christians had come to number, according to the most trustworthy estimates, about ten millions in the Roman empire; or one-tenth of the entire population. It was no empty boast of a rhetorician when Tertullian wrote, a century before toleration was won: "We are a people of yesterday, and yet we have filled every place belonging to you—cities, islands, castles, towns, assemblies, your very camp, your tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum! We leave you your temples only. We count your armies; our numbers in a single province will be greater."
While the Christian faith was thus engaged in a life and death contest with the imperial power, it was compelled to defend itself against the hardly less dangerous attacks of heathen adversaries. The emperors threatened with destruction the external organization; heathen philosophers threatened to undermine the very foundations of the faith. Pagan men of letters undertook to bring to pass what imperial power had failed to do. The terrors of the prison and the sword had proved of little avail to hinder the progress of Christianity; the question was now to be tested whether the pen could cut deeper than the sword, whether logic and rhetoric could over-come an obstinacy proof against death itself. The attacks made upon the religion of Christ in the first three centuries have never been surpassed in ability and force. No keener-witted, no more learned, no more bitterly hostile critics have searched the Scriptures with intent to overthrow them than were found in these days. We are authorized in saying this, though their works are known to us only through the references made to them by their Christian antagonists. Not only is this the general repute of these critics, but the profuse quotations from their words in the answers to them show the scope and cogency of their arguments. Nearly all the latterday skeptical objections to Christianity are to be found in these early anti-Christian writings. The new light that modern opponents of evangelical religion profess to have discovered is only the old darkness.
There were then, as now, two stock objections to the religion of Christ—first, the incredibility of the Scriptures as history; second, the absurdity of the doctrines taught in the Scriptures. Then, as now, skeptics objected to the miraculous element in the Bible, and sought to overthrow men's belief in the book as inspired by pointing out its alleged contradictions. Then, as now, men could not reconcile their human systems of philosophy with the biblical teaching regarding the inherent sinfulness of man, the vicarious atonement, regeneration, union with Christ, sanctification, and a resurrection unto eternal life. But it was paganism, not Christianity, that proved incredible when subjected to searching examination. The worship of the gods declined, while the worship of God and his Son, Jesus Christ, spread rapidly through the Roman world. The attacks of the pagan scholars and philosophers hardly retarded the process perceptibly, though for a time they seemed to constitute a serious danger.
These attacks were answered by Christian writers, so completely, so conclusively, that later defenders of the faith have had little to do but repeat, amplify, and restate their arguments. Among the ablest were Justin, Tertullian, and Origen. Justin, the earliest, was a Platonist, and in his writings stood mainly on the defensive. His two apologies, addressed to the Roman emperors, were largely devoted to showing that Christians were falsely accused by their enemies, that they were not to be blamed for public calamities, and that in all things they were good Ronians and loyal subjects of the emperor. In addition he maintained that the Scriptures are the only source of truth, the pagan mythologies abounding in falsehoods and contradictions. In his dialogue with Trypho, Justin attempts to answer the usual objections of the Jews to the Christian faith, and to prove the Messiahship of Jesus from the Old Testament. This is almost the only trace, outside of the New Testament, of controversy between Jews and Christians. Tertulhan defended the supernatural element in Christianity with great skill. He is the most finished rhetorician among the early Christian apologists, and seldom stood on the defensive, but boldly carried the war into Africa. He was a man of genius, but there was a strain of enthusiasm or fanaticism in him that made him an unsafe guide; nevertheless, his services as a defender of the faith were great.
The culmination of this series of apologies was the treatise of Origen against Celsus: He was born of Christian parents at Alexandria, in 185. The statement will be found in many books of reference that he was baptized in infancy, but as there is no record of his baptism the statement can be nothing more than an inference from the fact that he advocated infant baptism in later years. It is more probable that he was not baptized in infancy, since the custom was far from general when he was born. He received a careful education and as a boy knew whole sections of the Bible perfectly. During the greater part of his life he was a teacher at Alexandria?though he was at one time deposed from the office of presbyter, excommunicated and exiled? and was in high repute as a scholar and writer.
Origen labored to reconcile Greek philosophy with biblical theology, not with entire success, since his teachings afforded some ground for the charges of heresy brought against him. His doctrine concerning Christ was the precursor of the later Arianism, and his denial of eternal punishment has had a great influence on the church in every succeeding century. His great work against Celsus, valuable as it was in its time, had not the same worth for the church of all time as his exegetical studies. He was the first commentator on the Scriptures who seriously set himself, by grammatical and historical study of the text, to ascertain what the word of God really means. This was, in truth, his greatest contribution to apologetics, though in form it was not a defense of Christianity. Has it not been true in all the ages since, that the religion of Christ has been most successfully defended by those who have best set forth its teachings to the world, not by those who have ostensibly, not to say ostentatiously, gone about the task of formal defense? The most effective refutation of error is to teach the truth.
The victory of Christianity was no less complete in controversy than in the civil conflict. About the time the emperors were convinced that persecution was futile, the philosophers saw the uselessness of criticism. The triumph of Christianity was the survival of the fittest. lit won because truth must win when pitted against error, since it has behind it all the power of God. In these ages, as in many others, we can now see that the opposition of pagan writers was a blessing to the church. It compelled Christians to examine well the foundations of their faith, to study the Bible and systematize its teachings, to recognize the discrepancies and apparent contradictions of the Scriptures and inquire how and how far these might be harmonized. The result was that Christianity emerged from its conflict with paganism rejoicing in a faith greatly strengthened, and above all more intelligent. The faith of the church in its Scriptures as a divine revelation could never be seriously shaken after the searching tests they had so triumphantly encountered.
But the victory was in part a defeat also; as often happens, the conquered overcame the conquerors. Christianity apparently vanquished heathenism, but heathenism succeeded in injecting much of its superstition and ritual into Christianity. In the long struggle with the Cæsars, Christianity had apparently won; but while appearing to gain all, by obtaining the patronage of Constantine, it was in danger of losing all. The process of degeneracy and corruption—in polity, in doctrine, in spiritual life—had begun long before, but adversity had kept the church comparatively pure. Now it became rapidly assimilated to the world, and the increase of the church in wealth, in numbers, and in worldly power was accompanied by an equally marked decadence of spiritual life, and a departure from the simplicity of the apostolic doctrine and practice.
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