Early Church History

First Era of Persecution

64

Nero Burns Rome

The great fire... broke out the night of July 18, 64. It started among the wooden booths at the south-east end of the Circus Maximus and burned for six days before it died to embers, only to restart again. When the fire was finally completely extinguished, only four of the fourteen regions of Rome remained untouched by the fire. Three had been utterly destroyed, and the other seven reduced to ruins.

Though Nero blamed the Christians quickly enough, responsibility for the blaze was a matter of some controversy for later historians. Tacitus, though he mentions the rumors of Nero's involvement, graciously maintains that the origins of the fire were uncertain. However, none of the authorities who followed him were so kind. Virtually all of them blamed Nero himself for starting the fires, justifying their accusations with evidence of his insatiable lust for death and chaos and his search for an excuse to execute the Christians he saw as a threat to his own divinity as Caesar. However, in spite of his apparent capacity and motive for the act, there remains, to this day, no physical proof of his guilt.

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70

The Destruction of Jerusalem

The Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD was a decisive event in the First Jewish-Roman War. It was followed by the fall of Masada in 73 AD. The Roman army, led by the future Emperor Titus, with Tiberius Julius Alexander as his second-in-command, besieged and conquered the city of Jerusalem, which had been occupied by its Jewish defenders in 66 AD. The city and its famous Temple were destroyed.

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81

Domitian Persecution Begins

There is significant debate as to whether official persecution of Christians existed under the reign of Domitian.

The argument in favor of Domitian persecution, appeals on the writings of Cassius Dio (155-230), Tertullian (160-220), Eusebius (263-339), and by way of reference Melito (d. 180) and Hegesippus (117-189). All of which claim either a general persecution of Christians or a specific persecution of "aethiests" and practitioners of "Jewish ways" or both.

The opponents of Domitian persecution, argue that the writers cited are decades removed from the events and that contemporary writers, such as Tacitus (56-117) and Pliny (61-112) make no mention of a persecution.

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98

Trajan Persecution Begins

Between 109 and 111 AD, Pliny the Younger was sent by the emperor Trajan to the province of Bithynia as governor. During his tenure of office, Pliny encountered Christians, and he wrote to the emperor about them. The governor indicated that he had ordered the execution of several Christians, "for I held no question that whatever it was they admitted, in any case obstinancy and unbending perversity deserve to be punished." However, he was unsure what to do about those who said they were no longer Christians, and asked Trajan his advice. The emperor responded that Christians should not be sought out, anonymous tips should be rejected as "unworthy of our times," and if they recanted and "worshiped our gods," they were to be freed. Those who persisted, however, should be punished.

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100

Justin Martyr Is Born

Justin was born ... of pagan Greek parents. He was brought up with a good education in rhetoric, poetry, and history. He studied various schools of philosophy in Alexandria and Ephesus, joining himself first to Stoicism, then Pythagoreanism, then Platonism, looking for answers to his questions. While at Ephesus, he was impressed by the steadfastness of the Christian martyrs, and by the personality of an aged Christian man whom he met by chance while walking on the seashore. This man spoke to him about Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises made through the Jewish prophets. Justin was overwhelmed. "Straightway a flame was kindled in my soul," he writes, "and a love of the prophets and those who are friends of Christ possessed me." Justin became a Christian, but he continued to wear the cloak that was the characteristic uniform of the professional teacher of philosophy. His position was that pagan philosophy, especially Platonism, is not simply wrong, but is a partial grasp of the truth, and serves as "a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ." He engaged in debates and disputations with non-Christians of all varieties, pagans, Jews, and heretics. He opened a school of Christian philosophy and accepted students, first at Ephesus and then later at Rome.

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108

Martyrdom of Ignatius

After the Apostles, Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch in Syria. His predecessor, of whom little is known, was named Euodius. Whether he knew any of the Apostles directly is uncertain. Little is known of his life except for the very end of it. Early in the second century ... he was arrested by the Imperial authorities, condemned to death, and transported to Rome to die in the arena ... Ignatius took the opportunity to encourage them, speaking to groups of Christians at every town along the way. When the prison escort reached the west coast of Asia Minor ... delegations from several Asian churches were able to visit Ignatius, to speak with him at length, to assist him ... In response he wrote seven letters that have been preserved: five to congregations that had greeted him, en masse or by delegates (Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Philadelphians, and Smyrnaeans), one to the congregation that would greet him at his destination (Romans), and one to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the Apostle John.

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117

Hadrian Persecution Begins

Trajan's successor, Hadrian (76-138), seems to have continued a mostly indifferent approach to Christianity, provided they didn't engage in open hostility. Instead, massive uprisings of Jews led to harsh punishment. This punishment meted out to the Jews, involving massive expulsions from eastern settlements, is clearly identified as separate from Christianity. This is important in that, the Christians by now were growing beyond the Jewish roots and was becoming more and more a religious option for Gentiles. Still though, Hadrian and those in authority still must've identified some Jews and Christians as part of the same group and its impossible to think that some Christians didn't meet a similar terrible fate under his rule.

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130

Conversion of Justin Martyr

Justin ... searched for truth, attaching himself to a succession of philosophical schools: Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Pythagorianism and Platonism. Finally ... he met an old man while walking on the seashore at Ephesus who pointed out some of the weaknesses in his Platonic system. He showed Justin how the Old Testament predicted the coming of Christ; but it was seeing the courage of the Christian martyrs that finally convinced him. Still wearing his philosopher's cloak he dedicated the rest of his life to defending orthodox Christianity against its philosophical opponents.

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130

Irenaeus Is Born

St. Irenaeus was born during the first half of the 2nd century (the exact date is disputed: between the years 115 and 125 according to some, or 130 and 142 according to others), Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp's hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was raised in a Christian family rather than converting as an adult.

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138

Antoninus Pius Persecution Begins

In his dealings with the Christians Antoninus went no further than to maintain the procedure outlined by Trajan, though the unswerving devotion of the Emperor to the national gods could not fail to bring the conduct of the Christians into unfavourable contrast. Very few indications of the Emperor's attitude towards his Christian subjects are to be found in contemporary documents. The most valuable is that of the Christian Bishop Melito of Sardes (Eusebius, Church History IV.26.10). In his Apology to Marcus Aurelius he speaks of "letters" addressed by Antoninus Pius to the Larissæans, the Thessalonians, the Athenians, and to all the Greeks, forbidding all tumultuous outbreaks against the Christians.... The death of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, which took place in 155 or 156, shows how a Roman proconsul, though he knew his duty, still permitted himself to be swayed by popular clamour. In the case of the proconsul Prudens (Tertullian, Ad. Scap., ix) we see how ineffectual popular outcries were in the face of strong administration, and how efficiently the interests of the Christians were safeguarded, except in the case of actual evidence in an open court. There can be no doubt, however, that persecution did take place in the reign of Antoninus, and that many Christians did suffer death. The pages of the contemporary apologists, though lacking in detail, are ample proof that capital punishment was frequently inflicted.

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150

Clement of Alexandria Is Born

Titus Flavius Clemens (c.150 - 215), known as Clement of Alexandria (to distinguish him from Clement of Rome), was a Christian theologian and the head of the noted Catechetical School of Alexandria. Clement is best remembered as the teacher of Origen. He united Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine and valued gnosis that with communion for all people could be held by common Christians specially chosen by God. He used the term "gnostic" for Christians who had attained the deeper teaching of the Logos. He developed a Christian Platonism. He presented the goal of Christian life as deification, identified both as Platonism's assimilation into God and the biblical imitation of God.

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153

Justin Writes First Apology

The First Apology was an early work of Christian apologetics addressed by Justin Martyr to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius. It is dated to the period 150-155. It contains early mentions of matters concerning liturgy and the Eucharist, and Sunday worship.

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155

Martyrdom of Polycarp

Polycarp (69 – 155) was a second century bishop of Smyrna. According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed.... He is identified as a disciple of the apostles, or in particular of John the Apostle or John the Evangelist.

With Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers. The sole surviving work attributed to his authorship is Letter to the Philippians; it is first recorded by Irenaeus of Lyons.

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155

Tertullian Is Born

Tertullian, an early Christian author and polemicist, helped to establish Latin—rather than Greek, which was the most widely used language at that time—as an ecclesiastical language and as a vehicle for Christian thought in the West. He coined many new theological words and phrases and gave currency to those already in use, thus becoming a significant thinker in forging and fixing the vocabulary and thought structure of Western Christianity for the next 1000 years. Because he was a moralist rather than a philosopher by temperament—which probably precipitated his famous question: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem"—Tertullian's practical and legal bent of mind expressed what would later be taken as the unique genius of Latin Christianity.

The life of Tertullian is based almost wholly on information written by men living over a century after him and from obscure references in his own works. On this basis a general outline of his life has been constructed, but most of the details have been continually disputed by modern scholars.

Tertullian was born in Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, present Tunisia, approximately 155–160. Carthage at that time was second only to Rome as a cultural and educational center in the West, and Tertullian received an exceptional education in grammar, rhetoric, literature, philosophy, and law. Little is known of his early life. His parents were pagan, and his father may have been a centurion in an African-based legion assigned to the governor of the province. After completing his education in Carthage, he went to Rome, probably in his late teens or early 20s, to study further and perhaps begin work as a lawyer.

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160

Justin Writes Dialogue with Trypho

The Dialogue with Trypho is a discussion in which Justin tries to prove the truth of Christianity to a learned Jew named Trypho. Justin attempts to demonstrate that a new convenant has superseded the old covenant of God with the Jewish people; that Jesus is both the messiah announced by the Old Testament prophets and the preexisting logos through whom God revealed himself in the Scriptures; and that the gentiles have been chosen to replace Israel as God’s chosen people.

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161

Marcus Aurelius Persecution Begins

In his dealings with the Christians Marcus Aurelius went a step farther than any of his predecessors.... the comparative leniency of the legislation of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper. In Southern Gaul, at least, an imperial rescript inaugurated an entirely new and much more violent era of persecution (Eusebius, Church History V.1.45).... In general the recrudescence of persecution seems to have come immediately through the local action of the provincial governors impelled by the insane outcries of terrified and demoralized city mobs.... It is clear, however, from the scattered references in contemporary writings (Celsus in Origen, Against Celsus VIII; Melito, in Eusebius, Church History IV.26; Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 1) that throughout the empire an active pursuit of the Christians was now undertaken. In order to encourage their numerous enemies, the ban was raised from the delatores, or "denouncers", and they were promised rewards for all cases of successful conviction. The impulse given by this legislation to an unrelenting pursuit of the followers of Christ rendered their condition so precarious that many changes in ecclesiastical organization and discipline date, at least in embryo, from this reign.

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165

Martyrdom of Justin

According to the traditional accounts of the church, Justin suffered martyrdom at Rome under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius when Junius Rusticus was prefect... [Rusticus] was the urban prefect of Rome between 162 and 168, and it was during this time that he conducted the trial of Justin Martyr which led to Justin's execution. Three transcripts of the trial survive, of which the shortest is probably the most accurate.

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178

Irenaeus Is Bishop of Lyon

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, is the most important witness to ecclesiastical tradition before Eusebius. He came originally from Asia Minor, which was connected in many ways with the Church of Gaul, and died after 190.

We know little about his life until 177, when the imprisoned Christians of Lyons chose him as the bearer of a letter to Eleutherus of Rome concerning the Montanist controversy. If the fact that the confessors call him not only their brother, but their "companion," is partly a reminiscense of Revelation 1:9, it still seems probable that he did not wholly escape the persecution; and it may have been a design to save his valuable life that inspired the choice of him to go to Rome.

Irenaeus had probably then been a presbyter of the church at Lyons for several years, since immediately after his return he was chosen bishop, to succeed Pothinus, who had perished in the persecution.

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178

Celsus Writes True Reason

Celsus wrote his work True Discourse (or, True Reason) as a polemic against the Christians in approximately 178 CE. Celsus divided the work into two sections, the one in which objections are put in the mouth of a Jewish interlocutor and the other in which Celsus speaks as the pagan philosopher that he is. Celsus ridiculed Christians because they advocated blind faith instead of reason. About sixty years after it was first published, the book written by Celsus inspired a massive refutation by Origen in Contra Celsum, which is our source of knowledge for Celsus, who was later condemned along with other critics such as Porphyry on obvious grounds.

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185

Iraneaus Writes Against Heresies

Irenaeus wrote a number of books, but the most important that survives is the five-volume On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Knowledge, normally referred to as Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). Only fragments in its original Greek exist, but a complete copy exists in a wooden Latin translation, made shortly after its publication in Greek, and Books IV and V are present in a literal Armenian translation.

The purpose of Against Heresies is to refute the teachings of various gnostic groups. Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best surviving description of Gnosticism.

Irenaeus cites from most of New Testament canon, as well as the noncanonical works 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas, however he makes no references to Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John and Jude. Irenaeus was the first Christian writer to list the four canonical Gospels as divinely inspired, possibly in reaction to Marcion's edited version of the Gospel of Luke, which he asserted was the one and only true gospel.

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185

Origen Is Born

Origen was born in 184 or 185 in Alexandria, Egypt... Origen was a theologian, philosopher, and devoted Christian of the Alexandrian school. He famously castrated himself so he could tutor women without suspicion, and he risked his life countless times in encouraging martyrs. He himself was tortured under Decius as an old man and died a short time later. Origen's controversial views on the pre-existence of souls, the ultimate salvation of all beings and other topics eventually caused him to be labeled a heretic, yet his teachings were highly influential and today he is regarded as one of the most important early church fathers.

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189

Clement of Alexandria Begins to Write

Nearly all the extant works of Clement are comprised under these three treatises, which form parts of one complete whole. The author gives the outline of this work in the Paedagogus. In the Protrepticus he exhorts the pagans to abandon their errors, — then he will convert them (προτρεπων); in the Paedagogus he will teach him how to lead an honest Christian life (παιδαγογων); finally, in a third work he will instruct him in the dogmas of the Catholic faith and will explain to him the speculative truths of his new religion (επι πασιν εκδιδασκων). It was therefore a complete theology, — apologetical, moral and dogmatic, — that Clement purposed to write.

It is certain that the Protrepticus was written before the Paedagogus, and the latter before the Stromata. The Stromata are generally regarded as Clement's last work, and the date of their composition is not placed before 202-203 or even 208-211. The Protrepticus and the Paedagogus may date from 189-200.

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193

Septimius Severus Persecution Begins

Christians were persecuted during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211). Severus allowed the enforcement of policies already long-established, which meant that Roman authorities did not intentionally seek out Christians, but when people were accused of being Christians they could either curse Jesus and make an offering to Roman gods, or be executed. Furthermore, wishing to strengthen the peace by encouraging religious harmony through syncretism, Severus tried to limit the spread of the two quarrelsome groups who refused to yield to syncretism by outlawing conversion to Christianity or Judaism (202). Individual officials availed themselves of the laws to proceed with rigor against the Christians. Naturally the emperor, with his strict conception of law, did not hinder such partial persecution, which took place in Egypt and the Thebaid, as well as in Africa proconsularis and the East. Christian martyrs were numerous in Alexandria (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, ii. 20; Eusebius, Church History, V.xxvi, VI.i). No less severe were the persecutions in Africa, which seem to have begun in 197 or 198 (cf. Tertullian's Ad martyres), and included the Christians known in the Roman martyrology as the martyrs of Madaura. Probably in 202 or 203 Felicitas and Perpetua suffered for their faith. Persecution again raged for a short time under the proconsul Scapula in 211, especially in Numidia and Mauritania. Later accounts of a Gallic persecution, especially at Lyon, are legendary. In general it may thus be said that the position of the Christians under Septimius Severus was the same as under the Antonines; but the law of this Emperor at least shows clearly that the rescript of Trajan had failed to execute its purpose.

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197

Tertullian Begins to Write

Ecclesiastical writer in the second and third centuries, [born] probably about 160 at Carthage... His conversion was not later than the year 197, and may have been earlier. He embraced the Faith with all the ardour of his impetuous nature. He became a priest, no doubt of the Church of Carthage... His extant writings range in date from the apologetics of 197 to the attack on a bishop who is probably Pope Callistus (after 218). It was after the year 206 that he joined the Montanist sect, and he seems to have definitively separated from the Church about 211 (Harnack) or 213 (Monceaux). After writing more virulently against the Church than even against heathen and persecutors, he separated from the Montanists and founded a sect of his own. The remnant of the Tertullianists was reconciled to the Church by St. Augustine. A number of the works of Tertullian are on special points of belief or discipline. According to St. Jerome he lived to extreme old age.

The year 197 saw the publication of a short address by Tertullian, "To the Martyrs", and of his great apologetic works, the "Ad nationes" and the "Apologeticus". The former has been considered a finished sketch for the latter; but it is more true to say that the second work has a different purpose, though a great deal of the same matter occurs in both, the same arguments being displayed in the same manner, with the same examples and even the same phrases.

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200

Cyprian of Carthage Is Born

Cyprianus, Thascius Cecilius, which last name he assumed in honor of an old presbyter, Cæcilius, who was instrumental in his conversion to Christianity, was born in Northern Africa, towards the close of the second, or in the beginning of the third, century, and educated at Carthage, where, in the fourth decade of the third century, he held a prominent position as a teacher of rhetoric. He was a man of wealth. His house and gardens were beautiful, his landed property considerable. He was also a man of elegance and dignity, both in dress and manners, both in literary productions and in business affairs. Of the history of his conversion nothing is known, but he was baptized in 245 or 246. Immediately after baptism he gave away a part of his fortune to the poor; and all his time he seems to have devoted to the study of the Bible and the Christian writers of the second century. His Epistolai acd Donatum, De Idolorum Vanitate, and Libri III. Testimoniorum adv. Judæes, in the last two of which works he closely follows Minucius Felix and Tertullian’s Apologeticus, belong to this period.

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211

Caracalla Persecution Begins

In 211, when Caracalla succeeded Septimius Severus, there was a brief persecution; but this again did not last long, and was mostly limited to North Africa.

This content is cited under the fair use doctrine (Copyright Act of 1976 as 17 U.S.C. § 107). It uses material from Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1., New York: Harper Collins (1984).

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