At first the attitude of the Roman authorities to the Christians was ambivalent. The Romans regarded Christianity as just another Jewish sect. What did the Roman Emperor care for Christianity more than any other party name, such as Pharisee, Sadducee or Libertine? The controversy between the Jews and the followers of the Saviour was to them “but one of those paltry squabbles to which the restless Jewish people were chronically subject”. (3) The spirit of the Roman rulers was clearly displayed by Gallio at Corinth, when he refused to listen to the charges brought against Paul by the Jews because he regarded the whole dispute as an internal Jewish concern. It is not difficult, however, to see how it was impossible for Christianity to co-exist with the Roman gods. Caesar was regarded as the embodiment of Roman gods and was worshipped with incense and sacrifice, and conflict was inevitable. The Roman power could strike at any time, as Christianity, unlike Judaism, was not the religion of a nation and so was not recognised by the law.
The first major persecution of Christians in Rome began in 64 AD. It was instigated by the emperor Nero, following a great fire in the city. F F Bruce says, “We need not inquire into the causes of the fire; most probably it arose by accident like the Great Fire in London in 1666”. (4) Once the fire started, it spread quickly through the crowded buildings of the city. Among the citizens of Rome, the Emperor himself was the chief suspect. When he found that the finger of rumour was pointing to himself, Nero had to look around for a scapegoat and had no difficulty in blaming the fire on the Christians. Public feeling against them was such that they were universally reviled. Even a writer of the eminence of Tacitus, who disliked Nero intensely ,wrote of Christianity as a “pernicious superstition” and states that the Christians were not put to death so much for arson as for hatred of the human race. He goes on to say, “Their death was made a matter of sport. Some were wrapped in the skins of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs. Some were fastened to crosses and set on fire in order to serve as torches when daylight failed.” (5)
Much of this was done in Nero’s gardens as he mingled with the crowd, riding in his chariot and enjoying the dreadful spectacle. We must remember that every strata of society was riddled with practices which to the Christians were idolatrous and therefore forbidden. F F Bruce comments: “The Jews also regarded these practices in the same light and abstained from social intercourse with the Gentiles on that account, but it was taken for granted that the Jews were like that and, after all, they were legalized. But the Christians had no racial or legally-recognised reason for being anti-social. Their attitude was put down to sheer hatred of humanity, and humanity considered itself justified in retaliating.” (6) Yet Christianity was not suppressed by this or by any of the subsequent attempts to root it out, and the Church in Rome continued to flourish with increasing vigour and to enjoy the respect of Christians throughout the world
At about this time, around 68 or 69 AD, both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. The distinction that tradition makes between the two apostles in the manner of their death, that Peter was crucified while Paul was beheaded, is very likely to be true. Paul, unlike Peter, was a Roman citizen and would therefore be executed in a less ignominious manner. The persecution, begun in Rome by Nero in 64 AD, continued more or less continuously till his death four years later. These persecutions were not confined to Rome itself but spread throughout the Empire. J G Davis puts the matter into context when he states: “That Nero was able to pick on the Christians was in part due to prevalent attitudes in Rome; the educated classes were suspicious of this new religion, whose doctrine had but recently come to light, and they looked askance at conversion as an unreasonable enthusiasm characteristic of the lower orders. The initial success of Christianity was principally among the poor, and it seemed to many to be essentially a revolutionary and working class movement.” (7)
Before Nero’s persecution of Christians had died down, events in Palestine attracted the attention of the Romans. The Christians bore no responsibility for these events, but their outcome was to have a marked effect on the development of Christianity. The Zealots, a Jewish nationalist party, resolved to free the land from Roman rule by violence. In May, 66 AD, the Zealots massacred the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. In spite of some early Jewish victories, Titus, leader of the Roman armies, surrounded Jerusalem in 70 AD and the siege began. Apparently heeding the Saviour’s warning, the Christians fled beyond Jordan to Pella and avoided the fate of the city. “Never had men fought with more desperate heroism than the Jews did”, (8) but at length the Romans triumphed and took possession of the temple, so that even the holy of holies was set on fire and Jerusalem completely devastated, so that the words of Jesus, “There shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2), were fulfilled to the letter.
In lands outside Palestine, the year 70 AD marked the close of the period when Christianity could be regarded as simply a variety of Judaism. From then onwards the divergence of the paths of Jewish Christianity and orthodox Judaism was decisive. “From that day Christianity stands forth clearly and unmistakably as the religion, not of one land or people, but of the world. The fires of persecution were rekindled on the accession of Domitian in AD 81 and martyrdom was commonplace. A mere profession of Christianity was a crime against the state, and Christians had no defence. Persecution went on at the whim of the emperor or his provincial governors for about a hundred years, and large numbers were martyred throughout the empire from Gaul to North Africa to Rome to Asia Minor. There are many narratives of personal bravery which time will not permit us to deal with, but it shows the stamp of the early Christians that they would not cast a handful of dust on the sacrifices given to the emperor and passed by his altars to their death in the arena or in the fire. There are profound lessons for us in their example.
At some time during the third century, the persecutors of the Christians concluded that it was not enough to burn them or to pull down their buildings; their writings also must be burnt. Burns remarks: “Congregations had before been broken up, scattered, decimated, but new members rose up in the room of their martyred brethren and the flocks rallied again, stronger than ever. Pastors were cut off by fire and sword but other pastors as brave and faithful were ready to take their places; that plan then had failed. But now let that seed itself be destroyed. Let the Bible from which the Church sprang be itself annihilated and the Church will speedily die out and perish from the earth.” (9) As at many other times in the history of the Church of God, its enemies perceived the importance of the Word, and the lesson learned from the Roman Empire was not lost on the Roman Catholic Church; to this day it is the bitter enemy of the truths of the Word of God. Christians, as before, resisted bravely, but the persecution was severe. “The details of blood and horror are so dreadful that they would scarcely admit of belief did they not rest upon the unimpeachable authority of a contemporary.” (10) However, the accession of the emperor Constantine in 312 AD brought a welcome relief from persecution.
While the Church was having to withstand the imperial persecutions, it also had to confront enemies from within who were in a sense more dangerous. We have already referred to the Judaizers, who had troubled the Apostle Paul. Their natural successors were the Ebionites, who, while they accepted the Old Testament and the Gospel of Matthew, denied the divinity of the Saviour and sought to impose the ceremonial law on every Christian.
More troublesome, and even more erroneous, were the Gnostics. A A Hodge summarises their theology: “The Gnostics held that the supreme God is one in essence and in Person, and that from Him emanated different orders of spiritual beings, none of them in any proper sense God, yet all divine, since they all proceeded by way of emanation from Him. These are called Aeons. The Old Testament Jehovah, or Creator, was one of these Aeons, of which class Christ was one of the greatest.” (11) It may seem strange to us that such erroneous beliefs could trouble the Christian Church, but we must understand that Gnosticism was shot through with Syncretism, “an attempt to accommodate religious beliefs of every kind”, so it found many supporters. We will leave the Gnostics with a further quotation: “All the Gnostic systems were wildly imaginative and speculative, and exceedingly complex, and do not lend themselves to treatment in such a short work as this”. (12) According to F F Bruce, Gnosticism led to “the excessive intellectualising of Christian faith. Faith henceforth comes to denote intellectual orthodoxy rather than personal commitment to Christ.” So this heresy had an obvious effect on the Church although it was rejected.
Montanism arose as an apparent reaction to the Gnostics. Montanus, from whom the sect derives its name, claimed to have had a special revelation from the Holy Spirit and started a wild and frenzied revival campaign. He was joined by two women, Prisca and Maxmilla, who announced themselves as prophets. According to Montanus, the last period of revelation opened with the giving of the Holy Spirit; hence the present age is one of spiritual gifts and especially prophecy. Montanus and his followers regarded themselves as the last of the prophets, bringing new revelations. The Church, however, rejected Montanism because of its fanaticism and its claim to a higher revelation than the New Testament. It has been said of Montanism: “Some aspects of their teaching remind us of the followers of Edward Irving in Britain last century, and of the Nazarenes and Pentecostals in America in our own day”. (13) Many other heresies, too numerous to deal with here, had their own impact, but enough has been said to show that, outwardly and inwardly, this was an era of conflict in the early Christian Church.
1. The first part of this paper, given at last year’s Theological Conference, appeared last month. It dealt with The Era of Conquest, the period of the Acts of the Apostles and immediately afterwards.
2. F F Bruce, The Dawn of Christianity, p 79.
3. Islay Burns, The First Three Christian Centuries, p 83.
4. P 162.
5. Annals xv, quoted by Bruce, p 163.
6. P 164.
7. The Early Christian Church, p 36.
8. A M Renwick and A M Harman, The Story of the Church, p 18.
9. P 117.
10. Burns, p 118. The authority referred to is Eusebius.
11. Outlines of Theology, p 196.
12. Renwick and Harman, p 34.
13. Renwick and Harman, p 35. The reference is to the nineteenth century.