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The apostolic faith was born into a society—the Roman Empire—that was religiously very diverse. Alongside Greek and Roman paganism and the new official cult of emperor worship, a variety of ethnic paganisms existed among the different subject peoples of the empire. Additionally, the Eastern “mystery cults” had become increasingly popular: the cults of Cybele, Isis, Demeter, and Mithras. What about Judaism? To the Roman mind, the faith of Israel was in essence simply another religion, albeit a peculiar one. All these religions were embraced within Roman law as licita or permitted faiths. Very rarely did the empire classify a religion as illicita—not permitted.

One of the enduringly provocative questions of early church history, therefore, is why exactly Christianity was classed as “not permitted” and Christians were persecuted. Could the Roman Empire not find it in its heart to tolerate one more religion? Several reasons have been suggested for the unusual Roman intolerance of Christianity. One reason was undoubtedly the Christian refusal to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Christians, as a matter of fundamental principle, would not utter the required formula “Caesar is Lord” before a statue of the emperor.

We must understand that the “lordship” in question was not merely political or secular but was understood as divine. “Caesar is Lord” was a confession of the emperor’s divine status. This, of course, conflicted with the bedrock truth of the Apostolic faith: Jesus is Lord. If a Christian said “Caesar is Lord,” it was tantamount to the sin of apostasy in the eyes of the church. In Roman eyes, however, the refusal to say “Caesar is Lord” was regarded as treasonous disloyalty to the empire.

One might ask at this point about the precise status of Judaism. Imbued with a fierce monotheism, no Jew would admit the divinity of the emperor or pronounce the words “Caesar is Lord.” Yet Jews were granted exemption from this test of loyalty. This was because their religion was perceived as part and parcel of their nationhood. If the Jews, as a people, were to be incorporated into the empire at all, imperial law would have to take account of their ancestral traditions, including their monotheistic faith. This, however, was atypical. In the case of Christians, they could not plead the ancestral faith of a nation. Christians were, by their own admission, bound by no nationality, and they based their distinctive faith on very recent events—the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea.

One of the enduringly provocative questions of early church history is why exactly Christianity was classed as “not permitted” and Christians were persecuted.

These considerations seem to have been decisive for Roman lawmakers, motivating them to refuse any exemption for Christians from the cult of emperor worship, as if to say: “You are not a nation, and you cannot plead a venerable antiquity for your newfangled faith. You must, therefore, conform as the other religions do, and prove your fidelity to Rome by worshiping the emperor.” It seemed incomprehensible to the Roman establishment that Christians would not accede to this very reasonable demand. The followers of Christ, therefore, with their disdain for emperor worship, swiftly earned a reputation as awkward, antisocial troublemakers who deserved the punishment meted out to them. There was precious little sympathy, either from magistrates or from people at large, for persecuted Christians.

For the first two hundred years, the persecution of the church was left to the discretion of Rome’s provincial governors. Their only criterion was political expediency. If, in the local setting of their province, active persecution of Christians seemed likely to please the general populace, keeping them loyal to Rome, then the governors would persecute. Conditions, however, varied widely from one province to another. A Christian might find himself left alone to practice his faith in peace (as long as he did not draw attention to himself), while his brethren in a neighboring province were being savagely persecuted by its governor.

Nor should we doubt the savagery of those persecutions. Christians really were thrown to lions—that is no Hollywood myth. They were also thrown to bulls, tortured on burning hot iron, stretched to the breaking point on racks, and set ablaze like human torches. As one Christian eyewitness commented, no tenderness or mercy was shown to the very young or to women. Perhaps it also scandalized the Roman mind to see masters and slaves gladly dying together, in a common brotherhood of love for Christ—did this not strike at the moral foundations of slavery? One of the most celebrated martyrdoms was that of Perpetua and Felicitas, a young noblewoman from a slave-owning family and one of her female slaves, who embraced death together for Jesus’ sake in Carthage around AD 203.

It was not until the year 250 that Rome engaged in its first empirewide persecution of the church. This took place under Emperor Decius, who interpreted the military calamities of the empire as judgment from the gods. Why were they so angry? Because of the Christians, who were seducing so many to abandon the worship of Rome’s divine protectors. Decius’ policy of universal persecution was something new and ominous. He ordered that all inhabitants of the empire must offer sacrifice to Rome’s gods and obtain an official certificate stating that they had done so. Christians who refused were imprisoned and tortured. Many died. The most influential Eastern theologian of the third century, Origen of Alexandria, died from the injuries he received while being tortured for his faith.

When Constantine eventually became sole emperor of both East and West in 324, the era of pagan persecution of the church in the Roman Empire was definitively at an end.

Large numbers of professing Christians gave in, however, and either offered sacrifice to the gods or purchased a fake certificate by bribing magistrates. This created huge problems for the church once the persecution was over and many of the “lapsed” sought readmission. Lasting schisms were created depending on how strict or lenient different Christian factions believed the church should be toward the lapsed. Some thought that they should never be re­admitted; others thought that a simple profession of repentance was sufficient. The predominant attitude, however, was that while readmission was possible, a lapsed person had to demonstrate his sincerity over a period of time. This policy was championed by Cyprian of Carthage, one of the most influential Western church fathers of the third century.

By far the most systematic and ruthless empirewide persecution of Christians took place under Emperor Diocletian, who launched his onslaught against the church in AD 303. It is recorded that this persecution was so savage, even by Roman standards, that some pagans took pity on their Christian neighbors and hid them from the imperial troops. Thankfully, the persecution finally ended after Constantine became emperor of the Western half of the empire in AD 312. One of the giants of religious and secular history, Constantine defeated in battle the usurper Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Before the battle, Constantine (previously a sun-worshiper) had undergone a conversion to Christianity. Seeing himself as the divinely appointed protector of his fellow Christians, Constantine and his Eastern counterpart, the pagan emperor Licinius—who had married Constantine’s daughter to shore up his own power in the East—promulgated a new joint policy of universal religious toleration in AD 313. This was the famous Edict of Milan, as it is generally known. When Constantine eventually became sole emperor of both East and West in 324, the era of pagan persecution of the church in the Roman Empire was definitively at an end.

Many of the persecutions are chronicled in some detail by Eusebius of Caesarea, the “father of church history” and a friend of Constantine. These can be read today in Eusebius’ History of the Church. Eusebius’ accounts can be both moving and disturbing in their depiction of Roman savagery and Christian heroism. I have always found the story of Blandina, a Christian slave-girl martyred in Lyons in AD 177, especially poignant and inspiring:

Blandina was filled with such power that she was delivered and exalted above those who were torturing her by turns, from morning till evening in every way, so that they confessed they were conquered, and could not do anything more to her. They were amazed at her endurance, because her whole body was mangled and broken; they declared that just one of these forms of torture was enough to destroy life, let alone so many and so great sufferings. But the blessed woman, contending nobly, grew in strength by confessing her faith; she found comfort and rest and relief from the pain of her sufferings by exclaiming, “I am a Christian, and we do nothing vile. . . .”

Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts which had been let loose in the arena. She looked as if she was hanging in the form of a cross, and through her ardent prayers she aroused great enthusiasm in the other martyrs who were undergoing their ordeal. In their agony, they seemed to see in their sister the One Who was crucified for them, that He might convince those who believe in Him that anyone who has suffered for the glory of Christ has fellowship for ever with the living God. . . .

The blessed Blandina, last of all, having encouraged her children like a noble mother, and sent them ahead in victory to the King, herself suffered all their conflicts, and hurried after them, exulting and rejoicing in her departure as if she were called to a marriage supper, rather than being thrown to wild beasts. After whipping her, giving her to the beasts, and burning her with hot irons, the authorities finally dropped her into a basket and threw her to a bull. The beast gored her again and again, but she was now indifferent to all that befell her, because of her hope, her firm hold on all that her faith meant, and her communion with Christ. Then she too was sacrificed. The Pagans themselves admitted that they had never known a woman suffer so much or so long.

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From the May 2023 Issue
May 2023 Issue