{4}           Three centuries of persecutions

ERA 1 << Early Church (1): Persecutions (AD 30–300) >> SESSION 3

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 5-6,10,12

4.1  Background to Persecutions

        4.1.1  Causes of persecutions

·         Periods: Before 250, persecution was mainly local and sporadic. Starting with the persecutions of Decius [249–251], they were based on the policy of the Roman government and were widespread and violent.

·         Political:

o        With their refusal to participate in emperor worship, Christian were accused of being disloyal to the state.

o        The Christians held meeting at night and in secret. The Romans believed this was a conspiracy against the state.

o        Most Christians would not serve as soldiers so they were accused as being disloyal to the government.

·         Religious:

o        When Christians prayed, there was no visible object, so Romans thought Christians were atheists.

o        When Christians talked about “eating and drinking” the elements representing Christ’s body and blood, the rumour was that Christians killed and ate infants in sacrifice to their God.

o        Word of “the kiss of peace” raised the suspicion of immoral religious practices.

·         Social:

o        Christianity had great appeal for lower classes and slaves so they were hated by the influential aristocratic leaders.

o        Christianity upheld the equality of all men, thus threatening the aristocracy who kept slaves.

o        Christians avoided pagan gatherings. This non-conformity was a threat to the social structure.

o        Christians’ purity of lives was a silent rebuke to the scandalous lives of the upper classes.

·         Economic:

o        Priests, idol makers, and soothsayers lost their profits when Romans became Christians.

o        Around 250, Christians were blamed for plagues and famines because of their rejection of the Roman gods.

        4.1.2  Persecution from the Jews

·         Heretical sect: The earliest Christians were all Jews. They did not view Christianity as a new religion, but as Judaism with a fulfilled promise. In Jews’ eyes, Christianity was a heretical sect. Thus, in the period after the church was founded [30–60], most persecution of Christians were from Jews (Acts 18:14-15).

        4.1.3  Persecution from the Romans

·         Cycles: There were cycles of persecution under 10 Roman emperors. Many people thought that being a martyr was a gift from God, as God provided the strength for them to remain firm till the end.

        4.2.1  Persecution under Nero [54–68]

·         Fire in Rome: There was a great fire in Rome [64]. Nero decided to blame the Christians. The punishment was very cruel. Persecution was probably confined within Rome. Famous martyrs included Peter and Paul.

        4.2.2  Persecution under Domitian [81–96]

·         Cultural traditions: Domitian put on harsh laws against anyone with “Jewish practice.” Christians were counted as associates of the Jews and were persecuted. Persecution probably centred at Rome and Asia Minor.

        4.2.3  Persecution under Trajan [98–117]

·         Emperor worship: Trajan ordered that Christians were not to be sought out as criminals. But if they were accused by somone, they would be asked to burn incense before the image of the emperor, and curse Christ. If they refused, they would be killed. Famous martyrs included Bishop Ignatius and Bishop Polycarp.

        4.2.4  Persecution under Marcus Aurelius [161–180]

·         Roman traditions: Marcus Aurelius was a strong supporter of Roman traditions and he disliked Christians’ obstinacy and stubbornness. He ascribed the natural and man-made calamities during his reign to the growth of Christianity. Justin Martyr was martyred at this time.

        4.2.5  Persecution under Septimius Severus [193–211]

·         Syncretism: Septimius Severus promoted syncretism under the worship of the “Unconquered Sun” [202]. All gods were to be accepted, provided that one acknowledged the reign of the Sun above all. He outlawed, under penalty of death, all conversions to Christianity and Judaism. Famous martyrs included Irenaeus and Perpetua.

        4.2.6  Persecution under Decius [249–251]

·         To restore ancient religion: Decius tried to restore the ancient religion, so those who refused to worship the gods were guilty of high treason. He used promises, threats, and torture to compel them to comply. One result was a new title of honour—confessors, those who remained firm in their faith, even under cruel torture.

        4.2.7  Great Persecution under Diocletian [303–305] & Galerius [305–311]

·         Harsh persecution: Galerius, second-in-command, convinced Emperor Diocletian to issue edicts against Christians [303], removing them from positions of responsibility in the empire, and destroying all Christian buildings and books. Christians were forced to give up their Scripture. They were punished by the loss of property, exile, imprisonment, torture, and they were killed on masse by the sword or wild beasts.

·         Rise of Constantine: After Diocletian died, Galerius ruled the east and Constantius Chlorus ruled the west [305]. When Constantius Chlorus died, the army proclaimed his son Constantine their leader.

·         Edict of Tolerance: Galerius continued to persecute Christians. When Galerius fell sick with a painful disease, he changed his policy and proclaimed the Edict of Tolerance [311] stopping persecution of Christians.

        4.3.1  Growth of Christianity

·         Blood of the martyrs: Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the gospel. The exemplary deaths of Christians had moved many who had witnessed martyrdom, and led to their conversion.

·         Eastern church: In 1st-c, Christianity was mostly confined to the eastern section of the empire and the majority of the believers were Jews. The main churches were in Jerusalem and Antioch. In 2nd-c, expansion was rapid among the Greek-speaking Gentiles. The church in Alexandria became the chief church of Egypt.

·         Western church: In 3rd-c, the gospel spread to the Latin-speaking Gentiles in the western empire. The church in Carthage was the chief church and intellectual centre in North Africa. By 300, the proportion of Christians was estimated to be 5-15% of the population of the empire (totalling 50-75 million).

        4.3.2  Treatment of the lapsed

·         Restoration of the lapsed: During the persecutions of Decius, some Christians yielded under threats. Some purchased fraudulent certificates of sacrifice, but some actually offered sacrifices. They became the lapsed. When they later wanted to rejoin the church, the confessors decided what the condition would be. But some bishops believed that only the church hierarchy had the authority to restore. A synod (gathering of the bishops in the region) was called in Carthage [251] which decided that those who had purchased fraudulent certificates only would be immediately readmitted to the church. Those who had sacrificed could only be readmitted after a period of penance, some only on their deathbeds.

·         Two Roman bishops: When Cornelius was elected bishop of Rome [251], Novatian was also elected to be bishop by a rival group who would not admit the lapsed unless they were rebaptized. There were thus two bishops of Rome until 258.


[1] treasure our heritage

The church was built on the blood of martyrs and confessors.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

Persecutions did not wipe out the church. The worst persecutions were stopped by Decius’ short reign and Galerius’ sickness.

[3] avoid past errors

Arguments on non-essential issues such as the lapsed and the traditors should not lead to disunity.

[4] apply our knowledge

It is important to seek church-wide agreement on rules of discipline.

[5] follow past saints

Thousands of martyrs died for their faith during persecutions.