{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, sporadic, and more often the result of mob action than the result of definite government policy. Starting with the persecutions of Decius [249–251], they were based on the policy of the Roman imperial government and were widespread and violent.

·         Political:

o        Illegal sect: As long as Christianity was regarded by the authorities as a part of Judaism, it was a legal sect. As soon as Christianity was distinguished from Judaism as a separate sect, it was classified as a secret society and came under the ban of the Roman state which did not allow any private religion.

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

o        Disloyalty accused: The demand for loyalty to God above loyalty to Caesar raised the suspicion of Romans that Christians were trying to set up a state within a state. The suspicion was confirmed with Christian’s refusal to participate in emperor worship. Most Christians would not serve as soldiers so they were accused as being disloyal to the government.

·         Religious:

o        Different religion: Roman religion was external. It had altars, idols, priests, and rites. Christianity was very different so Romans had grave misunderstandings.

o        Atheism accused: When Christians stood and prayed, there was no visible object to which those prayers were addressed to, so Romans thought Christians were atheists.

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

·         Social:

o        Threat to aristocracy: Christianity had great appeal for lower classes and slaves so they were hated by the influential aristocratic leaders. Christianity upheld the equality of all men and this created a threat to the aristocracy who kept slaves.

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

o        Anti-social: Christians separated themselves from pagan gatherings at temples, theatres, and places of recreation. This non-conformity was a threat to the social structure. Pagans accused them as “haters of mankind”.

·         Economic:

o        Threat to economy: Priests, idol makers, soothsayers, painters, architects, and sculptors would hardly be enthusiastic about a religion that threatened their livelihood.

o        Calamities: Around 250, there were plagues, famines, and civic unrest in the empire and Christians were blamed for those troubles because of their rejection of the Roman gods.

        4.1.2  Persecution from the Jews

·         Jewish Christians: The earliest Christians were all Jews. They did not view Christianity as a new religion, but as Judaism with a fulfilled promise. Gentiles were invited not to a newly born religion, but to become children of Abraham by faith. In OT times, Judaism had believed that all nations would be brought to Zion at the advent of the Messiah.

·         Heretical sect: In Jews’ eyes, Christianity was a heretical sect. They were against Christians because the Christians were trying to lure other Jews to become a heretic. They were also afraid that this would bring wrath from God.

·         Roman government: Thus, in the period after the church was founded [30–60], most persecution of Christians were from Jews (Acts 18:14-15). Christians actually seek protection from the Roman government. The government only intervened when disruption of order occurred, like in a riot. The government noticed the difference between Jews and Christians later when Jewish nationalism arose and led to rebellion, while the Christians tried to stay away from such movement. For example, during the Jewish revolt [66–70], Christians in Jerusalem fled to Pella.

        4.1.3  Persecution from the Romans

·         Cycles: There were cycles of persecution under 10 Roman emperors: Nero [54–68], Domitian [81–96], Trajan [98–117], Hadrian [117–138], Antoninus Pius [138–161], Marcus Aurelius [161–180], Septimius Severus [193–211], Decius [249–251], Diocletian [303–305], Galerius [305–311].

·         Martyrdom: 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. Spontaneous martyrs were considered false martyrs (especially when many failed to remain firm till the end). However, not all the Christians agreed to this point of view.


        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. However, many people believed that the emperor might be the one setting fire to: [1] rebuild sections of the city, or [2] inspire Nero’s poem making. Historical records indicate that people in general did not believe that Christians were to blame for the fire, but many did believe the rumour that Christians hated mankind. The persecution was not for justice, but for the amusement of Nero. The punishment was very cruel.

·         Against Roman Christians: Persecution was probably confined within Rome. Peter and Paul were most likely among the martyrs. Persecution extended to all Christians even though the original verdict was due to arson. This was passed as a law during Nero’s time. Persecution ceased when Nero died, but the law had not been revoked.

        4.2.2  Persecution under Domitian [81–96]

·         Cultural traditions: Domitian was a lover of Roman traditions, which were rejected by Christians. Jews were also in great conflict with the emperor after Jerusalem was destroyed [70]. Domitian put on harsh laws against anyone with “Jewish practice.” In addition, Jews refused to pay a poll tax. Christians were counted as associates of the Jews so that they were persecuted.

·         Asia Minor: Persecution probably centred at Rome and Asia Minor. Apostle John was probably exiled at this time to Patmos.

        4.2.3  Persecution under Trajan [98–117], Hadrian [117–138], Antoninus Pius [138–161]

·         Based on accusations: In answering a letter from governor Pliny, Trajan ordered that Christians were not to be sought out as criminals even if they were against emperor worship. This decision showed that Christians’ activities were not harming the society or the state, so there was no need to waste resources and seek them out. Yet if they were accused, they would be ordered to recant. Then the refusal to recant should be punished because they showed contempt to the court and their failure to worship the emperor would be regarded as a denial to his right to rule.

·         Emperor worship: When Christians were brought to trial, they would be asked to burn incense before the image of the emperor, curse Christ and pray to the pagan gods. If they refused, they would be killed. Even after the death of Trajan, this policy was carried out by many cities within the empire and had lasted a long time in 2nd-c.

·         Martyrs: [1] Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (35–110)—He was most likely accused by a pagan or a dissident Christian. He was sent to Rome for execution in the Forum [110]. [2] Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (70–156)—He was probably a disciple of Apostle John. He was martyred during the persecution of Emperor Antoninus Pius. He was stabbed to death after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed [156].

        4.2.4  Persecution under Marcus Aurelius [161–180]

·         Roman traditions: He was an emperor with an enlightened mind, but at the same time superstitious. He 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.

·         Martyr: Justin Martyr—He was perhaps the best Christian scholar of the time. He founded a Christian school in Rome. He debated with a pagan philosopher who afterwards accused Justin. Justin refused to renounce his faith by offering sacrifice to the gods and he was killed [163].

        4.2.5  Persecution under Septimius Severus [193–211]

·         Syncretism: After Septimius Severus terminated the civil wars, he turned his attention to enforcing religious harmony in the empire. His policy was to promote syncretism under the worship of the “Unconquered Sun” to which all religions and philosophies subsume under [202]. All gods were to be accepted, provided that one acknowledged the reign of the Sun above all. But Jews and Christians did not yield. He then outlawed, under penalty of death, all conversions to Christianity and Judaism. This was in addition to the existing policy of Trajan.

·         Martyrs: [1] Irenaeus—some tradition recorded his martyrdom though uncertain. [2] Perpetua (181–203) & Felicitas—The rich Perpetua and her servant Felicitas were among the 5 catechumens preparing for baptism. The 5 were sent to the arena to face beasts.

·         A period of peace: For unknown reasons, persecutions abated after the death of Perpetua [203]. The next 4 emperors did not continue the persecutions, except very brief persecutions by Emperor Maximian [235–238] when the 2 bishops of Rome Pontianus and Hippolytus (due to division in the church, Hippolytus being classified later as an antipope) were sent to hard labour.

o        Hippolytus: He was a noted theologian in Rome. He clashed with bishop Calixtus because Calixtus was willing to forgive those guilty of fornication after they repented. There was a schism. Hippolytus later reconciled with the next bishop Pontianus.

        4.2.6  Persecution under Decius [249–251]

·         To restore ancient religion: Because of barbarian incursions and economic crisis, the glory of the empire waned. People abandoned the ancient Roman gods and Decius believed that the problems were because of the gods’ displeasure. He wanted to revive Rome to its ancient glory. To restore the ancient religion, Decius commanded that those who refused to worship the gods were practically guilty of high treason. But he did not want to kill them but instead used force to compel them to change their faith.

·         Coercions: Those who refused to offer annual sacrifice to the gods and to burn incense before a statue of Decius would be considered outlaws. They were forced to abandon their faith through a combination of promises, threats, and torture. The number who died was not large but the persecutions were systematic and universal.

·         Confessors: One result was a new title of honour—confessors, those who remained firm in their faith, even under cruel torture. Those who yielded were the “lapsed”. As the church had not been persecuted for 50 years, Christians were not prepared for the challenge and many yielded. Fortunately, Decius died only after 2 years.

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

·         Against Christian soldiers: Diocletian reorganized the empire into the east under himself and the west under Maximian, both with the title “augustus”. Under them were two “caesars”. Caesar Galerius under Diocletian regarded the Christian attitude of not joining the army to be dangerous, for it was conceivable that at a critical moment, the Christians in the army could refuse to obey orders. So he convinced Diocletian to order that all Christians to be expelled from the army. Some Christians were executed.

·         Harsh persecution: Galerius convinced Diocletian to issue a new edict against Christians [303], removing them from positions of responsibility in the empire, and destroying all Christian buildings and books. Persecutions started and Christians were forced to give up their Scripture. Then Galerius blamed two fires in the imperial palace on Christians. Diocletian then decreed that all Christians must offer sacrifices to the gods. Christians were punished by the loss of property, exile, imprisonment, torture, and they were killed in large groups by the sword or wild beasts.

·         Rise of Constantine: Both Diocletian and Maximian abdicated [305], and Galerius (east) and Constantius Chlorus (west) became augustus. Galerius placed his two followers as caesars. But Maximian’s son Maxentius fought a war with Galerius. In the west, Constantius Chlorus died and the army proclaimed his son Constantine their augustus. He was not involved in the war and instead slowly strengthened his position in Gaul (now France) and Great Britain.

·         Edict of Tolerance: Galerius and his caesar Maximinus Daia 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, for more it was spilled the greater the number of Christians. The exemplary deaths of Christians had moved many who had witnessed martyrdom, and led to their conversion. Another excellent analogy was that the Word of God was the seed of the church, which was watered by the sweat, tears, and blood of Christians. Not surprisingly, the NT never describes persecution as a threat to the well-being of the church.

·         Eastern church: In 1st-c, Christianity was mostly confined to the Eastern 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 of about 50-75 million (5-10 million Christians).

        4.3.2  Treatment of the lapsed

·         Restoration of the lapsed: The persecutions of Decius created a major problem for the church. Because he used the strategy of coercion, some Christians yielded under threats. They became the “lapsed”. When they later reaffirmed their faith and asked to join the church, the question of how to treat the lapsed caused arguments among Christians. One main factor was that not all had fallen in the same degree. Some purchased fraudulent certificates of sacrifice, but some actually offered sacrifices.

·         Authority to restore: The first question was: who could exercise the authority to restore, bishops or confessors? Some follow the action of the prestigious confessors who started restoring the lapsed. But some bishops believed that only the church hierarchy had the authority to restore.

·         How to restore? The second question was: who among the lapsed could be restored, and how? Some believed that the lapsed could be restored once they showed penance. Others held that rebaptism would be required. The church was divided so a synod (gathering of the bishops in the region) was called in Carthage [251]. It decided that those who had purchased fraudulent certificates but had not sacrificed would be immediately readmitted to the church. Those who had sacrificed would only be readmitted after a period of penance, some only on their deathbeds.

·         Cyprian (200–258): He was the bishop of Carthage. When persecutions started, he fled to a secure place with other leaders to continue guiding the flock through correspondence. Some thought this was an act of cowardice but Cyprian rejected the accusation. Cyprian supported the authority of the bishops to restore because he believed that the action of the confessors threatened unity.

·         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 those who had lapsed unless they were rebaptized. There were thus two bishops of Rome until 258. The issue was whether purity or forgiving love should be more important. The conflict divided the western church repeatedly and resulted in the development of the penitential system.

·         Problem of traditors: A similar problem occurred after the persecutions of Diocletian. The question was how to deal with the traditors, those who had given up copies of the Scripture to persecutors. This led to Donatism in 4th-c.

·         Development of the canon: If the possession of apostolic letters might mean death, the Christians wanted to be sure that the books that they would not give up on pain of death were really canonical books. This contributed to the development of the NT canon.



[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.



        Why did the Roman government persecute Christians?

o        Christians did not participate in pagan worship and emperor worship so they were accused as rebelling against the government.

o        They were accused of hating mankind.

o        Conflicts between Jews and Christians caused riots.

        Should Christians rebel or join a revolution if the ruler is a tyrant?

o        Christians are commanded to obey the government (Romans 13) because it provides social order and punishes the criminals. The teaching from Paul was given when the government was the Roman Empire where some of the emperors were tyrants. Christians should not join a revolution just because the ruler is a tyrant. However, if a government does not fulfil its appointed duties, then Christians can involve in actions to remove the government, including joining a revolution.

        How should Christian respond when persecutions come from other groups/religions? What about persecution from the government?

o        Christian responses to persecutions:

          find out the reasons for the persecutions

          clarify misunderstanding by explanation

          encourage mutual communication to reduce misunderstanding

          if problems persist, then seek legal redress from the courts

o        If it is the government and is a democracy, we could seek to replace the government in an election.

        Are there different forms of persecution in today’s society?

o        Besides direct violence, there were discrimination, threat of prosecution, defamation, and marginalization. In some Muslim or communist countries, building of churches were prohibited.

        Why did God allow 3 centuries of Roman persecutions?

o        Persecutions led to the purification of the church so that only genuine Christians remained. The same effect can be observed in China today.

o        Persecutions allowed non-Christians to see how Christians react to persecutions. Many were brought to Christ simply after watching the death of martyrs. Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the gospel, for more it was spilled the greater the number of Christians.

o        Persecutions forced early Christians to quickly establish the canon, doctrines, and creeds so that they knew what they were fighting for.

        How were the lapsed Christians dealt with? Are these treatments proper? Should the treatment be similar for today? Why and why not?

o        The lapsed Christians were dealt with differently by bishops and confessors. For some, the requirements were light while for others, they were readmitted only on their deathbeds.

o        The treatments were rightly different for different offenses and dependent on circumstances. However, there should be general guidelines.

o        Today, a church should have clear written standards for beliefs and behaviour of members. A member should be disciplined for violation for those standards because only then can a church be kept pure. However, with the existence of different denominations, it is practically impossible to enforce discipline as anyone can leave a church and join another one down the street. Because of this, a church should clarify the background of new applicants before they are admitted.

        How do we see God’s providence at work in the victory of Constantine?

o        a broken empire with different claims of authority

o        the successful escape of Constantine from Galerius’ control

o        relative peace to strengthen his army in Gaul while the others battled

o        Diocletian’s retirement

o        Galerius’ sickness and death

o        unwise decision by Maxentius in the battle of Milvian Bridge