Introduction to early church history of Catholic Church 5

Introduction to early church history 
 Jean Paul

Encounter of Christianity with Hellenism.

What was the attitude of general Roman society (not the government) to the church?

a)  Conversions

Following the mandate of Matthew 28 the mission of the Church was to spread the Good News and bring about conversion.  This brought in people from all levels of society into the Church.

Justin Martyr in his first Apology refers to these conversions:  “We lead all by patience and gentleness to conversion.” (chapter 16).

Epistle to Diognetus - this document is actually an Apology rather than a letter, the author is unknown and nothing further is known about Diognetus.  In was written around 150AD.  The text talks about the spread of early Christianity in Chapter 5:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by the way they dress and they live in the general populace not separately.
Live not just in Greek cities but also in the Barbarian cities.
Live as sojourners or foreigners in all cities
For as the soul is spread throughout the body so Christians are in the world - ie Christianity had spread across the known world.

b) Persecutions

It is evident that there was conflict between the early church and the rest of society.

Initially there were Jewish-Christian conflicts - Acts 13-14 and 16-19 describe individual Jews and Jewish society as a whole reacting against Christianity, particularly the preaching of Paul caused the Jews, colluding with the gentile authorities, to move against Christianity.

1st Letter of Clement to the Corinthians speaks of persecutions because of  Jewish intrigues.

Suetonius in his Life of Claudius written around 49AD said: Since the Jews consistently made insurrection at the insistence of Christus Claudius expelled them from the city of Rome.

Jews and Christians were being confused at this point - however this shows that both were expelled from the city.

During the 2nd Jewish rebellion 133-5 led by Bar Kokbha Christians were further punished by the Jews, as they refused to fight and so wouldn’t join the rebellion.  This led to the martyrdom of St Polycarp which was fostered by the Jews.  Justin’s First Apology also mentions this persecution - the Jews tried to get the Christians to renounce Jesus.

There is also evidence of disproval of Christians amongst the general populace, this is seen in the writings of Roman Historians:

Suetonius in his Life of Nero is not favourable to Nero but is also not favourable to Christians: a class of men given to new and wicked superstition.

Tacitus in his Annals of the city of Rome discusses Nero’s attempt to rid himself of blame for the great fire of 64AD:  Nero fastened the blame on a class [Christians] hated for their abominations.  Nero arrested all who confessed to being Christian and through their confessions arrested a greater number of others.  Christians were arrested not for their belief but for hatred of the human race - a serious charge usually levelled at magicians.
Tacitus believed that the Christians deserved their punishments but also felt that Nero went to far, in an attempt to glut his own needs.

Why were Christians being punished?

There was no specific legislation about Christianity but they were convenient scapegoats for any calamites that happened, they also belonged to a secret society which was forbidden under Roman law (we can see from this that Christian meetings were not open to all). 
Christians were also considered to be misanthropic (ie they hated their fellow men) because they wouldn’t honour the emperor and the gods (right worship of the gods was important for the stability and peace of society).

What was the first legal react of the Roman Empire?

We have correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan written in 112 AD.  He was in Bithynia after being sent to clear up the results of previous mismanagement, which had resulted in the affairs of the Province being in a bad state.
Pliny was writing to the Emperor for advice on how to deal with Christians, although he had been a Senator and lawyer in Rome he clearly had no experience of dealing with Christians.  He considered Christians to be a separate group in their own right - so there was no longer the confusion of 49AD when both groups had been expelled from Rome.
He asked what offence the Christians had committed but was assuming that they were criminals, was being Christian an offence itself or was it that they belonged to a secret society.
He gave Christians 3 chances to renounce their faith, each stage was accompanied by threats, if they would not renounce their faith they were executed - this was for contempt of a Roman official and obduracy.  Roman citizens were sent to Rome for punishment, Pliny was not entitled to execute a citizen.

Once Pliny’s actions became known people had started to report others for being Christian (and that he’d had several anonymous letters reporting others), when someone was convicted of a Capital offence the person that reported them got a reward and a share of their goods.

For those that did renounce their faith (and there were some) he expected them to worship the pagan gods, honour the Emperor (by offering incense) and he require them to curse Christ.  He had a statue moved to the courtroom so that he could witness this.

Some responded to the charge by saying that they had been Christian but had renounced their faith (some as much as 20 years earlier - evidence of very early evangelisation), these were allowed to go free once they had offered the pagan worship described above.

As part of his actions Pliny had forbidden secret societies from being set up.

To get further information he tortured two deaconesses but discovered only that Christianity was a superstition, ie that it didn’t follow the official state religion.

Pliny was concerned because this affected a wide group of people from all levels of society so he stopped the executions and asked for advice from the Emperor.

Pliny’s opinion was that Christianity could be stopped, his actions had caused people to take part in worship of the pagan gods again and various long neglected religious practices were being revived.  This meant that the temple priests once again had an income and that meat from sacrifices was once again being sold and eaten (Christians wouldn’t eat this meat and this was causing problems for butchers).  Because he’d manage to achieve this he felt that there was a chance to reverse the situation before it got any worse.

It is clear from his letter that a multitude of people in the area had been converted .
Pliny’s concerns were:
1)  Welfare of society depended on the right worship of the gods, and the Christians wouldn’t take part in this.
2)  Such mass conversions was having a big economic impact - particularly on the priests and the butchers.
3)  Romans feared secret societies and were convinced that they were groups that got together to overthrow the government.

Trajan’s reply basically approved Pliny’s actions.  There was no general ruling about Christians and so no set procedure to deal with them.
Christians were not to be actively sought out - there were to be no pogroms against them.
If someone was accused and convicted  they must be punished - in the way Pliny set out, however if anyone did repent of their belief they were to be pardoned.
Pliny was not to accept anonymous accusations.  This was also discussed by Hadrian in 125AD in a letter to a proconsul in Asia-Minor, he was concerned that innocent people were suffering because slanderous or libellous accusations were being made so that the accuser could get a reward (a percentage of the goods of the person convicted).  Hadrian ruled that an accusation had to be sustained by evidence before a court of law and not from the clamorous demands and outcries of the mob.  This gave procedural protection against accusers and the mob.  Hadrian also ruled that anyone who falsely accused another should receive a severer punishment than would have been imposed had the accused been convicted.  Hadrian’s concern was to maintain the rule of law.


During the first  170 years of Christianity we see mob violence against Christians but no systematic move by the Empire.  Christians were persecuted as causing crises and calamities.
There is some literature about the martyrs:
St Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters on his way to Rome (107AD)
St Polycarp - described in The Martyrdom of St Polycarp (155 or 156AD)
St Justin Martyr (165AD)
A document was written about the martyrs from Scilli in 180AD,  in Carthage in North Africa, this is the first Latin document recording the early church.  The Christians were given repeated chances to repent their faith, but would not (in their defence they mentioned the letters of Paul which had been gathered together by this time.  They were sentenced to death by the sword, this sentence was imposed because of their religious rites, ie that they wouldn’t follow the rites of the official Roman religion.

What were the popular accusations against Christians?

In Justin’s First Apology he says that Christians were charged with being atheists, he felt that this was a persecution being pushed by the devil.  Christians were punished frequently without any examination.  Justin makes a comparison with the fate of Socrates who was charged  with being an atheist (and introducing new gods) and with corrupting the youth.  Justin admits that Christians are atheists in the sense that they don’t believe in the pagan gods, but they do believe in the true God who they worshipped as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Athenagoras was an Athenian philosopher who had converted to Christianity, he wrote a defence of Christians around 177AD.  He states that the three popular accusations were:
1)  Atheism
2)  Thyestian feasts
3)  Oedipidean intercourse.

In the text he denies these charges, and asks that Christians should be allowed the same rights as others. 

Pagan society’s enmity stemmed from their estimation of Christian behaviour, and also that they thought Christians were superstitious.
To look at each of these charges:
1)  Atheism - Christians didn’t believe in the pagan gods.
2)  Thyestian feasts - Christians were accused of ritual murder, infanticide, and of practising cannibalism.  This came from the Eucharist - the sacrifice of the Son and eating His body and blood.
3)  Oedepian intercourse - named from a Greek myth in which Oedipus unknowingly murders his father and marries his mother - essentially Christians were accused of incest.  This was because they referred to each other as brother and sister - this caused confusion when a husband and wife used these terms to each other.

Although not included by Athenagoras the other main accusation was that they were superstitious - they followed a different set of religious practices.

They wouldn’t take part in pagan sacrifices, as the stability of the state depended on right sacrifice to the gods they were also regarded as unpatriotic, they wouldn‘t offer the sacrifices on behalf of the Emperor so they were not just disloyal they were regarded as revolutionaries. 

They didn’t take part in normal society:
They wouldn’t go to the theatre - most of the plays were obscene.
They wouldn’t go to the circus - people were killed there for entertainment.
They wouldn’t go to the public baths - there was public nudity, men and women were not separated, and the baths were often brothels.

They neglected civic responsibilities:
They wouldn’t hold public office - at some times of the year they would have had to offer sacrifice to the gods.
They wouldn’t enter the army - those that did refused to kill.

They were part of a closed, secret society and were therefore considered to be political opponents of the state.  This was further emphasised by talking about the coming Kingdom - which was interpreted as being opposed to the current one.

All of this led to negative reactions from the Roman population.

Additionally educated Romans were also opposed to Christianity for philosophical reasons.  The objections raised by Roman philosophers were:
1)  The sacred Scriptures were foolish and offensive.
2)  The claims made about Christ were incredible: Incarnation, resurrection, miracles, etc..

How does the Church react to the persecution?

The opposition at this stage was at a local level - there would be no Empire wide edict until Septimus Severus in 203AD - at a time of danger to the Empire (especially economically and militarily) he sought to re-establish the traditional glory of the Empire by remaining faithful to the state religion (the welfare of society depended on this).  This edict would forbid conversion to either Christianity or Judaism - those that converted, and those that encouraged conversion, were persecuted.  Perpetua and Felicity are martyred during this period, they were not even baptised but as part of the catachumenate and therefore on their way to conversion they were martyred.  At this time Clement of Alexandria is forced to flee to Syria - as he was the foremost teacher in Alexandria - teacher is used here as the title of a ministry as described in the Didache. 

A form of literature is produced known as Apology - this was a legal defence of Christianity addressed to the authority.  The documents were written by individuals who were teachers (using the Didache definition).

An example of this has already been discussed - The epistle of Diognetus  - although referred to as a letter it is actually an apology.

The earliest named author of a surviving document is Aristides (an Athenian philosopher) who wrote an apology on behalf of Christians at some point between 138 and 147AD, there is an earlier but this survives only in fragments and was written by Quadratus - both were addressed to Hadrian.

In 155AD Justin Martyr wrote his First Apology, the Second Apology (160AD) is just an appendix for the First.

Melito of Sordis (160AD) - only survives in fragments.

Tatian (a disciple of Justin) wrote in 170AD - his text pilloried Greek society to defend Christianity - he wrote Exultation to the Greeks.

Athenagorus (see earlier) wrote a plea on behalf of Christians.

Theophilus of Antioch (180AD) wrote an Apology to an individual in the Roman authority.

These texts were all Greek - there are two Latin texts from close to the end of the 2nd Century - around 197AD.  These were by Minicius Felix and Tertullian, there are a few chapters that are identical in the two texts so one must have been copied from the other - but it is impossible to know which was written first.

The Apologies tried to show Christianity in a positive light and were a plea to ignore the rumours that were circulating about Christians.

The handout is an extract from the First Apology of St Justin.  The Apology itself is split into 7 parts:

1)  A plea for a fair hearing and for the reader to ignore the rumours about Christianity.
2)  Description of the faith and life of Christians - to emphasise the moral lives of Christians in contrast to the immoral lives of the rest of Rome at that time.
3)  Superiority of Christianity over pagan religions.
4)  Argument from prophecy - the Old Testament had been translated into Greek and many Romans and Greeks were fascinated by it, so they were familiar with the texts Justin was quoting.
5)  Proof from antiquity - Christianity comes from Judaism so overall is older than the pagan religions and so has more right to exist.
6)  Christian worship - this is on the handout.
7)  Conclusion.

Most of the accusations were about the secret practices of Christians - so Justin felt that he had to tell the people what really went on.  The text was not only to defend Christianity from the pagans but also to help Christians understand their faith from the point of view of a Greek philosopher, marking again a move away from the Semitic traditions.

The text uses some of the pagan vocabulary:
Paragraph 61 talks of ‘dedicate ourselves’ here the believer is dedicating themselves to God in the same way that statues and temples were dedicated to the pagan gods.

In the text the practice of belief is no longer just about the relationship with God but contains an intellectual element - believers were persuaded of the faith.

All this marks the move from the Semitic tone of the Didache to the future development of the Christian faith.

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