3.3 – Roman Persecution and the Apostolic Fathers (31 min video)
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– Well, in this lecture, I wanna start out by talking about how Christianity conflicted with the Rome that we’ve been talking about most recently. If you look at a passage like 1 Peter 4,16, it’s there that Peter warns of what’s coming. He says, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, “Let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God by that name.” So the church had this idea they would be persecuted. In fact, Jesus had warned them of the same. They were persecuted by Rome specifically for several reasons. For one, it’s worth noting, Christianity was unlicensed. It was not an officially recognized cult of the Roman Empire. It kind of skirted by that rule for a while because it was always seen as a form of Judaism. But with the destruction of the temple and the continued rise of Christianity, that no longer worked. The other interesting thing about Christianity was that Christianity was not like Judaism in the sense that it was to one specific group of people.
Christianity was universal. It did not recognize a distinction between Jew and Greek or Gentile. There was no distinction between slave and free, no distinction between male and female in terms of one being better than the other or one being more important than the other.
That was something that was unique to Roman thought and that made Christianity a very unique religion. In fact, many say that Christianity threatened the very state of Rome. A Rome was something where religion and state or politics were often unified. Rome was said to have been founded by the will of the gods. The emperor was often seen as divine, and he was sometimes called the pontifex maximus. He was literally the chief priest or the chief bridge builder. The eagle of Jupiter or Zeus went before all legions into all of their battles. That’s why Cicero, for example, counseled that no foreign gods should be worshiped unless they were sanctioned by law. Or that’s why, for example, one advisor to Augustus said, quote, “Compel others to worship the gods. “Hate and punish those who bring in strange or foreign gods.” Christianity was something that challenged Rome in its very being. Domitian, of course, is the one who really challenges Christianity. When in the 90s, he declared himself to be Lord and God and required all of his subjects throughout the empire to give a pinch of incense to his image.
When Christians refused to do this, he began persecuting them in earnest. One such character who dies around this time was a consul who was actually cousin to Domitian. His name was Flavius Clemens. Both he and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, who was also a niece to Domitian, were put on trial. Dio Cassius tells us they were put on trial for quote atheism, for which many others also were condemned who had drifted into Jewish ways.
Both the Jewish ways and the atheism was sort of the first and second century Roman way of saying Christianity. Christianity was seen as a Jewish thing at first because that’s where it came from. It was a fulfillment of the Old Testament. But it was also seen as atheistic because they weren’t worshiping the gods. is one of the rather ironic accusations leveled at Christianity during this time. As for Clemens, he was executed and Domitilla was banished to an island. Two of the sons of this couple who were meant to be Domitian’s heirs are suddenly, well, they suddenly disappear from history. It’s a rather remarkable thought to think about the what if here. That if these sons who were likely being raised in a Christian household had indeed, one of them come to be emperor Afrodimitian, perhaps the history of Christianity in Rome would have been quite different.
There’s also of course places like the Cemetery of Domitilla, where she was most likely buried, which is one of the oldest Christian sites in all of Rome.
You can also see the Cemetery of Priscilla, where yet another consul by the name of Achilles Glabrio is buried, who also was executed for the charge of atheism and Jewish ways.
It’s also during Domitian’s reign that we have John exiled to the island of Patmos, where he most likely wrote Revelation. Some think he even wrote the Gospel of John there as well. As for the Christians, like I already mentioned to you, they were misunderstood, partly because they were charged with being atheists, not worshiping the gods.
The other charge was also rather ironic and rather incredible. They were charged with being cannibals. They were charged with being cannibals because they evidently ate the blood and flesh of their founder. In other words, the Romans didn’t really know what to make of Christian communion. Curiously, the Christians were also charged with being haters of mankind and haters of the world because they’re always talking about some eternal kingdom, some kingdom that is here but not yet. That’s why Trajan, for example, in the year 112 received a letter from one of his governors, Pliny the Younger, who was an Asia minor, saying that several Christians had been brought before him.
He had commanded them, evidently, to renounce their faith because it was unlicensed, and to offer an incense to the image of Trajan. Some of the Christians did this, giving up their faith. But he said many didn’t, and he noticed that they were rather stubborn, and to show an example of them, Pliny says that he had them executed. He also mentions having two female slaves, both of whom were Christians who were called deacons, being tortured and then executed. tortured for information on Christian practices, and then executed for not giving up that same faith. As for Pliny, he thought he was, quote, “reclaiming the people of the empire.” Trajan’s reply to him is curious. He says, “Now listen, Pliny, don’t go searching for the Christians. Don’t ferret them out.” That’s the actual wording he uses. “But if any are brought before you and they’re stubborn, they don’t renounce their faith, then yeah, by all means, execute them. Tertullian, one of the church fathers, comments on this later by saying, quote, “What a decision! How hopelessly entangled! Trajan says they must not be ferreted out, implying they are innocent, but yet he orders them to be punished, implying they are guilty.” So that’s the context for the growth of the church following the apostles. And yet, we see clear succession. We see characters or church leaders like Timothy at Ephesus, and we see Titus on the island of Crete, we see Linus at Rome, we see Dionysus at Corinth, the same guy who had been converted by Paul’s ministry in Athens years before, and we see Simon Cleophas at Jerusalem. We see all kinds of characters throughout the empire, and in fact I want to take a look at a few select characters, starting with a guy by the name of Clement of Rome.
Clement of Rome, as far as we can tell, was a disciple of both Peter and Paul, both apostles who made it to the Eternal City and who helped the church there, perhaps didn’t found it, but certainly watered it. This Clement is somebody who might even be mentioned by Paul in the book of Philippians. Some people think he might be that consul Flavius Clemens, who was executed under the reign of Domitian. Some people think he might be another member of that same family or perhaps somebody else altogether. We don’t really know much about his background. What we do know is that by the end of the first century, he’s one of the chief overseers of the church in Rome. Some people name him as the third successor to Peter. And like the disciples before him, he writes letters to encourage other churches. He actually wrote a letter to the church in Corinth in the tradition of Paul’s letters. In fact, he quotes freely from Paul as well as the book of Hebrews. What’s interesting about this letter is he doesn’t write it in his own name. We know from the history of of this time period that he did write it, but he writes it in the name of the Church of Rome, showing that the church there was ruled by a plurality of overseers that could either be called bishops or elders.
The two words, even in the Greek, were interchangeable at the time. It’s also curious that he’s writing to give advice, not commands. That’s actually why the church father Cyprian, more than a hundred years later, would say, quote, “A A bishop or an overseer of Rome could no more dictate to the other bishops than Peter could dictate to the other apostles. In other words, the Christian churches in different parts of the empire, they had a real respect for each other and they would often write to each other to encourage each other and would frequently encourage each other with the very words of the apostles or of Jesus himself.
In fact, Clement goes out of his way to say he’s not writing with the same authority as Paul. His specific reason for writing is because he’s heard in the Church of Corinth there’s great division. There’s division within the church over who should follow whom, something Paul had dealt with decades before this. He calls them to practice love. In fact, he cites a lengthy portion of 1 Corinthians 13, the famous chapter that Paul writes on love. He also writes about the nature of harmony. Harmony is something we think of in terms of music, of different voices or instruments or notation actually working together in harmony to create a beautiful composition of music.
But harmony was also something the ancients, when they looked up at the sky, saw. They would see the harmony of the universe, of everything moving in its courses as it should. Let me read to you what he actually says about this harmony in his letter to the Corinthians. He says, “The heavens, they move at God’s direction and obey him in peace. Day and night complete the course assigned by him, neither hindering the other. The sun, the moon, and the choirs of stars circle in harmony within the courses assigned to them according to his direction without any deviation at all.
The earth bearing fruit in the proper seasons fulfillment of his will, it brings forth food and full abundance for both men and beasts and all living things which are upon it without dissension or altering anything he has decreed.
The seasons, spring and summer and autumn and winter, they give way in succession, one to the other in peace. The winds from the different quarters fulfill their ministry in the proper season without disturbance. The overflowing springs created for enjoyment and health give without fail their life-sustaining breath to mankind. Even the smallest living things come together in harmony. All these things, the great creator and master of the universe ordered to exist in peace and harmony, thus doing good to all things, but especially abundantly to us who have taken refuge in his compassionate mercies through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In other words, Church, act like the way that the created world was meant to actually act like in harmony. He also, despite the persecutions of Domitian, which probably took his life shortly after this, encourages prayer for all rulers, including the emperor, so that God may quote, “give them health, peace, concord, and stability for the administration of the government he has given them.” He also makes it clear that the believers of the Old Testament were justified by faith, saying that all the saints of the Old Testament became great and glorious not through themselves, nor by their works, nor by their righteousness, but by the will of God.
And of course, in my opinion, the most curious thing he mentions is desiring to give a symbol of the resurrection, something that will be very visual in the minds of the people.
He mentions the old Greek and Egyptian legend of the phoenix, a bird that evidently dies every 500 years and then rises from the ashes.
It’s of course a mythological creature, but he saw this as a symbol of resurrection that man desires, which is why you see phoenixes in early Christian art.
The second character we’ll talk about was the Gnatius of Antioch. Ignatius of Antioch was also called Theophorus, which means God-bearer. He served as a pastor in Antioch after Peter, and he had another character named Avodius. So it shows that he’s succeeding Peter as one of the direct apostles. It’s likely that Ignatius also knew Paul and knew John, and probably been trained by all of them. Well, he was arrested under Trajan’s reign. was ordered to renounce his faith, which he did not do. And so he was chained with several other prisoners, as well as a group of 10 leopards evidently, and was forced to march from Antioch in Syria all the way to Rome, where he knew he was going to die.
Along the way, rather than just merely worry or bemoan his coming fate, he decided to write letters, seven letters to different churches to encourage a purity of doctrine and practice, all while preparing for his death saying, may I be benefited by those beasts that are in readiness for me.
And Eusebius records some of his other writing, which comes down to us in various channels, in which he says, now I begin to be a disciple.
Nothing, whether of things visible or invisible, excites my ambition as long as I can gain Christ. whether fire or the cross, the assault of wild beasts, tearing the center of my bones, the breaking of my limbs, the bruising of my whole body.
Let the tortures of the devil all assail me if I do but gain Christ Jesus. He would also write to the Ephesians these beautiful lines. My love is crucified and there’s no fire in me for another love. I do not desire the food of corruption nor the lust of this world. I seek the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ. And I seek his blood, a drink, which is love incorruptible. He was brought to the Colosseum in the year 107 AD, quite possibly with the emperor Trajan watching where he was indeed fed to wild beast.
One of the letters he wrote on his journey to Rome and to his death was to a middle-aged believer by the name of Polycarp, Polycarp of Smyrna, who we think was probably born around the year 70 AD.
A Polycarp like Ignatius and the others we’ve talked about so far had direct contact with the apostles. He actually said he was a disciple of John, whom he calls the elder. One of Polycarp’s disciples, another famous church father named Irenaeus, said that Polycarp, quote, “Remember the disciples’ words and what he had heard from them concerning the Lord and about their mighty works and their teaching. And that Polycarp reported everything in harmony with the scriptures as he had received it from eyewitnesses of the word of life. In other words, that apostolic authority, what the apostles had taught him, their successors were faithful to record it and to pass it on as accurately as they had heard it.
In the year 154, Polycarp journeyed to Rome to discuss when Easter should be dated. It was actually one of the early debates in the church. Should Easter always be on the 14th day of Nisan, which is essentially when the resurrection had occurred, regardless of the day of the week, or should Easter always be on the closest Sunday to that date?
That was one of the debates that they initially wrestled with. It wouldn’t be settled actually till the Council of Nicaea. But perhaps more importantly, Polycarp encouraged the church, especially the church in Philippi, to live lives of daily grace in the midst of a persecuting culture.
He actually gives specific directions for the care of widows and orphans, for the care of both the elderly as well as the education of the young.
But Polycarp is perhaps most famous to history for how he ends. Just two years after his journey to Rome, He was brought before the authorities in Asia in the year 156 AD. And he was told, “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ in offering incense and saving yourself?” Polycarp refused. So he was brought into the arena where he was shown the stake that he would be burned at if he did not renounce Christ.
He was told, “Have respect for your age.” He was an old man by this time. swear by the divinity of Caesar, repent and say away with the atheist, referring to the Christians. Polycarp decides to be rather prophetic, so he points at the crowd and he says to them, away with the atheist, those who prepare to see his death who did not actually call upon the name of Christ.
He was then one more time offered that he would be released if all he would do was renounce Christ and so he offers these words to history.
He told the leaders of the time, “86 years have I served him and he,” of course being Jesus, “has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my Savior and my King?” He was put to death by being burned at the stake. One of the disciples of John who would have known Polycarp and may have even witnessed his death was a guy by the name of Papias.
Papias was somebody who not only knew the disciple John but also knew the daughters of the disciple or the Apostle Philip. In fact we’re told in the book of Acts in chapter 21 that Philip had four daughters who all prophesied. It was Papias who oversaw the church first in Phrygia and then the city of Hierapolis which is in Asia Minor. I was curious about him and I want you to what I want you to note about him is he’s one of the first church historians outside of say Luke. We’re told for example that he collected the sayings of the Apostles. In fact he says himself, “If ever anyone who came who had kept company with the elders,” meaning the Apostles, “I would inquire into the words of the elders what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any of the Lord’s disciples had said. As Papias, for example, tells us that Matthew was the one who went about gathering all the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus and translated them out of the original Hebrew into Greek.
Or Papias who tells us that Mark got his information from Peter. He says, “He wrote down accurately all that Peter recorded of the words and deeds of the Lord, though not always in strict order.” papayas gives us very clearly his mission saying that he had taken down the sayings of the elders really the Apostles and saying quote I have recorded it to give additional confirmation to the truth meaning that he wanted to confirm that what the Apostles had said was true that he would be a somebody who would actually record church history to encourage people’s faith. In other words, we’ve seen the messiness of the Roman succession. We’ve seen kind of the end of succession of the high priesthood and the Sanhedrin of the Jews. But here we have a very different picture with the early church. We see a very clear succession of leaders who would ultimately take the gospel or their disciples would take the gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth Earth itself.