CH101 - The Second Century

The Persecuted Church, 90 - 202 A.D.

Persecution of the Roman Empire
The defining moment in the life of the primitive church came after the first true Roman persecution under Nero that led to the execution of the apostles Peter and Paul (circa 62-64 A.D.) followed shortly thereafter by the seige of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Would this small movement survive?

For the next 250 years the Christian church endured periods of persecution at the hands of the Roman empire. It is important to realize that Roman persecution of Christians came in waves, tended to be regional in nature, and typically did not last more than a few months. The Romans were not always the inhumane savages we picture, throwing people into the pit with hungry lions. The Romans were basically cultured and disciplined, however warfare was an important part of that culture, and in war they were brutal, but only if you resisted them. When the Roman armies came against a territory the defending nation could send a peace envoy - the Romans were content to annex your territory and collect taxes for Caesar. You could keep your properties, continue to farm your lands, and live under the banner of Rome. If, however, you sent your armies to meet the Romans in battle you were very likely to suffer military defeat and then face the full brutality of the Roman legions. Punishment might include burning many of your buildings and homes to the ground, allowing the soldiers to plunder and rape their way through the countryside, and/or salt your fields, making them useless for 2-3 years.

To round up and imprison or kill citizens as they did from time to time with the Christians was not a popular act - many Romans were rightly disturbed when these pogroms were initiated - and some emperors refused to authorize such persecution [Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) and Nerva (96-98 A.D.) apparently released prisoners and recalled exiles]. Nonetheless, Roman persecution against Christians did happen. I will mention the various periods of intense persecution as we move through the next 200+ years.

The end of the first century included one of these times of persecution under Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.). Although Domitian's father, Vespasian, did not take emperial divinity seriously, Domitian was over the top. Probably due to a combination of insecurity and an unstable personality, Domitian insisted on being worshipped and punished those who refused. The details of the Domitian Roman persecution (95-96 A.D.) are somewhat sketchy, but it appears to have been contained to Rome and in Asia Minor. Most scholars believe that the Domitian persecution is the historical backdrop for John's Revelation, the closing document of the New Testament. The writer is urging the first century believers to remain faithful in the midst of this persecution. There are other first century writings with similar theme - here is a brief introduction to a group of documents now known as the Apostolic Fathers.

We know about the Roman persecution during the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) because we can read Trajan's own writing contained in letters exchanged between the emperor and one of his governors, Pliny the Younger, 111-113 A.D. Pliny had written Trajan asking how to deal with the Christians. This is a portion of that request,

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.    Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96

This is part of Trajan's reply:

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it - that is, by worshiping our gods...shall obtain pardon through repentance.    Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.97

In his letter to Trajan, Pliny indicates that he is not exactly sure what to do with these Christians, but that if they were citizens he would transfer them to Rome, presumably for trial. This is significant because, according to Eusebius, it was during Trajan's reign that Ignatius of Antioch the bishop, is taken prisoner and transferred by armed guard to Rome where he is executed.

More discussion on persecution in the Roman Empire will be covered in a later section.

The Apostolic Fathers
This set of early Christian writings, referred to as "The Apostolic Fathers," were written by the first generation of Christian leadership after the apostles, thus the term "fathers." Some of these documents, written in the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century, were considered by second and third century fathers to be sacred and were quoted as inspired text. The early church took these writings very seriously as early witnesses of the faith.

1 Clement
This letter, written by Clement of Rome, named later as the bishop of Rome, is sent to the church in Corinth probably in the 90's. Apparently the church in Corinth had moved to replace their acting leadership and Clement is writing to instruct them concerning apostolic succession. He uses the OT example of Moses, showing that God appoints leaders as He did with the priesthood and those leaders appoint the next generation "with the consent of the whole Church." (1 Clement 44.2)

Points of Interest:
It is from 1 Clement 5 that we learn the fate of Peter and Paul in Rome,

Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter...endured not one or two, but numerous labours, and when he had finally suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him....Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity...and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west...having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.

Clement is familiar with Paul's letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians), referring to it in chapter 47, yet no NT text is ever quoted - his biblical citations and illustrations all come from the OT. Although he also quotes from Paul's letter to the Romans, his view of faith is more in line with James, "being justified by our works, and not our words." (1 Clement 30.3)

1 Clement is counted in the NT canon for several regions and was included in the Alexandrian Codex. Clement of Alexandria (cir. 198-202) often quotes from 1 Clement as scripture.

2 Clement
This appears to be the transcript of a sermon rather than a letter. It follows 1 Clement in the early manuscripts and has always been connected to the first letter, but the Greek is decidedly less proficient which points to a different author. This author also clearly quotes from the NT (words of Jesus) more freely, this is also different from 1 Clement.

Point of Interest:
Although this sermon contains some of the canonical sayings of Jesus, there are also some gnostic-like sayings, "For the Lord Himself, being asked by a certain person when his kingdom would come, said, 'When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female, neither male or female'." (2Clem 12:2) This saying is very similar to Gospel of Thomas 22.

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This early document, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, could be dated prior to 70 A.D. and bears many marks of being an early Jewish-Christian document. It opens with what is called "The Two Ways" teaching, a derivative of what is found in Qumran manuscripts and The Manual of Discipline. The Didache also relies on Matthew's gospel and does not put any emphasis on the divinity of Jesus - these characteristics are consistent with the early Jewish movement referred to as Ebionites.

Didache is something of an early Minister's Manual. It gives very practical guidelines for baptism, fasting, prayer, the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist), and how to take care of traveling preachers and prophets.

Point of Interest:
This early document gives us an example of a lack of dogmatism:

...baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.   Didache 7

The Epistle of Barnabas
The dating for Barnabas is highly disputed, ranging from 70 to 128 A.D. Some early fathers, like Clement of Alexandria, ascribed this document to the Barnabas named in Acts with the apostle Paul. In fact, Clement refers to Barnabas as an apostle and quotes from Barnabas as inspired text. Most scholars do not accept NT Barnabas as the author.

Barnabas has a very negative view of Judaism, believing that the Jews were being punished for crucifying Jesus. The author quotes extensively from the Greek OT and rarely from the NT. The same "Two Ways" teaching found in Didache is found at the end of Barnabas.

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The Letters of Ignatius
Early in the second century, probably during the reign of Trajan, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch is arrested and is being taken to Rome for trial. Along the way he writes letters to various churches, urging them to remain faithful and to pay respect to the bishop. These letters give us any interesting insight into this period and the development of what is now called monoepiscopacy, the idea of a single bishop over a region.

Points of Interest:
We saw in the chapter on the first century that Ignatius writes against a group that holds to some kind of docetic view of Jesus, an emphasis that denies his humanity. Perhaps to combat this doceticism, Ignatius expresses a strong christology, Johannine in nature, but even more pronounced. This represents a continued confirmation of the early church belief in the divinity of Jesus,

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.    Ephesians 7

In the letter to the Trallians there is an interesting section that points to a very early witness of what becomes known as the Apostle's Creed:

Jesus Christ....descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly begotten of God and of the Virgin, but not after the same manner....He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate....He descended, indeed, into Hades alone....He also rose again in three days, the Father raising Him up; and after spending forty days with the apostles, He was received up to the Father, and "sat down at His right hand, expecting till His enemies are placed under His feet...    Trallians 9
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The Martyrdom of Polycarp
This document tells the story of Polycarp's arrest and martyrdom sometime in the middle of the second century. Polycarp had a large reputation as the bishop of Smyrna - Irenaeus reports that Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Evangelist. The story related in this document is fantastic in nature and becomes part of a growing body of martyrdom accounts.

After being arrested and taken into a stadium to be executed as part of the brutal entertainment in the Roman Empire, the proconsul urged Polycarp,

Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, "Away with the atheists." Then Polycarp with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, "Away with the atheists."    Polycarp 9.2

Polycarp is 86 years old, yet is treated roughly, urged to renounce Christ, and is threatened with being burned at the stake. His retort to the officials in the face of certain death has inspired generations of believers,

'Thou threatenest that fire which burneth for a season and after a little while is quenched: for thou art ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why delayest thou?'    Polycarp 11.2

The attendants prepared the fire and as they moved to nail Polycarp to the stake he asked that he be allowed to have his hands free saying that the one who would give him the strength to endure the flames would also give him strength to remain in the fire.

Point of Interest:
This martrydom account became immediately popular among Christians of that age and fueled an already growing martyrdom cult. This will be discussed more fully in the next section, but it is important to mention here that martyrs (literally, witnesses) were being given favored status. Their bones were collected and venerated - stories of healings and miracles happening through the use of prayer and these "relics" circulated. Martyrs in prison were seen as having such a high standing that believers consistently visited them, asking for their prayers - this led to some friction within the local church leadership.

The Shepherd of Hermas
This interesting document was written in Rome sometime before the middle of the second century. The author is Hermas, brother of then bishop of Rome, Pius. This is an apocalyptic document, a series of visions and revelations given to Hermas through an angel, a shepherd.

This document seems to have been written as an encouragement to believers to endure persecution, but had a controversial aspect to it - a second chance for repentence. We will discuss this issue more fully in a later section, Second Repentence, but for now we can simply acknowledge that this caused The Shepherd of Hermas to be rejected by some early fathers.