The Great Persecution

Persecution &
in the
Early Church
in the
First-Century Church
I. Persecution in the
New Testament
Jesus warned his disciples of coming
John 15:18-20
Matt. 24:9-14
I. Persecution in the
New Testament
“testimony” = marturion
“witness” = martus
or “martyr”
II. Persecution by the Jews
Stephen (Acts 7:54-60)
II. Persecution by the Jews
James (Acts 12:1-2)
III. Persecution by the Romans
 Christianity was an illegal religion
 Christians were uncompromising
 Christians were predominantly lower to
middle class
 Christians were to blame for natural
disasters because they left old gods
 Enmity of the human heart against the
III. Persecution by the Romans
False charges:
 Atheism
 Treason
 Licentiousness
 Cannibalism
 Witchcraft &
 Incest
 Immorality
 Haters of
 Intellectual
Emperors & Martyrs
• Nero (r.51-68)
– 64, fire destroyed much of
– Rumor spread that Nero
ordered the fire to make
room for his new city,
– He used Christians as a
scapegoat & executed
– Cf. Tacitus, Annales 15.44
Simon Peter
according to tradition, was
crucified upside down
Apostle Paul
according to
tradition was
Domitian (81-96)
• Instigated the
that was the background
to the book of Revelation
Seven Churches of Revelation
in the
Trajan (98-117)
Pliny the Younger,
Governor of Bithynia (111-113)
wrote to Emperor Trajan:
“What about the Christians?”
Trajan to Pliny:
“Don’t ask; don’t tell.”
Bishop of
According to tradition,
killed by lions in
the Roman Colisseum
Bishop of Smyrna, burned at the stake
Marcus Aurelius (161-180)
Played by Richard Harris
in “Gladiator” (2000)
Justin Martyr
(d. 166)
•Denounced by
Cynic philosopher
Crescens, who was
Aurelius’ advisor
•Was beheaded
Martyrs of Lyons (d. 177)
Amphitheater in Lyons
Septimius Severus (193-211)
Septimius Severus:
Problems for the Empire
• Threat of barbarian invasion
• Economic crises
• Civil wars and threat of rebellions
• Increasing abandonment of traditional
• Edict: forbade further conversions to
Christianity; persecutions aimed mainly at
converts and teachers
The Passion
of Perpetua
and Felicitas
The Passion of Perpetua
• Perpetua – Young noblewoman & mother;
kept diary of visions & experiences in
• Felicitas – Pregnant slave who delivered
her baby in prison so that she could die
with her comrades
• Saturninus, Revocatus & Secundulus –
3 other catechumens
• Saturus – their teacher who surrendered
himself to the authorities
Your Professor at the
Amphitheater in Carthage
Decius (249-251)
Decian Persecution: Results
• Some became apostate
• Some obtained certificates fraudulently
• Some were temporary apostates who
• Some endured imprisonment and torture, but
did not die, becoming known as “confessors”
Tortured & died
Aftermath of Decian Persecution:
Question of the Lapsed
• After the persecution ended, Christians who
renounced Christ wished readmittance into the
• Should they be restored to the church?
• What about different degrees of lapsation (e.g.
some renounced Christ, others pretended by
obtaining false certificates)?
• Who should have authority to decide (bishops or
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (249-258)
• Pagan rhetorician;
converted at age 40; soon
appointed bishop
• Persecution broke out
within months
• Fled and hid in order to
continue guiding his flock
from safety
• Accused of cowardice when
he returned
• Confessors claimed
authority to forgive the
lapsed, not Cyprian who
Cyprian: Synods 251-2;
On the Lapsed
• Readmitting the lapsed--Cyprian insisted,
“Outside the Church there is no salvation.”
He won the point: discipline would be
enforced on a rigid basis.
• The authority of the church--The bishop
with a synod represents the consensus of
the church, which has dominion over mere
splinter-group opinion, such as the
Novatian: Anti-pope
• Priest in Rome (d. 258)
• Opposed Cornelius, Bishop of Rome
(251-3), who believed that the church should
welcome the lapsed back into the church
• Novatian led strict party and became rival to the
Catholic bishop of Rome
• Novatianists would not allow any who lapsed to
return to the church
• Cyprian sided with Cornelius against Novatian
Two Priorities of the Church
• Purity of the Church
• Forgiving Love
• Result: Penitential System
Valerian (253-260)
Valerian’s Persecution (258-9)
• Cyprian and Novatian
both martyred, 258
• Christians began
meeting in catacombs
and cemeteries
The Great Persecution (303-311)
Diocletian (284-305)
Galerius (305-311)
Maximian (Emperor)
Constantius Chlorus
Diocletian (Emperor)
Galerius (Caesar)
The Great Persecution (303-311)
• Persecution was instigated by Galerius
• Persecution increased in intensity:
 Started by evicting Christians from army
 Edict of 303, removed Christians from civil positions
 Ordered the destruction of churches and burning of
 Those who surrendered Scriptures for destruction
were called “traditors”
 Eventually required all Christians to sacrifice to the
gods, and all church leaders were arrested
• Most severe and widespread persecution under
the Roman Empire
Edict of Toleration (311)
• In 305, Galerius forced Diocletian to abdicate
• In 311, Galerius became ill; Christians
convinced him it was God’s punishment for
persecuting them
• Edict of Toleration:
1) pardoned Christians, allowed them to pursue
their faith and to assemble together
2) required them to pray to their God for the
emperor and the public good.
Maxentius (Emperor)
Constantine (Caesar)
Maximinus Daia
Licinius (Caesar)
Constantine: Conquest of
Western Empire (312)
• War against Maxentius
• Eve of the Battle of the
Milvian Bridge
• Saw a vision:
 Chi & Rho
 In hoc signes vinces –
“In this sign, you will conquer”
• He painted the Chi-Rho on
his soldiers’ shields
• Maxentius drowned in river
Edict of Milan (313)
• Constantine met with Licinius at Milan and
established an alliance which required the
cessation of Christian persecution
• Maximinus Daia (eastern emperor) continued
persecution until he was defeated by Licinius
• In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius and
became sole emperor; then persecution of
Christians ceased throughout the empire.
Results of Persecution
• A testimony that spawned growth
• Apologetic writings, establishment of early
Christian theology
• Purity of the church
• Superstitions: relics of martyrs became
revered as fetishes; sites of martyrdom
attracted pilgrimages
• Division over question of the lapsed