Essay on Christian Persecution ..

Jewish opposition appears plainly in thenarrative of the Acts, and Jewish antagonism seems to have been theprincipal cause of many, but not all, the earlier persecutions of theChurch. The first actual persecution of Christians as a community tookplace in Rome under Nero, certainly instigated by Jews who werepowerful at court. After this there were outbreaks of popularantagonism in many parts, especially in Asia Minor where Christianswere numerous, and in some of these outbreaks Jewish influence seems tohave been active. Under Trajan some attempt was made to regularize thepolicy to be followed in dealing with the Christians. When Pliny wasgovernor of Bithynia he found many Christians there and a good manydisturbances took place for which they were blamed. Pliny had hadexperience of legal administration in Rome, but apparently had had nocontact with cases connected with Christians, as such cases came beforethe Praefectus Urbis or his deputy. He sought the Emperor's guidance,and Trajan replied in letters which gave a precedent for dealing withpersons charged with practising this unauthorized religion. It wasdecided that Christianity was a crime deserving of death, but it wasnot permitted to make search for Christians and informers against themincurred penalties. At a later period Domitius Ultianus compiled atreatise, of which the seventh bookgave a summary of anti-Christian legislation. This work would havegiven us a complete view of the attitude of Roman law towards theChristians, but unfortunittely only a few extracts survive, the mostimportant is Lactantius' indignant criticism (Lactantius, v,11, 12). The subject remains obscure, which is to be regretted asundoubtedly persecution, or at least liability to persecution, was astrong motive causing Christians to go outside the Roman Empire, and soone of the chief causes of the spread of Christianity.

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Christians were first, and horribly, targeted for persecution as a group by the emperor Nero in 64 AD. A colossal fire broke out at Rome, and destroyed much of the city. Rumours abounded that Nero himself was responsible. He certainly took advantage of the resulting devastation of the city, building a lavish private palace on part of the site of the fire.

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The persecution of Christians is the historical equivalent of a false memory, she argues. Early Christians were persecuted by Rome only sporadically, less for religious heterodoxy than for political insubordination in an empire that was draconian across the board. Early Christian writers Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Tertullian chronicled such incidents as proof of the faith’s righteousness, laying a scriptural basis for a self-image of eternal persecution.

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In the spring of 312, Constantine entered on a final bid for supremacy in the West. Campaigning against his rival, Maxentius, through north and central Italy, he reached within five miles of Rome on October 27. That night he had a vision or dream that convinced him that his own destiny lay with Christianity. Next day he defeated Maxentius’s superior forces and entered Rome in triumph. In February 313 Constantine met Licinius (who had succeeded to Galerius’ European dominions), and in a document that has become known as the Edict of Milan formally ended the persecution. All individuals were to be free to follow their own consciences. In fact, the Edict proved to be the deathknell of the immortal gods. Eleven years later (in 324), Constantine defeated Licinius and proclaimed his adherence to Christianity and his aim that Christianity should become the religion of the Empire now united under his sole rule. The church had triumphed.

Early Christians were persecuted by Rome only sporadically, ..

In some parts of the Empire this persecution of 258 259 was the bloodiest the church endured. On August 6 Pope Sixtus II was discovered conducting a service in the Catacomb of Praetextatus and was martyred, as were all seven of his deacons. Next month, Cyprian was brought from his place of exile to face the ailing governor, Galerius Maximus. Once again Cyprian refused to perform sacrifice. In words that summed up the authorities’ case against the Christians, the proconsul said, “You have lived a sacrilegious life, and you have gathered around yourself many vicious men in a conspiracy. You have set yourself up as an enemy of the Roman gods and of their sacred rites. And the pious and most religious emperors Valerian and Gallienus Augusti, and Valerian, the most noble Caesar, have been unable to bring you back to the observance of their own sacred rituals. Therefore, having been apprehended as the instigator and ringleader of a criminal conspiracy … you will be executed.” Conspiracy, illegal association, enmity toward the gods of Rome—these charges formed the basis for the persecutions during the first three centuries.

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The church recovered its adherents rapidly but faced problems: what to do about the multitudes who had lapsed, and how to treat the Novatianist schism in Rome and North Africa, which had repercussions throughout much of the church. The Novatianists, according to Eusebius, called themselves “the pure.” They would not allow those who had given in during the persecution to return to the church. Their movement foreshadowed more permanent division in the Christian church between those who put its integrity above all other values, and those who regarded universality (the Katholike) as all important.