We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past 5 weeks in our survey through the first 500 years of the history of the Church. Everything from the Apostles, to the Apostolic Fathers, to the Apologists, to the first disagreements and divisions. We now find ourselves squarely in the 3rdcentury where the Church was enjoying a time of peace. This of course wouldn’t last, it would soon turn as an enormous persecution began, but it would end in an unexpected turn of events. It is this flow from peace, to turmoil, back to peace that we’ll cover this evening.
1) Alexander Severus (222-235)
-Showed a very positive attitude toward the Church.
-Alexander had a private chapel, in which were pagan gods alongside images of Jesus and Abraham.
-His mother Julia (some say the real power behind Alexander) even arranged a meeting between her son and the great controversial theologian Origen trying to promote a heftier and more robust Christianity in Alexander.
-Evidence of Alexander’s glad support of the Church is also seen in that he employed a Christian scholar named Julius Africanus (160-240), who under the employ of Severus wrote a 24 volume History of the World, and many biblical works on the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures and a harmony of the Gospels.
2) Philip the Arab (244-249)
-Was also known for his kind support and personal inclinations toward Christian belief.
-During his time on the throne the Christians throughout the empire refused to join in a pagan festival celebrating the 1,000thyear anniversary of Rome.
-By doing this, Christians began being seen as a problem in Rome slowly and surely.
-And this deepening unsettled nature about Christians rose even higher when the Northern Germanic tribes, the Goths, began a series of successful invasions into Rome in 248.
-Whether or not people blamed the Christians for the invasion (for not attending the pagan festival) it was generally felt that an anti-Christian sentiment was now common among almost everyone.
This would lead to the demise of Philip’s rule as his highest general named Decius led a military coup against him in 249. The coup succeeded and put Decius on the throne.
-Believing that the Christians had angered the gods for not attending the 1,000thanniversary pagan party, he personally believed they were at fault for the empire’s calamities.
-So, in 250 Decius began an organized persecution of the Church to eliminate it’s cancer from Rome.
-The persecution began at the top. Bishops were targeted first and within a few weeks the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Antioch, and the bishop of Jerusalem were all executed.
-Cyprian escaped by fleeing and going into hiding.
-Decius then, ordered all Romans to offer sacrifice to the gods, promising a special certificate of safety for all who did so.
-Many refused, like Origen, and were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
-But many caved and offered sacrifices to the gods of Rome or sought to get a phony certificate in order to get safety.
-Decius died in battle against the Goths in 251.
2) Valerian (253-260)
-After a short breathing space for the Church, Valerian picked up where Decius left off with the persecution.
-In 257 he banned all Christian worship services and sought to kill all Christians.
-Cyprian died during this time and was Valerian’s most famous victim.
-Again, many Christians died but many Christians caved in and bowed to the command to sacrifice to the gods of Rome.
-These persecutions ended when in 260 when Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persian emperor Shapur.
3) Gallienus (260-268)
-Valerian’s son Gallienus became the new emperor after his father was taken prisoner, and because he hated his father he made no rescue attempt to get him back.
-He wasn’t a Christian but he did end the physical persecution of Christians. To him the problem with Christians could be solved by re-educating them.
-He viewed himself to be more refined and cultured than his barbaric father, and so being more of a philosopher type he began large sweeping educational programs to spread the teachings of Hellenism.
-This lasted until 268 when he and his whole family were assassinated.
The next 40 years were a period of relative peace for Christians. Rome’s enemies began to surround them and it seemed for a time that Rome would fall, from either the Goths, the French, the Balkans, or the Persians. Due to the wise military minded emperors Claudius Gothicus (268-270) and Aurelian (270-275) things became more stable for Rome.
But great damage had been done. Many heroic and leading bishops and theologians had died during this time, causing many Christians to fear and bow to Rome’s demands. Which in turn created more division in the Church because there were different views about how to welcome back into the Church those who had formerly left the faith to avoid being killed.
-During this time through the witness of Gregory the Illuminator the whole nation of Armenia converted to Christianity and it become the first nation to establish it as the official religion.
-Three religious movements began during this time:
1) Sun Worship:the sun was taught to be the symbol of the one great supreme god and they celebrated him on 12/25, which was held to be the sun’s birthday.
2) Neoplatonism:Led by the philosopher Plotinus, a return to a philosophical life with a spiritual twist emerged. This movement seemed to combine much of the sun worship in it but was vast more thought out and more a religion of the soul and mind. Asceticism (strenuous self-discipline to reach spiritual goals) became popular during this time because thought it many thought they could achieve a kind of mysticism (spiritual union with the one god). Ironically this led proved to be a road for many to embrace Christianity.
3) Manichaeism:this was a new form of Gnosticism led by a man named Mani who preferred to be called ‘the apostle of Jesus Christ.’ This movement influenced many Christians in years to come, but we won’t go over it now, because it greatly influenced the early years of St. Augustine (so we’ll return to it when we cover him).
Like I said, during this time Christians enjoyed a relative peace…but then came the emperor Diocletian.
4) Diocletian (284-305)
-He is known for making vast reforms in Rome.
-He divided Rome into to spheres: East and West. Each sphere would be led by two rulers, an ‘Augustus’ who would be an emperor figure and a Caesar who would be a junior emperor. When the Augustus died the Caesar took his place.
-Each sphere was divided into 12 districts that each had courts, civil services, and armies.
-These and other reforms caused the Roman empire to survive another 1,000 years (in the East).
-What about the persecution under his reign? It was massive.
-It began in 303 (making the period of relative peace 268-303) when he removed all Christians from any office within the Roman government. Then he made four edicts:
1) All church buildings were to be destroyed, all Bibles burnt, and all Christian worship forbidden.
2) All clergy were to be arrested and imprisoned.
3) All clergy were to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods or be tortured.
4) All Romans citizens were to sacrifice to the gods as well or be executed.
-Overall the Church responded with more bravery and courage than before under Decius and Valerian. Many Christians suffered martyrdom confidently and even occasionally went on the offensive militarily against the Roman state.
-One such example is Andronicus, who boldly stood up against the command to sacrifice to idols. The story goes that after they asked him to bow to idols he refused, and they stuffed the bread and meat of the idol into his mouth, which he spit out and said, “May vengeance fall upon you, savage tyrant, you and those who have empowered you to desecrate me with your unholy sacrifices! What you have done to God’s servants will one day be revealed to you!” The Roman official replied “You monstrous evil doer! Do you dare curse the emperors, from whom the world has enjoyed so long a deep peace?” Andronicus then said, “I have indeed cursed them and will do so again! They are public enemies, drinkers of blood, and they have turned the world upside down!”
-In 305 Diocletian grew ill and stepped down from power.
-Persecutions continued in the East under Galerius but in the West the more tolerant Constantius began ruling, and when he died in battle in 306 the troops made his son Constantine the new emperor in the West.
-Tension grew between the East and the Western spheres of the empire until war broke out.
-During the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 Constantine, the then Sun worshiper, had a dream that would change everything. During the dream he looked up in the sky and saw two letters, the CHI and the RHO (the first two letters in the name Christ). These two letters appeared on top of each other, forming the shape of the cross. He then heard a voice say, “By this sign you will conquer.” The next day before battle, Constantine painted this sign on the shields of his troops, and he prayed to the God of the Christians, asking for victory, and won.
-At the age of 32 Constantine became the sole leader over all the empire in the West, and believing that the Christian God granted him a great victory he became the chief champion and defender of Christians.
-What would come from this event and what would come of Christianity and Rome and this new champion for the church in Constantine? That we’ll answer next week.