Scenes From the History of the Early Christians

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 9
A.D. 81—91
"As unknown, and well known.”
IT has been well said that “to believe, to suffer, not to write, was the characteristic of the primitive Christians; "thus our records of their faith and their sufferings are very scanty. The terrible tale of the first Roman persecution under Nero is told, not by one who wished to record the fiery trial through which his brethren had passed, but by a heathen historian. The little companies of the disciples of Christ, scattered here and there in the Roman empire, must indeed have been, as the Lord said of those whom He sent forth," like sheep in the midst of wolves." The faith which they professed was not that of any nation; it did not rank among the many forms of devotion which the Romans counted as religions to be tolerated; therefore the only safety of its followers lay in silence and obscurity. But the faith which is a living principle must make itself felt. The religion of the Christians became aggressive by reason of the very power of life which caused it to differ from the lifeless religions of heathenism. It became dangerously obtrusive by its very obscurity in the midst of the varied forms of worship, which differing in their ceremonies were alike in being attended with much outward show.
As far as we know, during the reigns of Vespasian and Titus, there was a time of rest for the Christians; but thirty years after the first Roman persecution they suffered for a year, under Domitian. The emperor did not spare even his own nephew, but put him to death for his faith, and banished other members of his family among whom the contagion was believed to have spread. It was at this time that the Apostle John, the only one of the twelve then surviving, was banished to the island of Patmos, that bare and rugged island off the coast of Greece, where he saw those visions of judgment and of glory which he wrote in the book of Revelation.
The persecution under Domitian, however, did not last long. Before his own assassination, the emperor had put an end to it, and had ordered those who had been exiled on account of their faith to return to their homes. During the two years' reign of Nerva, his successor, all their property was restored to them; and it was enacted that all slaves who had betrayed their Christian masters should be put to death. Still, although it is possible that the laws against the Christians made by former emperors were repealed by Nerva, Christianity remained a religion unrecognized by the state, and, therefore, though there might be a respite for a time, its followers could look for no protection, and were constantly in danger of their lives if any tumult against them was raised.
St. John lived until the beginning of the reign of Trajan, dying at Ephesus, then a populous city of great trade, in the year 99. Tradition says that the aged apostle, when he returned from Patmos, as long as his strength allowed him to travel, went from place to place, visiting the little companies of Christians; that, when too feeble to walk to the place of meeting, he was carried thither, and that his constant exhortation was, "Little children, love one another.”
Before we pass from the first century, we may notice among the few Christian writings of this early time the "Epistle of Clement” and the "Letter to Diognetus." The former seems to have been written in consequence of the dissensions among the Corinthians, and the writer refers to the state of things among them forty years before, when St. Paul wrote his two epistles to them, but only to complain that they were now in a far worse condition than when the apostle wrote.
In another part of the letter he writes to his fellow Christians about the foundations of their common faith, and it is interesting to know that his words were much read, not only at the time, and by those to whom they were first addressed, but by the early Christians generally. "Let us look steadfastly, beloved, to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. We are not justified by ourselves, by our wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart, but by faith, through which from the beginning Almighty God has justified all men.”
The "Epistle to Diognetus" was written by an unknown hand to one who had desired to be informed concerning the doctrine and way of life of the Christians, probably about the close of the first century.
Diognetus had asked, concerning this "new sort of men," questions such as these: "What god do they put their trust in?" "How do they worship?" "How is it that they look down upon the world, and despise death, and neither make account of those that are legally recognized as gods by the Greeks, nor observe the Jewish superstition?" "What does the affection mean which they cherish one for another?" "Why is it that this new sort of men or mode of living has entered into the course of the world now, and not before?”
The writer replies: The Christians are not separated from other men by earthly abode, by language, or by custom. Nowhere do they dwell in cities by themselves. They do not use a different speech, or affect a life of singularity. They dwell in the cities of the Greeks and of the barbarians, each as his lot has been cast; and while they conform to the usages of the country in respect to dress, food, and other things pertaining to the outward life, yet they show a peculiarity of conduct wondrous to all. They inhabit their native country but as strangers. They take their share of all burdens as citizens, and yet endure all kinds of wrong as though they were foreigners. Every strange soil is their fatherland, and everyone's fatherland a strange soil to them. They are in the flesh, but they live not after the flesh. They tarry on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the laws, and they conquer the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet are condemned; they are killed, and made alive. They are poor and make many rich. They are blasphemed, and justified. They are reviled and they bless.”
Of their religion he says, "It was not delivered to them as any earthly invention, nor have they been entrusted with the stewardship of any human mysteries. But the almighty and all-creating and invisible God Himself, from heaven inaugurated amongst men the truth, and the holy and inconceivable Word, and fixed it firmly in their hearts, not sending to men, as one might fancy He would do, some subordinate, either an angel or a prince, but the Framer and Architect of all things Himself. If so, it must have been, as one of the sons of men would argue, to tyrannize, to affright, to strike down with dread. Not so, but in gentleness, in meekness; as one who saves He sent Him, as persuading, not as compelling, for there is no compulsion with God. He sent Him as loving, not as judging. He Himself gave away His own Son as a ransom for us; the holy for the lawless, the harmless for the evil, the just for the unjust. O sweet exchange! O work past finding out! O benefits beyond expectation! that the lawlessness of many should be hidden in one righteous Person, and that the righteousness of one should justify many lawless.”