Scenes From the History of the Early Christians

 •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 13
A.D. 103-107.
"As dying, and behold they live.”
AT the close of the first century, and during the early part of the second, the persistent refusal of the Christians to unite in any of the customary acts of worship, either in honor of the gods or of the emperor, began to attract the notice of the Roman government. There was a general law against all religions not sanctioned by the State, and this law might at any moment be put in force. The Christians were in danger, too, of being brought under the notice of the rulers by reason of tumults raised against them by the priests of the idol temples, by image-makers, who, like Demetrius, feared lest their craft should be set at naught, and by others who lived by assisting at those spectacles—games, chariot races, and combats between beasts and men in the theaters—at which the disciples of Christ were not seen. Moreover, about this time strange charges were brought against those of whom the world around them knew but little, save that they were not of it. The fear of persecution, never long slumbering, caused them to meet in secret, and there were those who did not scruple to hint darkly that at those meetings things were done that would not bear the light.
Early in the reign of Trajan an edict was issued, declaring all guilds or clubs unlawful, and we may easily imagine that the little companies of Christians, acknowledging the strong bond which united them as brethren in Christ, would be endangered by such a statute.
But nothing shows us more clearly the situation of the Christians, and their relations with those around them, and with the Roman government at this time, than some letters which passed between the emperor at Rome and Pliny, a Roman writer, from another of whose letters we have an account of the first eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, and who had been sent as governor into Pontus and Bithynia, provinces in Asia Minor. We may remember that St. Peter, in his first Epistle, writes to the sojourners of the dispersion in those parts, for there were many Jewish as well as Greek Christians there.
Pliny complains to the emperor that on his arrival in his province he found an unaccountable state of things. The temples were almost deserted, victims for sacrifice were rarely purchased, and upon inquiry he found that "many of every age and rank, and of both sexes," were involved in the danger; “for," he says, "the contagion of the superstition has seized not only the villages, but the open country.”
Uncertain as to how far he might legally proceed against this "superstition," he consulted the emperor, frankly telling him what course he had taken in his endeavor to discover in what it consisted. Pliny was a polite, refined, philosophic man— by no means hardhearted—yet he does not hesitate to mention that, in accordance with the custom of his time, he had caused two Christian women, slaves, to be tortured, in the expectation that by that means some confessions of the wicked deeds said to be practiced among their fellow Christians might be wrung from them in their agony. He acknowledges, however, that the attempt had failed. All that he could discover about those who were votaries of the "superstition" was that on certain days they were accustomed to meet before dawn, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as God; later in the day they again assembled and partook of a meal. He also learned that it was their custom to bind themselves to abstain from theft and other wrongdoing, and not to break their word.
Having given this account of the Christians in his province, the governor tells the emperor what method he adopted when any were brought before him. If a man was accused of being a Christian, he asked him whether the charge was true, giving him the opportunity, by a thrice-repeated question, accompanied by threats of death if he should persist, of denying the charge. Some who had persisted in avowing themselves Christians, he had already ordered to be put to death, others, being Roman citizens, were to be sent to Rome for trial; "For I had no doubt," he explains, "that whatever they might confess, wilfulness and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished.”
“Many," he adds, "repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered worship with wine and frankincense to your image, which for this purpose I had ordered to be brought with the images of the divinities (this was probably on the occasion of the celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of Trajan), and also reviled the name of Christ, none of which things, I am told, a real Christian can ever be induced to do." In much perplexity, Pliny asks the emperor how Christianity is to be dealt with; "shall it be punished as in itself a crime, or only when accompanied by other offenses; shall any difference be made between the accused on account of youth or age?" He hints, in concluding his letter, that his efforts to check its progress had not been altogether in vain, for the temples were already filling.
Trajan, in reply, approves of all which had been done, but says that he would rather trust to his governor's own discretion than lay down any rigid rule for his conduct. He thinks, however, that the Christians should not be sought out; only if any were accused, and the crime proved against them, they must be punished; but even then a man might clear himself by denying Christ, and offering sacrifice to the gods.
How easy it would seem to save one's life by merely strewing a few grains of incense, and doing homage to the emperor's statue! But those who were infected by that "superstition" which so baffled the mind of the cultivated Roman, knew the full meaning of what might seem a trifling ceremony, and refused to purchase life and ease by disloyalty to Christ; they kept His word, and did not, as the governor himself was forced to admit, deny His name.
Later in the reign of Trajan, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, suffered as a witness for Christ. We may remember that this Syrian capital, one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire, was the place where the disciples of Christ were first called by His name. We are told that the emperor, elated by his many victories, yet counted all his conquests incomplete as long as there were any in his dominions of that stubborn sect who refused to worship the gods which Rome worshipped, and threatened with death all in Antioch who should refuse obedience in this matter. Anxious that the storm should spend itself on him, and that the flock over which he had had the oversight for half a century should escape, Ignatius was, by his own desire, brought before the emperor. Thus was Trajan brought face to face with that "immoderate superstition" of which he had hitherto only heard.
Much is told of what was said by the accuser and the accused, but all we really know is that the result of the examination of Ignatius before the emperor was that the aged bishop of Antioch was sentenced to be led in chains to Rome, "there to be devoured by beasts for the gratification of the people.”
This punishment was awarded to the worst criminals, notably those convicted of practicing magical arts, of which vague offense the Christians were often accused. Rejoicing that he should be counted worthy, like the blessed Apostle Paul, to be thus bound and taken to Rome, Ignatius, guarded by soldiers, was conducted by sea to Smyrna, where he was allowed to see Polycarp, the bishop of that place, who had been, like himself, a disciple of St. John, along with many others who came to bid him Godspeed, and to receive his blessing. At leisure from all concern on his own account, Ignatius seized this opportunity to send letters to the assemblies of Christians at Ephesus and at Rome; that to the latter place being sent by the hand of some who were going thither by a quicker route than that by which he was to travel. In these parting letters, he dwells much upon the great truth of the manhood of Christ, and warns those to whom he wrote against that evil doctrine, already crept in among the early Christians, which taught that our Lord had not a real body, and that all He did during His life on earth was done by a phantom, or only appeared to be done.
Such was the teaching of those who, even in the time when St. John wrote, pretended to superior knowledge. The letters also speak in no measured terms of the Judaizing teachers of the day.
With regard to his own feelings at the prospect of martyrdom, Ignatius writes to the Roman Christians:—" Ye cannot give me anything more precious than this, that I should be sacrificed to God while the altar is ready. It is good that I should set for this world in God, that I may rise to Him in life. Only pray for strength to be given me from within and from without, that I may not only be called a Christian, but may also be found to be one." Then, alluding to his long and weary journey, he adds, "From Syria, and even unto Rome, I am cast away among wild beasts, by sea and by land, by night and by day, being bound between ten leopards, which are the band of soldiers, who even when I do good to them, all the more do evil to me.”
His keepers at last hurried him forward, fearful of not being in time for the games, and doubtless they looked on with impatience at a touching scene which took place as they drew near the city. There Ignatius was met by some sorrowing brethren, and he knelt down among them, and prayed to Christ to put an end to the persecution, for he hoped that it might be granted to him to die for his flock, and that the feeble sheep whom he so loved might escape.
Not far from the Arch of Titus stand the ruins of the Colosseum. Near where Nero's gardens were, in a hollow between two of the hills on which Rome stood, he had made an artificial lake. This had been drained by Titus, and he began building upon the spot a great circus, large enough to seat 80,000 people. We are told that the captive Jews were employed in raising this gigantic structure, which was so large that at one time water was let into the enclosure, and a mock sea fight was carried on for the amusement of the spectators; but it was more often used for combats between beasts and men. Terrible scenes took place in that arena, while the Romans made holiday, and looked down upon the strife and slaughter below from their seats, guarded by a gilt network hung upon ivory posts from the fury of the animals, rendered more savage by hunger.
The first Christian given to the wild beasts in this amphitheater was Ignatius of Antioch.