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§ 16. Condition of the Church before the Reign of Trajan.


The imperial persecutions before Trajan belong to the Apostolic age, and have been already described in the first volume. We allude to them here only for the sake of the connection. Christ was born under the first, and crucified under the second Roman emperor. Tiberius (a.d. 14–37) is reported to have been frightened by Pilate’s account of the crucifixion and resurrection, and to have proposed to the senate, without success, the enrollment of Christ among the Roman deities; but this rests only on the questionable authority of Tertullian. The edict of Claudius (42–54) in the year 53, which banished the Jews from Rome, fell also upon the Christians, but as Jews with whom they were confounded. The fiendish persecution of Nero (54–68) was intended as a punishment, not for Christianity, but for alleged incendiarism (64). It showed, however, the popular temper, and was a declaration of war against the new religion. It became a common saying among Christians that Nero would reappear as Antichrist.

During the rapidly succeeding reigns of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespacian, and Titus, the church, so far as we know, suffered no very serious persecution.

But Domitian (81–96), a suspicious and blasphemous tyrant, accustomed to call himself and to be called "Lord and God," treated the embracing of Christianity a crime against the state, and condemned to death many Christians, even his own cousin, the consul Flavius Clemens, on the charge of atheism; or confiscated their property, and sent them, as in the case of Domitilia, the wife of the Clemens just mentioned, into exile. His jealousy also led him to destroy the surviving descendants of David; and he brought from Palestine to Rome two kinsmen of Jesus, grandsons of Judas, the "brother of the Lord," but seeing their poverty and rustic simplicity, and hearing their explanation of the kingdom of Christ as not earthly, but heavenly, to be established by the Lord at the end of the world, when He should come to judge the quick and the dead, he let them go. Tradition (in Irenaeus, Eusebius, Jerome) assigns to the reign of Domitian the banishment of John to Patmos (which, however, must be assigned to the reign of Nero), together with his miraculous preservation from death in Rome (attested by Tertullian), and the martyrdom of Andrew, Mark, Onesimus, and Dionysius the Areopagite. The Martyrium of Ignatius speaks of "many persecutions under Domitian."

His humane and justice-loving successor, Nerva (96–98), recalled the banished, and refused to treat the confession of Christianity as a political crime, though he did not recognise the new religion as a religio licita.


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