VIA DOLOROSA: EARLY PERSECUTIONS
"I am the way, the truth and the life" Jesus promised his disciples - but the
cruelty of his Passion was to bring them a clear warnings the Christian faithful
could expect to endure groat suffering and loss
'Take this cup of suffering from me!'
- Mark, 14:26
The rich young man instructed to give away all his possessions to the poor; the outraged citizens told to think of their own sins before they attacked the adulteress; the victim of violence ordered to 'turn the other cheek' ... Christ's first followers were left in little doubt that, although their faith would ultimately bring them to Everlasting Life, it would cost them - perhaps very considerably - in the here and now. Indeed, whatever joy it brought, the road to Salvation was inevitably going to lead
Aelbert Bouts' fifteenth-century altarpiece suggests the brutal violence behind a faith which was founded in the sufferings of its Saviour. Christ's disciples, in the early centuries, knew that their awn fate was unpredictable; that they themselves might easily come to grisly ends.
them through deep and difficult vales of darkness and death. The story of the early Church was to be no different. By 312, Christianity would be basking in the backing of the state, the official religion of the Roman world. First, though, there were terrible persecutions to be endured.
The First Martyrs
The radiance of the Resurrection fading, Christ's Ascension quickly coming to seem more like an abandonment, the darkness wasn't long in falling for the followers of Christ. The first known martyrdom - the stoning to death of St Stephen in Jerusalem around ad 35 - was witnessed by the future St Paul. Then still known as Saul, a young man from Tarsus in the province of Cilicia (southern Turkey), he was as proud of his Roman citizenship as of his Jewish background. Stephen's stand appeared an affront to both. So much so that, far from objecting to what amounted to a religious lynching, Saul stood by and minded the cloaks of the killers as they hurled their stones at Stephen. Later, of course, his attitudes were to be transformed by the extraordinary experience he underwent on the Road to Damascus. Now named Paul, he became co-founder with St Peter of what we now know as the creed of Christianity. And while Peter may have been Christ's anointed Pope, Paul was arguably more important in building the Catholic Church: it was under his influence that it transcended its origins as a Jewish sect.
Nero fastened the guilt and
inflicted the most exquisite
tortures on a class hated for their
abominations, called Christians by
Both St Peter and St Paul were to die in Rome, the centre of the civilized world in the first century ad. Both were martyred, according to the Christian tradition. While St Paul was beheaded, St Peter was crucified just as his mentor had been - but upside-down, it's said, at his own request. His death by crucifixion might have been ordered in sneering allusion to his Saviour's, but to St Peter it was an honour of which he was unworthy. Hence, the story has it, his desire to be executed the wrong way up. A great basilica was later raised up above his grave.
Fire and Sword
We view these events today as the beginnings of a great religious, historical and cultural tradition. For the Roman Empire, though, they were very much a minor, local thing. Most Romans were barely conscious of Christianity's existence. If they were, they saw it as the obscure offshoot of an obscure Middle-Eastern sect - one of innumerable little cults to be found in the most cosmopolitan city the world had ever seen. That it came to widespread attention at all was down to the opportunism of an Emperor in need of a convenient scapegoat for his political difficulties.
A wild paranoiac in the most powerful position in the world, Nero was a public menace, nothing less. His reign, which lasted from ad 54 till his deposition by a desperate Senate 14 years later, was characterized by madness, murder and repression on a monstrous scale. Further disaster struck when fire ravaged Rome in ad 64. The impact of the conflagration was immense. According to the historian Tacitus, writing just a few years later:
'Rome, indeed, is divided into fourteen districts, four of which remained uninjured, three were levelled to the ground, while in the other seven were left only a few shattered, half-burnt relics of houses.'
Nero wasn't just the man in charge, it seems: some suggested that he had contrived the disaster deliberately, wishing to clear the site for a spectacular new palace he had in mind. As the Roman writer Suetonius says:
'... pretending to be disgusted with the old buildings, and the streets, he set the city on fire so openly, that many of consular rank caught his own household servants on their property with tow, and torches in their hands, but durst not meddle with them. There being near his Golden House some granaries, the site of which he exceedingly coveted, they were battered as if with machines of war, and set on fire, the walls being built of stone.'
In need of someone else to blame, writes Tacitus,
'Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace ... Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.'
This seems to have been the context in which, along with so many others, St Peter was arrested and put to death - just another minor move in the wider game of Roman politics.
Ups and Downs
The sense that it was a religion tried in the fire was to be central to the developing consciousness of Christianity, but it's clear that there was 'nothing personal' as far as Roman Emperors were concerned.
St Stephen's ugly death - he was stoned by an angry mob (the young Saul - later St Paul - was a bystander) - takes on an extraordinary beauty in Pieter Paul Rubens' representation (c.1617). Its ability to transmute mortal pain into something more blessed was part of Christianity's appeal.
Nero's clampdown, horrifying as it may have been, was nakedly opportunistic. Time and time again through the second and third centuries, we find Christianity being attacked - or tolerated - with the same disregard. In between dreadful persecutions in the reigns of the Emperors Domitian, Trajan, Septimius Severus and Decius, came lengthy periods of easy-going acceptance: the mood typically turned ugly when economic times were hard.
Many priests and bishops were martyred in the reign of Valerian (253-60), including St Lawrence, reputedly burned on an iron grill. ('Turn me over, I'm done on this side...', he told his tormentors, tradition has it.) A few years later St Sebastian was forced to face a squad of archers. Such deaths were to take their
St Paul was proud of being both a Jew and a Roman citizen: it is largely thanks to him that the Catholic Church was based in Rome. It was to his citizenship that he owed his good fortune in being beheaded - death by crucifixion was reserved for non-Romans.
St Peter, it is said, on hearing that he was to be crucified, begged that he be hung up upside-down so as not to seem sacrilegiously to imitate his saviour. He was killed in Rome, and St Peter's Basilica built over his tomb.
places in a tradition of martyrology that was to be essential to the early Church's identity - like that of St Catherine of Alexandria, sentenced to have her body broken on a wagon wheel.
The Great Persecution
The Emperor Diocletian was tolerant by nature. By the end of the third century, however, the Empire was coming under strain. Financial mismanagement had resulted in economic difficulties in what was already so vast and unwieldy an Empire as to be effectively ungovernable - Diocletian had felt compelled to appoint four sub-emperors to reign across the regions on his behalf. It made sense at the same time to underline the 'Romanness' of the Roman world by
IN THE BOX
GETTING NERO'S NUMBER
Driven underground by Nero's persecution, the Christians had to communicate with one another secretly. Given that most shared Jewish backgrounds, they were familiar with the traditional numerology known as gematria. This ancient mystic system associated specific properties to different numbers in relation to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Gematria was a vast and erudite subject in itself: you could spend a lifetime exploring its infinite subtleties. At its most basic level it offered a ready-made code for initiates. For the name Nero, the figures came to 666: notoriously, the 'Number of the Beast' in the Book of Revelation. For the early Christians, the Emperor was indeed the 'Antichrist'.
reaffirming its cultural values - none of course loomed larger than the old religion and its rituals. In 303, therefore, the Emperor issued his 'Edict Against the Christians'. As the contemporary Christian scholar Eusebius put it, officials were 'to tear down the churches to their foundations and destroy the sacred scriptures by fire'. Those 'in honourable stations' were to be 'degraded' (reduced to slavery, in other words) if they refused to abjure their faith. Thus began the 'Great Persecution'. Contemporary sources claim that 10,000 martyrs were crucified side by side on the first day. And while this is surely an exaggeration, there's little doubt that many thousands must have died in a reign of religious terror that was to continue unabated for the next eight years.
IT WAS ACTUALLY [AS MOST HISTORY BOOKS AFFIRM] A 10 YEAR PERSECUTION, AND IS MENTIONED IN CHAPTERS 2 AND 3 OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION, CONCERNING THE 7 CHURCHES, AS A 10 DAY PERSECUTION - FROM 303 TO 313 AD - Keith Hunt
'A Certain Religion of Lust'
These were dark times for the Church indeed. But there was no shortage of contemporary commentators ready to suggest that the Christians had brought their sufferings on themselves with dark deeds of their own.
It's a tribute to Jesus' radicalism that his central tenets seemed so hard for so many to take on board:
Diocletian was responsible for the deaths of thousands in the
'Great Persecution' he launched in 303. Christians were tolerated for
decades on end, but could never feel secure - in times of
economic hardship they made the ideal scapegoats
for all the Empire's ills.
'They love one another almost before they know one another', one scribe complained. Understandably, perhaps, Pagan contemporaries were cynical about the whole 'Love thy neighbour' message and found it hard to recognize the distinction being made between affectionate goodwill and sex. 'There is mingled among them a certain religion of lust', one said. 'They call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters'. The word 'promiscuously' here, of course, isn't used in a sexual sense, but it's easy to see how suspicious all this 'love' and siblinghood must have seemed. Suffice it to say that the suspicion of incest was never far away.
Feared and distrusted minority groups are just about invariably accused of sexual deviance, of course: 'Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest', one critic said. The same source revealed: 'I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest
I hear that they adore the head of
an ass, that basest of creatures,
consecrated by I know not what
of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion.' Such reports were - it goes without saying - entirely wild.
Worse than these absurd accusations, though, were the darker suspicions accruing around the Church, suspicions only encouraged by the desperate discretion of a beleaguered group. All too often down the ages, persecution has produced a vicious circle: an already mistrusted minority, in trying to lie low and avoid attention, creates an air of 'secrecy' and intensifies
'The Christian Martyr's Last Prayer' was famously imagined by French artist dean-Leon Gerome in 1883. There's surprisingly little evidence for the tradition that Christians were 'thrown to the lions' in ancient Rome, but no doubt that in times of persecution many suffered torture and cruel death.
mistrust. The harder the Christians strove to avoid detection, the more feverish the speculation about their 'secret and nocturnal rites'. 'They know one another by secret signs and insignia', it was claimed.
Light in the Darkness
When the Roman persecutions were at their most intense, the Church was driven underground - quite literally: worship was conducted in the catacombs that lay beneath the streets of Rome.
As it happens, these catacombs had for the most part been constructed by the Christians themselves.
IN THE BOX
There's a wearisomely familiar ring about some of the charges levelled at the early Christians, especially given that - to begin with, at any rate - they were mostly Jews. Around the end of the second century, the scholar Minucius Felix (himself a Christian) recorded some of the more lurid claims.
Of particular interest were the supposed 'initiation rites' of this evil creed. An infant having been concealed within a sack or pile of flour, the novice Christian was given a knife and told to stab the flour repeatedly, it was said, urged on by his sponsors to administer ever quicker and harder - although apparently harmless -blows. Only as the blood began to stain the flour did he realize that he had murdered an innocent young victim - but he'd join in the feast, bonding with his companions as they made their gory meal.
'Thirstily - O horror! - they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.'
If the story hazily recalls the idea of the Eucharist (the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of the crucified Christ), it also looks forward to one of the darkest Christian myths of medieval times. This attributed to Jews the custom of kidnapping and sacrificing Christian children so that their blood could be stirred into the mixture being prepared for their unleavened bread. The whole Jewish nation had to suffer the stigma of this 'Blood Libel' for centuries, and many Jews were to pay for such imaginary 'crimes' with their own lives.
The ritual killing and bleeding of a Christian boy is essential to the celebration of the feast of Passover, as understood by the illustrator of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Anti-Semitism was an inseparable aspect of Catholicism in medieval times.
Where Pagan Romans had become happy to have their remains cremated, and just the ashes kept in an urn, they looked forward to the resurrection of the body - so, as far as was practicable, the body had to be kept intact. Hence the construction of these galleries, dug out of the soft and spongy volcanic tufa beneath the city: Christians came here to inter their dead and tend their tombs. Increasingly, though, as their troubles deepened, they came here to conduct their rites in secret: in some cases, icons were painted on the walls and impromptu churches took shape, deep underground.
Practical considerations may have brought them here - the catacombs offered the only obvious place of safety in a hostile city - but those who ventured down among the dead to pray for eternal life must surely have been fully conscious of the powerful symbolism too.
Angelic reinforcements flock to Constantine's standard at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, on 28 October 312. The victorious ruler made Christianity the official religion of his Empire. An unusual take on the Gospel message, but Constantine's patronage transformed the fortunes of what was now the Church of Rome.
The thought of their forebears huddled here, praying to the Lord by flickering lamplight, has inspired Catholic believers ever since.
Not all were to prove as strong, of course. 'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,' as Jesus Christ observes in Matthew's Gospel. He himself was to ask (in the Garden of Gethsemane) that the cup of suffering should be taken from him. Even before the Passion proper, his right-hand-man St Peter had denied him
IN THE BOX
A DUBIOUS DONATION
Constantine was to prove a generous and influential backer to his adoptive creed. He does not, however, appear to have issued that decree on the basis of which Pope Sylvester I and his successors asserted not just spiritual but temporal authority over the City of Rome and its environs (not to mention other lands scattered across Europe and North Africa). This so-- called 'Donation of Constantine' justified the Church's worldly dominion over vast territories, and while many were to be lost over the centuries, the Popes held on to power in central Italy into modern times. Even today, the Vatican remains sovereign territory, its status sanctioned by custom, if not by legal title. In fact, the 'Donation of Constantine' was shown up as a forgery as early as 1440; it is thought to have been created in the eighth century.
three times. So it's hard to blame those believers who, in the face of daily harassment, torture and terror, ended up renouncing their Christian beliefs and at least going through the motions of resuming Pagan worship. Even so, those who held firm felt misgivings about the commitment of these lapsi (from the Latin for 'lapsed' or 'slipped') and acts of penitence were required before they were later readmitted to the Church.
A Place in the Sun
Diocletian died at the end of 311, by which time it was clear that his Great Persecution had failed - cruel and comprehensive as it had been. Many Christians were clearly continuing to worship in secret, while even those who had resumed the rites of the Pagan past had evidently done so only grudgingly out of fear. His successor in the east, Galerius, issued his own Edict of Toleration, ending the Persecution: the Empire stood to gain more by bringing the Christians back into the fold, he reasoned.
The Church was no longer illegal then, even if Christianity was still anything but mainstream. But things were now to move with bewildering speed. Challenging Galerius for rule over the Empire as a whole, his rival in the west, Constantius, died. His son Constantine asserted his claims over the entire Roman Empire. As the two Emperors and their armies
No longer skulking in corners and catacombs, the Church was a great institution, its pontiff the equal of any worldly king. Sylvester I (represented here by Raphael) was said to have been offered Constantine's crown - but to have seen imperial power as superfluous to what he already had.
prepared to do battle by the Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome, Constantine underwent the most significant Christian conversion since St Paul.
A less spiritual character than Constantine it is difficult to imagine. Even so, like many a mystic before and since, he saw a vision. A good, old-fashioned Roman, true to traditional ways, he was a worshipper of Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun). On the eve of the battle he looked up to see his blazing orb slowly sinking down the western sky. Suddenly, overlain across that burning disc, he saw the shape of a cross - and, beneath, an inscription: In Hoc Signo Vinces ('In this sign may you prevail'). Constantine embraced the new religion on the spot: having defeated Galerius he made Christianity the official religion of his Empire and the rest is ecclesiastical history.
Constantine's conversion could hardly have been more obviously opportunistic. Was this what Christ had meant when he warned: 'I bring not peace but the sword' (Matthew 10: 34)? Was this what Mary had meant in her Magnificat - 'He has toppled the mighty from their thrones' (Luke 1: 52)? Were God and Caesar really supposed to be quite so closely allied? After so many years of persecution, the leaders of the Church weren't in the mood to look a gift-horse in the mouth - the good that might be done in a Christian world was potentially limitless, after all. Despite this, some have inevitably felt that this was the first, fatal compromise by which the Church established its longstanding alliance with worldly authority, with privilege and power. At a stroke, Constantine had turned Christianity from a marginal cult into a great religion: Catholicism had triumphed - but had it also sold its soul?
TO BE CONTINUED
YES WE SEE UPON DEEPER HISTORICAL AND CHURCH HISTORY STUDIES, THAT THE NEW "ROMAN" CHRISTIANITY, COMING FROM ROME, STARTING IN THE 2ND CENTURY AD, WAS A CHRISTIANITY MOVING AWAY FROM THE ORIGINAL APOSTOLIC CHRISTIANITY. ALL THIS I HAVE COVERED IN-DEPTH IN MANY STUDIES ON THIS WEBSITE. WE SEE CLEARLY IN THE APOSTLE'S WRITINGS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, THAT BEFORE THE END OF THE FIRST CENTURY AD, MANY HAD DEPARTED FROM THE FAITH ONCE DELIVERED TO THE SAINTS.
BUT, THE NEW FAITH COMING OUT OF ROME, WAS TO THE FOLLOWERS OF ROMAN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, THE "REAL DEAL" AS WE SAY, AND YES, WAS TAKEN VERY SERIOUSLY….. EVEN TO DIE FOR.
IN THE PERSECUTIONS UP TO 313 AD AND CONSTANTINE'S EMBRACE OF ROMAN THEOLOGY, THOUSANDS OF THOSE HOLDING ROMAN CHRISTIANITY AND THOSE HOLDING THE FAITH ONCE DELIVERED TO THE SAINTS, WERE PUT TO DEATH.