Reading: Gentile Christianity - Nero to Domitian A.D. 64-96 (The Early Church, Chapter 3)




The indications in the New Testament of a rapid progress of the Gospel are filled out by traditions of the labors of the apostles after their dispersion from Jerusalem (Thomas in Parthia, Thaddaeus in Edessa, Andrew in Scythia, etc.). While these traditions are often untrustworthy, their main features bear out an early extensive diffusion of Christianity throughout the countries of the known world. 

First Contact with the Empire. 

The world has rarely seen more perfect specimens of human wickedness than in the series of emperors who succeeded Augustus. The dark, unrelenting Tiberius was followed by the insane Caligula. The dull, drunken Claudius (A.D. 41) followed Caligula. During the reign of Claudius the first distinct notice we have of the presence of Christianity in the empire was recorded. The historian Suetonius relates that Claudius ''banished from Rome all Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one "Chrestus" This is the banishment referred to in Acts 18 (A.D.52). There is little doubt that "Chrestus" is a misspelled name of "Christ," and that what Suetonius alludes to is tumults in the Jewish quarters which had arisen through the preaching of Christ. This is six years before the Epistle to the Romans (A.D. 58), and shows how remarkably Christianity had already spread in the capital (Rom. 1. 8, and Tacitus below). In A.D. 54 Claudius was poisoned to make way for his step-son, Nero, in whom every vice known to humanity seemed concentrated. Under Nero what is usually reckoned as the first persecution took place, though this way of counting the persecutions is misleading. 

The Persecution under Nero. 

 One night (A.D. 64) Rome was discovered to have been set on fire by an unseen hand. The fire spread with terrible rapidity till ten out of fourteen quarters of the city were destroyed. Popular suspicion fastened this crime on Nero, and he, to direct the finger of accusation away from himself turned it on the Christians. A frightful persecution ensued. An "immense multitude" were convicted, not so much, as Tacitus confesses, on evidence of having set the city on fire, as on account of their "hatred of the human race." Mockery and derision were added to the most exquisite tortures. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and thrown to be devoured by dogs; others were crucified; numbers were burnt alive; and many, covered with oil, were lighted up when the day declined, to serve as torches during the night. The emperor used his own gardens for the spectacle and heightened the jauntiness of the occasion by games. The persecution was local, but so terrible an event occurring in the capital had the most serious consequences affecting the status and treatment of Christians in the provinces {1 Peter and Apocalypse). 

Apart from its inherent tragedy, the persecution yields instructive light on the rapidly growing numbers of the new sect, and on the low level of honor in which they were held by the pagans. When even an intelligent writer like Tacitus can speak of them as universally detested, and deservedly punished for their crimes, and of their religion as a "pernicious superstition," it is easy to imagine how the ignorant and unreasoning crowd must have thought and felt regarding them! 

Christianity, however, had penetrated not only into the lower strata of society. We have at least one interesting case in this reign to show that it had found its way into higher circles as well. Tacitus relates that in A.D. 57 a very distinguished lady, Pomponia Graecina, wife of Aulus Plautius, commander of the army in Britain, was accused before her relatives of having adopted a "foreign superstition," which led her into habits of seclusion and melancholy. This "foreign superstition” has been generally understood to be Christianity; and the discovery of a crypt in the catacombs connected with the Pomponian family tree (one descendant bearing this very name, Pomponia Graecina), puts the matter beyond doubt.

Martyrdom of St. Paul and St. Peter. 

According to the testimony of antiquity, the martyrdoms of the two great apostles -- St. Paul and St. Peter -- belong to the reign of Nero. That St. Paul suffered at Rome, having carried the Gospel "to the extreme limit of the west," is attested by Clement (A.D. 96); and is indeed evidenced by his own latest epistle (2 Tim.), which anticipates a speedy death by the sword of the executioner. Clement's language favors the supposition that he did not meet this fate at the end of the imprisonment recorded in Acts 28. 30, 31, but had a new period of activity, journeying perhaps as far as Spain (Rom. 15. 28). 

His second imprisonment is probably to be regarded as an after effect of the terrible persecution already described. His trial seems to have had two stages. He himself writes pathetically that at his first defense he could get no one to act as his patron or advocate (2 Tim. 4. 16) -- a testimony to the general terror Nero's recent acts had inspired. He suffered, tradition says, on the Ostian Road, probably A.D. 67 or 68. 

To the same period must be assigned the martyrdom of his brother apostle -- St. Peter.  There is a consensus of testimony to the fact that St. Peter came to Rome in the end of his life, and suffered martyrdom about the same time as St. Paul. This we may accept as the historical nucleus of the story of his death. The story of St. Peter desiring to be crucified with his head downwards is first found in Origen (beginning of third century). The most beautiful of the legends about St. Peter is the Quo Vadis story (written in the fourth or fifth century). Peter was fleeing from the city when he met the Lord carrying His Cross. "Lord," he asked, "where are you going?" "I go to Rome," said Jesus, "to be crucified again." Smitten with the rebuke, St. Peter turned back to prison and to death. 

The Empire till Domitian.

The period from Nero to Domitian, the next emperor who concerns us, is thirteen years (A.D. 68-81). In this short interval no fewer than five emperors were crowned. The reigns of three of them (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) were compressed in the brief space of eighteen months. Vespasian and Titus were good rulers. Their names are connected with the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem. On the death of Titus (A.D. 81), possibly of poison, the empire was taken by Domitian, Vespasian's younger son. Historians say he took Tiberius for his model. His mournfulness, dishonesty, cruelty of disposition, are focused on by all who speak of him. It is customary to call the events of Domitian's reign, the Second Persecution. 

The Persecution under Domitian

Domitian began as a man who followed the moral dictates of religion very carefully, but soon developed qualities which made him what Pliny calls "the enemy of all good men." His hunger for more money and blood lust found a fitting prey in the Christians. Clement (A.D. 96) speaks of "a vast multitude of the elect" who suffered for Christ, and gives vivid glimpses of the humiliations they endured. An interesting story is told by Hegesippus of two grandchildren of Jude, the brother of the Lord, whom Domitian ordered to be brought before him. He dismissed them as simpletons on finding that they had no money, and expected only a heavenly kingdom.

 A more remarkable instance in every way is that of Flavius Clemens, the consul, and his wife, Domitilla, who, the Roman historian Dion Cassius informs us, were in this reign (A.D. 96) accused of "atheism," and "going after the customs of the Jews." These two persons were of the highest rank. Clemens was the cousin, Domitilla the niece, of the emperor, and their two sons had been adopted by Domitian as his heirs. Yet Clemens was put to death, and his wife was banished to an island in the Aegean.

The peculiarity of the charge implies Christianity, and this is confirmed by the discovery of the cemetery of Domitilla in the catacombs. So near, even in that early age, had Christianity come to the throne of the Caesars. 

Another historian further relates that "many others" were put to death or had their goods confiscated on the same charge. He points to Acilius Glabrio, who had been consul with Trajan, and whose family was one of the most illustrious in the state. Other archaeological discoveries show that Christianity had penetrated deeply into the family of the Flavians. 

Last Days of St. John. 

If the oldest records are to be trusted, it was during Domitian's reign that the Apostle John was banished to the island of Patmos. It was while he was on Patmos that John composed the Apocalypse. It is in any case to the period after Nero we must assign St. John's removal to Asia Minor, and his labors and teaching in Ephesus, of which there is ample attestation. Here, surrounded by a circle of friends and disciples, he continued to an extreme old age, his residence broken only by the banishment above mentioned. Among those about him in his later days we have historical notes of the apostles Philip and Andrew, of Polycarp, and of other "elders," who continued his tradition. Ephesus, in short, in the closing years of the century, became the new center of the Church, as Jerusalem had been earlier, and Rome was to be later. 

As St. John grew old, tradition relates, his friends gathered round him and besought him to write down what he had taught about Christ. Thus his gospel originated. There seem to have been two editions of it, if we may judge from the supplementary chapter 21, itself attested by a note from the elders (vs 24, 25). Many beautiful stories remain to us of St. John's later days. For instance, the Church Father Jerome writes of when John was too weak to walk to church, he asked the young men to carry him there, and, being unable to speak much, contented himself with saying, "Little children, love one another." There is a fine story told by Clement of Alexandria of his reclaiming a young man who had become a robber. St. John's life is said to have extended into the reign of Trajan, i,e., beyond A.D. 98. His tomb was in Ephesus. 

The Catacombs.

Reference has been made to the catacombs. These singular excavations are immense subterranean burial places of the early Christians in the fields around Rome within a circle of three miles from the city. They began in the first century, probably as private burial places in the vineyards or gardens of the wealthier converts. The older cemeteries which formed the nucleus of the catacombs, can often be distinguished from the later ones. These smaller burial-places, as the excavations proceeded in later years, ran into each other, and formed the larger areas. 

The extent of the catacombs is enormous. They consist of a vast maze of passages, often in descending levels, intersecting each other in all directions, with little rooms or vaults on either side. The total length of the passages is reckoned at some 587 geographical miles. These corridors with the accompanying chambers are literally packed with graves. The number of the dead interred in them has been variously estimated, but can hardly be less than 2,000,000. This fact speaks volumes for the extent to which Christianity had spread in and around Rome during the three centuries or thereabouts that the catacombs were in use. The oldest cemeteries are distinguished by their architectural elegance and classical style of decoration. 

Special interest attaches to the art-features, symbols and inscriptions of the catacombs. They make large use of painting. The oldest tombs exhibit this art in its highest perfection. Afterwards painting becomes conventional, and often, basically crude. The Biblical representations embrace scenes from both Old and New Testaments.

The figure of the Good Shepherd appears from the very first, and there are early representations of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The symbols of the catacombs bear testimony to the circle of ideas in which the Christian mind moved, and to the hopes by which it was sustained. They are of all kinds, from rudest scrawls to carefully executed designs.

The anchor, the dove, the lamb, the ship, the palm, the crown were favorite symbols.  The cross is not early. Chief among emblems, on account of its mystical significance, was the fish. It finds its explanation in the fact that the letters of the Greek name ICHTHUS stand for the first letters of the names of Christ -- "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior." Like the symbols, the inscriptions are often rude in style, but show also how differently death, and everything connected with it, was looked upon in Christian, as compared with pagan circles. The inscriptions are marked by a rare simplicity -- often no more than "in peace" -- but always breathe the spirit of hope, faith, and love towards others. Nothing in the inscriptions is horrible or revengeful. The tools of labor are portrayed, but not the instruments of torture. They speak to the power that overcomes death. The catacombs were lost for ages but were rediscovered in 1578.

Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2021, 12:57 PM