Continued from last week…
There has always been something irritating about Christians. They always want to change you. That annoying question, “Are you saved?” From what? I am reminded of the old joke. A street preacher disturbs a priest sitting on a park bench reading his prayer book. “Brother, have you found the Lord?” asks the evangelist. The old priest looks up, says, “I had no idea He was lost!” and returns to his prayers.
A certain type of Christian always manages to be obnoxious. For most of their history the Jews have just wanted to be left alone. Christians keep worrying about them and their salvation and consistently persecuted them, of course for their own good. The Jews were a bit more difficult in times past. The pagan Romans kept trying to rein them in which, for some reason the Jews resented. Three times they rose up against the Romans in 66AD, (the First Jewish/Roman war) in 115AD, (the Kitos rebellion) and in 132 AD (the bar Kochba revolt). The large Jewish communities in Judea, Egypt and Cyprus were pretty much wiped out, but they were still a permitted religion and, in the rest of the empire, in Spain, Greece and Italy, Jews were pretty much undisturbed. Christians were quite another matter.
Herod Agrippa the First scattered the Christians in 41 AD. It started with Stephen the Deacon who raged at the judges before whom he had been arraigned. “You are stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets didn’t your fathers persecute? And they killed those that appeared before of the coming of the Righteous One of whom you have now become betrayers and murderers. You received the law as it was ordained by angels, and did not keep it.” (Acts 6: 51-53)
Talk about contempt of court! Stephen was just looking for trouble and he got it! Herod Agrippa started a persecution that ended with James, the brother of the Lord and the first bishop of Jerusalem being killed. The Rabbinic Pharisees and the Nazarenes took their brawl to every corner of the Roman Empire, and the Romans really hated civil disturbances. Wherever Saul, now calling himself Paul, went there seem to have been fist fights and riots. The emperor Claudius expelled the Jews (probably just the Jewish Christians) from Rome around 50AD. They had been rioting about a certain “Chrestus.” They had probably gotten into a royal donnybrook (fight) over who or who was not the Messiah.
Then things got really bad for the Christians. Nero decided to blame the Christians for the burning of the city of Rome in 64 AD. People were blaming him, so a few dead Christians might take the heat off him. After all weren’t the looney Christians always talking about the world ending in fire? How convenient. They were obnoxious and nobody liked them anyway. Christianity became and remained illegal for the next three centuries. Christians were always criminals, but the outright prosecution of Christians was intermittent. Nero (64-68) decided to rid the world of Christians first, then Domitian (81-96), then Trajan (112-117). Under Trajan, Christians were not sought out, but were executed if, having been discovered, they refused to sacrifice to the gods. Then there was Marcus Aurelius (161-180), then Septimus Severus (202-210), then Decius (250-251). Decius was pretty thorough. He wanted the nonsense to end and required people to make public sacrifice to the gods or else.
The bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch were all killed by Decius. There was Valerian (257-59), who martyred the Bishop Cyprian of Carthage and Pope Sixtus II, then Maximinus the Thracian (235-38), then Aurelian (270–275). And then the big one: Diocletian and Galerius (303-324). Despite being illegal and occasionally persecuted, Christianity grew at a geometric rate perhaps, 10% a year. By the reign of Diocletian in 300 AD, they comprised perhaps 10% of the empire’s population. In some areas they were a substantial minority, perhaps even a majority. Though it was a legal religion, Rabbinic Phariseeism, (i.e. Judaism) had diminished in the empire. Its center of gravity had moved to Babylon, in the area of modern Baghdad. The Jews were always more comfortable among the Persians than the Romans. The Persians had freed them from the Babylonians, centuries before and the Persians were followers of the prophet Zoroaster, and thus were also monotheists, unlike the Romans who had a god for every occasion and every vice.
Diocletian knew that Rome was in trouble, barbarians trying to storm the border, the Persians threatening to invade the east, the currency collapsing. Something was seriously wrong. The Christians were as obnoxious as ever and in 299, Diocletian was offering sacrifice in an attempt to predict the future. The priest in charge of the divination failed to get a reading because, as he said, “profane men” had interrupted the process. Certain Christians in the imperial household had made the sign of the cross at a crucial moment during the sacrifice which ruined the whole thing. Diocletian went ballistic and ordered all members of the court and the army to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. In other words, all Christians who remained faithful to Christ were thrown out of the army and the government.
In 302, it went from bad to worse. Romanus, an ordained deacon, was visiting the imperial court just as the sacrifices were getting under way to begin the court session. He denounced the sacrifice in a loud voice, was arrested and sentenced to have his tongue ripped out. Enough was enough. Diocletian decided that Christians were the reason for the mess the empire was in. They had displeased the gods and need to be obliterated. He did his level best to eliminate the whole lot of them by any means possible. Those wacky Christians seemed to welcome the challenge. There are stories told about Christian monks in the Roman province of Egypt who would come in form their desert monasteries and demand to be martyred. There were just not enough judges to handle all the cases so they would be turned away with something like “Sorry we’re only executing bishops today.” People were dying by the boat loads, and then something amazing happened.
Next week: something amazing