Persecutions of The Church

Persecutions of The Church

Church tradition speaks of 10 great persecutions, probably in imitation of the 10 plagues of Moses. Persecutions struck a nerve among Christians, and they produced martyrologies and legends. In reality there were diverse and localized persecutions but three widespread persecutions under Decius (249–250 c.e.), Valentianus (257–258 c.e.), and Diocletian (303–312 c.e.).

Stephen was the first martyr (c. 35 c.e.), and then James of Zebeddee, and a general persecution broke out under Herod Agrippa (c. 42 c.e.). The biblical book of Revelation speaks of societal hostility against the early Christians.

Rarely did this persecution come from the government; usually it was from other religious groups (such as the Jews or the pagans). Nero (54–68) and Domitian (81–96) were known to have blamed Christians for problems of their own administration.

The legal basis for these persecutions is known from the correspondence between Pliny and the emperor Trajan around 110: If a resident did not make offerings to the Roman gods, he or she could be executed. However, the Christians were not sought out by prosecutors, and emperors did not make it their business to conduct widespread campaigns against them.

Later persecutions occurred when specific charges were filed: Polycarp of Smyrna (156), the Lyons martyrs (177), the Scillitan martyrs in Carthage (180), Felicity and Perpetua (203). Nonetheless, the persecutions were sporadic and local.

The first empire-wide persecution broke out in 249, when Emperor Decius tried to restore traditional values to the Roman state. He ordered that the annual Roman sacrifices be mandatory in various cities, and that prominent Christian leaders in those places be arrested and executed.

Local commissions were set up to enforce these decrees. Only Decius’s death in 251 cut short the serious threat to the church. The second big persecution was initiated by Valerius in 257. Initially, the decrees seemed to be motivated by a desire for church wealth, but a year later executions and cruel forms of punishment went beyond confiscations.

Valerius would condemn Christians to the mines, beat them with whips, and shave their heads as runaway slaves and criminals. Eventually, the Roman Empire backed away from its anti-Christian position, and the church began to go public.

After 40 years of relative calm, the empire under Diocletian returned to its hostility against the church. Diocletian’s major goal was to unify and rejuvenate the moribund empire, and the Christians were viewed as uncooperative.

For nine years (303–312) the government pursued a program against the Christians, banning all scriptures, tearing down churches, prohibiting meetings, and stripping Christians of legal rights. At first Diocletian did not kill Christians, for he did not want martyrs, but later his deputies carried out massive executions, especially in North Africa.

When Diocletian retired in 305, persecution died out in the West but continued in the East. Later, when paganism did not revive and Christianity only grew, grudging official acceptance of Christianity was given in 311–312. The empire had little to gain by crushing the church.