We recently completed looking at some of the leading Christian apologists of the 2nd century AD. We move now to apologists of the 3rd century.
The early Christians lived during the Roman Empire. We read about the impact of the Roman government on Jesus Christ, His apostles and other disciples throughout the writings of the New Testament. As Christianity spread across the world from the 1st through 3rd centuries, followers of Christ faced the challenges of paganism and a government that became increasingly oppositional to Christianity.
Christianity and the Empire
Christians, like other people who lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, had to deal with the decisions of emperors as well as local government leaders. Local opposition to Christianity was approved of by many emperors and their representatives. Some of the emperors persecuted Christians on an empire-wide basis.
The Roman historian Suetonius mentioned early Christians in his famous work, Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In the biography of Emperor Claudius, Suetonius wrote –
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” (Claudius 25, Edwards translation)
Claudius was emperor from 41-54 AD. The name “Chrestus” is believed by many scholars to be a reference to Christ and those who followed Him. Luke wrote about the event in Acts 18 –
“And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them.” Acts 18:2
Nero became emperor of Rome after Claudius and wrongfully blamed Christians for a large fire in Rome. Suetonius mentioned Nero’s treatment of Christians in Lives of the Twelve Caesars –
“Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” (Nero 16, Rolfe translation)
Roman historian and senator Tacitus also wrote about Nero’s persecution of Christians –
“Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. 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. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” The Annals of Tacitus, 15.44
The apostles Paul and Peter are believed to have been executed in Rome during Nero’s reign ( 64-68 AD).
Domitian was emperor from 81-96 AD. He believed strongly in the ancient religion of Rome, worshipping many gods, and reinstituting the Imperial Cult (state divinity of emperor). Domitian persecuted Jews and Christians (possibly to a lesser extent than the Jews).
Trajan ruled from 98-117 AD. He persecuted Jews and Christians. The Christian apologist and bishop Ignatius is believed to have been martyred during Trajan’s reign, along with many other Christians.
Marcus Aurelius was emperor from 161-180 AD and allowed anti-Christian literature to be written and distributed across the empire. Christians suffered persecution during his reign and many of them were martyred, including Justin Martyr. Irenaeus became the bishop of Lyons during this time because of the martyrdom of the local bishop.
Severus was hard on Christians, but it reportedly didn’t begin that way. He was emperor from 193-211 AD. Some members of Severus’ household were Christians and he entrusted his young son to a Christian nurse. However, Severus issued an edict in 202 that made converting to Christianity a criminal offense. What followed was a strong persecution of Christians until Severus’ death.
Maximinus was emperor from 235-238AD. Christian historian Eusebius wrote that a persecution against Christians during Maximinus’ reign led to the exile of some bishops.
[The period of 235-284 AD is known as the Crisis of the Third Century (Imperial Crisis) when the Roman Empire came close to collapse. The empire split into competing states. Emperor Aurelian ruled from 270-275 AD and was able to reunite the Roman Empire by defeating the Palmyrenes, Vandals, Visigoths and Gallics. Aurelian was hailed as ‘Restorer of the Word’ and demanded that he be called ‘master and god.’ ]
Decius was emperor from 249-251 AD. He signed an edict (law) ordering everyone in the Roman Empire to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the health and well-being of the emperor. This was the first legislation forcing Christians to choose between their faith in Christ and death. Some Christians chose death, but many performed the sacrificial ceremonies and received a certificate of sacrifice (libellus) from the local sacrificial commission. Possessing a libellus cleared Christians of suspicion by the Roman government. Other Christians fled and went into hiding. This caused a serious division in the 3rd century Church because of members who had apostatized by sacrificing to Roman gods rather than dying for their faith.
Valerian was emperor from 253-260 AD and continued the persecution against Christians. Many Church leaders were martyred (e.g. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage) during his reign including many members.
Diocletian ruled from 284-305 AD and pursued Christians with a vengeance toward the end of his reign (some historians believe at the urging of Galerius who was a member of the Tetrarchy). Diocletian purged the Roman Army of soldiers who were Christians and surrounded himself with people who opposed Christianity. The anti-Christian perspective eventually led to Diocletian’s and the Empire’s attempt to destroy Christianity, known historically as the Great Persecution. This persecution included the arrest of Christian leaders and members, the threat of death if Christians did not make a pagan sacrifice, the outlawing of Christian meetings, the destruction of buildings owned by Christians, and the surrender of all sacred writings for burning.
Galerius was emperor from 305-311 AD and intensified the persecution against Christians. He had a strong influence on Diocletian in the empire’s persecution of Christians and took that to another level after Diocletian’s death.
3rd Century Apologists
Here is a list of some of the Christian apologists we will read about during the upcoming parts of our study, A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists.
- Serapion of Antioch
- Ammonius of Alexandria
- Lucian of Antioch
- Dionysius of Alexandria
- Firmilian of Caesarea
- Cyprian of Carthage
- Cornelius of Rome
- Stephen of Rome
- Dionysius of Rome
- Theognostus of Alexandria
- Gregory Thaumaturgus
- Felix of Rome
- Victorinus of Pettau
- Methodius of Olympus
- Hesychius of Egypt
- Pierius of Alexandria
- Pamphilus of Caesarea
- Arnobius of Sicca
I want to remind us of something important that we’ve addressed before –
“Please keep this in mind as we continue to look at the writings of Christian apologists from the 2nd century to the present day. We must be careful not to be pulled into error because of human admiration. It is easy to become enamored with men and women we like and forget that our primary responsibility is to Jesus Christ. Our job is to represent the Truth of God without turning to the left or to the right. Even a small turning away from absolute biblical truth can be catastrophic. We must maintain a straight path as we present our “defense” for Christianity.”
Please join us next time as we look at A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists.