Hey guys! So in this episode, we’re going to get a birds-eye view of some early Christian history. We’re going to cover some key events between the end-ish of the New Testament up to about 300 AD. Let’s dive right in.
So, ‘previously, in Christianity: Christ organized His church, He atoned for our sins, He died and was resurrected, He finished organizing His church. Christ’s apostles preached the gospel and even as they were dying off, the Christian message continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire.’
Now, the ancient Romans were pagans, meaning they worshipped many gods. And in Roman government, there really was no separation between church and state like there is now. In fact, the Pontifex Maximus was a government position, often the emperor himself, which was responsible for regulating religion in the Empire, like a secretary of religion. Paganism was sponsored by the government, and Rome accepted gods from all over the empire into their pantheon of options.
But interestingly, none of those pagan gods offered salvation in the afterlife. Pagan gods were very concerned with the here and now. If you worshipped them and offered sacrifices, they’d bless you with rain or military success, etc. If you didn’t, there’d be a famine or a natural disaster, or other bad stuff. In fact, if the Romans lost a battle, sometimes they’d send investigators to that area to figure out which gods they weren’t worshipping, and then they’d add them to the pantheon.
The problem with the Christian God, however, was multifaceted. First of all, Christians believed that salvation came via their God alone, and all others were false gods. They refused to offer sacrifices to pagan gods and refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman Emperor, who was considered quasi-divine. So not only were they seen as unloyal to the Empire, but also the fact that they weren’t worshipping Roman gods was construed as dangerous because it might call down the wrath of those gods. So anytime something bad happened, this new religious cult was an easy target.
Early persecution consisted mainly of mob violence or persecution at the local government level. Christians had to worship in secret, while people publicly villainized them and spread rumors about their beliefs. The sacrament was portrayed as cannibalism. Since they met in secret and greeted one another “with a holy kiss,” they were portrayed as a scandalous sex cult—things like that.
Most scholars believe official government-sanctioned persecution began under the rule of Emperor Nero. So in about 64 AD, most of Rome was destroyed by a devastating fire. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, rumors were circulating that Nero himself had orchestrated the fire, so he, in turn, blamed the Christians and ordered that they be rounded up and killed. “Men in beasts’ skins were torn to death by dogs or attached to crosses or, at nightfall, lit as living torches.” It is believed that both Peter and Paul were killed in the purge.
It was not a good time to be a Christian, nor was it a good time to be a Jew. In 70 AD under Emperor Vespasian, Rome put down a rebellion in Jerusalem—destroying the temple and much of the city. But even though Christianity’s central hub in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the apostles were being picked off, the Christian religious zeal and promise of salvation kept the faith moving forward, and they continued to gain followers into the second century.
Persecution continued in varying degrees throughout this century under various Emperors. But this century is also noteworthy for the amount of new post-apostolic Christian literature that comes forth. Stuff from Ignatious, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and others.
And remember that Christianity was by far the minority religion at this time. As converts came into Christianity, of course they brought with them baggage from their previous faiths. And after the era of the traveling apostles came to an end, leadership of the church fell to local bishops.
Bishops in more metropolitan areas or in churches established by apostles generally had the most influence. For example, the bishop of Rome sometimes acted as a mediator when disagreements arose between other bishops, but the absolute authority of the bishop of Rome, later known as the Pope, was a concept that would continue to develop over many years.
Maintaining a unified set of beliefs across Christendom was a tough deal. There was internal debate about beliefs and quasi-Christian splinter groups had started to develop and would continue to appear into the third century.
In 260 AD, Emperor Gallienus issued a welcome edict allowing Christians to basically worship freely, and they enjoyed relative peace for more than 40 years. That ended in 303 AD when Emperor Diocletian issued multiple edicts commanding that Christian churches be destroyed, land seized, and books burned. He wanted Christians to revert back to traditional Roman paganism and things got bloody.
This is where we’re going to end this episode. But as we’ll see in the next episode, despite external persecution and internal division, Christianity, in one form or another was here to stay. There’s obviously a lot that we didn’t cover; feel free to fill in some of the blanks in the comments section or check out the links in the description for more info on this subject, and have a great day.
- The Great Fire of Rome: https://to.pbs.org/38oGnJQ
- Informational bit on early Christianity from History.com: http://bit.ly/2SFYpko
- Diocletian biography: http://bit.ly/3bx1Nq9
- Christianity and the Roman Empire (BBC): https://bbc.in/2Hj6vtP
- The Tenth Persecution, Under Diocletian (BibleStudyTools): http://bit.ly/2HjxC84
- More on the persecution under Diocletian: http://bit.ly/2SBafMy
- The problem of jurisdictional authority in the early church: http://bit.ly/2vGNW0j
- Papal supremacy developed over time? http://bit.ly/39Om1dm
- More on the development of papal supremacy: http://bit.ly/3bTRxbG
- Persecution in the Early Church: A Gallery of Persecuting Emperors: http://bit.ly/31QRIjn
If you prefer Latter-day Saint publications and early Christian history set more in terms of the Great Apostasy, you may enjoy the book, Apostasy from the Divine Church, by James L. Barker, or The Inevitable Apostasy And The Promised Restoration, by Tad R. Callister (2006).