This began with a Person - Jesus Christ, Who was born during the reign of Augustus Caesar (Reign 27BC-AD14), also known as Gaius Octavianus, nephew of Julius Caesar. Read Luke 2:1.
From AD 14 to 37, Tiberius Caesar became Emperor of whom Jesus mentioned (Luke 3:1; 20:22-25).
The literal Church started with a crowd, when Peter preached at Pentecost. But partly because of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), the Hellenists and Hebrews' Christians began to dispute among themselves. Hebrews lived according to the Mosiac law while Hellenists were Jews who came out of the Dispersion (John 7:35; Acts 2:5-11) with greater acceptance of Greeks' ideas. The Hellenists were the first to be persecuted, by which Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 6:8-9).
Persecution During Roman Regime
In the year 64 during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero, fire broke out in Rome. For six days and nights the fire burned and the greater part of the city was laid in ashes. The rumor got around that Nero had caused the city to be set on fire and this aroused great hatred in the people of Rome against the emperor. In an attempt to turn this hatred away from himself, Nero accused the Christians of having set fire to Rome, and a terrible persecution followed.
Many Christians were crucified. Some were sewn up in skins of wild beasts, then big dogs were let loose upon them and they were torn to pieces. Women were tied to mad bulls and dragged to death. Christians were burnt at the stake in Nero's garden after nightfall. Roman people who hated the Christians were free to come into the garden while Nero drove around in the chariot to enjoy the horrible scene.
During the persecution of Nero, according to tradition, the apostle Peter suffered martyrdom by crucifixion with cross upside down, counting himself not worthy to die like Christ, while Paul suffered martyrdom by execution, being a Roman citizen. The slaughter of Christians at this time was confined to the city of Rome. It was not a general persecution throughout the whole of the Empire.
For the next one hundred years (from 68 to 161), there were no general persecutions, but in different parts of the Empire many Christians were put to death. Outstanding among the martyrs of that period were Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch; Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna; and Justin, the apologist who had boldly and very ably written in defence of the Christians.
Ignatius (67-110) was ordered by the emperor to be arrested and was sentenced to be thrown to the wild beasts in Rome. He was said to feel honored to be able to give his life for his Savior, saying, "May the wild beasts be eager to rush upon me. If they be unwilling, I will compel them. Come crowds of wild beasts; come, tearings and manglings, wracking of bones and hacking of limbs; come, cruel tortures of the devil; only let me attain unto Christ."
Polycarp (69-155) was the last one of those who had been personally taught by the apostles. He was arrested and brought into the amphitheater in Smyrna, which was filled with an immense multitude. Since there were no images of gods in the houses of Christians, the heathen rightly concluded that the Christians did not believe in the existence of the gods and so accused them of being atheists. The proconsul reminded Polycarp of his great age and urged him to show his penitence by joining in the cry, "Away with the atheists!" Polycarp did as told, but when he was told to revile Christ, he did not deny Christ and said he is a Christian. For that, he was burnt at the stake.
Justin Martyr (100-166) was a philosopher and was scourged and beheaded in Rome with six other Christians. In the face of death, he bore with joy the witness to the truth. His last words were: "We desire nothing more than to suffer for our Lord Jesus Christ; for this gives us salvation and joyfulness before His dreadful judgment seat ..."
During the reign of Domitian (81-96) as emperor, a similar local but less severe persecution took place. From Trajan (98) to the end of the reign of Antonimius Pius (160), Christianity was both in danger and under protection. Danger because it was exposed to persecution, and protected because Trajan forbade legal action on anonymous accusations. Hadrian forbade condemnation of Christians without evidence. Marcus Aurelius (160-180) was more aggressive and actively opposed Christianity, resulting in very severe persecution in Gaul (177).
Under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), the persecution became universal. In the year 303, Emperor Diocletian started a persecution which was continued by his successor Galerius until the year 311. The tortures which were inflicted upon Christians were gruesome and the persecutions were a determined and systematic attempt to uproot Christianity completely, to wipe the Church off the face of the earth. Cyprian and Origen died in this persecution. Cyprian was Bishop of Carthage from 248 to 258. Origen (184-254) was a pupil of Clement who was with the Apostle Paul in AD57.
From 180-250, Christianity remained an illegal religion, but little was done about it. The chief exception in this period of quiet was a severe persecution under the emperor, Septimius Severus in 202 and 203, mainly in Egypt and Carthage. Septimius forbade conversion of paganism to Christianity.
In 244-249, Philip the Arabian was named the first Christian Emperor. Under Decius (251) and Valerian (257-259), persecution was empire-wide. Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persians (260) and his son Gallerius cancelled the persecution. With this followed 43 years of peace.
Diocletian came into power and reigned as emperor from 284-305. He knew the difficulty of his task and understanding the situation, he decided that the empire should be divided into two parts: the West and the East. Each half was to be governed by an Augustus (that is, an emperor), who was assisted by a Caesar (future successor). Diocletian became Augustus of the East and Maximian, of the West. Galerius, Diocletian's son-in-law became his Caesar; Maximian's Caesar was Constantius, father of Constantine. Among the two Augustus, Diocletian remained supreme. Thus began the severest persecution yet ever known for ten years.
All Christians of upper classes would be deprived of official positions and privileges. Christians in the imperial court would become slaves unless they renounced Christianity. All Christians' clergy and Church officials were to be imprisoned. All imprisoned leaders must sacrifice to the gods or be mutilated by endless tortures. All Christians must sacrifice to the gods or face imprisonment or severer punishment.
Diocletian resigned the emperor's office in 305 as did Maximian in the West. Galerius succeeded Diocletian but fell seriously ill in 311. He died five days later after he ordered the persecutions to be stopped. His Caesar, Maximian, however reinstated the persecution, but after six months, due to political pressure and civil war, was forced into publishing an edict of toleration. He died three months later. Diocletian died a miserable death in December 316 with great loneliness and bitterness in spirit.
End of Persecution During Roman Regime
Constantine was born around 288. His father was Constantius Chlorus who in 293 became Caesar of Maximian, Augustus of the West. After Maximian and Diocletian abdicated, Constantius and Galerius took their places. Constantine was then held as a hostage in Galerius' court to guarantee Constantius' loyalty.
In 306, Constantius became ill and Constantine left Galerius' court without permission. At Constantius' death, Constantine was proclaimed his successor. In 307, Galerius made his friend and fellow soldier, Licinius the Augustus.
In 323, Constantine prepared for battle against Licinius. Constantine defeated Licinius and killed him a year later. With this conquest, he became the sole emperor and made Christianity the official religion of the empire.
Constantine and his mother, Stelena, led the way to more costly structures of the Church. By 400, there were forty large churches in the city of Rome alone. The masses that entered the church were pleased with the beauty and its ceremony that most did not understand the meaning of attending church. Constantine, in 321, decreed that Sunday be the official day of worship. This laid the basis for the universal recognition of Sunday as a day of rest.
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Kuiper, B K (1995). The Church in History. Wm B Eerdmans Publishing, Michigan.
Latourette, K S (1975). A History of Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.
Renwick, A M and D.Litt, D D (1966). The Story of the Church. Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London.
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