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The Birth of the Christian Religion

Chapter VI


THE personal activities of Jesus brought him into collision with constituted Judaism as organized in Palestine under the Roman government. A like collision awaited the propaganda of Stephen in Jerusalem and the later propaganda of Peter and the two sons of Zebedee at the time of Agrippa I in the year 44. Paul in his turn had almost everywhere to undergo hostility from the rulers of the synagogues and, in many towns, an account to settle with the civil magistrates, until finally, caught between the Jewish Sanhedrim and the Roman procurator, he made his appeal to Caesar, an action on his part which brought the question of Christianity for the first time under the jurisdiction of the imperial law court. We have seen in what sense the first decision in the matter was given by that tribunal. That decision was the opening stage of a conflict, hardly foreseen at the time, which was to continue for two centuries and a half and to end in the triumph of the Christian religion. But the jurisprudence applied by the imperial tribunals to the Christian affair was not created by the trial of Paul; the fact to be noted here is that the era of what Christians are wont to style "the persecutions" properly began in the year 64. Our next task will be to define more precisely the position of Christianity under Roman law or, more strictly, under the empire as a political institution, and to ascertain the reasons which caused the empire to "persecute" the Christians. And since the empire not only "persecuted" Christianity, but attempted its suppression and extermination, it behoves us to find out why it did not succeed in either attempt.


A superficial reading of the passage from Tacitus quoted on a former page {Annals, xv, 44) might lead us to believe that the persecution under Nero had its origin in a personal caprice of the emperor. But Tacitus is at pains to inform us that the crime alleged against the persons arrested, so far as the mass of them 


was concerned, was far less that of setting Rome on fire than that of "hating the human race" — an accusation hardly in legal style and vague enough to the modern mind, but charged with precise meaning to the Roman historian and involving the highest political interests of the empire. For Tacitus, "the human race" meant the population of the Mediterranean world then in subjection to Rome.

It was a world organized by the conquering power of Rome; in her drive for domination a single city, the City, had taken possession of it piece by piece. Both City and world now owed obedience to the emperor in whom the power of the City over the world was incarnate. In the sphere of religion, the City not only had gods of its own who had shared with it in the conquest of the world and to whom it paid honour, but itself was also a divine personification and, mystically speaking, a divine personality. Here, then, were two divinities. In one sense the Genius of Rome was the supreme divinity of the empire; beside that divinity was the emperor, the Genius of the living emperor, his imperial personality; he, in practice, was the high god, holding the world in balance. The ancient empires of the East, to which Rome had succeeded, were founded on a like conception. All the gods of the conquered peoples, like the many other gods of Rome itself, continued to function under the shadow of the two protecting deities aforesaid, attending them as helpers, so to speak, but always helping them by a dutiful obedience.

Now there was one god who managed to escape from that duty, at least in principle. This was the god of a despised people, the god of the Jews. He claimed to be the only God. This god, we know, had never been the ruler of a great kingdom, but only of a petty province, and had moreover been conquered at almost regular intervals by all the great monarchs who held successive sway in the East until the arrival of conquerors from the West, who in turn overthrew them, and that with no great effort. But, notwithstanding these humiliations, this god of the lowest of the peoples put forth a claim to be the only god in existence and his worshippers, the Jews, believed him so to be. For them there was no other god but God. Not without some impatience did Rome and her emperor tolerate this insolent caprice of a god and a people so conspicuously remarkable for their own intolerance.


No symbol of the imperial cult found its way to Jerusalem; Caligula alone, who was mad, set about the introduction of his divine image into the Jewish temple, and would have provoked the bloodiest of all the Jewish revolts had not a timely death put an end to his antics. Things went no further than the offering in the temple of a sacrifice for the emperor on whom the Jewish god was supposed to bestow a blessing, but without the slightest recognition of him as a protector. The empire, reciprocally, was willing enough to recognize this outrageous deity of the Jews, but not for a moment would it accept his claim to the exclusive homage of all the world. In the eyes of the empire at large and the emperor in person, the public proclamation by open propaganda of this deity's intention to impose himself on both of them, to the detriment of all the other existing gods, Rome and Caesar included, would be highly offensive.

Thus it came to pass that when the attempt was made to set up the Jewish god as an effectively independent deity, and when the authority of Nero was challenged by the Jews, under the leadership of men who refused to recognize on earth any master but their God, both god and people at once became the objects of pitiless repression. This was repeated under Hadrian. Rome would not leave to God even the space occupied by his temple in Jerusalem, and did not. This notwithstanding, the Jews preserved the right to worship their god in private and after their own fashion, provided they abstained from propaganda against the gods of the empire and from recruiting proselytes turned into Jews by circumcision. On these terms the Jews were able to keep their religious rule of life, and their god was tolerated as a national deity, but always watched by the police for possible offences to the imperial religion. Rome would tolerate any god who was not intolerant to Rome.

In these conditions Christianity found itself in a position delicately balanced between opposing considerations, of which the mind of that age could neither grasp the meaning nor feel the weight. Although Christians claimed to have the same god as Jews, they were not Jews and had no wish to be, while the Jews on their part repudiated them for the good reason that Christians put themselves outside the Law and its observances. Whatever might be claimed for the god, the religion was not the same. And more,


as Christians were not Jews, neither were they another particular nation, side by side with the Jewish. They were only the worshippers of a highly jealous god, no less absolute in his sovereignty than the Jewish deity, having indeed only pretentions to that sovereignty, but unprovided with a nation of hereditary devotees, as were the Jews. This Christian god laid claim to the rule of the •whole world, refused to be written down in the catalogue of national divinities and announced his intention to dispossess them all, without delay and without mercy. He was no abstract and remote divinity, with theoretical rights of which the time for enforcement was indeterminate; he was a present god, demanding the prompt submission of all men and the denial, equally prompt, as false and wicked of all the gods to whom the imperial power extended its recognition. In the studied and cautious language put into the mouth of Paul for his discourse before the Areopagus the editor of Acts frames the matter thus:

"Passing by the times of ignorance, God now gives warning, to all men everywhere, to repent, because he has fixed the day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed to be judge, whereof he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead."

If the invitation to repent was declined by philosophers with ironical politeness, or greeted with laughter considered permissible in the circumstances, the politicians were quite unable to see the humour of the situation, and that mainly for two reasons: first, because Christian preaching was not carried on in the calm tones affected by the Areopagus discourse; second, because popular fanaticism allowed no leisure to constituted authority for pondering the philosophical bearings of propaganda subversive of all received ideas, at enmity with all the imperial divinities and intervening, with provocative condemnation, in all the forms of worship and superstition current in the pagan world. When the missionaries of Jesus set out on their errand, their purpose was not precisely that of announcing the end of the Mosaic Law and calling for obedience to a law purely moral (they annulled the Law de facto without rejecting it de jure and were not simply pleading for moral reform); what they announced was the speedy coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven, the overthrow of Satan and his kingdom, which meant nothing less


than the complete collapse of idolatry and final end of the idolatrous empire, and the Christ in place of the emperor. So they understood their errand and so their errand was understood by those to whom it was addressed. We can see at a glance why authority was disturbed, why Nero's judges put the same construction on the case of Paul as Pilate had put on the case of Jesus, and why public opinion in the pagan world long regarded the Christians as atheists and horrible examples of impiety and sacrilege. They were judged to be capable of the most abominable crimes, and not only capable, but guilty. And the public would have believed it even if the Jews had not made a contribution of their own to the libel, as the apologists of the second century accuse them of doing. But it was not upon Jewish information that Tacitus, speaking of Jesus and the Christians, based his epithets "disastrous superstition," "plague," "atrocity and shame." [1]

The first collective persecution of the Christians took place at Rome under Nero, towards the close of the year 64, very soon after sentence had been passed on Paul. The occasion was the fire which destroyed a great part of the imperial city. Beginning on July i9th it continued for six days and despite the efforts made to check it broke out again, when thought to be under control, and lasted for three days more — an event of ample scope to give free play to the imagination. When at last the calamity came to an end and the first and most urgent remedies had been applied, and the gods placated, as was fitting, by solemn propitiations, the hunt for the guilty was taken up in earnest. Pure chance may well have been the chief criminal, some common accident occurring under conditions favourable to the spread of fire. But in all such cases it is the way of the populace to seek for causes proportioned to the magnitude of the disaster; to account for a conflagration so monstrous incendiaries must have been at work whose criminal capacities were out of the ordinary. If Tacitus is to be believed, public rumour fixed on no less a person than Nero, who thereupon sought to clear himself by accusing the Christians: "ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis afficit quos per flagitia invisos vulgus christianos appellabat." Perhaps Nero had no need to invent this calumny, his friends merely taking advantage of


a tale already in circulation, by way of deflecting from his person a charge which, it is permissible to think, he had not deserved.

According to Tacitus the first victims seized were some persons "who confessed." But what did they confess and under what conditions? The question will long be discussed whether they confessed to incendiary acts or merely to being Christians. [2] It may well be that the last offence was held to involve the first, the Christians being judged in advance as the worst of criminals. Remembering, moreover, the expectations and hopes by which every Christian was animated, is it not likely that many of them, as they watched the naming city, must have thought that the end of Satan's reign was at last coming and the punishment of the wicked actually begun? To explain the accusation against them we have no need to suppose that a few were mad enough to lend a helping hand to the judgment of God. [3] But not for them was the horror, the panic, the desolation of the Roman populace; some perhaps were caught in the act of expressing their joy. Such being their general attitude, there is no need to go further in seeking the origin of a calumny which must have seemed a probable truth to those who first gave it utterance and found ready belief among the masses. It is not true, however, as Duchesne asserts (i, 64) that Tacitus allows us "to see that nobody attributed the fire to the Christians." Preferring, for his own part, the hypothesis of Nero's guilt, and insinuating it as the true explanation, Tacitus confines himself to saying that the motive of the condemnation, as it fell on the mass of the condemned, was not their supposed incendiarism but "hatred of the human race." The people, he remarks, at length took compassion on the victims "although they had deserved the extremity of punishment," the ingenuity displayed in varying the modes of execution having made it apparent that they were rather designed to satisfy the cruel instincts of him who ordered them than to meet the lawful demands of public anger: "Unde, quanquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla. meritos, miseratio oriebatur, tanquam non utilitate publica, sed in saevitiam unius absumerenter." Thus it would appear that common opinion, fully shared by Tacitus, approved prosecution and the death penalty as justly due to the Christians, although the majority


of them were not chargeable with the burning of Rome and do not seem to have been charged.

The last of the accused, like the first, were condemned as criminals under the common law without the need arising to create ad hoc legislation against the new religion. Tertullian himself asserts that the precedent of Nero determined the judicial position for his successors without further difficulty (Ad Nationes, i, 7). The correspondence of Pliny and Trajan in the year in does not presuppose the existence of a law directed against Christians in particular; it merely implies the point of view, a natural and spontaneous product of established institutions and customs, that the profession of Christianity was, by itself, a crime to be punished by death. No edict proscribing the Christians was issued under Nero; but on the occasion of the fire there took place at Rome a hunt for Christians which led to a great number of them being done to death. There are no grounds for thinking that a general persecution was then set on foot, but we can well believe that both then and later popular ill will in various places caused many a Christian to perish, however little the Roman magistrates, from good nature or policy, were inclined to take part in their destruction. The principle non licet Christianos esse, though never formally inscribed on the statute book, was in the air and governed the practice of the court whenever a Christian was put on his trial.

The multitude of martyrs who perished at Rome in the year 64 left no names behind them; for us they are anonymous. Taken by surprise, and doubtless thrown into utter confusion, the Christian community was in no shape to draw up a prompt balance sheet of its losses. Moreover, at this early date it were better to speak of Christian groups than of a single organized community. The victims, at the mercy of chance denunciation, increased in number from day to day, but there was no governing body to register their names and construct a martyrology. The Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (5-6) speaks of these victims, but only by allusion and in terms more vague in substance, if not more general, than those used by Tacitus. In this document we find the leading place among the martyrs of 64 already assigned, it would seem, to Peter and Paul, presented as the two great founders of the Roman church, Peter, as the


presumed founder of the Roman episcopate, being given precedence to Paul. If the letter of Clement was composed at Rome only some thirty years after their martyrdom it is surely matter for astonishment that the references it makes to the two apostles contain not a single informative detail as to the circumstances under which they met their death. We are inclined to think that the author knew hardly more about Peter and Paul, except the bare fact of their martyrdom, than anyone may read for himself in Acts and Second Corinthians. Although legendary tradition seems to place the death of Paul at the end of the persecution of 64, and liturgical tradition leaves us to suppose that both apostles died on the same day, [4] the probability, as we have pointed out above, is that Paul perished some time before the persecution.

The fate of Peter is far more obscure than that of Paul. Of Paul we know fairly well both the time and the circumstances of his coming to Rome. Of Peter's coming to the city we know nothing. The chief argument in support of the Roman tradition that Peter came to Rome and perished there is that no other tradition and no evidence of any kind in Christian antiquity can be found to contradict it. This argument, though not absolutely decisive, is not without weight. True it is that Ephesus, during the pascal controversy, could make claim to the apostle John without meeting a protest, and Rome might well have made an equally unfounded claim to Peter without encountering opposition; but there is a difference; ancient Christian documents give the critic ground for contesting the pretension of Ephesus to John, but contain nothing to authorize an off-hand denial of the pretention of Rome to Peter. On the other hand, direct evidence as to Peter's fate is neither very old nor very precise. From the Epistle to the Romans (especially xv, 17-23) we may deduce, at least with some probability, that Peter was not then in Rome and could not have been there up to the time when the Epistle was written. We learn from the Epistle to the Galatians (ii, n) that Peter arrived in Antioch in the year 44 or a little later; [5] but the Book of Acts which records his departure from Jerusalem at that date says not a word of what happened to him afterwards. But the editor of this book, who may well have had a motive for saying nothing about Peter going to Antioch,


had seemingly no motive for keeping silence about his being in Rome when Paul was there, and would presumably have mentioned it if precise information had been in his hands about a ministry carried on by Peter in Rome before the conclusion of Paul's trial. [6] We have just seen the contribution made to the subject by the letter of Clement; it amounts to a probability in favour of Peter's martyrdom in Rome. The letter of Ignatius to the Romans seems to regard Peter and Paul together as Apostles of Rome; [7] but this letter, if later than 150, adds nothing to Clement's testimony or to the more recent Dionysius of Corinth. [8] The name "Babylon" in First Peter is probably intended for Rome as the place from which the Epistle was written, [9] but the Epistle is not authentic and this trait, while proving the relative antiquity of the Roman tradition, brings us little nearer to the time in question than Clement does. The same holds true of the allusion to Peter's martyrdom in the last chapter of the fourth Gospel and in the Apocalypse of Peter.[10] The Epistle to the Hebrews (xiii, 7), if we may take it as addressed to the Roman Christians, vaguely attests the same tradition as Clement, but at an earlier date. We conclude, then, that the Roman tradition has an old, firm but rather narrow and bare foundation in traditional reminiscence. Peter had been in Rome for some time, beginning perhaps at a date just before the death of Paul, when he became engulfed in the multitude ingens which Nero so cruelly put to death. The survivors of the slaughter may well have known but little of the circumstances of his death. Whether the tradition concerning the place of his burial is exact or conjectural is a question of very little import to the history of the Christian religion. [11]


Roman Christianity was not entirely destroyed in the year 64 and even if it had been would not have been slow to form again, as it was formed before, by the influx of believers coming in from outside regions to carry on their propaganda and increase the number of adherents in the city, as it had done from the first. But there seems to have been no solution of continuity. The action of Nero did no more than create a temporary arrest and


great disturbance in the process of its growth. Soon enough, under the Flavian Emperors, it was destined to win back its first importance. By the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple in the year 70, Christianity lost its original centre and, we may add, its point of attachment to Judaism. The community of old believers in Jerusalem had been scattered abroad before the date of the siege and continued to exist only in a few small groups in the North of Palestine and beyond the Jordan. [12] The time was not far distant when the capital of the Roman Empire would become in fact, and then proclaim itself by right, the metropolis of the Christian world. But that great development had its own dangers.

Though fanatical Judaism had been suppressed in the year 70, but not completely extinguished — for the fire smouldered under the ashes till the time of Trajan and Hadrian — and though moderate Judaism, represented at Rome by persons in credit with the Emperors, retained its legal status, the position of Christianity in presence of Roman law was not thereby made any clearer. Speaking more exactly, it cleared up to the detriment of Christianity in proportion as the new religion became completely independent of Judaism and was recognized as independent by the Roman authorities. The Jews were not likely to countenance any confusion of the two religions, and the efforts of the Christians to acquire parity of treatment by the law were all in vain. They profited only by the favour shown to Jewish monotheism in certain circles of Roman society, and these not the least considerable.

The "foreign superstition" of which Pomponia Graecina, a Roman lady, was accused in the time of Nero (Tacitus, Annals, xiii, 32) and for which she was pardoned by her husband who, as head of the family, claimed the right to judge her, was probably the Christian religion. There were clearer cases under Domitian. Acilius Glabrio, consul in 91, is a probable case; that of Flavius Clemens, consul in 95, is certain. [13] According to Dio Cassius, Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla "were accused of atheism, an accusation which in those days made victims of many among the followers of Jewish morals." Domitian's financial policy may well have led him, not quite without intention, to confuse the Christians with the Jews, and so make the most of the fiscus


judaicus by treating as adherents of Judaism all who adopted Jewish morals, even though uncircumcised. It should be noted, however, that what we have now to do with are the legal trials, few or many, of individuals accused of Christianity and ending in the death penalty or confiscation of goods. Clemens was executed; but this did not prevent Domitian keeping the two sons of Clemens near his person and having them educated, as his presumptive heirs, by Quintilian the rhetorician. No doubt political considerations had their part in the affair of Clemens whose uncommon "incapacity," contemptissimae inertiae, attested by Suetonius, may have been partly the result of his preoccupation with a mystical religion. Before that, Flavius Sabinus, father of Clemens, brother of Vespasian, and prefect of Rome under Nero, was reputed a man of very gentle disposition whom some, in his old age, had accused of weakness, though the worst to be said of him was "a man of moderation and sparing of the blood of his fellow citizens" (Tacitus, History, iii, 65-75). There is an affinity between the temper of this family and the spirit of the Christian religion.

An idea of the legal position of Christianity at the beginning of the second century can be derived from the correspondence between Pliny the Younger, who was legate in Bithynia in 111-112 (or 112-113), and the emperor Trajan about the procedure to be followed when Christians were on trial for the offence of their religion. We learn in the first place that this Roman magistrate, up to the time of his assuming office, had never taken part in the trials of Christians. "Cognitionibus de Christianis interfui nunquam; ideo nescio, quid et quatenus aut puniri soleat aut quaeri." All Pliny knows is that the profession of Christianity is punishable by death, but he is ignorant how the charge should be defined in judicial practice, which he had been obliged to define for himself, as best he could, according to his sense of justice, in the numerous cases when denounced Christians had been brought into his court. Neither he nor the clerks of the court knew of anything in the statute book to guide them in the course to follow in such affairs. In his answer Trajan shows that he knew no more than they did and gives no positive instructions, contenting himself with an


approval of the procedure discreetly recommended by Pliny in his own letter.

This letter reveals that, to begin with, certain denunciations had been brought before the court which Pliny had dealt with as follows: a threefold interrogation of the denounced persons under threat of the death penalty if the Christianity of which they were accused were not denied; execution of those who admitted the charge and persisted, unless they had the status of Roman citizens; remand to the imperial tribunal of those who had that status. It seems clear that renegades were pardoned and set free without further formality. The ground assigned by Pliny for the condemnation of the others is their obstinacy, a seemingly insufficient offence, since mere stubbornness is not itself a capital crime. All the same it was the best reason Pliny could assign for passing sentence on the Christian "Name" — setting aside the crimes attributed to the Christians by popular rumour, of which crimes he, for his part, was inclined to think them innocent. It must not be overlooked, however, that he considered himself to be legally empowered to require the accused to offer sacrifice to the gods and to the image of Caesar, and regarded an obstinate refusal as a kind of rebellion. On the other hand, he judged the religion, on which the refusal was based, to be an extraordinary superstition, but harmless enough in itself. In all of which we discern the mind of an experienced politician.

The first trials led on to others, and a multitude of denunciations came out in an unsigned document containing a long list of names. Though the charges were not in regular form, Pliny, at this further development, proceeded with greater severity than before, probably because his Council had found him too lenient in the earlier trials. Some of the persons named in the list declared they were not Christians and never had been; if these made no difficulty about invoking the gods and doing homage to their images and to the emperor's, by libation of wines and burning of incense, and finally by cursing the Christ (all flatly refused, we are told, by true Christians), their cases were dismissed. Others confessed to being Christians, but were induced to repudiate Christianity under threat of the death penalty for persisting; there were also some who said they had


been Christians, but were so no longer, having given up the religion three years ago, or even twenty years ago: all these consented to perform the same acts as those who declared they had never been Christians. This notwithstanding, Pliny would not let them go scot free, but kept them prisoners pending the arrival of the emperor's instructions, doubtless because his counsellors had again advised him to hesitate before taking the apostasy of these people as proof of their innocence. Meanwhile he continued the inquisition, of which the results up to date are here passed on to Trajan.

All these renegades or apostates from Christianity emphatically affirmed that they had committed no offence or misdemeanour beyond meeting habitually on a fixed day before the dawn (ante lucem) for the purpose of singing together a hymn to the Christ, as to a god, and that the oath [14] they had taken as Christians, far from pledging them to commit crime of any kind, pledged them not to commit theft, brigandage, adultery, betrayal of trust or appropriation of trust-money. They alleged further that after singing their hymn, they gathered together for an innocent meal in common, and that they had discontinued even this since the legate had promulgated Trajan's decree against associations. [15] Clearly these people were regarded by Pliny as harmless enough. From the reports submitted to him he had formed an idea of their Christ identical with that of Tacitus; it was that the Christians in their meetings celebrated as a god the man who had founded their sect, and this founder he knew, as Tacitus did, under his surname of Christ.

It is to be noted from the above that one effect of the imperial edicts in Bithynia had been to change the custom of the Supper, which was no longer kept in the evening as an ordinary evening meal, but in the early morning. That it was completely suppressed is hardly probable.

A last feature to be noted in the correspondence concerns the interior economy of the congregations. To obtain fuller information on all these points Pliny caused two women employed in serving at the meetings, and having the title of "deaconess" proper to that employment, to be questioned under torture. It is clear that these women did not abjure the Christ; but the legate was able to learn nothing more from them than the rene-


gades had already told him, unless it were the perversity and extravagance of their superstition, "superstitiam pravam, immodicam" — which we may understand as referring to the fanatical stubbornness of the women in their intolerant and absurd belief. The legate says nothing to indicate the existence of any priestly organization, though doubtless the Christian groups in Bithynia had their elders and deacons. We need hardly ask how Pliny finished with the obstinate deaconesses: he had them put to death in common with all the other persons denounced in the list who confessed to being Christians and did not apostatize.

He had no desire, however, to multiply these executions and his writing to the emperor was an attempt to induce him to lay down a policy of moderation. The fact plainly is that the number of people denounced was too great for prosecution to be desirable, especially if punishment had to be inflicted on the renegades who had apostatized under threat as well as on those who had abandoned Christianity of their own accord after practising it for some time; they included persons of both sexes, of all ages, of every condition, and were found in the country districts as well as in the towns. A moderated system of repression, says Pliny, had already produced good results: the congregations which had abandoned the temples of the gods, are now beginning to come back; there is better attendance at the festivals and a better sale for the sacrificial meats. Clearly the contagion has been checked, and there will be no great difficulty in recovering the deluded masses if pardon be granted them on repenting of their folly. "Visa est enim mihi res digna consultatione, maxime propter periclitantium numerum. Multi enim omnis aetatis, omnis ordinis, utriusque sexus etiam vocantur in periculum et vocabuntur. Neque civitates tantum, sed vicos etiam atque agros superstitionis istius contagio pervagata est: quae videtur sisti et corrigi posse. Certe satis constat prope jam desolata templa ccepisse celebrari, et sacra sollemnia diu intermissa repeti pastumque venire victimarum, cujus adhuc rarissimus emptor inveniebatur. Ex quo facile est opinari, quae turba hominum emendari possit, si sit paenitentiae locus."

In all this Pliny may well have been under some illusion as to the efficacy of his tactics. But he was a philosopliical magistrate, sincere and goodhearted, whose pity for the Christians was


greater than his hatred of Christianity, a man who regarded persecution to the last extremity as hardly less absurd than the extremes of Christian fanaticism. So, with a pretty clear notion of what answer he would get, he decided to bring the following questions in plain terms before Trajan:

(1) Whether in the trial of Christians, account should be taken of the tender age of children who might be denounced.

(2) Whether a person who has been a Christian, but is so no longer, is not entitled to pardon.

(3) Whether the mere profession of the Christian name is a punishable offence without other proof of criminality or with only such proof as was given by common opinion of the crimes attributed to the name. [16]

These questions Pliny places at the head of his letter, the whole of which is framed in a manner likely to suggest the answers he considered suitable. Trajan approves what Pliny has done. The problem is complicated and the particular differences make it impossible to apply a uniform rule. There must be no hunting down of Christians, as though the intention of the government were to make an end of them at a blow. When denounced and convicted they are to be punished, and about that there are to be no half measures; the punishment will be death. Christians who recant must be pardoned subject to the conditions observed by Pliny in the judgments given first. And that is all. Trajan evades the distinction Pliny had proposed between the crime of adopting the Name and the crimes connected with the Name in the opinion of the public. Pliny inclines to pardon those accused of the Name but not of the crimes: Trajan answers as though, like Tacitus, he regarded the Name and the crimes as really inseparable. But he fails to see that in letting renegades go scot free he is either pardoning criminals or .contradicting himself. Of the two correspondents Pliny was the more humane and the more sagacious; Trajan was the more astute politician, his treatment of the affair revealing a mentality of mediocre good sense conformed to the popular opinion of his time. Obstinacy, in his view, is a real crime. If he understood Pliny's meaning he may have said to himself that popular opinion, after all, was not very far wrong in regarding the Christians as criminals and that these people, even if innocent of the ritual and other abominations


charged against them, lived, thought and laboured in ways opposed to Roman law and order. Some political reason it must have been that induced Trajan to pass over without notice Pliny's distinction between the Name and criminality, or that referring to the age of the accused in which Pliny had shown himself inclined to confine conviction to responsible adults. (In fact women were often condemned and adolescents occasionally.) Had he not said, moreover, that a few examples would be enough to bring back the mass of Christians into the common road of fidelity to the gods? On the other hand might we not say that Trajan shows himself a man of greater moderation than Pliny by forbidding him to receive anonymous denunciations? "Sine auctore vero propositi libelli in nullo crimine locum habere debent. Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est."

We cannot but believe that both Pliny and Trajan did their best in their respective positions, but that the problem was one of those which go beyond the ordinary reach, always relative, of the human mind. How is it possible, without provoking violence and revolution, to reconcile an established social order, which seems to satisfy the demands of reason, with the consummate folly of a movement which aims at setting up a new and better order for mankind? In cases of this kind the road into the future has its course marked out not by men, but by events; and it is a road that has no ending.

The rescript of Hadrian to Minutius Fundamus {Eusehius, iv, 9) is on the same lines as Trajan's letter to Pliny. The emperor's instructions are that punishment is not to be inflicted on Christians in response to popular clamour; their trials are to be conducted in legal form on the strength of accusations drawn up according to the rules, the exact observance of which the judge will see to. If the accusation is unfounded, the informer is to be punished. But if the accusation is proved, if the accused confesses and declares his intention to remain a Christian, he is none the less to be sentenced and put to death.

With the measures prescribed by Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus, [17] goodwill towards Christians had nothing to do; the real motive was regard for public order, for moderation, for sound policy. Not for a moment did the idea of protecting Christianity enter their minds; their aim was to keep it in check


and repress it with the minimum of violence. So far was this from providing Christians with security, that the right to be Christians was always denied them. They were continually at the mercy of denunciation, of popular passion, of the hostility by which a magistrate, municipal or imperial, might chance to be animated.

Was there any sign of response from the Christian side to this relative appeasement? Was no effort made to mute the strings of that "hatred of the human race" which Tacitus pretends to have been proved against the martyrs of 64? It now behoves us to attempt an answer to these questions.

We search the Book of Revelation in vain for the faintest sign of mitigated hatred. This book reflects the mentality of the Christians in Asia, at least of their notables, of those whose part it was to animate and sustain the faith of the others. Not only did the author live in hourly expectation of the Second Coming; he lived also in the atmosphere of martyrdom, and dreams only of persecution and death. At the time of his writing few were being made martyrs on the earth, but a considerable number had already arrived in heaven and the immediate future was to be a time of trial for every believer still alive. The prophet comes little short of counting all the saints as martyrs and seems to believe that every true Christian will come to a violent end. He beholds in heaven a multitude of souls supplicating the Eternal to take vengeance on their persecutors. "And a white robe" — their glorified body — "was given to every one of them, and they were bidden to hold their peace a little longer until their fellow servants and their brethren had all been slain, as themselves had been" (Rev. vi, 11). In his vision of triumph, those who have been marked on earth with the seal of the living God, and now stand before God's throne and before the Lamb, are all in one class: they are "those who have come through the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. vii, 14; xx, 4). But we have only to read attentively the letters to the seven congregations which introduce the great revelation (ii-iii) to satisfy ourselves that all the believers of that time were not quite in harmony with the grand diapason of the author's words; he bemoans and chides the lukewarm, puts it on record that fervour is declining in many


quarters and foresees a time of positive defection. It would seem that Pliny's repressive action in Bithynia had produced as many renegades as martyrs, if not more. But the spirit of the Church was not in the renegades. It was incarnate in those of whom Pliny says that nothing could stir them from their outrageous superstition. These were the martyrs and their prophet was John.

John and his martyrs are not among Rome's well-wishers. They are preoccupied with the prospect other coming overthrow. From end to end the Apocalypse is filled with the recital of calamities about to overwhelm the pagan world, persecutor of the children of God. Rome is the abominable Beast whom the Dragon has raised up against God, Christ and his faithful ones. It is Satan who makes men worship the Beast and his image, and compels all the Beast's worshippers to bear his mark. Inasmuch as the Beast is Rome he is also the Emperor of Rome; his image, which all must worship, is the image of Caesar (xiii, 16-17) — and let us not forget how Pliny compelled the renegades to burn incense in its honour. But here are the angels to proclaim the end of the empire and vengeance on idolaters. One cries out: "She is fallen, she is fallen, Babylon the great, who made all nations drunk with the wine of fury and of her shamelessness" (xiv, 8). Another makes proclamation: "If anyone worships the Beast and his image and bear the Beast's mark on his forehead, or even on his hand, he too shall drink wine of fury, the fury of God, which is poured out without mixture in the cup of his wrath: he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb, and the smoke of his torment shall go up for ever and ever" (xiv, 9-11). And then a word of warning to the renegades; for them, as for the idolaters, eternal death is in store. Finally (xvii-xviii) our author describes with relish the punishment of the Great Harlot, before passing on to the triumph of the Christ and his saints.

We look in vain for documents of the same period inspired by a less fiery zeal for the annihilation of Rome and her empire. Unfortunately the New Testament books which evince some degree of respect for established order and constituted authority are of uncertain date. If the Epistle to the Romans were the


authentic work of Paul in all its parts he could be cited as having taught the faithful in Rome to reverence the temporal powers and render them sincere obedience as instituted by God, as all authority is, for the protection of the good and the punishment of the wicked.18 But this wise instruction is a late addition which can hardly be as early as the first century. The same must be said of the First Epistle of Peter where the same lesson is given in analogous terms (ii, 13-17) with a commentary which suggests a date near the time of Pliny. In effect the author insists not only that Christians are under strict obligation to be irreproachable in their conduct, but also that the calumnies now pursuing them make such conduct both necessary and expedient. From his own point of view he draws the same distinction as Pliny does between the "name" Christian and the crimes attached to it by common opinion. "If ye are insulted for the name of Christ, happy are ye! That any one of you should suffer as a murderer, a thief, a rogue or as guilty of sedition, must not be. But if he suffers for being a Christian, let him not be ashamed of that, but let him thank God for it. For this is the time when judgment begins in the household of God; and if it begins with us what will be the fate of those who reject his Gospel" (ii, 14-17). A day is coming, then, when punishment, as foretold by the author of Revelation, will fall on the unbelievers. Meanwhile, let the Christian govern his conduct in loyalty to the powers that be, even though they persecute him.

The First to Timothy goes further: "Before all else I lay it upon you to make supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings for all men; for kings" — meaning emperors — "and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in piety and honour, which is a good and acceptable thing in the eyes of God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (ii, 1-4). Here was a believer with a mind wholly set on peace, whose hopes were centred on the conversion rather than the destruction of the Roman empire. In like manner, Clement, concluding the long prayer inserted at the end of his Epistle, calls down all the blessings of heaven on the bearers of the imperial mandate, to the end that their power may be used according to the will of God {Corinthians 61). We may conclude that by the age of the


Antonines the Christian mind had turned definitely towards appeasement.

Need it be added that the Gospels and Acts are in a current of feeling less embittered and more deferential to Roman authority? Pilate, when confronted by Jesus, is represented by the Gospels in an attitude identical with that of Pliny toward the Christians in his province. His goodwill for the Christ, suggested in the drawing of the scene, is intended not only to remove all suspicion of rebellion against the empire from the presumed founder of Christianity; it is introduced for the further reason that some Roman magistrates were by the time the story was told adopting a policy of moderation in dealing with the Christians, in spite of the fact that official jurisprudence, supported by popular fanaticism, required their condemnation to death. The belief, thus indicated, that moderation was on the increase, cannot have risen in the Christian mind at the time when it was under the impression of the frightful experience of the year 64, nor while Christians were suffering the hardships imposed by Domitian. It belongs to a period later than the reign of Domitian (81-96) when Roman policy had consciously and of set purpose adopted the rule of go-slow in its persecution of the Christians. The saying attributed to Jesus about tribute owed to Caesar was intended, by whoever conceived it, to put Christians on a higher plane than Jewish zealots; it may have been invented at an early date among the Jewish Christians of Palestine who had not joined the Zealots in their great revolt. But the birth of the fiction cannot be confidently dated and may be no earlier than the period when the Jerusalem ministry of Jesus was systematically arranged in the common tradition of the Synoptics.

The apologetic of Acts is constructed in the same spirit as the passages from the Epistles cited above: constituted authority — with the exception of the Jewish — is always shown as either indifferent or benevolent to the cause of Christianity, nor does the editor despair of a coming time when Christian propaganda, represented by him as ever respectful to the Roman government, will be tolerated, as Judaism actually is; while the discourse to the Areopagus goes so far as to hint that pagans, without their knowing it, may be worshipping the same God as the Christians. The apologists of the second century adopt the same conciliatory


attitude, though the regime of persecution has not been abandoned either in theory or practice, and they themselves are under its threat.


The popular dislike, in some respects profoundly unjust, which had fallen on the Christian religion and the strange jurisprudence which condemned Christians to death by approving suspicions which made them guilty of crimes of which they knew they were innocent, was bound to raise up apologists as soon as Christianity could produce men of sufficient capacity to put the case before the reading public and explain the extraordinary position in which Christians were placed by the joint action of common opinion and public authority. On the other side the reading public in general and the philosophers in particular began to take an interest in Christianity, but without the least sign of goodwill. Justin, the apologist of whom we shall soon have to speak, had at his elbow a Cynic philosopher named Crescens who was out for Justin's head and eventually got it; Fronto, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius, accused the Christians, in a published writing, of practising the rites of Thyestes; and Celsus was soon to come forward between 170 and 180, with an almost scientific refutation of the new religion, ending, however, by proposals for a sort of compromise with Christianity.

Of the apology presented to the emperor Hadrian by a certain Quadratus we know next to nothing. The moderate policy of the emperors evidently encouraged the Christians in efforts to gain acceptance for their claims. Quadratus, who lived in Asia, seems to have been a Christian prophet. The most remarkable feature of his apology, retained by Eusebius (iv, 3), [19] is the mention of persons raised from the dead by Jesus, of whom some were said to be still alive in the time of the apologist. As the evangelical tradition has no knowledge of these numerous resurrections, we must conclude that Quadratus was either exaggerating or that his only knowledge of the raised persons came to him in a vision. The proceeding of Quadratus had been prompted by vexations inflicted on the Christians in his part of the world.

The apology of Aristides, an Athenian philosopher, was


addressed to the emperor Antoninus [20] in the early years of his reign (before 147). The author, after presenting the neoplatonic idea of God as the Christian idea — which reminds us of the discourse to the Areopagus — gives summary refutation to the chief forms of polytheism, and then discusses Judaism, true in theology and ethics but a cult of angels; [21] finally he expounds the Christian faith and way of life. Christians, he says, acknowledge one God and one only, creator of the world, and they obey his commandments while waiting for the age to come in which they will see the Christ and receive the fulfilment of his promises. The description of Christian morals has a close affinity with the moral part of the Didache and with what Pliny's letter tells of the declarations made by the Christians; evidently the basis of it all is some catechism widely used in those times. But of Christology there is virtually nothing, unless we count as Christology the statement that the precepts of God are the precepts of the Christ, that Christians are willing to suffer all things for his name and their supreme hope is that of seeing him. The dominant purpose of the author is to present Christianity as a lofty religious philosophy, imposing irreproachable conduct on its adepts; this last point receiving particular attention in view of the current calumnies. The attenuated eschatology may betoken deliberate avoidance of a dangerous subject; but it may equally result from the fact that by this time expectation of the Second Coming had considerably cooled down and the attention of believers become more concentrated on the needs and duties of the present life.

It was to Antoninus also that Justin, about the year 152, addressed his Apology. He, too, professed to be a philosopher, "going about," as Duchesne describes him, "from city to city, dressed in his short cloak, and bearing the message of an independent thinker." [22] He was born at Neapolis in the country of the Samaritans. Never a great philosopher, he knew the different schools, notably that of the Platonists, but he was a troubled soul on whom the constancy of the Christian martyrs, of which he has been sometimes a witness, had made a deep impression. Becoming instructed in Christianity he adopted it about the year 133, probably at Ephesus, where about 135 he had a debate with the Jewish doctor Trypho. Thence he came to Rome and


seems to have remained there a considerable time. He continued to wear the garb peculiar to the philosophers and to practise their manner of walking, discoursing in public on Christian doctrine and presenting it as a philosophy, or speculation of wise men, on the meaning and purpose of life, as were the other philosophies of that time, some more or less coloured by mysticism. Many writings came from his pen, not only in defence of Christians' faith against pagans, but also against gnostic heresies then swarming within the fold, and notably against Marcion. At Rome he had a public debate with Crescens, a Cynic philosopher who, like most of the philosophers of the time, was hot against the Christians. Crescens, however, knew very little about them and having the worst of it in the debate, he tried to get his adversary judicially condemned; whereupon, Justin quitted Rome, to return a little later under Marcus Aurelius. He resumed his teaching, was arrested with other Christians, tried and put to death.

With the freedom proper to the philosopher, Justin, in his Apology, presents his plea to Antoninus, the "pious" emperor; to his adopted sons, Marcus Aurelius, the "philosopher," and Lucius Verus, to the Senate and the entire Roman people. It is a plea "on behalf of men of every race who are hated and persecuted, himself, Justin, being one of them" (i Apology, i). Men such as those for whom he is appealing, "truly pious men and philosophers," ought not to be judged by preconceived opinion but by reality. Christians should not be condemned, except for proved crimes (if they have committed them) and not for a mere name which, by itself, proves nothing for or against those who bear it (2-4). Justin admits that some sects claiming to be Christian may not be quite irreproachable: all the more reason to make inquisition only for crimes and not to condemn a name honourably borne by the majority [23] of its bearers (5). Certainly the allegation is true that Christians worship God only and no idols, and look upon sacrifices as futile; they know very well that idolatry was the work of "evil spirits who had appeared in olden time." [24] Socrates denounced it, and the demons had him put to death as an atheist and a man of impiety; and now they are treating Christians in the same way, because the Logos, who spoke by the mouth of Socrates, "become man and named Jesus-


Christ," has revealed the truth to the barbarians. So far as these false gods are concerned the Christians are atheists; but they worship and reverence the true God, His Son Jesus-Christ, whom He has sent, and "the host of other good angels who resemble him and follow in his train." [25] "When you hear it said that we await a kingdom, rightly you suppose that we mean a human kingdom; but it is of God's Kingdom that we speak, a kingdom in the life that is eternal, persuaded that God will render to every man according to his works; moreover it is the Christians' belief in this coming judgment that makes them, "of all men, the greatest lovers of peace." If all the world were penetrated by a belief so salutary, not a single wicked man would remain in existence. "In truth you seem to fear that all men will become virtuous and that nobody will be left for you to punish" (i, 11-12).

We are almost led to think that Justin takes no interest in the common eschatology, in spite of the fact that he knows the Apocalypse of John and professes millenarianism in his Dialogue with Trypho (81). The reason is that the Dialogue was intended for the edification of Christians while the Apology was written for pagans. Moreover, even in the Apology, the attenuation of apocalyptic eschatology is more apparent than real: in Justin's outlook the days of the Roman empire are numbered, and the best the emperors themselves can do is to make ready for the Day of Judgment (i, 68).

Justin expatiates widely on Christian ethics, citing the Gospels with a copiousness unknown in all the earlier Christian literature, and not overlooking the story of the tribute. In his commentary on that saying there is a note of pride. "Since it is our duty to render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's, our adoration is wholly given to Him; in all other things we willingly obey you, recognizing you as kings and leaders of men and praying that in you the wisdom of reason may be one with the power of kingship" (17). For emperors must die like other men and they will be judged like other men. Dilating on that, Justin proves that men do not wholly die, appealing to necromancy, possession by spirits, oracles, the descent of Ulysses into Hades, and then caps his argument by adducing the probabilities in favour of the resurrection of the dead. As to the final


destruction of the world by fire, do not the Stoics teach almost the same?

All is grist that comes to the mill of this brave apologist. What Christians tell about Jesus, he remarks, is precisely what pagans tell of the sons of Zeus, Hermes, Dionysus, Hercules, the Dioscuri and others. But all these stories are the work of demons and offer no example for human conduct. By contrast, everything is pure in Jesus; he is the veritable word and messenger of God, like Hermes; born of God, since, like Perseus, he was conceived by a virgin; resembling Dionysus in being put to death; and let us not forget his miracles, which allow of comparison with Asclepius. But in reality, the Christ alone has the special gifts which befit his name — the Son of God. The stories told of the false gods are wicked caricatures concocted in advance by bad demons, or fictions put by them into the minds of poets. Since then and until quite recently the invention of false gods has been going on: it was the demons who helped Simon Magus to get himself accepted as a god in Samaria, and has he not a statue even in Rome? [26] After him his disciple Menander fooled plenty of people at Antioch; and at this present moment there is a fellow named Marcion, of Pontus, going about everywhere proclaiming that he has a better god than the Creator of the universe. [27] The followers of these gentry are not to be confounded with true Christians. Them he goes on to defend, contrasting their well-ordered life with the debauches of the pagans, and not hesitating to mention the scandalous affair of Antinous, the favourite of Hadrian, drowned in the Nile and afterwards deified by the emperor.

Man has ever been an inventor of gods and invents them still; such at least is the opinion of Justin. But the fact emerging from this development of apology, which the modern reader will find most instructive, is that, all things considered, the mentality of a second century Christian, even an enlightened one, was not so far removed as one might think from the mentality of his pagan contemporaries; and this should help us to a better understanding of the atmosphere in which the Christian mystery, to be discussed in the next chapter, was gradually formed and of the influences contributing to its formation. The difference between Christianity and paganism is much less in theology —


than it is in mythology — and much less in metaphysics than in. moral idealism.

Then comes a long dissertation on the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy in the person and history of Jesus. By the boldest of anachronisms Justin recalls how King Ptolemy had demanded the Hebrew books from Herod for the purpose of having them translated into Greek (31). From this part of the Apology, continued and completed in the Dialogue with Trypho, the most important fact to be learned is that the evangelical tradition had by this time been put into definite shape, so that the apologist could confidently and triumphantly point out the correspondence of the legend with the ancient texts, and celebrate the correspondence as a work of divine providence, ignoring the fact that the legend had, for the most part, been ingeniously drawn from those very texts by the faith of earlier Christian generations. This was not an argument to carry weight with educated pagans and has never been convincing, except for believers. Nevertheless we must take it into account if we are to understand the mystical element in the thought of second century Christianity. The extreme naivete of our philosopher is seen in his daring to refer the emperors, for evidence about the birth of Jesus, to the registers of the enrolment made by Quirinius, whom he makes the first procurator in Judea (35); and for evidence about his miracles and death to official records made in the time of Pontius Pilate [28] — as though these registers and records were preserved in the archives of the empire.

To avoid the air of omitting something, the omission of which from his picture might rouse suspicion, Justin next describes the rites of Christian initiation and worship. As this part of the Apology deals with the new Christian mystery we shall return to it in the next chapter. Suffice it for the present to note that, according to our author, the demons, having discovered an announcement of baptism in the prophecies, at once proceeded to make rules about washings and such like purifications; the same with the eucharist which these wicked beings had imitated by setting up a similar rite in the mysteries of Mithra — the presentation of a loaf and a cup of water accompanied with certain well-known formulas. Justin seems to imply that these formulas also are not without their counterparts in


the mystical language used by him in explaining the Christian rite. It does not seem to have occurred to him that some of his pagan readers might be inclined to think that it was not the pagan mysteries for which the intervention of devils was responsible, and thus derive from his analogies an idea not altogether favourable to the Christian religion.

None the less the concluding words of the Apology are the utterance of a sincere and courageous soul: "If that which we have submitted to your judgment seems reasonable and true, act accordingly; if you think it folly, treat it as folly, but do not condemn to death, as enemies, people who do no evil. For we forewarn you that you will not escape the judgment of God if you persist in injustice. As for ourselves, our cry will ever be 'let God's will be done.' " By way of postcript he adds the Latin copy of Hadrian's rescript to Minutius Fundanus forbidding the punishment of Christians for the profession of their faith unless they were proved guilty of offence against the law.

The so-called "Second Apology" is a sort of complementary writing published by Justin some time afterwards in which he deals with three sentences of death passed upon Christians by Urbicus, prefect of Rome. In this he addresses himself directly to public opinion and speaking to the people as brothers urges them in the name of humanity to protest against these acts of injustice, now being committed by the magistrates, under cover of the law, at Rome and throughout the Empire. He discusses three cases which have occurred in Rome. A Christian woman, tired of an intolerable husband, had finally given him notice of the repudium on which the husband had denounced her as a Christian; the woman having obtained judicial delay for the preparation of her defence, the husband, by means of a centurion friend of his, caused the arrest of a certain Ptolemy who had converted the wife to Christianity; summoned by Urbicus to abjure the Christ, Ptolemy refuses and Urbicus has him put to death; a person present at the trial, named Lucius, protests against the sentence; Urbicus asks him if he is a Christian and on his answering "Yes" orders him to be led off immediately to execution; another man protests and meets the same fate (ii, 2). From all of which it is clear enough that under Antoninus the Pious, and at the seat of the imperial government, the hand


of Roman justice was not asleep when Christians had to be dealt with.

Having discussed these cases, Justin, with remarkable temerity, proceeds to ridicule the "philosopher and swaggerer," whom he knows to be on the warpath against him, with the determination to bring him, Justin, to a like end (ii, 3-4). He responds with dignity to the bad jesters who ask why Christians don't kill themselves and go quickly to their God without bothering the magistrates to send them thither: God, he says, has put us in the world to do good and we confess ourselves Christians that truth may be spoken. But why, it is asked, does God let you be persecuted? The answer is — because the world has been corrupted by the doings of wicked angels and of their offspring, the demons, and because God, on account of the Christians, delays the universal catastrophe which is to sweep away for ever the wicked angels and the sinners. [29] But some will say: "Is that certain?" Justin answers: "If there were no chastisements, either there would be no God or only a God who had no interest in men; and so there would be neither good nor evil; the Logos is truth and virtue; him, and not falsehood and vice, it behoves us to follow even at the cost of our lives. As to the evil rumours current about Christians, the demons have invented them that the disciples of the divine Logos might be done to death. Oh that men will understand at last where truth is to be found!"

For the time being it was all wasted labour and the law continued its unjust chastisement of the Christians. Feeble, in many respects, as the apology we have studied may appear in our eyes, it was inspired by deep human feeling and spoke the language of reason in all sincerity. The judge — it was still Urbicus — who sentenced Justin about 165 sent an upright man, who was no fanatic, to his death. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius, other apologists, Melito of Sardis, Apollinarus of Hieropolis, Miltiades, Athenagoras, produced writings in the same sense and equally barren of immediate results. But these books were the means which turned the attention of the public to Christian literature. If the apologies cannot precisely be said to have established and propagated the faith, they began to compel adversaries to take it seriously, and some of these adversaries responded otherwise than by denunciation and sentence of death.



The True Discourse which Celsus published against the Christians towards the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps in 178, contained no violent denunciation and had no resemblance to a pogrom. The attitude of Celsus is still that of one who considers Christianity a ridiculous superstition, but he knew enough about Christians to prefer their conversion to their annihilation. Here is no new edition of popular calumny, but rather appreciation of the Gospel morality. He expresses satisfaction at finding the doctrine of the Logos among the Christians; is acquainted with the sacred books which Jews and Christians have in common as well as with the books specifically Christian, the Gospels in the first place, and with other writings both of orthodox Christianity and of the gnostic sects; makes correct distinctions between these sects and the Great Church, although, from his point of view, all the forms of Christianity fall under a common reprobation.

It may be said that in this book Celsus takes a direction contrary to that of the order of proof planned by Justin, with its point of departure in Jewish prophecy. He starts off with what is, virtually, a refutation of Christianity by a Jew; that is to say, he gathers together all the objections which Jews bring against the foundation of Christian faith, namely, the Messiahship of Jesus; then, having thus deprived Christianity of its historic-theological base, he lumps the two religions together and refutes them as one, arguing, against the apologists of Judaism and Christianity alike, that the ideas of Greek religious philosophy are of superior value and greater antiquity compared with those either of Jews or Christians — a thesis not less disputable, in certain respects, than that of the Christian apologists.

Celsus applies severe criticism to the Gospel legend, especially to all that concerns the resurrection of the Christ, proving that the whole legend has been repeatedly worked over, in one Gospel after the other, in order to guard against objections which it could not overthrow. Finally, he appeals to Christians to abandon their uncompromising attitude, to accept the common religion and not to create schism in the State nor weaken it by division. [30] In the main Celsus is willing to let Christianity live,


on condition of subordinating itself, in common with the ancient Eastern cults, to the imperial religion of Rome and Augustus, and of tolerating the other cults as legitimate forms of worship. Philosophically and politically, nothing seemed to him more natural, logical and necessary. But the real force of Christianity, which aimed at a goal beyond the Roman Empire, lay in its refusal to compromise. That refusal it could not abandon without being false to itself and compromising its future.

There are no signs that the writing of Celsus made any deeper impression on the Christian leaders than the apologies' of Justin and the others made on the leaders either of imperial policy or of Greek thought. Christian writers contemporary with Celsus make no mention of him. By a chance encounter in the year 246 Origen came into possession of The True Discourse whose existence had hitherto been unknown to him; nor did he even know who Celsus was. Only through Origen's conscientious refutation of the book has it come to the knowledge of the Christian world and been preserved there. Thus did the apologists vainly attempt the instruction of the persecutors; thus did Celsus vainly attempt the enlightenment of the persecuted.


Persecution continued. What admirers of Marcus Aurelius can help deploring that, during his reign, in the year 177, the city of Lyons was the scene of martyrdoms comparable in horror to those witnessed by Rome in 64 under Nero? [31] At the time of the Lyons martyrdoms there was a Christian congregation there and another at Vienne, both still small in number and of recent formation; their founders and a part of their converts perished in the persecution we are about to describe. Some members of the Lyons group were of Asiatic or Phrygian origin, but many were natives of the country. An old man of ninety, Pothinus, ruled the church as bishop and was assisted by the priest Irenaeus, who came from Asia. [32]

As often happened at this time it was popular passion that forced the Roman authorities to take action. The Christians were regarded with no friendly eyes by the pagan populace whose imaginations had been excited by the strange tales in


circulation about what went on at the Christian meetings. In the absence of the provincial legate a large number of believers were laid hold of by a mob and, after brief interrogation by the tribune of the cohort and the town magistrates, were remanded to prison to await trial. On the return of the legate the trial began. At the outset a notable of the place, Vettius Epagathus, having announced his intention to defend the accused, was himself at once arrested as a Christian on his own confession. Various incidents marked the course of the trial and there were ten apostasies. [33] New arrests took place both at Lyons and Vienne. Some pagan slaves of Christian masters were seized and these slaves, in their terror and under prompting by the soldiers, "lyingly imputed to the Christians banquets of Thyestes, incest of Oedipus and all the things which are not to be spoken of, nor thought of, nor believed to be ever possible among human beings." This evidence created a bad impression even on people who, being related to the accused, had shown themselves less hot against them.

This made the legate and the soldiers all the more determined to get confessions under torture. Sanctus "the deacon" of Vienne, Maturus, a neophyte, Attalus of Pergamus and the young slave, Blandina, showed unshakable courage. Blandina especially astonished and exhausted the torturers, who, all day long, took their turns at her. They were amazed at the obstinate hold that life kept in that broken body. Still less could they understand the mysterious relief the sufferer found in the words she would repeat whenever they urged her to confess — "I am a Christian girl and we do nothing bad." Sanctus also was put to repeated and atrocious torture but never a word could they get out of him, save these two in latin: "Christianus sum." Condemned to be thrown to the beasts, the four confessors were despatched to the amphitheatre. The first to succumb were Maturus and Sanctus, after they had been scourged, dragged along by the beasts and forced on to an iron chair made red-hot. Blandina, chained to a post and offering prayers, seemed to the brethren "as one clothed with the Christ"; the beasts would not touch her. Yells from the frenzied crowd demanded the punishment of Attalus, and he had already been dragged round the amphitheatre when the legate learned that he was a Roman


citizen. Thereupon Blandina and Attalus were sent back to prison. The legate, for his part, thought it best to consult the emperor. Perhaps he was disturbed by the turn the affair had taken; perhaps the evidence of the slaves against the Christians made him unwilling to take responsibility for releasing the apostates, whom he was keeping in prison. The case was identical with that which Pliny had referred to Trajan.

By the time Maturus and Sanctus came to suffer Pothinus was dead. Weakened by age and hardly breathing the old man had been carried into court amid the shouts of the infuriated mob. In presence of the judge he showed a bold front. Asked by the legate what kind of being the god of the Christians was, he answered: "If you are worthy of him you will know him." He was taken back to prison, insulted and beaten by the mob and, after lingering two days longer in the jail, breathed his last. Other confessors, younger than he, were chained in a filthy dungeon and died before receiving the final punishment in store for them. But, during the days in which the local authorities were waiting for the emperor's answer, the conscience of those who had apostasized began to trouble them. These unhappy wretches who, notwithstanding their recantation, had been kept in prison under suspicion of having previously committed the foul homicide and impurity commonly attributed to Christians, perceived that they had become objects of contempt to the pagans and of pity to their more courageous brethren. Touched by the sincere compassion of these latter, many of the apostates felt ashamed of themselves and made up their minds to withdraw their recantations.

Such was the posture of affairs when at last the answer came from the man whom modern historians are fond of calling the saint-emperor. Moved either by political considerations, or by the knowledge of the little truth there was in the tales about the crimes of the Christians, in whom he finds little to reproach beyond their obstinacy, Marcus Aurelius repeats the order formerly given by Trajan to Pliny; the renegades are to be set free; those who persist in the faith are to be put to death.

It was the time of year when deputations from the cities of Gaul were pouring into Lyons for the yearly fetes held at the altar of Rome and Augustus; the time also of the games in the


amphitheatre, and here was a supply of Christians ready for the wild beasts. The legate accordingly lost no time in founding off the judicial business that remained to be done: all the confessors who were Roman citizens were sentenced to decapitation. There remained the apostates, whose case was not tried with that of the confessors, no doubt because sentences of release would not be pronounced in public. Those who had recovered the courage of their faith were immediately added to the group awaiting execution. None was released, says the letter which tells this dramatic story, save "the sons of perdition." [34]

During the public interrogation of the Christians there was among the audience in the court room a certain physician named Alexander, Phrygian by origin, but some years resident in Gaul, who kept encouraging the accused to be firm by making signs to that effect. The crowd, seeing what he was after, called out that it was he who was making the renegades renew their confession of the Christ, as some of them were doing. Questioned by the legate, Alexander declared himself a Christian and was sentenced to death on the spot. The very next day he made his appearance before the public in the amphitheatre along with Attalus, whose status as a Roman citizen the legate, anxious to conciliate the mob, had chosen to forget. A variety of tortures were inflicted on the two: Alexander, his mind concentrated on God, died without saying a word: Attalus, roasting on the red-hot chair, called out to the crowd as it yelled with delight on sniffing the odour of the grilling flesh, "Here is a man being cooked for the table; you seem to be fond of that diet. But we people are not cannibals, we leave that to you, nor do we harm to any man." Blandina was kept back for the last day of the show, and with her a boy of fifteen named Ponticus. The crowd present that day was debased enough below the human level to take a furious delight in the sufferings of these two children. They were heroic; Blandina, like an elder sister, speaking words of encouragement to Ponticus in the midst of their common torment. Ponticus was the first to expire. As to Blandina, the talk was that nothing could kill her. But at last, after the scourge, the wild beasts, the fiery chair had been tried in vain, they tied her up in a mat and flung her before a bull which tossed her about from side to side until, after a long time, she was dead.


As though the fury of man were more insatiate than the hunger of wild beasts, the mangled remains they left undevoured were denied to the survivors who would have buried them. The bodies of those who had died in prison were thrown, under supervision, to the dogs; watch was also kept over the debris of those who had perished in the amphitheatre; after six days' exposure to the public it was all raked together and burnt, that nothing might be left save the ashes. Then the ashes were thrown, amid laughter, into the Rhone, which was near-by, so that nothing at all might remain. "Now let them rise from the dead" was the comment of those who arranged this beautiful programme, and the merry jest of those who carried it out.

Here is a unique page, not, alas, in the history of the first persecutions, but in the history books, in the documentation which has preserved for us the record of them. Raise Marcus Aurelius to what height of greatness you will, there is a page in Eusebius' history that cries shame on the memory of him, illustrious as his name may otherwise be. For reasons of State Marcus Aurelius gave his sanction to the jurisprudence announced in the rescript of Trajan, sanctioned by him for the same reason.

This philosopher-king, accounted the wisest of the wise and the most humane of his time, could he not see the facts as Pliny had seen them sixty years earlier; could he not suspect that in Christianity also there was "something human" and forbid these odious and futile massacres? A girl and a boy triumphantly accuse him before the bar of posterity; their names are Blandina and Ponticus. Faced by the accusation of these innocent victims of his brutal legislation the lofty reason of the philosopher-king is overthrown and put to silence. That lofty reason of his was shortsighted; it was narrow in outlook; the prisoner of a fixed idea called common sense by the "enlightened" of those days.

Like Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus, the mind of Marcus Aurelius was fettered to the notion of Christianity as a pestilence and a scourge, a sect of absurd but dangerous rebels, while yet he was well aware that Christians were generally innocent of the infamies charged against them by the ignorant multitude. These emperors were men of high intelligence and moderation; but they never paused to question the prejudice and bigotry on which the current notion of Christianity was founded. All they could see,


and they thought it clear enough, was the contradiction offered by the new religion to the principles on which the Roman empire was, or seemed to be, established. But were these principles incapable of improvement and expansion? Had not Christianity now become a very different thing from what it was in the time of Nero, before the explosion of the Jewish war more than a hundred years before? Had not the attitude of Christians towards imperial authority changed, since the end of the first century, to an attitude of respect? Whence came the ever increasing success of the new religion? Came it not largely from the insufficiency of the others for human need? And if Christianity could draw to itself such a multitude of the disinherited, so many troubled souls, was it not because the disinherited were far too numerous in Roman society, and because the current doctrines of philosophy and official religion were too unconvincing or too hard-hearted, or too impoverished on the moral side?

It is true that the Antonines did not display towards the Christians a wanton cruelty like that of Nero, nor were they deliberate and systematic persecutors like Decius and Diocletian, though system of a kind they certainly had, with room in it for some outstanding atrocities. But this abatement was not due to any feeling for justice or to half-hearted goodwill towards Christianity. As Duchesne remarks: "it followed naturally from the contemptuous indifference of the authorities to these conflicts of sect and doctrine, their contempt arising perhaps from excessive confidence in the resisting power of philosophy and in the tendency of sects to spend their power for mischief one on another." These emperors, indeed, had good reason to count on the force of the many cults, old and new, which existed in self-ordained subordination to the imperial religion; they counted also, and knew they could count, on the force of good sense, that indefinable divinity of which philosophers are prone to consider themselves the high priests. They never asked themselves whether the no-compromise attitude in which the Christians differed from the other sects might not itself be a force — the force of a deep-seated consciousness of higher truth and a more excellent morality. In reality it was precisely that consciousness to which the tireless and charitable labours of the Christian apostolate owed their life and vigour, and which made the


Christian religion so rapidly contagious that it burst the dikes built against it by the "good-sense" of philosophers.

But a new "good-sense" more attractive than learned and lordly reason had been brought into being — the common sense of Christian equality; and with it came a type of virtue less harsh than the Stoic — the practical brotherhood of the Gospel. The wrangling of sects did not prevent the Christian communities inside the pale of the Church from forming compact bodies held together in close solidarity. The fact of that consciousness was apparent whenever the Christians confronted their judges in court; it was seen on every eager face among the brethren as they pressed round the prisoners at the risk of their own lives. When all was over the Christians were still there to beg for the ashes of the martyrs and give them honourable burial. Their beneficence was generous, and it was organized. Already the great congregations, like that of Rome, had their treasure chests, regularly and abundantly replenished, for ministering to the needs of the poor. After Justin has described the eucharistic service, the mystical banquet of the brethren, centre of their religious life and hearth-fire of their mutual love, he goes on to say: "Those who have the means and are men of goodwill give freely, each giving as he pleased, and the collection is then laid before the president" — the bishop who presided at meetings — "who distributes it among orphans and widows, the sick and the poor from any cause, the prisoners, and travellers on their journeys" — the Christians of other congregations always received as brethren — "in short, he is the helper of every one who is in need" (i Apology, 67). Under these conditions the rapid growth of the bishop's person to great consideration is easily understood. Nor need we wonder that the Friendly Society over which he presided recruited new members every day.

It remains to add that the Christianity of Justin, of Melito, or of Irenaeus, even when judged by intellect and reason, made no mean showing. In what was it inferior to the philosophy of a Plutarch, of a Celsus — nay, of Marcus Aurelius himself? Was it indeed so very different in the matter of reasonable ideas and reasoned ideology? Supreme Being, Ruling Providence, subordinate spirits, justice at the summit and sure of final vindication, and the primacy of the moral consciousness over all forms


of knowledge — were not all these analogously conceived by both sides but with more precision in Christianity and with a measure of practical achievement in daily conduct, in family life and social relationships, peculiar to itself? The good Justin was not in error when he presented Christianity as a great philosophy — a philosophy whose speech in Justin's time was the lisp of an infant, but an infant full of life and vigour and with the future in its grasp.

At the death of Marcus Aurelius the triumph of Christianity, though not due to burst upon the world till a century and a half later, was already assured, but unforeseen by the pagan world. The Christians foresaw it in faith, and were quick to note the signs of its coming as events took their course in the contemporary world. As the third century unfolded Roman paganism more and more came to resemble a vast hoarding behind which the Christian religion was gradually being built up. And so in our day it may be that Christianity in turn has become a facade behind which men are building the religion of humanity. The tree which Constantine and his Christian successors let fall, or cut down, was no longer a living thing. Thus it came to pass that Christianity, with persecution at an end, soon became master of the house. Would that it had never forgotten the lesson, taught by its own first experience, of the fundamental iniquity and ultimate futility of persecuting men for the offence of religious belief.

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