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   Chapter 6 The First General Persecution And Its Consequences

A Source Book for Ancient Church History By Joseph Cullen Ayer, Jr., Ph.D. Characters: 25752

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


On account of various principles of the Roman law, Christians were always liable to severe penalties, and parts of the Church occasionally suffered fearfully. But it was only in exceptional cases and sporadically that the laws were enforced. There was, accordingly, no prolonged and systematic effort made to put down Christianity everywhere until the reign of Decius (249-251). The renewed interest in heathen religions and the revived patriotism in some circles occasioned in 248 by the celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome may have contributed to a renewal of hostilities against the Church. Decius undertook the military defence of the frontier. His colleague, Valerian, had charge of the internal affairs of the Empire and was the author of the measures against the Christians. Because the Church included many who had embraced the faith in the long period when the Church rarely felt the severity of the laws, many were unable to endure the persecution, and so apostatized or "fell." The persecution continued only for a short time in full intensity, but it was not abandoned for a number of years. It became violent once more when Valerian became Emperor (253-260). One result of the persecutions was the rise of serious disputes, and even schisms, from differences regarding the administration of discipline by the bishops. In the case of the Novatians at Rome, a dissenting Church which spread rapidly over the Empire came into existence and lasted for more than two centuries.

[pg 206]

§ 45. The Decian-Valerian Persecution

The first persecution which may fairly be said to have been general in purpose and effect was that falling in the reigns of Decius (249-251) and Valerian (253-260). Of the course of the persecution we have information bearing directly upon Carthage, Alexandria, and Asia Minor. But it probably was felt very generally throughout the Church.

Additional source material: Cyprian, De Lapsis, Epp. 14, 22, 43; Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 39-45, VII, 11, 15, 30: for original texts see Preuschen, Analecta, I, §§ 16, 17; also R. Knopf, Ausgew?hlte M?rtyreracten (of these the most reliable are the martyrdom of Pionius and of Cyprian).

(a) Origen, Contra Celsum, III, 15. (MSG, 11:937.)

Origen, writing about 248, observes the probable approach of a period of persecution for the Church.

That it is not the fear of external enemies which strengthens our union is plain from the fact that this cause, by God's will, has already ceased for a considerable time. And it is probable that the secure existence, so far as this life is concerned, which is enjoyed by believers at present will come to an end, since those who in every way calumniate the Word [i.e., Christianity] are again attributing the frequency of rebellion to the multitude of believers and to their not being persecuted by the authorities, as in former times.

(b) Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 3, 4. (MSL, 7:200.)

Lucius C?lius Firminianus Lactantius was of African birth. Having obtained some local fame as a teacher of rhetoric, he was appointed by Diocletian professor of that subject in his new capital of Nicomedia. This position Lactantius lost during the Diocletian persecution. He was afterward tutor of Crispus, the son of Constantine. His work On the Death of the Persecutors is written in a bitter spirit, but excellent style. Although in some circles it has been customary to impeach the veracity of Lactantius, no intentional departure from historical truthfulness, apart from rhetorical coloring, which was [pg 207] inevitable, has been proved against him. Of late there has been some doubt as to the authorship of De Mortibus Persecutorum.

Ch. 3. … This long peace, however, was afterward interrupted.

Ch. 4. For after many years there appeared in the world an accursed wild beast, Decius by name, who should afflict the Church. And who but a bad man would persecute righteousness? As if for this end he had been raised up to sovereign eminence, he began at once to rage against God, and at once to fall. For having undertaken an expedition against the Carpi, who had then occupied Dacia and M?sia, he was suddenly surrounded by the barbarians, and slain, together with a great part of his army; nor could he be honored with the rights of sepulture, but, stripped and naked, he lay as food for wild beasts and birds, as became the enemy of God.

(c) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 39. (MSG, 20:660.)

The Decian persecution and the sufferings of Origen.

Decius succeeded Philip, who had reigned seven years. On account of his hatred of Philip, Decius commenced a persecution of the churches, in which Fabianus suffered martyrdom at Rome, and Cornelius succeeded him in the episcopate. In Palestine, Alexander, bishop of the church of Jerusalem, was brought again on Christ's account before the governor's judgment seat in C?sarea, and having acquitted himself nobly in a second confession, was cast into prison, crowned with the hoary locks of venerable age. And after his honorable and illustrious confession at the tribunal of the governor, he fell asleep in prison, and Mazabanes became his successor in the bishopric of Jerusalem. Babylas in Antioch having, like Alexander, passed away in prison after his confession, Fabius presided over that church.

But how many and how great things came upon Origen in the persecution, and what was their final result-as the evil demon marshalled all his forces and fought against the man with his utmost craft and power, assaulting him beyond [pg 208] all others against whom he contended at that time; and what and how many things the man endured for the word of Christ-bonds and bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how for many days with his feet stretched four spaces of the stocks he bore patiently the threats of fire and whatever other things were inflicted by his enemies; and how his sufferings terminated, as his judge strove eagerly with all his might not to end his life; and what words he left after these things full of comfort to those needing aid, a great many of his epistles show with truth and accuracy.

(d) Cyprian, De Lapsis, 8-10. (MSL, 4:486.)

The many cases of apostasy in the Decian persecution shocked the Church inexpressibly. In peace discipline had been relaxed and Christian zeal had grown weak. The same phenomena appeared in the next great persecution, under Diocletian, after a long period of peace. De Lapsis was written in the spring of 251, just after the end of the severity of the Decian persecution and Cyprian's return to Carthage. Text in part in Kirch, nn. 227 ff.

Ch. 8. From some, alas, all these things have fallen away, and have passed from memory. They indeed did not even wait, that, having been apprehended, they should go up, or, having been interrogated, they might deny. Many were conquered before the battle, prostrated without an attack. Nor did they even leave it to be said for them that they seemed to sacrifice to idols unwillingly. They ran to the forum of their own accord; freely they hastened to death, as if they had formerly wished it, as if they would embrace an opportunity now given which they had always desired. How many were put off by the magistrates at that time, when evening was coming on! How many even asked that their destruction might not be delayed! What violence can such a one plead, how can he purge his crime, when it was he himself who rather used force that he might perish? When they came voluntarily to the capitol-when they freely approached to the obedience of the terrible wickedness-did not their [pg 209] tread falter, did not their sight darken, their hearts tremble, their arms fall helplessly down, their senses become dull, their tongues cleave to their mouths, their speech fail? Could the servant of God stand there, he who had already renounced the devil and the world, and speak and renounce Christ? Was not that altar, whither he drew near to die, to him a funeral pile? Ought he not to shudder at, and flee from, the altar of the devil, which he had seen to smoke and to be redolent of a foul stench, as it were, a funeral and sepulchre of his life? Why bring with you, O wretched man, a sacrifice? Why immolate a victim? You yourself have come to the altar an offering, yourself a victim; there you have immolated your salvation, your hope; there you have burned up your faith in those deadly fires.

Ch. 9. But to many their own destruction was not sufficient. With mutual exhortations the people were urged to their ruin; death was pledged by turns in the deadly cup. And that nothing might be wanting to aggravate the crime, infants, also, in the arms of their parents, being either carried or conducted, lost, while yet little ones, what in the very beginning of their nativity they had gained. Will not they, when the day of judgment comes, say: "We have done nothing; nor have we forsaken the Lord's bread and cup to hasten freely to a profane contract.…"

Ch. 10. Nor is there, alas, any just and weighty reason which excuses such a crime. One's country was to be left, and loss of one's estate was to be suffered. Yet to whom that is born and dies is there not a necessity at some time to leave his country and to suffer loss of his estate? But let not Christ be forsaken, so that the loss of salvation and of an eternal home should be feared.

(e) Cyprian, De Lapsis, 28. (MSL, 4:501.)

Those who did not actually sacrifice in the tests that were applied to Christians, but by bribery had procured certificates that they had sacrificed, were known as libellatici. It was to the credit of the Christian moral feeling that this subterfuge was not admitted.

[pg 210] Nor let those persons flatter themselves that they need repent the less who, although they have not polluted their hands with abominable sacrifices, yet have defiled their consciences with certificates. That profession of one who denies is the testimony of a Christian disowning what he has been. He says he has done what another has actually committed, and although it is written, "Ye cannot serve two masters" [Matt. 6:24], he has served an earthly master in that he has obeyed his edict; he has been more obedient to human authority than to God.

(f) A Libellus. From a papyrus found at Fayum.

The text may be found in Kirch, n. 207. This is the actual certificate which a man suspected of being a Christian obtained from the commission appointed to carry out the edict of persecution. It has been preserved these many centuries in the dry Egyptian climate, and is with some others, which are less perfect, among the most interesting relics of the ancient Church.

Presented to the Commission for the Sacrifices in the village of Alexander Island, by Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the village of Alexander Island, about seventy-two years of age, with a scar on the right eyebrow.

I have at other times always offered to the gods as well as also now in your presence, and according to the regulations have offered, sacrificed, and partaken of the sacrificial meal; and I pray you to attest this. Farewell. I, Aurelius Diogenes, have presented this.

[In a second hand.]

I, Aurelius Syrus, testify as being present that Diogenes sacrificed with us.

[First hand.]

First year of the Emperor C?sar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius, pious, happy, Augustus, 2d day of Epiphus. [June 25, 250.]

(g) Cyprian, Epistula 80 (=82). (MSL, 4:442.)

The date of this epistle is 257-258, at the outbreak of the Valerian persecution, a revival of the Decian. It was therefore shortly before Cyprian's death.

[pg 211] Cyprian to his brother Successus, greeting. The reason why I write to you at once, dearest brother, is that all the clergy are placed in the heat of the contest and are unable in any way to depart hence, for all of them are prepared, in accordance with the devotion of their mind, for divine and heavenly glory. But you should know that those have come back whom I sent to Rome to find out and bring us the truth concerning what had in any manner been decreed respecting us. For many, various, and uncertain things are currently reported. But the truth concerning them is as follows: Valerian has sent a rescript to the Senate, to the effect that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should be immediately punished; but that senators, men of rank, and Roman knights should lose their dignity and be deprived of their property; and if, when their property has been taken away, they should persist in being Christians, that they should then also lose their heads; but that matrons should be deprived of their property and banished. Moreover, people of C?sar's household, who had either confessed before or should now confess, should have their property confiscated, and be sent in

chains and assigned to C?sar's estates. The Emperor Valerian also added to his address a copy of the letters he prepared for the presidents of the provinces coercing us. These letters we are daily hoping will come, and we are waiting, according to the strength of our faith, for the endurance of suffering and expecting from the help and mercy of the Lord the crown of eternal life. But know that Sixtus was punished [i.e., martyred] in the cemetery on the eighth day of the ides of August, and with him four deacons. The prefects of the city, furthermore, are daily urging on this persecution; so that if any are presented to them they are punished and their property confiscated.

I beg that these things be made known by you to the rest of our colleagues, that everywhere by their exhortations the brotherhood may be strengthened and prepared for the spiritual conflict, that every one may think less of death than [pg 212] of immortality, and dedicated to the Lord with full faith and courage, they may rejoice rather than fear in this confession, wherein they know that the soldiers of God and Christ are not slain, but crowned. I bid you, dearest brother, ever farewell in the Lord.

§ 46. Effects of the Persecution upon the Inner Life of the Church

The persecution developed the popular opinion of the superior sanctity of martyrdom. This was itself no new idea, having grown up in the Church from the time of Ignatius of Antioch, but it now received new applications and developments (a, b). See also § 42, d, and below for problems arising from the place the martyrs attempted to take in the organization of the Church and the administration of discipline. This claim of the martyrs was successfully overcome by the bishops, especially under Cyprian's leadership and example. But in the administration of discipline there were sure to arise difficulties and questions, e.g., Was there a distinction to be made in favor of those who had escaped without actually sacrificing? (c). No matter what policy was followed by the bishop, there was the liability of the rise of a party in opposition to him. If he was strict, a party advocating laxity appeared, as in the case of Felicissimus at Carthage; if he was milder in policy, a party would call for greater rigor, as in the case of Novatian at Rome (e).

Additional source material: Cyprian, Ep. 39-45, 51 (ANF, V); Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 43, 45.

(a) Origen, Exhortatio ad Martyrium, 30, 50. (MSG, 11:601, 636.)

An estimate of the importance and value of martyrdom.

The Exhortation to Martyrdom was addressed by Origen to his friend and patron Ambrosius, and to Protoctetus, a presbyter of C?sarea, who were in great danger during the persecution undertaken by Maximinus Thrax (235-238). It was probably written in the reign of that Emperor.

[pg 213] Ch. 30. We must remember that we have sinned and that it is impossible to obtain forgiveness of sins without baptism, and that according to the evangelical laws it is impossible to be baptized a second time with water and the Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and therefore the baptism of martyrdom is given us. For thus it has been called, as may be clearly gathered from the passage: "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" [Mark 10:38]. And in another place it is said: "But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straightened until it be accomplished!" [Luke 12:50]. For be sure that just as the expiation of the cross was for the whole world, it (the baptism of martyrdom) is for the cure of many who are thereby cleansed. For as according to the law of Moses those placed near the altar are seen to minister forgiveness of sins to others through the blood of bulls and goats, so the souls of those who have suffered on account of the testimony of Jesus are not in vain near that altar in heaven [cf. Rev. 6:9 ff.], but minister forgiveness of sins to those who pray. And at the same time we know that just as the high priest, Jesus Christ, offered himself as a sacrifice, so the priests, of whom He is the high priest, offer themselves as sacrifices, and on account of this sacrifice they are at the altar as in their proper place.

Ch. 50. Just as we have been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, who received the name that is above every name, so by the precious blood of the martyrs will others be redeemed.

(b) Origen, Homil. ad Num., X, 2. (MSG, 12:658.)

Of Origen's homilies on the Pentateuch only a few fragments of the Greek text remain. We have them, however, in a Latin translation or paraphrase made by Rufinus. The twenty-eight homilies on Numbers were written after A. D. 244.

Concerning the martyrs, the Apostle John writes in the Apocalypse that the souls of those who have been slain for [pg 214] the name of the Lord Jesus are present at the altar; but he who is present at the altar is shown to perform the duties of priest. But the duty of a priest is to make intercession for the sins of the people. Wherefore I fear, lest, perchance, inasmuch as there are made no martyrs, and sacrifices of saints are not offered for our sins, we will not receive remission of our sins. And therefore I fear, lest our sins remaining in us, it may happen to us what the Jews said of themselves, that not having an altar, nor a temple, nor priesthood, and therefore not offering sacrifices, our sins remain in us, and so no forgiveness is obtained.… And therefore the devil, knowing that remission of sins is obtained by the passion of martyrdom, is not willing to raise public persecutions against us by the heathen.

(c) Cyprian, Epistula 55, 14 (=51). (MSL, 3:805.)

The opinion of the Church as to the libellatici. The date is 251 or 252.

Since there is much difference between those who have sacrificed, what a want of mercy it is, and how bitter is the hardship, to associate those who have received certificates with those who have sacrificed, when he who has received the certificate may say, "I had previously read and had been informed by the discourse of the bishop that we ought not to sacrifice to idols, that the servant of God ought not to worship images; and therefore that I might not do this which is not lawful, when the opportunity of receiving a certificate was offered (and I would not have received it, if the opportunity had not been offered) I either went or charged some one other person going to the magistrate to say that I am a Christian, that I am not allowed to sacrifice, that I cannot come to the devil's altars, and that I will pay a price for this purpose, that I may not do what is not lawful for me to do"! Now, however, even he who is stained by a certificate, after he has learned from our admonitions that he ought not to have done even this, and though his hand is [pg 215] pure, and no contact of deadly food has polluted his lips, yet his conscience is nevertheless polluted, weeps when he hears us, and laments, and is now admonished for the things wherein he has sinned, and having been deceived, not so much by guilt as by error, bears witness that for another time he is instructed and prepared.

(d) Epistula pacis, Cyprian, Epistula 16. (MSL, 4:268.) Cf. Kirch, n. 241.

This brief Letter of Peace is a specimen of the forms that were being issued by the confessors, and which a party in the Church regarded as mandatory upon the bishops. These Cyprian strenuously and successfully resisted. See also Cyprian, Ep. 21, in ANF, V, 299.

All the confessors to Cyprian, pope,70 greeting. Know that we all have given peace to those concerning whom an account has been rendered you as to what they have done since they committed their sin; and we wish to make this rescript known through you to the other bishops. We desire you to have peace with the holy martyrs. Lucianus has written this, there being present of the clergy an exorcist and a lector.

(e) Cyprian, Epistula 43, 2, 3. (MSL, 4:342.)

The schism of Felicissimus was occasioned by the position taken by Cyprian in regard to the admission of the lapsi in the Decian persecution. But it was at the same time the outcome of an opposition to Cyprian of longer standing, on account of jealousy, as he had only recently become a Christian when he was made bishop of Carthage.

Ch. 2. It has appeared whence came the faction of Felicissimus, on what root and by what strength it stood. These men supplied in a former time encouragements and exhortations to confessors, not to agree with their bishop, not to maintain the ecclesiastical discipline faithfully and quietly, according to the Lord's precepts, not to keep the glory of their confession with an uncorrupt and unspotted mode of life. And lest it should have been too little to have corrupted [pg 216] the minds of certain confessors and to have wished to arm a portion of our broken fraternity against God's priesthood, they have now applied themselves with their envenomed deceitfulness to the ruin of the lapsed, to turn away from the healing of their wound the sick and the wounded, and those who, by the misfortune of their fall, are less fit and less able to take stronger counsels; and having left off prayers and supplications, whereby with long and continued satisfaction the Lord is to be appeased, they invite them by the deceit of a fallacious peace to a fatal rashness.

Ch. 3. But I pray you, brethren, watch against the snares of the devil, and being careful for your own salvation, guard diligently against this deadly deceit. This is another persecution and another temptation. Those five presbyters are none other than the five leaders who were lately associated with the magistrates in an edict that they might overthrow our faith, that they might turn away the feeble hearts of the brethren to their deadly nets by the perversion of the truth. Now the same scheme, the same overturning, is again brought about by the five presbyters, linked with Felicissimus, to the destruction of salvation, that God should not be besought, and that he who has denied Christ should not appeal for mercy to the same Christ whom he has denied; that after the fault of the crime repentance also should be taken away; and that satisfaction should not be made through bishops and priests, but, the Lord's priests being forsaken, a new tradition of sacrilegious appointment should arise contrary to the evangelical discipline. And although it was once arranged as well by us as by the confessors and the clergy of the city,71 likewise by all the bishops located either in our province or beyond the sea [i.e., Italy], that there should be no innovations regarding the case of the lapsed unless we all assembled in one place, and when our counsels had been compared we should then decide upon some moderate sentence, [pg 217] tempered alike with discipline and with mercy; against this, our counsel, they have rebelled and all priestly authority has been destroyed by factious conspiracies.

(f) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., VI, 43. (MSG, 20:616.)

The schism of Novatian at Rome was occasioned by the question of discipline of the lapsed. While the schism of Felicissimus was in favor of more lenient treatment of those who had fallen, the schism of Novatian was in favor of greater strictness. The sect of Novatians, named after the founder, Novatus or Novatianus, lasted for more than two centuries.

Novatus [Novatianus], a presbyter at Rome, being lifted up with arrogance against these persons, as if there was no longer for them a hope of salvation, not even if they should do all things pertaining to a pure and genuine conversion, became the leader of the heresy of those who in the pride of their imagination style themselves Cathari.72 Thereupon a very large synod assembled at Rome, of bishops in number sixty, and a great many more presbyters and deacons; and likewise the pastors of the remaining provinces deliberated in their places by themselves concerning what ought to be done. A decree, accordingly, was confirmed by all that Novatus and those who joined with him, and those who adopted his brother-hating and inhuman opinion, should be considered by the Church as strangers; but that they should heal such of the brethren as had fallen into misfortune, and should minister to them with the medicines of repentance. There have come down to us epistles of Cornelius, bishop of Rome, to Fabius, of the church at Antioch, which show what was done at the synod at Rome, and what seemed best to all those in Italy and Africa and the regions thereabout. Also other epistles, written in the Latin language, of Cyprian and those with him in Africa, by which it is shown that they agreed as to the necessity of succoring those who had been tempted, and of cutting off from the Catholic Church the leader of the heresy and all that joined him.

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