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EXTERNAL CAUSES, Continued
As already pointed out, the causes of the great apostasy from the Primitive Church may be considered as belonging to two classes external and internal, or, (1) causes due to conditions operating against the Church from without, (2) causes arising from dissension and heresy within the Church itself.
Among the external causes claiming our attention, persecution was specified, and a distinction was made between Jewish and pagan persecution as separately waged against the Church. Our last lesson dealt with the persecution suffered by the Saints at the hands of the Jews or by Jewish instigation. We have now to consider the persecution brought upon the believers in Christ by pagan or heathen nations.
The term "pagan" as here used. may be taken as a synonym of "heathen," and is to be understood as referring to persons or peoples who did not believe in the existence of the living God, and whose worship was essentially idolatrous.
The selfish motives impelling the non-believing and wicked element among the Jews to oppose the establishsment and spread of Christianity may readily be understood, in
view of the fact that the religion taught by Christ appeared as a rival to Judaism, and that the growth and spread of the one meant the decline if not the extinction of the other. The immediate mctive leading to bitter and widespread persecution of the Christians by heathen peoples is not so easy to perceive, since there was no uniform system of idolatrous worship in any single nation, but a vast diversity of deities and cults of idolatry, to no one of which was Christianity opposed more than to all. Yet we find the worshipers of idols forgetting their own differences and uniting in national opposition to the gospel of peace, in persecution waged with incredible ferocity and indescribable cruelty.
We shall find but little information bearing directly upon our subject in the New Testament; and in our present study we must look to outside history. The written history of the world from the time of Christ to the present is commonly classified as church history and secular history, or as ecclesiastical and profane history. The terms are self-explanatory. Unfortunately historians differ widely in their record of persecution of Christians according to the point of view from which each writer wrote. Thus, in a general way, Christian writers. have given extreme accounts of the
sufferings to which the Church and its adherents individually were subjected; while non-Christian historians have sought to lessen and minimize the extent and severity of the cruelties practiced against the Christians. There are facts, however, which neither of these parties can deny, and to which both give place in their separate records. To make a fair interpretation of these facts, drawing just and true inferences therefrom, should be our purpose as earnest students.
Even during the personal ministry of the early apostles, persecution of the Saints had spread from Jerusalem, throughout Palestine and into the adjacent provinces. In this evil work the Jews sought to incite their own people living in the outlying parts, and also to arouse the opposition of the officers and rulers of the Roman dominions. As evidence of this phase of the persecution, partly Jewish and partly pagan, instigated by Jews and participated in by others, the following quotation from Mosheim* may suffice.
"The Jews who lived out of Palestine, in the Roman provinces, did not yield to those of Jerusalem in point of cruelty to the innocent disciples of Christ. We learn from the history of the Acts of the Apostles, and other records of unquestionable authority, that they spared no labor, but zealously seized every occasion of animating the magistrates against the Christians, and setting on the multitude to demand their destruction. The high priest of the nation and the Jews who dwelt in Palestine were instru
*J. L. von Mosheim: a German writer on theological history, author of an extended work on "Ecclesiastical History," dated 1755. The citations from Mosheim's work presented in this series of lessons are from the version translated into English by Dr. Archibald Maclaine in 1764.
mental in inciting the rage of these foreign Jews against the infant Church, by sending messengers to exhort them, not only to avoid all intercourse with the Christians, but also to persecute them in the most vehement manner. For this inhuman order they endeavored to find out the most plausible pretexts; and therefore, they gave out, that the Christians were enemies to the Roman emperor, since they acknowledged the authority of a certain person whose name was Jesus, whom Pilate had punished capitally as a malefactor by a most righteous sentence, and on whom, nevertheless, they conferred the royal dignity." (Mosheim's "Ecclesiastical History" Book I, Part I, 5:2).
Early in the latter half of the first century the scene of persecution had mainly shifted from Jerusalem to the outlying provinces, and the cause of this was the general exodus of the Saints from the city whose destruction had been decreed. Read the predictions of Christ as to the fate of Jerusalem. (Luke 21: 5-9, 20-24). According to Eusebius* the Saints had very generally obeyed the Savior's admonition to flee, and had moved into the province beyond Jordan, and thus largely escaped the calamities that befel the Jews who remained. The extent of the disaster is set forth in the following citation:
"A rebellious disturbance among the Jews gave a semblance of excuse for a terrible chastisement to be visited upon them by their Roman masters, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem, A. D. 71. The city fell after a six months' siege before the Roman arms led by Titus, son
of the emperor Vespasian. Josephus, the famous historian, to whom we owe most of our knowledge as to the details of the struggle, was himself a resident of Galilee and was carried to Rome among the captives. From his record we learn that nearly a million Jews lost their lives through the famine incident to the siege; many more were sold into slavery, and uncounted numbers were forced into exile. The city was utterly destroyed, and the site upon which the temple had stood was plowed up by the Romans in their search for treasure. Thus literally were the words of Christ fulfilled, "There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down.'"-(Talmage, "The Articles of Faith," Lecture 17: 18).
PERSECUTION UNDER NERO.
The first extended and notable persecution of Christians under the official edict of a Roman emperor was that instigated by Nero, A. D. 64. As students of history know, this monarch is remembered mostly for his crimes. During the latter part of his infamous reign, a large section of the city of Rome was destroyed by fire. He was suspected by some of being responsible for the disaster, and fearing the resentment of the infuriated people, he sought to implicate the unpopular and much-maligned Christians as the incendiaries, and by torture tried to force a confession from them. As to what followed the foul accusation, let us consider the words of a non-Christian writer, Tacitus, whose integrity as a historian is held in highest esteem.
"With this view he [Nero] inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those men who, under the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already branded with deserved infamy. They derived their name and origin from Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. For awhile this dire superstition was checked; but it again burst forth; and
not only spread itself over Judea, the first seat of this mischievous sect, but was even introduced into Rome, the common asylum which receives and protects whatever is impure, whatever is atrocious. The confessions of those that were seized discovered a great multitude of their accomplices, and they were all convicted, not so much for the crime of setting fire to the city, as for their hatred of human kind. They died in torments, and their torments were embittered by insults and derision. Some were nailed on crosses; others sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and exposed to the fury of dogs, others, again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the darkness of the night. The gardens of Nero were destined for the melancholy spectacle, which was accompanied with a horserace, and honored with the presence of the emperor, who mingled with the populace in the dress and attitude of a charioteer. The guilt of the Christians deserved indeed the most exemplary punishments, but the public abhorrence was changed into commiseration, from the opinion that those unhappy wretches were sacrificed, not so much to the public welfare as to the cruelty of a jealous tyrant."-(Tacitus: Annals, Book 15, chap. 44).
There is some disagreement among historians as to whether this Neronian persecution was limited to the city of Rome, or was made general throughout the provinces. On this point Mosheim says:
"Learned men are not entirely agreed concerning the extent of this persecution under Nero. Some confine it to the city of Rome, while others represent it as having raged throughout the whole empire. The latter opinion, which is also the most ancient, is undoubtedly to be preferred; as it is certain that the laws enacted against the Christians were enacted against the whole body, and not against particular churches, and were consequently in force in the remotest provinces."-Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Book I, Part I, 5: 14).
This, the first persecution by Roman edict, ended with the death of the tyrant Nero, A. D. 68. According to tradition handed down from the early Christian writers, the apostles Paul and Peter suffered martyrdom during this period of persecution; but the tradition is neither confirmed nor disproved by authentic record.
The real cause of Roman opposition to Christianity has occasioned many conjectures. Every conscientious reader of history admits that the edict of Nero condemning the Christians was issued under false accusations, and was made possible by the very general disfavor in which these people were held. It is probable that intolerance and the too bold exhibition of religious zeal on the part of the Christians themselves had much to do with their unpopularity among heathen nations. This subject is conservatively summed up by Mosheim, from whom we quote:
"Before we proceed further in this part of our history, a very natural curiosity calls us to inquire, how it happened that the Romans, who were troublesome to no nation on account of their religion, and who suffered even the Jews to live under their own laws, and follow their own methods of worship, treated the Christians alone with such severity? This important question seems still more difficult to be solved, when we consider, that the excellent nature of the Christian religion, and its admirable tendency to promote both the public welfare of the state, and the private felicity of the individual, entitled it, in a singular manner, to the favor and protection of the reigning powers. One of the principal reasons of the severity with which the Romans persecuted the Christians, notwithstanding these considerations, seems to have been the abhorrence and contempt with which the latter regarded the religion of the empire, which was
so intimately connected with the form, and indeed, with the very essence of its political constitution. For, though the Romans gave an unlimited toleration to all religions which had nothing in their tenets dangerous to the commonwealth, yet they would not permit that of their ancestors, which was established by the laws of the state, to be turned into derision, nor the people to be drawn away from their attachment to it. These, however, were the two things which the Christians were charged with, and that justly, though to their honor. They dared to ridicule the absurdities of the pagan superstition, and they were ardent and assiduous in gaining proselytes to the truth. Nor did they only attack the religion of Rome, but also all the different shapes and forms under which superstition appeared in the various countries where they exercised their ministry. From this the Romans concluded, that the Christian sect was not only unsupportably daring and arrogant, but, moreover, an enemy to the public tranquility, and every way proper to excite civil wars and commotions in the empire. It is, probably, on this account that Tacitus reproaches them with the odious character of haters of mankind, and styles the religion of Jesus as destructive superstition; and that Suetonius speaks of the Christians, and their doctrine in terms of the same kind.
"Another circumstance that irritated the Romans against the Christians, was the simplicity of their worship, which resembled in nothing the sacred rites of any other people. The Christians had neither sacrifices, nor temples, nor images, nor oracles, nor sacerdotal orders; and this was sufficient to bring upon them the reproaches of an ignorant multitude, who imagined that there could be no religion without these."-(Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Book I, Part I, 1:6, 7).
PERSECUTION UNDER DOMITIAN.
The second officially appointed persecution under Roman authority began in 93 or 94 A. D., in the reign of Domitian. Both Christians and Jews came under this prince's dis
pleasure, because they refused to reverence the statues of himself which he had erected as objects of adoration. A further cause for his special animosity against the Christians, as affirmed by early writers. is as follows.
The emperor was persuaded that he was in danger of losing his throne, in view of a reputed prediction that from the family to which Jesus belonged there would arise one who would weaken if not overthrow the power of Rome.
With this as his ostensible excuse, this wicked ruler waged terrible destruction on an innocent people. Happily, the persecution thus started was of but a few years duration. Mosheim and others aver that the end of the persecution was caused by the emperor's untimely death; though Eusebius, who wrote in the fourth century, quotes an earlier writer as declaring that Domitian had the living descendants of the Savior's family brought before him, and that after questioning them he became convinced that he was in no danger from them; and thereupon dismissed them with contempt and ordered the persecution to cease. It is believed that while the edict of Domitian was in force the apostle John suffered banishment to the isle of Patmos.
PERSECUTION UNDER TRAJAN. What is known in ecclesiastical history as the third persecution of the Christian Church took place in the reign of Trajan, who occupied the imperial throne from 98 to 117 A. D. He was and is regarded as one of the best of the Roman emperors, yet he sanctioned violent persecution of the Christians owing to their "inflexible obstinacy" in refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods.
History has preserved to us a very important letter asking instructions from the emperor by the younger Pliny, who was governor of Pontus, and the emperor's reply thereto. This correspondence is instructive as showing the extent to which Christianity had spread at that time, and the way in which believers were treated by the officers of the state. It is of such interest as to be worthy of reproduction in full. The version here given is that of Milner as appears in his "History of the Church of Christ," edition of 1810.
"Pliny to Trajan Emperor.
"Health. It is my usual custom, Sir, to refer all things, of which I harbor any doubts, to you. For who can better direct my judgment in its hesitation, or instruct my understanding in its ignorance? I never had the fortune to be present at any examination of Christians, before I came to this province. I am therefore at a loss, to determine what is the usual object either of inquiry or of punishment, and to what length either of them is to be carried. It has also been with me a question very problematical-whether any distinction should be made between the young and the old, the tender and the robust;whether any room should be given for repentance, or the guilt of Christianity once incurred is not to be expiated by the most unequivocal retraction;-whether the name itself, abstracted from any flagitiousness of conduct, or the crimes connected with the name, be the object of punishment. In the meantime, this has been my method, with respect to those who were brought before me as Christians. I asked them, whether they were Christians: if they pleaded guilty, I interrogated them twice afresh with a menace of capital punishment. case of obstinate perseverance I ordered them to be executed. For of this I had no doubt, whatever was the nature of their religion, that a sullen and obstinate inflexibility called for the vengeance of the magistrate.
Some were infected with the same madness whom, on account of their privilege of citizenship, I reserved to