"THE SECOND CENTURY:
THE GROWTH OF THE CHURCH IN A PAGAN EMPIRE"
By Frank Lanza, M.D.
The end of the first century was
marked by the assassination of the tyrannical and depraved emperor
Domitian. The second century began with the ascension of Nerva (96-98)
to the throne of the Roman Empire. During his short reign, he expanded
the borders of the empire by victories in Germany and Pannonia (the
Balkans), but more importantly severe persecution of Christians, which
had occurred under Domitian, was prohibited. Nerva was followed by four
emperors over a period of 80 years who also brought stability and peace
within the borders of the empire, which allowed the church to grow and
organize itself unimpeded. Nerva was succeeded by his adopted son,
Trajan, who was first of the “adoptive emperors”. The
practice of the throne passing to the oldest son of the emperor was
done away with. Each ruler selected the man he felt best qualified to
next lead the empire. This practice undoubtedly led to the stability
seen during most of the second century. Trajan continued the
prohibition of indiscriminate Christian persecution begun under Nerva.
An excellent illustration of this is his response in 116 to a letter
from Pliny, the younger, governor of Bithynia, asking how to deal with
Christian persecution in his province. He replied that no Christian
could be punished without a fair trial with evidence presented by the
accusers and that a simple, often anonymous accusation was insufficient
to merit convictions or punishment. Near the end of Trajan’s
reign, there was a Jewish revolt in Egypt, Cyrenacia, and Cypress,
which had to be put down by force. At that time, there was no fighting
in Judea. Trajan also fought wars in the Middle East and further
extended the borders of the empire as far as the Euphrates.
Trajan was succeeded by his adopted son, Hadrian (117-138). Early in
his reign, he realized that the empire was overextended and could not
be defended by the military forces available. He, therefore, withdrew
the Roman legions stationed in Mesopotamia and parts of Germany,
thereby consolidating the empire and fortifying its borders.
The second Jewish rebellion (130-135) also occurred during his reign.
It began over a law that prohibited circumcision and also the
establishment of pagan temples in Jerusalem. This war led by Bar Cochba
lasted about five years. During this time, Christians were actually
persecuted by the Jews, unless they denied Jesus Christ. Bar Cochba was
finally defeated by the Romans in 135 after the siege of Betthera.
Following this war, Hadrian banished all Jews from the sight of
Jerusalem and renamed it Aolia Capitolina and also built a temple to
Jupiter on the site of the Jewish temple destroyed in 70 by Titus.
Jerusalem was recolonized by the Romans, but many Jews remained in
Judea and Samaria, now renamed Palestine and annexed to the province of
Syria. Persecution of Christians during Hadrian’s time was
minimal. He forbade persecution of anyone without a trial. This was
also in reply to a letter from another governor in Asia, Serennius
Granianus, asking his advice in this manner.
The next two adopted emperors, Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus
Aurelius (161-180), were both men of wisdom and virtue whose primary
concern was the happiness and safety of the people. During their
reigns, there was peace and order within the borders of the empire.
They were, as were their predecessors, absolute rulers, but they
preserved the rule of law, civil procedure and personal liberties.
Unfortunately, Marcus Aurelius made one serious mistake. He abandoned
the adoptive formula for succession and allowed his son, Commodus, to
ascend to the
throne following his death.
The reign of Commodus (180-192) was a disaster. During the first few
years, he remained under the restraint of his father’s advisors,
but after an assassination attempt he developed a severe paranoia and
executed just about anyone who posed any threat, real or imagined. He
also fell into a hedonistic, dissolute and sexually immoral lifestyle
that rendered him both dangerous and ineffective. Ultimately, he was
assassinated by his mistress and the captain of the Praetorian Guard
who drugged him and then had him strangled. During his rule, Christians
as well as everyone else were severely persecuted.
It fell to the Praetorian Guard to name the next emperor, and they
selected an elderly general, Pertinax, who was about the only one left
alive who qualified. He stopped all persecution and tried to do away
with corruption and reform the government. This did not sit well with
the guard and they in turn assassinated him (192). His reign lasted 86
days. The Praetorians then felt that it would be a good idea to auction
off the empire to the highest bidder and a wealthy merchant named
Didius Julianus became emperor (192). He lasted 66 days.
At that time, there were three armies in the provinces with generals
who wanted the throne. After a series in battles, Septimus Severus, an
African, became the last emperor of the second century (193-211). He
was a strict disciplinarian and wisely disbanded the Praetorian Guard.
During his time in power, he re-stabilized the empire and prevented
persecution of the Christians.
Hopefully, this brief sketch of second century Roman history will
enable the reader to appreciate the tranquil environment which existed
in the first 80 years of the second century and to understand how it
allowed the church to grow for the most part unhindered by severe
persecution. There was, of course, some intermittent persecution of
Christians, especially under Marcus Aurelius who disliked the Jews
intensely, but nothing compared to the excesses experienced under Nero,
Claudius, and Domitian in the tumultuous first century.
The church entered the second century after the death of the last of
the apostles, John, in Ephesus, around the year 100. The work of the
apostles was carried on by the apostolic fathers who were direct
disciples of the apostles themselves. They included Clement and Hernas
in Rome, Ignatius in Antioch, Polycarp in Smyrna, Barnabas in
Alexandria, James, and then Symean in Jerusalem. These men were
responsible for spreading the message of Christianity and for the
growth of these
five major churches.
During the reigns of Nerva and Trajan, many exiled Christians,
including John, were allowed to return to their homes and have their
property restored. There was no significant persecution during that
time. Nevertheless, martyrdoms still occurred. Symean was martyred at
the age of 120 in 106, Ignatius in 110, and Polycarp in 156.
The apostolic fathers were followed by a group of men called the church
fathers. These included Iraneus, Tertullian, Origin, and Clement (of
Alexandria). They continued the teaching and work of the apostolic
fathers. As the church continued to grow, leaders were appointed called
presbyters (today’s priest) and deacons. From their members, a
bishop was selected to preside over a group of churches and the
surrounding countryside, which were then called dioceses. Today, this
is called an episcopal form of government and is seen in some
protestant churches and in the Catholic Church.
During the second half of the second century, two great heresies arose
to challenge the church. The first of these was Gnosticism, which
believed that Christ was not God and that God never walked on earth in
human form. The best known of the Gnostics was a man called Marcion,
but their best spokesman was Calcus who in 177 wrote “A True
Discourse” against Christianity, adversely influencing many
Christians. It was not until 247 when Origin wrote “Against
Calcus” that a convincing and devastating answer was forthcoming.
The other heresy at the time was Montanism, which held that the Holy
Spirit did not come unto the apostles in the upper room and that it
would come soon to all believers and that the end of the world was
imminent. Two other Christian fathers who wrote extensively and
effectively against these and other heresies were Iraneus who wrote
“Against Heresies” and was martyred in 200 and Justin,
author of “Apology”, also martyred in 166 and known
thereafter as “Justin Martyr”.
The best known heresy was Arianism founded by the priest, Arius, which
denied the trinity and taught that God the father was superior to God
the son. However, this was more of a third century heresy which
persistent to some extent for hundreds of years. It was the reason for
the council of Nicea in 325, which will be discussed in a later article.
During the second century, because of its struggles against Gnosticism
and other heresies, a creed was developed, which is a summary of
Christian beliefs and came to be called “The Apostles
Creed”. The church adopted the creed at its official doctrine.
During this time, a cannon was also developed, which was essentially a
list of the books which belong in the New Testament. There were a large
number of writings extent at that time and the church had to decide
which of them was divinely inspired and could be included in the New
A question which must now be asked is: how could the church have
accomplished all of these things while in a primarily pagan empire and
in fact how to even survive the first century and the severe
persecutions of the early emperors? The answer is obviously that this
is God’s plan. He allowed the Roman Empire to come about and sent
his son in the midst of that terrible first century for those who
believed in him. What would be the probability that an insignificant
Jewish sect born in that time would become a great religion ultimately
dominating the known world. Obviously, Rome was created to provide an
environment allowing Christianity to be born, survive, and ultimately
dominate. Why Rome? Why not Alexander’s empire, Greece or
Babylon, or Persia? None of these empires qualify because they were
confined to the near East and South Eastern Europe. Rome included these
areas as well as most of Western Europe, North Africa, and Arabia.
Because of the need for Christianity to be spread to most of the world,
an empire had to exist which encompassed those regions. It had to be
Rome. There was no other
before or since. This was God’s plan, not man’s.