Friday, December 24, 2004

Lesson 12 Worship in the Early Church

In the previous lesson, we discussed the political climate from the end of the first century until the ascendancy of Constantine in A.D. 312. Now it is time to look at how these early Christians worshipped.

Documentation is much more available for the second have of this period. From about A.D. 60, where Luke’s history (The book of Acts) ends, to about A.D. 180, there is no continuous account, and what little is known must be pieced together.

By the time the picture clarifies, toward the end of the second century, it does so in a (perhaps) surprising manner. We do not find highly independent Christian communities scattered throughout the world, but something much more like a universal or catholic church, which we might as well call the Catholic Church, a loose but definite confederation of churches that, while disagreeing on certain things, nevertheless distinguished themselves from others that might claim the Christian mantle. The way in which this distinction was manifest is that they functioned as an ecumenical body with a “rule of faith” and a recognized body of scripture that served as the guideline for judging the veracity of anything that might be thought of as a question of faith or doctrine.

Charitable Works

From the earliest days, one of the commonalities among groups of Christians was the practice of charity and mutual aid. Recall that one of the first acts of the second Christian community, the church at Antioch, was to send gifts to the first community, the church at Jerusalem, to alleviate their suffering in the face of famine. In the Jerusalem church itself, wealthier members placed their property in a common pool for use by those in need. The first institution of deacons in the church was intended to distribute goods to the needy.

In later apostolic times, after Paul had founded churches throughout the Mediterranean region, we see additional efforts from a number of them to provide assistance to the poverty stricken Jerusalem church.
1Now about the collection for God's people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me. (1 Cor. 16:1-4)

While these apostolic era churches were administered independently, with their own bishops and elders, it was clear they felt a sense of being part of a catholic body, as evidenced by readiness of one community to assist another.

Widows were another area in which the early church practiced charity. Widows were not only to be taken care of, but also put to work in the church, primarily in the distribution of charity to others in need. This is evident in the instructions regarding widows found, for example, in 1 Tim. 5.

The charitable and mutual aid aspect of Christianity made its way into the period’s secular literature. In the second century, and Greek satirist by the name of Lucian describes Christian practice in one of his works. The character is a charlatan named Proteus Peregrinius. Proteus is depicted as joining the Christians. When he ends up in prison, Lucian writes that the Christians “left no stone unturned” in their effort to secure his release. When they were unsuccessful, they looked after his needs in all matters with “untiring solicitude and devotion.” From the crack of dawn, widows and orphans are waiting at the prison doors, and church officers bribe the jailers so that they might spend the night and being him meals and partake of their “sacred formulas.”

The fact that Christian charity did not go unnoticed is, of course, also testimony of the fact that it was unusual. This is an important part of the explanation of how the church grew even us it suffered repeated persecutions.

Caring for children (orphans) is another mark of the Christian communities, and one which distinguishes them—for this was an era when children were exposed (instead of murdered in the womb) if unwanted by their parents. This practice of abandonment is well documented in the Greco-Roman world, and these children were often picked up by “baby farmers” to become slaves or courtesans.

An example: a letter, written in 1 B.C., from an Egyptian to his wife. Though written in a loving manner to his pregnant spouse, the writer gives these matter-of-fact instructions: “If it is a boy, keep it; if a girl, expose it.”

In addition to attending to the needs of widows and orphans, the church also distinguished itself by caring for the sick. When Alexandria was devastated by a plague in the middle of the third century, the bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, wrote about the devotion of Christians in tending the sick, often catching the plague and dying of it themselves in consequence, whereas their pagan neighbors “thrust from them those who showed symptoms of the plague and fled from their nearest and dearest. They would throw them into the streets half dead, or cast out their corpses without burial.”

In these and other matters (e.g., slavery) Christians were not just “doing what any decent folk would do,” but were setting an entirely new standard in treating all human life with respect and kindness.


It would be nice if a study of the nascent church demonstrated a definitive point of view when it comes to baptism, both in the question of who gets baptized (children and professing believers, or only professing believers) and in the mode of administration of the sacrament (ordinance). Alas, it does not, and many of the same debates that rage in our day were also present (although the arguments were couched differently) in the earliest days of the church.

One of earliest documents to speak on this is the Didache (~A.D. 120), which has the full title The Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles. (Its neglect of Paul suggests it was at first a document of Jewish Christians, probably of Syrian origin.)
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: After reviewing all of this teaching, baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in living (running) water. But if running water is not available, then baptize into other water; and cold is preferred, but if not available in warm. But if neither is available, pour water three times upon the head in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism, let the overseer fast, and also the one being baptized, and all others who are able; Be sure to instruct the one being baptized to fast one or two days before. (Didache 7)

Notice a sort of non-dogmatic reasonableness, cold running water is preferred, but if not, warm static water is fine. Neither dunking nor sprinkling is declared as the “only” method; the meaning of baptism (whatever they took it to be) is more important than the method. Since fasting is mentioned, it is also interesting to look at what the Didache has to say about that:
Be careful not to schedule your fasts at the times when the hypocrites fast. They fast on the second (Monday) and fifth (Thursday) day of the week, therefore make your fast on the fourth (Wednesday) day and the Preparation day (Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath-Saturday). Likewise, don't pray as the hypocrites, but as commanded in the Gospel in this manner:

Our Father in heaven,
Sacred is Your Name.
Your kingdom comes.
Your will is accomplished,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debt
in the manner that we forgive our debtors.
And do not allow us to fall to temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for Yours is the power and the glory forever.

Pray in this manner three times per day. (Didache 8)

The admonition against fasting like the hypocrites brings to mind:
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Matt. 6:16)

But in the Didache, fasting like the “hypocrites” is extended to avoid the very days in which they fast (second and fifth), i.e., the days when the Jews fasted!

As for the Lord’s Supper, the Didache throws a curve: it instructs the partaking of the cup first:
Now concerning the Thanksgiving meal, give thanks in this manner.

First, concerning the cup:

We thank You, our Father,
For the Holy Vine of David Your servant,
Whom You made known to us through Your Servant;
May the glory be Yours forever.

Concerning the broken bread:

We thank You, our Father,
For the life and knowledge
Which You made known to us through Your Servant;
May the glory be Yours forever.
As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains,
And was gathered together to become one,
So let Your Body of Faithful be gathered together
From the ends of the earth into Your kingdom;
for the glory and power are Yours forever.

But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving, unless they have been baptized; for concerning this is taught, "Do not give what is holy to dogs." (Didache 9)

Back to baptism. Some of the earliest evidence that infant baptism was practiced in the early church comes from those who argue against it. For example, Tertullian:
And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary--if (baptism itself) is not so necessary --that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfill their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, "Forbid them not to come unto me." Let them "come," then, while they are growing up; let them "come" while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the "remission of sins?" More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to "ask" for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given "to him that asketh." For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred--in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom--until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation. (Tertullian, On Baptism)

Tertullian is not arguing against a hypothetical, it would seem, but an actual practice in the North African church. He did not dispute the validity of infant baptism, but questioned its necessity and pointed out what, in his mind, were its risks “If people understood the obligations of baptism, they fear receiving it more than delaying it.”

Origen, on the other hand, was in favor of baptizing children, claiming and preaching that it was apostolic. He wrote:
Little ones are baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Which sins? Or at what time have they sinned? Or how can there be the slightest reason for the baptism of little children, unless it is to be found in the passage “No one is free from taint, not even he whose life upon earth lasts but a day”? Even little children are baptized. Because the taint which we have at birth is removed in the sacrament of baptism.

Cyprian (200-258), Bishop of Carthage, was another ardent supporter of infant baptism.
But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man… And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to he hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to he observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat. (Cyprian, Epistle LVIII)

In spite of evidence that infant baptism was practiced and that some of the great church fathers and first-generation apologists supported it, a great deal of evidence points to the widespread practice of “believers baptism” (implying also withholding baptism from children). Many church fathers, those of Christian parents, were not baptized until the end of their “student days,” e.g. Augustine.

We can also turn to Justin Martyr, and look at his teaching concerning baptism:
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers' wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Isaiah the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the layer the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (Justin, Apol, 1, 61)
Justin appears to have an unresolved and rather odd view –he seems to teach baptismal regeneration while denying the common view of original sin.

Concerning Communion, Justin writes:
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
And this food is called among us [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;" and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood;" and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (Justin, Apol, 1, 65,66)
Concerning weekly worship, Justin instructs:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savoir on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. (Justin, Apol, 1, 67)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Swearing, etc.

Regarding my book, which contains some swearing, Bob commented:
I realy don't understand your logic about reconciling faith and reality. If you think you can write profanity and describe some"college situations" in language that is of the world. Who do you think your fooling? Is this book about making money? We are to be different in all things,even evangelizing. Just another opinion that I am sure you will be able to justify in your own mind.

I find this puzzling.

Paul was willing to become all things and to compromise anything, except the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:20) Far from being “different in all things”, he would adapt his behavior based on his company. The true meaning of “different in all things” is living out one’s faith and, as with Paul, never compromising the gospel.

When I was in college, the fundamentalist evangelical types had no effect when they buttonholed me—I made fun of them. And yet a scientist, who taught of the evidence for God in physics, and who occasionally had some salt in his language, had a profound impact. If he had been different in all things (as Bob means it, if I understand correctly), including his evangelism, I would have ignored him just like I ignored the others who were different in all things.

Once I asked a colleague and former student when he became a Christian. He told me that he was greatly influenced by one of my lectures when I snuck in some Intelligent Design arguments. That is the purpose of my book: to evangelize in the same way that I was evangelized, and the same way that I have evangelized others through lectures and talks.

It is also true that any admonition that we try to apply to “do not swear” is more accurately “do not curse someone" (something like ascribing false motives to their actions, such 'as to make money') or “do not swear an oath to God.” The swearing that I use in my book, e.g.,“Yeah, I was pissed off” is not of this type. Not that is to be preferred, but you cannot convince me from the bible that such a statement, which contains not a curse, a slander, gossip, or is intended to hurt, is sinful. After all, God’s law is absolute. Whether a word like piss, used to describe a mood, is “swearing” is completely subjective. At most, you can say that if you are in a situation where it offends, then don’t use it. Beyond that, it’s in the secular realm: don’t use it for it makes you look ignorant.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

My Book: Here, Eyeball This!

[Note: For those looking for the next Church History installment, a new one has been posted below.]

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am writing a novel. In fact, two fellow bloggers have read it in its earlier forms. Rachel read a very early draft, I am embarrassed to think of what I actually sent her. Josh read a much later draft. What I sent him was probably at the 80% level and it still contained roughly a mole of typos.

The story is now at the point where I cannot make it better, apart from tweaking and typo correction. Note: claiming "I can't make it better" is not the same, by a long shot, as claiming the book is good –it’s an assessment of my abilities.

I have given up the hope of traditional publishing. I cannot get an agent even to request the manuscript. (If you don’t know, you generally approach agents with a query letter and a synopsis. If you generate interest, they will request sample chapters or a manuscript.) Ironically, the only agent to request a manuscript was when I completed the first draft, which I naively though was pretty good. I now know it was awful, little more than an outline.

I explored the Christian publishing route, but my novel, while in my opinion highly evangelical (albeit in an unusual way), is “PG13.” I have had some discussion with Christian publishers. Here is a recent and typical exchange:

David: I have your package, which was sent as a result of my posting on 1st Edition. I might be interested, but I have a question. I consider my novel highly evangelical (An important theme in the story is the evidence for intelligent design), but it is rated "PG13". It's about college students. No explicit sex, some mild innuendo, some swearing (no 'F' word.) Do you handle "PG13" type novels?

Christian Publisher Acquisition Manager: Thanks for the request but we would not be interested in publishing this type of novel.

(Note: what was frustrating in this particular exchange was that they had first contacted me, obviously without doing their homework.)

So, I am considering a different route. Which is to publish it as an e-book with a legitimate e-book publisher and using a Print On Demand publisher (POD) for the dead tree version. The downsideS to POD are (a) a bruised ego (b) a million to one shot at showing up in a major book store (although it would be available through Amazon and B&N online) and (c) higher cost –probably about $13 for the paperback as opposed to $8.

For what it’s worth, here is the synopsis that is not enticing any literary agents:

Here, Eyeball This! (~100,000 words)


Aaron Dern begins graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, fearful that he can’t compete with this impressive looking array of foreign students. He doesn’t realize that he is about to form the closest and strangest friendships of his life, or that he is about to discover that science and spirituality intersect.

Soon he meets Hiroshi Yoto, from Japan, who enjoys American beer and trying out new English words, often with unforeseen consequences. You’ll laugh out loud when he goes head to head with comedian Dennis Miller.

And there’s Yen, a former tank commander from Taiwan. He likes to read bathroom graffiti and the Bible. To Yen, Solomon is wise indeed, but not for the usual reasons.

From Estonia there is Timil Deeps, who has trouble mastering physics, not to mention an even harder subject: baseball.

Maya Dupree is inscrutable behind her thick lenses, Patrick O’Neill lives in a constant state of pious agitation, and Ken Dolittle does his best at alienating everyone.

Professor Mike Jacob and his wife Vivian, half Mike’s age, teach Aaron lessons far more valuable than physics, lessons about the true origin of the universe.

When Aaron detects signals from Leila, an undergraduate beauty who everyone agrees is out of his league, uncertainty rules the day. She’s a student in his class, which makes the cost of misinterpreting those signals even more severe.

Bernie Roche and Grace Chen, fellow graduate students, impact his life in unimaginable ways. Not at all what Aaron expected when he evaluated them at first glance, they have a complexity that catches him by surprise. The Roche squeeze catalyzes the friendship, and Grace Chen’s feistiness never fails to amaze.

Aaron and his friends inch their way toward the dreaded qualifier, the comprehensive eight-hour exam that will determine their fates. Only those who pass can go for the prize: a Ph.D. And yet the closer it gets, the less important it becomes for Aaron.

And then, a trashcan provides Aaron the opportunity of a lifetime. But is it one that he can accept?

The events that happen in the one and a half years covered by this story will make you laugh, make you think, and might even make you cry.

When it is published (which if I go this route may be very soon) I may pander for bloggers to review it.

Lesson 11: The Next 200 Years

[Note: The source for most of this material is The Spreading Flame, by F.F. Bruce.]

For the next two hundred years, the Christians of the Roman Empire would endure periods of persecution of varying intensity as well as brief respites of tranquility. The common thread is that the church maintained her faith (as always, imperfectly) and propagated it so successfully that her numbers always increased.

At this time, the first post-apostolic apologists appear, scholars who preferred to defend the church with pen rather than sword. The earliest known is Quadratus,

Antoninus Pius138-161
Marcus Aurelius161-180
Lucius Verus161-169
Sepimius Severus193-211
Alexander Severus222-235
Philip the Arab244-249
Valerian I253-260
Diocletian (E)284-305
Constantius (W)305-306
Galerius (E)305-311
Maximian (E)307-308
Constantine (W)312-337
Licinius (E)308-324
The historian Eusebius (~260 - before 341) wrote regarding Quadratus:
After Trajan had reigned for nineteen and a half years [Hadrian] became his successor in the empire. To him Quadratus addressed a discourse containing an apology for our religion, because certain wicked men had attempted to trouble the Christians. The work is still in the hands of a great many of the brethren, as also in our own, and furnishes clear proofs of the man's understanding and of his apostolic orthodox. 2 He himself reveals the early date at which he lived in the following words: "But the works of our Savior were always present, for they were genuine:-those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Savior was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV, 3:2)

In the middle of the second century, the most notable apologist is Justin (A.D. 100-165), a Greek philosopher from Samaria who had been converted to Christianity. Ultimately he would die for his faith, and so is known to us as Justin Martyr. He defended Christianity to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his two adopted sons.

One early anonymous apologist from the mid second century sums of the state of Christianity in the world:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred..

To sum up all in one word--what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake. (Epistle to Diognetus, 5-6)

Although the author is unknown, he is considered one of the most eloquent writers of the era. Indeed, its beauty is the prime reason why the epistle is not credited to Justin.

None of these apologetic writings had any effect on their intended recipients. The authorities had no interest in defenses of Christianity. If Christians wanted to prove their loyalty, then they could burn incense for the state gods, just like the pagans did.

Justin, who was bona fide Greek philosopher, was martyred under another philosopher, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius. Brought with six companions to Rusticus, prefect of Rome, we have an accurate account of the dialog:
"The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Savior."

Under Marcus Aurelius, it was political turmoil within the empire that intensified persecution against the church. The year A.D. 166 was a year of great calamity, when havoc was wrought by plague, flood, famine, and invasion from beyond the Danube. In those times many Romans looked around for who, Jonah-like, was bringing the wrath of the gods upon them. Often the “atheistic” Christians were just the group.

The most notorious persecution of Marcus’s regime began in Gaul in 177 the church at Lyons. The outbreak began not with an official edict but mob violence that was given a blind eye by the local magistrates. When some of Christians turned out to be Roman citizens, the Emperor’s ruling was sought. Marcus replied that those who don’t recant should be beheaded, if Roman citizens, and tortured to death otherwise. The survivors sent a poignant and detailed description of the persecution to the churches at Asia Minor. Neither age (young or old) nor gender spared one from death. The ninety year old bishop of Lyons, Ponthinus, was a victim as were children. The most memorable martyr was a slave-girl Blandina. From the Catholic Enclopedia:
Among these Christians was Blandina, a slave, who had been taken into custody along with her master, also a Christian. Her companions greatly feared that on account of her bodily frailty she might not remain steadfast under torture. But although the legate caused her to be tortured in a horrible manner, so that even the executioners became exhausted "as they did not know what more they could do to her", still she remained faithful and repeated to every question "I am a Christian and we commit no wrongdoing." Through fear of torture heathen slaves had testified against their masters that the Christians when assembled committed those scandalous acts of which they were accused by the heathen mob, and the legate desired to wring confession of this misconduct from the Christian prisoners. In his report to the emperor the legate stated that those who held to their Christian belief were to be executed and those who denied their faith were to be released; Blandina was, therefore, with a number of companions subjected to new tortures in the amphitheater at the time of the public games. She was bound to a stake and wild beasts were set on her. They did not, however touch her. After this for a number of days she was led into the arena to see the sufferings of her companions. Finally, as the last of the martyrs, she was scourged, placed on a red-hot grate, enclosed in a net and thrown before a wild steer who tossed her into the air with his horns, and at last killed with a dagger.

Up to now there was a trend: those emperors that were most brutal in their persecutions were those who, after their deaths, were denounced by their pagan subjects as well. Namely: Nero and Domitian. Here the rule is violated: Marcus Aurelius presided over heinous violence against Christians, but is known by historians as one of the “five good emperors” who ruled during the Pax Romana heyday of the empire: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus’s son Commodus, who succeeded him, is known to historians as a bad emperor, a scoundrel, but Christians had a much easier time under him. That may be due to his wife Maria who may have been a Christian or at least regarded the Christians favorably.

After Commodus’s death, Rome was ruled by a succession of soldier-emperors. The first of these was Septimius Severus who was known from campaigns in Roman Britian. (He reconstructed Hadrian’s wall and died in York.) In 202, Severus issued a first-of-its-kind decree officially forbidding anyone from converting to Christianity.

At this time there was an outbreak of persecution in Egypt that was so severe that many thought it heralded the apocalypse. It was at this time that Leonidas, the father of the great Christian scholar Origen, was beheaded by command of the prefect of Egypt, Lactus. (The fifteen year old Origen wanted to join his father when he was arrested, but could not because his mother hid his clothes!)

Farther west on the African coast, at Carthage, there was another famous martyrdom, that of Perpetua and Felicitas. We have accurate account of their martyrdom, including the fact that Perpetua a free-born matron and Felicitas, her slave, entered the amphitheater hand in hand bearing witness not only to the enduring Christian faith but also attesting to its making class distinctions irrelevant.

Perpetua was about 22 years old and had recently given birth to a son. Apparently, she was a relatively new Christian, too--she was actually baptized while in prison. Felicitas, her slave girl, was like a sister to her. And she too was a new mother, giving birth shortly after her arrest.

Three times Perpetua's father was allowed in to beg her to change her mind. No decent daughter in this patriarchal society would deny her father's pleas and cause him public disgrace. The resolve of the two young women and their friends was unshakable. To deny Christ was worse than death. To follow Him was their first loyalty, no matter what the cost. Shortly before her trial, Perpetua received a series of visions from the Lord, reassuring her of his strength and presence.

When the fatal day came, Perpetua and Felicitas left the prison for the arena "joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven," as the eyewitness account puts it. Before a raging crowd, the Christians were thrown to the wild beasts. A mad heifer charged the women and tossed them, but Perpetua rose and helped Felicitas to her feet. She was ready, even eager, to die for the Lord.

"You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another," she called to the other martyrs, "and do not be weakened by what we have gone through!" When the beasts failed to kill the women, soldiers came to finish them off. But the soldier who came to Perpetua was trembling so much that she had to guide the sword to her throat, indicating that she was giving her life willingly. (

The greatest of the early apologists was Tertullian (~160 – [220-240]) who lived during the suppression under Septimius Severus addressed the Roman governors. He complained about Christians being the scapegoats for everything:
The term conspiracy should not be applied to us but rather to those who plot to foment hatred against decent and worthy people, those who shout for the blood of the innocent and plead in justification of their hatred the foolish excuse that the Christians are to blame for every public disaster and every misfortune that befalls the people. If the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile fails to rise and flood the fields, if the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake or famine or plague, straightaway the cry arises: “The Christians to the lions!” (Tertullian, Apologeticus 40, 1-2)

Tertullian also “bragged” about the rapid growth of Christianity:
We are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled all the places that belong to you—cities, islands, forts, towns, exchanges, the military camps themselves, tribes, town councils, the senate, the market place; we have left you nothing but your temples. (Tertullian, Apologeticus 37, 4ff.)

Tertullian goes into veiled threat mode, writing that it is well for the Empire that Christians do not really take up arms against it, they are numerous enough to do it effectively if they were so minded; or depopulate it by packing up and going to a distant corner of the earth. And if they were in truth the incendiaries that some alleged them to be, they could do considerable damage with torches some dark night.

Following this wave of suppression came a half century of relative peace. Some of the Emperors of that period were from the east, including Philip the Arab (244-249) of Damascus. They were more tolerant of Christianity, which had its roots in the eastern provinces. Alexander Severus (222-235) included Christ in his pantheon. And his mother was instructed by Origen.) This period of tranquility brought even more growth to the church.

In the middle part of the third century, there was more trouble for the empire. She faced a two fronted war against barbarians: Goths on north and Persians on the east. The war with Persians was especially problematic for Christians in the eastern provinces, for official Rome worried that they would have questionable loyalties: Christianity was in their minds an eastern religion and so Christians might look at Persian invaders as liberators. During this time, Decius (249-251) adopted the policy of “One Empire, one religion.” No more “merely” punishing Christians, Christianity itself had to go. In 250, an edict was issued that everyone in the empire must sacrifice to the state gods, and must get a certificate attesting to the fact that he had done so.

This sudden attack after a half century of relative peace led to turmoil within the church. A large number of Christians, those who found it easy to join in peaceful times, proved unable to endure the persecution and instead offered the sacrifices.

There was something different about this persecution. Unlike those of earlier years, the pagan populace as a whole did not go along. There was no mob uprising; the persecution was carried out by police. The hatred against Christians from “every day folk” (pagans) had largely disappeared, and slender against Christians, accusing them of horrible atrocities, had ceased. Christianity had grown so large, that everyone knew and was probably related to a Christian. In many cases, the pagans in general society tried to protect the Christians. One of the victims of this wave of persecution was Origen, who was “imprisoned and barbarously tortured, but his courage was unshaken and from his prison he wrote letters breathing the spirit of the martyrs.” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xxxix).

A few years of peace followed the persecution under Decius. Valerian (253-260) acted favorably toward the Christians for the first few years of his reign. He changed his mind in 257, no doubt in part due to the advancing Persian army who reached Syrian Antioch. He issued an edict prohibiting Christians from holding meetings and banning access to their cemeteries. It is believed that at this time the relics of Peter and Paul were removed from the Vatican hill and the Ostian road to find temprorary security in a place called Ad Catacumbas where the church of St. Sebastian now stands on the Appian Way. From here we get the word catacombs which eventually
came to refer to all Christian cemeteries.

A further edict in 258 spelled out the penalties: The clergy would be executed upon conviction; Senators and knights were to be degraded from their rank; ladies of rank were to be punished by confiscation and exile; employees of the imperial household were to be sent to forced labor camps on the imperial estates. Xystus, bishop of Rome (Pope Sixtus II) while seated on his chair in the act of addressing his flock he was suddenly apprehended by a band of soldiers. There is some doubt whether he was beheaded forthwith, or was first brought before a tribunal to receive his sentence and then led back to the cemetery for execution. Cyprian the bishop of Carthage was also executed in accordance with this edict.

Valerian himself was taken prisoner by the Persians and died in captivity. Following his death, though the Empire was still besieged on two fronts, there came almost forty years of peace for the church. Gallienus (253-268), Valerian’s son and successor, revoked the anti-Christian edicts and restored their property. Aurelian (270-275) planned to fuse all religions into a single state religion, but fortunately his death precluded his plan from being enacted.

One interesting “first” occurred under the reign of Aurelian: the first time the state was asked to settle an ecclesiastical dispute. In 268, the Church condemned Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, as a heretic. (Paul was accused of of acquiring great wealth by illicit means, of showing haughtiness and worldliness, of having set up for himself a lofty pulpit in the church, and of insulting those who did not applaud him and wave their handkerchiefs, and so forth. He had caused scandal by admitting women to live in his house, and had permitted the same to his clergy.) He was removed from office but refused to leave. At this time Antioch was part of the kingdom of Palmyra, whose ruler Zenobia was Paul’s patroness. In 273 Aurelian conquered Zenobia and regained Antioch. He heard the appeals of both sided, and ordered that the church property be handed over to the party recognized by the bishop of Rome.

In the peaceful closing decades of the third century, the numbers of Christians once again rose rapidly, to a point where they were at least a powerful minority in most of the empire, and a majority in certain parts.

Diocletian (284-305, whose wife and daughter were Christian) decided to reorganize the empire. He divided it into two parts, each ruled by a senior Emperor (with the title: Augustus) and a junior colleague who held the title Caesar. While this worked as long as Diocletian ruled (who was the first among equals) it effectively resulted in four wannabes vying for power after his abdication in 305.

Near the end of Diocletian’s reign, persecution suddenly reappeared in 303. It was mainly due to his son Galerius, who was Diocletian’s junior colleague in the eastern province. Galerius, it would seem, viewed the rapid growth of Christianity as ominous. He and other conservatives decided that if action wasn’t taken against Christianity, it would soon be too late. The first action in 303 was an edict ordering the destruction of church buildings and scripture. After several fires in the imperial palace were falsely blamed on Christians, a second edict was issued ordering the arrest of all clergy. In 304, an edict was issued that all Christians should sacrifice to the state gods, on pain of death. Diocletian’s Christian wife and daughter (who was Galerius’s wife) recanted. Once again the tendency among the populace was to protect their Christian neighbors. As crowds lined up to pay tribute to the gods, officials often turned a blind eye to Christians who just walked by without taking the prescribed action, such as throwing incense on the altar.

The severity of this persecution varied with local circumstances. In Gaul and Britian, which Constantius ruled as the western Caesar, there was hardle any. In Egypt and Palestine, the persecution was fierce, especially after Diocletian’s abdication in 305, when Galerius was elevated to the eastern Augustus, and his like-minded nephew Maximian became his eastern Caesar.

Although sever in certain areas, the persecution was short-lived. Galerius himself rescinded the anti-Christian measures before his death in 311. Maximian became Augustus of the east, and attempted some dimwitted propaganda against Christians, but he was quickly defeated in battle by his rival Licinius. Meanwhile, Constantine, the son of Constantius, had established supremacy over his rivals in the west, restoring church property in his part of the empire.

In 313 Constantine and Licinius held a meeting in Milan where the two victors agreed upon an official policy of tolerance for all religions in the empire.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Church History Lesson 10 (Those Crazy 60's!)

In A.D. 64, Rome burned and Nero launched his persecution of the Christians. By A.D. 68, Nero had lost complete control of the senate and was deposed. He was to be arrested and executed in a most hideous manner, but before that could happen he committed suicide. Suetonius wrote:
Finally, when his companions unanimously insisted on his trying to escape from the miserable fate threatening him, he ordered them to dig a grave at once, and then collect any pieces of marble that they could find and fetch wood and water for the disposal of the corps. As they bustled about obediently he muttered through his tears: "Dead! And so great an artist!"

A runner brought him a letter from Phaon. Nero tore it from the man's hands and read that, having been declared a public enemy by the Senate, he would be punished in 'ancient style' when arrested. He asked what 'ancient style' meant, and learned that the executioners stripped their victim naked, thrust his head into a wooden fork, and then flogged him to death with sticks. In terror he snatched up the two daggers which he brought along and tried their points; but threw them down again, protesting that the final hour had not yet come.

Then he begged Sporus to weep and mourn for him, but also begged one of the other three to set him an example by committing suicide first. He kept moaning about his cowardice, and muttering: 'How ugly and vulgar my life has become!' And then in Greek: 'This certainly is no credit to Nero, no credit at all,' and: 'Come pull yourself together, man!' By this time a troop of cavalry who had orders to take him alive were coming up the road. Nero gasped: 'Hark to the sound I hear! It is hooves of galloping horses.' Then, with the help of his scribe, Epaphroditos, he stabbed himself in the throat and was already half dead when a cavalry officer entered, pretending to have rushed to his rescue, and staunched the wound with his cloak. Nero muttered: 'Too late! But, ah, what fidelity!' He died, with his eyes glazed and bulging from their sockets, a sight which horrified everybody present.

In between the burning of Rome and suicide of Nero, the Jewish revolt against Roman rule began. The war didn’t end until after Nero's death (which in fact escalated the conflict since it emboldened the Jews)

The Destruction of Jerusalem

Today, we underestimate the magnitude and horror of the Roman response to the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70). We view it as something similar in degree to the British torching of the White House (after enjoying a complementary dinner for 40 that had been prepared for Dolly Madison and friends, but abandoned as the canon neared) in the war of 1812.

Prior to its destruction, Jerusalem was a large and formidable walled city. As the Romans began responding to Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70) throughout the land, the population of Jerusalem swelled as many sought safety within her walls.

The historian Josephus was captured by the future Roman Emperor Vespasian who, early in the Jewish Revolt, led the assault on city of Jotapata. Josephus was the General in charge of defending Jotapata. Some accounts state that Josephus survived the ensuing slaughter (following a 45 day siege) by hiding in a deep pit. Josephus claimed that Vespasian spared him because of his incredible valor. Much of what we quote below comes from Josephus’s book The Wars of the Jews.

Jack Van Deventer lists some of the atrocities committed by the Romans in a “dateline” manner, most of the information gleaned from the writings of Josephus.
  • Jerusalem (June 3, 66 A.D.)--"So the [Roman] soldiers did not only plunder the place they were sent to, but forcing themselves into every house, they slew its [Jewish] inhabitants; so the citizens fled along the narrow lanes, and the soldiers slew those that they caught, and no method of plunder was omitted; they also caught many of the quiet people, and brought them before Florus, whom he first chastised with stripes, and then crucified. Accordingly, the whole number of those that were destroyed that day, with their wives and children (for they did not spare even the infants themselves), was about 3,600."

  • Cesarea (66 A.D.)--"Now the people of Cesarea had slain the Jews that were among them. . . [I]n one hour's time above 20,000 Jews were killed, and all Cesarea was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants; for Florus caught such as ran away, and sent them to the galleys."

  • Scythopolis and other cities (66 A.D.)--"The people of Scythopolis watched their opportunity, and cut all [the Jews'] throats, some of them as they lay unguarded, and some as they lay asleep. The number that was slain was above 13,000, and then they plundered them of all they had." "Besides this murder at Scythopolis, the other cities rose up against the Jews that were among them: those of Askelon slew 2,500, and those of Ptolemais 2,000, and put not a few in bonds; those of Tyre also put a great number to death, but kept a greater number in prison."

  • Alexandria (66 A.D.)--These [Roman] soldiers rushed violently into that part of the city which was called Delta, where the Jewish people lived together [The Jews were] destroyed unmercifully; and this their destruction was complete, some being caught in the open field (Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. (Matt. 24:40).), and others forced into their houses, which houses were first plundered of what was in them, and then set on fire by the Romans; wherein no mercy was shown to the infants, and no regard had to the aged; but they went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, till all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 of them lay dead upon heaps. . . ."

  • Jotapata (July, 67 A.D.)--"[T]he Romans slew all the multitude that appeared openly; but on the following days they searched the hiding places, and fell upon those that were underground, and in the caverns, and went thus through every age, excepting the infants and the women, and of these there were gathered together as captives twelve hundred; and as for those that were slain at the taking of the city, and in the former fights, they were numbered to be 40,000.

The widespread slaughter of the Jews continued for several years. Many of the Jews fled to Jerusalem for safety.
24When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" 25All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt. 27:24-25)

The Jews asked that the blood be upon their hands. And so it was. In Jerusalem alone, Josephus records that 100,000 were captured, and 1.1 million killed. This does not include the Jews killed in other cities (as described above) as the Roman Juggernaut pushed forward.

After the Roman armies reached Jerusalem a lengthy siege ensued. The Romans bombarded the city with 90 pound stones hurled as far as 1200 feet by catapult

When the food ran out, civil war broke out among three Jewish factions. Murder and starvation were rampant. Josephus wrote that civil war inside the walls of Jerusalem wrought more carnage than the conquering Romans. People who were thought to have consumed food were sometimes killed and disemboweled in search of food within their stomachs. There were many reports of cannibalism. Many tried to escape starvation by sneaking out of the city. Most were captured by the Romans, killed on the spot and disemboweled: the Romans believed that the Jews hid their valuables by swallowing them. If a father was killed searching for food, his wife and children became targets within the city.

Josephus also described a scene of horror concerning a starving mother. In the midst of the famine she suddenly withdrew her nursing infant from her breast. She killed, roasted and ate half the child, and offered the rest to astonished and horrified bystanders.

It is interesting to read Josephus’ accounts of the events leading up to the war. In addition to "rumors of wars", Josephus records that there was a rise of false Christs and prophets.
There was also another body of wicked men gotten together, not so impure in their actions, but more wicked in their intentions, which laid waste the happy state of the city no less than did these murderers. These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of Divine inspiration…. But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives…( Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.13.)

Note that the Egyptian false prophet appears to be corroborated by the bible, Recall that Paul was arrested (although it was as much a rescue as an arrest) in his last trip to Jerusalem. The commander mistakes Paul for the false prophet Josephus described: "Do you speak Greek?" he replied. "Aren't you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?" (Acts 21:38).

Vespasian arrived to lead the Roman response in the spring of A.D. 67. Nero was emperor (he dispatched Vespasian to squelch the revolt). In A.D. 68, Nero died at his own hand. The following year was a bad one for Rome, the "year of the four emperors" viz. Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and finally stability with Vespasian. When Vespasian returned to Rome, his son Titus took over the military campaign. It was Titus who led the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The siege began in April A.D. 70 and by the end of August the Temple was first occupied then destroyed. Josephus describes the actual attack on the temple:
WHILE the holy house was on fire, every thing was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity, but children, and old men, and profane persons, and priests were all slain in the same manner;

AND now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy. And now all the soldiers had such vast quantities of the spoils which they had gotten by plunder, that in Syria a pound weight of gold was sold for half its former value.

What happened to the Christians?

According to the historian Eusebius (A.D. 260-340) Christians escaped from Jerusalem either before the siege, as the Roman armies surrounded the city, or during a lull in the fighting. The bulk of the Jewish Christians probably left Jerusalem in A.D. 66 when war broke out. For this they would later be branded as traitors by their Jewish countrymen.

By A.D. 70: James had been stoned in Jerusalem. Paul and Peter, had been martyred in Rome, by beheading and crucifixion respectively. Nero was dead. Jerusalem had been sacked, and the temple destroyed, and with its destruction came an end to Jewish temple worship. Over a million Jews died during the wars. It was, in many ways, the end of the Jewish age. We now turn to Rome as the center of the Christian world, and what happened there after Nero’s persecution.

Post-Nero Rome

Nero was identified by the early Christians as the antichrist. This is a fascinating story. It is entwined with that fact that after Nero’s suicide, many in the eastern provinces (where he was popular) did not believe he was dead. Indeed, for about twenty years there arose a series of pretender Neros. After that, the hope shifted into an expectation that Nero would return from the dead to reclaim his sovereignty. This superstition continued almost to the end of the second century. Some attribute the early church identification of Nero as the antichrist as stemming from this pagan superstition.

Who was the sixth king?

This is a provocative side-question arising from the book of Revelation
7When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: "Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come. 9"This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. 11The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.(Rev 17:7-11).

Many identify the kings as Roman emperors on the basis of the "seven hills." Only one city is known throughout history as the "City of Seven Hills:" Rome (Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, and Capitoline). The passage indicates that at the time of writing, five emperors have fallen, the sixth presently reigns, and the seventh has not yet come, but when he does come, he will reign for just a little while.

The most natural counting scheme of Roman kings (emperors) is:

  1. Julius Caesar (49-44)
  2. Agustus (31-14)
  3. Tiberius (14-37)
  4. Caligula (37-41)
  5. Claudius (41-54)
  6. Nero (54-68)
  7. Galba (68-69)
  8. Otho (69-69)
  9. Vitellius (69-69)
  10. Vespasian (69-79)
  11. Titus (79-81)
  12. Domitian (81-96)

This enumeration is not universally accepted (the debate is whether to begin the count with Julius Caesar or Augustus, the first to oficially hold the title), but it is found in various ancient sources including Josephus, who refers to Augustus as "the second" and Tiberius as "the third." This enumeration has Nero as the sixth and "current" king from the perspective of the writer of Revelation places the writing of Revelation much earlier that is often taught, and most importantly it fixes its writing as having occurred before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Note that no enumeration results in Domitian as the sixth king (many believe the book was written during Domitian’s reign, circa A.D. 90). The most biased in that direction is to start with Augustus and skip (as inconsequential) Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. That still results in Vespasian, not Domitian as number six. That is still a much earlier date than many would like—but it is after the destruction of Jerusalem.

What does Revelation say about the destruction of Jerusalem? Nothing. Like with all the books of the New Testament, there is a deafening silence. This is the strongest internal evidence for the early date for Revelation and in fact evidence that all scripture was completed by the time of Nero’s death, If Jerusalem had already been destroyed, with well over a million Jews killed, hundreds of thousands of others in bondage, and the rest scattered, not to mention the temple in ruins, it is reasonable to expect that such a catastrophic event would warrant a mention.

Recovery from Nero’s Persecution

Nero's persecution of the Christians was horrific but not fatal. However, for the next two hundred plus years, until a Christian sat on the throne of Augustus, the story of Christianity is one of a constant struggle against Imperial Rome. It should be noted that the Gentile Christians did not seek confrontation with the Roman state, the citizens of which they desired to evangelize. That had nothing equivalent to the party of the zealots that incited the Jews to rebel. Paul, a Roman citizen, regarded the magistrates as ministers of God in place to contain crime, and Christians faithfully paid their taxes (a recurring source of tension for the Jews.) Even at this early stage, Christians saw the hand of God behind the empire and the infrastructure it provided to help in spreading the gospel. In short, Christians viewed the empire as a good thing, but it had to shake its paganism.

The respect was not mutual. At this time, Christianity was held in low esteem by Roman society. Evidence suggests that it was viewed as a combination of atheism and Judaism. Certainly it was clearly recognized as distinct from Judaism and so it ranked as an illegal cult. Any hope to win official recognition was pointless. Unlike Judaism, which was the religion of a distinct sub-nation with the empire, Christianity was not the religion of any particular nation or people, nor did it boast of any long-established customs. To many it was a vulgar innovation whose religious aspect was probably a fa├žade hiding something worse. Recall Tacitus referred to Christians as "a class of men loathed for their vices", and Suetonius called Christianity "a novel and baneful superstition".

Christians were atheists, in the minds of many, for they worshipped no visible god. And they were haters of the human race, because Christian scruples prevented them from engaging in the normal social intercourse. Also, since the fire of A.D. 64 that launched Nero’s persecution, the imperial police took great interest in their gatherings, forcing them to meet in secret, which increased the perception that they had something to hide. And exactly what were their alleged secret activities? Stories circulated about ritualistic cannibalism and ceremonial incest.

Titus held the throne for only two years, and was succeeded by his younger brother Domitian who would rule for about fifteen years. Both Vespasian and Titus had been revered and were afforded the posthumous honor of being deified. Domitian was despised and in some sense wisely did wait for death for deification, for if he had he would not have received the honor. Instead he declared himself "Lord and God" and demanded the oath "by the genius of the emperor".

Domitian’s reign was characterized by suspicion, and for good reason –he had many enemies in the senate. His deification created a crisis for the Jews and caused embarrassment for the church as well. This only served to increase Domitian’s paranoia. He took some repressive action against the Jews, including increased penalties for proselytizing and severe taxation.

Among those who fell victim to imperial suspicion were his cousin Titus Flavius Clemens, consul in the year 95 and his wife Flavia Domitilla, the emperor’s niece. What is intriguing is that Domitilla was put on trial for this nebulous mix of Judaism and atheism, which many have taken as meaning Christianity.(Probably the real reason Domitian brought charges was to remove a perceived threat, and he used the religious accusations to find a crime the senate would recognize.) Clemens was executed, and Domitilla was exiled. This familial purge is all the more intriguing because the childless Domitian had designated Clemens and Domitilla’s sons as his heirs. Their fate is unknown.

The historian Dio Cassius writes about this period:
At this time the road leading from Sinuessa to Puteoli was paved with stone. And the same year Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor's. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria. (Dio Cassius, History (Epitome), LXVII, 14.

Bear in mind the significance of the possibility is that just thirty years after Nero’s persecution, a Roman family of the highest social and political ranks (and at one point a heartbeat away from the throne) might have been Christians. It bears further examination of the evidence beyond the mere fact that they had suffered the same accusation that is known to have been used against believers.

More circumstantial evidence comes from the historian Suetonius who wrote of Clemens "[he is] a man despised by all for his inactive life." This so-called inactive life, once again, often indicated Christians who withdrew from societal excess.

There is also archeological evidence. One of the oldest Christian burial places in Rome is called Cemetery of Domitilla. Evidence indicates that (1) its usage began at the start of the second century and (2) the land beneath which the burial place was hollowed out belonged to Flavia Domitilla. The burial grounds contain the remains of martyrs and shows evidence of being used for a devotional place up through the fourth century. It seems unlikely that the family land would not have been used as such had Flavia Domitilla not been a Christian.

The point is that by the end of the first century, Christianity have both recovered (from Nero) and changed. It no longer was the exclusive province of the lower strata of the Roman populace.