1. The First Christians: Apologists, Confessors and Martyrs


Early opposition from the Roman State

Opposition to the early Christian church began early and sporadically in the Roman Empire. In AD 49 Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome because of agitation and unrest over the question of Chrestus (Seutonius Claudius 25.2, cf. Acts 18:2), i.e. the Christ. Violent opposition against the leadership of the early church came to a head in AD 62 when Jesus’ brother James was martyred in Jerusalem at the hands of Jewish religious leaders (Eusebius, EH 2.23). Shortly after this in AD 64 Nero executed large numbers of Christians in Rome as scapegoats for the great fire that destroyed large sections of the city (Tacitus, Annals 15:44.2-5). Whereas Judaism at this time tended to view Christianity as a heretical sect, the Romans viewed it as a Superstitio, that is an illegal cult not recognized by the Roman state.

Early Leaders in the Church

The devastating Jewish war of 66-73 led to a further breach between Christianity and Judaism because the Jewish Christians did not join in the war effort. In AD 70 Jesus’ cousin Symeon (son of Clopas, Joseph’s brother) was appointed leader of the Jerusalem church (Eusebius EH 3.11).

The continued involvement of the family of Jesus in the early church is attested in church history. According to the fourth century historian Eusebius, in AD 81 the Roman Emperor Domitian interrogated Zoker and James, the grandnephews of Jesus, the sons of Jude (Eusebius citing Hegesippus in EH 3.19-20). Domitian was amazed to see that they were poor farmers and no threat to the Empire:

they showed their hands, exhibiting the hardness of their bodies and the callousness produced upon their hands by continuous toil as evidence of their own labour. And when they were asked concerning Christ and his kingdom, of what sort it was and where and when it was to appear, they answered that it was not a temporal nor an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly and angelic one, which would appear at the end of the world, when he should come in glory to judge the quick and the dead, and to give unto every one according to his works. Upon hearing this, Domitian did not pass judgment against them, but, despising them as of no account, he let them go…” (EH 3.19-20).

The Response of the Church to Opposition

In the face of growing opposition to Christianity in the Roman Empire, often intellectual and occasionally violent, the early Christians reflected on their role in society and how the church should be organised. Theologians sought to instruct the church, apologists sought to inform pagan Roman critics.

One of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament is a work called the Didache. This short work is a manual on morals and Church practice. It focuses on the importance of Baptism and the Eucharist as well as warning against false teachers.

In the second century Christian works such as the Epistle to Diognetus (c. 150) describe Christians as living in the world but not of the world. Christians were aware that they were part of the Roman Empire, and yet distinct from it because of their beliefs. Salvation, in contrast to the religions of pagan Rome, was by faith in Christ and in His righteousness.

Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165), was born in Shechem in Samaria. He converted c.130 from paganism and taught at Ephesus and then Rome, where he wrote his ‘First Apology’ (c. 155), which was addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his adopted sons (Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus). Justin's aim was to offer a description of the primitive Christian Sunday service in order to refute pagan accusations of atheism and immorality. His description of the primitive church's Sunday worship service is amongst the earliest:

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 one presiding verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things… And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours 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 needs. (Justin, 1 Apol. 67)

Martyrdom

Martyrdom, when it came, was sporadic and usually reserved for the leaders in the early church. One such early martyr was a man called Polycarp (AD 69 –155). As a young man he had heard the Apostle John teach (see Holmes, AF, 733). Following his arrest he was offered the opportunity to deny Christ and save his own life. “Eighty-six years I have served him," Polycarp replied, "and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” For these words he was burnt at the stake. In dying Polycarp personified the meaning of the word martyr, which comes from the Greek μάρτυς, meaning witness. He has witnessed to Christ, even at the cost of his own life. The Roman Empire found such faith as ridiculous, but to the church, the martyrs were the great heroes of the faith.

Next: "Part 2: Terror and Toleration - The Church until Constantine"

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