The Blaze recently published a two part interview series about Christian martyrdom, its focus being a provocatively titled new book by University of Notre Dame professor Dr. Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. As this author's premise could be upsetting for less historically informed Christians, I would like to respond by posting a few paragraphs from Fr Alexander Schmemann's classic work, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as make some points concerning the modern wave of persecution of Christians by Muslims.
As can be seen from Fr Schmemann's remarks below, attempts to "deny or minimize the fact of" Roman persecution of Christians is not a new phenomenon. On the other hand, Fr. Schmemann illustrates that this persecution was generally "neither bloodthirsty nor fanatic."
Understanding the realities of the early persecutions is helpful for us, as tens of millions of Christians today are being increasingly persecuted throughout the Islamic world. While there are similarities, the differences are perhaps most important.
For example, as Fr Schmemann relates, Rome did not require the early Christians to deny Christ, just to "burn a few sticks of incense before the images of the national gods, call the emperor 'Lord', and celebrate the rites. Once he had fulfilled this, he was free to seek the eternal meaning of life wherever he wished." The Romans themselves often did not believe in the meaning of the pinch of incense, but complied out of necessity as a show of loyalty to the state and the emperor. For the Christians, however, one could render unto Caesar only the coins with his image; incense, worship and the title of “Lord” is due to God alone.
In contrast, under resurgent Islam today, as with the period of intense persecution of the Orthodox Church under the Militant Atheists during the twentieth century (during which over 60 million were killed), we are seeing an ever escalating wave of anti-Christian persecutions with the specific goal of expelling Christians altogether from their once thriving native lands. Abductions and raping of Christian girls, forced conversions to Islam, firebombing of Christian churches, sometimes, as in recent atrocities in Egypt, aided and abetted by Muslim authorities, reveal how the global Islamic culture is so rabidly anti-Christian that conversion to Islam or a state of open hostilities and persecution are fast becoming the only two options.
And, unlike in the Roman era, we are seeing, in the raging Muslim persecutions against the Copts in Egypt, the Orthodox in Syria, the Chaldaean and Assyrian Christians in Iraq, and Christians in Gaza, Morocco, Libya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Indonesia, and elsewhere, that Islamic persecution of Christian believers everywhere, unlike the early Roman vintage, is demonstrably both "bloodthirsty and fanatic."
For Christians in the United States, who at this time are seeing perhaps the first signs of government persecution in the form of the HHS Obamacare mandate and the IRS targeting of Christian organizations, or of open persecution of Christians by civil authorities in Muslim enclaves such as Dearbornistan Michigan, it is Fr. Schmemann’s discussion of “The Last Great Persecutions” which deserves our serious attention. The outbreak of renewed persecutions in the mid-third century caught many by surprise, accustomed as they were to a more widespread acceptance of the Christian faith. Many committed apostasy, and caused the Church to be mocked by the pagan Romans. How would we fare if we were suddenly thrust into a crucible similar to what our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt and elsewhere are enduring with such faith? Indeed, as can be seen by recent Muslim assaults of Catholic priests in France, where the Muslim population is reaching the all important 10% threshold, there are many Christian communities in Europe, America and Canada which will likely be confronted with the existential threat of open persecution in the not too distant future.
Excerpted from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy:
Basis of Persecution by Rome.
The persecution of Christians has been variously treated by historians from early times. After the accounts of martyrdom had been embroidered by Christian piety into a shining legend, a later age of enlightenment to which Rome appeared as an ideal of justice and culture attempted to deny or minimize the fact of persecution. Whatever its destructive intention, this attitude has helped to separate genuine documents from the vast hagiographic literature, so that we are now in a better position to explain the persistent struggle against Christianity over three centuries by the Roman Empire, which was in fact basically neither bloodthirsty nor fanatic.
When Christianity appeared, the most varied religions were flourishing in the empire, and Juvenal’s satires mock the fascination of these many exotic cults for the Romans. At first the authorities took no notice at all of the Christians and did not perceive the radical distinction between them and the Jews. Judaism, though strange and unusual, was a legitimate religion, and the Church survived its first decades, as Tertullian has said, “under its roof.” Even in this period, however, we encounter hostility and frequently even hatred for Christians on the part of the multitude. The lack of temples, the night meetings and secret ceremonies, all inevitably aroused suspicion, and naturally the most monstrous rumors developed about orgies, magic, and ritual murders at Christian meetings. Although this created an atmosphere favorable for persecution, the Roman state was in general law-abiding and did not permit arbitrary outrages. The true cause of the conflict must therefore be sought in the essential nature of the Roman state.
Like all states of antiquity, Rome had its gods, its national-political religion. This was neither a system of beliefs nor a system of morals (the Roman citizen could and very often did believe in foreign gods). It was a ritual, worked out to the last detail, of sacrifices and prayers, a cult of primarily political and state significance. Rome had no other symbol to express and maintain its unity and to symbolize its faith in itself. Although in this troubled period very few believed in the symbol, to reject it meant disloyalty, being a rebel. Rome demanded only outward participation in the state cult as an expression of loyalty; all that was required of a citizen was to burn a few sticks of incense before the images of the national gods, call the emperor “Lord,” and celebrate the rites. Once he had fulfilled this, he was free to seek the eternal meaning of life wherever he wished.
For a man of the ancient world the validity of such a demand was self-evident. Religion (the word is of Roman origin and without synonym in Greek or Hebrew) was not a problem of personal choice but a family, tribal, and state matter. One’s personal faith or lack of it had nothing to do with religion, since religion itself had never been a problem of truth, but only an acknowledgment of the existing system, its legitimacy and justifiability.
The Christians refused to fulfill this self-evident, elementary civic duty. Their act was neither rebellion, condemnation of the state as such, nor even opposition to its particular defects or vices. Starting with St. Paul, Christians could boldly declare their loyalty to Rome, referring to their prayers for the emperor and the authorities. But they could not fulfill two requirements: they could not recognize the emperor as “Lord,” and they could not bow down to idols, even outwardly, without faith in them. “Lord” in the language of that time meant absolute master and ruler, but for Christians the whole significance of their faith was that the one true Lord, Jesus Christ, had come and ruled in the world: .” . . God hath made that same Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). This meant that God had given Him all authority over the world, and that henceforth He was the only Master of human life. “One Lord!” We no longer feel the force and paradox of this early Christian exclamation that has come down to us, but it rang out then as a challenge to a world in which lordship had been claimed through the ages by every authority, every state, and every “collective.”
The indifference of Christians to the external world, their effort to free themselves from it, has been regarded as a strange way of combating the pagan demands of the empire. In actual fact, by their refusal to fulfill a requirement that was not taken seriously even by those who had imposed it, the whole measure of Christian responsibility in the world was revealed for all ages. By rejecting the formal requirement of the state, they thereby included the state within the perspective of the kingdom of Christ and — however passively — summoned it to submit to the Lord of the world.
Modern observers, even some Christians, regard this conflict as a struggle for freedom of conscience, for the right of a man to make religion his private affair. For the early Church its significance was much more profound. Christianity was not so much a new religion as an upheaval in world history, the appearance of the Lord to do battle with one who had usurped His authority.
Blood of Martyrs.
The beginning of the persecutions was illumined by fire in the Eternal City. On the night of July 16 in the year 64 a great part of Rome burned down, and popular rumor accused the emperor himself of arson. In order to distract attention from himself, Nero shifted the blame onto the Christians, showing that the existence of Christianity was known to all. Although Nero’s persecution was confined to Rome and its cause was arbitrary, it raised the question about Christians for the first time on the plane of politics and the state, where it was also to be examined in the future. During the rest of the century the frequent rebellions and disorders left Rome no time for the Christians. But the persecutions were gathering head: Church tradition places the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome in this period, perhaps under Nero, and of John the Evangelist in the East under Domitian (81-96).
The beginning of the second century brought the golden age of Roman history under the best emperors that ever ruled her. Their morality was so attractive that the Christians were to create a legend about the posthumous salvation of the first of them, Trajan. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, still hold an honorable place in the classical heritage of antiquity. Yet precisely in these days, when all the moral values of the Greco-Roman world seemed to triumph, the tragic conflict with Christianity became fully clear.
Trajan’s answer to his friend Pliny the Younger, who, as governor of one of the remote provinces, had asked him about the Christians, has been preserved. How was he to deal with them? The emperor answered clearly and definitely: Christianity was itself a crime and must be punished. Although he forbade seeking out Christians and repudiated anonymous reports, “which are unworthy of our time,” from that time anyone accused of being a Christian who did not exculpate himself by offering sacrifices to the gods was sentenced to death. True, the structure of the Roman judiciary enabled Christians to exist even under this condemnation. Rome had no state prosecutor; a private accuser had to bring a case against each Christian, while the state itself at first refused to take the initiative for persecutions. This explains both the relatively long lulls in the persecutions and their individual nature. Still, the situation of all Christians was terrible; they were outside the law, and a single denunciation was enough for the irrevocable process of accusation to result in death.
From this time, for two entire centuries, the line of martyrs was never really interrupted. Sometimes there were outbreaks of mass persecution; for example, in Smyrna in 155, and in Lyons in 167. Sometimes there were individual trials: the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch and Simeon of Jerusalem under Trajan, of Telesphorus of Rome under Hadrian, of Polycarp and other Smyrnean Christians under Antoninus Pius, of Justin the Philosopher under Marcus Aurelius, and so on. Whatever the situation, for two hundred years a Christian could not consider himself secure, and of course this awareness of his outcast state, and his condemnation by the world, is a central experience of the early Christian.
The descriptions of the persecutions that have come down to us reveal the whole significance the Church attributed to martyrdom, and explain why the Church seemed to recognize martyrdom as the norm of Christian life as well as the strongest proof of the truth of Christianity. It would be false to reduce the meaning of martyrdom to heroism merely; if the truth of an idea could be established by the number of its victims, every religion could present adequate proofs. The Christian martyr was not a hero, however, but a witness; by accepting suffering and death he affirmed that the rule of death had ended, that life had triumphed. He died not for Christ but with Him, and in Him he also received life. The Church exalted martyrdom because it was proof of the most important Christian affirmation, the resurrection of Christ from the dead. No one has expressed this better than St. Ignatius of Antioch; taken to Rome for execution, he wrote to his Roman friends requesting them not to attempt to save him: “Let me be fodder for wild beasts. . . . For though alive, it is with a passion for death that I am writing to you. . . . There is living water in me, which speaks and says inside me, ‘Come to the Father.’ I do not want to live any more on a human plane.”
In the cult of martyrs the Church laid the foundation for the glorification of saints; each of them is a witness, and their blood is a seed that promises new shoots. The Church does not consider its conflict with the Roman Empire a tragic misunderstanding, but the fulfillment of the promise of the Savior: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). For the Church, persecution was the best pledge of victory.
The Last Great Persecutions.
The third century was the time of the Church’s last, most terrible fight with the empire, but the dawn of coming victory was already approaching. One of the primary reasons for the decline in Christian intensity had undoubtedly been the lull in the persecutions. From the death of Marcus Aurelius (185) until the middle of the third century, the Church lived in relative security. Officially, the prohibition against Christianity had not been lifted, and the long line of martyrs was not actually interrupted, but the over-all situation was greatly improved. People had become used to the Christians, they knew about them. An increasing interest in the East during the Eastern dynasty of the Severi even made Christians — though not Christianity — somewhat popular. Septimus Severus’ niece, Julia Mamaea, invited the celebrated Origen to her palace so that she could debate with him in the circle for religion and philosophy which she had founded; later Emperor Alexander Severus placed a statue of Christ in his private chapel; and finally, St. Jerome called Emperor Philip the Arabian the first Christian emperor, which suggests that he had been secretly baptized.
For these reasons the persecution that suddenly burst upon the Church in the year 249 seemed a terrible and unexpected trial and exposed in full clarity how far many, many Christians had departed from the original intensity of faith and way of life.
Emperor Decius (249-51) assumed power at a critical moment. Rome was threatened with ruin by the restored Persian empire and by profound internal disruptions and disorder. Decius believed that salvation lay only in the restoration of the ancient Roman spirit and a return to the neglected and scorned traditions. He gave first priority to the restoration of state worship, and this inevitably led to conflict with Christianity. Except for Nero, Decius was the first representative of Roman power to take the initiative in these persecutions as opposed to the system of private accusation followed by test. In a special edict he ordered all his subjects to prove their loyalty to the national gods by making the sacrifice.
The Church again responded with the blood of martyrs, including not only Origen, as we have seen, but Bishop Flavian of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem. But what startled the Church was the mass apostasy. “Fear struck them,” wrote Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, “and many of the more influential Christians gave in immediately, some giving way to fear, others, as civil servants, to the requirements of their positions, still others drawn along with the crowd. Some were pale and trembling, as if it were not they who were making sacrifices to the idols but they themselves who were being brought to sacrifice; and therefore the crowd mocked them.” The same picture appears in the letters of Cyprian of Carthage: “There were some who did not even wait to be summoned to climb onto the Capitol, or to be questioned to renounce their faith. They ran to the Forum themselves, they hastened to their [spiritual] deaths, as if they had wished it for a long time. And — O ultimate crime! — parents brought their children with them, so that they might lose in their childhood what they had received on the threshold of their lives.”
The persecution passed liked a whirlwind and quickly abated, but it left the Church in ruins. The question arose as to how to deal with those who had lapsed, who now rushed back for forgiveness and reconciliation. While the Church had recognized a “second repentance” at the beginning of the century, now the question was posed anew and more acutely. In the earlier time, lapsed Christians had been the exception, so that a second repentance was also an exception, but now it was a mass occurrence. When we remember what the witness of martyrs meant to the Church — that it was the witness of the Church to itself, the proof of Christ’s strength which lived in it — then it becomes clear why the problem of the lapsed caused a lengthy dissension, the last in the series of “temptations of the Church” that marked the late second and early third centuries.
Against this background of dissension the figure of the great African bishop, St. Cyprian of Carthage, stands out clearly. Like Tertullian, he represented the “pure” Christianity that characterized the brief but magnificent history of the African Church. A pagan teacher of rhetoric and professor of literature, Cyprian repudiated everything on his conversion to Christianity. “The spirit descended from Heaven has made me a new man through a second birth. And immediately, in a miraculous way, certainty wiped out doubt.” Very soon after his conversion he became bishop of Carthage, the oldest of the African churches. Almost immediately afterward the persecution started. Cyprian hid, not from fear but in order to continue to direct the Church; in his absence the question arose about the lapsed Christians. The latter, knowing the sternness both of Cyprian and of normal Church practice, bypassed the bishop and turned directly to the “confessors” — those who had confessed their faith in Christ and paid for their faithfulness by imprisonment or torture. The Roman state had learned by experience and preferred not to create martyrs; it therefore left the steadfast Christians to rot in jail and subjected them to torture. The confessors were the glory of the Church; their authority was indisputable, and they recommended to the bishop that he accept the lapsed Christians back into Church communion.
This created a difficult situation: there were two authorities in the Church. Cyprian would have liked to defer the question until his return, when there could be a general synod of bishops, but the confessors regarded this as disrespect to their suffering. A paradoxical conflict developed, with the confessors and the lapsed Christians allied against the legitimate bishop and the hierarchy. Alarm spread as well to the Roman Church, crimson with the blood of its own bishop; there the presbyter Novatian opposed Cyprian as a man who had fled and should therefore himself be considered lapsed. In Carthage a whole party was formed against Cyprian, who was obliged to resort to strictness and expel its leaders from the Church. Finally, in the spring of 251 Cyprian returned to Carthage and summoned a synod, which decided the problem by relaxing the discipline of repentance. It divided the lapsed into two categories, depending on the degree of apostasy, and established two forms by which they might again be accepted into the Church. Some could be received only on their deathbeds, while others could rejoin after more or less prolonged periods of repentance.
A rather strange reversal occurred at this point. Those who had demanded that Cyprian accept the lapsed immediately now cried that he was defiling the purity of the Church. They were supported by Novatian in Rome, who had been consecrated bishop under obscure circumstances. With terrible swiftness this new schism of Novatianism spread through all the churches, creating everywhere sects of the pure (cathari). The name alone indicates the attitude of the schismatics and their enthusiasm for a pure (in contrast to the “fallen”) Church. Again, as under Montanism, the Church responded by gathering its forces around its bishops and the undestroyed continuity of catholic life. Africa united around Cyprian, the West around the newly-elected legitimate Pope Cornelius. From Egypt Dionysius of Alexandria, another luminous example of an ecumenical teacher, wrote letters to everyone, begging all to maintain unity. Novatianism, like Montanism, degenerated into a sect, remnants of which still existed as late as the seventh century.
In Montanism and Novatianism we may see what is meant by the evolution of the Church in these transitional decades. Formally, Novatian was right when he invoked tradition in his protest against accepting the lapsed. Cyprian himself had been a typical rigorist before the persecution of Decius. But the teaching of the Church is not a logical system and is not constructed in syllogisms. Novatian, who was true to logic, was torn from the life of the Church, while Cyprian, outwardly self-contradictory, could still boldly state that he had introduced nothing new with the question of the lapsed Christians, for he had taken his doctrine from the life of the Church. In fact, nothing had changed in the nature of the Church or its sanctity, but it had become more deeply conscious of the dichotomy between old and new in its earthly life. Novatian and his followers, for the sake of their principles, were left outside the Church; such is the logic behind every schism. They withdrew in proud scorn for the sullied Church of the lapsed. But in the pastoral heart of Cyprian and his truly catholic way of thinking, this Church of the lapsed remained the same holy bride of Christ, which has no room for sin but exists to save sinners.
Cyprian’s life ended in the glory of a martyr’s death. On September 13, 258, he was summoned to the proconsul. The original documents of his interrogation have been preserved:
Galerius Maximus the proconsul said, “Are you Thascius Cyprian, a priest of the sacrilegious?”
Cyprian answered, “I am.”
“The Emperors have ordered you to make sacrifices.”
“I will not obey.”
“I advise you to think it over.”
“Do as you are instructed. There is no need to take counsel in such a righteous deed.”
After consulting with the assessors, the proconsul read sentence: “You have demonstrated that you are an enemy of the Roman gods and the holy laws. The most august Emperors could not convince you to return to performing Roman religious ceremonies. As a warning to those whom you have drawn into your criminal society, shall pay with your blood for your disobedience to the laws. Thascius Cyprian is to be beheaded by the sword.”
“Deo gratia,” said Cyprian.
A crowd of Christians accompanied him to the place of execution, with lighted candles and the singing of prayers. His martyrdom was transformed into a triumphant liturgical act. A month before him Pope Sixtus II also bore witness. The police found him surrounded by clergy who were conducting a meeting of the faithful. He died sitting in the episcopal chair, and his deacon Laurentius was killed with him.
With the end of the century came increasing persecutions. The empire was falling, its whole structure rocked under the terrible attacks of Germanic tribes from the north and the Goths and Persians from the east. In these troubled years, when it was natural to seek scapegoats for so many misfortunes, it was not difficult to inflame hatred against the Christians. Edict followed edict, and throughout the empire new names of martyrs were added to the martyrology of the Church. The persecutions probably never reached such intensity as under Diocletian (303), just on the eve of the conversion of Constantine. The largest roster of names of martyrs comes to us from this period. It was as if the Church were revealing, for the last time before its victory, all the strength, beauty, and inspiration of the courageous suffering by which it had survived the first centuries — the strength of its witness to the kingdom of Christ, by which alone it ultimately conquered.