Thousands of Christians died in arenas as a spectator sport, alongside other hated minorities. The church was divided over how to respond. Some leaders saw the State as evil and encouraged martyrs to be seen as honoured people who should never be forgotten. Their bones were revered. Other leaders attempted to engage with the Roman Empire and create a space for Christianity within the culture. For example, Justin Martyr wrote to the emperor in an attempt to engage with him intellectually. He explained that Christians were a highly moral group which had been misunderstood. A group of intellectual Christians emerged, with spokesmen such as Origen, who were willing to take on pagan philosophers head to head.
Christian belief in the equality of human beings was quite unlike the culture of the Romans. Women and men worshipped side by side, and so did slaves and wealthy people. As part of shared church life, they attempted to alleviate poverty. They also opposed militarism. There was, however, diffidence about sex. Chastity was held up as an ideal, and marriage was the only permitted context for those who did not choose celibacy. Christians opened themselves to persecution because this distinct behaviour drew attention to itself. There was an extremely brutal attempt to halt the spread of the religion by Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century.
This was about to change. Constantine was in a perilous position during the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. His mother Helena worshipped Jesus, and in desperation he prayed to him. He unexpectedly defeated his enemy and became Emperor. He became a Christian, and realised that the inclusive teaching of Jesus was a force that could unite the fragmenting Empire. With his support, finance and sincere example, Christianity was first tolerated, then encouraged, then became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
One result of this was that the position of Bishop of Rome (the person whom we would now call the Pope) became one of privilege and influence. For ten centuries the Christian church was, for good or ill, the most powerful organisation in the world. Being popular, rather than persecuted, brought a different set of problems.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Jesus warned his followers to expect a violent response to their faith in him.
And they said…
Origen, scholar from Alexandria, about 185 – 254:
Let us have clean hearts ready inside us for the Lord Jesus, so that he will be glad to come in, gratefully accepting the hospitality of our hearts; he whose glory and power will endure throughout the ages.
Hippolytus, theologian from Rome, 160 – 235:
Heaven’s God, showing no meanness, has joined himself to us in the Spirit.