The Second Century: The Growth of the Church in a Pagan Empire

The Second Century: The Growth of the Church in a Pagan Empire

The end of the first century was marked by the assassination of the tyrannical and depraved emperor Domitian. The second century began with the ascension of Nerva (96-98) to the throne of the Roman Empire. During his short reign, he expanded the borders of the empire by victories in Germany and Pannonia (the Balkans), but more importantly severe persecution of Christians, which had occurred under Domitian, was prohibited. Nerva was followed by four emperors over a period of 80 years who also brought stability and peace within the borders of the empire, which allowed the church to grow and organize itself unimpeded. Nerva was succeeded by his adopted son, Trajan, who was first of the “adoptive emperors”. The practice of the throne passing to the oldest son of the emperor was done away with. Each ruler selected the man he felt best qualified to next lead the empire. This practice undoubtedly led to the stability seen during most of the second century. Trajan continued the prohibition of indiscriminate Christian persecution begun under Nerva. An excellent illustration of this is his response in 116 to a letter from Pliny, the younger, governor of Bithynia, asking how to deal with Christian persecution in his province. He replied that no Christian could be punished without a fair trial with evidence presented by the accusers and that a simple, often anonymous accusation was insufficient to merit convictions or punishment. Near the end of Trajan’s reign, there was a Jewish revolt in Egypt, Cyrenacia, and Cypress, which had to be put down by force. At that time, there was no fighting in Judea. Trajan also fought wars in the Middle East and further extended the borders of the empire as far as the Euphrates.

Trajan was succeeded by his adopted son, Hadrian (117-138). Early in his reign, he realized that the empire was overextended and could not be defended by the military forces available. He, therefore, withdrew the Roman legions stationed in Mesopotamia and parts of Germany, thereby consolidating the empire and fortifying its borders.

The second Jewish rebellion (130-135) also occurred during his reign. It began over a law that prohibited circumcision and also the establishment of pagan temples in Jerusalem. This war led by Bar Cochba lasted about five years. During this time, Christians were actually persecuted by the Jews, unless they denied Jesus Christ. Bar Cochba was finally defeated by the Romans in 135 after the siege of Betthera. Following this war, Hadrian banished all Jews from the sight of Jerusalem and renamed it Aolia Capitolina and also built a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish temple destroyed in 70 by Titus. Jerusalem was recolonized by the Romans, but many Jews remained in Judea and Samaria, now renamed Palestine and annexed to the province of Syria. Persecution of Christians during Hadrian’s time was minimal. He forbade persecution of anyone without a trial. This was also in reply to a letter from another governor in Asia, Serennius Granianus, asking his advice in this manner.

The next two adopted emperors, Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180), were both men of wisdom and virtue whose primary concern was the happiness and safety of the people. During their reigns, there was peace and order within the borders of the empire. They were, as were their predecessors, absolute rulers, but they preserved the rule of law, civil procedure and personal liberties. Unfortunately, Marcus Aurelius made one serious mistake. He abandoned the adoptive formula for succession and allowed his son, Commodus, to ascend to the
throne following his death.

The reign of Commodus (180-192) was a disaster. During the first few years, he remained under the restraint of his father’s advisors, but after an assassination attempt he developed a severe paranoia and executed just about anyone who posed any threat, real or imagined. He also fell into a hedonistic, dissolute and sexually immoral lifestyle that rendered him both dangerous and ineffective. Ultimately, he was assassinated by his mistress and the captain of the Praetorian Guard who drugged him and then had him strangled. During his rule, Christians as well as everyone else were severely persecuted.

It fell to the Praetorian Guard to name the next emperor, and they selected an elderly general, Pertinax, who was about the only one left alive who qualified. He stopped all persecution and tried to do away with corruption and reform the government. This did not sit well with the guard and they in turn assassinated him (192). His reign lasted 86 days. The Praetorians then felt that it would be a good idea to auction off the empire to the highest bidder and a wealthy merchant named Didius Julianus became emperor (192). He lasted 66 days.

At that time, there were three armies in the provinces with generals who wanted the throne. After a series in battles, Septimus Severus, an African, became the last emperor of the second century (193-211). He was a strict disciplinarian and wisely disbanded the Praetorian Guard. During his time in power, he re-stabilized the empire and prevented persecution of the Christians.

Hopefully, this brief sketch of second century Roman history will enable the reader to appreciate the tranquil environment which existed in the first 80 years of the second century and to understand how it allowed the church to grow for the most part unhindered by severe persecution. There was, of course, some intermittent persecution of Christians, especially under Marcus Aurelius who disliked the Jews intensely, but nothing compared to the excesses experienced under Nero, Claudius, and Domitian in the tumultuous first century.

The church entered the second century after the death of the last of the apostles, John, in Ephesus, around the year 100. The work of the apostles was carried on by the apostolic fathers who were direct disciples of the apostles themselves. They included Clement and Hernas in Rome, Ignatius in Antioch, Polycarp in Smyrna, Barnabas in Alexandria, James, and then Symean in Jerusalem. These men were responsible for spreading the message of Christianity and for the growth of these
five major churches.

During the reigns of Nerva and Trajan, many exiled Christians, including John, were allowed to return to their homes and have their property restored. There was no significant persecution during that time. Nevertheless, martyrdoms still occurred. Symean was martyred at the age of 120 in 106, Ignatius in 110, and Polycarp in 156.

The apostolic fathers were followed by a group of men called the church fathers. These included Iraneus, Tertullian, Origin, and Clement (of Alexandria). They continued the teaching and work of the apostolic fathers. As the church continued to grow, leaders were appointed called presbyters (today’s priest) and deacons. From their members, a bishop was selected to preside over a group of churches and the surrounding countryside, which were then called dioceses. Today, this is called an episcopal form of government and is seen in some denominational
protestant churches and in the Catholic Church.

During the second half of the second century, two great heresies arose to challenge the church. The first of these was Gnosticism, which believed that Christ was not God and that God never walked on earth in human form. The best known of the Gnostics was a man called Marcion, but their best spokesman was Calcus who in 177 wrote “A True Discourse” against Christianity, adversely influencing many Christians. It was not until 247 when Origin wrote “Against Calcus” that a convincing and devastating answer was forthcoming. The other heresy at the time was Montanism, which held that the Holy Spirit did not come unto the apostles in the upper room and that it would come soon to all believers and that the end of the world was imminent. Two other Christian fathers who wrote extensively and effectively against these and other heresies were Iraneus who wrote “Against Heresies” and was martyred in 200 and Justin, author of “Apology”, also martyred in 166 and known thereafter as “Justin Martyr”.

The best known heresy was Arianism founded by the priest, Arius, which denied the trinity and taught that God the father was superior to God the son. However, this was more of a third century heresy which persistent to some extent for hundreds of years. It was the reason for the council of Nicea in 325, which will be discussed in a later article.

During the second century, because of its struggles against Gnosticism and other heresies, a creed was developed, which is a summary of Christian beliefs and came to be called “The Apostles Creed”. The church adopted the creed at its official doctrine. During this time, a cannon was also developed, which was essentially a list of the books which belong in the New Testament. There were a large number of writings extent at that time and the church had to decide which of them was divinely inspired and could be included in the New Testament.

A question which must now be asked is: how could the church have accomplished all of these things while in a primarily pagan empire and in fact how to even survive the first century and the severe persecutions of the early emperors? The answer is obviously that this is God’s plan. He allowed the Roman Empire to come about and sent his son in the midst of that terrible first century for those who believed in him. What would be the probability that an insignificant Jewish sect born in that time would become a great religion ultimately dominating the known world. Obviously, Rome was created to provide an environment allowing Christianity to be born, survive, and ultimately dominate. Why Rome? Why not Alexander’s empire, Greece or Babylon, or Persia? None of these empires qualify because they were confined to the near East and South Eastern Europe. Rome included these areas as well as most of Western Europe, North Africa, and Arabia. Because of the need for Christianity to be spread to most of the world, an empire had to exist which encompassed those regions. It had to be Rome. There was no other before or since. This was God’s plan, not man’s.

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