Church History Tuesday: Persecutions of the Third Century

Around the year 200 marks the start of the great persecutions of the Church.  Yes, there had been persecutions before 200, but they were mostly local persecutions, not Empire wide mandates.  Christian and Jewish persecution saw a greater increase at this time because of the fragile state of the Roman Empire.  Emperor Septimiuus Severus had been fighting several civil wars with in the Empire and faced a constant threat from the barbarians beyond the Roman boarders.  With all these wars, Severus decided the best way to bring unity to the Empire was to find religious harmony.  So he started to promote syncretism, which he proposed to bring all subjects under the worship of Sol invictus or the Unconquered Sun, all the gods could still be worshipped as long as the Sun was acknowledged as reigning over them all.  The Jews and Christians had a problem with this idea.  Severus’ answer to their objections was to outlaw, under penalty of death, all conversions to those religions, thus attempting to stop their spreading.  He issued this edict in 202, some victims of this edict, are believed to include: St.  Irenaeus, Origen’s father, and Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas.  For reasons that are not entirely known the persecution under Severus did not last long after about 203 or 204.  There were a few other short persecutions when others became Emperors, but they were mostly localized to one area.

At this time there also arose several writings on the act of martyrdom and a loose theology and liturgy of martyrdom.  St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen of Alexandria were two major writers on martyrdom.  Many of the actual stories of martyrs, usually called the Martyrdom of …, were used as a way of teaching new converts or those threatened with martyrdom the right way to act during martyrdom and how to make a good confession of Christ under persecution.

However, again in 249 Decius became Emperor, he wanted to restore Rome to her former glory.  He believed one way to restore Rome was to get everyone worshiping the ancient gods, because everything was better when everyone worshiped the Roman gods.  Decius’ persecution was not trying to create martyrs but apostates, who would then worship the ancestral gods.  He did not seek to persecute Christians, but rather made worshiping the gods a mandatory practice throughout the Empire.  Everyone had to burn incense to the gods and a statue of Decius.  Those who complied were given a certificate, stating they had conformed to the edict; those who did not have a certificate were considered outlaws.  The problem for Christians was they were not prepared for this new challenge; those who had lived under the constant threat of persecution were now gone or very old.  So several ran to obey the imperial command, some stood strong for a while, but when brought before the authorities they offered the sacrifice.  However, very few were actually martyred in this persecution.  Thus, a new type of Christian was born, the “confessor,” which was someone who had confessed Christ while enduring torture and imprisonment, but was not actually martyred.  These Christians were highly respected by Christians at the time.  The persecution of Decius did not last long, because in 251 he was succeeded by Gallus, who did away with Decius’ edicts.

Next week we will discuss the controversy caused by those who had renounced Christ and lapsed from the faith.

About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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1 Response to Church History Tuesday: Persecutions of the Third Century

  1. Pingback: Church History Tuesday: How the Church Dealt with the Lapsed | Learning From the Saints

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