Persecution in the Third Century, Part 1

Septimius Severus
Septimius Severus

The History of Christianity #56

Our Scripture verse today is 1 John 3:13 which reads: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.”

Our quote today is from Cyprian of Carthage. He said: “The present confession of the faith before the authorities has been all the more illustrious and honorable because the suffering was greater. The struggle intensified, and the glory of those who struggled grew with it.”

Today, we are looking at “Persecution In the Third Century” (Part 1) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

In the last years of the second century, the church had enjoyed relative peace. The empire was involved in civil wars and in defending its borders against barbarian inroads, and therefore had paid scant attention to Christians. Trajan’s old principle, that Christians were to be punished if they refused to worship the emperor and the gods, but that they ought not to be sought out, was still in force. Therefore, whatever persecution existed was local and sporadic.

In the third century, things changed. Trajan’s policy was still valid, and therefore the threat of local persecution was constant. But over and beyond that there were new policies that deeply affected the life of the church. The emperors who created and applied these policies were Septimius Severus and Decius.

Persecution Under Septimius Severus

Early in the third century, the reigning emperor, Septimius Severus, had managed to put an end to a series of civil wars that had weakened the empire. But even so, it was not easy to govern such a vast and unruly domain. The “barbarians” who lived beyond the borders of the Rhine and the Danube were a constant threat. Within the empire there were dissident groups, and there was always the danger that a legion might rebel and name its own emperor, thus precipitating a new civil war. Faced with such difficulties, the emperor felt the need for religious harmony within his territories, and thus settled on a policy of promoting syncretism. He proposed a plan to bring all his subjects together under the worship of Sol invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”) – and to subsume under that worship all the various religions and philosophies then current. All gods were to be accepted, as long as one acknowledged the Sun that reigned above all.

This policy soon clashed with what seemed the obstinacy of two groups that refused to yield to syncretism: Jews and Christians. Septimius Severus then decided to stop the spread of those two religions, and thus outlawed, under penalty of death, all conversions to Christianity or to Judaism – for at that point both religions were gaining numerous converts. This was in addition to the still existing threat of Trajan’s legislation.

The net result was an increase in local persecution akin to those of the second century, to which was now added a more intensive persecution aimed directly at new converts and their teachers. Therefore, the year 202 AD, when the edict of Septimius Severus was issued, is a landmark in the history of persecutions. There is a tradition affirming that Irenaeus suffered martyrdom in that year. It was also at that time that a group of Christians, including Origen’s father, were killed in Alexandria. Since Clement was a famous Christian teacher in that city, and since the imperial edict was particularly directed against those who sought new converts, he had to seek refuge in areas where he was less known.

Next time, we will continue looking at Persecution Under Septimius Severus.

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