The Church and the Empire

Key Points During this Time

  • Popular opinion responded negatively to Christian aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and Christians’ unwillingness to worship pagan gods. Imperial authorities were bothered by the apparent obstinacy of Christian subjects unwilling to show political loyalty by worshipping the emperor and the gods of Rome.
  • Roman persecution of the church prior to the mid-3rd century was sporadic and localized, not systematic.
  • Christian apologists of the 2nd century responded to both popular and philosophical accusations against Christianity, employing the philosophy and rhetoric of the day in order to rebut accusations and promote Christian belief and practice.
  • The logos Christology of the 2nd-century apologists supplied Christian intellectuals with a way to address non-Christian concerns about Christian teaching, as well as providing the foundation for later Trinitarian speculation.
  • The surviving literature of 2nd-century martyrdom supplied stories and themes that permanently shaped the self-understanding of the Christian church.
  • A developing theology of martyrdom was expressed through several characteristic motifs, many of which helped connect the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ.

Summary

Although persecution of Christians in the second century was sporadic and localized, the threat and occasional reality of its occurrence contributed greatly to the formation of early Christian identity. Popular opinion responded negatively to Christians for a number of reasons, including their aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and especially their refusal to honor the gods of Rome and the surrounding culture. Many non-Christian intellectuals found Christian belief to be ridiculous and criticized the social composition of the church. Imperial authorities were bothered by Christian stubbornness in refusing to demonstrate their allegiance to Rome by the usual means, i.e. worshiping the genius of the emperor and the gods of Rome. The legal basis for Roman persecution expressed Roman sensibilities of justice, but also strict Roman insistence on submission to imperial authority.

Christian apologists sought to respond to the critics of Christianity in a variety of ways, relying mainly on the philosophy of the day as a means by which to explain Christian belief. Some sought to clear up misunderstandings about Christian practice, stressing the virtues by which Christians lived. Others upheld the moral superiority of Christianity in comparison to pagan culture. Justin Martyr laid aside numerous popular charges against Christianity, sought to explain Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism, and advocated an understanding of Jesus Christ that connected him to the principle of the Logos. This gave non-Christian intellectuals a framework in which to understand the significance of Christ and shaped early Christian belief.

Although martyrdoms were sporadic, their occurrence led to the celebration of their faithful acts, especially in the composition of accounts of their martyrdoms. These circulated throughout the churches, shaping Christian theology and liturgy as the church connected the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ. Martyrs were understood to be faithful witnesses and heroic athletes, and the descriptions of their deeds were tinged with commonly occurring motifs, such as grace, Eucharist, baptism, the Holy Spirit, and eschatological hope. Christian self-understanding came to be pervaded by the ideals conveyed by descriptions of martyrs’ deeds.

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