Decian persecutions backfire

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The Martyrs

Treated as criminals in the second and third centuries, the early Christians were subject to empire-wide persecution.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University


After a long period in which the persecutions of Christianity were really spasmodic, local, [and] involved very few people, suddenly in the middle of the 3rd century, the year 250, the Emperor Decius decides that Christians are a real enemy of the Roman order, that they must be dealt with empire-wide, with all the police power that the emperor can bring to bear upon them. And he issues a decree that everyone has to sacrifice to the Roman gods and they must produce a certificate signed by a Roman official that they have done so. Why did this happen? Clearly, one of the things which this indicates is that Christianity, which begins with such tiny groups, scattered in various cities across the empire, have become numerous, they have become a significant segment of the population in many places. There is some evidence that in many towns in North Africa, the[y] may actually be a majority already. So they have come forcibly to the attention of the Emperor. At the same time, it clearly indicates that that counter-cultural tendency, which was one aspect of the self-understanding of Christians, from the very beginning..., they are the ones who worship, as Son of God, one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor. This counter-cultural implication of their most fundamental beliefs still remains, and the Emperor has recognized this counter-cultural tendency and says, "This is dangerous - we can't have this large a group, which by the way, is also very highly organized, and, unlike other religious communities, is organized not just on a local basis, but is organized on an empire-wide basis. Something has to be done about it...."

So, the Romans bring to bear all the power they have at their disposal. They say, "All right, let's hit the leaders. Let's find these bishops and bring them into court and force them to recant, and if they won't, we'll eliminate them."And so you have bishops fleeing to the countryside and you have others being martyred. You have ordinary people, for the first time, being rounded up, forced to sacrifice, or if they can buy a forged certificate of sacrifice. There's some of those which have actually survived. And the odd thing is it fails.... The net effect of this is that a new cult of the martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the church, which feeds on anti-government sentiment in many segments of the empire, - those remote geographical areas distant from Rome which have always been suspicious of Rome. This simply brings those into the Christian fold and in many ways, it backfires. So the Decian persecution is very short-lived....

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