Church History 101: A short history of church history from 64 AD to 600 AD (part one)

So, I’m fast running out of time to put together my church history trading cards before the exam. Which is a shame. Because I really wanted to cover Origen, who emasculated himself so that he could minister to women and sescaped martyrdom because his mum hid his clothes so he had to stay inside the house naked… and Arius, who died on the public toilet just prior to being readmitted to the church… I’ll try to get around them, but the pre-exam motivation really is the driving force behind getting them up…

Anyway. In order to attempt to get a cohesive picture of the first 550 years of the church I’m going to try to give one rapid fire overview of the significant people and moments from that time.

Kicking off in 64 A.D, Nero was the first Roman emperor to actively persecute Christians. It was a pretty sporadic afair. But he also persecuted Jews, and the temple was destroyed in the Jewish revolt of 66-74 A.D. Nero blamed Christians for a fire in Rome, and used that as an excuse to pursue the church. Domitian was the next emperor to systematically pursue Christians. Domitian also had a big head, at least as far as this statues is reliable…

Second Century
The century turned, and in the second century the gnostic movement took off a little bit, trying to rebrand Jesus as a gnostic teacher who taught secret mysteries. Marcion also sprung up with his little heresy (throwing out the Old Testament, and only keeping a few bits of the new). He was a bad guy. A heretic. The first of his kind (well, the first recognised by the church. But his “canon” caused the early church to put together a real canon. The Apostolic Fathers – Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Didache, were some of the leaders of the church at this point – they were guys who were thought to have had contact with the apostles, thus providing some form of doctrinal continuity. Polycarp was martyred in 155 A.D, and Justin Martyr ten years later – having written his two Apologies for Christian belief to the Roman emperor – demonstrating that the church was still on the outer with Rome. The next cab off the rank, heresy wise, was Montanism. Tertullian came on the scene towards the end of the second century and wrote strongly against gnosticism, and Marcionism, and his own apology for Christian belief (seeking much the same as Justin Martyr – to ahve Christians treated fairly and recognised as a religio licita) but he took up the Montanist cause (which meant that the Catholic church refused to make him a saint. Montanists believed they had a new prophecy, and didn’t much like the veneer of compromise they saw in the church – they also loved martyrdom.

Third Century
Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and Cyprian were some figures around the beginning of the third century (and at the end of the second). Irenaeus (who studied under Polycarp and Justin Martyr) and Tertullian both got their own trading cards.

Decius, the emperor in the middle of the century kicked off some further persecution of Christians by decreeing that all citizens of the empire were to sacrifice to the emperor in a pledge of allegiance to Rome. They had to do it within a certain time, and they’d get a certificate to prove it. Anybody who refused was a traitor. Many Christians died in the process, luckily Decius was only in power for two years.

Origen was an Alexandrian, and a Christian with a particularly platonic bent. A church council in the sixth century declared him to be a persona non grata – and many of his works were burned as a result. He was a controversial figure and pushed for some sort of hierachy within the trinity (amongst other foibles) – most of which grew from his Platonic philosphy. He wrote lots, learned Hebrew, and put together a parallel translation of the Old Testament. His translations of the Hebrew were discussed in Augustine’s conversation with Jerome (about Jerome’s own translations – Jerome thought following Origen was a good idea, Augustine thought he was a little iffy). His exegetical method was pretty sound, and he only really used allegory as a last resort (and more typographically and Christologically than others). Origen’s exegetical approach, as he looked for hidden meaning in texts, included focusing on the meanings of proper nouns within the OT. He preached through the Old Testament, and while he was into finding hidden meanings in the text, he wasn’t a gnostic (and he wrote against them), he thought historical context wasn’t hugely important, and in a way he was proto-Barthian. He was rigorously committed to the Scriptures, and all his teachings were at least tied to some text or another. He was a theologian (some suggest the world’s first), who was also committed to integrating Christianity with philosophy and ethics. Most of his failings theologically come from this philosophical commitment and arise when his Platonic thoughts about the nature of the soul (for example, that it pre-exists the body) encroach on his theology and exegesis. His ecclesiology was pretty sound. He recognised two churches – the “church of angels” (those in Christ) and the wider church, which also sheltered sinners. A physical church, and a spiritual church. Another pretty Platonic (though correct) idea. His approach to Christian teaching was very similar to Augustine’s, he sought to syncretise the scientific and philosophical understandings of his day with Christian belief. And was committed to his students receiving a broad “liberal arts” education of the classical Roman variety. He wrote against ideas like soul sleep, and Ggnosticism, but his positives, so far as the later church was concerned, were outweighed by his heresies. Origen was tortured as a Christian during the Decian persecution, and he died three years later from the injuries he sustained.

Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage in the mid-third century. His thinking was influenced by Tertullian (both were north Africans, so were from the “Latin West”). He was a trained orator, who taught rhetoric before he became a Christian. He wrote heaps of stuff that has survived – and he was obviously a pragmatist, because while debate was raging within the church about how to handle Roman persecution he bolted. He didn’t stick around for the decision on whether to participate in the sacrifices for Deciu, or to engage in civil disobedience. He ran for the hills, and ruled his church from afar via a messenger. Obviously he wasn’t a complete coward though (which some accused him of being) because he was eventually martyred. Controversially, and somewhat hypocritically, Cyprian didn’t treat other people who avoided persecution by leaving the church very well, or at least he didn’t want to let them straight back in when the persecution ended. He insisted on “earnest repentance,” when some disobeyed him (including a deacon from Carthage) he excommunicated them, and created a bit of a schism. A council of North-African bishops in Carthage sided with Cyprian on the treatment of “lapsed” Christians – and they could only be readmitted to the church on their deathbeds (though this decision was softened somewhat). Church leaders who had sacrificed to the emperor could not be restored to their original posts.

A debate about baptism flared up in 255, where the church believed baptism was ok if done in a church and in the name of the trinity, Cyprian believed any baptisms conducted by heretics were invalid – in this way he was a precursor to Donatism, which emerged later. At this point, his adversary Stephen, Bishop of Rome tried to trump Cyprian’s position on the basis of his geographic situation. Cyprian didn’t like that very much. He said that all bishops were equal. He died bravely in a new bout of persecution under Valerian. Going willingly to his execution

Church History Trading Cards: The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Polycarp was featured earlier in the Trading Cards series. He was an early church father said to have been a disciple of the Apostle John. He lived to a ripe old age, and then was famously martyred having been a Christian for 86 years in a very public setting, with tremendous courage and dignity and as a faithful witness to the end. We know about his martyrdom because of this document – an account sent out by the church of Smyrna to another church, to be passed on to churches around the world. While some of the account may well be historiographical, and even if some of the miracles did not happened, the document provides an insight into the persecution the early church suffered at the hands of Rome, and the way they sought to encourage one another (essentially through the spread of this sort of propaganda (note: not all propaganda is bad)). The letter strongly associates Polycarp’s martyrdom with Christ’s. And paints martyrdom as a desirable thing for the church.

It contains this little gem of a story about Germanicus, another martyr, who having fought off the beasts being used for his execution for a while, made them attack him instead of renouncing Christ:

“Germanicus strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought heroically with the wild beasts. For, when the proconsul sought to persuade him, and urged him to take pity upon his age, he attracted the wild beast towards himself, and provoked it, being desirous to escape all the more quickly from an unrighteous and impious world.”

This spectacle caused the crowd present to shout for the Romans to find Polycarp, perhaps clamouring to see another old Christian die with such dignity. The letter also tells the story of a guy named Quintus who turned away from Christ to save his own life:

“Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to escape suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.”

Polycarp hears that people are after him – and he was just going to hang out in the city going about his business, but his friends persuaded him to head to the hills. Which he did. But then a servant gave him up (betrayed just like Jesus). And he was caught, and brought to trial. When the horde of armed soldiers caught him (again, lots of armed soldiers, just like the arrest of Jesus) he fed them, and asked for some time to pray. After he had prayed (and the account says his attitude convicted some of the soldiers that they were doing the wrong thing).

“So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them. And as those that were present marvelled at his age and constancy, some of them said. “Was so much effort made to capture such a venerable man?” Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he besought them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And on their giving him leave, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not cease for two full hours, to the astonishment of those who heard him, insomuch that many began to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”

He’s mistreated by the Romans on his way to trial (just like Jesus):

“And the Irenarch Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes (both riding in a chariot ), met him, and taking him up into the chariot, they seated themselves beside him, and endeavoured to persuade him, saying, “What harm is there in saying, Lord Cæsar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?” But he at first gave them no answer; and when they continued to urge him, he said, “I shall not do as you advise me.” So they, having no hope of persuading him, began to speak bitter words unto him, and cast him with violence out of the chariot”

At his trial he is asked to confirm that he is who he says he is (just like Jesus) and given a chance to recant (just like Jesus) – and he turns their requests against them beautifully. I love this paragraph:

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to your old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?””

His approach to his trial, and those trying him, is quite Pauline (he tries to convert the governor).

And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar,” he answered,

Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Cæsar, and pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them.

The proconsul replied, “Persuade the people.” But Polycarp said,

To you I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1 But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me.

His response to the Proconsul’s threats are fantastic.

“The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.”

But he answered,

“Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”


But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.”

But Polycarp said,

“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.”

After hearing his testimony the mob in the stadium call for Polycarp, the father of Christians and the teacher of the province of Asia who taught people not to worship the Roman gods, to be fed to the lions. The governor says the animal shows are finished for the day, but he lets them burn Polycarp to death instead. A task they tackle with relish and gusto. Polycarp complies, the soldiers are going to nail him in place, and he tells them that will be unnecessary:

“Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”

Polycarp’s Prayer

” O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen. “

The fire is said not to have had any effect on Polycarp:

“And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

And they have to stab him instead, at which point his blood spurts out in the shape of a dove and puts out the flames (or so it is reported). The biography contains a few pieces of anti-Jewish sentiment, including blaming the Jews for preventing the church from receiving Polycarp’s body “lest they start worshipping him instead of Christ” – which the writers say is not possible for the Christian to do.

The Romans, not seeking to make the mistake of letting Polycarp come back to life, instead put his body in the fire, where it burns, and the Christians collect his bones and bury them in a fitting place where they can gather together to celebrate the anniversary of the event and rejoice over Polycarp’s life.

The letter says Polycarp was the 12th martyr in Smyrna. And that it has been sent around the churches in order to encourage them to glorify the Lord.

“Since, then, you requested that we would at large make you acquainted with what really took place, we have for the present sent you this summary account through our brother Marcus. When, therefore, you have yourselves read this Epistle, be pleased to send it to the brethren at a greater distance, that they also may glorify the Lord, who makes such choice of His own servants. To Him who is able to bring us all by His grace and goodness into his everlasting kingdom, through His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, to Him be glory, and honour, and power, and majesty, for ever. Amen. Salute all the saints. They that are with us salute you, and Evarestus, who wrote this Epistle, with all his house.”

There’s an online version of the document here.