One can understand this link between Judaism and Christianity by recalling the story of Jacob and Esau who, as brothers, fought each other in the womb. Both religions were variations of messianic philosophy. In the Jewish case, the belief was derived from second century B.C. apocalyptic literature. In the Christian case, Jesus was the messiah and his resurrection the foundation of the belief system. But the resurrected messiah was incomprehensible to the Jewish religion because it did not allow a kinship between man and God.
The Romans did not differentiate between Jews and Christians until 96 A.D. when the Fiscus Judiacus (tax on Jews) was implemented. This tax was imposed on all Jews of the empire as reparations for the revolt against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Christians were not required to pay the tax.
Of course there were cases in the first century when the Christians were singled out for persecution, first under Nero and then Domitian, but our interest for this post lies specifically in the second century.
The following are the major currents we’ll be discussing:
The development of Christian dogma
The first three describe aspects of the development of the Catholic Church and the fourth the Roman reaction against the behavior of Christians.
As time went on, the Christian dogma was refined as scholars analyzed the sacred writings and came to conclusions about their meaning. The dogma was build brick by brick, sentence by sentence until it became the law of the church. The dogma was defended by apologists who sought to put it in the context of the history of man and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Simultaneous with the defense was the offence – working against the many variants of the main belief system. These heretical outliers threatened to undermine and dilute the exclusive role of the Catholic Church as protector of the Christian theology.
Below are some brief sketches about the lives of early Christian theologians.
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (50-108), stressed the relationship between the teachings of Jesus and the hierarchy of the church -- that Christians should obey their bishops. He was martyred in Rome.
Justin Martyr (100-165), an apologist, was one of the earliest Christian writers. Born in Judea and martyred in Rome, Justin believed that the Greek philosophers took their essential ideas from the Hebrew Bible, proving the eternalness of the Christian belief system. He labeled Socrates a Christian. In his Dialog with Trypho, Justin demonstrated why Christians are the true people of God.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (140-202) was an apologist known for his book Against Heresies. Irenaeus took specific aim at Gnostics who were causing a great threat to the church. Gnostics believed that a person could achieve salvation through the acquisition of secret knowledge of God. Furthermore some Gnostics saw Jesus as the vehicle that brought this knowledge to the human race. Irenaeus succeeded to the title of Bishop of Lyon when he absent in Rome during a massacre there.
Tertullian (160-225) was an early Christian writer from Carthage who, like Irenaeus, was an apologist writing against heresies. Tertullian has been labeled the “Father of Western Theology” and was the first to use the term “trinity”.
Origen (185-253) was an Alexandrian scholar and theologian, whose father was martyred during the reign of Septimius Severus. One of Origen’s important contributions was First Principles a book which describes God as the logos, the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of sin and redemption, and the Bible.
Throughout the second century the church moved forward developing its theology and solidifying its administrative apparatus as the only true interpreter of Christian theology through its link to the savior. But progress was also disrupted by the Roman persecutions which were much more serious in the 100s than at any other time. I was surprised that this “Golden Age” of the empire with its superior leadership could have been so cruel to the Christians – particularly during the time of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic.
Prior to Marcus, the emperors of the second century followed the outline of Trajan who specified to Pliny that Christians not be sought out but rather tried in court if evidence of their guilt could be presented. There is no question that the persecutions were more severe under Marcus but we lack evidence that he created a new more restrictive policy. The persecutions appear to be local, originating with the provincial magistrates and there has been speculation about Marcus’ involvement in them. For example, one academic felt that Marcus’ personality was impacted by the troubles of his reign – incessant wars, famine, and disease, and these made him turn his anger against the Christians.
Below is one of the few quotes we have from Marcus Aurelius about Christians.
That soul which is ever ready, even now presently (if need be) from the body, whether by way of extinction, or dispersion, or continuation in another place and estate to be separated, how blessed and happy is it! But this readiness of it, it must proceed, not from obstinate and peremptory resolution of the mind, violently and passionately set upon Opposition, as Christians are wont; but from a peculiar judgment; with discretion and gravity, so that others may be persuaded also and drawn to the like example, but without any noise and passionate exclamations.
In other words, to him, the soul must be properly prepared to leave the body at the end of one’s life. That preparation must take a form that sets an example for others. This he contrasts with the Christian attitude which is “obstinate and violently set upon opposition”, like tragic actors.
After Marcus, Severus returned to the previously established policy of Trajan with some exceptions. For example he sought to prohibit conversions to Christianity and Judaism. There were some severe persecutions in Africa during the early 200s A.D.
Here we close the story of the second century and move on. By the time another century had passed, the Christian church was moving rapidly toward official recognition by the empire. Then, as we’ve discussed before, the church would rise as the empire was moving toward collapse.