The Christian Minority Becomes a Majority (continued)


C. The Christian minority under persecution

The facts

We have seen how, as soon as it came into being, the Judeo-Christian minority suffered persecution from the Jewish authorities. One of their most ruthless persecutors, Saul, once he was converted, became himself the victim of this same persecution. The Judeo-Christian minority of Jerusalem sought refuge in Pella before the siege of 69-70AD. We have seen how the Judeo-Christians were still being persecuted by the Jewish rebels of Bar Kokba in 132.

In a similar way the Christian minority of Palestinian gentile-Christians, whose identity is proved historically, as we have just seen, by the lives of some remarkable personalities, can also be recognized in the persecutors 131

1.These persecutions enable us to trace more easily the existence of this minority in the distant past. However, if they do not seem to be of very great importance it is because, in Palestine, these persecutions were neither numerous nor, after all, very severe . In fact there is no record of there being the same pitiless treatment of the victims as there was in Africa, Egypt and Asia Minor.

In practical terms Palestine was only affected by the persecutions of Decius (249-291), Valerian (238), Diocletian and Maximus Daia (303311).

Concerning notable victims during the persecution of 'Decius in Palestine, we know only of Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem, He, worn-out. after ill-treatment, died in prison at Caesarea. Origen, who was also tortured in many ways, was spared on the death of Decius. Euseblus does not mention any other victims, which suggests that this persecution ",as not so severe"'.

During the persecution of Valerian, after the Edict of 258, Eusebius, referring to Caesarea, tells us first of all about three companions, Priscus, Malchus and Alexander"' who were thrown to the wild beasts. And that some time later, it was the turn of an officer, Marinus"' In his account, where a bishop and a senator are seen to act so freely, it can be concluded that this persecution was rather moderate.

It was quite a different case with the persecution of Diocletian, proclaimed by edict in 303AD at Caesarea after 45 years of peace. After Diocletian had left the scene in 305, the persecution continued until 311 under Maximus Daia, the Caesar of the Orient (Syria and Egypt). Even during this merciless persecution Palestinian victims were not so numerous. It seems that the persecution did not affect the Judeo-Christians in the different localities in the interior, but rather in the coastal towns, especially of course the metropolis, Caesarea. Two consecutive governors, Urban and Firmilian, zealously persecuted the Christians but then ended up by being put to death by Maximus Daia themselves. Among these martyrs in Caesarea many also came from Syria. For example the young academic and friend of Euseblus, Aphianos, who was from Beirut. Ulysses of Tyre, Denis of Tripoli, as well as entire groups from Egypt, were sent to the mines of Phoeno to the south of the Dead Sea.

It was in Gaza, Ashqelon and especially in Caesarea that the martyrs of Palestine were put to death. Once again the Latin names of the majority of these martyrs of Palestinian origin"' reveal that they were gentile-Christians. The persecution was halted on the 30th of April, 31IAD, by a joint Edict of Galerius, Constantine and Licinlus. However, it was begun again on the death of Galerius, by Maximus Daia. Constantine finally managed to constrain him by the end of 312and get him to publish an edict of tolerance"'. Among the martyrs of Palestine were two bishops, three priests, three deacons, one subdeacon, a lector and an ascetic. However, the majority were fervent young people, lay men and women 141.

The report of the persecution by Eusebius leaves us eager to read more. His aim is clear and explicit, to present us with heroic models. He does not indicate those Christians who gave up, which seems especially to be the case in Egypt. It is beyond the scope of this study to estimate the number of Palestinian Christians at the beginning of the fourth century. Nor can we calculate the proportion of this Christian minority with respect to the total population. Eusebius does not give us precise details. One can only deduce that, from the relatively small number of martyrs, the Christian population was always a minority in those coastal towns. And also that the persecution was not as merciless as elsewhere, which suggests that this minority did not appear to threaten the existence of the Empire as in the other places.

The juridical basis of the persecutions

We have already touched on the juridical aspects of the persecutions of the Christian minority of the Circumcision in the preceding article. We did this while dealing with the ill-treatment which they received from the Jews and especially during the Roman persecution under Nero. After the gentile-Christians replaced those of the Circumcision the apogee of the persecutions occurred under Decius, Diocletian and Maximus Daia. Hence we need to consider their legislation against the Christians and its juridical basis.

1. Laws against the Christians

The legislation of Decius The legislation of Decius, which must have appeared in 250AD, is not known from any text. However, the reports of the martyrs permit us to discern its contents. Under pain of death, the Edict ordered everyone to make a sacrifice, which could be proved with a certificate. This sacrifice could be very simple such as, a few grains of incense offered to a statue of the Emperor or offering a piece of flesh taken from a sacrificial victim. As a consequence of this act the suspect was pardoned and so fell into apostasy. This in fact was the aim of the proceedings. But what constituted an innovation"' was that, those who did offer sacrifice were registered and that a written certificate, issued by the civil authorities, was necessary. Allard cites two of these reports or certificates of sacrifice. One reads as follows:

To the people in charge of the sacrifices of the village of the Island of Alexander, for Aurelius Diogenes, son of Gatabus of the village of the Island of Alexander, aged about seventy-two years, a scar on the right eyebrow. I have lived without ever ceasing to sacrifce to the gods, and now in @ your presence in conformity with the edicts, I have sacrificed and I have drunk, and I have tasted the victims. This I ask you to certify. Keep well! I have presented Aurelius Diogenes, I Mus ... son of... (1 have seen him) sacrificing and (I confirm it). The first year of the Emperor Caesar Caius Massius Quintus Trajanus Decius, Pieux, Felix, Auguste, the second of epiohi (26th of June 250AD)"'.

In order to extort this certificate the authorities used all possible means and martyred those who resisted. St. Cyprian 144 confirms that apostasies were very numerous. However, as far as we know, Eusebius, who wished above all to edify, makes no mention of them.

The legislation of Valerian

Valerian promulgated two Edicts against the Christians, in 257 and again in 258AD. Thanks to a careful examination the text has been easily reconstructed.

The first edict of 257 attacks members of the clergy and the ordinary people. It consists of two provisions. It "orders bishops, priests and deacons to participate in the official ceremonies of pagan worship, under pain of exile" and it

-"forbids Christians, under pain of death, to enter their cemeteries which were illegally closed and to hold assemblies there".

The second Edict of 258 was more violent and more general. It specifically changed the situation of the Christians and even introduced formidable innovations into the penal and political laws. It ordered;

- "immediate death of members of the clergy";

- "the confiscation of the goods of the nobility who professed to be Christians and death for those who refused to abjure";

- and "the servants of the imperial residence would be deprived of their goods and inscribed among the slaves of the public treasury do- mains 14611.

It can be seen that Valerian wanted to bring the Christians into the framework of the national religion. His intention was to break the unity of the Christians. Also he was trying to deprive the Church of her Juridical basis which, thanks to her collective property, had been its support for one and a half centuries. To do this he targeted the leaders, the clergy, the Christians of distinction - senators, nobles and members of the equestrian order - and the powerful class of servants. In fact what can united bodies do without their hierarchical leaders, without the material and moral support of Christians of distinction and without meeting places? The people are under no threat unless they attempt to reform their annulled associations. That is to say, of continuing their meetings and by frequenting the cemeteries.

The legislation of Diocletian

The persecution of Diocletian (303-305), forty-five years later, was much more cruel and bloody. Four edicts were drawn up and promulgated.

On the 24th of February 303, the first edict was put up on the walls of Nicomedia. Although not inflicting bloodshed it was not less vio-lent and was aimed at the buildings of worship, the sacred books and different categories of Christians:

All of a sudden edicts were promulgated which ordered that churches should be destroyed, the Sacred Scriptures delivered to the flames, that Christians brought up as nobles should lose their honours"', that the common people who persisted in the Christian religion should be deprived of their liberty"'. Such was the content of the first edict brought against us"'.

As an eyewitness Eusebius describes the application of this edict in the following terms:

With our own eyes we have seen the houses of prayer destroyed to their foundations, from the top to the bottom, the divine and Sacred Scriptures delivered to the fire in the centre of the public squares, the pastors of the churches, shamefully concealing themselves here and there, or captured ignominiously and insulted by our enemies"'.

Some time later three successive edicts emphasized, one after the other, the severity of the measures, going as far as imposing the offering of 'flee on every Christian.

The second edict, promulgated in 303, concerned only the leaders of the churches:

a law was promulgated, ordering that all Church leaders should be bound in chains and put in prison"'.

The application of this law was prompt. Eusebius affirms that:

The sight which then appeared surpasses all description. A numberless multitude of men were thrown into the dungeons. Formerly these had been reserved for brigands or for violators of tombs. And now were filled with bishops, priests, deacons, lectors, exorcists, to such an extent that there was no room for the common law criminals.

The third Edict was also promulgated in 303 and gave the prisoners their treedom if they offered a sacrifice. Eusebius reports:

Another law followed the preceding one. It said that the prisoners who consented to offer sacrifice would be liberated, and that those who refused would be submitted to crueller torments' 53.

Then began the execution of clerics of all ranks. Eusebius says:

Thus it was impossible to count the martyrs who suffered in the different provinces"'.

The fourth edict was specifically for the Orient. It was promulgated in 304 in the form of an imperial letter:

At the beginning of the second year, the ardor of the combat against us was increased. Urban, who then governed the province (of Palestine), received imperial letters. By which he was ordered, in general terms, that everyone in the whole country, in each town, should publicly offer incense and libations to the idols"'.

In some ways the legislation of Diocletian recalls the second edict of Valerian. That is to say, with respect to the degradation of those Christians who were of noble birth or role in society.

In various aspects it is more serious, like the destruction of the sacred edifices, suppression of books, the confiscation of all private wealth by the public treasury and the perpetuating of slavery.

In other aspects however, Diocletian is less severe than Valerian. He mentions neither the clergy nor high ranking Christians. Also, the death penalty is not yet proclaimed anywhere.

The persecution of Diocietian was terrible. In the last year of the great persecutions, but the worst, blood flowed abundantly. It occurred in two successive phases. It began in 303-304 and was renewed in 306, after a relaxation which perhaps was more of a hope than a reality. Eusebius, who was then in Caesarea, witnessed Emperor Maximus issuing new edicts of persecution:

Then Maximus, for the second time, took up the war against us, in the third year of persecution. The tyrant sent Edicts to all provinces, commanding the governors to force the inhabitants of their towns to offer sacrifice publicly to the gods"'.

This was applied immediately:

Heralds went through the streets of Caesarea and summoned the heads of families to the temples, by order of the governor. In addition, the tribunes of soldiers made a role call according to the registers"'.

2. The juridical basis for the legislation

The question which immediately springs to mind, as a consequence of these harsh laws, is to know what was the juridical basis, the reasons for such shedding of blood. According to Euseius, Jerome and Orose, the motive for the persecution of Decius was:

A reaction against the policy of Philip, a revenge of the pagan party against the reign of a prince who was favorable to the disciples of the Gospel"'. Decius, wearing the "haughty mask of the old aristocracy",", represented and upheld the ancient Roman traditions. One of his basic aims was the restoration of ancient customs:

It was almost a question of fate that he would rage against the Christians"'.

With regard to the reasons for the persecution of Valerian, Fr Abel deems that the Edicts issued by him were due to

"hostile influences acting on his irresolute character......

In fact Valerian had at first shown sympathy for the Christians. Then he changed his attitude when the Church was presented to him in an invidious way. It was his general controller who, above all, convinced him to treat the Christians harshly. He was cultivating "a pronounced taste for magic which was a practice forbidden by the Church.

The motives for the persecution of diocletian were complex. He was a genius for organization but was a reactionary when it came to religion. His premise, according to Fr. Abel, was that:

It is forbidden to claim that a new religion can correct the old one. To wish to alter the instructions of ancestors is the greatest of crimes"'.

Christianity, with its clear characteristic of being an independent structure, was then in itself quite intolerable for this reactionary, the organizer of the Empire.

However, it was Caesar Galerius who prompted into action the already ageing Emperor. Galerius was a fanatic leader against the Christians. He had acquired great prestige with his victory over the Persians in 279. With his officers, the "Magisters militium, he took measures against the Christian officers and soldiers. Diocletian, whose will was weakening, allowed him to do as he wanted. Then an incident stirred him into action. According to Lactantius, the Christians were accused of having nullified a sacrifice of the Emperor by using the sign of the Cross. A council, that was always presided over by Galerius, judged against the Christians. However, Diocletian did not wish this to be followed by bloodshed 166.

In the final analysis all this legislation certainly did not constitute a true war against a religion. In the Roman conception of religion the gods, in their origins, were considered as personifications of the different forms of nature. The gods could thus be multiplied according to the number of these forces in nature 161 . For this reason they willingly accepted religions coming from the Orient. For example, religions such as the "Magna Mater Derem", the great Phrygian Mother, the Egyptian Isis, the Syrian Baals, or the Persian god Mithra"'. Therefore there was no difficulty in accepting that Christianity, born in the Orient, should have its own adherents. However, it must not exclude the Roman religion, which was quite specific with its worship of the Emperor. The variation of motives for persecution, from one Emperor to another, confirms this concept. As has been pointed out, the Roman Empire was a personal state. In all this legislation we can also see the precise application of the principle, which we quoted in the preceding juridical account: "Quod principi placuit, legem habet vigorem".

Nevertheless, after having been ill-treated by the Jews and persecuted by the Romans, the Christians of Palestine were greater than the cruelty of persecution. Under Constantine they were able to come together once. again with no problems or trauma. And they were able to unite the resources which they still had in order to establish a flourishing social body.