Chapter 1. The Gospels, the Apostles, Then... What?

What you should know about Christian history AD 64–AD 177


The Gospels, the Apostles, Then... What?


ad 64 – ad 177

Emperor Nero

Peter and Paul Martyred

Destruction of Temple

Martyrdom of Polycarp

Justin Martyr

what you should know about Christian history

ad 64 – ad 177

5 EVENTS you should know

  1. Jerusalem Council (ad 49 or 50): Church recognized that Gentiles did not need to become Jews to follow Jesus Christ (Acts 15).
  2. Fire in Rome (ad 64): Flames destroyed nearly three-fourths of capital city. Emperor Nero blamed and persecuted the Christians.
  3. Destruction of Jerusalem Temple (ad 70): After a Jewish revolt, Emperor Vespasian ordered his son, Titus, to regain Jerusalem. Titus torched the city and leveled the temple.
  4. Pliny's Letter to Emperor Trajan (around ad 112): Pliny, governor of Pontus, asked Trajan how to handle Christians. Trajan ordered Pliny not to pursue Christians. Only when people were accused of being Christians were they to be hunted down.
  5. Martyrdom of Polycarp (ad 155): Polycarp of Smyrna—modern Izmir, Turkey—was burned alive because he would not offer incense to the emperor.

10 NAMES you should know

  1. Peter (martyred between ad 65 and 68): Leading apostle of the early church.
  2. Paul (martyred between ad 65 and 68): Early Christian missionary and apostle.
  3. Nero (ad 37-68): Roman emperor, persecuted Christians after fire in Rome.
  4. Clement of Rome (died, ad 96): Leading pastor of Rome in the late first century. The fourth pope, according to Roman Catholics. Perhaps mentioned in Philippians 4:3.
  5. Josephus (ad 37-100): Jewish writer. His historical works tell about early Christianity and the destruction of the Jewish temple.
  6. Ignatius (ad 35-117): Apostolic church father and leading pastor in Syrian Antioch. Wrote seven important letters while traveling to Rome to face martyrdom.
  7. Papias (ad 60-130): Apostolic church father. Wrote about the origins of the Gospels.
  8. Polycarp (ad 69-155): Apostolic church father. Preserved Ignatius' writings.
  9. Justin Martyr (ad 100-165): Christian philosopher and apologist. Martyred in Rome.
  10. Blandina (died, ad 177): Slave-girl. Martyred in Lyons alongside the city's leading pastor.

4 TERMS you should know

  1. Anno Domini: Latin for "the Lord's Year," usually abbreviated ad. Refers to the number of years since Christ's birth. Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century monk, was the first to date history by the life of Christ. His calculations were off by between one and five years. So, Jesus may have been four or five years old in ad 1!
  2. Century: One hundred years. The first century extended from ad 1 to 100; the second century, from ad 101 to 200; the third, from ad 201 to 300, and so on.
  3. Yahweh: Hebrew name for God. The name means "I AM" (see Exodus 3:13-14).
  4. Apostolic Fathers: Influential first-century Christians, such as Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias. A few later theologians—such as Augustine—are known as church fathers.

Who were the Christians, anyway?

What is a "Christian"? If someone asked you that question, you could probably come up with a response without much thought. Chances are, you would say something like, "It's someone who has trusted Jesus as Savior and Lord." But what if you lived in a world in which only a small percentage of the population had even heard about Jesus?

In the first few decades of Christian faith, followers of Jesus struggled to help people around them understand what it really meant to be Christian. From the Roman perspective, Christians were simply one more Jewish sect (Acts 16:20). The Jewish faith was recognized throughout the Roman Empire, so this association protected Christians in many areas. Yet, according to some Jewish leaders, Christians were renegades who had abandoned the ancient and venerable Jewish faith. Christians claimed that their faith fulfilled the Jewish Law, even calling themselves "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). At the same time, as Christianity expanded among non-Jews, Christians' practices increasingly separated them from the Jewish faith that Jesus and his first apostles had practiced.

By ad 100, the Christian and Jewish faiths were recognized as two separate groups. Jewish synagogues had excluded Christians, and the Roman Empire had engaged in widespread persecution of Christians. How did those who claimed Jesus as their Messiah come to constitute a distinct group? The answer can't be confined to any one event. Yet two fires—one in Jerusalem, one in Rome—contributed to this separation in a critical way.

Rome burns, but Nero doesn't fiddle

In midsummer, ad 64, Rome burned. Flames ravaged the city for six days. When the smoke cleared, ten of Rome's fourteen districts had been reduced to charred rubbish.

Nero, the Roman emperor, was several miles away when the fire began. When he heard the news, Nero rushed back to Rome. During the fire, he organized fire-fighting efforts. After the fire, thousands of refugees stayed in his gardens. Yet, as the rebuilding of Rome began, many citizens blamed Nero for the tragedy.

According to one rumor, Nero had ordered his servants to start the fire. Nero torched Rome—the rumor claimed—so he could rebuild the city according to his own whims. Later rumors even insisted that Nero had played his harp while Rome burned. In fact, the fire probably began by accident in an oil warehouse—but this probable fact was quickly lost amid raging gossip and rumors.

Nero responded to the rumors by lavishing gifts on the citizens of Rome. Nothing helped. In desperation, Nero blamed the fire on an unpopular minority group—the Christians. Nero became the first emperor to recognize publicly that Christianity was a different religion, and he began immediately to persecute this faith. One Roman historian described the persecution in this way, "Some were dressed in furs and killed by dogs. Others were crucified, or burned alive, to light the night."

The apostle Peter was martyred in Rome during Nero's persecution. According to ancient tradition, Peter didn't believe he was worthy to die like his Savior, so the big fisherman asked to be crucified upside down. Roman authorities also arrested the apostle Paul. Since it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen, Paul probably died by the sword.

In some ways, Nero's false accusation made sense. Christians did claim that a great inferno would accompany the end of the world (Revelation 20:9). Some overly eager Christians may have seen a certain sign of Christ's return in Rome's reduction to rubble. Yet Christians were—according to a pagan writer—"hated for their abominations" before the fire. What made Christian faith so unpopular?

Christians rejected all other gods

Christians believed in only one God—the God of Israel, revealed in Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Timothy 2:5). This belief seemed arrogant to the Romans. Most Romans covered all their spiritual bases by sacrificing to many gods, known and unknown (Acts 17:23). They even offered incense to dead emperors. (As one emperor died, he joked, "I think I'm becoming a god now!") Yet Romans didn't sacrifice simply for their own sakes. They sacrificed for the sake of their empire. Numerous sacrifices, they believed, secured divine assistance for their government. To deny the existence of any divinity was, at best, unpatriotic and, at worst, perilous to the security of their empire.

Christian customs were widely misunderstood

When they described their worship, Christians talked about consuming the "body" and "blood" of Christ at their "love-feasts" (John 6:53-56; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:23-27; Jude 1:12). Believers called one another "brothers and sisters"—terms used in Egypt to refer to sexual partners.

Alone, either of these practices might have struck the Romans as odd. Combined with the Christian conviction that Christians followed the only true God, such practices convinced many citizens that Christianity was a dangerous cult. Romans couldn't quell their concerns by attending a church service. When early Christians shared the Lord's Supper, they wouldn't even let nonbelievers watch. Without firsthand information, Romans began to accuse Christians falsely of cannibalism and incest.

Christians challenged the social order

Paul had declared, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). In other words, every person matters, whatever his or her social status. Early Christians lived out Paul's words. The results offended the Romans.

The church challenged the entire structure of Roman society by welcoming the lower classes and by valuing every human life. The laws of Rome prevented slaves from inheriting property; the customs of the empire treated women as lesser beings. If a Roman father didn't want his child, he left the infant alone in a field, to die. Christians defied such social structures by adopting unwanted infants and by welcoming slaves and women as equal inheritors of God's grace.

Christianity was a new religion

New and improved products seem to fascinate people today. The trend in ancient Roman society was precisely the opposite: It seemed better to them to choose an old, proven product than to fall for a new, improved gimmick. Romans tolerated the Jews' belief in one God partly because the Jewish faith was so ancient. One thousand years before Rome was founded, Abraham had encountered Yahweh [YAH-way] in the desert.

To be sure, Christians claimed that their religion reached back, beyond Abraham (John 8:58). Still, from the Romans' viewpoint, the church was very new. What's more, unlike the Jews, Christians had no sacrifices, no temples, no sacred city. As a result, Christians seemed unusual, unsafe, and unpleasant to their Roman neighbors.

The first fire—the one that ravaged Rome in 64—highlighted habits of life and faith that caused Christianity to be unpopular among the Romans. There was another fire, this time in Jerusalem, that helped to solidify the distinction between Christian and Jewish faiths.

Jerusalem burns and bleeds

The Romans tolerated the Jewish faith because of its ancient roots, but the Romans rarely showed any real respect for the Jewish people. Around ad 50, for example, thousands of Jews were celebrating their sacred Passover. A Roman fortress towered over the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Suddenly, one guard "lifted up his robe and bent over indecently. He turned his backside toward the Jews and"—in the words of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus—"made a noise as indecent as his posture." In the riot that followed, as many as 30,000 women and men may have died.

A new Roman ruler, a man named Florus, arrived in Judea in ad 64. For two years, Florus flagrantly insulted the Jews. When several Jewish leaders demanded that Florus stop stealing from the temple, Florus sent his soldiers into the market. Their orders? Slaughter and steal. Before the day ended, 3,600 Jews were dead.

Seeds of anger toward Rome had germinated for years. Now, they blossomed into open revolt. In a few weeks, bands of Jewish rebels violently overwhelmed Roman strongholds in Jerusalem and Galilee.

Emperor Nero knew that, to maintain his hold on this corner of the Roman Empire, it was necessary to stop the rebellion. He provided 60,000 soldiers to a Roman general named Vespasian [ves-PAY-see-unn]. Vespasian's mission was to regain the Galilean and Judean provinces at any cost. Vespasian's campaign began in Galilee, destroying Jewish communities as he moved southward. Thousands of Jews fled to Jerusalem in the face of the advancing legions. As Vespasian prepared to attack Jerusalem, he received an unexpected message: Nero had committed suicide. This provided Vespasian with a chance to seize the throne for himself.

In the end, Vespasian did rule the Roman Empire, but he never forgot his previous task. As soon as his position was relatively secure, Vespasian sent an army to besiege Jerusalem. On August 5, ad 70, Jerusalem fell. The rebels were massacred. The sacred city was plundered. The survivors were sold as slaves. The temple was burned to the ground. Only one wall of the temple mount—a segment known today as the "Wailing Wall"—remained. Within a few years, every rebel stronghold had fallen to the Romans. The Jewish defenders of the final fortress—Masada, near the Dead Sea—chose mass-suicide instead of surrender. The revolt was over.

After the revolt, the religious landscape of the Roman Empire shifted. Many people wanted to make certain that they weren't associated with odd religious sects. During the last half of the first century ad, this shift would lead eventually to rejection and widespread persecution of Christians.