Course:  Church History (1)

Course Title:  Church History and the Standard of the New Testament

Section One: 'The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church'.  

Lesson Two: The Persecuted Church


Text:  ‘Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life’ Revelation 2:10


Introduction:  The church of the book of Acts rejoiced in persecution, Acts 5:41.

Tertullian (c.160-c.230) wrote ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. 

The church was in the greatest danger when it became the religion of the Emperor.


Introductory Story: When the church is persecuted it is powerful.

Church in China – house church thrives despite persecution.

Consider the immense amount of missionary work in China from the 19th century.


Foxes Book of Martyrs

The Ten Primitive Persecutions (see Revelation 2:10).

The First Persecution, Under Nero, A.D. 67

The Second Persecution, Under Domitian, A.D. 81

The Third Persecution, Under Trajan, A.D. 108

The Fourth Persecution, Under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A.D. 162

The Fifth Persecution, Commencing with Severus, A.D. 192

The Sixth Persecution, Under Maximus, A.D. 235

The Seventh Persecution, Under Decius, A.D. 249

The Eighth Persecution, Under Valerian, A.D. 257

The Ninth Persecution Under Aurelian, A.D. 274

The Tenth Persecution, Under Diocletian, A.D. 303



Main Points:

1.      Persecution of the church during the time of the New Testament. 

·        James is executed by Herod Agrippa 1 (Acts 12)

Agrippa given all of kingdom by Claudius.  Close friends.

·        Expulsion of the Christians from Rome by the Emperor Claudius.  Acts 18:2  ‘And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them.’

This was confirmed by the Roman biographer, Suetonius.  ‘He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.’ Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Claudius, par. 25.


·        Persecution by Nero A.D 64. Fire of Rome.  Tacitus.  Paul executed in Rome 2 Timothy 4.  Martyrdom of Peter – tradition crucified upside down.  Not reliable source.


·        Persecution by Domitian (81-96) brother of Titus, son of Vespasion. John on Island of Patmos.  Book of Revelation.



2.      Persecution in the second and third centuries. The Age of Martyrs

Martyrdom became highly honoured.  Some were too willing to be martyrs.

The Church elevated the martyrs to saints – contradicting scripture where all believers are saints (holy one’s)


a)     Martyrdom of Ignatius under the emperor Trajan (98-117).


·        Asia Minor. Letter of Pliny to emperor Trajan Pliny asked what should be done to the Christians.  Trajans answer – if they offer sacrifice to the emperor then let them go.


·        Martyrdom of Ignatius – taken from Antioch to Rome.



b)     Martyrdom of Polycarp under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A.D. 162

·        Martyrdom of Polycarp (d.166) Disciple of John. Bishop of Smyrna


c)      Martyrdom of Perpetua under Septimius Severus, A.D. 192


·        Martyrdom of Perpetua (d.203), in Carthage,  22 years old.

New convert to Christianity

Educated woman

A wife

Gave birth in prison to a baby girl.

Knew she would be martyred (Word of Wisdom)

Possibly a Montanist.

Father pleaded with her to sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.

Killed in the arena by a gladiator.


3.      Controversial issues caused by persecution

a)     Novatianism.  Persecution under Decius, A.D. 249-251.  The Decian persecution was the first general persecution of the Church.  Decius sought to reinforce sacrifice to the gods of the Roman Empire.  Decius was killed in battle in June 251.


The followers of Novatian refused to accept readmission into the Church for those who had offered sacrifice to the Emperor during the Decian persecution.

For this reason he would not accept the ordination of the new Bishop of Rome.

Cornelius did not hold this view and accepted people back.  Novatian accepted the office himself and became a rival to the Bishop of Rome or antipope.  


b)     The Donatist controversy. Persecution under Diocletian, A.D. 303-306. Those who allowed scripture to be confiscated during persecution (traditores).

·        What should be done concerning those who had been traitors during persecution – traditor

·        Was ordination by a Bishop who had been a traditor still valid?

·        Donatism was refuted by Augustine of Hippo.




  1. The church of the New Testament rejoiced in persecution.  It was persecuted but powerful.
  2. The martyrs inspired the church.  This admiration led the church to admire them almost as gods.  They were given days of the year.
  3. The Donatist controversy that shook the church in North Africa was defeated by Augustine of Hippo..






SUETONIUS  The Twelve Caesars, Claudius, par. 25.

‘He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.’



TACITUS (c.56 - c.125)  - The Fire of Rome


But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.



Pliny to the Emperor Trajan

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan to Pliny

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.





The magistrate tried to persuade Polycarp to sacrifice to the gods; but finding that he could make nothing of him, he pushed him out of the chariot so roughly that the old man fell and broke his leg. But Polycarp bore the pain without showing how much he was hurt, and the soldiers led him into the amphitheatre, where great numbers of people were gathered together. When all these saw him, they set up loud cries of rage and savage delight; but Polycarp thought, as he entered the place, that he heard a voice saying to him, "Be strong and play the man!" and he did not heed all the shouting of the crowd. The governor desired him to deny Christ, and said that, if he would, his life should be spared. But the faithful bishop answered "Fourscore and six years have I served Christ, and He hath never done me wrong; how then can I now blaspheme my King and Saviour?" The governor again and again urged him, as if in a friendly way, to sacrifice; but Polycarp stedfastly refused. He next threatened to let wild beasts loose on him, and as Polycarp still showed no fear, he said that he would burn him alive. "You threaten me," said the bishop, "with a fire which lasts but a short time; but you know not of that eternal fire which is prepared for the wicked." A stake was then set up, and a pile of wood was collected around it. Polycarp walked to the place with a calm and cheerful look, and, as the executioners were /going to fasten him to the stake with iron cramps, he begged them to spare themselves the trouble. "He who gives me the strength to bear the flames," he said. "will enable me to remain steady." He was therefore only tied to the stake with cords, and as he stood thus bound, he uttered a thanksgiving for being allowed to suffer after the pattern of his Lord and Saviour.  When his prayer was ended, the wood was set on fire, but we are told that the flames swept round him, looking like the sail of a ship swollen by the wind, while he remained unhurt in the midst of them. One of the executioners, seeing this, plunged a sword into the martyr's breast, and the blood rushed forth in such a stream that it put out the fire. But the persecutors, who were resolved that the Christians should not have their bishop's body, lighted the wood again, and burnt the corpse, so that only a few of the bones remained; and these the Christians gathered out, and gave them an honourable burial. It was on Easter eve that St. Polycarp suffered, in the year of our Lord 166.