The principal sources for the history of the Church in this period are the books of the New Testament, and only to a slight degree the works of contemporaneous Jewish and heathen writers. It is hardly necessary to reproduce New Testament passages here. The Jewish references of importance will be found in the works on the life of Christ and of St. Paul. As the treatment of this period commonly falls under a different branch of study, New Testament exegesis, it is not necessary in Church history to enter into any detail. There are, however, a few references to events in this period which are to be found only outside the New Testament, and are of importance to the student of Church history. These are the Neronian persecution (§ 1), the death of the Apostles (§§ 2, 3), and the persecution under Domitian (§ 4). The paucity of references to Christianity in the first century is due chiefly to the fact that Christianity appeared to the men of the times as merely a very small Oriental religion, struggling for recognition, and contending with many others coming from the same region. It had not yet made any great advance either in numbers or social importance.
§ 1. The Neronian Persecution
The Neronian persecution took place A. D.64. The occasion was the great fire which destroyed a large part of the city of Rome. To turn public suspicion from himself as responsible for the fire, Nero attempted to make the Christians appear as the incendiaries. Many were put to death in horrible and fantastic ways. It was not, however, a persecution directed against Christianity as an unlawful religion. It was probably confined to Rome and at most the immediate vicinity, and there is no evidence that it was a general persecution.
Additional source material: Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, ch.2 (ANF, VII); Sulpicius Severus, Chronicon, II.28 (PNF, ser. II, vol. XI).
(a) Tacitus, Annales, XV, 44. Preuschen, Analecta, I, § 3:1. Mirbt, n.3.
Tacitus (c.52-c.117), although not an eye-witness of the persecution, had exceptionally good opportunities for obtaining accurate information, and his account is entirely trustworthy. He is the principal source for the persecution.
Neither by works of benevolence nor the gifts of the prince nor means of appeasing the gods did the shameful suspicion cease, so that it was not believed that the fire had been caused by his command. Therefore, to overcome this rumor, Nero put in his own place as culprits, and punished with most ingenious cruelty, men whom the common people hated for their shameful crimes and called Christians. Christ, from whom the name was derived, had been put to death in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. The deadly superstition, having been checked for a while, began to break out again, not only throughout Judea, where this mischief first arose, but also at Rome, where from all sides all things scandalous and shameful meet and become fashionable. Therefore, at the beginning, some were seized who made confessions; then, on their information, a vast multitude was convicted, not so much of arson as of hatred of the human race. And they were not only put to death, but subjected to insults, in that they were either dressed up in the skins of wild beasts and perished by the cruel mangling of dogs, or else put on crosses to be set on fire, and, as day declined, to be burned, being used as lights by night. Nero had thrown open his gardens for that spectacle, and gave a circus play, mingling with the people dressed in a charioteer's costume or driving in a chariot. From this arose, however, toward men who were, indeed, criminals and deserving extreme penalties, sympathy, on the ground that they were destroyed not for the public good, but to satisfy the cruelty of an individual.
(b) Clement of Rome, Ep. ad Corinthios, I, 5, 6. Funk, Patres Apostolici, 1901. (MSG, 1:218.) Preuschen, Analecta, I, § 3:5.
The work known as the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians was written in the name of the Roman Church about 100. The occasion was the rise of contentions in the Corinthian Church. The name of Clement does not appear in the body of the epistle, but there is no good ground for questioning the traditional ascription to Clement, since before the end of the second century it was quoted under his name by several writers. This Clement was probably the third or fourth bishop of Rome. The epistle was written soon after the Domitian persecution (A. D.95), and refers not only to that but also to an earlier persecution, which was very probably that under Nero. As the reference is only by way of illustration, the author gives little detail. The passage translated is of interest as containing the earliest reference to the death of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and the language used regarding Paul has been thought to imply that he labored in parts beyond Rome.
Ch.5. But to leave the ancient examples, let us come to the champions who lived nearest our times; let us take the noble examples of our generation. On account of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles: Peter, who on account of unrighteous jealousy endured not one nor two, but many sufferings, and so, having borne his testimony, went to his deserved place of glory. On account of jealousy and strife Paul pointed out the prize of endurance. After he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had been a preacher in the East and in the West, he received the noble reward of his faith; having taught righteousness unto the whole world, and having come to the farthest bounds of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he thus departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having become a notable pattern of patient endurance.
Ch.6. Unto these men who lived lives of holiness was gathered a vast multitude of the elect, who by many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy, set the finest examples among us. On account of jealousy women, when they had been persecuted as Danaids and Dircae, and had suffered cruel and unholy insults, safely reached the goal in the race of faith and received a noble reward, feeble though they were in body.
§ 2. The Death of Peter and Paul
Eusebius, Hist. Ec., II, 25. (MSG, 20:207.) Cf. Mirbt, n.33.
For an examination of the merits of Eusebius as a historian, see McGiffert's edition, PNF, ser. II, vol. I, pp.45-52; also J. B. Lightfoot, art. "Eusebius (23) of Caesarea," in DCB.
The works of Caius have been preserved only in fragments; see Krueger, § 90. If he was a contemporary of Zephyrinus, he probably lived during the pontificate of that bishop of Rome, 199-217 A. D. The Phrygian heresy which Caius combated was Montanism; see below, § 25.
Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, was a contemporary of Soter, Bishop of Rome, 166-174 A. D., whom he mentions in an epistle to the Roman Church. Of his epistles only fragments have been preserved; see Krueger, § 55. The following extract from his epistle to the Roman Church is the earliest explicit statement that Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom at the same time or that Peter was ever in Italy. In connection with this extract, that from Clement of Rome (see § 1, a) should be consulted; also Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, ch.2 (ANF).
It is therefore recorded that Paul was beheaded at Rome itself, and that Peter was crucified likewise at the same time. This account of Peter and Paul is confirmed by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present time. It is confirmed no less by a member of the Church, Caius by name, a contemporary of Zephyrinus, Bishop of Rome. In carrying on a discussion in writing with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, he says as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid Apostles are laid: "But I am able to show the trophies of the Apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church." And that they two suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, corresponding with the Romans in writing, in the following words: "You have thus by such admonition bound together the planting of Peter and Paul at Rome and at Corinth. For both planted in our Corinth and likewise taught us, and in like manner in Italy they both taught and suffered martyrdom at the same time."
§ 3. The Death of the Apostle John
(a) Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, II, 22, 5; III, 3, 4. (MSG, 7:785, 854.)
Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons soon after 177. He was born in Asia Minor about 120, and was a disciple of Polycarp (ob. circa 155) and of other elders who had seen John, the disciple of the Lord.
II, 22, 5. Those in Asia associated with John, the disciple of the Lord, testify that John delivered it [a tradition regarding the length of Christ's ministry] to them. For he remained among them until the time of Trajan [98-117 A. D.].
III, 3, 4. But the church in Ephesus also, which was founded by Paul, and where John remained until the time of Trajan, is a faithful witness of the apostolic tradition.
(b) Jerome, Comm. ad Galat. (MSL, 26:462.)
The following extract from Jerome's commentary on Galatians is of such late date as to be of doubtful value as an authority. There is, however, nothing improbable in it, and it is in harmony with other traditions. It is to be taken as a tradition which at any rate represents the opinion of the fourth century regarding the Apostle John. Cf. Jerome, De Viris Inlustribus, ch.9 (PNF, ser. II, vol. III, 364).
When the holy Evangelist John had lived to extreme old age in Ephesus, he could be carried only with difficulty by the hands of the disciples, and as he was not able to pronounce more words, he was accustomed to say at every assembly, "Little children, love one another." At length the disciples and brethren who were present became tired of hearing always the same thing and said: "Master, why do you always say this?" Thereupon John gave an answer worthy of himself: "Because this is the commandment of the Lord, and if it is observed then is it enough."
(c) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., III, 31. (MSG, 20:279.)
Polycrates was bishop of Ephesus and a contemporary of Victor of Rome (189-199 A. D.). His date cannot be fixed more precisely. The reference to the "high priest's mitre" is obscure; see J. B. Lightfoot, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, p.345. A longer extract from this epistle of Polycrates will be found under the Easter Controversy (§ 38).
The time of John's death has been given in a general way,(1) but his burial-place is indicated by an epistle of Polycrates (who was bishop of the parish of Ephesus) addressed to Victor of Rome, mentioning him, together with the Apostle Philip and his daughters, in the following words: "For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again at the last day, at the coming of the Lord, when he shall come with glory from heaven and seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve Apostles, who sleeps at Hierapolis, and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and moreover John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and being a priest wore the high priest's mitre, also sleeps at Ephesus."
§ 4. The Persecution under Domitian
What is commonly called the persecution under Domitian (81-96) does not seem to have been a persecution of Christianity as such. The charges of atheism and superstition may have been due to heathen misunderstanding of the Christian faith and worship. There is no sufficient ground for identifying Flavius Clemens with the Clemens who was bishop of Rome. For bibliography of the persecution under Domitian, see Preuschen, Analecta, second ed., I, 11.
(a) Cassius Dio (excerpt. per Xiphilinum), Hist. Rom., LXVII, 14 f. Preuschen, Analecta, I, § 4:11.
For Cassius Dio, see Encyc. Brit., art. "Dio Cassius."
At that time (95) the road which leads from Sinuessa to Puteoli was paved. And in the same year Domitian caused Flavius Clemens along with many others to be put to death, although he was his cousin and had for his wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also related to him. The charge of atheism was made against both of them, in consequence of which many others also who had adopted the customs of the Jews were condemned. Some were put to death, others lost their property. Domitilla, however, was only banished to Pandataria.
(b) Eusebius, Hist. Ec., III, 18. (MSG, 20:252.)
To such a degree did the teaching of our faith flourish at that time(2) that even those writers who were far from our religion did not hesitate to mention in their histories the persecutions and martyrdoms which took place during that time. And they, indeed, accurately indicate the time. For they record that, in the fifteenth year of Domitian, Flavia Domitilla, daughter of a sister of Flavius Clemens, who was at that time one of the consuls of Rome, was exiled with many others to the island of Pontia(3) in consequence of testimony borne to Christ.