Persecution Under Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aureliu
Hadrian (117-138 CE)
As evidence for continuing persecution of Christians during the time of Hadrian, Keresztes appeals first of all to the Hadrian's Rescript to Minucius Fundanus concerning Christians, which Eusebius claimed to have found attached to Justin's First Apology (68.6-10), and which in fact is only known to us in the Greek translation made by Eusebius (HE 4.9), and is now included in all versions of Justin's work. The Rescript simply says that any accusations made against Christians must be proven by the accusers.
However, the authenticity of this Rescript has been challenged (see Keresztes, n 241). It obviously could be a later attachment to Justin's Apology -- especially since there are several other letters appended to the Apology, none of which is regarded as authentic. One wonders why it should not be regarded as a Christian forgery the purpose of which being to testify that from early days Roman governors sided with Christians against the pagan mob.
Keresztes observes (p. 288) that some scholars "interpret the Rescript as giving the Christians no freedom at all from legal prosecution for professing Christianity." In fact, of course, the Rescript says nothing about the matter - which, since the legal rights of Christians are in view here, may indicate that there was no law against professing Christianity.
In any case, Keresztes maintains that "during most of the second century, the treatment of Christians in Asia Minor, and in particular in the province of Asia, was by reputation the worst in the whole of the Roman Empire." (289) As evidence, he appeals to the Pliny correspondence, and the defense of Christians presented to Hadrian by Quadratus (Eusebius, EH 4.3.1-2), the letters of Antoninus Pius to the Council of Asia and Greek cities (Eusebius HE 4.13.1-7), Melito, Bishop of Sardis (HE 4.13.8; 26.1, 5-11), the martyrdoms of Polycarp (289), and Justin Martyr (290-292). The reliability of none of these sources can simply be taken for granted.
Antoninus Pius (137-161 CE)
Keresztes observes: "The simple fact is that, after a lull of about fifteen years under Hadrian, Antoninus Pius' rule suddently became known for its persecutions in the provinces, as is testified especially by Justin's two 'Apologies,' by Eusebius, and perhaps even by Aristides. Furthermore, the very first year of Antonius Pius appears to start with the martyrdom of Telesphorus Bishop of Rome." (293) "These persecutions in the East were, unquestionably, the direct result of popular hatred. The character of Antoninus Pius was not the direct cause of these persecutions in the East. Nobody, not even Christian writers, blamed him for anti-Christian movements." (293) So the primary evidence is Justin's Apologies, which may or may not be authentic. The rest all derives from Eusebius, who may or may not be reliable.
Keresztes observes that "none of the modern writers has accepted it (the rescript of Antoninus Pius to Asia) as genuine in its entirety, while others reject it as a complete forgery" (294) ... that the difficulty of finding our rescript in Melito's list of Antoninus Pius' letters to some Greek churches in the fragments preserved for us by Eusebius (HE 4.26.5-11) is recognized as a serious argument against the authenticity of our rescript (296)... and that Eusebius first identifies Antoninus Pius as the author of the rescript (EH 4.11.11-12.1) and later identifies the author as Marcus Aurelius (EH 4.13.1). But none of this disuades him from telling us that after two dubious passages are removed (He doesn't tell us which passages) "what remains seems to be remarkably simple and completely unobjectionable. The rescript, indeed, can be regarded as an entirely historical document..." (295) But should it be regarded in such a way?
In defense of the authenticity of the rescript, Keresztes observes that "several passages which express the Imperial and legal view concerning the worship of the gods and Christianity are so derogatory and insulting to the Christians that the original rescript must have been written by a pagan..." (296). In addition he argues that our rescript is "certainly not... favourable to the Christians" (295) and that "it is difficult to see what purpose the forging of such a document could possibly have served" (296). Contrary to Keresztes, however, the text actually praises Christians and chastises the pagans. And Frend observes (p. 239) that "[t]he 'rescript' is far too favourable to the Christians for the liking of most critics."
|"If they had the power, the gods themselves would much rather punish those who refuse to worship them; but it is you who bring trouble on these persons (Christians)... It would be advantageous to them that they should be thought to die for that of which they are accused, and they conquer you by being lavish of their lives rather then yield that obedience which you require of them... (And) regarding the earthquakes, you lose heart whenever they occure, and thus set your conduct in contrast with that of these men; for they have much greater confidence than you yourselves have. And you, indeed, seem at such times to ignore the gods, and you neglect the temples and make no recognition of the worship of God."|
Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE)
According to Eusebius, the succession of Marcus Aurelius introduced great persecutions, at least in Asia: (EH 4.15.1), illustrated by the martyrdom of Polycarp (4.15.3-46), the martyrdom of Pionius (4.15.46), "others who were martyred at Pergamon" (4,15.48), and then Justin (4.16.1). Later on, in the seventeenth year of Marcus Aurelius, Eusebius tells us, "the persecution of us in some parts of the world was rekindled more violently by popular violence in the cities, and, to judge from the events in one nation, myriads were distinguished by martyrdom" (EH 5 Introduction), which is illustrated by the story of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne (5.1). But even if all these traditions are reliable, there is still not enough evidence here to justify Eusebius' speaking of "great persecutions" and "myriads distinguished by martyrdom" -- particularly when all we have is only speculation based on "events in one nation."
According to Kereztes (298), apart from the testimony of Eusebius, "we also have some of the so-called 'Acts of Martyrs' as source information about some of the events told by the historian. These 'Acts', not contained in the H.E., concern Justin and his companions, the martyrs of Pergamum, and perhaps Pionius, cases only briefly reported by Eusebius." And Kereztes further observes (n. 276) that "the 'Acts' of Felicitas and her seven sons is fairly generally regarded as authentic." What does "fairly generally regarded" mean?
Keresztes explains (299f): "One is probably justified in ascribing the great majority of persecutions in this period to the hatred and violence of the non-Christian population, and especially in Asia and Lugdunum." But "there were, of course, some special causes for these persecutions," which according to Kereztes can be discerned from sources such as the 'Vita' of Saint Abercius, the 'Adversum paganos' of Orosius, and some 'Acts of Martyrs. "If interpreted within the context of Eusebius' reports and Roman History and religion," this testimony "confirms that there was more than normal anti-Christian feeling behind the persecutions..."
How seriously should we take such arguments? Typical of Keresztes (and other Christian apologists) is his observation that the 'Vita' is "admittedly legendary" and "contains much legend." Then he tells us, "but it is also true that it contains much genuine history and may be used, with proper caution, as historical evidence" which, of course, is merely special pleading. How does one distinguish what is "legend" from what is "genuine history"?
By "genuine history" Keresztes seems to mean the references in these sources to an edict by Marcus Aurelius "prescribing sacrifices to the gods throughout the Empire" (in 'Vita' and Justin) and another reference (Orosius) associating this edict with "a plague" that threatened to destroy the Empire. Putting this together with what we (supposedly) know from Eusebius, Keresztes concludes "that there, indeed, was at this time an Imperial edict ordering worship throughout the Empire." (300). "On the basis of our evidence in the 'Vita of Abercius,' Orosius, the 'Acts' of Justin, and others, we must assume the existence of a general edict by the joint Emperors sometime during 161-168 A.D." (301). But the fact is that the only references we have to such an edict are in these admittedly legendary sources.
Keresztes also appeals to the apologies of Melito and Apollinarius (EH 4.26.1), Miltiades (5.17.5), and Bardesanes (EH 4.30).
The Apology of Melito seems to have been part of his book On the Passover, which Eusebius claims was cited by Clement of Alexandria in his own book on the Passover (4.26.4) -- which has since been lost. It's not entirely clear whether Eusebius himself cites from Melito or from Clement, since he only claims that this work and many others "have come to our knowledge" (4.26.2). And there is no way of knowing why such an apology would have been part of a treatise on the Passover. (Actually, the reference to Clement is intrusive and may be a later insertion attesting the authenticity of Melito's apology.)
Eusebius tells us nothing about the content or character of the Apology of Apollinarius (EH 4.27.1). Nor does he tell us anything specific about the content of the apology of Miltiades, except that "he wrote an Apology to the secular rulers on behalf of the philosophy he held." (It is interesting, however, that elsewhere "the sect called after Miltiades" seems be regarded as heretical by Apolinarius (EH 5.16.3).
In his book Eusebius as Church Historian (pp. 119f.), Robert Grant observes that Eusebius had a problem because during the reign of Commodus, when Apollinarius was supposedly martyred, the Christian world was a peace with Rome. So Eusebius blamed it on "the demon who hates good" (EH 5.21.2). According to Grant, "it appears that everything in the introduction to Eusebius' account of Apollonius comes from the Church historian's own creativity." And the same holds for Eusebius' account of the trial. "We conclude that the description of the Acts of Apollonius in HE 5.21 owes almost everything to Eusebius' own ideas as to what such Acts should have contained."
Bardesanes of Edessa was a distinguished scholar, who according to Eusebius (EH 4.30) was once associated with Valentinians but then turned against them. In addition to Bardedanes' dialog Concerning Fate, Eusebius tells us that he also "wrote many other works in consequence of the persecution at that time" -- but he doesn't name any of these works. This has the appearance of Eusebius' own construction. Moreover, Eusebius' assumption (also Jerome's) that Bardesanes wrote during the reign of Marcus Aurelius may not be correct. According to Schaff (History, vol 2, 481, n 3), Eusebius confused the earlier and later Antonines, and according to the Chronicle of Edessa and other sources, Bardesanes was born in 155 and died in 223.
Keresztes also appeals to Athenagoras a Christian philosopher of Athens during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (Schaff, 730ff.), who is supposed to have written an Apology on behalf of the Christians to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, many copies of which were made in the fifteenth century (Schaff, 731). Athenagoras, however seems to have been otherwise unknown and is not mentioned by either Eusebius or Jerome (Schaff, 730). Schaff assures us that "the objections against the genuineness are weak and have been refuted." More crucial, however, is that there is no real evidence attesting its authenticity.
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Darrell J. Doughty
Professor of New Testament
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940