History of the Church: Christian Antiquity - Notre Dame

Decay of Judaism and Spread of Christianity

[Illustration] from Church - Christian Antiquity by Notre Dame

I. History of the Jews to A.D. 66

During the forty years after the death of our Lord, every time their Roman masters gave them the chance, the Jews renewed their persecutions of the Christians. Thus we have seen that they put St. Stephen to death; that, until God called him to be an Apostle and a Saint, Saul had treated them with great cruelty for nearly six years; that Herod Agrippa had caused St. James the Greater to be beheaded and St. Peter to be imprisoned; and lastly, that when there was no Roman Governor in Jerusalem, Ananias, the High Priest, took the opportunity of beginning a fierce persecution, during which St. James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, was martyred.

But the Jews themselves had not been in peace. The Roman Emperor, Caligula, was not satisfied with being honoured as a ruler, he wanted to be worshipped as a god. He had statues of himself put up in the Pagan temples all over the Empire, and wished to erect one in the Jewish Temple also. But the Jews would not have it, and all through his reign they had so much to suffer in consequence, that they often left the Christians in peace. Great troubles also befell the Jews in other parts of the world. In Palestine robbers wandered unpunished throughout the land. The Roman Governors all treated the people with the utmost cruelty. At last an awful day came when the punishment foretold by our Lord overtook the guilty nation. During seven years a poor country-man went about the streets of Jerusalem crying out, "Woe to Jerusalem, woe to the Temple!" He was scourged and ill treated, but all in vain: he still repeated his threatening wail. During the terrible days of the siege he redoubled his cries. One day, just before Jerusalem fell, he was heard to exclaim, "Woe to myself!" when a stone struck him and he fell dead. As the time of the destruction of Jerusalem drew near, mysterious signs and lights terrified the people.

II. Fall of Jerusalem

According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, What led to this is how the end came about. The Jews in the siege. Jerusalem rose against their harsh Roman rulers, and massacred great numbers of soldiers. A terrible revenge was taken by the Romans, and the whole country was filled with warfare and blood. shed. An army marched towards Jerusalem, but was driven back. The Christians withdrew as our Lord had told them to do, when He said that when they should see "the abomination of desolation" foretold by Daniel, they should "flee to the mountains." They took refuge in Pella, a little town beyond the Jordan. A still larger army commanded by Vespasian and his son Titus was sent against Palestine, and gradually advanced on Jerusalem, capturing all cities on their route. In-stead of uniting against their enemy, the Jews fought among themselves. For two years three various parties struggled for the mastery. They ravaged the country around Jerusalem, and inside the city pillaged and destroyed all they could lay hands on. Famine overtook the town just as the Romans, under Titus, arrived in great numbers to begin the siege.

Jerusalem stands on the summit of a table-land, separated by deep valleys from the hill country around. Titus pitched his tents on the slopes of the heights facing the city. The attack was made on three sides at once, and continued night and day. The Jews fought so desperately that the Romans were at first driven back. Titus offered terms of peace, which were rejected. He then drew his army so closely round the city that none could enter or leave it without being caught by the Romans. In doing this Titus unconsciously fulfilled exactly the words of our Lord, "And when you shall see Jerusalem compassed about with an army, then know that the desolation thereof is at hand" (Luke xxi. 20). To terrify them into submission, Titus ordered that all the Jews captured should be crucified outside the walls of the town. Hundreds at a time were thus put to death. Then he built a strong wall all round the place. Inside the city, the strife among the defenders went on. At the time when the siege began, the crowds who had assembled for the Pasch were still within the walls. All this multitude had nothing to eat. Anything that could serve as food, however disgusting, was eagerly devoured. Parents and children fought over the scraps they managed to secure. The most horrible thing of all was that a mother killed and ate her own child.

But in spite of all, the daily sacrifices in the Temple went on, until the Romans after nearly five months' siege succeeded in capturing the fort called Antonia, that overlooked the courts of the Temple. Thousands then took refuge in the Temple itself, and still fought bravely to defend it.

Titus gave orders that this glorious building should be spared, but a soldier threw into the interior a flaming brand, which at once set the whole on fire. Nothing could save the Temple, which was thus destroyed on the very anniversary of its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, nearly seven hundred years before. Jerusalem was now in the hands of the Romans. A terrible massacre followed. Men, women, and children were slain in thousands.

It is thought that altogether nearly a million persons perished during the siege. All who remained alive were sold as slaves. Gold and silver melted by the fierce heat of the flames were found in large quantities among the ruins. This, with all the spoil they could save, was carried off by the Romans.

The city was levelled to the ground as our Blessed Lord had foretold. The space occupied by the Temple was ploughed up, and then strewn with salt, that nothing might grow on it again. All that remained of the once splendid city was a small portion of a boundary wall with three fortresses. These were left to show what a mighty stronghold had been overthrown by Roman arms. The conqueror, Titus, went to Rome, and with his father, Vespasian, now Emperor, enjoyed a triumph. In the procession the Jewish leaders walked in chains, and immediately after were put to death. An arch was erected to record the con-quest of Palestine. On it may still be seen cut in the stone the altar of shewbread and the seven-branched candlestick that Titus carried off. Even when the city was partially rebuilt, the Jews were forbidden to return to Jerusalem. The Christians, however, found their way back again. They kept up the memory of the sites of the holy places, and handed down to their descendants the traditions preserved to this day.

From that day to this the Jews have had no sovereign, no Temple, and no nation. They are found scattered through every land. Thus we see how point by point was fulfilled our Lord's prophecy about the destruction and desertion of Jerusalem, when He wept over the city and said, "For the days shall come upon thee: and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side; and beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee, and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone" (St. Luke xix. 43–44).

III. Spread of the Faith

In following the history of the Apostles, we have seen that they went far and wide, preaching the Faith to Jew and Gentile.

ASIA.—All the Apostles, except St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Andrew and St. Simon, remained in Asia. Asia Minor, Arabia, Syria, Parthia, Judea —that is, all the important countries of the East —were visited by them.

AFRICA.—It is not known who founded the Church in Africa, but it is certain that St. Mark the Evangelist was the first Bishop of the magnificent city of Alexandria in Egypt. The faith spread rapidly, and soon all the North of Africa was filled with Christians. We shall see in the history of the persecutions how many brave African martyrs suffered for their religion. Not two hundred years after the first preaching, there were seventy or eighty bishops in the land.

EUROPE.—It was to St. Peter and St. Paul that Rome owed the faith. St. Paul preached in that part of Europe we now call the Balkan Peninsula, and in Greece.

South Russia was evangelized by St. Andrew. The Spaniards claim St. James the Greater as their first Apostle, but it is not quite certain that he was so. All that is known is that the Church in Spain is one of the oldest in Europe. St. James is the patron of the country, and his shrine at Compostella is a famous place of pilgrimage.

Old traditions tell us that some years after the Ascension of our Divine Lord, when the Christians dispersed on account of the persecution in Palestine, Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary Magdalen, went to the South of France, that Lazarus became first Bishop of Marseilles, and that St. Mary Magdalen lived and died in a cavern near the city. Other holy disciples of our Lord preached in France, and some say that St. Luke, and St. Paul's convert, St. Dionysius the Areopagite, were among them.

But some of these brave missionaries went further still. Old stories tell us that St. Peter came to our island, but they probably mean that the faith of St. Peter was brought to our fore-fathers. St. Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have preached to the Britons near Glastonbury, in Somerset. It is quite certain that Britain was very early converted to the faith.

Besides these first teachers, there were many others who continued their work of converting the nations. The faith spread so fast that St. Paul says it was spoken of in the whole world (Rom. i. 8). Besides this, many writers, both Christian and pagan, speak of the multitudes of Christians who were to be found everywhere. We can see how true this was when we come to read the story of the martyrs, who belonged to every nation, and who died in thousands for the faith. When St. Ignatius of Antioch was sent to Rome to be put to death, he was greeted at every place where he stopped by troops of Christians, headed by their bishops and priests. In the Catacombs of Rome there are innumerable tombs, all of Christians buried during the first four centuries.

IV. Obstacles to the Spread of the Faith

But we must not suppose that these conversions were wrought without any difficulty. Our Blessed Lord had warned His Apostles and their successors that they and those who should embrace His Divine teaching would have much to suffer for His name, and that they would be persecuted by even their nearest and dearest. The first Christians had difficulties of every kind to meet—sufferings for their mind and heart, and sufferings for their body also.

The world was very wicked when the Apostles began their preaching. The pagans lived only for pleasure. The rich had magnificent palaces, splendid furniture, luxurious food and garments. They spent fortunes over great public games and shows, while nothing whatever was done for the poor and the unfortunate. There were immense numbers of slaves in each household; the masters and mistresses could do just as they liked with them—beat, or starve, or even kill them if they willed—and no one had a right to gainsay them.

The Christians did the contrary to all this: they imitated our Blessed Lord, who became poor for us; they helped all those who were suffering from poverty and want; they lived mortified lives, practising fasting and abstinence, and they busied themselves with all kinds of useful work. This brought down on them the mockery and insults of their former friends. Besides this, they were accused unjustly of shocking crimes.

The pagans worshipped numerous gods and goddesses, many of whom were only vices represented as people, and they did many evil acts in honour of their false gods.

Christians forsook the temples, no longer offered sacrifices in honour of the emperors, no longer joined in the wicked festivals. This brought down on them the anger of both rulers and priests. The former accused the Christians of being traitors to the State—that is, of being unfaithful to their sovereigns—and the latter of attacking the national gods, and of introducing new worship. It was true that the Christians would have nothing to do with the old heathen gods and their false worship, for they adored the one true living God with the purest and holiest of worship; but it is not true that they were bad subjects, for whenever the Empire was at war, Christians were found fighting bravely in every army, and more than one victory was gained by their prayers.

The Jews, too, everywhere opposed the Christians. These people were to be found in every important town. They had built synagogues everywhere. Great liberty was allowed them for their religious practices by the Romans, who needed the money and the help they could get from the wealthy Jews. Now, these Jews taught that their religion was the true one, and they put every difficulty they could in the way of the spread of the Gospel. Their wonderful Temple at Jerusalem, too, was for a time a great obstacle, because it had been considered for so many ages as the one sanctuary of the true God. But we have seen how God permitted this to be destroyed, and the power of Judaism to be overthrown.

At last, when every other means had been tried, the pagan rulers began to put the Christians to death, if they would not give up their faith. This persecution resulted in the glorious testimony of thousands of martyrs to the truth of their religion.

V. Aids to the Spread of the Faith

But so far from putting an end to Christianity, the persecution seemed to cause multitudes to imitate the glorious courage of those who preferred to give up land, home, and kindred, and even life itself, rather than be untrue to their God. The religion of the Christians was seen by the better kind of pagans to be a pure one. The holy lives of these noble followers of our Lord made them ashamed of their heathen wickedness, so that, as Tertullian truthfully said: "The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church."

Moreover, God gave the Christians power to work great miracles. Often the pagans did all they could to hurt a brave martyr without succeeding in causing him the least pain. They saw the dead raised to life, incurable diseases healed, and they knew man could not do such deeds. They felt that God must be with these men and women, and, yielding to grace, many were converted. Thus, in spite of all that men and devils could do to stop it, God made His Church to spread all over the inhabited world. When the first three hundred years were over, it was the persecutors who were worsted, and not the Christians, for Christ had said of His Church that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."