The Church After the Death of the Apostles (AD 96-200)
Clement of Rome
During the period of AD 96-200 the Church had to face two serious threats. Those were heresies and persecutions. In the last lesson we studied how the fathers preserved the faith of the Church against heresies. Here we shall study how they witnessed the faith at the face of persecutions. The Church during the period underwent two major persecutions promulgated by emperors Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. A large number of believers witnessed the Lord through their martyrdom. Their life and death strengthened the faith of their fellow brethren and made the Church grow. Of them the life and death of four great Fathers of the period are important. They are Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna and Irenaeus of Lyons.
Ignatius of Antioch (Ca. 35-107 AD)
Clement, the third bishop of Rome flourished around 96 AD. He was a disciple of both Peter and Paul. Paul refers to him in his letter to Philippians (4:3) as one of his fellow workers. His first and second epistles to the Corinthians are included in the Orthodox Canon of the Bible. The first was widely known and read in the early Church One of the contributions of this book to the present day Church is that it refers to the threefold hierarchy of the Church: the bishop (Episcopos) the priest (Presbyteros) and the deacon (Diakonos). Again, the book bears the same character and flavor of any other book of the New Testament He was drowned in the waters of the Black Sea at the time of emperor Trajan in about AD 100.
Polycarp of Smyrna (Ca. 69-155 A.D.)
He was the third bishop of Antioch and the first was St. Peter himself. He was a disciple of Peter, Paul, John and other Apostles who were in Antioch. He had another name Theophorus which has two meanings, "God-bearer" and "God-borne".
The second meaning is derived from the tradition that Ignatius when he was a small child was carried in the hands of Jesus (Mk. 9:36). He was martyred during the reign of emperor Trajan. To carry out the execution, he was taken to Rome under a guard of ten soldiers. On his way he passed through Laodicea, Philadelphia, Sardis and Smyrna and, for him it was an opportunity to meet the believers in those places and to strengthen them. At Smyrna ,the representatives of the Churches of Tralles, Magnesia and Ephesus came out to meet him. He encouraged them and their churches to be steadfast in their faith. Ignatius himself did not fear death. The way he saw and faced his martyrdom made the deepest impression on the believers. When he writes to the Church Rome from Smyrna on his way to Rome, he says:
"This favor only I beg of you: suffering to be a libation poured out to God, while there is still an altar ready for me". Again, he writes in the same Epistle: "Pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am His wheat, ground fine by the lion's teeth to be made purest bread for Christ".
In Rome he was thrown to wild beasts in 107 Al). And thus lgnatius won the crown of martyrdom.
The Martyrs of Lyons
He was born to Christian parents in Asia. As Irenaeus, his disciple records, the young Polycarp had been instructed by Apostles and had familiar intercourse with many who had seen Christ. In particular he was the disciple of John who spent his last years in Ephesus. From John he received his appointment to the bishopric of Smyrna. He was martyred at the age of 86 in AD 155 for his reluctance to deny the faith. We have detailed account of his martyrdom by an eyewitness called Marcian of the Church of Smyrna. When the policemen came to his house to arrest him, though it was late in the night he arranged for them food and drink. The Governor who was in charge of his execution persuaded him to swear by the name of Caesar. But he did not yield, to that. As the Governor went on pressing him, he replied
"Eighty and six years have l served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then Can I blaspheme my King and my Savior"?
He was laid on the pyre to be burnt alive. But a wind blew the fire into a great vault around his body. Then they brought an executioner who stabbed and killed him with a dagger. Then his body was burnt. The steadfastness of his faith and his love for the Lord was a model for the martyrs and it deepened the faith of the believers. A number of other believers too were martyred during this period.
Marcus Aurelius became the emperor of Rome in AD 161. He began persecuting Christians. It was extended to all parts of his Empire, in Rome, in Asia Minor, in Gaul (France) and in Africa. I[l Rome Justin, known as 3ustin Martyr together with his companions was put to death in AD 165.
Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 13O-2OO)
Another notable group of martyrdom took place at Lyons in AD 177. Marcus Aurelius the Emperor of Rome launched a fierce persecution. The Christians were sought and tortured. of the many stories of persecution the martyrdom of Blandina, a slave girl was of the severest kind. She was constantly subjected to unspeakable tortures. Then she was hung on a cross for wild beasts to tear, but they did not touch her. She was enclosed in a net and exposed to a bull, and tossed till she was dead. The body was not allowed to be buried, but was exhibited to the mockery of the crowd for six days and then burnt and flung into the river.
Irenaeus was a native of Smyrna and was a disciple of the great martyr - bishop Polycarp. He left Asia for Rome and Lyons. He evangelized Gaul (i.e. modern France) and later became the bishop of Lyons. Irenaeus stood as a link between the fathers who were associated with the Apostles and the believers of the later generation. The church of the second century found a great theologian in Irenaeus. During his time there were several heretics who laid down new doctrines and claimed Apostolic succession. Irenaeus refuted the heresies by explaining what the Apostolic tradition was. He said that Every tradition should be checked with what had been handed down from generation to generation in the churches which the Apostles themselves established. There were so many Churches founded by the Apostles. They kept an unbroken line of succession from the Apostles through the bishops. So every teaching should conform to the tradition found in those churches. Again tradition should also agree with the four Gospels. All the early heretics used the Bible in one form or other to suit their opinions. The tradition of Christian truth can be found in its fullness only in the church. No one can simply take the Bible and sit down and construct a faith from it. Irenaeus died in Ca. 200 AD
We have looked into the life and death of the four great Fathers of the period and of some other martyrs of the time. These all offered themselves as sacrifice for the Lord. Neither tortures nor death did separate them from the love of Christ. Their steadfastness and fearlessness even at the face of death made their fellow brethren confirmed in their faith and moved many others to conversion.
Questions and Activities:
"Seeing then that we have this hope, let us knit fast our souls to Him who is ever true to His word and righteous in his judgments. (Clement of Rome, First Epistle to Corinthians, Para27)
1. Read 2 Tim. 4, Note down how the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers faced death, and how they perceived death.
2. Martyrdom is a sacrifice offered to the Father; Prove this statement in the light of this lesson.