The Martyrdom of St. Peter

adapted from: Walker, “Period I. From the Beginnings to the Gnostic Crisis”, 1.8-1.11, pp. 41-52.

[3.1] Gentile Christianity of the 2nd  Century   [3.2] Early Clerical Orders
[3.3]  Relations of Christianity to the Roman Government   [3.4] The Apologists







The Apostolic Fathers

BY the year 100 Christianity was strongly represented in Asia Minor, Syria, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome, and probably also in Egypt, though regarding its introduction into that land there is no certain knowledge. It had extended very slightly, if at all, to the more western portion of the empire. Asia Minor was more extensively Christianized than any other land. About 111-113 Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, could report to Trajan that it was affecting the older temple worship. [1] It was strongly missionary in spirit, and constantly extending. Common Christianity, however, was far from representing, or even understanding, the lofty theology of Paul or of the Johannine literature. It moved in a much simpler range of thought. Profoundly loyal to Christ, it conceived of Him primarily as the divine revealer of the knowledge of the true God, and the proclaimer of a “ new law” of simple, lofty, and strenuous morality. This is the attitude of the so-called “Apostolic Fathers,” with the exception of Ignatius, whose thought has already been discussed.

These Christian writers were thus named because it was long, though erroneously, believed that they were personal disciples of the Apostles. They include Clement of Rome (c. 93- 97); Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-117); Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 110-117); Hermas of Rome (c. 115-140); the author who wrote under the name of Barnabas, possibly in Alexandria (c. 131); and the anonymous sermon called Second Clement (c. 160-170). To this literature should be added the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (c. 130-160, but presenting a survival of very primitive conditions). The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, often included among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, is probably later than their period.

Christians looked upon themselves as a separated people, a new race, the true Israel, whose citizenship was no longer in the Roman Empire, though they prayed for its welfare and that of its ruler, but in the heavenly Jerusalem. (1 Clem., 61; Hermas, Sim., 1.) They are the church “which was created before the sun and moon,” “and for her sake the world was framed.” (Hermas, Vis., 2, 4; 2 Clem., 14) The conception of the church was not primarily that of the aggregate of Christians on earth, but of a heavenly citizenship reaching down to earth, and gathering into its own embrace the scattered Christian communities. (Didache, 9) To this church the disciple is admitted by baptism. It is “built upon waters.” (Hermas, Vis., 3:3.) That baptism implied antecedent belief in the truth of the Christian message, engagement to live the Christian life, and repentance.[2] Services were held on Sunday, and probably on other days.[3] These had consisted from the Apostles’ time of two kinds: meetings for reading the Scriptures, preaching, song and prayer;[4] and a common evening meal with which the Lord’s Supper was conjoined. By the time Justin Martyr wrote his Apology in Rome (153), the common meal had disappeared, and the Supper was joined with the assembly for preaching, as a concluding sacrament.[5] The Supper was the occasion for offerings for the needy.[6] The beginnings of liturgical forms are to be found before the close of the first century.[7] Christian life was ascetic and legalistic. Wednesday and Friday were fasts, which were called “ stations,” as of soldiers of Christ on guard.[8] The Lord’s Prayer was repeated thrice daily.[9] “Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both.”9 Second marriage was discouraged.[10] Simple repentance is not sufficient for forgiveness, there must be satisfaction.[11] A Christian can even do more than God demands—works of supererogation—and will receive a corresponding reward.[12] Great generosity was exercised toward the poor, widows, and orphans, some going so far as to sell themselves into slavery to supply the needy.[13] The rich were felt to be rewarded and helped by the prayers of the poor.[14] Wealthy congregations redeemed prisoners and sent relief to a distance, and in these works none was more eminent than that of Rome. On the other hand, though slaves were regarded as Christian brethren, their manumission was discouraged lest, lacking support, they fall into evil ways.[15] There is evidence, also, that the more well-to-do and higher stationed found the ideal of brotherhood difficult to maintain in practice.[16]

For Christians of pagan antecedents it was difficult to deny the existence of the old gods. They were very real to them, but were looked upon as demons, hostile to Christianity.[17] The Christians of the second century explained the resemblance between their own rites and those of the mystery religions, of which they were aware, as a parody by demons.[18] Fear, thus of demon influence was characteristic, and led to much use of exorcism in the name of Christ.[19] For all of humanity there is to be a resurrection of the flesh, and a final judgment.[20]







NO question in church history has been more darkened by controversy than that of the origin and development of church officers, and none is more difficult, owing to the scantiness of the evidence that has survived. It is probable that the development was diverse in different localities. Not all early Christian congregations had identical institutions at the same time. Yet a substantial similarity was reached by the middle of the second century. Something has already been said of the constitution of the Jewish Christian congregations.[21] The present discussion has to do with those on Gentile soil.

Apostles, Prophets, and Teachers

The earliest Gentile churches had no officers in the strict sense. Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans make no mention of local officers. Those to the Corinthians could hardly have avoided some allusion, had such officers existed. Their nearest approach[22] is only an exhortation to be in subjection to such as Stephanas, and does not imply that he held office. The allusion in 1 Thess. 512 to those that “are over you in the Lord” is, at best, very obscure. Paul’s earlier epistles show that all ministries in the church, of whatever sort, were looked upon as the direct gift of the Spirit, who inspires each severally for the service of the congregation.[23] It is fair to conclude that these bearers of the gifts of the Spirit might be different at different times, and many in the church might equally become vehicles of the charismatic inspiration. Paul, however, specifies three classes of leaders as in particular the gift of the Spirit—Apostles, prophets, teachers.[24] He himself regarded his Apostolate as charismatic.[25] If the Apostles’ work was primarily that of founding Christian churches, those of the prophet and teacher were the proclamation or interpretation of the divinely inspired message. The exact shade of difference between prophet and teacher is impossible to discover. All, however, were charismatic men. The worst of sins was to refuse to hear the Spirit speaking through them.[26] Yet Paul undoubtedly exercised a real missionary superintendence over the churches founded by him, and employed his younger assistants in the work.[27] It is difficult to distinguish this from ordinary supervision such as any founder might employ. It was inevitable, however, that such unlimited confidence as the earliest congregations possessed in charismatic gifts should be abused. The Didache shows that self-seeking and fraudulent claimants to divine guidance were soon preying on the churches.[28] Tests had to be found to discriminate the true from the false. In the Didache, and in Hermas[29] the touchstone is character. In 1 John 414 it is orthodoxy of teaching.

Bishops and Presbyters

The prophets long continued. They are to be found in Rome as late as the time of Hermas (115- 140), to say nothing of the claims of those whom the church judged heretical, like Montanus and his followers even later. Such uncertain leadership could not, in the nature of things, continue unmodified. For his farewell message Paul called to Miletus the “elders” of the church of Ephesus, exhorting them to “take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops”— overseers.[30] These are in a certain sense charismatic men. They have been made bishops by the Holy Spirit. But they are recipients of a charism which makes them a definite group having particular duties to the congregation. In one of his latest letters Paul speaks of the “ bishops and deacons” of the church in Philippi (11). Even if this be held to mean the discharge of functions only— “those who oversee and those who serve”—the advance beyond the conditions of the Corinthian epistles is apparent. The gifts may be charismatic, but the recipients are beginning to be holders of a permanent official relation.

Why these local officers developed is unknown ; but the interests of good order and worship, and the example of the synagogue are probable suggestions. Absence  of prophets and teachers by whom worship could be conducted and the congregation led was certainly a cause in some places. The Didache directs: “Appoint for yourselves, therefore, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers. Therefore despise them not; for they are your honorable men along with the prophets and teachers” (15). At Philippi, Ephesus, and in the Didache, these “bishops” are spoken of in the plural. This is also true of Rome and of Corinth when Clement of Rome wrote in 93-97.[31] Clement speaks, also, of those against whom the church in Corinth had rebelled as its “appointed presbyters” (54); and of “those who have offered the gifts of the bishop’s office” as presbyters (44). Polycarp of Smyrna, writing to Philippi in 110-117, mentions only presbyters and deacons and their duties. Hennas, 115-140, would seem to imply that as late as his time there was this collegiate office at Rome. It is “the elders (presbyters) that preside over the church.”[32] He speaks only of the duties of “deacons” and “bishops.”[33]

Ancient interpretation, such as that of Jerome, saw in these collegiate bishops and presbyters the same persons, the names being used interchangeably. That is the opinion of most modern scholars, and seems the probable conclusion. The view of the late Edwin Hatch, as developed by Harnack, holds, however, that presbyters were the older brethren in the congregation, from whom the collegiate bishops were taken. A bishop would be a presbyter, but a presbyter not necessarily a bishop. The subject is one of difficulty, the more so as the word “presbyter,” like the English “elder” is used in early Christian literature both as a general designation of the aged, and as a technical expression. Its particular meaning is hard always to distinguish. It is evident, however, that till some time after the year 100, Rome, Greece, and Macedonia had at the head of each congregation a group of collegiate bishops, or presbyter-bishops, with a number of deacons as their helpers. These were chosen by the church,[34] or at least “with the consent of the whole church.” [35]

The Threefold Ministry

Contemporary with the later portion of the literature just described, there is another body of writings which indicates the existence of a threefold ministry consisting of a single, monarchical bishop, presbyters, and deacons in each congregation of the region to which it applies. This would appear to be the intimations of 1Timothy and Titus, though the treatment is obscure. Whatever Pauline elements these much disputed letters contain, their sections on church government betray a development very considerably beyond that of the other Pauline literature, and can scarcely be conceived as belonging to Paul’s time. It is interesting to observe that the regions to which the letters are directed are Asia Minor and the adjacent island of Crete, the former being one of the territories in which the monarchical bishopric is earliest evident in other sources.

What is relatively obscure in these epistles is abundantly clear in those of Ignatius, 110-117. Himself the monarchical bishop of Antioch,[36] he exalts in every way the authority of the local monarchical bishop in the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Smyrna. In four of these churches he mentions the bishop by name. Only when writing to the Romans he speaks of no bishop, probably for the sufficient reason that there was as yet no monarchical bishop at Rome. The great value to Ignatius of the monarchical bishop is as a rallying-point of unity, and as the best opponent of heresy. “Shun divisions as the beginning of evils. Do ye all follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles, and to the deacons pay respect.” [37]The monarchical bishopric is not yet diocesan, it is the headship of the local church, or at most of the congregations of a single city; but Ignatius does not treat it as a new institution. He accepts it as established, though it evidently did not always command the obedience which he desired.[38] It is evident, however, that the monarchical bishopric must have come into being between the time when Paul summoned the presbyter-bishops to Miletus [39] and that at which Ignatius wrote.

Apostolic Succession

How the monarchical bishopric arose is a matter of conjecture. Reasons that have been advanced by modern scholars are leadership in worship and the financial oversight of the congregation in the care of the poor and other obligations of charity. These are probable, the first-named perhaps the more probable. It is sufficient to observe, however, that leadership of a congregation by a committee of equals is unworkable for any protracted time. Some one is sure to be given headship.

One further observation of great importance is to be made. Clement of Rome (93-97), writing when Rome had as yet no monarchical bishop, traces the existence of church officers to apostolic succession.[40] It is no impeachment of the firmness of his conviction, though it militates against the historic accuracy of his view, that he apparently bases it on a misunderstanding of Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 16:15. 16 On the other hand, Ignatius, though urging in the strongest terms the value of the monarchical episcopate as the bond of unity, knows nothing of an apostolic succession. It was the union of these two principles, a monarchical bishop in apostolic succession, which occurred before the middle of the second century, that immensely enhanced the dignity and power of the bishopric. By the sixth decade of the second century monarchical bishops had become well-nigh universal. The institution was to gain further strength in the Gnostic and Montanist struggles; but it may be doubted whether anything less rigid could have carried the church through the crises of the second century.







CHRISTIANITY was at first regarded by the Roman authorities as a branch of Judaism, which stood under legal protection.[41] The hostility of the Jews themselves must have made a distinction soon evident, and by the time of the Neronian persecution in Rome (64) it was plainly drawn. The Roman victims were not then charged, however, primarily with Christianity, but with arson—though their unpopularity with the multitude made them ready objects of suspicion. By the time that 1 Peter was written (c. 90), the mere fact of a Christian profession had become a cause for punishment (4:16).

How much earlier “the name” had become a sufficient criminal charge it is impossible to say. Trajan’s reply to Pliny, the governor of Bithynia (111-113), presupposes that Christianity was already viewed as criminal. That already recognized, the Emperor orders what must be deemed mild procedure from his point of view. Christians are not to be hunted out, and, if willing to abjure by sacrifice, are to be acquitted. Only in case of persistence are they to be punished.[42]

From the standpoint of a faithful Christian profession this was a test which could only be met by martyrdom.

Trajan’s immediate successors, Hadrian (117-138), and Antoninus Pius (138-161) pursued the same general policy, though discouraging mob accusations.

Marcus Aurelius (161-180) gave renewed force to the law against strange religions (176), and initiated a sharper period of persecution which extended into the beginning of the reign of Commodus .

Commodus (180-192), however, treated Christianity, on the whole, with the toleration of indifference.

Always illegal, and with extreme penalties hanging over it, the Christian profession involved constant peril for its adherents; yet the number of actual martyrs in this period appears to have been relatively small compared with those of the third and fourth centuries. No general persecution occurred before 250.

The charges brought against the Christians were atheism and anarchy.[43] Their rejection of the old gods seemed atheism; their refusal to join in emperor-worship appeared treasonable.[44] Popular credulity, made possible by the degree to which the Christians held aloof from ordinary civil society, charged them with crimes as revolting as they were preposterous. A misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of Christ’s presence in the Supper must be deemed the occasion of the common accusation of cannibalism; and its celebration secretly in the evening of that of gross licentiousness[45]

Much of the governmental persecution of Christianity in this period had its incitement in mob attacks upon Christians. That was the case at Smyrna when Polycarp suffered martyrdom in 156; while a boycott, on the basis of charges of immoral actions, was the immediate occasion of the fierce persecution in Lyons and Vienne in 177.[46]. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of judicial proceedings against Christians in this period seem rather to have been under the general police power of magistrates to repress disturbance than by formal trial on the specific criminal charge of Christianity. Both procedures are to be found. To all these accusations the best answer of the Christians was their heroic constancy in loyalty to Christ, and their superior morality as judged by the standards of society about them.







THESE charges against Christians, and the hostile attitude of the Roman government, aroused a number of literary defenders, who are known as the Apologists. Their appearance shows that Christianity was making some conquest of the more intellectual elements of society. Their appeal is distinctly to intelligence. Of these Apologists the first was Quadratus, probably of Athens, who about 125 presented a defense of Christianity, now preserved only in fragments, to the Emperor Hadrian. Aristides, an Athenian Christian philosopher, made a similar appeal, about 140, to Antoninus Pius. Justin wrote the most famous of these defenses, probably in Rome, about 153. His disciple, Tatian, who combined the four Gospels into his famous Diatessaron, also belonged to the Apologists. With them are to be reckoned Melito, bishop of Sardis, who wrote between 169 and 180; and Athenagoras, of whom little is known personally, whose defense, which survives, was made about the year 177. Here also belongs the Epistle to Diognetus, often reckoned among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

There is no evidence that any of these Apologists greatly influenced pagan opinion, or that their appeal was seriously considered by the rulers whom it was their desire to persuade. Their work was deservedly valued in Christian circles, however, and undoubtedly strengthened Christian conviction of the nobility of the cause so earnestly defended. Several of the Apologists were from the ranks of the philosophers, and their philosophical interpretation aided in the development of theology. The most significant was Justin, and he may well stand as typical of the whole movement.

Justin Martyr

Justin, called the Martyr, from his heroic witness unto death in Rome under the prefect Rusticus, about 165, was born in Shechem, in the ancient Samaria, of pagan ancestry. He lived, for a time at least, in Ephesus, and it was in its vicinity probably that the conversion of which he gives a vivid account took place.[47] An eager student of philosophy, he accepted successively Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonism. While a Platonist his attention was directed to the Hebrew prophets, “men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers.” Theirs is the oldest and truest explanation “of the beginning and end of things and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know,” since they were “filled with the holy Spirit.” “They glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ.” By his newly acquired conviction of the truth of their ancient prophetic message, Justin says: “straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets and of those men who are friends of Christ. ... I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable.” These quotations show the character of Justin’s religious experience. It was not a profound and mystical union with a risen Lord, as with Paul. It was not a sense of forgiveness of sin. It was a conviction that in Christianity is the oldest, truest, and most divine of philosophies. Justin continued to look upon himself as a philosopher. He made his home in Rome and there wrote, about 153, his Apology, addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and that sovereign’s adopted sons, defending Christianity from governmental antagonism and pagan criticisms. A little later, perhaps on a visit to Ephesus, he composed his Dialogue with Trypho, similarly presenting the Christian case against Jewish objections. A second sojourn in Rome brought him to a martyr’s death.

Justin’s Apology (often called two Apologies, though the “second” is only an appendix) is a manly, dignified, and effective defense. Christians, if condemned at all, should be punished for definite proved crimes, not for the mere name without investigation of their real character. They are atheists only in that they count the popular gods demons unworthy of worship, not in respect to the true God. They are anarchists only to those who do not understand the nature of the kingdom that they seek. Justin then argues the truth of Christianity, especially from the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and briefly explains Christian sacraments and worship.

As a theologian, Justin’s convictions were the result of his own experience. His central belief was that Christianity was the truest of philosophies, because taught by the prophets of the Old Testament, and by the divine Logos “our Teacher . . . who is both Son and Apostle of God the Father.” [48]This divine Logos he conceives, in true Stoic fashion, as everywhere and always at work, teaching the Greeks, of whom he cites Socrates and Heraclitus, and the “barbarians,” such as Abraham, so that these, and all who at any time obeyed the same guidance were really Christians.[49] His great advance on Stoicism is his conviction that this all-illuminating divine Logos became definitely incarnate in Christ, so that in Him is the full revelation of that which elsewhere is less distinctly seen. The content of the Christian message Justin conceives in terms very similar to those of the best contemporary pagan philosophy—knowledge of God, morality, the hope of immortality, and future rewards and punishments. Like common non- Pauline Christianity, he views the Gospel as a new law, teaching a somewhat ascetic moral life. Justin’s emphasis is on the divine Logos, subordinate to God the Father, yet His Son, His agent, and one with Him in some true, though rather indefinite, sense. This emphasis is really at the expense of the historic Jesus, for though both are identified, the earthly life of Jesus has little interest for Justin save as the great historic instance of the incarnation of the Logos, and therefore the occasion on which the divine philosophy was most fully revealed. He does, indeed, speak of Christ’s “cleansing by His blood those who believe on Him”;[50] but such thoughts are not primary. Hence the theology of Justin, faithful martyr though he was, was essentially rationalizing, with little of the profoundly religious content so conspicuous in Paul, the Johannine literature, or even in Ignatius. It marks, however, a conscious union of Christian thought with the Gentile philosophy, and therefore the beginnings of a “scientific” theology.

[1] Trajan, Letters, 10:96; Ayer, p. 20.

[2] Justin, Apology, 61; Ayer, p. 33

[3] Justin, Apology., 67; Ayer, p. 35.

[4] Justin, Apology., 67; see also Pliny, Letters, 1096; Ayer, pp. 21, 35.

[5] Justin, Apology., 65, 67; Ayer, pp. 33-35

[6] Justin, Apology., 67.

[7] 1 Clem., 59-61, see also Didache, 9, 10; Ayer, pp. 38, 39. , Didache, 8; Hermas, Sim., 51; Ayer, p. 38.

[8] Didache, 8; Ayer, p. 38.

[9] 2 Clem., 16.

[10] Hermas, Mand.. 4:4.

[11] Hermas., Sim., 7.

[12] Hermas., Sim., 5:2. 3; Ayer, p. 48.

[13] 1 Clem., 55.

[14] Hermas, Sim., 2.

[15] Ignatius to Polycarp, 4.

[16] Hermas, Sim., 9:20.

[17] Justin, Apology, 5.

[18] Justin, Apology, 62.

[19] Justin, Apology, Dialogue, 35.

[20] 2 Clem., 9, 16.

[21] Ante, §1.4.

[22] 1 Cor. 16:15, 16.

[23] 1 Cor. 12:4-11, 28-30, 14:26-33.

[24] 1 Cor. 12:23.

[25] Gal. 1:1, 11-16; 1 Cor. 14:18.

[26] Didache, 11; Ayer, p. 40.

[27] e.g., Timothy in 1 Cor. 4:17, 16:10.

[28] Didache 11; Ayer, p. 40.

[29] Mand., 11.

[30] Acts 20:17-29.

[31] 1 Clem., 42, 44

[32] Vis., 2:4.

[33] Sim., 9:26, 27.

[34] Didache, 15; Ayer, p. 41

[35] 1 Clem., 44; Ayer, p. 37.

[36] Romans 2.

[37] Smyrn., 8.

[38] See Phila., 7, where Ignatius declares it is by charismatic inspiration, and not by knowledge of divisions, that he exhorted: “Do nothing without the bishop.”

[39] Acts 20:17-35

[40] 1 Cor. 42, 44; Ayer, pp. 36, 37.

[41] Acts 18:14-16.

[42] Pliny’s Letters 10:96; Ayer, p. 22

[43] Justin, Apology, 5, 6; 11, 12.

[44] Martyrdom of Polycarp, 3, 8-10.

[45] Justin, Dialogue, 10.

[46] Eusebius, Church History, 51.

[47] Dialogue, 2-8.

[48] Apology, 12.

[49] Ibid., 46; Ayer, p. 72.

[50] Ibid., 32.


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