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MARTYRS OF PALESTINE.*
It is a universally admitted truth, that the experience of the past is a great teacher of the future. Each succeeding generation appropriates the acquisitions of those that have gone before it, and still pursues its course of inquiry. The follies of our predecessors warn os of dangers which often resulted in disasters to them; and their wisdom is a light to guide us in our path. The review of what they accomplished quickens our flagging powers, and chides us into more vigorous effort in the high aims of life. Examples of beroes who despised transient good, and rose superior to all worldly considerations, when these were placed in competition with fidelity to fim whom they rejoiced to proclaim as their Master and their God, not only call forth admiration, but awaken in us something of the true spirit of martyrdom, which leads to the consecration of our lives on the altar of Christian sacrifice.
The past has for us an almost mysterious attraction, and wields a real power over the present. It is venerable, and even authoritative. Its distance excites curiosity; its very dimness inspires caution in our treatment of it; and its weight of years induces us to regard it with deference. Great deeds, though wrought in times which have become hazy, can never die. They live in results which continue in an everwidening circle. Sach results are patent to the philosophic student, who views them in their relation to the great purposes of God. They are traceable, also, on the less imposing page of the historian, who tells us how the confessors of Jesus joyfully “suffered the loss of all things;" and how" the noble army of martyrs” were, in their death, “more than conquerors.” It was in those early times that the battle was fought between opposing kingdoms, and the triumph won, though it was " with garments rolled in blood,” by that kingdom which “is not of this world.” In the first centuries the divinity of our religion was demonstrated, and the pledge of its ascendency was given. Had it been human, it would have held a place among existing systems until the normal religion appeared ; and the Man of Galilee might
• History of the Martyrs of Palestine, by Eusebius, Bishop of Cæsarea. Edited and translated from the Syriac, by William Cureton, D.D. (Williams and Norgate.)
Neander's Church History. Vol. I. (Clarks.)
have been worshipped in sculptured marble. But it was Divine, and therefore exclusive; waging, alone, the battle with a host of rivals.
The persecution of Christians in the first ages of their religion was certain and necessary. Their Saviour had distinctly pre-announced the coming trial, and assured His disciples that their fidelity to Him would involve them in suffering :—"Because ye are not of the world, ......therefore the world hateth you.” “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you...... because they know not Him that sent me.” (John xv. 19-21.) There were no points of resemblance, which could become points of union, between Paganism and Christianity. It was impossible for the two to occupy the same ground. True, that Paganism was the form in which humanity expressed its deeply-felt want of the Divine. The faculties of our nature are constituted for religion ; but all their merely natural developments in this direction are marked by the sad results of original depravity. The blindness of the race was too complete for a recognition of the true religion when it appeared; though it is argued, that the highest forms of heathen philosophy, by establishing the obligations of conscience, and convincing man of his inability to satisfy the demands of his moral nature, did, in some low degree, perform the part of a “schoolmaster," to bring men to Christ.* In fact, the new system was everywhere regarded as a presumptuous intruder and competitor, recommended by none of the characteristics of the ancient religions, and, therefore, meet to be suppressed by the strong arm of power.
The Roman authorities have been deemed liberal in their policy toward the religions of other nations. But they were strangers to enlightened views of freedom. To us these views are familiar; and they appear so natural, and so right, that we can scarcely suppose the advanced and eclectic among the ancients to have been ignorant of them. But politics and religion were, at that date, inseparable. The laws of the empire were the only recognised authority in things sacred, as in things secular. To adopt a religion which was not sanctioned by the state was no less than rebellion. Mæcenas is represented as giving advice to Augustus, which may be accepted as expressing the sentiments of the Roman statesmen of the time:-“Worship the gods in all respects according to the laws of your country; and compel all others to do the same. But those who would introduce anything foreign, in this particular, hate and punish ; not merely for the sake of the gods, and because those who despise them are incapable of reverence for anything else, but because, by bringing in new divivities, such persons induce many to adopt also foreign laws. Hence conspiracies and secret combinations, the last things to be tolerated in a monarchy. Suffer no man either to be an atheist or to practise sorcery." It was avowed as the right of a prince to prescribe the religion of the people.
Christianity first boldly called in question the soundness of this principle; proclaimed the spiritual worship of the one true God; and
* De Pressensé, p. 114.
substituted, in place of state religions, His universal kingdom. Such a religion could not fail to excite the hostility of the Roman power, which was especially sensitive on the point of its authority, and always intolerant of any even the slightest insubordination. But the Christians refused to worship the gods of their fathers, and to pay Divine honours to the reigning sovereign. They also formed a distinct association, which was bound together by the closest ties. Their existence was looked upon as threatening the peace and integrity of the empire. The absence from their worship of all the accustomed symbols invested it with a mysterious importance. It was declared to be “the token of a secret compact, of an invisible order," that “the Christians alone have no altars, images, or temples.” The jealousy of despotism could not endure the existence of such a religion. A refusal to obey the laws of the state in regard to religious ceremonies appeared to the patriots of Rome as the most unaccountable obstinacy, and to their rulers as the sign of a daring conspiracy. It was natural, therefore, to try to compel obedience by the employment of force ; the utter inefficacy of which, together with the rapid advance of the new religion, awakened alike the apprehensions and the rage of the baffled emperors. Hence the deadly struggle that quickly ensued. The firmness of the Christians must be subdued, or the power of the rulers must be broken.
It is not surprising, that the Christians withdrew, in every possible way, from intercourse with the Pagan world. They were interdicted, persecuted, and slain, not only without remorse, but with every mark of exultation. They were charged with the most monstrous crimes, and were declared to be the cause of every calamity that befell the state. They were the victims of the popular fury, too successfully invoked by parties who saw in the prevalence of the new doctrine the loss of their own gains. The authority of the laws, the prejudices of the rabble, and the interests of priests and craftsmen, called for the suppression of a religion which declared its intention to subjugate all others to itself.
Toward the close of the reign of Diocletian, the Christians had enjoyed fifty years of repose. During this time, their religion had been silently extending throughout the empire, and among all classes of society. Many of the more wealthy citizens had abandoned the worship of idols, and enrolled themselves among the disciples of Jesus. The philosopher's cloak was conspicuous among the ministers of the Gospel. High officers of state, and distinguished members of the imperial household, had embraced the faith, though it had not received legal sanction. The ranks of the army contained a large number of the disciples, who were not molested in their religious exercises so long as they performed their duty as soldiers. The throne of the deified Cæsars was surrounded by the worshippers of the true God. It is easy to infer, that, when the time of conflict came, the struggle would be desperate. It is far too much to expect that Satan would yield his empire without a fierce attempt to inflict injury on the opponents of bis kingdom.
Diocletian was evidently averse to be made the instrument of this work of slaughter. The glory of the empire was, undoubtedly, the first object in his mind; and this, he believed, could be upheld only by maintaining the ancient religion under which it had been acquired. He considered all departures from that religion to be subversive of good order. But he shrank from the consequences of an attempt to arrest the progress of Christianity by the employment of the sword. He saw that the dread weapon would strike down those who were in daily intercourse with himself, and of whose loyalty and devotion he was receiving constant proof; and that it would carry confusion and suffering throughout the empire. He was also aware that all earlier attempts to put down by violence this mysterious and aggressive religion had not only signally failed, but had so roused its enthusiastic abettors to hail tortures and death, that their cause was actually promoted. The leaders of the Pagan party, meanwhile, (a party which contained statesmen, priests, poets, and self-styled philosophers,) saw the decline of their ancient ceremonies with disappointment and dismay. They anxiously looked for a powerful agent to avert the crisis they dreaded. Such an agent they found in Caius Galerius Maximian, son-in-law of Diocletian, who had raised himself from obscurity to the dignity of a Cæsar by his military talents, and had been educated in blind devotion to the gods of Rome. Such a man could have no scruple in shedding the blood of those whom he regarded as enemies; and, least of all, that of the opponents of his superstition. He only waited for an opportunity to overcome the disinclination of his superior to measures of coercion. The investing of Herculius with the purple furnished the desired occasion.
In connexion with the festivities which were celebrated in honour of this event, he succeeded in obtaining an order which required “every soldier to join in the sacrificial rites." All who refused were to lose their rank, and be dismissed from the army. Many immediately gave up their commissions : soldiers of every class retired from the service, rather than defile themselves by a participation in idolatrous ceremonies. This was but “the beginning of sorrows." The fidelity of these Christian heroes, sometimes expressed with warmth by high-spirited men, furnished the pretext for measures of wider application and greater severity.
During a visit of Galerius to Diocletian in 303, the now venerable Emperor yielded to his entreaties ; and a sweeping decree of extermination was issued against the Christians, at one of the great festivals, which commenced on the 22d of February. This edict prohibited their assembling for worship; required the destruction of their churches and their sacred writings; degraded all Christians of rank and honour; directed that torture should be employed in judicial proceedings against them; and deprived the entire body of all the rights of freedom. The total extirpation of Christianity was the object of this comprehensive decree. Magnificent churches were immediately rased to the ground; and all the copies of holy Scripture that could be obtained were committed to the flames. As in all times