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The Great Persecution

Watch Week Four, Day One

Emperor Diocletian

The Roman Empire was in a precarious position. The third century had been marked by great instability, with many different emperors coming to power. It appeared that the empire was incredibly volatile and near collapse. But then Diocletian became emperor. In an attempt to bring stability, Diocletian organized the empire into four regions. He gave himself and Maximian the title of “Augustus,” and they ruled over two regions of the Roman Empire. Diocletian then appointed two men, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, to a lesser role of “Caesar,” ruling over two other regions. The plan was for these two men to succeed Diocletian and Maximian when they abdicated their thrones. Because of his efforts as emperor, Diocletian was largely effective in bringing renewed strength and stability to the empire.

the great persecution

For most of Diocletian’s reign, Christians knew relative peace. In fact, Diocletian’s wife, Prisca, and daughter, Valeria, were thought to be Christians. But then, in AD 303, just two years before Diocletian would abdicate his throne, he began the worst persecution that the Christians had ever faced. Why? How did Diocletian go from more or less ignoring Christians to perpetuating a systematic and vicious persecution of Christians throughout the empire? While we don’t know why exactly, we do know that persecution of Christians progressively worsened at the hands of Diocletian. At first, Diocletian wanted to avoid killing Christians because he knew the power of the testimony of martyrs. He recognized that killing Christians seemed to lead to a strengthening of the Christian faith through the witness of the martyrs. But this was a short-lived ideal on Diocletian’s part; subsequent persecution within the empire included the martyrdom of many. This persecution, eventually known as the Great Persecution, was the most systematic and strategic persecution of Christians in that age. Romans targeted Christian leaders, demolished physical buildings, and sought to burn Scriptural manuscripts all in an attempt to wipe out Christianity altogether.

When Diocletian abdicated his throne, his successor Galerius continued the persecution with an even greater determination. At this time, since Diocletian and Maximian had abdicated their positions as emperors, there was a complicated web of politically maneuvering, as various men jockeyed for position and power in an attempt to rule one of the four regions of the empire. The threat of civil war loomed over the Roman Empire. On April 30 in AD 311, Galerius, who was very sick, finally relented of his policy against Christians. We do not know exactly why, but perhaps he realized his efforts had been in vain. Some even considered his illness a judgment from God. With this, the Great Persecution effectively came to an end. Five days later, Galerius died.

impact on the church

Some Christians refused to hand over any Scriptures to persecutors. Others obliged so they could avoid any further punishment. Some agreed to bow down to the pagan gods; some refused to the point of death. Within the church, Christians held different opinions about how to handle those who had compromised under the threat of punishment. This became a divisive issue for the churches: What should happen to those who had renounced their faith or turned over manuscripts? Should they be allowed back in the church? Should they be forgiven for what they had done?

The aim of the Great Persecution had been to eliminate Christianity. But the public witness of the martyrs did indeed draw many to Christ. It bolstered the faith of existing Christians and helped the church stand firm. One scholar notes that some Christians, “began organizing new churches in their places of punishment.” For all of his efforts to eliminate the Christian faith, Galerius failed. Soon, in a dramatic turn of events, the empire itself would become Christian.


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Why do you think the church was able to persevere during such a great persecution?

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