It is the 17th of October 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 108.
Around the turn of the first century, the Christian church was little more than a regional, slightly controversial, and new religious movement. The question as to how big the church was at this time has been disputed with numbers ranging from around 7,000 to 1 million. That's quite a range, but recent studies have suggested that the number is much closer to the thousands than hundreds of thousands or even millions.
It is worth noting that the Roman Empire was most extensive around the turn of the first century. The population was over 5 million, and the Empire and its famed roads stretched from England to Egypt. Thus, in an empire, this large, even 50,000 Christians (a generous estimate) would represent 0.1 percent of the population. Estimates suggest that Christians passed the 100,000 mark in the Empire around 180. Within just 70 years, the estimate jumps to over 1 million. The spectacular rise of the population of the church requires some consideration.
There are many reasons that the church grew, which can supplement the believer's conviction that the Holy Spirit's work was responsible for such growth. The church grew on account of the spread of communication made available by the Roman Empire. The church grew on account of its countercultural ethic and claims of a better kingdom. The church grew on account of the social networks that they established. Even when the church was small in number, their presence was recognized by local officials.
The historian, Pliny the Younger, wrote the emperor Trajan:
"The matter seems to me worthy of your consultation, especially on account of the numbers of defendants. For many of every age, of every social class, even of both sexes, are being called to trial and will be called. Nor cities alone, but villages and even rural areas have been invaded by the infection of this superstition"
Trajan responded to Pliny:
"You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians… They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age."
And this is another reason that the church grew. As we are aware of numerous examples throughout history, when a group is persecuted, it tends to draw attention. The persecuted group has to consolidate its message to its core principles. Trajan, the emperor at the time, was responsible for several high-profile persecutions, one such occurring on this day, the 17th of October in 108. It was on this day that Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest of the church fathers, was put to death.
Little is known of Ignatius' life save the longstanding tradition that he and Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, were disciples of the apostle John. Ignatius is believed to be the author of a collection of early epistles that warned against false teachings. Ignatius also wrote about the desirability of martyrdom, claiming that it is the ultimate example of following the imitation of Christ and proof of the Christian's faithfulness.
The emphasis on martyrdom is understandable as Ignatius is believed to have written his letters while being taken by soldiers to Rome for his execution. Later, church historians have questioned the letters of Ignatius. They seem to be, at times, overwhelmingly in favor of the supremacy of Bishops. This elevated his importance for the medieval church but also made him less agreeable to Protestants. Along with Polycarp and Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch gave the church both a teacher and an example of faithfulness, even to death. And that death is remembered on this, the 17th of October. It is thought he died in 108.
The reading for today comes from St. Ignatius, a good word for 108 AD and 2020.
"But pray unceasingly also for the rest of men, for they offer ground for hoping that they may be converted and win their way to God. Give them an opportunity therefore, of becoming your disciples. Meet their angry outbursts with your own gentleness, their boastfulness with your humility, their revilings with your prayers, their error with your constancy in the faith, their harshness with your meekness; and beware of trying to match their example."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of October 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man surprised that the beer he likes is named after an ancient Roman historian, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.