Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Christians suffered several waves of brutal persecution, among those the notorious persecutions of the Emperors Domitian (81-96), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), and Decius (249-251). Martyrs were held in especially high regard by the churches, and the New Testament's Book of Revelation, probably written in response to Domitian's persecution of Christians, promised special rewards for those who died for their faith.
Early Church apologists, defenders of the faith, wrote extensively during these years. Justin addressed the validity of the Christian faith and its superiority to Greek pagan forms of worship. While he recognizes the contributions of Greek philosophy, he also argues for the superiority of Christian revelation and its mandates for human society. For these works, he was martyred in 165. Tertullian (c. 160) also contributed to the growth of Church doctrine and Christian practice. He addresses fundamental parts of Church experience, such as prayer and worship, and also challenged the growth of heresy. Athenagorus (late 2nd c.) had been a Greek philosopher before converting to Christianity. His works defended Christian practices to the Roman emperors. These writers and others sought to justify Christian claims to the Greek and Roman intellectual and cultural world.
Emperor Diocletian (240-311), another emperor fiercely opposed to Christianity, ordered the destruction of all Church buildings and the confiscation of Christian books in 303. All Christians in the government and the army were dismissed, and the clergy were imprisoned. Many Christians were martyred, while others recanted and were accepted back into the faith after repenting.
In 305, illness prompted Diocletian's sudden abdication, thereby triggering a civil war from which Emperor Constantine I emerged victorious. He declared himself a Christian in 312, and in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which established equality among all religions. This legalized Christian worship for the first time. In 324, Constantine defeated the last of his opponents and became sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
Constantine hoped that Christianity would cement the stability of the empire, so one of his first actions was to encourage the Church to end doctrinal debates, and clearly articulate Christian belief and identity. Doctrinal debates surrounded the incarnation, with contradictory interpretations and beliefs about the true nature of Jesus—human and/or divine—and his relationship with God. Questions had arisen about which Gospels and letters should be read in Church. There was even contention about how disputes should be resolved.