Sunday, 14 August 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 23

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time

The Great Tribulation
by G.R. Bailleine

WHILE Peter was in Asia, tragic events were taking place in Rome. The Church he had found there on his first visit had been scattered in 49, when Jews were banished from the city. Gradually, however, the edict was relaxed. Jews began to dribble back, and among them enough Christians to enable Paul, who was not given to flattery, to write in 57 that their faith was `renowned throughout the world'. But the weak point of this Church was lack of unity. It consisted of scattered groups. Paul speaks of the Church in the house of Aquila, of Phlegon and the Brethren who were with him, of the Saints in the company of Philologus.

Different groups followed different rules. One was vegetarian. One kept special festivals. Another refused to observe any day as sacred. And Paul had to write, `Stop criticizing one another'. When in 60 he arrived as a prisoner, the discord continued. `Some preach Christ,' he wrote, `out of rivalry and jealousy, inspired by party-spirit.'

Meanwhile the Church was getting an unsavoury reputation. Everything secret is suspect. Ugly rumours circulated. The Christians met at night for `Love Feasts', which began with kissing, the kiss of peace, which both Peter and Paul commended. They spoke of feeding on Somebody's body and blood, which suggested cannibalism. Women were seen taking babies to the meetings, and the heathen, remembering the myth of Thyestes, who ate his son's body, accused them of `Thyestian feasts'.

Tacitus probably represents the feeling of the average Roman, when he calls Christians `men detested for their abominations'. Church unity helps to maintain sanity and sobriety. When a Church splits into sects, the wild-heads gravitate into the same groups and encourage one another in eccentricities. This seems to have happened in Rome.

The Church had as yet no text-book. Most of the New Testament was not yet written; and some of these groups were feeding their minds on heady and unwholesome fare. The Hebrew Prophets had been fond of threatening fire from Heaven. In Amos it became a refrain: `I will send fire on Gaza, which shall devour the palaces thereof', `fire on Tyre, which shall devour the palaces thereof', `fire on Moab, which shall devour the strongholds of Kerioth'. Apocalyptic writers later reiterated these threats. The Sibylline forgeries, which Jews circulated as sayings of pagan Sibyls, are flaming with fire. One, written in 96 B.C., runs:

A hideous fate shall lay Rome in ruins.
The whole population will perish in their homes,
When the torrent of fire pours from Heaven.

And Christians adopted this unworthy form of propaganda. A Christian Sibylline) foretold:

A great star shall fall from Heaven
And burn up the land of Italy.
Woe to thee, filthy city of the Latins!
In widowhood shalt thou sit on thy hills,
And River Tiber shall lament thee.

[This actual oracle only dates from A.D. 88, but it represents the kind of talk that had long been current.]

Men, who gloated on the thought that Rome would be burnt, could hardly complain, if they were suspected, when a fire came. And a fire did come, an appalling one. On 19 July 64 it broke out in some booths near the Great Circus. The Circus benches were soon ablaze. A strong wind sent the flames roaring down the narrow streets. Every effort to check them failed. After six days they seemed to die down; but they broke out afresh, and raged for three days more. More than half the city lay in ruins.

Rumour always seeks a scapegoat, and a suspicion spread that Nero had ordered the city to be fired, that he might build a new Rome to be called Neropolis. This was probably untrue. His own palace was destroyed with his beloved art treasures.

But the suspicion was strong enough to shake his throne. Someone had to be found on whom the blame could be laid. The police were more efficient than the fire-brigade. The predictions of the burning of the city had not escaped their notice. Perhaps some Christians had exulted openly when the prophecies came true. The Apocalypse was not yet written, but the apocalyptic spirit was abroad. There were Saints eager to shout Alleluia when they saw the smoke of the burning. At any rate the police knew that a secret society, composed largely of foreigners and slaves, had foretold the fire and rejoiced over it. Here were obvious culprits on whom suspicion could fall.

Unpopular sects find few defenders. All England believed that Papists had caused the Fire of London, and Romans were as easily persuaded that it was the Christians who had reduced half Rome to ashes.

What followed is told by Tacitus, who, though only a boy at the time of the Fire, must have talked with many who were familiar with the facts. He writes:

`To kill these rumours Nero shifted the blame on to people known as Christians, who were detested for the abominations they practised; and he punished them with unspeakable tortures. The Chrestus, from whom they took their name, had been executed by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Though checked for a moment, this noxious superstition was breaking out afresh, not only in Judea, where it began, but even in Rome, where everything foul and hideous from any part of the world finds a welcome. Arrests were made first of those who confessed that they were Christians.' [Were these fanatics who were boasting that God had laid Rome in ruins?] `Through information gained from these a vast multitude was convicted, not so much on a charge of arson as of hatred of the human race.'

This probably happened early in 65. The `vast multitude' was betrayed by those who were first arrested. Was the information wrung from them by torture? Or did party-spirit explain this? Did zealots reveal the names of fellow-Christians whom they hated as half-hearted? Our only other authority is Clement of Rome, himself a survivor of the slaughter; and he, when warning the Corinthians against party-spirit, reminds them that it was `through jealousy' that `the vast multitude of the elect suffered' under Nero.

The number seized in this second raid was obviously large. Tacitus and Clement independently call them a `vast multitude' (multitudo ingens). Later tradition fixed the figure at 979, and kept the Feast of the Nine Hundred and Seventy-Nine Martyrs. Sometimes we may wonder whether the sufferings of martyrs are exaggerated by Christian annalists, but in this case it is Tacitus, the pagan, who recounts the horrors: `Their death was made an entertainment. Some were clothed in wild beasts' skins and torn to pieces by dogs. Others were fastened to crosses, and set up to be burnt as torches, when daylight failed.'

Nero lent his private gardens on the Vatican for this fete, and arranged a circus during which he mingled with the crowd dressed as a charioteer. To this Clement adds another detail, `Women suffered monstrous outrages as Danaids and Dirces.' Four special horrors lingered in men's minds as samples of Nero's sadism: the human torches that lighted the gardens, the hounds hunting men and women sewn up in animals' skins, the naked girls lashed like Dirce to the horns of bulls, and something we cannot interpret. How Nero's stage-manager represented the Danaids, fifty legendary maidens who murdered their husbands, is not easy to guess. But Nero overdid the cruelty. `This,' says Tacitus, `roused some sympathy for these people, for, though their crimes deserved exemplary punishment, it was felt that they were suffering, not for the public good, but to glut one man's savagery.'

Probably about this time, either before or after the Fire, Paul was executed, but not in the garden fete. As a Roman citizen he could demand a more honourable death. A credible tradition says that he was beheaded on the Ostian Way outside the city wall.

Nero's massacre was a turning-point in the Church's history. Its carefully planned publicity, its fiendish cruelty, the enormous number of victims, trumpeted the word `Christian' through the Empire. Instead of being an obscure sect, of which most men had never heard, Christians suddenly became famous. If they had really burnt Rome, they were a force to be reckoned with.

If they were innocent, as some maintained, they were much to be pitied. Everywhere people began to ask who and what they were.

Throughout the world the Christians themselves were thrilled by the sufferings of their brethren. A new, defiant, fighting spirit sprang up in the Church. Hitherto Christians had been quiet folk, paying little attention to politics. The Empire was taken for granted. But now Nero had challenged Jesus. The Empire had declared war on God. God's soldiers must prepare for battle. It was probably this crisis that sent Peter hurrying Romewards.

Meanwhile the martyrs were the Church's heroes. A curious notion arose that there would be a First Resurrection for their benefit, that they would rise from the dead before other Christians.

The Seer of Patmos saw `those who had come out of the Great Tribulation', standing before God's throne, `a great multitude, which no man could number, clothed with white robes and palms in their hands'. The immense honour paid to martyrs stirred others to follow their example, and was undoubtedly one source of the Church's ultimate victory.

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