Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Church of the Late First Century: The Immediate Successors to the Apostles

Reading N°26 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The Martyrdom of St. Simeon of Jerusalem

We have already said that the Christian community of Jerusalem had mostly taken refuge in the city of Pella. They soon founded a new center of equal importance somewhat farther north, in the city of Kochaba.[1] But in both places the refugees lived under precarious conditions. Most of them had no resources other than their labor. Eusebius relates how, a few years later, our Lord's relatives, summoned before their persecutors, who were somewhat disquieted by the report of their noble birth, "showed their hands, adducing as testimony of their labor the hardness of their bodies, and the tough skin which had been embossed on their hands from their incessant work."[2] The same historian, basing his statement on an ancient text of Hegesippus, tells us that the successor of James the Less in the episcopate was also a relative of the Savior. It was Simeon, the son of Cleophas, cousin-german of our Lord.[3] He was martyred under Trajan about the year 110.[4] At the time of which we are now speaking, he bore his adversity with a heroism worthy of his glorious predecessor. In him seemed to live again that Apostle James who had so forcefully anathematized wealth and had said:
Hath not God chosen the poor in this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom?[5]
But these praiseworthy Christians, it seems, did not recruit adepts. They were devout and austere, and whole-heartedly attached to Christ; but as they had not yet broken sufficiently with Israel's past, they remained almost altogether outside the great movement that would regenerate the world by freeing it from the Law.

In spite of appearances, the situation at Rome was hardly any better. In many respects, the first two Flavian emperors (Vespasian and Titus) deserved the praise later voiced by St. Augustine, when he called them "the most benignant emperors."[6] The good will that they accorded the Jews extended to the Christians.[7] But neither of these emperors abolished that principle of public law which, looking upon Christianity as opposed to the Roman civilization, served as a ground for the Neronian persecution. "Everyone of Nero's institutes was abolished," says Tertullian, "except his edict of persecution."[8]

Flavian Emperors Vespasian (AD 9-79), Titus (39-81) and Domitian (51-96)

The third emperor of the Flavian family was Domitian. The beginning of his rule gave the Christians equally great hopes, but also aroused terrible suspicions. While men of letters, highly honored by the new emperor,[9] showered their praises upon him,[10] common rumor accused him of the death of his brother Titus,[11] and some discerning persons questioned whether his virtues were not more apparent than real. The last two years of Domitian's reign fulfilled the most sinister anticipations.

Fresco of the Good Shepherd from the Catacomb of Priscilla
Meanwhile, the Christian Church profited by the broad tolerance which the Emperor granted it. The faith entered the ranks of the highest Roman society and was openly practiced. Evidence of this may be seen in the appearances of the cemeteries of the Flavians' time. All of them are even with the ground; their entrances are never disguised; they open upon the fields, along the highways, and sometimes display monumental façades. Some of these burial-places, excavated with magnificent and almost royal care, are adorned with every refinement of art.[12] Among the cemeteries of this period we may note, on the Via Salaria, the catacomb of Priscilla, belonging to the noble line of the Pudens; on the Ostian road, the cemetery of Lucina, who is probably none other than the famous patrician Pomponia Graecina; and near the Porta Ardeatina, the great burial domain of the Flavians, belonging to the grand-daughter of Vespasian, Flavia Domitilla.[13]

Pope St. Linus (AD 67-80)
The three popes who, during this period, presided over the destinies of the Church of Rome belonged to the lowest ranks of the people. The first, LINUS, was, it is supposed, a former slave. At least, this is what certain historians think may be inferred from his very name.[14] This first successor of St. Peter seems, in any event, to have belonged to a very humble class. We know almost nothing of his pontificate. St. Epiphanius supplies us with a list of the first eleven popes according to a very ancient document; he says that Linus governed the Church for twelve years.[15] The tradition recorded in the Liber Pontificalis adds that he maintained the regulations established by St. Peter,[16] that he died a martyr, and was buried on the Vatican hill.[17]

Pope St. Cletus (AD 80-92)
Of the life of his successor, CLETUS or ANACLETUS even less is known.[18] It would seem that his name, too, must be that of a slave or freedman. Probably he belonged to that group of poor people that formed the first nucleus of the Church of Rome. Perhaps this humble disciple of the Apostles changed his name from Anacletus ("the blameless") to Cletus ("the called" of the Lord). Like his two predecessors, he was martyred.[19] Eusebius says his pontificate lasted twelve years.[20] Perhaps this figure should be reduced two or three years.

Cletus' successor in the See of Peter was CLEMENT I. After the names of the Apostles there is none more venerable and illustrious in Christian antiquity. Less than a hundred years after the death of Clement of Rome, as he is called, his figure is adorned with a wonderful halo. The Christians appeal to his authority, and heretics seek shelter under his respected name. A whole pseudo-Clementine literature arose. In spite of this fame - perhaps because of it - his life and writings are surrounded with shadow. Legend became mingled with his history to such an extent as almost completely to obscure it. He is said to have been of senatorial rank, related to the Flavian dynasty. Some historians even identify him with the Consul Titius Flavius Clemens, Domitian's cousin, whom the Emperor had executed on a charge of "atheism," i. e., Christianity. But then how are we to explain the silence of the Fathers regarding the raising of a member of the imperial family to be the head of the Roman Church? It is more reasonable to suppose that Pope Clement was a simple freedman, or the son of a freedman, of the household of the Consul Clement.[21] Tillemont, and other scholars after him, thought that the contents and form of Clement's letter to the Corinthians indicate that he was of Jewish origin.[22] What is certain, however, is that no more genuine witness to the Apostolic tradition can be found. St. Irenaeus says:
This man [Clement], as he had seen the blessed Apostles [Peter and Paul], and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the Apostles still echoing in his ears and their traditions before his eyes.[23]
Pope St. Clement I (AD 92-99)

Following Origen and Eusebius, many have attributed to him the writing of the Epistle to the Hebrews under the inspiration of St. Paul, or at least the translation of this epistle from the original Aramaic text.[24] The only authentic writing of St. Clement of Rome is the lengthy and beautiful Epistle to the Corinthians. From the text itself it appears that this letter was written at the end of a great persecution, probably the one that broke out against the Christians of Rome in 95.

The fears shown by some far-sighted men at the outset of Domitian's reign regarding his natural inclinations were in fact accentuated and generalized. On the pretext of adorning the city of Rome and of increasing the happiness of his subjects, the Emperor spent great sums of money foolishly. By immense constructions, by endless festivities which Martial and Statius glorified in their poems, the imperial treasury was exhausted; the intoxication of power, a sort of madness, occupied a more and more predominant place in the ruler's soul. Domitian was one of those unscrupulous men whom necessity makes rapacious and fear cruel.[25] Rome trembled at seeing the return of the worst days of Nero. Public opinion was not mistaken. As under Nero, the Christian Church was the first to suffer from the outburst of tyranny. The development of Christianity, retarded in Judea, was likewise halted in Rome.


[1] St. Epiphanius, Haereses, xxx, 2.
[2] Eusebius, III, xx.
[3] Ibidem, III, xi and xxxii.
[4] Ibidem, IV, v.
[5] James 2:5.
[6] City of God, v, 21.
[7] Some writers, on the basis of a text of St. Hilary (Contra Arianos, 3) and an inscription preserved in the crypt of the Church of St. Martin at Rome, have placed Vespasian among the persecutors. But in St. Hilary's text, Vespasian is named probably by mistake in place of his son Domitian (Allard, Hist. des pers., I, 85); and the inscription in St. Martin's Church is certainly false, as Marucchi shows (Elements d'archéologie chrétienne, I, 20).
[8] "Permansit, erosis omnibus, institutum neronianum" (Tertullian, Ad nationes, I, 7.) Tertullian refers to Nero's charge against the Christians independently of the accusation of setting fire to Rome - namely, that they were enemies of mankind, i. e., of the Roman civilization.
[9] Tacitus and Pliny were decorated by him with the pretorship. (Tacitus, Annals, XI, II; Pliny, Epistles, III, II; VII, 16.)
[10] Quintilian calls him "the most righteous of censors" (Institutes of Oratory, bk. 4, pref.). Martial praises him because under him "chastity was commanded to enter our homes." (Epigrams, VI, 2-4, 7.)
[11] Dio Cassius, Roman History, LXVI, 26.
[12] Cf. De Rossi, Inscriptiones christianae Urbis Romae, p. 2. The history of the catacombs is divided into four periods. During the first period (the first two centuries), the catacombs were family burial places, protected by the law, and recognized to be loca sacra, loca religiosa. The owners of these tombs, or rather private cemeteries, sometimes of vast extent, including gardens and houses, with dining-rooms for funeral feasts, could receive in them the bodies of their clients. Wealthy Christians admitted the bodies of poor Christians into their buryinggrounds, and there, instead of funeral banquets, liturgical meetings took place. During the third century, the Church, profiting by the Roman law regarding associations, founded common cemeteries. This was the second period. During the third period (from Constantine to Alaric, 313 to 340), no more cemeteries were established except at the surface of the ground; yet the catacombs continued to be a place of pilgrimage, and many Christians insisted upon being laid to rest near the venerated remains of their predecessors. This was the period of the great inscriptions, many of them due to Pope Damasus. Lastly, beginning in 410, the catacombs ceased to be places of burial, and no inscriptions were placed on the tombs; yet they continued to be visited for several centuries. This was the fourth period of their history. (Cf. Marucchi, op. cit., I, 113-117.)
[13] Marucchi, op. cit., I, 23.
[14] Fouard, St. John, p. 49. Duchesne (Liber pontificalis, I, 121) observes that "this name is extremely rare in Christian epigraphy."
[15] Epiphanius, Haereses, xxvii, 6.
[16] The Liber Pontificalis seems to say that he began to govern the Church during the lifetime of St. Peter, and many writers are of opinion that St. Peter, being occupied in the labors of the apostolate, left the administration of the Roman Church to Linus and Cletus. (Rufinus, Preface to the Recognitions of St. Clement.) But this opinion is now generally rejected.
[17] Duchesne, Lib. pont., I, 121. De Rossi does not venture to declare that the sarcophagus discovered underground in the seventeenth century, near the confession of St. Peter, is the authentic tomb of St. Linus. (Duchesne, loc. cit.) St. Peter's successor is probably the person mentioned by St. Paul, 2 Tim. 4:21.
[18] Duchesne (op. cit., I, lxix) gives reasons which incline one to regard Cletus and Anacletus as the same person. (Cf. De Smedt, Dissertationes selectae, VII, art. 2.)
[19] Duchesne, loc. cit.
[20] Eusebius, III, xv.
[21] Lightfoot establishes a great likelihood for this hypothesis. (The Apostolic Fathers, I, 60-63.)
[22] Tillemont, Mémoires sur les six pretniers siècles, II, 149-166, 545-568; De Rossi, Bullettino di archeol. crist., 1863, pp. 27 ff.; 1865, p. 20; Lightfoot, op. cit., I, 16-61; Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, 162.
[23] Irenaeus, Haereses, III, iii, 3. Duchesne (op. cit., I, 161) says that Clement was old enough to have seen the Apostles and to have conversed with them, as St. Irenaeus asserts. Origen identifies him with the person of the same name who labored with St. Paul in the evangelization of Philippi. (Origen, In Joannem, I, 29.)
[24] Eusebius, VI, xxiii.
[25] "Inopia rapax, metu saevus." (Suetonius, Domitian, 3.)


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