BMCR 2010.09.28

The Great Persecution: The Proceedings of the Fifth Patristic Conference, Maynooth, 2003. Irish Theological Quarterly Monograph Series

, , The Great Persecution: The Proceedings of the Fifth Patristic Conference, Maynooth, 2003. Irish Theological Quarterly Monograph Series. Dublin/Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2009. 176. ISBN 9781846821615. $65.00.

This collection of essays is based on papers presented at the Fifth Maynooth Patristic Conference, held at Saint Patrick’s College, Maymooth, on 21-22 November 2003, seventeen hundred years after the beginning of the Great Persecutions. It focuses both on Diocletian’s attempt in AD 303 to purge Christians from the Empire and the larger issue of Christian persecution and martyrdom in the ancient world in general. It is a mix of both Christian theological and secular historical approaches, which, unfortunately, only hints at the interesting dialogue between scholars that most certainly took place at the conference. Nevertheless, this book is packed with many new insights that will provide the basis for what is hoped to be renewed interest into this important phase in the history of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom.

The preface by the editors provides a brief and succinct statement about the importance of the official Roman action under Diocletian to rid Christians from the Empire, both as an historical event and a point of theological discourse. And this is how the essays are roughly organized. The first three essays address the whys and hows of the event from the perspectives of the persecutors. The second part, generally, examines how the early Church came to understand the Great Persecution as both a galvanizing event and a cautionary tale.

Chapter one, “The mind of the persecutors: ‘By the gracious favour of the gods,” by Mark Humphries, examines the Great Persecution from the perspective of the persecuting authorities. Humphries begins his study with a call to caution us against relying too much on Christian interpretations of the event, which tend to overplay its scale, or its opposite, skepticism that minimizes the extent of the Great Persecution. By placing the event within its late third century historical context, which includes the stresses on the imperial regime from within (e.g., inflation, the third century culture of sedition in the palace and among the generals) and without (e.g., the threats brought about from barbarians in the north and Persians in the east), Humphries shows how a careful reading of the Roman and Christian sources can reveal the realities of a Roman leadership determined to regain centralized authority through the attempt to establish pax deorum.

Chapter two, “Philosophical objections to Christianity on the eve of the Great Persecution,” by Andrew Smith, follows the theme of Humphries’ essay by showing the cultural push toward uniformity out of the third century crises so characteristic of the Tetrarchy was mirrored in pagan intellectuals’ response to Christianity. This essay focuses primarily on Porphyry’s most influential, though not entirely extant book, Against the Christians. Smith attempts to show how anti-Christian polemics in this work reflected, and may have even influenced, a push by like-minded Neoplatonists, and intellectuals in general for a pagan revival of sorts, consistent with the larger thrust toward conservatism by Emperors in the later third century. Summarizing some of the specific arguments in Against the Christians, Smith shows that Christianity had become such a threat to Roman paganism as to devote one of its greatest minds to a rebuttal that may have exceeded seven hundred pages. This chapter does a fine job at presenting the great philosophical challenges Christians faced from the pagan intellectual elite, but, as Smith admits, the actual influence of Porphyry on the Great Persecution cannot actually be demonstrated. However, this does not take away from the usefulness of the chapter in setting the pagan intellectual context for the Great Persecution.

Chapter three, “Lessons from Diocletian’s persecution,” by H. A. Drake, addresses the Great Persecution as an administrative decision which was to reverberate beyond its impact on the Christians. It was, for Drake, a very bad idea indeed. Not only was it a failure, but it was such a failure that it became a lesson about what not to do. Historians should heed this lesson, according to Drake, because the Edict of Milan was in fact a response to this failure, granting freedom to all religions, not simply Christianity. Constantine’s policy of toleration was in fact more in line with longstanding Roman policy of tolerance of religious diversity than Diocletian’s intolerance. Drake’s chapter is a valuable addition, not only to the volume as a concluding essay on the historical context of the Great Persecution, but also to scholarship on Roman imperial religious policy that was to dominate, with a few blips, up to the fateful reversal of this general tolerance with Theodosius I, who seems to have forgotten the lessons of Diocletian.

The following chapters examine Christian responses to the Great Persecution. Chapter four, “Preparation for martyrdom in the early Church,” by Oliver Nicholson addresses what motivated early Christians to become martyrs. Through an analysis of many early Christian martyr accounts, Nicholson finds that “Christians preparing for martyrdom were affectively involved with the source of their convictions, indeed this involvement was at the center of their strength” (90). Countering the claim that such martyrs were irresponsible or self-destructive, Nicholson attempts to demonstrate that the martyrs “deserve the sympathetic attention of the historian” (90). In the following chapter, Thomas O’Loughlin, “Eusebius of Caesarea’s conceptions of the persecutions as a key to reading his Historia ecclesiastica,” examines one of Nicholson’s sources in more detail and presents Eusebius’ H.E. as much more a theological work than an historical one, much in the tradition that Augustine would master in De civitate Dei. Tracing the presentation of martyrdom in Eusebius’ work, O’Loughlin reveals that it fits into a larger soteriology of incarnation, suffering and victory of the Logos, guided by the hand of God. The Great Persecution is seen as equivalent to the woes of Isreal in which God uses the enemies of the church to chastise his chosen people. O’Loughlin does not find this solution to theodicy satisfying, however, and argues punishment of Christians was out of step with the earlier notion in the H.E. because Eusebius himself never tried to answer with any consistency.

The final two chapters before the conclusion, “Imitating the mysteries that you celebrate: martyrdom and Eucharist in the early Patristic period,” by Finbarr G. Clancy and “The origin of the cult of St George” by David Woods continue the examination of Christian sources relating to martyrdom. Clancy attempts to “enter into the mind of the persecuted and describe something of the spiritual motivation” that lead to Christian martyrdom (107), with a focus on the earlier martyrs Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Cyprian of Carthage, and concludes with Augustine of Hippo who provided the Church with so much of its theological understanding of martyrdom. As Clancy demonstrates, the martyrs served an important function in the liturgical life of the Church, for “The martyrs were truly fed at the Lord’s table and went forth not only to kiss the face of the earth, but also to water it with their blood” (139). The overt confessional tone of Clancy is contrasted with that of Woods, who takes a much more critical and unorthodox interpretation of his source, at times calling the stories that Saint George was martyred during the Great Persecution “nonsense.” Woods resurrects the old and often discredited thesis that the cult of Saint George originated from the Arian bishop George murdered in Alexandria in 361, to great effect. In a meticulous uncovering of a process of destroying memory that would put Dan Brown to shame, Woods’ astute and believable thesis may indeed become the force to be reckoned with in all subsequent studies of Saint George.

The final chapter “Concluding reflection: the perennial importance of the Great Persecution for politics and religion,” by D. Vincent Twomey reiterates the great importance of The Great Persecution as a turning point in the history of Western Civilization. Not a summary of the works presented, but rather a reflection on the quickening transformation of the Roman Empire that began in the wake of Diocletian’s failed reforms and the rise of the Christian Empire in the West.

In all, these essays stand alone as full and competent examinations of their respective topics. The first three essays may be of more interest to the readers of this publication, and they are indeed important in their own right. Scholars of early Christianity should welcome this volume because of the balance struck between examinations of Roman context and Christian reaction to the event. This work, it is hoped, is the beginning of a new attention and reinterpretation for the twenty first century of the lasting impact that the Great Persecutions continues to exert.

Table of Contents:

List of contributors


List of Abbreviations

The mind of the persecutors: ‘By the gracious favor of the gods’
Mark Humphries

Philosophical objections to Christianity on the eve of the Great Persecution
Andrew Smith

Lessons from Diocletian’s persecution
H. A. Drake

Preparation for martyrdom in the early Church
Oliver Nicholson

Eusebius of Caesarea’s conceptions of the persecutions as a key to reading his Historia ecclesiastica
Thomas O’Loughlin

Imitating the mysteries that you celebrate: martyrdom and Eucharist in the early Patristic period
Finbarr G. Clancy SJ

The origin of the cult of St George
David Woods

Concluding reflection: the perennial importance of the Great Persecution for politics and religion
D. Vincent Twomey