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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


The Book of the Acts terminates abruptly; and the subsequent history of Paul is involved in much obscurity. Some have contended that the apostle was never released from his first imprisonment at Rome, and accordingly consider that he was one of the earliest Christian martyrs who suffered under the Emperor Nero. But this theory is encumbered with insuperable difficulties. In his letters written after his first appearance in Rome, Paul evidently anticipates his liberation; [152:1] and in some of them he apparently speaks prophetically. Thus, he says to the Philippians -- |I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better -- nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you -- and having this confidence I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith.| [152:2] The apostle had long cherished a desire to visit Spain; [152:3] and there is evidence that he actually preached the gospel in that country; for Clemens Romanus, who was his contemporary and fellow-labourer, positively affirms that he travelled |to the extremity of the west.| [153:1] Clemens appears to have been himself a native of the great metropolis; [153:2] and as he makes the statement just quoted in a letter written from Rome, it cannot be supposed that, under such circumstances, he would have described Italy as the boundary of the earth. The Second Epistle to Timothy, which is generally admitted to have been written immediately before Paul's death, contains several passages which obviously indicate that the author had been very recently at liberty. Thus, he says-|The cloak [153:3] (or, as some render it, the case) [153:4] that I left at Troas, with Carpus, when thou comest bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.| [153:5] These words suggest that the apostle had lately visited Troas on the coast of Asia Minor. Again, he remarks -- |Erastus abode at Corinth, but Trophimus have I left at Miletum sick.| [153:6] Any ordinary reader would at once infer from this observation that the writer had just arrived from Miletum. [153:7] The language of the concluding verses of the Acts warrants the impression that Paul's confinement had ended some time before the book was completed; for had the apostle been still in bondage, it would scarcely have been said that, when a prisoner, he dwelt for two whole years in his own hired house -- thereby implying that the period of his residence, at least in that abode, had terminated. And if Paul was released at the expiration of these two years, we can well understand why the sacred historian may have deemed it inexpedient to give an account of his liberation. The subjects of Rome at that time were literally living under a reign of terror; and it would perhaps have been most unwise to have proceeded farther with the narrative. Paul, as Peter once before, [154:1] may have been miraculously delivered; and prudence may have required the concealment of his subsequent movements. Or, the history of his release may have been so mixed up with the freaks of the tyrant who then oppressed the Roman world, that its publication might have brought down the imperial vengeance on the head of the evangelist.

We have seen that Paul arrived in Rome as a prisoner in the beginning of A.D.61; and if at this time his confinement continued only two years, he must have been liberated in the early part of A.D.63. Nero had not then commenced his memorable persecution of the Church; for the burning of the city took place in the summer of A.D.64; and, until that date, the disciples do not appear to have been singled out as the special objects of his cruelty. It is probable that Paul, after his release, accomplished his intention of visiting the Spanish Peninsula; and, on his return to Italy, he appears to have written the Epistle to the Hebrews. [154:2] The destruction of Jerusalem was at this time approaching; and, as the apostle demonstrates in this letter that the law was fulfilled in Christ, he thus prepares the Jewish Christians for the extinction of the Mosaic ritual. In all likelihood he now once more visited Jerusalem, travelling by Corinth, [155:1] Philippi, [155:2] and Troas, [155:3] where he left for the use of Carpus the case with the books and parchments which he mentions in his Second Epistle to Timothy. Passing on then to Colosse, [155:4] he may have visited Antioch in Pisidia and other cities of Asia Minor, the scenes of his early ministrations; and reached Jerusalem [155:5] by way of Antioch in Syria. He perhaps returned from Palestine to Rome by sea, leaving Trophimus sick [155:6] at Miletum in Crete. The journey did not probably occupy much time; and, on his return to Italy, he seems to have been immediately incarcerated. His condition was now very different from what it had been during his former confinement; for he was deserted by his friends, and treated as a malefactor. [155:7] When he wrote to Timothy he had already been brought before the judgment-seat, and had narrowly escaped martyrdom. |At my first answer,| says he, |no man stood with me, but all men forsook me. I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear; [155:8] and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.| [155:9] The prospect, however, still continued gloomy; and he had no hope of ultimate escape. In the anticipation of his condemnation, he wrote those words so full of Christian faith and heroism, |I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight -- I have finished my course -- I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me in that day, and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.| [156:1]

Paul was martyred perhaps about A.D.66. Tradition reports that he was beheaded; [156:2] and as he was a Roman citizen, it is not probable that he suffered any more ignominious fate. About the third or fourth century, a statement appeared to the effect that he and Peter were put to death at Rome on the same day; [156:3] but all the early documentary evidence we possess is quite opposed to such a representation. If Peter really finished his career in the Western metropolis, it would seem that he did not arrive there until very shortly before the decapitation of the Apostle of the Gentiles; for Paul makes no reference, in any of his writings, to the presence of such a fellow-labourer in the capital of the Empire. In the Epistle to the Romans, containing so many salutations to the brethren in the great city, the name of Peter is not found; and in none of the letters written from Rome is he ever mentioned. In the last of his Epistles -- the Second to Timothy -- the writer says -- |only Luke is with me| [156:4] -- and had Peter then been in the place, Paul would not have thus ignored the existence of the apostle of the circumcision.

But still there is a very ancient and apparently a well authenticated tradition that Peter suffered martyrdom at Rome; [156:5] and if, as is not improbable, Paul met him in Jerusalem, during his visit to that city after his release from his first imprisonment, it may be that he was then encouraged to undertake a journey to the West. [156:6] It is not improbable that he was recommended, at the same time, to visit the Churches of Asia Minor for the purpose of using his influence to defeat the efforts of the Judaizing zealots; and if, after passing through Galatia, Bithynia, and other districts, he continued his course to Home, we can well understand why, on reaching the seat of Empire, he addressed his first epistle to the Christians with whom he had so recently held intercourse. The tradition that the |Babylon| from which this letter was written, [157:1] is no other than Rome, or the mystical Babylon of the Apocalypse, [157:2] is unquestionably of great antiquity; [157:3] and some of the announcements it contains are certainly quite in unison with such an interpretation. Thus, Peter tells his brethren of |the fiery trial| which was |to try| them, [157:4] alluding, in all likelihood, to the extension of the Neronian persecution to the provinces; and it may be presumed that, in the capital, and in communication with some of |Caesar's household,| he had means of information in reference to such matters, to which elsewhere he could have had no access, Mark, who probably arrived in Rome about the time of the death of Paul, [157:5] was with Peter when this letter was written; [157:6] and we have thus additional evidence that the apostle of the circumcision was now in the Western capital. It is also worthy of remark that this epistle was transmitted to its destination by Silas, or Silvanus, [157:7] apparently the same individual who had so frequently accompanied the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. [157:8] Silvanus had been for many years acquainted with the brethren to whom the letter is addressed, and therefore was well suited to be its bearer. But though he had long occupied a prominent position in the Church, he seems to have been very little known to Peter; and hence the somewhat singular manner in which he is noticed towards the close of this epistle -- |By Silvanus, a faithful brother unto you, as I suppose, I have written briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand.| [158:1]

If this letter was written from Rome about the time of the death of Paul, it is not strange that Peter deemed it prudent to conceal his place of residence under the designation of Babylon. Nero was then seeking the extermination of the Christians in the capital; and they had enemies in all quarters who would have rejoiced to point out to him such a distinguished victim as the aged apostle. And how could Peter more appropriately describe the seat of Empire than by naming it Babylon? Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned so gloriously in the great Eastern capital, had destroyed the temple of God; and now Nero, who ruled in the Western metropolis, was seeking to ruin the Church of God. Nebuchadnezzar had led the Jews into captivity; but Rome now enthralled both Jews and Gentiles. If Nebuchadnezzar had an antitype in Nero, assuredly Babylon had an antitype in Rome. [158:2]

The Second Epistle of Peter was written soon after the first, and was addressed to the same Churches. [158:3] The author now contemplated the near approach of death, so that the advices he here gives may be regarded as his dying instructions. |I think it meet,| says he, |as long as I am in this tabernacle, [158:4] to stir you up by putting you in remembrance -- knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me.| [159:1] If then Peter was martyred at Rome, we may infer that this letter must have been written somewhere in the same neighbourhood, and probably in the same city. We have thus a corroborative proof that the Babylon of the first letter is no other than the great metropolis.

It deserves notice that in this second epistle, Peter bears emphatic testimony to the character and inspiration of Paul. The Judaizing party, as there is reason to think, were in the habit of pleading that they were supported by the authority of the apostle of the circumcision; and as many of these zealots were to be found in the Churches of Asia Minor, [159:2] such a recognition of the claims of the Apostle of the Gentiles was calculated to exert a most salutary influence. |The strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,| [159:3] were thus given to understand that all the true heralds of the gospel had but |one faith;| and that any attempt to create divisions in the Church, by representing the doctrine of one inspired teacher as opposed to the doctrine of another, was most unwarrantable. The reference to Paul, to be found in the Second Epistle of Peter, is favourable to the supposition that the Apostle of the Gentiles was now dead; as, had he been still living to correct such misinterpretations, it would scarcely have been said that in all his epistles were things |hard to be understood| which |the unlearned and unstable| wrested |unto their own destruction.| [159:4] It would seem, too, that Peter here alludes particularly to the Epistle to the Hebrews -- a letter, as we have seen, addressed to Jewish Christians, and written after Paul's liberation from his first Roman imprisonment. It must be admitted that this letter contains passages [159:5] which have often proved perplexing to interpreters; but, notwithstanding, it bears the impress of a divine original; and Peter, who maintains that all the writings of Paul were dictated by unerring wisdom, places them upon a level with |the other Scriptures| [160:1] either of the evangelists or of the Old Testament.

According to a current tradition, Peter suffered death at Rome by crucifixion. [160:2] He was not a Roman citizen; and was, therefore, like our Lord himself, consigned to a mode of punishment inflicted on slaves and the lowest class of malefactors. The story that, at his own request, he was crucified with his head downwards as more painful and ignominious than the doom of his Master, [160:3] is apparently the invention of an age when the pure light of evangelical religion was greatly obscured; for the apostle was too well acquainted with the truth to believe that he was at liberty to inflict upon himself any unnecessary suffering. The tradition that he died on the same day of the same month as Paul, but exactly a year afterwards, [160:4] is not destitute of probability. According to this statement he suffered A.D.67; and he may have been about a year in Rome before his martyrdom.

In the New Testament it is impossible to find a trace of either the primacy of Peter or the supremacy of the Pope; but the facts already stated throw some light on the history of that great spiritual despotism whose seat of government has been so long established in the city of the Caesars. It is obvious that at a very early period various circumstances contributed to give prominence to the Church of Rome. The epistle addressed to it contains a more complete exhibition of Christian doctrine than any other of the apostolical letters; and, in that remarkable communication, Paul expresses an earnest desire to visit a community already celebrated all over the world. Five or six of his letters, now forming part of the inspired canon, were dictated in the capital of the Empire. The two epistles of the apostle of the circumcision appear to have emanated from the same metropolis. There is every reason to believe that the book of the Acts was written at Rome; and it is highly probable that the great city was also the birthplace of the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Thus, a large portion of the New Testament issued from the seat of Empire. Rome could also boast that it was for some time the residence of two of the most eminent of the apostles. Paul was there for at least two years as a prisoner; and Peter may have resided for twelve months within its walls. Some of the most illustrious of the early converts were members of the Church of Rome; for in the days of the Apostle of the Gentiles there were disciples in |Caesar's household.| [161:1] And when Nero signalised himself as the first Imperial persecutor of the Christians, the Church of Rome suffered terribly from his insane and savage cruelty. Even the historian Tacitus acknowledges that the tortures to which its adherents were exposed excited the commiseration of the heathen multitude. Paul and Peter were cut off in his reign; and the soil of Rome absorbed the blood of these apostolic martyrs. [161:2] It was not strange, therefore, that the Roman Church was soon regarded with peculiar respect by all the disciples throughout the Empire. As time passed on, it increased rapidly in numbers and in affluence; and circumstances, which properly possessed nothing more than an historic interest, began to be urged as arguments in favour of its claims to pre-eminence. At first these claims assumed no very definite form; and, at the termination of a century after the days of Paul and Peter, they amounted simply to the recognition of something like an honorary precedence. At that period it was, perhaps, deemed equally imprudent and ungracious to quarrel with its pretensions, more especially as the community by which they were advanced was distributing its bounty all around, and was itself nobly sustaining the brunt of almost every persecution. In the course of time, the Church of Rome proceeded to challenge a substantial supremacy; and then the facts of its early history were mis-stated and exaggerated in accommodation to the demands of its growing ambition. It was said at first that |its faith was spoken of throughout the whole world;| it was at length alleged that its creed should be universally adopted. It was admitted at an early period that, as it had enjoyed the ministrations of Peter and Paul, it should be considered an apostolic church; it was at length asserted that, as an apostle was entitled to deference from ordinary pastors, a church instructed by two of the most eminent apostles had a claim to the obedience of other churches. In process of time it was discovered that Paul was rather an inconvenient companion for the apostle of the circumcision; and Peter alone then began to be spoken of as the founder and first bishop of the Church of Rome. Strange to say, a system founded on a fiction has since sustained the shocks of so many centuries. One of the greatest marvels of this |mystery of iniquity| is its tenacity of life; and did not the sure word of prophecy announce that the time would come when it would be able to boast of its antiquity, and did we not know that paganism can plead a more remote original, we might be perplexed by its longevity. But |the vision is yet for an appointed time -- at the end it shall speak and not lie. Though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come, it will not tarry.| [162:1]

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