The Sign of the Cross and the Diocletian Persecution
Lactantius, a Christian advisor to Emperor Constantine, who lived through the Diocletian persecutions, recalls in Chapter X of his book De Mortibus Persecutorum how those persecutions began. The emperor Diocletian, although a pagan (and a superstitious one), had not initially been hostile to Christians. Not only were there high-ranking Christians in the Roman government and army, but there’s evidence that the emperor may have had Christians in his own family. At the time, Christians lived peacefully in the empire: the emperor Gallienus had ended the anti-Christian persecutions several decades before, in 260.
|Roman relief from the Louvre showing a haruspex |
waiting to inspect after a sacrifice. Photo: Flickr aegean-blue.
Here’s Lactantius’ account:
Diocletian, as being of a timorous disposition, was a searcher into futurity, and during his abode in the East he began to slay victims, that from their livers he might obtain a prognostic of events; and while he sacrificed, some attendants of his, who were Christians, stood by, and they put the immortal sign on their foreheads. At this the demons were chased away, and the holy rites interrupted. The soothsayers trembled, unable to investigate the wonted marks on the entrails of the victims. They frequently repeated the sacrifices, as if the former had been unpropitious; but the victims, slain from time to time, afforded no tokens for divination. At length Tages, the chief of the soothsayers, either from guess or from his own observation, said, “There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites.”
This resulted in the bloodiest persecution of Christians in Roman history, with thousands of Christians being martyred at a time when the faith scarcely had thousands of martyrs to spare. Many of the famous early Christian martyrs were sent to their eternal reward in this, the so-called “Great Persecution.” Eusebius recalls the beginning of the Great Persecution in Book VIII, Chapter 2 of Church History:Then Diocletian, in furious passion, ordered not only all who were assisting at the holy ceremonies, but also all who resided within the palace, to sacrifice, and, in case of their refusal, to be scourged. And further, by letters to the commanding officers, he enjoined that all soldiers should be forced to the like impiety, under pain of being dismissed the service. Thus far his rage proceeded; but at that season he did nothing more against the law and religion of God. After an interval of some time he went to winter in Bithynia; and presently Galerius Cæsar came thither, inflamed with furious resentment, and purposing to excite the inconsiderate old man to carry on that persecution which he had begun against the Christians.
All these things [the Scriptural prophesies of the persecution of the Church] were fulfilled in us, when we saw with our own eyes the houses of prayer thrown down to the very foundations, and the Divine and Sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places, and the shepherds of the churches basely hidden here and there, and some of them captured ignominiously, and mocked by their enemies.The Romans quickly went from destroying Scriptures and churches to executing Christians as well. In fact, Diocletian’s reign was so bloody that the Alexandrian church (including the Coptic Church today) began using an Anno Martyrum (“Year of the Martyrs”) calendar, measured from the beginning of Diocletian's reign, as the beginning of the age of martyrs. This calendar would later influence the Anno Domini (Year of Our Lord) calendar used throughout most of the rest of the Christian world.
To get a sense for what the persecution was like, here is Eusebius' eye-witness account from his time in Thebes:
1. It would be impossible to describe the outrages and tortures which the martyrs in Thebais endured. They were scraped over the entire body with shells instead of hooks until they died. Women were bound by one foot and raised aloft in the air by machines, and with their bodies altogether bare and uncovered, presented to all beholders this most shameful, cruel, and inhuman spectacle.
The Flaying of Christian Martyrs
2. Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.
3. All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but for a long series of years. Sometimes more than ten, at other times above twenty were put to death. Again not less than thirty, then about sixty, and yet again a hundred men with young children and women, were slain in one day, being condemned to various and diverse torments.
4. We, also being on the spot ourselves, have observed large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other.
Why do I raise this? Partially, just because it’s important for Christians to know their history. These people died that we may know about, and worship, Jesus Christ. But there are two other reasons as well: to show the Power of the Sign of the Cross, and the Catholicity of the early Church.5. And we beheld the most wonderful ardor, and the truly divine energy and zeal of those who believed in the Christ of God. For as soon as sentence was pronounced against the first, one after another rushed to the judgment seat, and confessed themselves Christians. And regarding with indifference the terrible things and the multiform tortures, they declared themselves boldly and undauntedly for the religion of the God of the universe. And they received the final sentence of death with joy and laughter and cheerfulness; so that they sang and offered up hymns and thanksgivings to the God of the universe till their very last breath.
The Power of "the Immortal Sign"
Lactantius' testimony is powerful, in showing how Demons tremble before the Cross. And the resultant diabolical persecution of Christians serves as further confirmation of this fact. This is important to remember because today, many Protestants will either (a) condemn the Sign of the Cross, (b) refuse to make it (often, for fear of looking Catholic), or (c) deny that it’s efficacious.
In that third category, GotQuestions? Ministries holds that “the sign of the cross is neither right nor wrong and can be positive if it serves to remind a person of the cross of Christ and/or the trinity.” But he’s careful to note that “The sign of the cross has at certain points been associated with supernatural powers such as repelling evil, demons, etc. This mystical aspect of the sign of the cross is completely false and cannot be supported biblically in any way.”
What’s the basis for this Protestant assertion, by the way? It’s never provided. Nor do any of the Protestants who reject the Sign of the Cross seem to bother supporting the bare assertion that it’s ineffective in spiritual combat. The only informed testimony that we seem to have is from those early Christians who, actually immersed in a pagan and demonic culture, had frequent recourse to the Sign of the Cross, and to great effect.
|Paul Delaroche, A Christian Martyr Drowned in the Tiber|
During the Reign of Diocletian (1855)
All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. […]If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ's religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realize that Christ, to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross?A bit later, he explains that the Sign of the Cross and the Name of Christ puts demons to flight:
These things which we have said are no mere words: they are attested by actual experience. Anyone who likes may see the proof of glory in the virgins of Christ, and in the young men who practice chastity as part of their religion, and in the assurance of immortality in so great and glad a company of martyrs. Anyone, too, may put what we have said to the proof of experience in another way. In the very presence of the fraud of demons and the imposture of the oracles and the wonders of magic, let him use the sign of the cross which they all mock at, and but speak the Name of Christ, and he shall see how through Him demons are routed, oracles cease, and all magic and witchcraft is confounded.
Notice that: Athanasius, unlike the much-later Protestant critics, actually has experience in this field, and knows what he’s talking about.
The Catholicity of the Early Church
Can you imagine modern Protestants sparking a deadly anti-Christian persecution over their devotion to the Sign of the Cross? Me neither. Yet that's exactly what happened in the early Church.
We’ve already seen in the prior point that many (thankfully, not all) Protestants reject the Sign of the Cross, even though it doesn’t seem like there are any rational grounds upon which to reject it. The best explanation for the Protestant aversion is that the Sign of the Cross reflects a very different worldview from their own: namely, the Catholic worldview of the early Church.
So, for example, many Protestants hold to sola Scriptura, the extra-Scriptural doctrine that you can’t have extra-Scriptural doctrines. Calvinists tend to go further, and affirm the so-called regulative principle of worship, which seeks to remove all extra-Scriptural elements from public worship.
To contrast that with the testimony of the early Christians. let’s take a look at Chapter 27 of De Spiritu Sancto, written by St. Basil the Great (329-379). In this work, he explains why extra-Scriptural Traditions, and even ecclesial disciplines, can carry the same binding authority upon Christians as Sacred Scripture.
|Christ Surrounded by Angels and Saints (detail) (c. 526)|
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church.
For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing?
For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching.That’s the worldview from which we have the Sign of the Cross. Protestantism, in contrast, comes from the Reformers’ attempt to remove Catholics customs that lacked written, Scriptural authority. These worldviews are diametrically opposed.
The Reformation occurs in the context of the Renaissance. The Renaissance sought to move past the Medieval cultural accretions, and recover the glories of Greco-Roman culture. The Reformation sought to do something similar: remove what were (falsely) assumed to be Medieval cultural accretions, and recover the glories of early Christianity. It just so happens that, when we actually familiarize ourselves with the Christians of the early Church, their religion looked nothing like Protestantism.