There have been many crises in the history of Christianity. Few have been greater than that initiated by the emperor Diocletian on February 23, 303. This last great persecution by the Roman Empire was slow in coming, and it was some time before its full seriousness was felt. Then it had become violent.

The main enemy the state had to face was neither the Christian buildings nor even the Christians themselves but the books they possessed. If these were not destroyed, they might be like buried seeds and put forth new life later on. Thus, many copies of the Scriptures were destroyed.

When the persecution died down and discipline was restored to the church, the most important moral problem was what should be done about the traditores, those who had “handed over” sacred books for destruction. (Biblical studies are poorer in the material at their disposal because of the persecution of Diocletian.) But not all Christians were traditores. Copies of the Scriptures were buried and hidden and then brought out again.

This was the last great persecution. Its failure led to the victory of the church. In 306 Constantine—later known to history as the first Christian emperor—was hailed as Augustus by his troops at York. In 312 he was greeted with the same title by the Senate in Rome. In 313 there was issued the Edict of Milan proclaiming freedom of worship. In 324 Constantine became sole emperor.

The victory of the church was complete. Christianity now was not merely a tolerated religion but one that had special official approval. It became fashionable to join the church. There was, naturally, need for many more church buildings. There was also need for many more Bibles.

Fifty Bibles for the Emperor

The center of gravity in the Empire was no longer ...

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