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What impact did Domitian have on Christian history?

Question: "What impact did Domitian have on Christian history?"

Domitian (Oct. 24, AD 51—Sept. 18, AD 96), was Roman Emperor from AD 81—96. He was the third and last member of the Flavian dynasty. His father, Vespasian, was a Roman general who was besieging Jerusalem in 68 when Nero died and the empire was thrown into chaos. He “assumed the purple” in 69 and brought stability to the empire. His son Titus finished the work of destroying Jerusalem in AD 70 and, upon the death of his father in 79, ascended to the throne. When Titus died in 81, his younger brother Domitian became Emperor. (It is suspected that he may have helped to hasten his brother’s demise so that he could assume the throne.)

Domitian was not as well-liked or well-received by the aristocracy as his father and brother had been. This seems to have been due, in part, to his cruel and ostentatious behavior, which many found offensive. His name is generally associated with the persecution of Christians.

The earliest records of persecution by Domitian are found in Eusebius’s church history. Eusebius references earlier writers who mention Domitian’s dislike of or antagonism toward Christians without giving a lot of details other than that some Christians were banished. The early evidence for intense persecution seems scant, but Eusebius, either relying upon evidence that he did not cite or simply being carried away with the narrative that he wanted to develop, goes on to say that Domitian stirred up persecution of Christians and issued edicts against them. Based on Eusebius’s record, later Christian historians seem to assume that Domitian was a cruel persecutor of Christians. From the available evidence, it is difficult to tell how much he was involved in persecution and how much impact he really had upon Christianity. According to at least one reading of Irenaeus, John was banished to the Island of Patmos by Domitian, at which time he received the visions in Revelation. Although this interpretation of Irenaeus is disputed, if Domitian was responsible for John’s exile, then that is perhaps his biggest impact on Christianity—but, of course, John could have received his visions anywhere.

Some people and their actions are well-known and well-documented in historical sources. Others have less documentation, and the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived simply cannot be documented at all—they are lost to history. However, they and their deeds are not lost to God. First Timothy 5:24 says, “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.”

Recommended Resource: Christianity Through the Centuries by Earle Cairns

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