Political Milestones: 200AD to 300AD
The global effects of the Mt Taupo eruption in New Zealand would be felt the most in this third century. By 220AD the Han dynasty had collapsed in China. This would lead to four centuries of weak and ineffective leadership, in-fighting, the rise of warlords, all made worse by the invention of gun powder in 200AD.
Over in Persia the existing rulership was overthrown by the Sassanids, a Persian speaking people who originated in China. During this era they controlled the fabled Silk Road and pushed their empire into what is now modern day Pakistan, taking land from the Kushana Empire. They also declared Zoroastrianism to be their state religion. Christians, seen as allies of their arch enemy Rome, were savagely persecuted. Persian-Roman relations were a constant game of military and tactical tug-a-war in the 200’s.
Over in the New World the Mayan Empire was started to flourish and would develop sophisticated urban cities, combined with an astute understanding of mathematics and astronomy.
The years from 235 to 284 were known as the “Imperial Crisis” in the Roman Empire. It was a period of civil and military mutiny, famine, a smallpox pandemic and invasions, which very nearly destroyed the empire. Because of these weaknesses, the empire came under siege form the north. Centuries of conquest were being reversed. The Goths, a Scandinavian people, sacked large parts of the eastern empire, including Athens and what is now Istanbul. The Goths would eventually destroy the entire empire 150 years later. They were joined by the Vandals, the Lombards, Burgundians and the Franks.
In 275AD Buddhism was declared the state religion of Sri Lanka as it continued its swift expansion throughout Asia. By the fifth century it would be Asia’s dominant religion. Its success then is a direct link with its popularity in the western world now.
Spiritual Milestones: 200AD to 300AD
With all the turmoil engulfing the Roman and Persian empires during this time, it is no wonder that Christianity flourished, especially around the Mediterranean. This was the great era of religious change, where Rome transitioned from hating and trying to exterminate Christians, under emperors like Septimus Severus, Maximinus and Valerian, to being on the verge of embracing it. It was the era of the catacombs and religious refugees. People all over the empire were frightened and so they increasingly looked for answers to a faith that was confident in the face of death. Imperial Rome was by far the biggest persecutor of believers in this period and 70% of the 400,000 believers martyred for their faith were from the western side of the empire.
In 250AD the Peshitta-Syriac Bible was completed. It became the most important book in the expanding church across Central Asia. It meant that Syriac became the language of church leaders in the fast growing Nestorian branch of Christianity in Central Asia and the Arabian world. This translation helped believers living under Persian rule greatly. Because of this translation and the evangelisation that followed, by 280AD significant numbers of Christians were appearing in Central Asia and Armenia, North West Arabia and down the coast of the Persian Gulf. By the end of the century, despite severe persecution, there were around 250,000 Persian Christians.
It is worth noting that persecution in Armenia was particularly severe under the Sassanid Persian rule. In 230AD 10,000 were executed for their faith, and again in 287AD another 20,000 were executed for simply being a Christian.
It was sometime during this century that the powerful Roman custom of reverencing ones ancestors started to seep in to the growing church. The Christians adapted this practice to become a reverencing the martyrs, especially the apostolic martyrs such as Peter and Paul. Cemeteries started to compliment homes as places of worship. Monuments began to be built at these locations and bones were now kept and venerated. Thus the emergence of sacred places and objects gathered pace. The late second century also saw beginnings of a shift away from the communion feast and its replacement with tokens.by the fourth century this shift was complete. These trends were the for-runners of the rise of mysticism and superstition as a powerful influence in Christianity.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, and its associated trade with Asia, the Indian church became isolated and went into decline for 200 years. The Nubian church in the Nile was also isolated from the wider Christian faith and stagnated. To protect their faith in the face of these changes, the Egyptian church developed a culture of monasticism. These were concentrated centres of Christian teaching and knowledge, where believers could spend time alone with God and study the scriptures. This development would later evolve, via Cambridge and Oxford, into what we now know as universities.
Because of the climatic and civil turmoil, the world’s population did not change during these hundred years, stagnating at around 190 million. However, the number of Christians boomed from somewhere around 4 million to between 10 and 15 million. It was a time of spectacular growth and terrible suffering. Almost anywhere Christians lived was a dangerous place. It was subversive, yet attractive as it met peoples need for answers in a time of trouble. It was a tumultuous century.