I’ve been reading this book in short portions for a few weeks. It is a good historical look at mostly the Second Century of the Christian church development. The author is a writer by profession who has several books out, including at least one work of fiction. He is a Catholic and sometimes in this book that guides his writing, but not in a bad way.
Bennett chose the four witnesses because they each represented an important phase of the church’s development. Clement was not only the third (or fourth) Bishop of Rome, he was one of the last to have been taught directly by one or more of the Apostles. While historians outside the Vatican can find no direct evidence that Peter ever served as the pastor (Bishop) of the church of Rome, or even evidence that he was ever in the city, let alone executed there, the church counts him as the first Bishop of Rome.
None-the-less, all agree that Clement was a student of Peter and based on his close associations with the Apostle was selected in the year 88 to replace Anacletus as the new Bishop of Rome. Anacletus replaced Linus whom most historians and Protestants list as the first Bishop.
As a Protestant, I had to glide through Bennett’s pro Peter stance in that first chapter, though I will admit that I like the idea that both Peter and Paul were executed in Rome at about the same time. We do know that Paul was imprisoned there.
Clement was important because of his ridged grip on the Apostolic teachings and his insistence that there be no deviation from them.
Ignatius was in much the same character having been taught by both John and Peter at Antioch where Peter established a church and remained its Bishop for years. Peter was replaced by Evodius, about whom we know nothing else, and Ignatius replaced him in the year 69.
Ignatius served the church for about 30 years to the end of the century, but it was the seven that placed him forever in the spotlight. A second church developed in Antioch which we now call Docetists. The main point of their teachings was that the Son of God could never have taken a human form nor could he have died. He only appeared human and pretended to be crucified.
In the 9th year of Emperor Trajan (109), Trajan decided once and for all to put an end to the troublesome Christians. He ordered that they worship the true gods of Rome and renounce this Jesus. Ignatius insisted that he be the first to be arrested and demanded to appear before Trajan.
Our word martyr comes from the Greek martus, which means witness. Ignatius had at least a full year of witnessing as he traveled under guard to Rome. In that time he wrote several letters that we still have. In them he insisted that every Christian must follow the true teachings of Jesus and that only Bishops chosen by former Bishops know the truth about Jesus. Ignatius was the first person to use the term Katholike Ekklesia, or in English, Catholic Church. The term means universal church.
The record shows that Ignatius pleaded with the Christians of Rome not to interfere in any way with his punishment. He was looking forward to following Jesus to the death. While many modern historians argue that few Christians were fed to the animals, it seems clear that Ignatius was one of the few.
Justin of Neapolis was considered one of the greatest Greek philosophers of his day. Becoming a Christian, Justin did not renounce his philosophy, he used his skills to teach the Truth to others. As it happened in the year 161, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the greatest Stoic philosopher of his day, became the new emperor. The short version is that the two met in mortal combat. Mortal because Justin was executed and became Justin Martyr. The Emperor hated loosing debates.
Irenaeus of Lyons grew up in the church of Smyrna, north of Ephesus in what is now Turkey. The Bishop there was Polycarp, the last Bishop to have studied with the Apostles. Irenaeus believed he was called to mission work in the West of the Empire at a crossroad town now called Lyon France. He had hardly arrived when word reached the small church there that Polycarp was dead.
There was no other Bishop alive who had known any Apostle. How was the church to maintain disciple? To make matters worse Gnosticism broke out all over the Empire and Irenaeus had to figure out how to combat it. He did it by following the lead of Ignatius. You must obey the duly appointed Bishop. If the Bishop was not taught by a properly chosen Bishop, do not follow him.
We who are Protestants must love these holy men of God who found a way through the wilderness of false gods. We must accept that in a time when there was still only a handful of writings that most Bishops considered to be Scripture and their members were hounded and executed, strict rules were the only possibility of the survival of the Church of God.
For you purists, I will say that the author made some attempts to curry favor with we non-Catholics, but generally followed the accepted version. He also took poetic license with many events, but it is a good read and gives a wonderful picture of the Second Century of the church.