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In the 250 years that separate the Neronian persecution in 64 CE from the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, c. 312, Christianity was an illegal and suspect religion whose members were subject to arrest, condemnation and, in many cases, death. During the last half of the second century, instinctive popular anger against the Christians generated the violent, sporadic persecutions recorded by Eusebius. The Jews are now less prominent, though at this time the Platonist critic Celsus still regarded the Christians as apostates from Judaism. In Alexandria, where Dionysius, bishop through two persecutions, was an eyewitness, we find the same conflict but without equally tragic results. His account of his interrogation by the deputy prefect, Aemilian, is preserved by Eusebius. In Palestine, there were forty-seven executions recorded by Eusebius in his Martyrs of Palestine, most for provoking the authorities. The majority of recalcitrant Christians, however, were sent to work in the mines of Egypt.
Apologetics take their place beside miracles of healing and courage in the face of persecution as an important means of furthering the early Christian mission. In the first two centuries AD, when the popular perception was that Christianity was closely allied to Judaism, the argument from Old Testament prophecy was important. In the third century, however, as the Church gained ground among the educated classes in east and west, the emphasis changed to an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over its pagan rivals as a philosophy with a more convincing understanding of the role of providence. Apologists in the north African tradition, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Arnobius and Lactantius, all played their part in this process. The prophecies of the Old Testament had to be confirmed by other prophecies, notably the Sibylline oracles and the sayings of Hermes Trismegistus. Finally, in the fourth century, many north Africans who, like Augustine for ten years, adhered to Manichaean Christianity relied wholly on these authorities, rejecting the Old Testament altogether.
In C.435 Sozomen, the fifth-century lawyer and continuator of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History, describes how probably near the end of Constantine’s reign his grandfather and his family were converted to Christianity. He attributes this to the work of the Palestinian monk, Hilarion. He writes of Alaphion, a friend of the family at that time living in Bethelia near Gaza, a pagan stronghold:
Alaphion it appears was possessed of a devil; and neither the pagans nor the Jews could by any enchantments deliver him from this affliction, but Hilarion, by simply calling on the name of Christ expelled the demon and Alaphion and his whole family immediately embraced the faith.