Jesus had told his followers, “‘a slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.’” (John 15:20) Certainly, the growth of Christianity from 120 disciples on Pentecost 33 C.E. to over one million by the middle of the second century was a frightening thought to the pagan mind as well as Judaism. Thus, shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pagan population, Judaism, and the Roman government began the very persecution of which Jesus had warned. However, it was in the fourth century, under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, that a program of persecution began with the intent of wiping out Christianity. In 303 C.E., Diocletian spread a series of progressively harsh edicts against Christians. This brought about what some historians have called “The Great Persecution.”
Diocletian’s first edict ordered the burning of copies of the Scriptures and the destruction of Christian houses of worship. Harry Y. Gamble writes, “Diocletian’s edict of 303 ordering the confiscation and burning of Christian books is itself important evidence, in both its assumptions and results. At the start of the fourth century, Diocletian took it for granted that every Christian community, wherever it might be, had a collection of books and knew that those books were essential to its viability.” (Gamble 1995, 150) Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History, reported, “all things in truth were fulfilled in our day, when we saw with our very eyes the houses of prayer cast down to their foundations from top to bottom, and the inspired and sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places.” (Cruse 1998, VIII, 1. 9-11.1) The Christians who were most affected by the persecution lived in Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. In fact, just three months after Diocletian’s edict, the mayor of the North African city of Cirta, which was destroyed in the beginning of the 4th century and was rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, is said to have ordered the Christians to give up all of their “writings of the law” and “copies of scripture.” It is quite clear that the intent of Diocletian and local leaders was to wipe out the Word of God.
The authorities had many Christians who obeyed the decrees by handing over their copies of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, some refused to give up their copies of God’s Word. Bishop Felix of Thibiuca (d. 303 C.E.) in Africa was martyred during the Great Persecution alongside Audactus, Fortunatus, Januarius, and Septimus. Felix resisted the command of the local magistrate Magnillian (Lat. Magnillianus) to surrender his congregation’s copies of the Christian Scriptures. One account had Felix and the others being taken to Carthage and decapitated on July 15, 303 C.E. Other Christian leaders deceived the leaders by handing in their pagan writings, safeguarding their Scriptures.
The Diocletian persecution was, in the end, unsuccessful. Many Christian libraries escaped the persecution of Diocletian. Two of the best collections today, the Beatty and Bodmer papyri, survived the fires. Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), at the age of 32, had amassed a fortune. As a collector of books, he had over 50 papyrus codices, both religious and secular, which are dated earlier than the fourth century C.E. There are seven consisting of portions of Old Testament books, and three consisting of portions of the New Testament (P45 c. 250, P46 c. 175–225, and P47 c. 250-300). Martin Bodmer (1899-1971) was also a wealthy collector, who discovered twenty-two papyri in Egypt in 1952 which contained parts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as other early Christian literature. Particularly noteworthy are the New Testament Bodmer papyri, which consist of P66 dating to c. 200 C.E. and P75 dating to c. 175 C.E. Many in rural Egypt would have heard of the persecution in Alexandria, likely making great efforts to remove their manuscripts from their congregations, hiding them until the persecution was lifted.
The men who were known as the readers in the early Christian congregations, who read from the Scriptures during the meeting, carried the burden of preserving the Word of God beyond preserving accurate copies. They also would have guarded them during times of persecution. Because of the mass persecution against Alexandria, Egypt, we owe the primary preservation of our New Testament manuscripts to those congregations within rural Egypt. During times of persecution, manuscripts would not have been housed in the facilities of the congregation but rather would have been hidden in homes. Because of the dry sands of Egypt, the professional scribal practices, and the courage of the Christians, we not only owe the Egyptian Christians for the preservation of the New Testament but also for the original words that made up the New Testament. If we look at the manuscripts copied right after the Diocletian persecution (Codex Vaticanus and Sinaitic c. 350 C.E.), they are reflective of the manuscripts from rural Egypt that survived, such as P4, 64, 67 from Coptos, P13 from Oxyrhynchus, and P46 from Fayum, and P75 from Abu Mana. (P. W. Comfort 1992, 16-17)
What we do know is that by the time we get to the era of the Diocletian persecution (February 23, 303 – July 25, 306.), the authorities were well aware that there were still many copies of the New Testament throughout the Roman Empire. Otherwise, there would have been no need on February 24, 303 for Diocletian’s first “Edict against the Christians” to be published. Diocletian thought he could eradicate Christianity by destroying its sacred writings. After the persecution of Diocletian and Constantine succeeding his father on July 25, 306, Constantine immediately ended any persecutions that were ongoing at that time and offered Christians complete restitution of what they had lost under the persecution. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan of 313 C.E., Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, at which point, the church would have seen the need to dramatically increase the number of copies of the Scriptures. Now that Christianity was no longer being persecuted, Christian scribes could openly make copies of the New Testament manuscripts.
In 331 C.E., Constantine had ordered Eusebius to prepare fifty copies of entire Bible to be written on prepared parchment for distribution to the churches he intended to build in Constantinople. (Eus., Vit. Const. 4.36.2) From this small order placed by Constantine, we can only imagine how many copies had been made in the churches throughout the entire Roman Empire. It has been estimated that there were some fifteen hundred to two thousand manuscripts of the Greek New Testament copied in the fourth century C.E. (J. Duplacy) While we certainly took a loss in the number of copies that may have come down to us today as a result of ongoing sporadic persecution of Christianity in those first two and a half centuries after the death of the apostle Paul at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in about 65 C.E. up unto Diocletian (303-306 C.E.), there is little doubt that the storehouse of Greek original language manuscripts (5830+) that we do possess are an envy of the secular historians, who have next to nothing in comparison.
 These men may have been deacons but, apart from their joint martyrdom with Felix, more about their identities are unknown at the time of this writing.
 Some may have been scribes as well but not all. Retaining accurate, fresh copies for the congregation entailed reaching out to scribes or scriptoriums, to acquire copies for their congregation.
 This is not to say that no manuscripts survived the persecution in Alexandria; it is possible that some came through the flames.
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