Like the man/God he followed, Evaristus was a Jew, born in Bethlehem. His father, Juda, was of Greek origin, but lived in Bethlehem, only a few miles from the temple in Jerusalem, the goal of all good Jews. Evidently, Juda moved his family from the town, probably just before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Little is known about Evaristus, as is common among our first popes. They did not rule over Rome as we would like to believe. They were in hiding or working one on one with other new Christians and their communiques were not saved. We can piece together several things to get a look at the Church’s early life.
Evaristus being a Jew shows that, at that time, the Christians were still seen as a sect of Judaism, even a whole generation after the death of Peter and Paul. Paul tended to preach a Gentile church, drawing the other Apostles slowly to his way of thinking. The Council of Jerusalem, around 50 AD, changed the nature of the Christian faith to the effect that Gentiles did not have to become Jewish first, i.e., no circumcision. However they were required to eat no meat sacrificed to idols and abstain from sexual immorality. This was a definite break in the relationship with the original religion. The orthodox Jews could not accept many of the teachings of the sect and remained antagonistic towards the new religious thoughts. Evaristus was, thus, one of the Jews who accepted the death and Resurrection of the Lord to the exclusion of the orthodoxy. By 98 AD, the Christians of Rome were considered separate from the Jews. Emperor Nerva, who ruled 96-98 AD, proclaimed that the Christians did not have to pay the annual tax for Jews. Pliny the Younger then claimed that Christians were not Jews because they did not pay the Jewish tax, in his letters to the Emperor Trajan. Unfortunately, not being considered a taxable Jewish sect, the Christians were thus in a position to be persecuted for not following the state religion.
Appearing on the scene in Rome in 98 or 99 AD, Evaristus may have been one of a group of presbyters, rather than a solo bishop. He was said to have organized the city into segments, or parishes, assigning one priest to each parish, laying the foundation for the College of Cardinals. Evaristus supposedly conferred ordination three times during December, although there is no basis for this information, since Christmas was not yet celebrated, nor was Advent yet a time of fast and prayer.
St. John the Evangelist, the last of the Apostles, most likely died during the time of Evaristus’ reign, around 99 AD. Evaristus died around 107-109 AD, during the reign of Trajan. Whether he was martyred or not, we have no record. However, in 108, Trajan began another round of persecutions. Pliny, mentioned above, wrote to Trajan about the lamentable condition of the Christians who were being slaughtered daily. “The whole account they gave of their crime or error (whichever it is to be called) amounted only to this—viz, that they were accustomed on a stated day to meet before daylight, and to repeat together a set form of prayer to Christ as a God, and to bind themselves by an obligation—not indeed to commit wickedness; but, on the contrary—never to commit theft, robbery, or adultery, never to falsify their word, never to defraud any man: after which it was their custom to separate, and reassemble to partake in common of a harmless meal.” Evaristus may have been one of them. He is buried in the Vatican, near St. Peter.