Part 2 of a series.
Contrary to subsequent claims, Christianity did not take the Roman Empire by storm. There is little evidence of any large communities of Christians anywhere, in the 1st century CE; while 1st century Christians defintely left documents behind, there is little mention of them by anyone else, leaving us at a loss to know just how many there were, or where they were located. The first serious and credible mention of Christians as a distinct, noteworthy group, by a contemporary, is in the letters of the Younger Pliny.
Despite Christianity’s efforts to destroy them all, some writings by Greco-Roman polytheists have survived. And they tell us that the primary facet of Christianity which the polytheists saw as setting Christians apart from everyone else, was their refusal to make offerings to the state gods. In most places, Roman citizens were required to make such offerings annually (although local schedules and practices were honored; these offerings were not uniform throughout Roman territory). Jews were exempt, since they practiced a national religion of their own, and so too were a few others, such as Zoroastrians, on the same grounds.
Polytheists’ belief in the power of the gods, their desire and need to be worshipped by humanity, and the fear that society would lose the gods’ favor or be destroyed in retribution, made this a frightening prospect. Just a couple intransigent Christians who refused to make these offerings, could put everyone ... from the town to the province to the entire Roman state ... at risk. For some, this made their very presence a danger. Most of the time, however, fear of the authorities — especially the Roman government, which was famous then and now for prizing societal order — kept people from rising up against them more often than they did.
Christian doctrine — based as it is on the sacrifice of a person/being who gave himself up for humanity’s sake — inevitably led not only to a martyrdom ethic, but to a kind of perverse and maladaptive desire to be persecuted. And sure enough, early Christians have left us with the impression that they were ardently persecuted. As I explain elsewhere, however, this persecution was nowhere near as intense, as widespread, or as vehement as most people now believe it to have been. Yes, persecution happened, but it was systemic and Empire-wide only on two occasions, and for no more than two years at a time. That these persecutions (of the emperors Decius and Diocletians) happened, serve as the basis for the current myth of systemic suppression of Christianity throughout its first three centuries.
In truth, Christianity was not the hidden, covert, underground movement it has been made out. In many cases Christians made their identities known and, while they were often distrusted and sometimes shunned, they were rarely targeted for violence. Many of the Church Fathers, for example, actually worked as teachers (of rhetoric or other liberal arts of the time), and their beliefs were known to those polytheists whom they taught. That Emperor Constantine declared explicit, legal tolerance of Christianity, testifies that its presence in eastern urban centers was well-known by his time, and that it was common enough that he could gain political advantage by doing so.
Constantine’s declaration of tolerance for Christianity, inadvertently pointed a spotlight on the faith. With the danger even of ad hoc, localized trouble eliminated, Christians became more vocal, not only in how they related to everyone else, but in how they related to each other. Controversies such as the Samosatene/Arian heresy came to the fore, especially as bishops of opposing factions kept bringing their religious grievances with other Christians to the attention of governors, procurators, prefects, and even the Emperor himself. Riots between Christian factions erupted in cities large and small.
It was all very unsavory, and Constantine attempted to end it by calling the Council of Nicaea in 325. The results were not what he expected, however, and Christians continued warring with one another, in every sense — spiritually, verbally, and physically. Constantine’s immediate successors (his sons Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II) were all Christians, and each, in his own way, attempted to quell the sparring among Christians, but did not succeed. They were unable, for example, to quiet the Christians of Alexandria, who actually skirmished in the streets over their city’s episcopal office, and killed an unpopular bishop.
Constantine’s nephew, Emperor Julian (who bears the epithet “the Apostate” because he had been raised Christian but during his youthful education abandoned that faith for Neoplatonic polytheism), attempted a new tactic to deal with the mayhem. He resumed the old “pagan” practices of the pre-Constantine emperors, going so far as to participate in divination rites. He patronized polytheist academies of philosophy, charitable trusts, and even prepared to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (although he died before this could really get underway). Although he disliked Christianity and considered it a threat to the Roman order (since in Alexandria and elsewhere it had created social instability), he did not actually outlaw the faith, and in fact, issued a Milan-style edict explicitly reinforcing Constantine’s tolerance policy.
Because he was an apostate, Christian chroniclers have given Julian a bad reputation, but one which is largely undeserved. Perhaps the foremost accusation against him, that he outlawed Christianity, is simply not true as a matter of record. Julian did attempt to set up a polytheist church in emulation of the Christian model. He did patronize some Arian Christians, whom he considered wronged by his especial Christian opponent Athanasius. He passed a few ordinances meant to inconvenience and hinder Christian clergy, such as preventing them from teaching based on the writings of the Greek philosophers (this deprived them of a revenue stream), saying, “They have John and Mark, let them teach those” (rather than the classical Greek texts). Julian did as much as he dared to Christianity; he determined not to go too far and make martyrs out of Christians (for him, the example of the Donatist zealots showed the extremes to which this could drive them).
Julian’s death (coming as it did somewhat unexpectedly during a military campaign in Persia) was inopportune to say the least. Christians claimed he had been struck down by the Wrath of God, and polytheists were demoralized. Moreover, his successor Jovian was both a Christian and under fire for having retreated from the Persian campaign (and having ceded territory in the process). In brief, the fall of Julian left a power vacuum which was not filled until the accession of co-rulers Valentinian I and Valens, who did not deal with religious affairs much (even though they were Christians). It was not until Theodosius I came to power, that a vigorous Imperial religious policy was pursued again ... and it would be as far opposite Julian’s approach as one could get.
Continue to Part 3, Christians in Power, or go back to Part 1, Religion in the Greco-Roman World.
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