“Such awful things to happen! To account for them, awful passions must be imputed. If these were in the service of some cause, then the cause itself must be considered, in itself bloody.”
[Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils, p. 58]
The story so far …
Christianity took revolutionary monotheism to a whole new, and far more revolutionary, level. But to really understand this qualitative leap it is necessary to first, at least briefly, revisit the limited successes of Akhenaten and Moses.
Akhenaten’s monotheizing cultural revolution was not only swift and sweeping, but it also took place at the very seat of power of one of the greatest centers of human civilization. Nevertheless all indications are that Akhenaten utterly failed to win much, if any, heartfelt support for his cause. Although there is no evidence that the Pharaoh was openly challenged, it does appear that even those closest to him merely feigned acceptance of the new religion (and may have even continued to worship their traditional Gods in secret) – while biding their time and waiting for Akhenaten to die. And once he was gone, even his most loyal officers and members of his immediate family appear to have wasted no time in systematically restoring the traditional polytheism that Akhenaten had devoted himself to overthrowing.
Mosaic monotheism (regardless of the historicity, or lack thereof, of Moses himself), on the other hand, became an entrenched cultural phenomenon, perpetuated generation after generation, millennium after millennium. But (and especially when compared to the power and the glory of Egypt) the people among whom the monotheism of Moses took root were relatively minor players on the world stage.
To sum up: Akhenaten attempted but failed to abolish the worship of the Old Gods of Egypt and replace it with the worship of a single god named Aten. Moses succeeded in establishing the worship of Yaweh while suppressing the worship of all other Gods — but all this on much diminished scale compared to Akhenaten. Constantine, however, achieved the success of Moses, but on a scale far greater than that ever imagined by Akhenaten.
That the early church shared the kind of revolutionary vision as Akhenaten and Moses is well illustrated by the following imagined description of fourth century Christianity to “a visitor from Mars”, chosen (by historian Ramsay MacMullen) precisely because such an audience would “need to be told the most obvious things”. The goal in such an exercise is to emphasize that which would otherwise be passed over, in order that we non-Martians might “try to see the scene and its actors afresh and in all their strangeness … taking nothing for granted”:
…. our focus would fix on lands encircling a great sea, and their resident population of fifty or sixty million human beings, most of whom lives on or near the eastern shores. Now, among these residents (we would explain) prevailed a universal belief in the existence of an equal or greater population of other beings — all invisible, superhuman, greater or smaller, malign or (mostly) benign, able to shape life in every detail and so requiring to be obeyed and conciliated. To one of these and to one only a special title “God” was fiercely reserved by a minority calling themselves “Christians”. All other superhuman beings (except their own God’s angels) they declared to be enemies, and evil, or lacking any reality at all.
[Voting About God in Early Church Councils,pp. 1-2]
It is not necessary to accept MacMullen’s highly questionable characterization of polytheism (he is writing history, not theology) in order to appreciate the stark contrast between the ancient and inclusive polytheism at large in the Roman world, and the revolutionary monotheism of early Christians. This contrast is nothing other than the “Mosaic distinction” once again.
The Spread of Judaism
Before going further it would be helpful at this point to dispel one of the more persistent misconceptions about Judaism, especially as it was practiced during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Not only did Jews of this time engage in proselytizing, the very word “proselyte” is thought to have been originally coined (proselythos in Greek) to refer to a convert who had turned away from the polytheistic traditions of the Greeks, Romans, etc, and embraced Judaism.
According to A History of the Jewish People, the “roots” of the proselytizing movement among Jews “reached back to the beginnings of the Second Temple Era”, that is, the late 6th century BC, and this movement “reached it’s peak in the first century CE” [p. 276]. This proselytizing movement increased after the destruction of the Second Temple in 60 AD — a time when Jewish communities already existed throughout the ancient oikoumene from Babylonia to Spain.
During the Second Temple Era, Judaism did not stop at mere proselytization, as we can see in these two passages concerning Simon Maccabaeus and his son John Hyrcanus, who reigned as rulers of Judea for almost four decades (142-104 BC):
Soon after his accession Simon sent an army against Jaffa, under the command of Jonathan ben Absolom, with orders to expel the foreigners and secure the port as part of Judea. The fraternal wars in the Seleucid Kingdom provided him with an opportunity to remove the last serious threat to Judea by conquering Gezer, which controlled the road to the coast, and the Acra, which since the time of Antiochus Epiphanes had endangered the security of Jewish Jerusalem. The conquest of these places was made possible by the rapid progress of the Jewish Army in seige techniques. Gezer was invested according to all the rules of that art and attacked with the sophisticated siege engines that were in use in the hellenistic armies. The population was expelled, pagan cults abolished and the city resettled with Jews faithful to their religion. Simon also built himself a palace in Gezer, which became one of the administrative centres of Judea. John Hyrcanus, Simon’s son, was appointed governor of the city. An even greater impression on contemporaries was made by the conquest of the Acra, for as long as the citadel was inhabited by hellenists and garrisoned by gentiles Judea’s independence could not be assured. On the 23rd of Iyyar in the year 141, Simon’s forces entered the Acra …. The day of the citadel’s conquest was made a permanent feast day ….
[A History of the Jewish People, Ben-Sasson & Malamat, p. 215]
John Hyrcanus’ wars were essentially a continuation of those begun by his father and uncles, but were pursued on a larger scale and, to some extent, by different means. In principle, John’s position was the same as that previously formulated by Simon in his reply to the envoys of Antiochus Sidetes — that the whole of Palestine was the ancestral heritage of the Jewish nation. In that heritage there was no room for foreign cults, as evidenced by the conversion of Idumea and the destruction of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. Under John Hyrcanus territorial expansion proceeded in various directions — south, north and east — with decisive consequences for the history of the people and the land ….
At the time of John Hyrcanus’ death, in 104, the Jews were expanding their borders everywhere in Palestine. His son and heir Judah Aristobulus I, and the latter’s younger brother, Antigonus, had been among the chief implementers of their father’s policy during his lifetime. Now they completed the conquest of Galilee and defeated the Itureans, who seem to have ruled over part of the Upper Galilee. Like the Idumeans before them and in line with the policy developed by John Hyrcanus, they were converted ….
The conquests of John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus increased Judea to several times its former size. Not only had virtually the entire population outside the territory of the hellenistic cities come under Jewish rule and become part of the Jewish nation ….
Aristobulus was succeeded by Alexander Jannai, whose reign was “a succession of conquests and wars”, and under whom “Hasmonean Judea reached its largest territorial size.” [p. 220] Jannai ruled from 103 to 76 BC, and was succeeded by his wife Shelomziyyon (Salome) Alexandra. But when Alexandra died in 67 Judea plunged into literally fratricidal civil war, and within a few years the Kingdom was reduced to an “autonomous” vassal state of the Roman Empire:
The conquest of Judea by the Romans [64 BC] resulted in decisive political changes. Syria became a Roman province, but Judea was granted autonomy, though its territory was reduced and its ruler’s authority was dependent on the provincial administration of Syria. The autonomous state of Judea was shorn of all Jannai’s conquests and part of those of Simon and John Hyrcanus. It was forced to surrender the entire coastal plain from the Carmel to Raphia including Jaffa; this deprived it of any outlet to the sea, and in that respect the situation reverted to what it had been before the Hasmonean Revolt
. In addition, part of Idumea (Marissa) and the bulk of Samaria were detached. As a result, the Jewish population of Palestine was no longer territorially continuous, and contact between Jerusalem and the Jewish centre in Galilee could be maintained only through the Joran Valley. The fact that Pompey freed the large hellenistic cities in Trans-Jordan and Scythopolis from Judean rule was only to be expected; they formed themselves into the Decapolis of Union of the Ten Cities and resumed their life as independent cities. The Greek cities on the coast were also freed. What remained to Hyrcanus II was Judea (including southern Samaria, which had been annexed under Jonathan), most of Idumea, the parts of the Trans-Jordan closely settled by Jews (the Peraea), and Galilee.
The tendency of Pompey and his successors, the first proconsuls of Syria, was to rehabilitate the Greek urban settlements at the expense of the Jewish population, which had so remarkably gained in strength during the period of the Hasmonean Kingdom. But the hands of the clock could be set back entirely, and for many years to come the Jewish population of Palestine was to exceed the gentiles in strength and numbers. The absorption of the gentile population, excluding the hellenized cities and the Samaritan concentration around Mount Gerizim, as a result of the proselytizing policy of John Hyrcanus and his successors, was irreversible.
[pp. 223 – 224]
The point of this is that well before Jesus, let alone Constantine, Judaism had already adopted not only persuasion (proselytism) but alsocoercion as a mode to be employed in spreading the religion of the One True God. However, the use of coercion was limited to Palestine and its immediate environs, while proselytism went on throughout the Diaspora (especially in urban centers with large well establish Jewish communities).
One interesting wrinkle that is introduced by the reality of Jewish proselytism (and, more generally, the idea of “spreading” Judaism) is that the Apostle Paul is seen in a new light. Usually he is proclaimed as the “Apostle to the Gentiles“, and it is claimed, by those who know little about the actual history of the period (and especially about Jewish history), that his eagerness to preach to the Gentiles was Paul’s distinctive contribution to early Church history. But the truth is that Jewish proselytism had always been aimed at Gentiles (although there was also internal proselytism on behalf of competing Jewish sects, such as the Pharisees), and this proselytism had, as already noted, roots going back many centuries prior to Paul’s arrival on the scene. And at least some Pharisees (the sect to which Paul belonged) were also active leaders of the proselytizing movement in the diaspora [HJP, p. 236].
What’s going on, then, when we hear talk of Paul’s “mission to the Gentiles” is just some garden variety historical legerdemain. Paul was certainly an innovator, and everyone knows what his primary innovation was, but Christians have chosen to de-emphasize what was really unique about Paul. You see it was Paul who forcefully, and successfully, championed the idea of abrogating the Mosaic Law. And it is only once they abandoned the Law that Christians came to constitute a separate religion in their own right, as opposed to just another sect of Judaism. In other words, Paul wasn’t so much the “Apostle to the Gentiles” as was the true founder of the religion of Christianity.
And now let’s look at another persistent misconception. These days, no one in their right mind tries to defend the violent suppression of Paganism (that is, all religions other than Christianity) by the Christianized Roman state (although until quite recently few Christians considered this to be problematic). The tack that is now taken by modern day apologists for Christianity is to insist that “early” Christianity was not only not intolerant, but that it was, as a matter of fact, a positively egalitarian social movement that was primarily based among the poor, slaves and women — whose rights and well being it championed. According to this fairy tale version of early Christian history, it was only after Christians gained political power (that is, from the time of Constantine onward) that they became Great Big Meanies.
First of all, the theological position of intolerance toward all other religions was a feature of Christianity from its inception. As just discussed, Christianity did not at first exist as a “new” religion at all, but rather as a sect of Judaism. Recalling Ramsay MacMullen’s imaginary Martian anthropologist, it is important to emphasize that one of the most basic and uncontested characteristics of Jesus (but one that is very often, and quite conveniently, ignored) is that he and all of his followers were observant Jews. And, as Jews, Jesus and his disciples were, from the beginning, inheritors and (enthusiastic) perpetrators of the Mosaic distinction.
And we can see the mindset of the Mosaic distinction already hard at work in the early Church, well before Constantine’s vision of the Cross. Early Christians were infamous both for their vitriolic factionalism among themselves, and their undisguised contempt for non-Christians. Polycarp (ca 59 – ca 155) is one of the first well-documented Christian fundamentalists. He claimed to have known John the Apostle personally, and made great use of the supposedly “apostolic” authority of his own “orthodox” views to condemn the teachings of the early Gnostics such as Marcion and Valentinus. Justin (100-165) called the Pagan Gods “evil demons” and mocked those who worshipped them. Polycarp’s disciple Irenaeus (late second century, died 202) is best known for his heretic hunting manual On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis (aka Against Heresies).
Here is a description (intended by the author to be favorable to early Christianity) of attitudes toward “Rome and Her Gods”:
Christians found different things in the world around them. For Clement, paganism was the sordid scene of many gods and unspeakable mysteries, with some residual gleans of light from the universal Logos. For Justin and Tertullian, it was the world of good order and a promise of justice, compromised by the power of demons. The pagan gods were deceitful demons, hostile to Christians, who knew the truth about them. For Irenaeus, paganism hardly mattered; there were too many troubles [“heresies” and “heretics”] at home and too much to defend and declare. He thanked Rome for peace and safe travel (haer. 4.30.3). The pagan world was marked by exuberant variety, the ‘shapeless profusion of polytheism’, where all were tolerated and reverence for the past ensured that none was lost. Tolerance was balanced by hostility to atheists and monotheists. Christians were worse than Jews because they had left the faith of their Fathers.
[The Emergence of Christian Theology, Eric Francis Osborn, p. 8]
It is unfortunately necessary to dwell on the negative aspects of the early Christian world-view. These were not sensitive intellectual egalitarian counterculturalists who just wanted to do their own thing in peace and quiet, or who compassionately, if forcefully, agitated for social justice and world peace. Rather they were, or at least were widely viewed as (and not without reason), narrow minded and highly antisocial people who not only loudly and enthusiastically derided the views of others individually, but in the most sweeping terms denounced all of human society as a whole, as it existed at the time and had existed for millennia, as profoundly and thoroughly evil. The perceived belligerence (and belligerence is always a matter of perception) of the early Christians is important to keep in mind when considering the “persecution” of these Christians, most of which resulted from charges being brought against them by their fellow citizens acting as individuals. [CPMO, p. 120] This is not to say that such “persecution” was thereby justified, but only to provide the context for understanding why Christians were so widely hated.
Many early Christians were not satisfied with verbally insulting the religious beliefs of their Pagan neighbors, while bickering incessantly among themselves. These fanatics were eager to make a more emphatic display of their hatred for all religious views other than their own. The result was often criminal violence directed not only against (sacred) property associated with various Pagan cults and/or the state, but also against individual Pagans, including Priestesses and Priests and also civil government officials. Here is what one of the world’s leading experts on early Christian “martyrdom” has to say:
It is a significant fact, as yet not generally appreciated, that a very large number of sources (Passions as well as literary texts) show intrepid Christians going far beyond what their churches officially required of them, often indeed offering themselves up to the authorities of their own accord, and occasionally acting in a provocative manner, smashing images and so forth. After making a detailed study of the evidence for these ‘voluntary martyrs’, I would claim that the part they played in the history of the persecutions was much more important than has yet been realized. It seems to me impossible to doubt that the prevalence of voluntary martyrdom was a factor which, for obvious reasons, both contributed to the outbreak of persecution and tended to intensify it when already in being. Contrary to what is usually said, voluntary martyrdom was by no means confined mainly to heretical or schismatic sects such as Montanists and Donatists, but was a good deal more common among the orthodox that is generally admitted. The heads of the churches, sensibly enough, forbade voluntary martyrdom again and again …. Nevertheless, we do hear of an astonishingly large number of volunteers, most of whom, whatever the bishops might say, were given full honour as martyrs, the general body of the faithful apparently regarding them with great respect.
[Christian Persecution, Martyrdom and Orthodoxy, G.E.M. de Ste Croix, p. 130]
All that has been said to this point goes to support the continuity of Constantinian Christianity, in terms of its revolutionary monotheism, both with early Christianity and with Judaism (and, indeed, with Akhenaten’s failed cultural revolution over 16 centuries before Constantine).
Constantine became sole emperor of the Roman Empire only in 324. But he had ruled the western Empire for much longer, and since 312 had favored the new Christian religion and discouraged the traditional Pagan cults. In fact there continues to be disagreement as to just how far Constantine went in reflecting his religious preferences in how he ruled, both before and after he became sole emperor.
At least two sources state unequivocally that Constantine outlawed public celebration of important Pagan rites, especially animal sacrifice. One of these sources is Eusebius, the Church historian, and the other is the Theodosian Code. But a Pagan source, Libanius (his For the Temples in particular) states that it was not until the reign of Constantius that public Pagan sacrifice was legally proscribed. But there is no doubt that it was with Constantine that the Roman state became an instrument for the spread of Christianity and the suppression of all other religions. The first chapter of Frank Trombley’s Hellenic Religion and Christianization offers a valuable overview of the sources, and their interpretations, on the legal status of Pagan sacrifice from 321 to 529.
As earlier alluded to in the quote from Ramsay MacMullen above, the number of human beings affected by this new phase of revolutionary monotheism was roughly 50 to 60 million. Estimates of the total human population at the time range around 200 to 300 million. This means that between 1/6 and 1/3 of humanity was at stake. Interestingly, the number of Christians today is usually estimated at right around 1/3 of the total human population.
I will end this post with some passages from Eusebius’ biography of Constantine. As Henry Chadwick notes dryly in his The Church in Ancient Society “it was a commonplace that panagyrists were not writing under oath and offered what their audience wished to hear.” [p. 195] However, wherever Eusebius might exaggerate the violence with which Constantine smote the Pagans, this does not at all invalidate his testimony, rather it just means that he is giving voice to the violent inner world of revolutionary monotheism, which now finally was given the chance to put into practice what had already been long imagined, indeed, prayed for:
CHAPTER XXIII: How he forbade Idolatrous Worship, but honored Martyrs and the Church Festivals.
SUCH were his sacred ministrations in the service of his God. At the same time, his subjects, both civil and military, throughout the empire, found a barrier everywhere opposed against idol worship, and every kind of sacrifice forbidden. (1) A statute was also passed, enjoining the due observance of the Lord’s day, and transmitted to the governors of every province, who undertook, at the emperors command, to respect the days commemorative of martyrs, and duly to emperors entire satisfaction.
CHAPTER XXV: Prohibition of Sacrifices, of Mystic Rites, Combats of Gladiators, also the Licentious Worship of the Nile.
CONSISTENTLY with this zeal he issued successive laws and ordinances, forbidding any to offer sacrifice to idols, to consult diviners, to erect images, or to pollute the cities with the sanguinary combats of gladiators. (1) And inasmuch as the Egyptians, especially those of Alexandria, had been accustomed to honor their river through a priesthood composed of effeminate men, a further law was passed commanding the extermination of the whole class as vicious, that no one might thenceforward be found tainted with the like impurity. And whereas the superstitious inhabitants apprehended that the river would in consequence withhold its customary flood, God himself showed his approval of the emperor’s law by ordering all things in a manner quite contrary to their expectation. For those who had defiled the cities by their vicious conduct were indeed seen no more; but the river, as if the country through rose higher than ever before, overflowed the country with its fertilizing streams: thus effectually admonishing the deluded people to turn from impure men, and ascribe their prosperity to him alone who is the Giver of all good.
CHAPTER XLVIII: How he built Churches in Honor of Martyrs, and abolished Idolatry at Constantinople.
And being fully resolved to distinguish the city which bore his name with especial honor, he embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity: and thus at the same time he rendered honor to the memory of the martyrs, and consecrated his city to the martyrs’ God. Being filled, too, with Divine wisdom, he determined to purge the city which was to be distinguished by his own name from idolatry of every kind, that henceforth no statues might be worshiped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood: that there might be no sacrifices consumed by fire, no demon festivals, nor any of the other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious.
CHAPTER LIV: Destruction of Idol Temples and Images everywhere.
ALL these things the emperor diligently performed to the praise of the saving power of Christ, and thus made it his constant aim to glorify his Saviour God. On the other hand he used every means to rebuke the superstitious errors of the heathen. Hence the entrances of their temples in the several cities were left exposed to the weather, being stripped of their doors at his command; the tiling of others was removed, and their roofs destroyed. From others again the venerable statues of brass, of which the superstition of antiquity had boasted for a long series of years, were exposed to view in all the public places of the imperial city: so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo, excited the contempt of the beholder: while the Delphic tripods were deposited in the hippodrome and the Muses of Helicon in the palace itself. In short, the city which bore his name was everywhere filled with brazen statues of the most exquisite workmanship, which had been dedicated in every province, and which the deluded victims of superstition had long vainly honored as gods with numberless victims and burnt sacrifices, though now at length they learnt to renounce their error, when the emperor held up the very objects of their worship to be the ridicule and sport of all beholders. With regard to those images which were of gold, he dealt with them in a different manner. For as soon as he understood that the ignorant multitudes were inspired with a vain and childish dread of these bugbears of error, wrought in gold and silver, he judged it right to remove these also, like stumbling-stones thrown in the way of men walking in the dark, and henceforward to open a royal road, plain and unobstructed to all. Having formed this resolution, he considered no soldiers or military force of any sort needful for the suppression of the evil: a few of his own friends sufficed for this service, and these he sent by a simple expression of his will to visit each several province. Accordingly, sustained by confidence in the emperor’s pious intentions and their own personal devotion to God, they passed through the midst of numberless tribes and nations, abolishing this ancient error in every city and country. They ordered the priests themselves, amidst general laughter and scorn, to bring their gods from their dark recesses to the light of day: they then stripped them of their ornaments, and exhibited to the gaze of all the unsightly reality which had been hidden beneath a painted exterior. Lastly, whatever part of the material appeared valuable they scraped off and melted in the fire to prove its worth, after which they secured and set apart whatever they judged needful for their purpose, leaving to the superstitious worshipers that which was altogether useless, as a memorial of their shame. Meanwhile our admirable prince was himself engaged in a work similar to what we have described. For at the same time that these costly images of the dead were stripped, as we have said, of their precious materials, he also attacked those composed of brass; causing those to be dragged from their places with ropes and as it were carried away captive, whom the dotage of mythology had esteemed as gods.
See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones