Gibbon, Part 3: The Rise of Christianity

Here we shall continue with the second half of Volume I, but focusing on Gibbon’s chapters on the progress of religion in the Roman Empire.

Gibbon’s General Reflections on Christian Persecution

Chapters 15 and 16 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall have historically been denounced for their critical attitude towards Christianity, and Gibbon in general was infamous for his excessive focus on Christianity as the principle cause for the decline of the empire, something which I notably have not encountered yet in the course of reading. However, Gibbon’s tone and comments were surprisingly benign to me as a modern reader who has had some experience reading the much cruder invective of the New Atheists. Before the reign of Constantine, Christianity experienced several periods of great persecution under several emperors, most notably under Nero and Diocletian. Gibbon explores the reasons for why the Roman emperors treated it differently compared to other religions. In particular, Judaism, which like Christianity shared the same contempt for pagan idols and also only admitted the authority of a single god, had existed in the Roman empire for centuries without sustained persecution (with the exception of when the Jews staged a rebellion which resulted in the infamous destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD).

First, Gibbon notes that Christianity had a special zeal for detesting idolatry. Christians not only refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any gods besides their own; any act of worship or deference towards these pagan gods was against their religion. Consequently they would actively avoid the major pagan religious festivals of Rome, which played a vital role in the events of lives of the Romans. Thus the Christians voluntarily separated themselves from the rest of Roman society. Secondly, Christianity had a strong and well-developed belief in the immortality of the soul and the afterlife, which pagan religion did not. This belief was supported by an ample body of claimed proofs and evidences, including a claimed succession of miraculous signs, events, and deeds that supported their beliefs. While pagans did believe in supernatural events, Christians claimed to have a community where miraculous healings were relatively commonplace. Gibbon judges the primitive Christians as having a siege mentality that induced them to more easily accept these miracles, perhaps an attitude that drew the ire of more conservative Christians in the 18th century. But he stresses that acceptance of these miracles made Christians more likely to believe in the rest of the religious truths they claimed; in other words, it built faith.

The focus on the afterlife was in sharp contrast to the pagans, whose main concern for following religion was obtaining benefits in the current world, and had no firm belief about the afterlife. Pagan beliefs were incoherent and had no clear system of proofs and evidences; we have already encountered this very vividly when Augustine powerfully demolished and ridiculed the main precepts of pagan religion in The City of GodThe Christian assurance of eternal life and happiness in return for obeying the precepts of the Gospel made the religion very attractive across the entire Empire.

Next, Christianity provided strong moral precepts in everyday life, preventing them from committing crimes. Purity and chastity were esteemed while desire and sensuality was condemned and repressed, in stark contrast with the permissive sexuality and morality of the Roman pagans. Having set themselves apart from the world, the Christians occupied themselves with the growing institution of the church, which became a separate society and nation in itself. The governing structure of presbyters, bishops, and and eventually the papacy was formed. A distinction between laity and clergy, unknown in pagan religion, was established. The complex governing structure of the Church also provided for its own jurisprudence system which judged violations of its internal laws, with its own system of punishments, most notably excommunication.

All of these factors contributed to Christianity’s rapid rise within the empire and their zeal and persistence in the face of intense persecution. They also show the fundamental differences of Christianity from other religions which provoked the persecution in the first place. But in addition to these reasons, there was a more fundamental one: Christianity was a religion that demanded its converts to leave the religion of their ancestors and nation and assume a completely new identity. Unlike Judaism, which was ethnically circumscribed, Christianity had no such restrictions. But such sacrilege and denial against one’s own ancestors would be highly offensive to a pagan, and naturally considered dangerous.

That being said, Gibbon argues that many of Christianity’s persecutions were less severe than often thought. He points out that many accounts of the lives and persecution of martyrs were written by Christians themselves, perhaps embellished for greater effect. In The City of God, Augustine references the belief that there were ten separate large eras of Christian persecutions before Constantine. But Gibbon himself believed that only a few of these were truly large-scale, open hostility against Christians, such as in the case of Nero (who scapegoated Christians for the burning of Rome) and Diocletian. The number of people Gibbon believes are well-attested to have been executed as martyrs numbered only in the few tens instead of hundreds or thousands. Finally, Gibbon argues that in many cases, the “persecution” of Christians was nothing else than the punishment of Christians who had unilaterally committed destruction of temples or attacked other pagan religious elements, which would have been a crime even if committed by non-Christians. Other than these brief periods, Christianity was often tolerated by the emperors. Many Christians were not barred from being promoted to high positions in the government and military.

The Edict of Milan and the Commencement of Christendom

All the persecutions and troubles of this burgeoning religion ended with the rise of Constantine, and Christianity began to firmly establish its worldly political power, in addition to the spiritual institutions which had developed steadily in the first few centuries. The main event that marked the establishment of Christianity in the empire was the Edict of Milan (313 AD), constructed by Constantine and his then-fellow emperor Licinius. It decreed that Christians were allowed to freely practice their religion, and all their confiscated property to be restored to them. Constantine’s toleration effectively freed and encouraged Christianity to spread across the empire. His policies also rewarded people who converted to Christianity. That being said, unlike his son Constantius, Constantine never forbade or attacked pagan religion either, instead maintaining a climate of relative religious freedom during his rule.

But exactly why was Constantine’s attitude towards Christianity radically different than his predecessors? Was it merely a coincidence that he became the first emperor to convert to Christianity? Constantine’s mother Helena was a very famous Christian, being revered in the Catholic and Orthodox churches up to this day as a saint. But Gibbon does not mention his mother’s influence as an important factor in his conversion. Instead, it was claimed that Constantine became a Christian due to a direct vision he received from God. Gibbon also remarks that his main motive for the Edict of Milan was the potential usefulness of the Christian ethical system, which could be useful  for governing the behavior of the people because of its system of rewards and punishment in the afterlife. One might imagine that by that time, the growing number of Christians and their markedly different standards of morality from the rest of the population was impossible to not notice. This growing number of Christians might also explain the disadvantages of continuing to persecute a religion which is no longer a tiny minority, but a sizable portion of the population.

Constantine himself famously postponed his baptism until near his death. However, this was probably not due to lack of commitment, but due to the common belief at that time that baptism gave a complete expiation of previous sins, so it is most advantageous to do it right before one is to be judged after death.

Religious Development in the Roman Empire

Gibbon shows that the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the emperor was not a trivial historical event. It was more than just the changing of a personal preference. Christianity, with its unique system of rules and governance, demanded a different attitude from reigning monarchs who claim to follow it. First of all, the institution of the church established a clear distinction between temporal and spiritual powers. While the emperor held the highest position in the palace and the rest of the empire, within the church he was situated just as lowly as all other congregants, not even permitted to sit on a throne. Being a normal citizen of the church, the emperor’s spiritual actions were effectively restrained and answerable to God. Practically, this meant that the king, too, was under the jurisdiction of the courts of the church. Thus the ecclesiastics had clear authority over spiritual matters, which were decided in a completely separate court from secular matters.

The deference of the emperor to the church in religious matters was shown in the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), which was originally convened by Constantine. Constantine sat in the council without the protection of his guards, only listening attentively to the arguments of the bishops without interfering. Such respect from an emperor to his subjects is compared by Gibbon to the respect given to the Senate by the earlier emperors who had followed in the policy of Augustus. In effect, the church was the Senate (which itself had been a continuously weakening institution since the chaotic series of military coups in the 2nd and 3rd centuries).

Arianism and Internal Religious Conflict

The new established status of Christianity brought with it a darker, less laudable element of Christianity: the distinction between orthodox believers and heretics. Gibbon wittily remarks that the persecution of heretics by Christians was often more zealous and vicious than the persecution of Christians by pagans. The disputes in the 4th century concerned mainly with the nature of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. The orthodox view was that the Jesus, the Son of God, was of the same substance as the Father, a view called homoousianism. In contrast, the major competing sect were the Arians, who believed that the Son was created by the Father and thus not exactly the same substance, or homoiousianism. (The incredible fact that the difference of merely one letter between the names of these two views resulted in much conflict and even bloodshed amused many people, even during that time.)

At the time Arianism was more than just a small sect; in some regions it gradually became the dominant belief among bishops and theologians. Disputes over elections of bishops often centered over their beliefs about the nature of the Son of God. Athanasius was one of the church fathers who was tried and released several times during the reigns of Constantine and Constantius, due to a combination of church politics and conflict with Arians. After the Council of Nicaea, which decided in favor of the orthodox position, Constantine greatly persecuted the Arians. However, his attitude softened considerably after only three years; he even restored the position of Arius himself and several other Arian bishops.

During the reign of Constantius, Arianism penetrated the palace through eunuchs and slaves. Having supported him during the power struggle after the death of Constantine, the Arians claimed credit for Constantius’ final victory over Magnentius at Mursa. As a result Constantius became a follower of Arianism and started persecuting orthodox Christians. His general attitude was more ruthless and intolerant, including towards pagan religion, which was outlawed. Many temples and pagan religious objects were destroyed.

Other less prominent religious conflicts occurred in other regions. For example, in the African church the main heretical group were the Donatists. They were Christians who consented to the demand to hand over their scriptures during the persecution of Diocletian. Some Christians believed that such an attitude was an unforgivable capitulation and would not commune with the Donatists.

Restoration of Paganism under Julian

The rising tide of Christianity was momentarily stopped under the rule of Julian, such that he is known in history as Julian the Apostate. According to Gibbon, Julian never became properly converted to Christianity because of his independence, intelligence, and the internal theological conflicts in the church at the time. Gradually drifting towards paganism, especially during his stay at Athens, at age 20 he was secretly initiated into the cult of the mysteries of Eleusis, sealing his status as a follower of paganism. Even when he was still a junior emperor, he became the great hope of the remaining pagans in the empire to some day restore their status.

This hope was vindicated during his reign. Julian reversed the Christian-favoring policies of Constantine and Constantius. But instead of taking revenge on Christianity for having suppressed pagan religion, he decided to tolerate them. Still, Julian demanded the churches to pay back and restore the temples they had previously destroyed. In some cases this was more than a monetary fine – many temples had been destroyed and replaced with Christian churches, necessitating the destruction of those churches, which inflamed the anger of many local Christians everywhere in the empire. But many of the monumental statues, altars, and temples of Roman gods which had fallen into disuse and disrepair were restored again. Julian also bribed soldiers into converting back into paganism and promoted paganism in public schools. Some of the obstinately Christian portion of the populace violently opposed his policies, and committed acts such as arson and destruction against pagan temples. These were punished fully as any criminal acts, but Gibbon laments that Christians viewed their punishment as persecution and martyrdom.

Julian’s restoration of paganism, however, ultimately failed as he did not appoint a successor before his death. The emperor Jovian immediately restored back all the privileges of Christianity. Paganism thus continued to decline. Despite their growing persecution, unlike the Christians, few people were willing to die for pagan religion as Christian martyrs did for theirs. Encouraged by government and societal benefits, scores of former pagans were baptized into the Church. The pro-Christian policy was continued under Valentinian and Valens, who still did not outlaw paganism. (However, they did ban the practice of magic, even holding the first ever inquisition to root out its practitioners, which only resulted in a lot of innocent people being killed.)

By that time, the church had grown into a large, powerful institution, and signs of corruption had began to appear. Bishops and priests often took advantage of the rich congregants, especially rich women who decided to not marry out of a vow of chastity. These “matrons”, as they were called, often donated large amounts of money and property to the church. The growing importance of Christian relics, such as pieces of the True Cross (which was believed to be the cross which Jesus was crucified), provided an opportunity for the church to raise even more fortune, as relics were deemed more valuable than gold. The entrance of many former pagans into the church bolstered the prominence of the adoring these objects instead of the abstract worship of the early church. As Gibbon remarks,

The Christians had forgotten the spirit of the Gospel; and the Pagans had imbibed the spirit of the church.
(Chapter XXV)

Christianity had triumphed and evolved into Christendom, but the original, pure spirit of the early persecuted Christians had gradually been lost, replaced by a mentality that did not hesitate in persecuting heretics and accumulating boundless treasures and fortunes, often for one’s own personal benefit rather than for God’s kingdom.

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