Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gibbon: Persecution of early Christians

Christianity arose following the death of Christ in the reign of Emperor Tiberius (29 AD?).  Until the first Christian Emperor, Constantine (337 AD), the Roman Empire had a difficult and hostile relationship with Christianity. Each Emperor dealt with the Christian problem in his own way, which I will not outline here.

Ironically, the traits that made Christianity so successful were the very ones that pagan Romans found incomprehensible, repulsive, alien, and subversive.  To accept only one god was unfathomable to a  polytheist.  Interestingly, some Romans wanted to incorporate Jesus into their pantheon of deities.  When Pontius Pilot reported to the Emperor Tiberius that the Jewish Messiah (Jesus) was unjustly killed it was, "...Tiberius, who avowed his contempt for all religion, immediately conceived the design of placing the Jewish Messiah among the gods of Rome".  Wouldn't that have resulted in a different future for Christianity? 

In any case, since Christians rejected worship of any other god but theirs, this put them on a collision course with Roman culture and mores.  Interestingly, many eminent philosophers (the intellectuals of their day) acknowledged the wisdom of a single god.  However, they could not accept the concept when it was presented to them by a group of ragtag disciples from distant Judea.  In addition, many Romans found the austere, disengaged lifestyle of Christians to be haughty and traitorous to the ideals of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon tells us that not as many Christians became martyrs as we are lead to believe.  Examining the records, Gibbon says that far more Christians have been killed in the religious wars of Europe than were ever persecuted by the Romans.   However, there appears to be no shortage of Christians who were willing to embrace martyrdom.  In fact, many seemed far too eager to leave their temporal existence for the Kingdom of Heaven than logic would dictate.  To avoid martyrdom was quite easy as it did not require a "confession" only a "denial" and a small offering to one of the pagan gods.  Gibbon says that many of the poor and humble Christians had very little to look forward to in this life. This made martyrdom and eternal bliss in Heaven an attractive escape and  many would in fact rush toward death - even antagonizing the beasts in the Colosseum to speed along their demise.   

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gibbon: Why was Christianity successful?

Gibbon states that there were five reasons why Christianity thrived in the Roman Empire.

I.Christianity was inflexible. It derived its intolerant zealotry from its Jewish heritage and this was decidedly unlike the inclusive polytheism of the pagan religions which most Romans practiced.

II. The doctrine of a future life. The idea of a Christian heaven was a powerful and coercive tool for recruiting new believers.

III. The miraculous powers attributed to the early Church. Even after the death of Jesus there were frequent reports of resurrections and miracles happening in the Holy Land as Gibbon recounts. Eventually the Christian elders/leaders (presbyters) put a stop to these claims to avoid discrediting the church.

 IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians. The rigidity of the Christian faith was appealing to many. In addition, pagan religions often had priests from the upper caste of society and the hoi polloi were allowed limited access to temples and ceremonies. In contrast, Christianity embraced the poor and encouraged the divestment of material (temporal) positions. Living an austere life was a way to gain access to the eternal kingdom.

V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic. The first few hundred years of Christianity were very tumultuous, with many beliefs competing for control of the young religion. Eventually a clear set of doctrines emerged which promoted the cohesion of the church.  Having one set of church doctrines and leaders made Christianity less ambiguous, more transparent and contrasted it from pagan religions of the day.

That being said, the early church was not initially very unified. Perhaps the most prolific splinter group were the Gnostics who combined Christianity with eastern philosophy. According to Gibbons there were over 50 sects at one point with names such as the Basilidians, Valentinians, Marcionites and later the Manicheans. Each of these had their own gospels, bishops, martyrs and had influence and proselytes from Asia to Rome (and beyond). Eventually the Catholic sect (for lack of a better word) emerged dominant and unified most of Christianity under a single set of tenets. The reason for this is largely due to the list stated above, which the other sects were not able to incorporate as successfully.

The Catholic Church had two powerful weapons at its disposal to keep the faithful in line and maintain their unity: Excommunication and Absolution of sins. Anyone excommunicated would be ostracized from the Christian community, excluded from all rights, privileges and fellowship. More significantly, the pariah would feel the onerous burden of eternal damnation unless he was received back into "communion" with the church. Forgiveness of sins was the second tool of the church which granted it the ability to completely pardon anyone for any worldly (temporal) crime. To be able to absolve someone of any crime (theft, murder, etc) with the authority of god was incredibly powerful in recruiting new members and a sacrament that could be withheld on those members who did not conform.

For these reasons, Christianity flourished in the Roman Empire over other religions, despite the persecution they endured. 

Gibbon does make a point of acknowledging that the familiar story of the birth of Jesus was a well-known tale in the mythology of several other religions even before Christ was born.

"...the legends of Bacchus, of Hercules, and Aesculapius had, in some measure, prepared their imagination for the appearance of the Son of God under a human form". 

Below is a video which follows this up in more detail. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon (1737-1797) was an English historian and Member of Parliament who is best known for writing "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", which was published as six volumes between 1776-1789.

Gibbon was the son of established wealth and this afforded him opportunities for education and travel. On his grand tour of Europe, a young Gibbon was overcome by the grandeur and decay of Rome. He decided soon after that he would be the first modern historian to chronicle the history of the Roman Empire.

The arduous process of researching primary sources and writing consumed most of Gibbon's life as he catalogued the history of Rome from Emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 AD) to the Fall of Constantinople (1453 AD). When Gibbon published the first volume of his magnum opus in 1776 it was universally hailed as a success. The quality of his prose, his objective style and his use of primary sources became a model for future historians to emulate.

I will eventually finish all 1800 pages of the Decline and Fall however, following the GBWW program, I am only reading chapters XV-XVI at this time. These are two of the most controversial chapters in the entire series as they deal with the rise and incorporation of Christianity within the Roman Empire. Gibbon's description of early Christianity does not agree with the history promulgated by the Catholic Church and this discrepency was compounded by the fact that Gibbon relied on primary sources rather than later documents produced by the church.