Syllabus (Text Below)
Class Sixteen The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason
Introduction- Why many older histories are incorrect about the end of the Classical World.
Classical tradition of reason, empiricism, and tolerance deliberately destroyed until the Renaissance with the rise of the Christian Church.
Jesus and his putative historicism.
The myth of the Resurrection and the attempt of the Apostles to form an organization.
The early Christians and their borrowing from Judaism- immortality from the Pharisees, salvation through an atoning sacrifice and etc.
Jews offended by titles given to Jesus by Christians. The expulsion of Christians from Jewish Synagogues.
Two Christian Groups-
The Jerusalem group led by James. Followed Jewish dietary laws, keeping the Sabbath, circumcision.
Paul’s group reached out to Gentiles. Denied Jewish law. The Jerusalem Group withered away.
With the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E. Jewish religion lost its influence and could no longer act against Christianity.
Paul, the Founder of Christianity, and the churches he established. His Epistles, written prior to the Gospels.
Paul’s war on Judaism and Graeco-Roman Culture. His placing Faith above Reason. His desire to destroy pagan art. His strong injunctions against sexuality. The foundations laid for the later Christian Church. His borrowing of the idea of elders from Judaism and the strong chain of authority established in the Christian Church.
A discussion of the tradition of Rational Thought in pagan world, prior to Christianity and the Christian war on reason.
How Christianity spread among the common people, workers, slaves and etc. A discussion about Gibbon’s thoughts on Christianity.
The common people saw the Christian god as having more power to bring about greater miracles, exorcisms, healings and help.
Pliny’s view of Christianity; Christianity as an “ecclesia,” or church.
Christians had to worship only one god, but the church fathers helped blend the pagan gods and goddesses into the images of the saints and martyrs of the early church. Notions of immortality and self-esteem helped the spread of Christianity.
Constantine the Great and his embrace of Christianity,
extending tolerance to it and all cults in the Empire with the Edict of Milan, 313.
Constantine more political than religious, sought to have consensus in the Roman Empire.
Constantine’s attempt to reconcile pagan and Christian groups, his extension of monetary rewards and tax exemptions to the Christian Church. His placing the Church firmly
under the authority of the Emperors and the State.
Constantine’s image as a sun king, acceptable to both Christians and pagans.
The dispute about the nature of Jesus and the quarrel between the Arians and Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and with the later.
Constantine convenes Council of Nicea, and Jesus is declared
“of identical substance” with god. Constantine had forced an agreement, but there was no genuine settlement until much later.
Constantine and Church change image of Jesus to a conqueringwarrior.
Constantine retains many pagan customs.
Christianity now wealthy and powerful. The earlier dissenting church completely changed into one that was under imperial power.
Miracle, mystery and authority were now Church policy and how it governed its members.
Death of Constantine in 337, and his three sons rule. Constantius, his son, becomes sole ruler and issues edicts against heretics and schismatics from the Church. Less toleration of pagans.
Julian becomes emperor in 361.
The Cappadocian fathers, blending Greek learning with Church doctrine, invent a creed that makes the three members of the Trinity of one substance.
In 381, the Emperor Theodosius issues a decree making the Trinity orthodox. Dissenters labeled heretics.
The rise of Christian intolerance as the Empire is besieged by barbarians. Goth assaults now evil assaults on the true faith. Faith shapes exegesis and Jesus and his early church reshaped into the Church Triumphant. Reason and scientific observation, tolerance and open-mindedness set aside. Superstition and magic is embraced.
Along with closing of the mind, the body, too, was seen as a battlefield between sinful desire and purity. Greeks did not look on sexual desire as evil. Rise of asceticism, monks retreating to pillars in the Egyptian desert or to monasteries. Monks on pillars become celebrities with huge crowds visiting. Rise of cult of Virgin Mary and emphasis on female purity. Image of Christ now seen on the cross with suffering and twisted limbs exaggerated.
The Emperor Theodosius increases persecutions of pagans and Jews. Synagogues and temples destroyed. Theodosius’ retaliatory murders after an uprising in Thessalonica.
Theodosius rules against cult worship at shrines, and shrines of pagans destroyed. 398 is the last year of the twelve hundred year old Olympic Games. The Altar of Victory is removed from the Senate House.
In the 390’s Theodosius passes laws banning all pagan worship. The Senate, formerly pagan, becomes mainly Christian. Old families convert to Christianity. Christian insignia begins to be seen all over. Town criers announce Christian news and propaganda. Heads of households encouraged to convert their families, servants and slaves to Christianity.
Hypatia, the philosopher, murdered in Alexandria in 415,
symbolizing the end of the classical tradition.
By 408, pagans could no longer serve the palace. In 416 pagans could no longer serve in the army, administration or judiciary in the West.
The Emperor Justinian, in 539 prohibited pagans from
teaching, especially philosophy. The Academy of Athens was already plundered in 531 or 531.
The Emperor Tiberius begins a large persecution of pagans from 580 on. Pagan schools, thought, and communities destroyed.
The last recorded astronomical calculation made by Proclus in 475. Copernicus wrote his de Revolutionibus in 1543. A thousand years passed before science, medicine and free thought began again in the West. The dark ages were a decline for mankind.
The lecture has made the case that the decline of paganism and classical thought was the result of deliberate suppression and destruction, not a withering away of the pagan culture. The church ruled by miracle, mystery and authority. Without real proof, the Church needed to rely on Revelation, but it strictly controlled Revelation by putting it into the hands of theologians
The transmission to Western Europe of translated copies of Aristotle from 1100 to 1300 and the beginning of the Renaissance. The copy of Lucretius’s Nature of Things, from around 50 B.C.E., circulated among intellectuals in the 15th Century. The dawn of reason.
Why reason, intellectual thought and the scientific method are precious attainments. Why the secular community must dedicate itself to preserving them from attacks by religious fundamentalists.
What happened to the history of thought during the first four or five centuries of the Common Era? From around 60 or 70 C.E., a small cult, secretive and scorned, made up of people from generally marginalized sections of the population of the Roman Empire, began its ascent to become the dominant religion of both the Western and Eastern Empires. This cult, Christianity, became increasingly powerful, wealthy and intolerant. With the rise of what we call the Church Triumphant, there can be seen a corresponding diminution of the tradition of rational thought established by the Greeks. What happened to the henotheist and polytheist tradition of perhaps, not tolerance, but indifference to what gods were worshipped by individuals and why? By the way, henotheism is the belief and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped, and polytheism is the belief in more than one god, and usually involves belief in many gods.
The Catholic Church has been very adept at controlling its history and it has claimed significant persecutions against Christians in the early centuries of the Empire. This is an exaggeration of the truth. There were a few persecutions of Christians under the pagan emperors, with the most significant being the one undertaken by the Emperor Diocletian in the 4th Century. That persecution was a failure. However historians have found that the church did not have anywhere near the martyrs and heroes that it has claimed in its church histories. Interestingly enough, such an exaggeration of its claims has been shown to be untrue since the early 17th Century!
Dodwell’s 1684 Dissertation: “About the Small Number of Martyrs,” discussed the various numbers church histories fixed for the victims, which are arbitrary and extremely difficult to determine. The facts, which many contemporary historians corroborate, are that the Christian victims represented a mere handful of the total number of believers. I am not claiming a complete policy of pagan tolerance, which would be untrue, but rather a relative one. Yet some official Church histories continue to exaggerate its unwavering martyrs.
It is not surprising then, to find that Church history, and many secular histories, too, do not discuss the deliberate suppression of Greek thought and culture, which would include pagan temples, pagan religions, and most importantly the tradition of reason. Indeed, one of my favorite volumes, the Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, 1989, makes a rather astonishing claim. The writer of the entry on Christianity has this to say: “We cannot content ourselves, therefore, with a straightforward account of Christian triumph over pagan and Jew. It was simply that certain answers to fundamental questions began to seem more acceptable to some Mediterranean people- answers in a debate by some in all parties about the nature of creation, the destiny of the cosmos and the individual and so on.” The author of the entry continues: “The new answers were thought to deserve the label, ‘Christian;’ but what happened was that the controlling element in a whole society had changed its mind about the meaning of history and experience.”
There is an implication in these words that the hierarchy of the Empire, its rulers and thinkers, had merely undergone a change of heart and mind and that pagan religion and Greek rational thought were no longer relevant, that they sort of withered away with the change in thinking during the first few centuries of the Common Era. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many fine scholars who may be credited with helping write the true story of Christianity’s rise during those centuries. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the dependence of my work on the volumes of Charles Freeman, Pierre Chuvin, Ramsay MacMullen, Robert Louis Wilken, R. Joseph Hoffman and Edward Gibbon. References to these fine scholars’ books may be found in the Bibliography Section of The Early Christian Church and its War on Reason on atheistscholar.org.
This lecture will discuss the long and ultimately successful campaign, at least until the beginning of the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, of the Christian Church, to not only gain political control in Rome and Constantinople, but to stamp out, as we have said, pagan tradition, religion, culture and thought. We will discuss the beginnings of Christianity, its beliefs and organization, its acquisition of political power and suppression of its rivals. This lecture is definitely historical and philosophical, but I would also like to offer it as a cautionary narration of sorts, a reminder of what religious dogmatism and the suppression and abandonment of reason can bring about when coupled with political power and wealth. The story of religion is never a pretty one, except in partisan religious histories, but it becomes darker and more heinous when we look at a specific faith such as Christianity, and its winding, deceptive and persecutory path to power.
I will begin with the putative founder of the small cult in its earliest years of the 1st Century of the Common Era, Jesus. It is, if you recall my lecture on Biblical Criticism on atheistscholar.org and on YouTube, a matter of some debate among scholars if Jesus was a historical person or a myth. My personal opinion is that we shall never know, and if he was a historical person, we shall never be able to determine what his intent might have been. I think, as does George Welles, an expert on the topic, that Jesus may have been an itinerant preacher, and probably a magician, who conducted healings and exorcisms in 1st Century Judea. He was very likely not very consequential, but one of many such types roaming the area at that time.
He was arrested on an entry into Jerusalem and crucified and died as either an insurrectionist or for claiming the title, “King of the Jews.” Part of his teaching was eschatological, with emphasis on the coming of god’s kingdom. It is a moot point if he ever claimed to be the Son of God, as we shall see. With Jesus’ crucifixion, the Romans interestingly enough, apparently wanted to leave the matter there. His apostles were not arrested immediately after the apprehension of Jesus, which seems to indicate the authorities did not fear an insurrection. The psychological toll on the apostles must have been enormous- their leader executed by the disgraceful method of crucifixion, the fate of thieves and criminals. The coming kingdom of god, with justice meted out to the damned and mercy meted out to the saved, seemed to have evaporated with the elimination of their leader. They began to tell stories of Jesus’ empty tomb, then his resurrected appearance to Mary Magdalene, a follower of his, and finally to all of his closest disciples.
Early Christians began to freely borrow from Judaism for their founding beliefs- the notion of a Messiah who would deliver his people and the belief in god’s salvation of his people by an atoning sacrifice. For the first few decades of Christian existence, Judaic eschatology and apocalyptic ideas drove its beliefs. Christians adopted the end times concept and saw god as a severe judge of its enemies. They appropriated Graeco-Judaic ideas about an afterlife and eternal reward and so on, gradually embroidering such vague notions into a more elaborate pattern.
The concept of an afterlife was not shared by all Jews. The Sadducees did not believe in immortality. But the rabbinical group called the Pharisees did, holding the view that the dead would rise to be judged by god on the final day. However, many traditional Jews believed that such thinking had been imported into Judaism by Greek-inspired interpretations of the Book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew bible. Ezekiel may have been written in the 6th Century B.C.E. Many of the pagan mystery religions held the same view of resurrection and immortality as did followers of the 5th Century Greek philosopher, Plato. But such Greek inspired beliefs were nuanced- none of the Greeks thought of a material and physical resurrection, as did the Christians.
In addition, the Jewish people were offended by the coupling of the afterlife belief with the Christian labeling of Jesus “Kyrios,” Lord. Furthermore, the word, Christ, according to R. Joseph Hoffman, was “loosely” equated with the Jewish idea of the Messiah, but also with the idea of divine son ship or kingship- “an anointed man, set aside for a special role.” For the Jews, “Son of God,” was a most offensive title.
From about the middle of the 1st Century, the Jewish synagogues tried to deal with unacceptable views held by early Christian missionaries with persuasion. When that failed, the Jews escalated their efforts to stop such notions spreading by flogging the offenders, and occasionally stoning them. It was in the middle of the 1st Century that the synagogues began to excommunicate Christians. The Eastern synagogues, however, had Christian members well into the 3rd Century. The hostility of the New Testament Gospels toward Judaism rises with each succeeding book.
Such tensions within the Jewish religion and among the Christians themselves, gave rise to splits in Christian groups. One group, led by James, who has been described as Jesus’ brother, was based in Jerusalem from the early 40’s. The Jerusalem group was more conciliatory with the synagogues and tried to tone down the messianic claims about Jesus. We know that the sect was very marginal. Josephus, the historian, does not seem to know of them. These Christians kept the Jewish Sabbath, the dietary laws, the regrettable practice of circumcision, and apparently did not preach concerning the birth of Jesus. Its rival group was more broadly based, dropped the dietary laws and circumcision, abandoned the Sabbath for a new celebration and emphasized the role of Jesus as a savior god.
There was a significant Jewish insurrection later in the century. The Romans’ retaliatory destruction of the magnificent second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. resulted in the end of an independent Palestinian Judaism. The Jewish religion lost most of its influence and was unable to deal successfully with the “Nazarenes,” their disparaging term for Christians. The Jerusalem based sect, led by James, ultimately became extinct. The second group, led by Paul, was messianic, recruited Gentiles, began to grow and no longer attempted reconciliation with the Jerusalem group after the sixties. Instead, Paul’s group began to take advantage of the growing hostility of the Romans toward traditional Judaism. Jewish writers kept up their attacks on the rebel sect, but their attempts were futile. Paul’s letters give us a picture of the difficult, but steady growth of the messianic and eschatological sect, and its anti-Jewish agenda.
On almost all points of the quarrel, Jewish writers and thinkers insisted that the death of Jesus story did not conform to any of their prophetic traditions. They stated that the messianic notion of the Nazarenes was concocted to deal with the humiliation of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Some scholars believe that the idea of the Holy Spirit was made up by Christians to deal with the Jewish charge that after failing to find an audience in Jerusalem, Jesus had abandoned his own community. The Holy Spirit notion was a way to demonstrate to the faithful that god was still involved and in the world. The Holy Spirit concept, as we shall see, became very controversial when the Church began to consolidate doctrine.
Finally during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, there began to be either a revival of an old tale or a new tale concerning Jesus, told, it was claimed, in Jewish tradition and in the Talmud. This story was about a man named Yeshu, born to Miriam, a Jewish woman impregnated by a Roman soldier, Panthera, or betrayer of Jewish Law. Yeshu is called ben-Stada, or “son of one who has gone astray,” and who was a magician. Celsus, in his On the True Doctrine, an anti-Christian polemic, mentions this version about 178 C.E. It appears that Jewish tradition was attempting to cast Jesus as a common magician and apostate.
As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Jewish religion lost most of its ability to negate the Christian message.
Many objective scholars of the Church’s earliest period have become convinced we will never be able to draw an accurate picture of the historical Jesus. There is a possibility that he was a material person, which might have made worship of him more congenial, more present for the common people, rather than revering an abstraction. But a definite account of Jesus is not really necessary. In my lecture concerning Biblical Criticism on YouTube and on atheistscholar.org, I have discussed the historicity of Jesus more fully. The figure of Jesus seems to have been a metaphorical scarecrow on which to hang theological doctrines invented and/or elaborated by the church fathers and the Roman emperors. When I use the term church fathers, what I mean is the collection of writers of theology whose works carried the most significance in the church.
Who took Christianity away from its conflicted relationship to Judaism, formulated a meaning for Jesus’ death and resurrection, and took the fledgling religion to the Gentiles of Asia Minor and Greece, establishing churches in those areas? It was Paul. Paul was more radical than Jesus in setting aside Jewish law, such as circumcision and dietary prohibitions. Many historians of that era consider Paul the founder of Christianity. He insisted that the Christian movement had to dissociate itself from not only the Jewish religion, but from the Graeco-Roman culture as well. Christianity became a singular entity with its separatist position, but its growth also became fraught with tensions.
Paul wrote his Epistles, or letters, to the congregations he had initiated. They were meant to be read aloud to church members, as most people of that time could not read or write. The letters were partially instructions as to members’ behavior, beliefs and practices. Ironically enough, he was a Jew, a prosecutor who had been helping persecute Christians. One day, on the road to Damascus, he had a conversion experience of a blinding light, and thought he heard Christ’s voice asking why Paul continued to persecute him. His experience likely happened between 33 and 36 C.E. What was possibly some sort of psychological blindness passed away, and Paul went on to become the foremost interpreter of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He infused the story with a meaning far beyond the early accounts of the risen Christ. The notion of Christ being at least part human, implied to many people that they, too, could expect a similar resurrection when they died. Paul’s theology came to rest on the kerygma, the saving meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are passages in his writings that suggest that it is the Gentiles who are truly the important people to god, because the Jews had betrayed his trust.
It is important to keep in mind that Paul, the author of substantial Epistles, which include Romans 1 and 2, Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, wrote his work earlier than the gospelists, that Paul never read the Gospels. The most authentic work from his pen is dated around the 50’s C.E. Most of the Gospels were composed between 70 and 95 C.E. Paul’s Epistles do not give Jesus a biography as do the Gospels, but focus on the crucifixion of Jesus, which Paul does not link to a particular historical setting.
Some scholars have suggested that the omission of biographical material is due to Paul’s dislike of admitting he did not know Jesus personally, as had the other apostles. For whatever reason, the omission gives us a disparity between Paul’s documents and the Gospels, which is both difficult to account for and also to discount.
For instance, why are Paul’s accounts of the crucifixion so vague and colorless, when by his own claim, it was the “very substance” of his teaching? Paul also does not seem to have any knowledge of the Q or Quelle Document, possibly written about 40 C.E., which contains possible quotations from Jesus and for which there is no extant copy. To add to the compositional confusion, Paul tailored his theology to the needs of each of his congregations, rather on demand, as their questions and concerns arose, so theologians still have a difficult task trying to reconcile his various positions.
Paul and his teachings quickly came under fire from Orthodox synagogues, which were so enraged by his teaching that he was flogged at least five different times with the traditional 39 lashes. Yet such confrontations with Judaism, and the difficulty of presenting his beliefs to Gentiles used to polytheism and Graeco-Roman mores, did not stop his missionary work or his founding of churches.
I am going to enumerate Paul’s three important intellectual contributions to the nascent Christian religion, which not only were crucial to the Church’s definition of itself, but also began the long, slow and egregious decline of the use of reason in the Christian world. That is the theme of this lecture, what we have been approaching with our brief history of Jesus and Paul’s emphasis on the saving message of Jesus’ so-called sacrifice.
Before I go into the three contributions, I would like to mention that some thinkers, such as W.V. Gronbech, maintain that Paul did not have more than a rudimentary knowledge of Greek literature or philosophy. If one follows Paul’s consistent message and the thought of his writings, one can see that being open to faith is a primary directive. But it is equally obvious that the use of reason to discover and define truth has been denigrated, and decisively so. Paul was an intelligent man- he knew that such a concept as his concerning faith was vulnerable against the mainstream Greek intellectual tradition. He had been ignored, or mocked, by the philosophers in Athens when he had preached to them about the unknown god and the resurrection. The only method of combating the Greek intellectual tradition was with strong and emotional rhetoric.
So we can see that Paul decisively set aside not merely Jewish law, but also classical intellectual tradition. The rewards of faith are many, he preached, and not to have faith put one in danger of eternal punishment. Some Christians in the present day have concluded from such writings that those who do not have faith in Jesus Christ will suffer eternal torment even if they have never heard of the so-called savior. Reason is not a strong point in religion, to say the least!
Paul had two preoccupations that came slightly under his all important claims of faith. One was the destruction of pagan idols and statues. This particular injunction was likely a consequence of his Judaic background, but also served him well in his war on the Graeco-Roman world. Of course, when he was writing in the 50’s C.E., and a little later, no Christian would have had the ability to destroy pagan statues. The Christian sects were small and mostly hidden, for safety’s sake.
However, by the 4th Century, with the ascendancy of Christianity, Paul’s injunctions, along with Old Testament writings, created a supposedly valid reason for Christians to destroy valuable and irreplaceable pagan works of art and architecture. Such destruction hastened the demise of the earlier culture. There were tensions within Christianity concerning art. Christians eventually began to use statues and painting in their churches, but there were historical shifts within the religion against such a practice. Two especially shameful examples were the iconoclasts in 8th and 9th Century Byzantium and the wholesale destruction of Catholic art during the Protestant Reformation.
Paul’s second preoccupation was even more egregious; he was strongly against what he deemed the evils of sexuality. He believed deeply in celibacy. His famous phrase of it being better to marry than to burn demonstrates that he regarded marriage as a means to quench sexual desire to some extent. There are numerous quotations against sexual activity in his writings. I will only use one from I Corinthians 6:9-11: “You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, usurers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers.” Did Paul leave anyone out in that outburst?! He emphasized the Law did not allow for any sexual act, except within the union of man and wife, for the express purpose of procreation of children.
Before Paul, sex was not usually seen as an ethical problem. Some Greek thinkers eschewed sex as a way to concentrate on philosophy. There were strong cultural conventions in the Greek world that constrained sexual activity as well. However, sexual desire was generally not held to be wicked.
Most Greeks saw sexual desire as part of being human. Sex might be sublimated in order to further other objectives, either permanently or temporarily, but as Charles Freeman states, “…the body was neutral.” For Paul, however, the body was a temple of the Spirit, and this temple could be desecrated by sexual activity.
Paul also set the stage for the authority of the Church and the concept of its members being led by elders. The custom of elders came from Judaism. Both the Essenes, a consequential Jewish sect which had Guardians and the Jewish synagogues, which had elders, were imitated by the presbyters of the Christian churches. With Paul, the authoritarian structure of the Christian churches began to be put into place. By the 2nd Century, the Bishop was the senior figure in the Christian community, with presbyters, or priests, as the delegates of the Bishop. Early on, the bishops were given a secular role, an administrative one, along with their religious duties. Revelation was rejected in favor of authority.
The influential Paul condemned activity that had not been considered egregious in the Graeco-Roman world. It is somewhat ironic that Paul brought what he considered the salvation of Christianity to the Gentiles, while closing off to them their traditional culture of art, sexuality and philosophy, with its history of reason. He insisted that pagans reject such things or suffer eternal punishment.
This lecture has established that Christianity incorporates many traditions developed by Paul. We secular people may well deplore his successful negotiating the Church’s path through the perils endured by a small, endangered sect to its emergence as a mighty and wealthy power. Paul put in place the institutional framework of the early Church.
Many scholars believe the Christianity would have foundered institutionally without Paul. His condemnation of sexuality helped create the authority of religion over sexual behavior and the human body. His rejection of philosophy may have been a way of emphasizing faith, which he believed was the most important aspect of one’s present and eternal life. Faith was weak in argumentation with reason, so reason had to be rejected. When the Second Coming and Judgment which early Christians believed was imminent did not appear, Paul created a focus for community worship by helping shift Christian focus toward institutional leaders and authority.
Paul’s position was the beginning of the attack on reason in the first stages of the early Christian church. The war on reason would grow stronger and endure until the 1300’s. Paul was executed by the Romans around 65-67 C.E., but his work was done. The Christian church had been set on a path of rejecting reason, philosophy and toleration. Faith and authority were to be its lynchpins going forward.
I would like to pause here in the long historical march to the accession of Constantine, sometimes called Constantine the Great, as emperor of the Roman Empire, and his offering of toleration to Christianity in 312 C.E. In effect, if not by law, Constantine made Christianity the empire’s state religion. I have two points to make before going on. The first is a short attempt at defining what is meant by the tradition of rational thought. The second area I need to take up is a discussion concerning the beliefs of the common people in this era- what they thought of Christians and why Christianity, prior to receiving the favor of Constantine, outpaced other religious sects in the West in gaining members.
I believe we need to look beyond the intellectual arguments and look at the “street” to understand Christianity’s appeal.
First, what is meant by the tradition of rational thought? According to Charles Freeman: “The Greeks were the first to,” and I quote: “distinguish, assess and use the distinct branch of intellectual activity we know as reasoning.” In fact they had, by the 5th Century, achieved the concept of deductive proof, enabling them to make complex mathematical proofs which were irrefutable. “They mastered inductive reasoning, as well, which allowed them to formulate so-called truths from empirical evidence.” Freeman states that Aristotle used this method to make large advances in our knowledge of the natural world. What was significant about the “truths” the Greeks discovered was that they were always provisional. As Hume later stated in the 18th Century, just because the sun has risen every day of our existence, we make the assumption it will always rise, but there is actually no certainty of this. Freeman explains that the Greeks knew that theories must be the servant of facts. Here is what Aristotle said when he was describing his studies of generations of bees: “…the facts have not been sufficiently ascertained, and if they are ever ascertained, then we must trust perception rather than theories.”
The Greeks also felt free to challenge one another about statements they made and theories they proposed. It was not a perfect society. Among many faults, women were suppressed, slaves were owned, and only landowners had true influence. It was a flawed system. And yet, as E.R. Dobbs maintains: “The honest distinction between what is knowable and what is not appears again and again in the 5th Century B.C. thought, and is surely one of its chief glories.”
Thinkers were not expected to pronounce a statement true unless it was supported by empirical evidence and logic.
There has been a shift from the conventional notion that the tradition of Greek science and mathematics diminished in the Hellenistic era, roughly 323-146 B.C.E. There has been more emphasis of late, on the achievements of such scientific thinkers of the Hellenistic age, as Ptolemy in astronomy and Galen in logic and medicine. The Greek tradition endured until it was deliberately repressed.
There was an important branch of Greek thought which stated that reason was important. However this philosophical school was forced to eschew reason to support theory, as there was no empirical or logical proof for it to rest on. The school was begun by Plato, (429- 347 B.C.E.,) the Greek philosopher. We need to discuss Plato because Christian theologians later adopted his views in a most regrettable shift toward stifling independent observation. Plato believed there was a world of Forms somewhere, and that those Forms were perfect and unchanging, unlike the objects of our transient world. The Forms, from god to chairs, were copied and described imperfectly in our imperfect world. The shift away from reality can be seen in such notions. Plato maintained that a few people could grasp his ideas if they used reason.
Despite the theory’s great influence on Western philosophy and religion, it seems a fairly absurd concept. Plato actually believed and I quote: “…if observed facts contradict the concept of forms, they must be discarded.” Such prioritizing of theories over facts was a very unfortunate direction for an important branch of Greek philosophy to take.
Platonism offered the path to certainty without the possibility of finding axioms, which would allow one to proceed to a form in terms with which everyone would agree. Trying to capture ultimate certainty was moving Greek thinking in a non-empirical direction. Notice how close the idea of a perfect god is to the god formulated by Christian theologians in later centuries.
Then there are Plato’s notions of the “guardians” of his imagined future society, the elite who had mastered the esoteric theories of the forms and who would interpret morals, behaviors, and government for the common people. Paul introduced the rejection of reason and the hegemony of faith. Attempting to attain stability in an embattled empire, the emperors reinforced the authoritarianism already embedded in the structure of the Christian church. The adoption of Platonic philosophy by Christian theologians completed the disastrous societal shift from reason to dogmatism, from freedom to authoritarianism. Charles Freeman cites the example of the 6th Century Pope, Gregory the Great, warning rationalists that by looking for cause and effect, they were ignoring the cause of all things- the will of god.
I would now like to move to the second topic I need to discuss before turning to Constantine and the rise of Christianity to an important and wealthy power. It’s always interesting to discuss Platonic theory and Christian theology but there is too often a tendency, while discussing the formation of a religion, to exclude the common people and their perceptions.
After all, the commoners were the people who would swell the ranks of the Christian religion from a small sect in the first century to a thriving, if still a minority church, by the time of Constantine in the 300’s. Indeed, in a few areas, and cities, Christians were in the majority.
That was not the case in the early days of Christianity. There is oddly enough, little evidence that the actual churches established by Paul survived. But many Christian churches did. At their inception they seemed, if the descriptions of their meetings given to investigating authorities were true, very much like the many pagan associations and societies which were so popular at that time. Members of such groups came together with a common purpose, say a burial society for its members, paid dues, had meetings and socialized with each other over food and drink. They would support each other in troubled times. Many of them engaged in political activity, electing candidates and so on. The Empire watched carefully for serious dissension from these groups and they were subject to a licensing system to prevent them from becoming a serious nuisance.
However, by the time the Roman governor, Pliny, came into contact with Christians early in the 1st Century, they had begun to refer to themselves as “ecclesia,” the term for church. They used this term to describe their small gatherings in each city as well as their network of perhaps 50,000 members throughout the Roman Empire. Christians were beginning to be distrusted by many pagans. It is very interesting that Celsus, a formidable writer against the Christians, whom we mentioned earlier, and Lucian, a satirist, used the same argument to refute Christian belief.
They both pointed out that the Christians worshipped a man who rose from the dead; and that man, while wanting to establish a strong faith for all humankind, appeared only to one woman, and then to the rest of his apostles. They asked why he did not appear to the multitudes? (They left out the New Testament account of the resurrected Jesus appearing to about 500 people, but that story is obviously apochryphal, too.)
Apart from such telling mockery, many citizens disliked and distrusted Christians because they did not take part in the public religious rites of the cities, and carried on their affairs, as it was said: “…in the fashion of an obscure and secret association.” They believed that Christians hated humanity and were guilty of crimes ranging from promiscuity to eating human flesh.
Pliny, a Roman governor, was in the area of the coastal cities of northern Pontus in 112 C.E., when a local group of citizens, possibly butchers, brought him a complaint concerning Christians in their city. We do not know the particulars, but Christians did not sacrifice animals to the gods or eat animal sacrifices, which were often sold commercially. Business was poor, with sacrificial meat being sold everywhere and few buyers. Slow sales apparently aggravated citizens who already had a suspicion of Christians.
Pliny investigated and found nothing against the Christians but what he called a superstition. Indeed. But Romans called most practices that were not consistent with the worship of the Graeco-Roman gods a superstition, including Judaism. Pliny asked the accused people if they were Christians and those who answered three times with a “yes” were executed. The Emperor Trajan praised Pliny for his impartial investigation.
Many Christians, I should mention, deserted their religion in the face of death during the early beginning of the Church.
After a couple of years, the bishops frequently allowed them to rejoin. As we have mentioned, the number of martyrs was not as large as official Church history would have it.
But the mention of the so-called martyrs leads us into the remarkable spread of the Christian religion. In the New Testament, we read how the apostles are exhorted by Jesus to “spread the message.” This practice continued into Christianity’s first few centuries and persists to the present day. Christians were often criticized in the ancient world for their surreptitious attempts to convert young people, servants and so on. A corollary criticism was the lower class nature of their members. Initially the faithful were working class people, slaves and so on. The Christians were very secretive about their attempts to convert, or even “coming out” as members, contrary to official Church history.
At the same time, however, and into the future, Christians were credited with excellent miracles, and I am completely serious, as well as magic healings and exorcisms. I leave it to my secular audience to determine whether such spectacular magic might have been a superior ability to stage hoaxes. Celsus, their enemy, charged them with chicanery. But in such a society, with many gods and sects competing, a good number of the common people were impressed by the power of the Christian god. If he could effect cures, expel demons and perform miracles beyond the ability of other gods, many convinced people instantly converted. Occasionally a spectacular miracle would cause an entire town to convert, or at least, so the church fathers reported.
More easily believed were the reports of entire households converting. A wealthy house would have many dependents.
If the owner converted, it is understandable that others in the household would convert also. Coercion must have been a powerful persuader! Christian churches also began to receive large bequests from converts, particularly wealthy matrons.
It is important to remember, even though the modern, secular mind rejects such tales of miracles and exorcisms, that much of the general populace of that era firmly believed in them. There were a great many magicians and healers circulating, all of them in competition with one another for followers. Christians in general seemed to produce greater results- better healings, exorcisms and other miracles. Naturally not all such successes would have been absolute hoaxes. The psychological effect on the so-called demon-possessed or the sick person, or the effect of a very charismatic, sympathetic healer must be taken into consideration. One must mention, for fairness sake, that many Christian communities were commended for the care they took of their sick and destitute. Additionally, the self-esteem given to working class people and slaves about salvation and eternal life by accepting Jesus would have been gratifying.
Three scholars, among others, are in complete agreement about the thrust of the Christian appeal. They are Edward Gibbon, Ramsay MacMullen, and Pierre Chuvin.
I highly recommend their volumes, listed in the Bibliography on atheistscholar.org. Edward Gibbon, in his influential classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was surprised by the violent reaction in the 18th Century to his rather mild criticisms of Christianity and its contribution to Rome’s decline. He was forced to defend his position after the publication of Decline.
The other two historians I mentioned above are in general agreement with Gibbon, so I will use his points concerning the spread of Christianity for this portion of my lecture.
Here are Gibbon’s famous reasons for the spread of Christianity and the corresponding ruin of the Roman religion. (1) He believed that “the grateful respect of the Christians for the martyrs of the faith was exalted, by time and victory, into religious adoration; and the most illustrious of the saints and prophets were deservedly associated to the honor of the martyrs.” But Gibbon maintained that since the relics of saints were so successful with the faithful, the clergy multiplied these artifacts without much care if they were true. He said they invented names for skeletons and actions for names. There was a small band of martyrs and he said legends had been created about them, darkening the story of history and light of reason in the Christian world. He charged fraud and he was firm.
(2) Another fraud was the reporting of miracles, stated Gibbon, which were cited even by the respected St. Augustine, who talked about the innumerable prodigies performed in Africa by the relics of St. Stephen. Augustine actually spoke of three resurrections from the dead in his own diocese in around a three year period!
(3) Gibbon states, and I quote: “The innumerable miracles of which the tombs of the martyrs were the perpetual theatre revealed to the pious believer the actual state and constitution of the invisible world and his religious speculation appeared to be founded on the firm basis of fact and experience.” He goes on to deplore the putative acts created by the dead saints and punishments meted out from them. This kind of idolizing and petitioning of saints created a restoration, he justly claimed, of the polytheism the church was trying to stamp out!
(4) Rites and ceremonies, Gibbon said, were introduced into Christianity that would greatly affect the vulgar people’s senses. By the 5th Century, he charged, the churches were filled with the smell of incense, flowers, and the glare of lamps that at noon gave off what he called a “gaudy light.” The members begged for health, cures for infertility, safety on trips and so on. They would kiss the walls and pavements of the church and direct their prayers to the relics or tombs of martyrs. He finishes, devastatingly, “The most respectable Bishops had persuaded themselves that the ignorant rustics would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of paganism if they found some semblance, some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity. The religion of Constantine achieved in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman Empire; but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals.”
Before we move on to Constantine, I would like to add to Gibbon a bit. There has been much scholarly work done on how the Church appropriated the goddesses of the pagan world and overlaid their images with that of the Virgin Mary. Jesus is suspiciously akin to the dying and reviving gods of Greece, Egypt, and other areas.
Time does not allow us to enumerate all the borrowings and blendings of the pagan pantheon with Christian figures, but the practice has been well researched and documented. Gibbon was correct; it was a crafty maneuver by the Church authorities. Christian believers had to pledge belief in only one supreme god, but that god was split into a Trinity, which we shall speak about in a few minutes. The faithful were also allowed the minor saints whose images were artfully blended with formerly beloved pagan figures.
Such proceedings, many of them linked to duplicitous practices, according to respected scholars and historians, helped accomplish the spread of belief in Christianity through the Roman Empire.
One of the most important events in the history of Christianity was the victory and ascendancy to the head of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, in 312. He won a crucial battle at the Milvan Bridge; afterward he claimed that Christ had told him to put the chi-ro sign, the first two letters of Christ’s name, on his soldiers’ shields the night before the battle. He told different versions of this tale, sometimes claiming a dream, so the truth of how this clever idea came to him remains a matter of speculation. His conversion to Christianity was likely a practical political move. Scholars, such as H.A. Drake, believe that it was not as sudden and dramatic as Constantine claimed it to have been. Christians, while still in the minority, but a majority in some cities and areas, had become an increasing difficulty. Attempts to wipe them out, such as the serious persecution by Diocletian and Galerius, the co-Emperors, during the end of the 3rd Century and the beginning of the 4th Century, had merely made heroes and martyrs of the dead.
Although Constantine really knew very little about Christianity, he quickly learned what he must do to bring reconciliation between the Christian and pagan factions in his society. Since he was an extremely able and competent ruler and politician, as well as a brilliant commander, he set out to bring such a rapprochement about. (1) Christ had to be reinvented to secure the connection between Christianity and war. (2) Christians accepted no paganism, and Constantine had no intention of alienating either pagans or Christians. Political maneuvering, of which he was a master, was the order of the day.
(3) Constantine needed a subservient church, but the one he had embraced turned out to be so wracked with theological disputes and power struggles that his letters to the bishops are sometimes very sharp and critical. As you remember, if you heard or read my lecture on The Devil and The Rise of the Church (see atheistscholar.org,) Christianity, during its early centuries, was not the monolithic theological entity later Church historians claimed it to be. We shall see that it was frequently the Emperors who had to intervene and settle the issues the church administrators would not agree on.
Constantine formally ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313, granting toleration to Christianity and all cults. Atheists were not mentioned in the Edict. All Christian buildings damaged by the earlier persecutions were to be restored. The Edict assumed a higher deity, but monotheism had become a known concept during this era. There were a number of polytheists who thought there was a higher deity, so the vague language used in the Edict was not a difficulty.
I am going over some of this material on Constantine because many contemporary historians have found that he, whether a sincere Christian or simply a political opportunist, did not drop all association with paganism. This has been mistakenly reported in too many histories, especially earlier Church histories.
Constantine very often used the traditional pagan sun image or sun god image of himself on coins and on his large statue in the Forum of Constantinople. Christians, too, were used to comparing Christ to the sun, so he created a melding of the two cultures. The so-called resurrection of Christ putatively took place on the day of the sun; and of course, many Western nations have a special day in the present, called Sunday.
Tellingly, the army remained pagan and people in the civil offices were pagan. The Senate was composed of a majority of pagans until later in the Empire. Paganism did not just disappear.
However, Constantine’s commitment to securing Christianity was large and long-lasting. It became, in effect, an important force in the Empire. He granted the Christian clergy very significant exemption from taxes and from performing civic duties. However, he was careful to state that by performing their religious duties, the clergy would be benefiting the state, tying religion to the government. He was quickly made aware, however, how many different groups in disparate areas called themselves Christians, each feuding for hegemony, and for the monetary benefits offered to Christian churches. An excellent volume for a thorough chronicle of the benefits, monetary and civic, that Christians derived from the support of the Emperor, is Pierre Chuvin’s A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, listed in the Bibliography of this topic on atheistscholar.org.
Constantine ultimately suppressed the Donatists, who were in the majority in North Africa. Charles Freeman states that such a decision helped shape the remaining church’s theology in its process of becoming the Roman Catholic Church.
But there was a defining Church dispute that embroiled Constantine himself by the 320’s. It involved the nature of Jesus, half-man, half-divine, or wholly divine, and whether he was the same nature as god or inferior to him. The Bishop of the important see of Alexandria, Alexander, was in a heated quarrel with Arian, a presbyter of the region. Their dispute is yet another area of long-standing Church manipulation of facts. Many church historians claimed that by the 320’s, there was general theological agreement that Jesus was divine and part of the godhead. That was not true.
Arian was cast as a dissenter who claimed Jesus was the son, different from god and who existed before him and was subordinate to that god, the Father. Apparently many historians borrowed the skewed view from Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373. Athanasius was not an objective source. He wrote critically against the Arians and later was brutal in crushing them.
The Arians had many Gospels on their side, as Jesus was quoted in them as implying god was different from himself. The Arians cited early Church fathers who were of the same opinion, such as Justin Martyr, Clement and Origen. Richard Hansen points out, until Athanasius’s writings, almost every theologian, not only in the East, but in the West, had assumed some sort of subordination of Jesus to god.
The Arians also drew strongly on one of the least rational forms of respected classical philosophy- Platonism, or more correctly, neo-Platonism, its more evolved thinking. Platonists claimed that they could, by analogies, describe a supreme, unchanging god. This god would be Plato’s highest form. Jesus was called the logos, as John did in his Gospel, probably the last one to be composed. Apparently Arian believed Jesus was created at the beginning of time as god’s mediator of glory; Arian further equated Jesus with Wisdom, gaining support from Proverbs. It is interesting that some scholars are of the opinion that Wisdom was the mate of god early in Judaism before it became monotheistic and that she ruled with god.
Be that as it may, the quarrel was threatening to tear Christianity apart. Constantine’s role, it appears, was not as a believer, but as an emperor who wished to secure peace in his Empire.
Even though, as we shall see, the followers of Athanasius prevailed, Constantine was baptized into the Christian faith at his death by an Arian bishop. Was this another political gesture? No one can be sure.
From the moment he was drawn into the nature of Jesus dispute, Constantine repeatedly scolded the Christian bishops and theologians. He pointed out the civilized manner in which pagans conducted their disputes. Indeed, he was correct; pagans had no trouble disputing the idea of god and god’s nature in the least. The Christian quarrel threatened Constantine’s ambition of political stability. He convened the First Council of Nicea in 325 at the imperial palace in Nicea, Asia Minor.
Constantine spared no symbol that would drive home to the bishops that the Church was subordinate to the State.
He was dressed in purple, wore gold and precious stones, and was seated on a throne of gold. The attendees were dazzled. He opened with a speech in Latin, signaling to the Greek bishops his distance from them. There were no important Roman bishops at this council. Observers represented the Bishop of Rome. Scholars such as H.A.Drake have pointed out the clever wording Constantine used, stressing the need for harmony and heaping praise, in advance, on the bishops for their own desire for peace on this issue of the nature of Jesus. He told them if they settled this matter in an agreeable manner, they would not only be pleasing to the Deity, but also their “fellow servant,” the Emperor. The bishops were intimidated, but still argumentative.
Finally, the matter was decided and a strange word, homoousios, “of identical substance,” was used to define the nature of Jesus.
Such a phrase was controversial and might have been used to emphasize the rejection of Arian’s ideas. Some historians think Constantine might have forced this formula through in his desperate attempt to find any peaceful solution. Arian was excommunicated and he exited from his see at Alexandria along with two followers. In reality, however, the matter was resolved much later, under the Emperor Theodosius, in 381, at the Council of Constantinople. The majority of the Greek speaking Christian community remained Arian and Constantine tolerated them.
It is obvious to most objective observers that Constantine was using Christianity as a way of bringing and keeping order in his society.
When he founded Constantinople, his capitol, he traced the lines of the forthcoming walls with a spear, just as a pagan Greek ruler would have done in the classical world, and brought a large number of the best pagan statues and monuments from all over the world to grace his city. In fact, when he died, he was depicted on a coin issued by his sons, ascending into heaven in a chariot, with god’s hand reaching from the heavens to receive him. Such an image was traditionally pagan and used by many pagan emperors.
But an important change was becoming apparent. Charles Freeman states, “Constantine was severing the traditional Church from its roots.” Church wealth was in large part from state patronage and Church doctrine was often based on imperially controlled councils, rather than scriptures, as we have seen in Nicea. Christ began to be depicted as a soldier, a warrior in art and sculpture. Constantine was now described as god’s commander in chief. The emperor’s victories were with the support of the Christian god, as at least one church father claimed.
But the most important change was the evolution of Christianity from a dissenting sect, wary of imperial power and wealth, to a supporter and subordinate of the Imperial State. Authority became, we cannot repeat too often, the basis for doctrine rather than scriptures.
From what we have glimpsed of the common people, we have seen how appealing Christian miracles were to them. The later doctrine of the Trinity, which grew from the Arian controversy, was deemed by Thomas Aquinas, a mystery which must be taken on faith.
Constantine had placed Christianity, consenting and greedy, firmly under the authority of the Roman Empire. Dostoevsky, the 19th Century Russian novelist, memorably accused the Catholic Church of ruling by miracle, mystery, and authority. He was not wrong.
Constantine died in 337 and his three sons briefly ruled; one of them, Constantius, became sole ruler until he died in 361. Constantius made it clear that heretics and schismatics from orthodox church doctrine would not be tolerated. There was a growing tendency to find consensus doctrine around which Christians could adhere. The emperors, by the end of the 4th Century, were formulating doctrinal solutions and issuing edicts concerning them which were imperative to obey.
The argument about Jesus’ nature had not, as we have said, been solved by Nicea. The quarrel raged on until The Dated Creed in 359 declared Jesus was like the father. It was a cumbersome creed and solved nothing. Gibbon describes such arguments as “furious contests over a single diphthong.” The Dated Creed needed a Christian emperor to support it, but Julian became emperor in 361 and he was a Christian apostate.
He had studied Christianity but at some point became a pagan. His brief attempt to build a new temple at Jerusalem for the Jews and to bring back pagan worship officially was cut short by his death in battle in 363. He wrote Against the Galileans, in other words, Christians, which was a fairly sophisticated critique of Christianity. A return to reason was not truly part of his agenda. Julian’s worship of the gods was very superstitious and he conducted animal sacrifices frequently, sometimes several times in a day.
The classical spirit of tolerance, searching for the truth and learning from evidence was not advanced by the new pagan emperor.
The aforementioned Athanasius emerged in 350 to provide a defense for the old Nicene Creed. He met challenges to his authority with invective. Such invective became legitimate with its use by a prelate of Athanasius’s standing and too often became part of arguments concerning Church politics.
Finally, at the end of the 4th Century the Cappadocian Fathers came along to support the old arguments and develop new ones to support the Nicene Creed. They were not the worst of Christian theologians, often linking classical scholarship with Christian theology. Of course, to the secular thinker, any conclusion about Jesus, god, the Holy Spirit and the entire Trinity seems a fatuous support of a make believe notion. And of course it is. However, it is so important for our understanding of the history of Christianity and the finalizing of the decline of the Empire that I would like to take a few moments to go over it.
Many historians have decided that the Cappadocian Basil was likely influenced by Plotinus, the neo-Platonist philosopher, not only by Plotinus’s thinking but also by his vocabulary. Jaroslav Pelikan, in his Christianity and Classical Culture, demonstrates how the Fathers used Christian and Greek culture to develop the Church’s orthodox position on the nature of Jesus and ultimately the nature of the Christian Trinity. Here is a brief description of what became orthodoxy.
I am quoting from Charles Freeman concerning all these definitions. “There is one Godhead, of uniform substance, ousia, but the Godhead has three distinct personalities. Jesus, the Son, is an integral part of a single Godhead, but with a distinct personality within it.”
Freeman goes on to tell us that “…the Cappadocians went further, incorporating the Holy Spirit as a third person of the Trinity, as part of a single Godhead but with a distinct personality.” Athanasius had proposed this Holy Spirit as a distinct personality from about 350. The three were, it was agreed, equal in status but differed in their origins. God always was, the son was “begotten from the Father, and the Spirit proceeded in some way from the Father.” Freeman states that the Holy Spirit notion helped to satisfy those, as we mentioned earlier, who wanted to believe god was still active in the world. The Emperor Theodosius issued an imperial decree in 381 which made the Trinity orthodox doctrine. In 451, it was read twice at the Council of Chalcedon. Imperial edict reinforced this orthodoxy by declaring dissenters heretics. Such a new, serious decree demonstrates how church doctrine was state enforced, with the orthodox receiving tax exemption, access to wealth, high patronage and status, while heretics were barred from those ample rewards.
(We do not have time to cover the issues generating the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Great Schism from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. But the nature of the Trinity figured prominently once again. The Eastern Orthodox Church did not accept a slightly changed wording about the “proceeding” of the Holy Spirit or papal primacy. The split endures to the present day.)
The Roman Empire was an empire on the ropes, so to speak, with desperate threats from the barbarian people outside it. Theodosius and his authorities needed symbols and ideas which their army and their subjects could rally around. Attacks on Rome by the Goths were pictured as a sign of evil assaults on the true faith. The rise of Christian intolerance increased as the Empire responded to threats from outside it.
As I mentioned earlier, Aquinas decided the Trinity must be accepted on faith. Aquinas was the later 13th Century theologian of the Church most attached to reason. In the rapidly declining Roman Empire, faith now began to shape exegesis, as Freeman maintains. Jesus, the putative challenger of religious and imperial authorities, had been reshaped and his sect refashioned by Paul and later thinkers, such as Augustine. Christ and his church had become the Imperial Church. A church father, Ambrose, maintained that Christ led the legions. He meant, of course, the Church had hegemony. But that was not true. The emperors, even while embattled and besieged, firmly held the reins of power over the Church hierarchy. The sweet light of reason revered by the Greeks darkened as the sun set on the Roman Empire.
The closing of the free mind was accompanied by an ever increasing sense that the body was the battlefield between sinful desires and purity.
Desires were said to be brought on by demons. Many fervent Christians, disgusted by the wealth and corruption of the Church by the 4th Century, and haunted by guilt over the heroism of early Christian martyrs, retreated away from cities, to the edges of society, and even farther.
The Egyptian desert was a favorite spot for ascetics to withdraw, where they fought against the raging desires of the flesh. The cult of the Virgin also became very strong as women’s purity was emphasized. In the 4th Century, the body seems to have become a field that must be shut down, as well as the mind! Ascetic holy men who lived on pillars on the desert became the equivalent of our contemporary rock stars or celebrities. Crowds made pilgrimages to see them, pray, and ask favors, particularly to be healed of diseases. There is a wonderful film by the atheist, Luis Bunuel, “Simon of the Desert,” made in 1965. The movie’s depiction of the desert crowd scenes are not much of an exaggeration.
Monks in monasteries, ascetic though they were reputed to be, could be counted on to come into towns in bands and attack pagans violently when Christians and pagans were engaging in civil disturbances. The ascetic movement quickly became distorted and corrupt. But such behavior is not unexpected when faith and authority take precedence over reason and tolerance. Extremes of behavior can be linked to the mental and physical repression spawned by subservience to a fiction used to control.
With the rise of asceticism, the images of Christ changed once again. Iconography frequently complements ideology. The depictions of Jesus suffering on the cross became more intense, more graphic. For a long time, the figure of Jesus crucified was rarely seen. During the ascetic period, Jesus’ suffering becomes exaggerated, even horrific. The sacred Christ image was reconfigured to fit each changing concept current in the Empire. Such exaggerated images are a graphic record accompanying the written history of the decline of reason.
Under Theodosius, pagans began to be fully persecuted, outlawed and marginalized, as were Jews. Marcus Simon discuses an anti- Semitic outbreak in Callinicum, in 388, when a Christian mob, led by its bishop, destroyed a synagogue. Simon states that the empire’s protection to the persons and properties of Jews was relaxed during Theodosius’s rule. References to Jews in imperial laws became more discriminatory. Yet despite being influenced by Ambrose, a vindictive and important Church father, to discriminate against pagans and Jews, Theodosius went to Rome and courted the still largely pagan Senate.
After a pagan uprising in Thessalonica in 390 ended with the death of the garrison commander, Theodosius ordered no quarter and thousands of pagans were killed in the retaliatory massacre. Theodosius asked pardon and penance from the hypocritical Ambrose- an act of political theatre that kings would reenact down through the centuries. Rulers maintained their hegemony while bending a knee to the Popes.
During this era Theodosius passed laws against all cult worship at pagan shrines. Christian mobs began to destroy the ancient world’s great shrines. 395 was the last year the twelve hundred year old Olympic Games were held. In 383, Symmachus, the respected pagan philosopher, asked Valentinian, the young Emperor, not to remove the famous Altar of Victory from the Senate House. Symmachus wrote an elegant letter, stating that the Altar’s denigration depreciated everything it symbolized- the diverse spiritual world of the pagans and the freedom of thought that world prized.
He asked why people could not be allowed to arrive at truth in disparate ways. Ambrose answered him: “What you try to infer, we have established as truth from the very word of God.” Once again, we can see how in Christian thought, truth comes from a transcendental source rather than scientific method and reason. Ambrose glories in his ignorant statement.
In the 390’s, Theodosius passed the first all encompassing laws banning pagan worship. The 5th Century saw Christianity dominant in Rome. The old families, either out of prudence or conviction, converted to the Church. Huge new churches were built by the wealthy bishops and individuals who were either Christians or opportunists. The old temples were either deserted or converted to churches.
Many people converted during this time- the pagans saw the cost of revering the old religion when the Emperor extended more benefits to Christians. Christian insignia began to be seen all over Rome and other cities. The town criers, the ancient world’s media, gave out Christian news and propaganda. Important men in outlying areas were admonished to convert their families, subordinates and slaves to Christianity. Slaves, they were told, should be beaten if they resisted. The sociologist of religion, Clifford Geertz in the 1960’s, maintained that belief often came out of performing the rites of religion; Christians had an elaborate ritual that was seductive to the fears and gratifying to the hopes of people. As early as 382, some areas enforced the death penalty for celebrating Easter on the wrong day. Christians also persecuted other dissenting Christians, often with more rabid hate than they attacked pagans.
It is important to point out that by the middle 300’s, temples served as centers of commerce.
Their porticoes were used for grammar schools and more advanced lectures. Physicians met there- such meetings were generally the closest thing to medical schools at that time. Temples sometimes also served as places for senate meetings and fraternal workers’ meetings. The early discriminatory laws allowed people to meet there, but not worship. By 407, it could be fairly claimed, states MacMullen, that non Christians were outlaws at last and it followed that a state religion had finally emerged.
In the East, the Serapeum, the great temple to the god, Serapis, in Alexandria was destroyed by Christians in 391. The common people were dismayed. Their credulity convinced them that the Christian god was more powerful than Serapis. Such superstitions occurred often, as the pagan culture was attacked; many pagans and Christians saw such defeats as signs the Christian god was the most powerful one. The murder of the philosopher, Hypatia, in 415, symbolized the end of scientific research and thought of the classical world.
By 408, pagans could no longer serve the palace, although such decrees were often ignored. In 416, pagans could no longer serve in the army, as administrators or on the judiciary in the West. Sometimes these decrees were rescinded or ignored, depending on the area and the degree of animosity to pagans. The list of laws and prohibitions against pagans is long; I refer you to MacMullen and Chuvin in the Bibliography cited at the end of The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason on atheistscholar.org. to obtain an enumeration of them.
The Roman Empire faced a stunning defeat by the Goths in 378. The Emperor, Valens, and ten thousand men were killed at Adrianople. This date is arbitrarily used by many historians as the one in which Rome finally lost the initiative against the barbarian peoples outside its borders.
Rome fell to the barbarians in 476, and that date is often used as an arbitrary date of the end of the Roman Empire. The Eastern Empire endured for another thousand years.
By the end of the 5th Century, only the liberal professions, especially teaching, allowed pagans some degree of influence. In 539, the ruler Justinian prohibited pagans from teaching. The edict might have only applied to philosophy, as some pagan teachers of some law and rhetoric appear to have been permitted in some areas. But the Academy of Athens, with its rich endowment, had already been plundered by the end of 531 or 532. There was a final great persecution of pagans by the Emperor Tiberius from about 580 on. Pockets of pagans remained, of course, but to all intents and purposes, pagan schools, communities and thought were suppressed, often violently, and deliberately destroyed.
Medicine, science, and most of the advances made by the classical world succumbed to magic and superstition. Freeman states that “The last recorded astronomical observation in the ancient Greek world was one by the Athenian philosopher, Proclus, in 475, nearly eleven hundred years after the prediction of an eclipse by Thales in 585 B.C.E., which tradition marks as the beginning of Greek science.”
When Copernicus published his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, it had been over a thousand years since such types of studies moved forward. It was an astonishing decline for mankind, setting us back for centuries.
There is an excellent case to be made for the claim that contrary to some histories, pagan culture did not just fade away, which is the theme of this lecture. No, it was suppressed. The Christian Church used, as we have said before, miracle, mystery and authority to bolster its movement.
The Church and its theologians had no “proof,” no true axioms, nor empirical evidence concerning their so-called truths about god, the Trinity, Jesus or any article of their doctrines. They were forced to fall back on revelation, which could be used by anyone, and was used by differing sects to reinforce their own beliefs, in the highly fluid spiritual atmosphere during the early years of the Church. Revelation was soon brought under Church control and the conclusions concerning it were decided by theologians.
As we have seen this evening, miracles and mystery convinced the common people that Christianity was a powerful religion and the Christian god more powerful than the pagan ones. Revelation, as laid down by church authority, effectively did away with reason. Thomas Aquinas, the great Church theologian of the 13th Century, attempted to reconcile Christian doctrine with reason, but even he abandoned the attempt with the doctrine of the Trinity, declaring it a mystery to be accepted on faith.
It was authority that distinguished the Church from other competing sects. Revelation came under the authority of the bishops, with a church organized into varying degrees of command.
Such a structure was most important to the success of the Christian church over its competitors. As we have said, the Emperors, with a sort of clever play-acting, behaved as though they were less important than papal authority in the advanced era of the Church. But indeed, in the interests of peace and faced with the threat of the barbarians, we have seen that it was the Emperors who often decided on Church policy and enforced it by imperial edict.
Fortunately, the transmission of Arabian translations of Aristotle, the great classical Greek philosopher, to the West took place from 1100 to 1300 C.E. Aristotle, contrary to Plato, was an advocate of observation, a rudimentary scientific method, and logic.
Aristotle’s works were seminal to the awakening of the West from the dark sleep of the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The fascinating volume, The Swerve, 2012, by Stephen Greenblatt, tells the story of another important work for both the Renaissance and the later Enlightenment. A 15th Century papal secretary, Poggio, collected books in his spare time. Poggio found Lucretius’s epic work, The Nature of Things, in a monastery, copied it, and distributed many copies. Lucretius was an Epicurean who did not accept immortal life. He stated that matter is made up of atomi, small particles. The Nature of Things was written around 50 B.C.E. It took until the 15th Century, C.E. to be distributed and to help open the minds of men again. The copy Poggio discovered in the monastery was likely the last surviving manuscript of Lucretius’s work. The great philosopher and essayist, Montaigne’s annotated copy from 1412 demonstrates how much intellectuals of that period were influenced by Lucretius.
Intellectual thought, tolerance and the scientific method, are all precious attainments. We have been reminded during this lecture how thoroughly they can be extinguished. Fundamentalism cannot tolerate reason. We secular thinkers need to be on guard constantly to defend the use of reason in all areas of our lives, in all areas of our sciences and humanities. With the suppression of reason comes the nightmare of men’s darkened minds and society’s bloody persecution of those who would free their thoughts and permit the light of reason to flourish. Let us dedicate ourselves to that task, and make sure the legacy of reason is passed on to those who come after us.
Thank you for your attention.
The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason
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