March 28, 2004
History is written by the winners. I first glimpsed this long ago in my Catholic high school, when one day I referred to the “Protestant Reformation.” The priest-teacher gently corrected me: “We call it the Protestant Revolution.”
According to the traditional version of early Christian history, the Apostles and Paul fanned out across the Roman Empire, leaving behind many communities of believers, united in the Christian Church. The leaders of these communities, called bishops, were considered the successors of the Apostles, and the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of Peter, chief of the Apostles, was the head of the Church. The early Church was beset from within by heretics, who propounded novel interpretations of Christ’s message, and from without by the emperors, who wrongly feared that Christians could not be loyal subjects. The heretics were defeated and orthodoxy preserved by the great Church Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries and by the Church Fathers, who brilliantly synthesized Christian revelation and Greek philosophy. Imperial persecution ceased when the Emperor Constantine was miraculously converted in 313 by a divine vision on the eve of a great battle. Internally unified and externally free, the Church flourished; and when the Roman Empire fell and the Dark Ages began, it became the sole guardian and repository of Western civilization for a thousand years.
These two books, drawing on recent scholarship, tell a different story. For one thing, there was no “Church” and no “orthodoxy” for two or three centuries after Christ died. There were many autonomous Christian communities, a large number of which did not believe all or most of what was later codified in the Nicaean or Athanasian creeds. As Bart Ehrman writes in “Lost Christianities”: “During the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences among [present-day] Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison.”
For another thing, Christianity may have done pretty well out of the Empire, on balance. The Romans were fairly tolerant in religious matters. Persecution of Christians was sporadic rather than systematic until around 250. Then, with the Empire under threat from outside, Diocletian attempted to revive traditional religion for the sake of civic unity. The persecution failed, and his successor Constantine shrewdly recognized, Charles Freeman writes, “that it was better to utilize a religion that already had a well-established structure of authority as a prop to the imperial regime rather than exclude it as a hindrance.” On this view, there was nothing miraculous about Constantine’s conversion (he was not in fact baptized until nearly 25 years later, just before his death). It was a political calculation, and it succeeded.
A final revision to the standard view: Christian unity came about not only through the workings of the Holy Spirit but also because the emperors demanded unity and knocked the bishops’ heads together until they complied. Constantine and his successors lavished a lot of imperial patronage on the Christian churches and were impatient when they found there was still widespread doctrinal conflict among them over the Trinity and the nature of Jesus. They lobbied strongly for agreement, organized councils of bishops to produce definitive solutions, and enforced the resulting pronouncements by expelling dissenters from their bishoprics. “The theological history of the fourth century,” Freeman concludes, “is largely one of the emperors, under immense pressure from invaders, attempting to achieve a foundation of orthodoxy so that they could preserve a united society.” In short, “politics won over theology.”
All these are large claims, which scholars must judge. But both these books are clearly and plausibly argued, and both are full of fascinating detail. “Lost Christianities” takes readers through much of the “apocryphal” literature, i.e., early Christian writings that were excluded from the official “canon,” which took final form in the 4th century. Some of these writings were anonymous, some were forged, and some were just theologically incorrect. Many of them were lost or suppressed and only rediscovered in modern times. They suggest a Mediterranean world teeming with Christian sects: Ebionites, who insisted that converts be circumcised and obey Judaic law; Marcionites, who believed that Jesus was divine and only pretended to be human; Gnostics, who believed that this world is a maze of suffering and illusion, which one can escape only through mysticism and secret knowledge; and Phibionites, whose beliefs cannot even be hinted at in a family newspaper.
The Closing of the Western Mind is intellectual history on a grander scale. Freeman devotes considerable space to Greek philosophy and Roman history, the background to his main story. This long stage-setting pays off: difficult theological issues and complicated political rivalries become intelligible, even vivid. And there are marvelous anecdotes, like this one from a letter by Bishop Gregory of Nyssa, just arrived in Constantinople to debate Arianism at a church council. “If you ask someone for change, he launches into a discussion about ‘begotten’ and ‘unbegotten’; if you enquire about the price of bread, you are told that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate; if you remark that the bath is nice, the attendant pronounces that the Son emerged from non-existence.”
Whether or not Christianity endures in saecula saeculorum, scholarly debates about its origins undoubtedly will. That all contributions will be as enjoyable and illuminating as these two, let us pray.