4/21/09 - christian persecution

In today's excerpt - the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, and the subsequent persecution of 'pagans' by Christians as discussed by James J. O'Donnell, a Princeton and Yale-educated historian who has taught at Bryn Mawr, Cornell and Penn, and has published widely on the history and culture of the late antique Mediterranean world:

"Christianity, born and bred in the Jewish matrix, made the rest of the world what it called pagan by detaching the Jewish assertion of uniqueness from place of origin, and opening membership to all humankind. 'Go and teach all nations' Jesus was said to have taught, and Christians most often took this teaching quite seriously, even if it didn't move most of them to relocate and teach in strange lands. They followed in this regard not only Jesus but Paul, for it was Paul's reading of Christianity—as something far more ambitious than the revival or fulfillment of traditional Judaism—that prevailed in the end.

"Forcing a message of uniqueness and exclusivity allowed Christians to make themselves satisfyingly unpopular. Persecution became their badge of success. Popular imagination probably still thinks of a long period of time in which hard-nosed Roman governors regularly pulled brave, dewy-eyed, idealistic Christians off the streets, tortured them, and then fed them to the lions. The facts are less glamorous, but the influential church historian Eusebius, a fourth-century contemporary and supporter of Constantine, imbued this idea with long life in his account of ten waves of persecution that mirrored Egypt's ten plagues in the time of Moses. What really happened was episodic, local, and highly inconsistent. ...

"Most Christians lived and died like their fellow Romans, undisturbed by government, quarreling now and then with some of their neighbors. In the 250s, the emperor Decius ordered the suppression of Christianity and in the early 300s the emperor Galerius launched the most systematic attempt ever to deter and uproot Christian practice. In such times, suspect Christians were required to perform some minimal public religious act and get a certificate to prove they had done so. There is no sign that such fits of suppression and persecution had any lasting effect.

"Christians resisted persecution well—both the ordinary spasmodic kind and the infrequent broader campaign—because their communities were many-headed, did not have substantial real property, and lived so fully intermingled with Roman society that they could not simply be carved out and attacked. A century after Galerius, when Christian emperors set out to—we might as well use the word—persecute 'pagan' communities and practices, they were far more devastatingly effective. They halted the supply of state funds for traditional practices, crippling much of what had been long familiar. Then they seized buildings and banned ritual in them, sweeping the landscape nearly clean of the old ways. What survived—and much did—was personal, small-scale or highly localized. Over a relatively short time, the new bludgeoned the old into submission and eventually supplanted it. That's what real persecution could do, unafraid to use violence but not needing to use very much of it. But Christianity never faced anything like what it would later visit on the traditional cults."


James J. O'Donnell


The Ruin of the Roman Empire: The Emperor Who Brought It Down, The Barbarians Who Could Have Saved It


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2008 by James J. O'Donnell


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