BLTC Press Titles


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The Characters of Theophrastus

Theophrastus


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll


The Haunted Bookshop

Christopher Morely


The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison


Early church history

by James Vernon Bartlet

Excerpt:

Christianity spread as a sort of holy contagion. Its path can be traced along the main lines of commerce: though the degree in which it developed in a centre of population depended upon certain existing local conditions, such as acquaintance with the principles of Judaism. Once planted in a town, it tended to spread insensibly to the adjacent district and strike fresh roots. But its rate of progression must not be thought of as everywhere uniform. Already by the close of the Acts we find the Gospel touching the Roman Empire at Antioch, Cyprus, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Rome, and, to judge from the case of Apollos, at Alexandria likewise. We cannot trace the history of its development at and from all these centres alike. For some of them the evidence is clear; for others it is only inferential. It was perhaps in certain parts of Asia Minor, particularly the province of Asia, 'the spiritual centre of Christianity' during the century after 70 A.d., that the new religion most leavened the population. Thus Pliny, speaking of the northern sea-board province of Bithynia-Pontus, refers in 112 A.d. to the 'large numbers' of the Christians 'of every age and rank and from both sexes.' 'For,' says he, 'the contagion of this superstition has permeated not only towns, but also villages and country'; so that temples are deserted, rites unobserved, victims unbought. Apart from the places already named, progress during the second century was most marked in the following areas.

In the East, Edessa, the capital of a small Graecized native kingdom beyond the Euphrates, N.E. from Antioch, had about 200 A.d. a Christian king; and there are vaguer traces of extension elsewhere to the east and south-east of Syria. From Alexandria in particular the Gospel spread both through Egypt and further west to Cyrene. In the West itself, the two great areas added were Proconsular Africa, with Carthage as capital, and South Gaul, with Lyons as centre. The latter district had an old connexion with Asia Minor, and probably owed the Gospel in part at least to this intercourse. Of Spanish Christians we hear first about the end of the century; while as to the most distant provinces, like Britain, we have no positive evidence, though from the presence of the legions we may infer some Roman, but hardly native, Christians. It would be along the lines already laid down that growth went on during the third century, right up to the time when Constantine's edicts of toleration gave the Church a new status in the Roman Empire.

During the greater part of this period the Christians in most places must have been, in the eyes of their neighbours, a mere despicable minority of fanatics; while the project of Christianizing the Empire dawned but gradually upon the minds of this minority itself. The Church had to outgrow a certain narrowness of vision, the heritage of Judaea and Jewish associations, before she could realize the largeness of God's thoughts towards mankind in His Gospel. Now this has a very important bearing on the subject of Persecution, in that much of the inten

sity of feeling called forth against the early Christians was due to a certain aloofness and pessimism in their attitude towards existing society. Imagine the possibilities of misunderstanding, to say no more, likely to arise among Roman citizens as they caught stray utterances about 'the Last Day' being 'at hand;' or about a universal conflagration from which 'the Christians' alone were to come forth unscathed. Can we be surprised that they attributed to those who used such speech, a 'hatred of human kind'— an impression which found confirmation in Christian indifference to the political and social interests of their fellows.

All this had an inner explanation, innocent in motive, and often noble in the self-denial which 'plucked out the right eye' that might allure the soul to tainted pleasures. For the framework of society was to the Christian thoroughly idolatrous. Usages involving the recognition of some false deity or of the Emperor in the character of divine, met him on every hand; while that which was impure, in suggestion at least, was constantly confronting him in social intercourse. Hence to minimize public contact with society, was the only way to keep a good conscience and at the same time avoid dangerous comment. But all this must have seemed very suspicious to those who had not the key to such action. At best it was 'atheism' and 'contemptible indolence'; at the worst it meant treason against society or deeds of darkness. To enlarge on these points would be easy. But it is enough to suggest how persecution might thus seem a duty to outsiders, even where their trade was not, as with Demetrius and many another, touched by such nonconformity.

For conformity in religion was the law of the Empire. Not indeed conformity in thought, but in observance. For religion was not a matter of conviction, but of expediency. The State's interests demanded it, both lest the gods should smite the State with ill,1 and still more lest men should cease to cherish deferential sentiments towards the Empire and its head the Emperor. Men who so cut themselves adrift from care for the 'public weal' were, it was argued, capable of any crime or treason. Such was the spirit bred from the old Roman religion, which in form had changed so much. Once it had led to the law that no new religion should be tolerated unless licensed by the State. This rule had become largely a dead letter. Yet its principle remained in force. Any religion alien to the genius of the Empire or a menace to good government—any in fact, that would not fit into its niche in the existing order—was condemned beforehand as sacrilege or treason. And such Christianity seemed to be. The tendencies of human nature no doubt co-operated and often set persecution in motion. But the cause behind all, making the State not the protector, but the nominal pursuer, in even such cases, was the feeling just described.

Putting aside all traditions which obscure the matter, we may recognize several fairly marked stages in the life-and-death conflict, in which the Church was the real aggressor. For its ideal was a challenge to the existing Empire, which had not as yet recognized in Christianity the proper religious complement to its own political ideal of unity. And how little the persecutions were the outcome of mere caprice or ferocity appears from the fact that, apart from Nero, the severest persecutors were the best Emperors; whereas the morally bad Emperors were those who, as least concerned for the Empire, might be swayed to leniency.


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