The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners, Numbers, and Condition of the Primitive Christians. *
* In spite of my resolution, Lardner led me to look through the famous fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of Gibbon. I could not lay them down without finishing them. The causes assigned, in the fifteenth chapter, for the diffusion of Christianity, must, no doubt, have contributed to it materially; but I doubt whether he saw them all. Perhaps those which he enumerates are among the most obvious. They might all be safely adopted by a Christian writer, with some change in the language and manner. Mackintosh see Life, i. p. 244. — M.]
A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigor from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol. Nor was the influence of Christianity confined to the period or to the limits of the Roman empire. After a revolution of thirteen or fourteen centuries, that religion is still professed by the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in arts and learning as well as in arms. By the industry and zeal of the Europeans, it has been widely diffused to the most distant shores of Asia and Africa; and by the means of their colonies has been firmly established from Canada to Chili, in a world unknown to the ancients.
But this inquiry, however useful or entertaining, is attended with two peculiar difficulties. The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church. The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed. But the scandal of the pious Christian, and the fallacious triumph of the Infidel, should cease as soon as they recollect not only by whom, but likewise to whom, the Divine Revelation was given. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings. *
* The art of Gibbon, or at least the unfair impression produced by these two memorable chapters, consists in confounding together, in one undistinguishable mass, the origin and apostolic propagation of the Christian religion with its later progress. The main question, the divine origin of the religion, is dexterously eluded or speciously conceded; his plan enables him to commence his account, in most parts, below the apostolic times; and it is only by the strength of the dark coloring with which he has brought out the failings and the follies of succeeding ages, that a shadow of doubt and suspicion is thrown back on the primitive period of Christianity. Divest this whole passage of the latent sarcasm betrayed by the subsequent one of the whole disquisition, and it might commence a Christian history, written in the most Christian spirit of candor. — M.]
Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favorable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church. It will, perhaps, appear, that it was most effectually favored and assisted by the five following causes:
I. The inflexible, and if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit, which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. †
II. The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth.
III. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church.
IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians.
V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.
† Though we are thus far agreed with respect to the inflexibility and intolerance of Christian zeal, yet as to the principle from which it was derived, we are, toto coelo, divided in opinion. You deduce it from the Jewish religion; I would refer it to a more adequate and a more obvious source, a full persuasion of the truth of Christianity. Watson. Letters Gibbon, i. 9. — M.]
I. We have already described the religious harmony of the ancient world, and the facility * with which the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other’s superstitions. A single people refused to join in the common intercourse of mankind. The Jews, who, under the Assyrian and Persian monarchies, had languished for many ages the most despised portion of their slaves, 1 emerged from obscurity under the successors of Alexander; and as they multiplied to a surprising degree in the East, and afterwards in the West, they soon excited the curiosity and wonder of other nations. 2 The sullen obstinacy with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners, seemed to mark them out as a distinct species of men, who boldly professed, or who faintly disguised, their implacable habits to the rest of human kind. 3 Neither the violence of Antiochus, nor the arts of Herod, nor the example of the circumjacent nations, could ever persuade the Jews to associate with the institutions of Moses the elegant mythology of the Greeks. 4 According to the maxims of universal toleration, the Romans protected a superstition which they despised. 5 The polite Augustus condescended to give orders, that sacrifices should be offered for his prosperity in the temple of Jerusalem; 6 whilst the meanest of the posterity of Abraham, who should have paid the same homage to the Jupiter of the Capitol, would have been an object of abhorrence to himself and to his brethren.
But the moderation of the conquerors was insufficient to appease the jealous prejudices of their subjects, who were alarmed and scandalized at the ensigns of paganism, which necessarily introduced themselves into a Roman province. 7 The mad attempt of Caligula to place his own statue in the temple of Jerusalem was defeated by the unanimous resolution of a people who dreaded death much less than such an idolatrous profanation. 8 Their attachment to the law of Moses was equal to their detestation of foreign religions. The current of zeal and devotion, as it was contracted into a narrow channel, ran with the strength, and sometimes with the fury, of a torrent.
* This facility has not always prevented intolerance, which seems inherent in the religious spirit, when armed with authority. The separation of the ecclesiastical and civil power, appears to be the only means of at once maintaining religion and tolerance: but this is a very modern notion. The passions, which mingle themselves with opinions, made the Pagans very often intolerant and persecutors; witness the Persians, the Egyptians even the Greeks and Romans.
1st. The Persians. — Cambyses, conqueror of the Egyptians, condemned to death the magistrates of Memphis, because they had offered divine honors to their god. Apis: he caused the god to be brought before him, struck him with his dagger, commanded the priests to be scourged, and ordered a general massacre of all the Egyptians who should be found celebrating the festival of the statues of the gods to be burnt. Not content with this intolerance, he sent an army to reduce the Ammonians to slavery, and to set on fire the temple in which Jupiter delivered his oracles. See Herod. iii. 25 — 29, 37.
Xerxes, during his invasion of Greece, acted on the same principles: l c destroyed all the temples of Greece and Ionia, except that of Ephesus. See Paus. l. vii. p. 533, and x. p. 887.
Strabo, l. xiv. b. 941.
2d. The Egyptians. — They thought themselves defiled when they had drunk from the same cup or eaten at the same table with a man of a different belief from their own. “He who has voluntarily killed any sacred animal is punished with death; but if any one, even involuntarily, has killed a cat or an ibis, he cannot escape the extreme penalty: the people drag him away, treat him in the most cruel manner, sometimes without waiting for a judicial sentence. * * * Even at the time when King Ptolemy was not yet the acknowledged friend of the Roman people, while the multitude were paying court with all possible attention to the strangers who came from Italy * * a Roman having killed a cat, the people rushed to his house, and neither the entreaties of the nobles, whom the king sent to them, nor the terror of the Roman name, were sufficiently powerful to rescue the man from punishment, though he had committed the crime involuntarily.” Diod. Sic. i 83. Juvenal, in his 13th Satire, describes the sanguinary conflict between the inhabitants of Ombos and of Tentyra, from religious animosity. The fury was carried so far, that the conquerors tore and devoured the quivering limbs of the conquered.
Ardet adhuc Ombos et Tentyra, summus utrinque
Inde furor vulgo, quod numina vicinorum
Odit uterque locus; quum solos credat habendos
Esse Deos quos ipse colit. Sat. xv. v. 85.
3d. The Greeks. — “Let us not here,” says the Abbe Guenee, “refer to the cities of Peloponnesus and their severity against atheism; the Ephesians prosecuting Heraclitus for impiety; the Greeks armed one against the other by religious zeal, in the Amphictyonic war. Let us say nothing either of the frightful cruelties inflicted by three successors of Alexander upon the Jews, to force them to abandon their religion, nor of Antiochus expelling the philosophers from his states. Let us not seek our proofs of intolerance so far off. Athens, the polite and learned Athens, will supply us with sufficient examples. Every citizen made a public and solemn vow to conform to the religion of his country, to defend it, and to cause it to be respected. An express law severely punished all discourses against the gods, and a rigid decree ordered the denunciation of all who should deny their existence. * * * The practice was in unison with the severity of the law. The proceedings commenced against Protagoras; a price set upon the head of Diagoras; the danger of Alcibiades; Aristotle obliged to fly; Stilpo banished; Anaxagoras hardly escaping death; Pericles himself, after all his services to his country, and all the glory he had acquired, compelled to appear before the tribunals and make his defence; * * a priestess executed for having introduced strange gods; Socrates condemned and drinking the hemlock, because he was accused of not recognizing those of his country, &c.; these facts attest too loudly, to be called in question, the religious intolerance of the most humane and enlightened people in Greece.” Lettres de quelques Juifs a Mons. Voltaire, i. p. 221. (Compare Bentley on Freethinking, from which much of this is derived.) — M.
4th. The Romans. — The laws of Rome were not less express and severe. The intolerance of foreign religions reaches, with the Romans, as high as the laws of the twelve tables; the prohibitions were afterwards renewed at different times. Intolerance did not discontinue under the emperors; witness the counsel of Maecenas to Augustus. This counsel is so remarkable, that I think it right to insert it entire. “Honor the gods yourself,” says Maecenas to Augustus, “in every way according to the usage of your ancestors, and compel others to worship them. Hate and punish those who introduce strange gods, not only for the sake of the gods, (he who despises them will respect no one,) but because those who introduce new gods engage a multitude of persons in foreign laws and customs. From hence arise unions bound by oaths and confederacies, and associations, things dangerous to a monarchy.” Dion Cass. l. ii. c. 36. (But, though some may differ from it, see Gibbon’s just observation on this passage in Dion Cassius, ch. xvi. note 117; impugned, indeed, by M. Guizot, note in loc.) — M.
Even the laws which the philosophers of Athens and of Rome wrote for their imaginary republics are intolerant. Plato does not leave to his citizens freedom of religious worship; and Cicero expressly prohibits them from having other gods than those of the state. Lettres de quelques Juifs a Mons. Voltaire, i. p. 226. — G.
According to M. Guizot’s just remarks, religious intolerance will always ally itself with the passions of man, however different those passions may be. In the instances quoted above, with the Persians it was the pride of despotism; to conquer the gods of a country was the last mark of subjugation. With the Egyptians, it was the gross Fetichism of the superstitious populace, and the local jealousy of neighboring towns. In Greece, persecution was in general connected with political party; in Rome, with the stern supremacy of the law and the interests of the state. Gibbon has been mistaken in attributing to the tolerant spirit of Paganism that which arose out of the peculiar circumstances of the times. 1st. The decay of the old Polytheism, through the progress of reason and intelligence, and the prevalence of philosophical opinions among the higher orders.
2d. The Roman character, in which the political always predominated over the religious party. The Romans were contented with having bowed the world to a uniformity of subjection to their power, and cared not for establishing the (to them) less important uniformity of religion. — M.]
1 Dum Assyrios penes, Medosque, et Persas Oriens fuit, despectissima pars servientium. Tacit. Hist. v. 8. Herodotus, who visited Asia whilst it obeyed the last of those empires, slightly mentions the Syrians of Palestine, who, according to their own confession, had received from Egypt the rite of circumcision. See l. ii. c. 104.]
2 Diodorus Siculus, l. xl. Dion Cassius, l. xxxvii. p. 121. Tacit Hist. v. 1 — 9. Justin xxxvi. 2, 3.]
Tradidit arcano quaecunque volumine Moses,
Non monstrare vias cadem nisi sacra colenti,
Quaesitum ad fontem solos deducere verpas.
The letter of this law is not to be found in the present volume of Moses. But the wise, the humane Maimonides openly teaches that if an idolater fall into the water, a Jew ought not to save him from instant death. See Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, l. vi. c. 28.
Note: It is diametrically opposed to its spirit and to its letter, see, among other passages, Deut. v. 18. 19, (God) “loveth the stranger in giving him food and raiment. Love ye, therefore, the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Comp. Lev. xxiii. 25. Juvenal is a satirist, whose strong expressions can hardly be received as historic evidence; and he wrote after the horrible cruelties of the Romans, which, during and after the war, might give some cause for the complete isolation of the Jew from the rest of the world. The Jew was a bigot, but his religion was not the only source of his bigotry. After how many centuries of mutual wrong and hatred, which had still further estranged the Jew from mankind, did Maimonides write? — M.]
4 A Jewish sect, which indulged themselves in a sort of occasional conformity, derived from Herod, by whose example and authority they had been seduced, the name of Herodians. But their numbers were so inconsiderable, and their duration so short, that Josephus has not thought them worthy of his notice. See Prideaux’s Connection, vol. ii. p. 285.
Note: The Herodians were probably more of a political party than a religious sect, though Gibbon is most likely right as to their occasional conformity. See Hist. of the Jews, ii. 108. — M.]
5 Cicero pro Flacco, c. 28.
Note: The edicts of Julius Caesar, and of some of the cities in Asia Minor (Krebs. Decret. pro Judaeis,) in favor of the nation in general, or of the Asiatic Jews, speak a different language. — M.]
6 Philo de Legatione. Augustus left a foundation for a perpetual sacrifice. Yet he approved of the neglect which his grandson Caius expressed towards the temple of Jerusalem. See Sueton. in August. c. 93, and Casaubon’s notes on that passage.]
7 See, in particular, Joseph. Antiquitat. xvii. 6, xviii. 3; and de Bell. Judiac. i. 33, and ii. 9, edit. Havercamp.
Note: This was during the government of Pontius Pilate. (Hist. of Jews, ii. 156.) Probably in part to avoid this collision, the Roman governor, in general, resided at Caesarea. — M.]
8 Jussi a Caio Caesare, effigiem ejus in templo locare, arma potius sumpsere. Tacit. Hist. v. 9. Philo and Josephus gave a very circumstantial, but a very rhetorical, account of this transaction, which exceedingly perplexed the governor of Syria. At the first mention of this idolatrous proposal, King Agrippa fainted away; and did not recover his senses until the third day. (Hist. of Jews, ii. 181, &c.)]
This inflexible perseverance, which appeared so odious or so ridiculous to the ancient world, assumes a more awful character, since Providence has deigned to reveal to us the mysterious history of the chosen people. But the devout and even scrupulous attachment to the Mosaic religion, so conspicuous among the Jews who lived under the second temple, becomes still more surprising, if it is compared with the stubborn incredulity of their forefathers. When the law was given in thunder from Mount Sinai, when the tides of the ocean and the course of the planets were suspended for the convenience of the Israelites, and when temporal rewards and punishments were the immediate consequences of their piety or disobedience, they perpetually relapsed into rebellion against the visible majesty of their Divine King, placed the idols of the nations in the sanctuary of Jehovah, and imitated every fantastic ceremony that was practised in the tents of the Arabs, or in the cities of Phoenicia. 9 As the protection of Heaven was deservedly withdrawn from the ungrateful race, their faith acquired a proportionable degree of vigor and purity.
The contemporaries of Moses and Joshua had beheld with careless indifference the most amazing miracles. Under the pressure of every calamity, the belief of those miracles has preserved the Jews of a later period from the universal contagion of idolatry; and in contradiction to every known principle of the human mind, that singular people seems to have yielded a stronger and more ready assent to the traditions of their remote ancestors, than to the evidence of their own senses. 10
9 For the enumeration of the Syrian and Arabian deities, it may be observed, that Milton has comprised in one hundred and thirty very beautiful lines the two large and learned syntagmas which Selden had composed on that abstruse subject.]
10 “How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shown among them?” (Numbers xiv. 11.) It would be easy, but it would be unbecoming, to justify the complaint of the Deity from the whole tenor of the Mosaic history.
Note: Among a rude and barbarous people, religious impressions are easily made, and are as soon effaced. The ignorance which multiplies imaginary wonders, would weaken and destroy the effect of real miracle. At the period of the Jewish history, referred to in the passage from Numbers, their fears predominated over their faith, — the fears of an unwarlike people, just rescued from debasing slavery, and commanded to attack a fierce, a well-armed, a gigantic, and a far more numerous race, the inhabitants of Canaan. As to the frequent apostasy of the Jews, their religion was beyond their state of civilization. Nor is it uncommon for a people to cling with passionate attachment to that of which, at first, they could not appreciate the value. Patriotism and national pride will contend, even to death, for political rights which have been forced upon a reluctant people. The Christian may at least retort, with justice, that the great sign of his religion, the resurrection of Jesus, was most ardently believed, and most resolutely asserted, by the eye witnesses of the fact. — M.]
The Jewish religion was admirably fitted for defence, but it was never designed for conquest; and it seems probable that the number of proselytes was never much superior to that of apostates. The divine promises were originally made, and the distinguishing rite of circumcision was enjoined, to a single family. When the posterity of Abraham had multiplied like the sands of the sea, the Deity, from whose mouth they received a system of laws and ceremonies, declared himself the proper and as it were the national God of Israel and with the most jealous care separated his favorite people from the rest of mankind. The conquest of the land of Canaan was accompanied with so many wonderful and with so many bloody circumstances, that the victorious Jews were left in a state of irreconcilable hostility with all their neighbors. They had been commanded to extirpate some of the most idolatrous tribes, and the execution of the divine will had seldom been retarded by the weakness of humanity.
With the other nations they were forbidden to contract any marriages or alliances; and the prohibition of receiving them into the congregation, which in some cases was perpetual, almost always extended to the third, to the seventh, or even to the tenth generation. The obligation of preaching to the Gentiles the faith of Moses had never been inculcated as a precept of the law, nor were the Jews inclined to impose it on themselves as a voluntary duty.
In the admission of new citizens, that unsocial people was actuated by the selfish vanity of the Greeks, rather than by the generous policy of Rome. The descendants of Abraham were flattered by the opinion that they alone were the heirs of the covenant, and they were apprehensive of diminishing the value of their inheritance by sharing it too easily with the strangers of the earth. A larger acquaintance with mankind extended their knowledge without correcting their prejudices; and whenever the God of Israel acquired any new votaries, he was much more indebted to the inconstant humor of polytheism than to the active zeal of his own missionaries. 11 The religion of Moses seems to be instituted for a particular country as well as for a single nation; and if a strict obedience had been paid to the order, that every male, three times in the year, should present himself before the Lord Jehovah, it would have been impossible that the Jews could ever have spread themselves beyond the narrow limits of the promised land. 12 That obstacle was indeed removed by the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem; but the most considerable part of the Jewish religion was involved in its destruction; and the Pagans, who had long wondered at the strange report of an empty sanctuary, 13 were at a loss to discover what could be the object, or what could be the instruments, of a worship which was destitute of temples and of altars, of priests and of sacrifices.
Yet even in their fallen state, the Jews, still asserting their lofty and exclusive privileges, shunned, instead of courting, the society of strangers. They still insisted with inflexible rigor on those parts of the law which it was in their power to practise. Their peculiar distinctions of days, of meats, and a variety of trivial though burdensome observances, were so many objects of disgust and aversion for the other nations, to whose habits and prejudices they were diametrically opposite. The painful and even dangerous rite of circumcision was alone capable of repelling a willing proselyte from the door of the synagogue. 14
11 All that relates to the Jewish proselytes has been very ably by Basnage, Hist. des Juifs, l. vi. c. 6, 7.]
12 See Exod. xxiv. 23, Deut. xvi. 16, the commentators, and a very sensible note in the Universal History, vol. i. p. 603, edit. fol.]
13 When Pompey, using or abusing the right of conquest, entered into the Holy of Holies, it was observed with amazement, “Nulli intus Deum effigie, vacuam sedem et inania arcana.” Tacit. Hist. v. 9. It was a popular saying, with regard to the Jews, “Nil praeter nubes et coeli numen adorant.”]
14 A second kind of circumcision was inflicted on a Samaritan or Egyptian proselyte. The sullen indifference of the Talmudists, with respect to the conversion of strangers, may be seen in Basnage Histoire des Juifs, l. xi. c. 6.]
Under these circumstances, Christianity offered itself to the world, armed with the strength of the Mosaic law, and delivered from the weight of its fetters. An exclusive zeal for the truth of religion, and the unity of God, was as carefully inculcated in the new as in the ancient system: and whatever was now revealed to mankind concerning the nature and designs of the Supreme Being, was fitted to increase their reverence for that mysterious doctrine. The divine authority of Moses and the prophets was admitted, and even established, as the firmest basis of Christianity. From the beginning of the world, an uninterrupted series of predictions had announced and prepared the long-expected coming of the Messiah, who, in compliance with the gross apprehensions of the Jews, had been more frequently represented under the character of a King and Conqueror, than under that of a Prophet, a Martyr, and the Son of God. By his expiatory sacrifice, the imperfect sacrifices of the temple were at once consummated and abolished. The ceremonial law, which consisted only of types and figures, was succeeded by a pure and spiritual worship, equally adapted to all climates, as well as to every condition of mankind; and to the initiation of blood was substituted a more harmless initiation of water. The promise of divine favor, instead of being partially confined to the posterity of Abraham, was universally proposed to the freeman and the slave, to the Greek and to the barbarian, to the Jew and to the Gentile. Every privilege that could raise the proselyte from earth to heaven, that could exalt his devotion, secure his happiness, or even gratify that secret pride which, under the semblance of devotion, insinuates itself into the human heart, was still reserved for the members of the Christian church; but at the same time all mankind was permitted, and even solicited, to accept the glorious distinction, which was not only proffered as a favor, but imposed as an obligation. It became the most sacred duty of a new convert to diffuse among his friends and relations the inestimable blessing which he had received, and to warn them against a refusal that would be severely punished as a criminal disobedience to the will of a benevolent but all-powerful Deity.
The enfranchisement of the church from the bonds of the synagogue was a work, however, of some time and of some difficulty. The Jewish converts, who acknowledged Jesus in the character of the Messiah foretold by their ancient oracles, respected him as a prophetic teacher of virtue and religion; but they obstinately adhered to the ceremonies of their ancestors, and were desirous of imposing them on the Gentiles, who continually augmented the number of believers. These Judaizing Christians seem to have argued with some degree of plausibility from the divine origin of the Mosaic law, and from the immutable perfections of its great Author. They affirmed, that if the Being, who is the same through all eternity, had designed to abolish those sacred rites which had served to distinguish his chosen people, the repeal of them would have been no less clear and solemn than their first promulgation: that, instead of those frequent declarations, which either suppose or assert the perpetuity of the Mosaic religion, it would have been represented as a provisionary scheme intended to last only to the coming of the Messiah, who should instruct mankind in a more perfect mode of faith and of worship: 15 that the Messiah himself, and his disciples who conversed with him on earth, instead of authorizing by their example the most minute observances of the Mosaic law, 16 would have published to the world the abolition of those useless and obsolete ceremonies, without suffering Christianity to remain during so many years obscurely confounded among the sects of the Jewish church. Arguments like these appear to have been used in the defence of the expiring cause of the Mosaic law; but the industry of our learned divines has abundantly explained the ambiguous language of the Old Testament, and the ambiguous conduct of the apostolic teachers. It was proper gradually to unfold the system of the gospel, and to pronounce, with the utmost caution and tenderness, a sentence of condemnation so repugnant to the inclination and prejudices of the believing Jews.
15 These arguments were urged with great ingenuity by the Jew Orobio, and refuted with equal ingenuity and candor by the Christian Limborch. See the Amica Collatio, (it well deserves that name,) or account of the dispute between them.]
16 Jesus . . . circumcisus erat; cibis utebatur Judaicis; vestitu simili; purgatos scabie mittebat ad sacerdotes; Paschata et alios dies festos religiose observabat: Si quos sanavit sabbatho, ostendit non tantum ex lege, sed et exceptis sententiis, talia opera sabbatho non interdicta. Grotius de Veritate Religionis Christianae, l. v. c. 7. A little afterwards, (c. 12,) he expatiates on the condescension of the apostles.]
The history of the church of Jerusalem affords a lively proof of the necessity of those precautions, and of the deep impression which the Jewish religion had made on the minds of its sectaries. The first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all circumcised Jews; and the congregation over which they presided united the law of Moses with the doctrine of Christ. 17 It was natural that the primitive tradition of a church which was founded only forty days after the death of Christ, and was governed almost as many years under the immediate inspection of his apostle, should be received as the standard of orthodoxy. 18 The distant churches very frequently appealed to the authority of their venerable Parent, and relieved her distresses by a liberal contribution of alms. But when numerous and opulent societies were established in the great cities of the empire, in Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome, the reverence which Jerusalem had inspired to all the Christian colonies insensibly diminished. The Jewish converts, or, as they were afterwards called, the Nazarenes, who had laid the foundations of the church, soon found themselves overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes, that from all the various religions of polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ: and the Gentiles, who, with the approbation of their peculiar apostle, had rejected the intolerable weight of the Mosaic ceremonies, at length refused to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice. The ruin of the temple of the city, and of the public religion of the Jews, was severely felt by the Nazarenes; as in their manners, though not in their faith, they maintained so intimate a connection with their impious countrymen, whose misfortunes were attributed by the Pagans to the contempt, and more justly ascribed by the Christians to the wrath, of the Supreme Deity. The Nazarenes retired from the ruins of Jerusalem * to the little town of Pella beyond the Jordan, where that ancient church languished above sixty years in solitude and obscurity. 19 They still enjoyed the comfort of making frequent and devout visits to the Holy City, and the hope of being one day restored to those seats which both nature and religion taught them to love as well as to revere. But at length, under the reign of Hadrian, the desperate fanaticism of the Jews filled up the measure of their calamities; and the Romans, exasperated by their repeated rebellions, exercised the rights of victory with unusual rigor. The emperor founded, under the name of Aelia Capitolina, a new city on Mount Sion, 20 to which he gave the privileges of a colony; and denouncing the severest penalties against any of the Jewish people who should dare to approach its precincts, he fixed a vigilant garrison of a Roman cohort to enforce the execution of his orders. The Nazarenes had only one way left to escape the common proscription, and the force of truth was on this occasion assisted by the influence of temporal advantages. They elected Marcus for their bishop, a prelate of the race of the Gentiles, and most probably a native either of Italy or of some of the Latin provinces. At his persuasion, the most considerable part of the congregation renounced the Mosaic law, in the practice of which they had persevered above a century. By this sacrifice of their habits and prejudices, they purchased a free admission into the colony of Hadrian, and more firmly cemented their union with the Catholic church. 21
17 Paene omnes Christum Deum sub legis observatione credebant Sulpicius Severus, ii. 31. See Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiast. l. iv. c. 5.]
18 Mosheim de Rebus Christianis ante Constantinum Magnum, page 153. In this masterly performance, which I shall often have occasion to quote he enters much more fully into the state of the primitive church than he has an opportunity of doing in his General History.]
* This is incorrect: all the traditions concur in placing the abandonment of the city by the Christians, not only before it was in ruins, but before the seige had commenced. Euseb. loc. cit., and Le Clerc. — M.]
19 Eusebius, l. iii. c. 5. Le Clerc, Hist. Ecclesiast. p. 605. During this occasional absence, the bishop and church of Pella still retained the title of Jerusalem. In the same manner, the Roman pontiffs resided seventy years at Avignon; and the patriarchs of Alexandria have long since transferred their episcopal seat to Cairo.]
20 Dion Cassius, l. lxix. The exile of the Jewish nation from Jerusalem is attested by Aristo of Pella, (apud Euseb. l. iv. c. 6,) and is mentioned by several ecclesiastical writers; though some of them too hastily extend this interdiction to the whole country of Palestine.]
21 Eusebius, l. iv. c. 6. Sulpicius Severus, ii. 31. By comparing their unsatisfactory accounts, Mosheim (p. 327, &c.) has drawn out a very distinct representation of the circumstances and motives of this revolution.]
When the name and honors of the church of Jerusalem had been restored to Mount Sion, the crimes of heresy and schism were imputed to the obscure remnant of the Nazarenes, which refused to accompany their Latin bishop. They still preserved their former habitation of Pella, spread themselves into the villages adjacent to Damascus, and formed an inconsiderable church in the city of Beroea, or, as it is now called, of Aleppo, in Syria. 22 The name of Nazarenes was deemed too honorable for those Christian Jews, and they soon received, from the supposed poverty of their understanding, as well as of their condition, the contemptuous epithet of Ebionites. 23 In a few years after the return of the church of Jerusalem, it became a matter of doubt and controversy, whether a man who sincerely acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but who still continued to observe the law of Moses, could possibly hope for salvation. The humane temper of Justin Martyr inclined him to answer this question in the affirmative; and though he expressed himself with the most guarded diffidence, he ventured to determine in favor of such an imperfect Christian, if he were content to practise the Mosaic ceremonies, without pretending to assert their general use or necessity. But when Justin was pressed to declare the sentiment of the church, he confessed that there were very many among the orthodox Christians, who not only excluded their Judaizing brethren from the hope of salvation, but who declined any intercourse with them in the common offices of friendship, hospitality, and social life. 24 The more rigorous opinion prevailed, as it was natural to expect, over the milder; and an eternal bar of separation was fixed between the disciples of Moses and those of Christ. The unfortunate Ebionites, rejected from one religion as apostates, and from the other as heretics, found themselves compelled to assume a more decided character; and although some traces of that obsolete sect may be discovered as late as the fourth century, they insensibly melted away, either into the church or the synagogue. 25
22 Le Clerc (Hist. Ecclesiast. p. 477, 535) seems to have collected from Eusebius, Jerome, Epiphanius, and other writers, all the principal circumstances that relate to the Nazarenes or Ebionites. The nature of their opinions soon divided them into a stricter and a milder sect; and there is some reason to conjecture, that the family of Jesus Christ remained members, at least, of the latter and more moderate party.]
23 Some writers have been pleased to create an Ebion, the imaginary author of their sect and name. But we can more safely rely on the learned Eusebius than on the vehement Tertullian, or the credulous Epiphanius. According to Le Clerc, the Hebrew word Ebjonim may be translated into Latin by that of Pauperes. See Hist. Ecclesiast. p. 477.
Note: The opinion of Le Clerc is generally admitted; but Neander has suggested some good reasons for supposing that this term only applied to poverty of condition. The obscure history of their tenets and divisions, is clearly and rationally traced in his History of the Church, vol. i. part ii. p. 612, &c., Germ. edit. — M.]
24 See the very curious Dialogue of Justin Martyr with the Jew Tryphon. The conference between them was held at Ephesus, in the reign of Antoninus Pius, and about twenty years after the return of the church of Pella to Jerusalem. For this date consult the accurate note of Tillemont, Memoires Ecclesiastiques, tom. ii. p. 511.
Note: Justin Martyr makes an important distinction, which Gibbon has neglected to notice. * * * There were some who were not content with observing the Mosaic law themselves, but enforced the same observance, as necessary to salvation, upon the heathen converts, and refused all social intercourse with them if they did not conform to the law. Justin Martyr himself freely admits those who kept the law themselves to Christian communion, though he acknowledges that some, not the Church, thought otherwise; of the other party, he himself thought less favorably. The former by some are considered the Nazarenes the atter the Ebionites — G and M.]
25 Of all the systems of Christianity, that of Abyssinia is the only one which still adheres to the Mosaic rites. (Geddes’s Church History of Aethiopia, and Dissertations de La Grand sur la Relation du P. Lobo.) The eunuch of the queen Candace might suggest some suspicious; but as we are assured (Socrates, i. 19. Sozomen, ii. 24. Ludolphus, p. 281) that the Aethiopians were not converted till the fourth century, it is more reasonable to believe that they respected the sabbath, and distinguished the forbidden meats, in imitation of the Jews, who, in a very early period, were seated on both sides of the Red Sea.
Circumcision had been practised by the most ancient Aethiopians, from motives of health and cleanliness, which seem to be explained in the Recherches Philosophiques sur les Americains, tom. ii. p. 117.]
While the orthodox church preserved a just medium between excessive veneration and improper contempt for the law of Moses, the various heretics deviated into equal but opposite extremes of error and extravagance. From the acknowledged truth of the Jewish religion, the Ebionites had concluded that it could never be abolished. From its supposed imperfections, the Gnostics as hastily inferred that it never was instituted by the wisdom of the Deity. There are some objections against the authority of Moses and the prophets, which too readily present themselves to the sceptical mind; though they can only be derived from our ignorance of remote antiquity, and from our incapacity to form an adequate judgment of the divine economy. These objections were eagerly embraced and as petulantly urged by the vain science of the Gnostics. 26 As those heretics were, for the most part, averse to the pleasures of sense, they morosely arraigned the polygamy of the patriarchs, the gallantries of David, and the seraglio of Solomon. The conquest of the land of Canaan, and the extirpation of the unsuspecting natives, they were at a loss how to reconcile with the common notions of humanity and justice. * But when they recollected the sanguinary list of murders, of executions, and of massacres, which stain almost every page of the Jewish annals, they acknowledged that the barbarians of Palestine had exercised as much compassion towards their idolatrous enemies, as they had ever shown to their friends or countrymen. 27 Passing from the sectaries of the law to the law itself, they asserted that it was impossible that a religion which consisted only of bloody sacrifices and trifling ceremonies, and whose rewards as well as punishments were all of a carnal and temporal nature, could inspire the love of virtue, or restrain the impetuosity of passion. The Mosaic account of the creation and fall of man was treated with profane derision by the Gnostics, who would not listen with patience to the repose of the Deity after six days’ labor, to the rib of Adam, the garden of Eden, the trees of life and of knowledge, the speaking serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the condemnation pronounced against human kind for the venial offence of their first progenitors. 28 The God of Israel was impiously represented by the Gnostics as a being liable to passion and to error, capricious in his favor, implacable in his resentment, meanly jealous of his superstitious worship, and confining his partial providence to a single people, and to this transitory life. In such a character they could discover none of the features of the wise and omnipotent Father of the universe. 29 They allowed that the religion of the Jews was somewhat less criminal than the idolatry of the Gentiles; but it was their fundamental doctrine, that the Christ whom they adored as the first and brightest emanation of the Deity appeared upon earth to rescue mankind from their various errors, and to reveal a new system of truth and perfection. The most learned of the fathers, by a very singular condescension, have imprudently admitted the sophistry of the Gnostics. * Acknowledging that the literal sense is repugnant to every principle of faith as well as reason, they deem themselves secure and invulnerable behind the ample veil of allegory, which they carefully spread over every tender part of the Mosaic dispensation. 30
26 Beausobre, Histoire du Manicheisme, l. i. c. 3, has stated their objections, particularly those of Faustus, the adversary of Augustin, with the most learned impartiality.]
* On the “war law” of the Jews, see Hist. of Jews, i. 137. — M.]
27 Apud ipsos fides obstinata, misericordia in promptu: adversus amnes alios hostile odium. Tacit. Hist. v. 4. Surely Tacitus had seen the Jews with too favorable an eye. The perusal of Josephus must have destroyed the antithesis.
Note: Few writers have suspected Tacitus of partiality towards the Jews. The whole later history of the Jews illustrates as well their strong feelings of humanity to their brethren, as their hostility to the rest of mankind. The character and the position of Josephus with the Roman authorities, must be kept in mind during the perusal of his History. Perhaps he has not exaggerated the ferocity and fanaticism of the Jews at that time; but insurrectionary warfare is not the best school for the humaner virtues, and much must be allowed for the grinding tyranny of the later Roman governors. See Hist. of Jews, ii. 254. — M.]
† Dr. Burnet apologized for the levity with which he had conducted some of his arguments, by the excuse that he wrote in a learned language for scholars alone, not for the vulgar. Whatever may be thought of his success in tracing an Eastern allegory in the first chapters of Genesis, his other works prove him to have been a man of great genius, and of sincere piety. — M]
29 The milder Gnostics considered Jehovah, the Creator, as a Being of a mixed nature between God and the Daemon.
Others confounded him with an evil principle. Consult the second century of the general history of Mosheim, which gives a very distinct, though concise, account of their strange opinions on this subject.]
* The Gnostics, and the historian who has stated these plausible objections with so much force as almost to make them his own, would have shown a more considerate and not less reasonable philosophy, if they had considered the religion of Moses with reference to the age in which it was promulgated; if they had done justice to its sublime as well as its more imperfect views of the divine nature; the humane and civilizing provisions of the Hebrew law, as well as those adapted for an infant and barbarous people. See Hist of Jews, i. 36, 37, &c. — M.]
30 See Beausobre, Hist. du Manicheisme, l. i. c. 4. Origen and St. Augustin were among the allegorists.]
It has been remarked with more ingenuity than truth, that the virgin purity of the church was never violated by schism or heresy before the reign of Trajan or Hadrian, about one hundred years after the death of Christ. 31 We may observe with much more propriety, that, during that period, the disciples of the Messiah were indulged in a freer latitude, both of faith and practice, than has ever been allowed in succeeding ages. As the terms of communion were insensibly narrowed, and the spiritual authority of the prevailing party was exercised with increasing severity, many of its most respectable adherents, who were called upon to renounce, were provoked to assert their private opinions, to pursue the consequences of their mistaken principles, and openly to erect the standard of rebellion against the unity of the church. The Gnostics were distinguished as the most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name; and that general appellation, which expressed a superiority of knowledge, was either assumed by their own pride, or ironically bestowed by the envy of their adversaries. They were almost without exception of the race of the Gentiles, and their principal founders seem to have been natives of Syria or Egypt, where the warmth of the climate disposes both the mind and the body to indolent and contemplative devotion. The Gnostics blended with the faith of Christ many sublime but obscure tenets, which they derived from oriental philosophy, and even from the religion of Zoroaster, concerning the eternity of matter, the existence of two principles, and the mysterious hierarchy of the invisible world. 32 As soon as they launched out into that vast abyss, they delivered themselves to the guidance of a disordered imagination; and as the paths of error are various and infinite, the Gnostics were imperceptibly divided into more than fifty particular sects, 33 of whom the most celebrated appear to have been the Basilidians, the Valentinians, the Marcionites, and, in a still later period, the Manichaeans. Each of these sects could boast of its bishops and congregations, of its doctors and martyrs; 34 and, instead of the Four Gospels adopted by the church, † the heretics produced a multitude of histories, in which the actions and discourses of Christ and of his apostles were adapted to their respective tenets. 35 The success of the Gnostics was rapid and extensive. 36 They covered Asia and Egypt, established themselves in Rome, and sometimes penetrated into the provinces of the West. For the most part they arose in the second century, flourished during the third, and were suppressed in the fourth or fifth, by the prevalence of more fashionable controversies, and by the superior ascendant of the reigning power. Though they constantly disturbed the peace, and frequently disgraced the name, of religion, they contributed to assist rather than to retard the progress of Christianity. The Gentile converts, whose strongest objections and prejudices were directed against the law of Moses, could find admission into many Christian societies, which required not from their untutored mind any belief of an antecedent revelation. Their faith was insensibly fortified and enlarged, and the church was ultimately benefited by the conquests of its most inveterate enemies. 37
31 Hegesippus, ap. Euseb. l. iii. 32, iv. 22. Clemens Alexandrin Stromat. vii. 17.
Note: The assertion of Hegesippus is not so positive: it is sufficient to read the whole passage in Eusebius, to see that the former part is modified by the matter. Hegesippus adds, that up to this period the church had remained pure and immaculate as a virgin. Those who labored to corrupt the doctrines of the gospel worked as yet in obscurity — G]
32 In the account of the Gnostics of the second and third centuries, Mosheim is ingenious and candid; Le Clerc dull, but exact; Beausobre almost always an apologist; and it is much to be feared that the primitive fathers are very frequently calumniators.
Note The Histoire du Gnosticisme of M. Matter is at once the fairest and most complete account of these sects. — M.]
33 See the catalogues of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. It must indeed be allowed, that those writers were inclined to multiply the number of sects which opposed the unity of the church.]
34 Eusebius, l. iv. c. 15. Sozomen, l. ii. c. 32. See in Bayle, in the article of Marcion, a curious detail of a dispute on that subject. It should seem that some of the Gnostics (the Basilidians) declined, and even refused the honor of Martyrdom. Their reasons were singular and abstruse. See Mosheim, p. 539.]
† M. Hahn has restored the Marcionite Gospel with great ingenuity. His work is reprinted in Thilo. Codex. Apoc. Nov. Test. vol. i. — M.]
35 See a very remarkable passage of Origen, (Proem. ad Lucam.) That indefatigable writer, who had consumed his life in the study of the Scriptures, relies for their authenticity on the inspired authority of the church. It was impossible that the Gnostics could receive our present Gospels, many parts of which (particularly in the resurrection of Christ) are directly, and as it might seem designedly, pointed against their favorite tenets. It is therefore somewhat singular that Ignatius (Epist. ad Smyrn. Patr. Apostol. tom. ii. p. 34) should choose to employ a vague and doubtful tradition, instead of quoting the certain testimony of the evangelists.
Note: Bishop Pearson has attempted very happily to explain this singularity.’ The first Christians were acquainted with a number of sayings of Jesus Christ, which are not related in our Gospels, and indeed have never been written. Why might not St. Ignatius, who had lived with the apostles or their disciples, repeat in other words that which St. Luke has related, particularly at a time when, being in prison, he could have the Gospels at hand? Pearson, Vind Ign. pp. 2, 9 p. 396 in tom. ii. Patres Apost. ed. Coteler — G.]
36 Faciunt favos et vespae; faciunt ecclesias et Marcionitae, is the strong expression of Tertullian, which I am obliged to quote from memory. In the time of Epiphanius (advers. Haereses, p. 302) the Marcionites were very numerous in Italy, Syria, Egypt, Arabia, and Persia.]
37 Augustin is a memorable instance of this gradual progress from reason to faith. He was, during several years, engaged in the Manichaear sect.]
But whatever difference of opinion might subsist between the Orthodox, the Ebionites, and the Gnostics, concerning the divinity or the obligation of the Mosaic law, they were all equally animated by the same exclusive zeal; and by the same abhorrence for idolatry, which had distinguished the Jews from the other nations of the ancient world. The philosopher, who considered the system of polytheism as a composition of human fraud and error, could disguise a smile of contempt under the mask of devotion, without apprehending that either the mockery, or the compliance, would expose him to the resentment of any invisible, or, as he conceived them, imaginary powers. But the established religions of Paganism were seen by the primitive Christians in a much more odious and formidable light. It was the universal sentiment both of the church and of heretics, that the daemons were the authors, the patrons, and the objects of idolatry. 38 Those rebellious spirits who had been degraded from the rank of angels, and cast down into the infernal pit, were still permitted to roam upon earth, to torment the bodies, and to seduce the minds, of sinful men. The daemons soon discovered and abused the natural propensity of the human heart towards devotion, and artfully withdrawing the adoration of mankind from their Creator, they usurped the place and honors of the Supreme Deity. By the success of their malicious contrivances, they at once gratified their own vanity and revenge, and obtained the only comfort of which they were yet susceptible, the hope of involving the human species in the participation of their guilt and misery. It was confessed, or at least it was imagined, that they had distributed among themselves the most important characters of polytheism, one daemon assuming the name and attributes of Jupiter, another of Aesculapius, a third of Venus, and a fourth perhaps of Apollo; 39 and that, by the advantage of their long experience and aerial nature, they were enabled to execute, with sufficient skill and dignity, the parts which they had undertaken. They lurked in the temples, instituted festivals and sacrifices, invented fables, pronounced oracles, and were frequently allowed to perform miracles. The Christians, who, by the interposition of evil spirits, could so readily explain every preternatural appearance, were disposed and even desirous to admit the most extravagant fictions of the Pagan mythology. But the belief of the Christian was accompanied with horror. The most trifling mark of respect to the national worship he considered as a direct homage yielded to the daemon, and as an act of rebellion against the majesty of God.
38 The unanimous sentiment of the primitive church is very clearly explained by Justin Martyr, Apolog. Major, by Athenagoras, Legat. c. 22. &c., and by Lactantius, Institut. Divin. ii. 14 — 19.]
39 Tertullian (Apolog. c. 23) alleges the confession of the daemons themselves as often as they were tormented by the Christian exorcists]
In consequence of this opinion, it was the first but arduous duty of a Christian to preserve himself pure and undefiled by the practice of idolatry. The religion of the nations was not merely a speculative doctrine professed in the schools or preached in the temples. The innumerable deities and rites of polytheism were closely interwoven with every circumstance of business or pleasure, of public or of private life; and it seemed impossible to escape the observance of them, without, at the same time, renouncing the commerce of mankind, and all the offices and amusements of society. 40 The important transactions of peace and war were prepared or concluded by solemn sacrifices, in which the magistrate, the senator, and the soldier, were obliged to preside or to participate. 41 The public spectacles were an essential part of the cheerful devotion of the Pagans, and the gods were supposed to accept, as the most grateful offering, the games that the prince and people celebrated in honor of their peculiar festivals. 42 The Christians, who with pious horror avoided the abomination of the circus or the theatre, found himself encompassed with infernal snares in every convivial entertainment, as often as his friends, invoking the hospitable deities, poured out libations to each other’s happiness. 43 When the bride, struggling with well-affected reluctance, was forced into hymenaeal pomp over the threshold of her new habitation, 44 or when the sad procession of the dead slowly moved towards the funeral pile; 45 the Christian, on these interesting occasions, was compelled to desert the persons who were the dearest to him, rather than contract the guilt inherent to those impious ceremonies. Every art and every trade that was in the least concerned in the framing or adorning of idols was polluted by the stain of idolatry; 46 a severe sentence, since it devoted to eternal misery the far greater part of the community, which is employed in the exercise of liberal or mechanic professions. If we cast our eyes over the numerous remains of antiquity, we shall perceive, that besides the immediate representations of the gods, and the holy instruments of their worship, the elegant forms and agreeable fictions consecrated by the imagination of the Greeks, were introduced as the richest ornaments of the houses, the dress, and the furniture of the Pagan. 47 Even the arts of music and painting, of eloquence and poetry, flowed from the same impure origin. In the style of the fathers, Apollo and the Muses were the organs of the infernal spirit; Homer and Virgil were the most eminent of his servants; and the beautiful mythology which pervades and animates the compositions of their genius, is destined to celebrate the glory of the daemons. Even the common language of Greece and Rome abounded with familiar but impious expressions, which the imprudent Christian might too carelessly utter, or too patiently hear. 48
40 Tertullian has written a most severe treatise against idolatry, to caution his brethren against the hourly danger of incurring that guilt. Recogita sylvam, et quantae latitant spinae. De Corona Militis, c. 10.]
41 The Roman senate was always held in a temple or consecrated place. (Aulus Gellius, xiv. 7.) Before they entered on business, every senator dropped some wine and frankincense on the altar. Sueton. in August. c. 35.]
42 See Tertullian, De Spectaculis. This severe reformer shows no more indulgence to a tragedy of Euripides, than to a combat of gladiators. The dress of the actors particularly offends him. By the use of the lofty buskin, they impiously strive to add a cubit to their stature. c. 23.]
43 The ancient practice of concluding the entertainment with libations, may be found in every classic. Socrates and Seneca, in their last moments, made a noble application of this custom. Postquam stagnum, calidae aquae introiit, respergens proximos servorum, addita voce, libare se liquorem illum Jovi Liberatori. Tacit. Annal. xv. 64.]
44 See the elegant but idolatrous hymn of Catullus, on the nuptials of Manlius and Julia. O Hymen, Hymenaee Io! Quis huic Deo compararier ausit?]
45 The ancient funerals (in those of Misenus and Pallas) are no less accurately described by Virgil, than they are illustrated by his commentator Servius. The pile itself was an altar, the flames were fed with the blood of victims, and all the assistants were sprinkled with lustral water.]
46 Tertullian de Idololatria, c. 11.
Note: The exaggerated and declamatory opinions of Tertullian ought not to be taken as the general sentiment of the early Christians. Gibbon has too often allowed himself to consider the peculiar notions of certain Fathers of the Church as inherent in Christianity. This is not accurate. — G.]
47 See every part of Montfaucon’s Antiquities. Even the reverses of the Greek and Roman coins were frequently of an idolatrous nature. Here indeed the scruples of the Christian were suspended by a stronger passion.
Note: All this scrupulous nicety is at variance with the decision of St. Paul about meat offered to idols, 1 Cor. x. 21 — 32. — M.]
48 Tertullian de Idololatria, c. 20, 21, 22. If a Pagan friend (on the occasion perhaps of sneezing) used the familiar expression of “Jupiter bless you,” the Christian was obliged to protest against the divinity of Jupiter.]
The dangerous temptations which on every side lurked in ambush to surprise the unguarded believer, assailed him with redoubled violence on the days of solemn festivals. So artfully were they framed and disposed throughout the year,49 that superstition always wore the appearance of pleasure, and often of virtue. Some of the most sacred festivals in the Roman ritual were destined to salute the new calends of January with vows of public and private felicity; to indulge the pious remembrance of the dead and living; to ascertain the inviolable bounds of property; to hail, on the return of spring, the genial powers of fecundity; to perpetuate the two memorable areas of Rome, the foundation of the city and that of the republic, and to restore, during the humane license of the Saturnalia, the primitive equality of mankind. Some idea may be conceived of the abhorrence of the Christians for such impious ceremonies, by the scrupulous delicacy which they displayed on a much less alarming occasion. On days of general festivity, it was the custom of the ancients to adorn their doors with lamps and with branches of laurel, and to crown their heads with a garland of flowers. This innocent and elegant practice might perhaps have been tolerated as a mere civil institution. But it most unluckily happened that the doors were under the protection of the household gods, that the laurel was sacred to the lover of Daphne, and that garlands of flowers, though frequently worn as a symbol of joy or mourning, had been dedicated in their first origin to the service of superstition. The trembling Christians, who were persuaded in this instance to comply with the fashion of their country, and the commands of the magistrate, labored under the most gloomy apprehensions, from the reproaches of his own conscience, the censures of the church, and the denunciations of divine vengeance. 50
49 Consult the most labored work of Ovid, his imperfect Fasti. He finished no more than the first six months of the year. The compilation of Macrobius is called the Saturnalia, but it is only a small part of the first book that bears any relation to the title.]
50 Tertullian has composed a defence, or rather panegyric, of the rash action of a Christian soldier, who, by throwing away his crown of laurel, had exposed himself and his brethren to the most imminent danger. By the mention of the emperors, (Severus and Caracalla,) it is evident, notwithstanding the wishes of M. de Tillemont, that Tertullian composed his treatise De Corona long before he was engaged in the errors of the Montanists. See Memoires Ecclesiastiques, tom. iii. p. 384.
Note: The soldier did not tear off his crown to throw it down with contempt; he did not even throw it away; he held it in his hand, while others were it on their heads. Solus libero capite, ornamento in manu otioso. — G
Note: Tertullian does not expressly name the two emperors, Severus and Caracalla: he speaks only of two emperors, and of a long peace which the church had enjoyed. It is generally agreed that Tertullian became a Montanist about the year 200: his work, de Corona Militis, appears to have been written, at the earliest about the year 202 before the persecution of Severus: it may be maintained, then, that it is subsequent to the Montanism of the author. See Mosheim, Diss. de Apol. Tertull. p. 53. Biblioth. Amsterd. tom. x. part ii. p. 292. Cave’s Hist. Lit. p. 92, 93. — G.
The state of Tertullian’s opinions at the particular period is almost an idle question. “The fiery African” is not at any time to be considered a fair representative of Christianity. — M.]
Such was the anxious diligence which was required to guard the chastity of the gospel from the infectious breath of idolatry. The superstitious observances of public or private rites were carelessly practised, from education and habit, by the followers of the established religion. But as often as they occurred, they afforded the Christians an opportunity of declaring and confirming their zealous opposition. By these frequent protestations their attachment to the faith was continually fortified; and in proportion to the increase of zeal, they combated with the more ardor and success in the holy war, which they had undertaken against the empire of the demons.
II. The writings of Cicero 51 represent in the most lively colors the ignorance, the errors, and the uncertainty of the ancient philosophers with regard to the immortality of the soul. When they are desirous of arming their disciples against the fear of death, they inculcate, as an obvious, though melancholy position, that the fatal stroke of our dissolution releases us from the calamities of life; and that those can no longer suffer, who no longer exist. Yet there were a few sages of Greece and Rome who had conceived a more exalted, and, in some respects, a juster idea of human nature, though it must be confessed, that in the sublime inquiry, their reason had been often guided by their imagination, and that their imagination had been prompted by their vanity. When they viewed with complacency the extent of their own mental powers, when they exercised the various faculties of memory, of fancy, and of judgment, in the most profound speculations, or the most important labors, and when they reflected on the desire of fame, which transported them into future ages, far beyond the bounds of death and of the grave, they were unwilling to confound themselves with the beasts of the field, or to suppose that a being, for whose dignity they entertained the most sincere admiration, could be limited to a spot of earth, and to a few years of duration. With this favorable prepossession they summoned to their aid the science, or rather the language, of Metaphysics. They soon discovered, that as none of the properties of matter will apply to the operations of the mind, the human soul must consequently be a substance distinct from the body, pure, simple, and spiritual, incapable of dissolution, and susceptible of a much higher degree of virtue and happiness after the release from its corporeal prison. From these specious and noble principles, the philosophers who trod in the footsteps of Plato deduced a very unjustifiable conclusion, since they asserted, not only the future immortality, but the past eternity, of the human soul, which they were too apt to consider as a portion of the infinite and self-existing spirit, which pervades and sustains the universe. 52 A doctrine thus removed beyond the senses and the experience of mankind, might serve to amuse the leisure of a philosophic mind; or, in the silence of solitude, it might sometimes impart a ray of comfort to desponding virtue; but the faint impression which had been received in the schools, was soon obliterated by the commerce and business of active life. We are sufficiently acquainted with the eminent persons who flourished in the age of Cicero, and of the first Caesars, with their actions, their characters, and their motives, to be assured that their conduct in this life was never regulated by any serious conviction of the rewards or punishments of a future state. At the bar and in the senate of Rome the ablest orators were not apprehensive of giving offence to their hearers, by exposing that doctrine as an idle and extravagant opinion, which was rejected with contempt by every man of a liberal education and understanding. 53
51 In particular, the first book of the Tusculan Questions, and the treatise De Senectute, and the Somnium Scipionis, contain, in the most beautiful language, every thing that Grecian philosophy, on Roman good sense, could possibly suggest on this dark but important object.]
52 The preexistence of human souls, so far at least as that doctrine is compatible with religion, was adopted by many of the Greek and Latin fathers. See Beausobre, Hist. du Manicheisme, l. vi. c. 4.]
53 See Cicero pro Cluent. c. 61. Caesar ap. Sallust. de Bell. Catilis n 50. Juvenal. Satir. ii. 149.
Esse aliquid manes, et subterranea regna,
. . .
Nec pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum aeree lavantae.]
Since therefore the most sublime efforts of philosophy can extend no further than feebly to point out the desire, the hope, or, at most, the probability, of a future state, there is nothing, except a divine revelation, that can ascertain the existence, and describe the condition, of the invisible country which is destined to receive the souls of men after their separation from the body. But we may perceive several defects inherent to the popular religions of Greece and Rome, which rendered them very unequal to so arduous a task. 1. The general system of their mythology was unsupported by any solid proofs; and the wisest among the Pagans had already disclaimed its usurped authority. 2. The description of the infernal regions had been abandoned to the fancy of painters and of poets, who peopled them with so many phantoms and monsters, who dispensed their rewards and punishments with so little equity, that a solemn truth, the most congenial to the human heart, was opposed and disgraced by the absurd mixture of the wildest fictions. 54 3. The doctrine of a future state was scarcely considered among the devout polytheists of Greece and Rome as a fundamental article of faith. The providence of the gods, as it related to public communities rather than to private individuals, was principally displayed on the visible theatre of the present world. The petitions which were offered on the altars of Jupiter or Apollo, expressed the anxiety of their worshippers for temporal happiness, and their ignorance or indifference concerning a future life. 55 The important truth of the of the immortality of the soul was inculcated with more diligence, as well as success, in India, in Assyria, in Egypt, and in Gaul; and since we cannot attribute such a difference to the superior knowledge of the barbarians, we we must ascribe it to the influence of an established priesthood, which employed the motives of virtue as the instrument of ambition. 56
54 The xith book of the Odyssey gives a very dreary and incoherent account of the infernal shades. Pindar and Virgil have embellished the picture; but even those poets, though more correct than their great model, are guilty of very strange inconsistencies. See Bayle, Responses aux Questions d’un Provincial, part iii. c. 22.]
55 See xvith epistle of the first book of Horace, the xiiith Satire of Juvenal, and the iid Satire of Persius: these popular discourses express the sentiment and language of the multitude.]
56 If we confine ourselves to the Gauls, we may observe, that they intrusted, not only their lives, but even their money, to the security of another world. Vetus ille mos Gallorum occurrit (says Valerius Maximus, l. ii. c. 6, p. 10) quos, memoria proditum est pecunias montuas, quae his apud inferos redderentur, dare solitos. The same custom is more darkly insinuated by Mela, l. iii. c. 2. It is almost needless to add, that the profits of trade hold a just proportion to the credit of the merchant, and that the Druids derived from their holy profession a character of responsibility, which could scarcely be claimed by any other order of men.]
We might naturally expect that a principle so essential to religion, would have been revealed in the clearest terms to the chosen people of Palestine, and that it might safely have been intrusted to the hereditary priesthood of Aaron. It is incumbent on us to adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence, 57 when we discover that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted in the law of Moses it is darkly insinuated by the prophets; and during the long period which clasped between the Egyptian and the Babylonian servitudes, the hopes as well as fears of the Jews appear to have been confined within the narrow compass of the present life. 58 After Cyrus had permitted the exiled nation to return into the promised land, and after Ezra had restored the ancient records of their religion, two celebrated sects, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, insensibly arose at Jerusalem. 59 The former, selected from the more opulent and distinguished ranks of society, were strictly attached to the literal sense of the Mosaic law, and they piously rejected the immortality of the soul, as an opinion that received no countenance from the divine book, which they revered as the only rule of their faith. To the authority of Scripture the Pharisees added that of tradition, and they accepted, under the name of traditions, several speculative tenets from the philosophy or religion of the eastern nations. The doctrines of fate or predestination, of angels and spirits, and of a future state of rewards and punishments, were in the number of these new articles of belief; and as the Pharisees, by the austerity of their manners, had drawn into their party the body of the Jewish people, the immortality of the soul became the prevailing sentiment of the synagogue, under the reign of the Asmonaean princes and pontiffs. The temper of the Jews was incapable of contenting itself with such a cold and languid assent as might satisfy the mind of a Polytheist; and as soon as they admitted the idea of a future state, they embraced it with the zeal which has always formed the characteristic of the nation. Their zeal, however, added nothing to its evidence, or even probability: and it was still necessary that the doctrine of life and immortality, which had been dictated by nature, approved by reason, and received by superstition, should obtain the sanction of divine truth from the authority and example of Christ.
57 The right reverend author of the Divine Legation of Moses as signs a very curious reason for the omission, and most ingeniously retorts it on the unbelievers.
Note: The hypothesis of Warburton concerning this remarkable fact, which, as far as the Law of Moses, is unquestionable, made few disciples; and it is difficult to suppose that it could be intended by the author himself for more than a display of intellectual strength. Modern writers have accounted in various ways for the silence of the Hebrew legislator on the immortality of the soul. According to Michaelis, “Moses wrote as an historian and as a lawgiver; he regulated the ecclesiastical discipline, rather than the religious belief of his people; and the sanctions of the law being temporal, he had no occasion, and as a civil legislator could not with propriety, threaten punishments in another world. See Michaelis, Laws of Moses, art. 272, vol. iv. p. 209, Eng. Trans.; and Syntagma Commentationum, p. 80, quoted by Guizot. M. Guizot adds, the “ingenious conjecture of a philosophic theologian,” which approximates to an opinion long entertained by the Editor. That writer believes, that in the state of civilization at the time of the legislator, this doctrine, become popular among the Jews, would necessarily have given birth to a multitude of idolatrous superstitions which he wished to prevent. His primary object was to establish a firm theocracy, to make his people the conservators of the doctrine of the Divine Unity, the basis upon which Christianity was hereafter to rest. He carefully excluded everything which could obscure or weaken that doctrine. Other nations had strangely abused their notions on the immortality of the soul; Moses wished to prevent this abuse: hence he forbade the Jews from consulting necromancers, (those who evoke the spirits of the dead.) Deut. xviii. 11. Those who reflect on the state of the Pagans and the Jews, and on the facility with which idolatry crept in on every side, will not be astonished that Moses has not developed a doctrine of which the influence might be more pernicious than useful to his people. Orat. Fest. de Vitae Immort. Spe., &c., auct. Ph. Alb. Stapfer, p. 12 13, 20. Berne, 1787.
Moses, as well from the intimations scattered in his writings, the passage relating to the translation of Enoch, (Gen. v. 24,) the prohibition of necromancy, (Michaelis believes him to be the author of the Book of Job though this opinion is in general rejected; other learned writers consider this Book to be coeval with and known to Moses,) as from his long residence in Egypt, and his acquaintance with Egyptian wisdom, could not be ignorant of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. But this doctrine if popularly known among the Jews, must have been purely Egyptian, and as so, intimately connected with the whole religious system of that country. It was no doubt moulded up with the tenet of the transmigration of the soul, perhaps with notions analogous to the emanation system of India in which the human soul was an efflux from or indeed a part of, the Deity. The Mosaic religion drew a wide and impassable interval between the Creator and created human beings: in this it differed from the Egyptian and all the Eastern religions. As then the immortality of the soul was thus inseparably blended with those foreign religions which were altogether to be effaced from the minds of the people, and by no means necessary for the establishment of the theocracy, Moses maintained silence on this point and a purer notion of it was left to be developed at a more favorable period in the history of man. — M.]
58 See Le Clerc (Prolegomena ad Hist. Ecclesiast. sect. 1, c. 8 His authority seems to carry the greater weight, as he has written a learned and judicious commentary on the books of the Old Testament.]
59 Joseph. Antiquitat. l. xiii. c. 10. De Bell. Jud. ii. 8. According to the most natural interpretation of his words, the Sadducees admitted only the Pentateuch; but it has pleased some modern critics to add the Prophets to their creed, and to suppose that they contented themselves with rejecting the traditions of the Pharisees. Dr. Jortin has argued that point in his Remarks on Ecclesiastical History, vol. ii. p. 103.]
When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind on condition of adopting the faith, and of observing the precepts, of the gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman empire. The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present existence, and by a just confidence of immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect faith of modern ages cannot give us any adequate notion. In the primitive church, the influence of truth was very powerfully strengthened by an opinion, which, however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity, has not been found agreeable to experience. It was universally believed, that the end of the world, and the kingdom of heaven, were at hand. * The near approach of this wonderful event had been predicted by the apostles; the tradition of it was preserved by their earliest disciples, and those who understood in their literal senses the discourse of Christ himself, were obliged to expect the second and glorious coming of the Son of Man in the clouds, before that generation was totally extinguished, which had beheld his humble condition upon earth, and which might still be witness of the calamities of the Jews under Vespasian or Hadrian. The revolution of seventeen centuries has instructed us not to press too closely the mysterious language of prophecy and revelation; but as long as, for wise purposes, this error was permitted to subsist in the church, it was productive of the most salutary effects on the faith and practice of Christians, who lived in the awful expectation of that moment, when the globe itself, and all the various race of mankind, should tremble at the appearance of their divine Judge. 60
* This was, in fact, an integral part of the Jewish notion of the Messiah, from which the minds of the apostles themselves were but gradually detached. See Bertholdt, Christologia Judaeorum, concluding chapters — M.]
60 This expectation was countenanced by the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew, and by the first epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Erasmus removes the difficulty by the help of allegory and metaphor; and the learned Grotius ventures to insinuate, that, for wise purposes, the pious deception was permitted to take place.
Note: Some modern theologians explain it without discovering either allegory or deception. They say, that Jesus Christ, after having proclaimed the ruin of Jerusalem and of the Temple, speaks of his second coming and the sings which were to precede it; but those who believed that the moment was near deceived themselves as to the sense of two words, an error which still subsists in our versions of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, xxiv. 29, 34. In verse 29, we read, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened,” &c. The Greek word signifies all at once, suddenly, not immediately; so that it signifies only the sudden appearance of the signs which Jesus Christ announces not the shortness of the interval which was to separate them from the “days of tribulation,” of which he was speaking. The verse 34 is this “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass till all these things shall be fulfilled.” Jesus, speaking to his disciples, uses these words, which the translators have rendered by this generation, but which means the race, the filiation of my disciples; that is, he speaks of a class of men, not of a generation. The true sense then, according to these learned men, is, In truth I tell you that this race of men, of which you are the commencement, shall not pass away till this shall take place; that is to say, the succession of Christians shall not cease till his coming. See Commentary of M. Paulus on the New Test., edit. 1802, tom. iii. p. 445, — 446. — G.
Others, as Rosenmuller and Kuinoel, in loc., confine this passage to a highly figurative description of the ruins of the Jewish city and polity. — M.]
The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ. As the works of the creation had been finished in six days, their duration in their present state, according to a tradition which was attributed to the prophet Elijah, was fixed to six thousand years. 61 By the same analogy it was inferred, that this long period of labor and contention, which was now almost elapsed, 62 would be succeeded by a joyful Sabbath of a thousand years; and that Christ, with the triumphant band of the saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth till the time appointed for the last and general resurrection. So pleasing was this hope to the mind of believers, that the New Jerusalem, the seat of this blissful kingdom, was quickly adorned with all the gayest colors of the imagination. A felicity consisting only of pure and spiritual pleasure would have appeared too refined for its inhabitants, who were still supposed to possess their human nature and senses. A garden of Eden, with the amusements of the pastoral life, was no longer suited to the advanced state of society which prevailed under the Roman empire. A city was therefore erected of gold and precious stones, and a supernatural plenty of corn and wine was bestowed on the adjacent territory; in the free enjoyment of whose spontaneous productions, the happy and benevolent people was never to be restrained by any jealous laws of exclusive property. 63 The assurance of such a Millennium was carefully inculcated by a succession of fathers from Justin Martyr, 64 and Irenaeus, who conversed with the immediate disciples of the apostles, down to Lactantius, who was preceptor to the son of Constantine. 65 Though it might not be universally received, it appears to have been the reigning sentiment of the orthodox believers; and it seems so well adapted to the desires and apprehensions of mankind, that it must have contributed in a very considerable degree to the progress of the Christian faith. But when the edifice of the church was almost completed, the temporary support was laid aside. The doctrine of Christ’s reign upon earth was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism. 66 A mysterious prophecy, which still forms a part of the sacred canon, but which was thought to favor the exploded sentiment, has very narrowly escaped the proscription of the church. 67
61 See Burnet’s Sacred Theory, part iii. c. 5. This tradition may be traced as high as the the author of Epistle of Barnabas, who wrote in the first century, and who seems to have been half a Jew.
Note: In fact it is purely Jewish. See Mosheim, De Reb. Christ. ii. 8. Lightfoot’s Works, 8vo. edit. vol. iii. p. 37. Bertholdt, Christologia Judaeorum ch. 38. — M.]
62 The primitive church of Antioch computed almost 6000 years from the creation of the world to the birth of Christ.
Africanus, Lactantius, and the Greek church, have reduced that number to 5500, and Eusebius has contented himself with 5200 years. These calculations were formed on the Septuagint, which was universally received during the six first centuries. The authority of the vulgate and of the Hebrew text has determined the moderns, Protestants as well as Catholics, to prefer a period of about 4000 years; though, in the study of profane antiquity, they often find themselves straitened by those narrow limits.
Note: Most of the more learned modern English Protestants, Dr. Hales, Mr. Faber, Dr. Russel, as well as the Continental writers, adopt the larger chronology. There is little doubt that the narrower system was framed by the Jews of Tiberias; it was clearly neither that of St. Paul, nor of Josephus, nor of the Samaritan Text. It is greatly to be regretted that the chronology of the earlier Scriptures should ever have been made a religious question — M.]
63 Most of these pictures were borrowed from a misrepresentation of Isaiah, Daniel, and the Apocalypse. One of the grossest images may be found in Irenaeus, (l. v. p. 455,) the disciple of Papias, who had seen the apostle St. John.]
64 See the second dialogue of Justin with Triphon, and the seventh book of Lactantius. It is unnecessary to allege all the intermediate fathers, as the fact is not disputed. Yet the curious reader may consult Daille de Uus Patrum, l. ii. c. 4.]
65 The testimony of Justin of his own faith and that of his orthodox brethren, in the doctrine of a Millennium, is delivered in the clearest and most solemn manner, (Dialog. cum Tryphonte Jud. p. 177, 178, edit. Benedictin.) If in the beginning of this important passage there is any thing like an inconsistency, we may impute it, as we think proper, either to the author or to his transcribers.
Note: The Millenium is described in what once stood as the XLIst Article of the English Church (see Collier, Eccles. Hist., for Articles of Edw. VI.) as “a fable of Jewish dotage.” The whole of these gross and earthly images may be traced in the works which treat on the Jewish traditions, in Lightfoot, Schoetgen, and Eisenmenger; “Das enthdeckte Judenthum” t. ii 809; and briefly in Bertholdt, i. c. 38, 39. — M.]
66 Dupin, Bibliotheque Ecclesiastique, tom. i. p. 223, tom. ii. p. 366, and Mosheim, p. 720; though the latter of these learned divines is not altogether candid on this occasion.]
67 In the council of Laodicea, (about the year 360,) the Apocalypse was tacitly excluded from the sacred canon, by the same churches of Asia to which it is addressed; and we may learn from the complaint of Sulpicius Severus, that their sentence had been ratified by the greater number of Christians of his time. From what causes then is the Apocalypse at present so generally received by the Greek, the Roman, and the Protestant churches? The following ones may be assigned. 1. The Greeks were subdued by the authority of an impostor, who, in the sixth century, assumed the character of Dionysius the Areopagite. 2. A just apprehension that the grammarians might become more important than the theologians, engaged the council of Trent to fix the seal of their infallibility on all the books of Scripture contained in the Latin Vulgate, in the number of which the Apocalypse was fortunately included. (Fr. Paolo, Istoria del Concilio Tridentino, l. ii.) 3. The advantage of turning those mysterious prophecies against the See of Rome, inspired the Protestants with uncommon veneration for so useful an ally. See the ingenious and elegant discourses of the present bishop of Litchfield on that unpromising subject. †
† The exclusion of the Apocalypse is not improbably assigned to its obvious unfitness to be read in churches. It is to be feared that a history of the interpretation of the Apocalypse would not give a very favorable view either of the wisdom or the charity of the successive ages of Christianity. Wetstein’s interpretation, differently modified, is adopted by most Continental scholars. — M.]
Whilst the happiness and glory of a temporal reign were promised to the disciples of Christ, the most dreadful calamities were denounced against an unbelieving world. The edification of a new Jerusalem was to advance by equal steps with the destruction of the mystic Babylon; and as long as the emperors who reigned before Constantine persisted in the profession of idolatry, the epithet of babylon was applied to the city and to the empire of Rome. A regular series was prepared of all the moral and physical evils which can afflict a flourishing nation; intestine discord, and the invasion of the fiercest barbarians from the unknown regions of the North; pestilence and famine, comets and eclipses, earthquakes and inundations. 68 All these were only so many preparatory and alarming signs of the great catastrophe of Rome, when the country of the Scipios and Caesars should be consumed by a flame from Heaven, and the city of the seven hills, with her palaces, her temples, and her triumphal arches, should be buried in a vast lake of fire and brimstone. It might, however, afford some consolation to Roman vanity, that the period of their empire would be that of the world itself; which, as it had once perished by the element of water, was destined to experience a second and a speedy destruction from the element of fire. In the opinion of a general conflagration, the faith of the Christian very happily coincided with the tradition of the East, the philosophy of the Stoics, and the analogy of Nature; and even the country, which, from religious motives, had been chosen for the origin and principal scene of the conflagration, was the best adapted for that purpose by natural and physical causes; by its deep caverns, beds of sulphur, and numero is volcanoes, of which those of Aetna, of Vesuvius, and of Lipari, exhibit a very imperfect representation. The calmest and most intrepid sceptic could not refuse to acknowledge that the destruction of the present system of the world by fire, was in itself extremely probable. The Christian, who founded his belief much less on the fallacious arguments of reason than on the authority of tradition and the interpretation of Scripture, expected it with terror and confidence as a certain and approaching event; and as his mind was perpetually filled with the solemn idea, he considered every disaster that happened to the empire as an infallible symptom of an expiring world. 69
68 Lactantius (Institut. Divin. vii. 15, &c.) relates the dismal talk of futurity with great spirit and eloquence.
Note: Lactantius had a notion of a great Asiatic empire, which was previously to rise on the ruins of the Roman: quod Romanum nomen animus dicere, sed dicam. quia futurum est) tolletur de terra, et impere. Asiam revertetur. — M.]
69 On this subject every reader of taste will be entertained with the third part of Burnet’s Sacred Theory. He blends philosophy, Scripture, and tradition, into one magnificent system; in the description of which he displays a strength of fancy not inferior to that of Milton himself.]
The condemnation of the wisest and most virtuous of the Pagans, on account of their ignorance or disbelief of the divine truth, seems to offend the reason and the humanity of the present age. 70 But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favor of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the gospel had arisen. 71 But it was unanimously affirmed, that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity. These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony. The ties of blood and friendship were frequently torn asunder by the difference of religious faith; and the Christians, who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph. “You are fond of spectacles,” exclaims the stern Tertullian; “expect the greatest of all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe. How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs, so many fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded scholars; so many celebrated poets trembling before the tribunal, not of Minos, but of Christ; so many tragedians, more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers.” * But the humanity of the reader will permit me to draw a veil over the rest of this infernal description, which the zealous African pursues in a long variety of affected and unfeeling witticisms. 72 †
70 And yet whatever may be the language of individuals, it is still the public doctrine of all the Christian churches; nor can even our own refuse to admit the conclusions which must be drawn from the viiith and the xviiith of her Articles. The Jansenists, who have so diligently studied the works of the fathers, maintain this sentiment with distinguished zeal; and the learned M. de Tillemont never dismisses a virtuous emperor without pronouncing his damnation. Zuinglius is perhaps the only leader of a party who has ever adopted the milder sentiment, and he gave no less offence to the Lutherans than to the Catholics. See Bossuet, Histoire des Variations des Eglises Protestantes, l. ii. c. 19 — 22.]
71 Justin and Clemens of Alexandria allow that some of the philosophers were instructed by the Logos; confounding its double signification of the human reason, and of the Divine Word.]
* This translation is not exact: the first sentence is imperfect. Tertullian says, Ille dies nationibus insperatus, ille derisus, cum tanta sacculi vetustas et tot ejus nativitates uno igne haurientur. The text does not authorize the exaggerated expressions, so many magistrates, so many sago philosophers, so many poets, &c.; but simply magistrates, philosophers, poets. — G.
It is not clear that Gibbon’s version or paraphrase is incorrect: Tertullian writes, tot tantosque reges item praesides, &c. — M.]
72 Tertullian, de Spectaculis, c. 30. In order to ascertain the degree of authority which the zealous African had acquired it may be sufficient to allege the testimony of Cyprian, the doctor and guide of all the western churches. (See Prudent. Hym. xiii. 100.) As often as he applied himself to his daily study of the writings of Tertullian, he was accustomed to say, “Da mihi magistrum, Give me my master.” (Hieronym. de Viris Illustribus, tom. i. p. 284.)]
† The object of Tertullian’s vehemence in his Treatise, was to keep the Christians away from the secular games celebrated by the Emperor Severus: It has not prevented him from showing himself in other places full of benevolence and charity towards unbelievers: the spirit of the gospel has sometimes prevailed over the violence of human passions: Qui ergo putaveris nihil nos de salute Caesaris curare (he says in his Apology) inspice Dei voces, literas nostras. Scitote ex illis praeceptum esse nobis ad redudantionem, benignitates etiam pro inimicis Deum orare, et pro persecutoribus cona precari. Sed etiam nominatim atque manifeste orate inquit (Christus) pro regibus et pro principibus et potestatibus ut omnia sint tranquilla vobis Tert. Apol. c. 31. — G.
It would be wiser for Christianity, retreating upon its genuine records in the New Testament, to disclaim this fierce African, than to identify itself with his furious invectives by unsatisfactory apologies for their unchristian fanaticism. — M.]
Doubtless there were many among the primitive Christians of a temper more suitable to the meekness and charity of their profession. There were many who felt a sincere compassion for the danger of their friends and countrymen, and who exerted the most benevolent zeal to save them from the impending destruction.
The careless Polytheist, assailed by new and unexpected terrors, against which neither his priests nor his philosophers could afford him any certain protection, was very frequently terrified and subdued by the menace of eternal tortures. His fears might assist the progress of his faith and reason; and if he could once persuade himself to suspect that the Christian religion might possibly be true, it became an easy task to convince him that it was the safest and most prudent party that he could possibly embrace.
III. The supernatural gifts, which even in this life were ascribed to the Christians above the rest of mankind, must have conduced to their own comfort, and very frequently to the conviction of infidels. Besides the occasional prodigies, which might sometimes be effected by the immediate interposition of the Deity when he suspended the laws of Nature for the service of religion, the Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, 73 has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling daemons, of healing the sick, and of raising the dead. The knowledge of foreign languages was frequently communicated to the contemporaries of Irenaeus, though Irenaeus himself was left to struggle with the difficulties of a barbarous dialect, whilst he preached the gospel to the natives of Gaul. 74 The divine inspiration, whether it was conveyed in the form of a waking or of a sleeping vision, is described as a favor very liberally bestowed on all ranks of the faithful, on women as on elders, on boys as well as upon bishops. When their devout minds were sufficiently prepared by a course of prayer, of fasting, and of vigils, to receive the extraordinary impulse, they were transported out of their senses, and delivered in ecstasy what was inspired, being mere organs of the Holy Spirit, just as a pipe or flute is of him who blows into it. 75 We may add, that the design of these visions was, for the most part, either to disclose the future history, or to guide the present administration, of the church. The expulsion of the daemons from the bodies of those unhappy persons whom they had been permitted to torment, was considered as a signal though ordinary triumph of religion, and is repeatedly alleged by the ancient apoligists, as the most convincing evidence of the truth of Christianity. The awful ceremony was usually performed in a public manner, and in the presence of a great number of spectators; the patient was relieved by the power or skill of the exorcist, and the vanquished daemon was heard to confess that he was one of the fabled gods of antiquity, who had impiously usurped the adoration of mankind. 76 But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even preternatural kind, can no longer occasion any surprise, when we recollect, that in the days of Iranaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event; that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterwards among them many years. 77 At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers, who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy, and promised Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, that if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable, that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge. 78
73 Notwithstanding the evasions of Dr. Middleton, it is impossible to overlook the clear traces of visions and inspiration, which may be found in the apostolic fathers.
Note: Gibbon should have noticed the distinct and remarkable passage from Chrysostom, quoted by Middleton, (Works, vol. i. p. 105,) in which he affirms the long discontinuance of miracles as a notorious fact. — M.]
74 Irenaeus adv. Haeres. Proem. p.3 Dr. Middleton (Free Inquiry, p. 96, &c.) observes, that as this pretension of all others was the most difficult to support by art, it was the soonest given up. The observation suits his hypothesis.
Note: This passage of Irenaeus contains no allusion to the gift of tongues; it is merely an apology for a rude and unpolished Greek style, which could not be expected from one who passed his life in a remote and barbarous province, and was continually obliged to speak the Celtic language. — M.
Note: Except in the life of Pachomius, an Egyptian monk of the fourth century. (see Jortin, Ecc. Hist. i. p. 368, edit. 1805,) and the latter (not earlier) lives of Xavier, there is no claim laid to the gift of tongues since the time of Irenaeus; and of this claim, Xavier’s own letters are profoundly silent. See Douglas’s Criterion, p. 76 edit. 1807. — M.]
75 Athenagoras in Legatione. Justin Martyr, Cohort. ad Gentes Tertullian advers. Marcionit. l. iv. These descriptions are not very unlike the prophetic fury, for which Cicero (de Divinat.ii. 54) expresses so little reverence.]
76 Tertullian (Apolog. c. 23) throws out a bold defiance to the Pagan magistrates. Of the primitive miracles, the power of exorcising is the only one which has been assumed by Protestants.
Note: But by Protestants neither of the most enlightened ages nor most reasoning minds. — M.]
77 Irenaeus adv. Haereses, l. ii. 56, 57, l. v. c. 6. Mr. Dodwell (Dissertat. ad Irenaeum, ii. 42) concludes, that the second century was still more fertile in miracles than the first.
Note: It is difficult to answer Middleton’s objection to this statement of Irenae us: “It is very strange, that from the time of the apostles there is not a single instance of this miracle to be found in the three first centuries; except a single case, slightly intimated in Eusebius, from the Works of Papias; which he seems to rank among the other fabulous stories delivered by that weak man.” Middleton, Works, vol. i. p. 59. Bp. Douglas (Criterion, p 389) would consider Irenaeus to speak of what had “been performed formerly.” not in his own time. — M.]
78 Theophilus ad Autolycum, l. i. p. 345. Edit. Benedictin. Paris, 1742.
Note: A candid sceptic might discern some impropriety in the Bishop being called upon to perform a miracle on demand. — M.]
The miracles of the primitive church, after obtaining the sanction of ages, have been lately attacked in a very free and ingenious inquiry, 79 which, though it has met with the most favorable reception from the public, appears to have excited a general scandal among the divines of our own as well as of the other Protestant churches of Europe. 80 Our different sentiments on this subject will be much less influenced by any particular arguments, than by our habits of study and reflection; and, above all, by the degree of evidence which we have accustomed ourselves to require for the proof of a miraculous event. The duty of an historian does not call upon him to interpose his private judgment in this nice and important controversy; but he ought not to dissemble the difficulty of adopting such a theory as may reconcile the interest of religion with that of reason, of making a proper application of that theory, and of defining with precision the limits of that happy period, exempt from error and from deceit, to which we might be disposed to extend the gift of supernatural powers. From the first of the fathers to the last of the popes, a succession of bishops, of saints, of martyrs, and of miracles, is continued without interruption; and the progress of superstition was so gradual, and almost imperceptible, that we know not in what particular link we should break the chain of tradition. Every age bears testimony to the wonderful events by which it was distinguished, and its testimony appears no less weighty and respectable than that of the preceding generation, till we are insensibly led on to accuse our own inconsistency, if in the eighth or in the twelfth century we deny to the venerable Bede, or to the holy Bernard, the same degree of confidence which, in the second century, we had so liberally granted to Justin or to Irenaeus. 81 If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous nations to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church. Whatever aera is chosen for that purpose, the death of the apostles, the conversion of the Roman empire, or the extinction of the Arian heresy, 82 the insensibility of the Christians who lived at that time will equally afford a just matter of surprise. They still supported their pretensions after they had lost their power. Credulity performed the office of faith; fanaticism was permitted to assume the language of inspiration, and the effects of accident or contrivance were ascribed to supernatural causes. The recent experience of genuine miracles should have instructed the Christian world in the ways of Providence, and habituated their eye (if we may use a very inadequate expression) to the style of the divine artist. Should the most skilful painter of modern Italy presume to decorate his feeble imitations with the name of Raphael or of Correggio, the insolent fraud would be soon discovered, and indignantly rejected.
79 Dr. Middleton sent out his Introduction in the year 1747, published his Free Inquiry in 1749, and before his death, which happened in 1750, he had prepared a vindication of it against his numerous adversaries.]
80 The university of Oxford conferred degrees on his opponents. From the indignation of Mosheim, (p. 221,) we may discover the sentiments of the Lutheran divines.
Note: Yet many Protestant divines will now without reluctance confine miracles to the time of the apostles, or at least to the first century. — M]
81 It may seem somewhat remarkable, that Bernard of Clairvaux, who records so many miracles of his friend St. Malachi, never takes any notice of his own, which, in their turn, however, are carefully related by his companions and disciples. In the long series of ecclesiastical history, does there exist a single instance of a saint asserting that he himself possessed the gift of miracles?]
82 The conversion of Constantine is the aera which is most usually fixed by Protestants. The more rational divines are unwilling to admit the miracles of the ivth, whilst the more credulous are unwilling to reject those of the vth century.
Note: All this appears to proceed on the principle that any distinct line can be drawn in an unphilosophic age between wonders and miracles, or between what piety, from their unexpected and extraordinary nature, the marvellous concurrence of secondary causes to some remarkable end, may consider providential interpositions, and miracles strictly so called, in which the laws of nature are suspended or violated. It is impossible to assign, on one side, limits to human credulity, on the other, to the influence of the imagination on the bodily frame; but some of the miracles recorded in the Gospels are such palpable impossibilities, according to the known laws and operations of nature, that if recorded on sufficient evidence, and the evidence we believe to be that of eye-witnesses, we cannot reject them, without either asserting, with Hume, that no evidence can prove a miracle, or that the Author of Nature has no power of suspending its ordinary laws. But which of the post-apostolic miracles will bear this test? — M.]
Whatever opinion may be entertained of the miracles of the primitive church since the time of the apostles, this unresisting softness of temper, so conspicuous among the believers of the second and third centuries, proved of some accidental benefit to the cause of truth and religion. In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active consent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the variable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity.
But, in the first ages of Christianity, the situation of mankind was extremely different. The most curious, or the most credulous, among the Pagans, were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers. The primitive Christians perpetually trod on mystic ground, and their minds were exercised by the habits of believing the most extraordinary events. They felt, or they fancied, that on every side they were incessantly assaulted by daemons, comforted by visions, instructed by prophecy, and surprisingly delivered from danger, sickness, and from death itself, by the supplications of the church. The real or imaginary prodigies, of which they so frequently conceived themselves to be the objects, the instruments, or the spectators, very happily disposed them to adopt with the same ease, but with far greater justice, the authentic wonders of the evangelic history; and thus miracles that exceeded not the measure of their own experience, inspired them with the most lively assurance of mysteries which were acknowledged to surpass the limits of their understanding. It is this deep impression of supernatural truths, which has been so much celebrated under the name of faith; a state of mind described as the surest pledge of the divine favor and of future felicity, and recommended as the first, or perhaps the only merit of a Christian. According to the more rigid doctors, the moral virtues, which may be equally practised by infidels, are destitute of any value or efficacy in the work of our justification.
IV. But the primitive Christian demonstrated his faith by his virtues; and it was very justly supposed that the divine persuasion, which enlightened or subdued the understanding, must, at the same time, purify the heart, and direct the actions, of the believer. The first apologists of Christianity who justify the innocence of their brethren, and the writers of a later period who celebrate the sanctity of their ancestors, display, in the most lively colors, the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the gospel. As it is my intention to remark only such human causes as were permitted to second the influence of revelation, I shall slightly mention two motives which might naturally render the lives of the primitive Christians much purer and more austere than those of their Pagan contemporaries, or their degenerate successors; repentance for their past sins, and the laudable desire of supporting the reputation of the society in which they were engaged. *
* These, in the opinion of the editor, are the most uncandid paragraphs in Gibbon’s History. He ought either, with manly courage, to have denied the moral reformation introduced by Christianity, or fairly to have investigated all its motives; not to have confined himself to an insidious and sarcastic description of the less pure and generous elements of the Christian character as it appeared even at that early time. — M.]
It is a very ancient reproach, suggested by the ignorance or the malice of infidelity, that the Christians allured into their party the most atrocious criminals, who, as soon as they were touched by a sense of remorse, were easily persuaded to wash away, in the water of baptism, the guilt of their past conduct, for which the temples of the gods refused to grant them any expiation. But this reproach, when it is cleared from misrepresentation, contributes as much to the honor as it did to the increase of the church. 83 The friends of Christianity may acknowledge without a blush, that many of the most eminent saints had been before their baptism the most abandoned sinners. Those persons, who in the world had followed, though in an imperfect manner, the dictates of benevolence and propriety, derived such a calm satisfaction from the opinion of their own rectitude, as rendered them much less susceptible of the sudden emotions of shame, of grief, and of terror, which have given birth to so many wonderful conversions. After the example of their divine Master, the missionaries of the gospel disdained not the society of men, and especially of women, oppressed by the consciousness, and very often by the effects, of their vices. As they emerged from sin and superstition to the glorious hope of immortality, they resolved to devote themselves to a life, not only of virtue, but of penitence. The desire of perfection became the ruling passion of their soul; and it is well known, that while reason embraces a cold mediocrity, our passions hurry us, with rapid violence, over the space which lies between the most opposite extremes.
83 The imputations of Celsus and Julian, with the defence of the fathers, are very fairly stated by Spanheim, Commentaire sur les Cesars de Julian, p. 468.]
When the new converts had been enrolled in the number of the faithful, and were admitted to the sacraments of the church, they found themselves restrained from relapsing into their past disorders by another consideration of a less spiritual, but of a very innocent and respectable nature. Any particular society that has departed from the great body of the nation, or the religion to which it belonged, immediately becomes the object of universal as well as invidious observation. In proportion to the smallness of its numbers, the character of the society may be affected by the virtues and vices of the persons who compose it; and every member is engaged to watch with the most vigilant attention over his own behavior, and over that of his brethren, since, as he must expect to incur a part of the common disgrace, he may hope to enjoy a share of the common reputation. When the Christians of Bithynia were brought before the tribunal of the younger Pliny, they assured the proconsul, that, far from being engaged in any unlawful conspiracy, they were bound by a solemn obligation to abstain from the commission of those crimes which disturb the private or public peace of society, from theft, robbery, adultery, perjury, and fraud. 84 * Near a century afterwards, Tertullian with an honest pride, could boast, that very few Christians had suffered by the hand of the executioner, except on account of their religion. 85 Their serious and sequestered life, averse to the gay luxury of the age, inured them to chastity, temperance, economy, and all the sober and domestic virtues. As the greater number were of some trade or profession, it was incumbent on them, by the strictest integrity and the fairest dealing, to remove the suspicions which the profane are too apt to conceive against the appearances of sanctity. The contempt of the world exercised them in the habits of humility, meekness, and patience. The more they were persecuted, the more closely they adhered to each other. Their mutual charity and unsuspecting confidence has been remarked by infidels, and was too often abused by perfidious friends. 86
84 Plin. Epist. x. 97.
Note: Is not the sense of Tertullian rather, if guilty of any other offence, be had thereby ceased to be a Christian? — M.]
* And this blamelessness was fully admitted by the candid and enlightened Roman. — M.]
85 Tertullian, Apolog. c. 44. He adds, however, with some degree of hesitation, “Aut si aliud, jam non Christianus.”
Note: Tertullian says positively no Christian, nemo illic Christianus; for the rest, the limitation which he himself subjoins, and which Gibbon quotes in the foregoing note, diminishes the force of this assertion, and appears to prove that at least he knew none such. — G.]
86 The philosopher Peregrinus (of whose life and death Lucian has left us so entertaining an account) imposed, for a long time, on the credulous simplicity of the Christians of Asia.]
It is a very honorable circumstance for the morals of the primitive Christians, that even their faults, or rather errors, were derived from an excess of virtue. The bishops and doctors of the church, whose evidence attests, and whose authority might influence, the professions, the principles, and even the practice of their contemporaries, had studied the Scriptures with less skill than devotion; and they often received, in the most literal sense, those rigid precepts of Christ and the apostles, to which the prudence of succeeding commentators has applied a looser and more figurative mode of interpretation. Ambitious to exalt the perfection of the gospel above the wisdom of philosophy, the zealous fathers have carried the duties of self-mortification, of purity, and of patience, to a height which it is scarcely possible to attain, and much less to preserve, in our present state of weakness and corruption. A doctrine so extraordinary and so sublime must inevitably command the veneration of the people; but it was ill calculated to obtain the suffrage of those worldly philosophers, who, in the conduct of this transitory life, consult only the feelings of nature and the interest of society. 87
87 See a very judicious treatise of Barbeyrac sur la Morale des Peres.]
There are two very natural propensities which we may distinguish in the most virtuous and liberal dispositions, the love of pleasure and the love of action. If the former is refined by art and learning, improved by the charms of social intercourse, and corrected by a just regard to economy, to health, and to reputation, it is productive of the greatest part of the happiness of private life. The love of action is a principle of a much stronger and more doubtful nature. It often leads to anger, to ambition, and to revenge; but when it is guided by the sense of propriety and benevolence, it becomes the parent of every virtue, and if those virtues are accompanied with equal abilities, a family, a state, or an empire, may be indebted for their safety and prosperity to the undaunted courage of a single man. To the love of pleasure we may therefore ascribe most of the agreeable, to the love of action we may attribute most of the useful and respectable, qualifications. The character in which both the one and the other should be united and harmonized, would seem to constitute the most perfect idea of human nature. The insensible and inactive disposition, which should be supposed alike destitute of both, would be rejected, by the common consent of mankind, as utterly incapable of procuring any happiness to the individual, or any public benefit to the world. But it was not in this world, that the primitive Christians were desirous of making themselves either agreeable or useful. *
* El que me fait cette homelie semi-stoicienne, semi-epicurienne? t’on jamais regarde l’amour du plaisir comme l’un des principes de la perfection morale? Et de quel droit faites vous de l’amour de l’action, et de l’amour du plaisir, les seuls elemens de l’etre humain? Est ce que vous faites abstraction de la verite en elle-meme, de la conscience et du sentiment du devoir? Est ce que vous ne sentez point, par exemple, que le sacrifice du moi a la justice et a la verite, est aussi dans le coeur de l’homme: que tout n’est pas pour lui action ou plaisir, et que dans le bien ce n’est pas le mouvement, mais la verite, qu’il cherche? Et puis * * Thucy dide et Tacite. ces maitres de l’histoire, ont ils jamais introduits dans leur recits un fragment de dissertation sur le plaisir et sur l’action. Villemain Cours de Lit. Franc part ii. Lecon v. — M.]
The acquisition of knowledge, the exercise of our reason or fancy, and the cheerful flow of unguarded conversation, may employ the leisure of a liberal mind. Such amusements, however, were rejected with abhorrence, or admitted with the utmost caution, by the severity of the fathers, who despised all knowledge that was not useful to salvation, and who considered all levity of discours eas a criminal abuse of the gift of speech. In our present state of existence the body is so inseparably connected with the soul, that it seems to be our interest to taste, with innocence and moderation, the enjoyments of which that faithful companion is susceptible. Very different was the reasoning of our devout predecessors; vainly aspiring to imitate the perfection of angels, they disdained, or they affected to disdain, every earthly and corporeal delight. 88 Some of our senses indeed are necessary for our preservation, others for our subsistence, and others again for our information; and thus far it was impossible to reject the use of them. The first sensation of pleasure was marked as the first moment of their abuse. The unfeeling candidate for heaven was instructed, not only to resist the grosser allurements of the taste or smell, but even to shut his ears against the profane harmony of sounds, and to view with indifference the most finished productions of human art. Gay apparel, magnificent houses, and elegant furniture, were supposed to unite the double guilt of pride and of sensuality; a simple and mortified appearance was more suitable to the Christian who was certain of his sins and doubtful of his salvation. In their censures of luxury, the fathers are extremely minute and circumstantial; 89 and among the various articles which excite their pious indignation, we may enumerate false hair, garments of any color except white, instruments of music, vases of gold or silver, downy pillows, (as Jacob reposed his head on a stone,) white bread, foreign wines, public salutations, the use of warm baths, and the practice of shaving the beard, which, according to the expression of Tertullian, is a lie against our own faces, and an impious attempt to improve the works of the Creator. 90 When Christianity was introduced among the rich and the polite, the observation of these singular laws was left, as it would be at present, to the few who were ambitious of superior sanctity. But it is always easy, as well as agreeable, for the inferior ranks of mankind to claim a merit from the contempt of that pomp and pleasure which fortune has placed beyond their reach. The virtue of the primitive Christians, like that of the first Romans, was very frequently guarded by poverty and ignorance.
88 Lactant. Institut. Divin. l. vi. c. 20, 21, 22.]
89 Consult a work of Clemens of Alexandria, entitled The Paedagogue, which contains the rudiments of ethics, as they were taught in the most celebrated of the Christian schools.]
90 Tertullian, de Spectaculis, c. 23. Clemens Alexandrin. Paedagog. l. iii. c. 8.]
The chaste severity of the fathers, in whatever related to the commerce of the two sexes, flowed from the same principle; their abhorrence of every enjoyment which might gratify the sensual, and degrade the spiritual, nature of man. It was their favorite opinion, that if Adam had preserved his obedience to the Creator, he would have lived forever in a state of virgin purity, and that some harmless mode of vegetation might have peopled paradise with a race of innocent and immortal beings. 91 The use of marriage was permitted only to his fallen posterity, as a necessary expedient to continue the human species, and as a restraint, however imperfect, on the natural licentiousness of desire. The hesitation of the orthodox casuists on this interesting subject, betrays the perplexity of men, unwilling to approve an institution which they were compelled to tolerate. 92 The enumeration of the very whimsical laws, which they most circumstantially imposed on the marriage-bed, would force a smile from the young and a blush from the fair. It was their unanimous sentiment, that a first marriage was adequate to all the purposes of nature and of society. The sensual connection was refined into a resemblance of the mystic union of Christ with his church, and was pronounced to be indissoluble either by divorce or by death. The practice of second nuptials was branded with the name of a egal adultery; and the persons who were guilty of so scandalous an offence against Christian purity, were soon excluded from the honors, and even from the alms, of the church. 93 Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to the divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals; 94 but the primitive church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex, who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity. 95 A few of these, among whom we may reckon the learned Origen, judged it the most prudent to disarm the tempter. 96 Some were insensible and some were invincible against the assaults of the flesh. Disdaining an ignominious flight, the virgins of the warm climate of Africa encountered the enemy in the closest engagement; they permitted priests and deacons to share their bed, and gloried amidst the flames in their unsullied purity. But insulted Nature sometimes vindicated her rights, and this new species of martyrdom served only to introduce a new scandal into the church. 97 Among the Christian ascetics, however, (a name which they soon acquired from their painful exercise,) many, as they were less presumptuous, were probably more successful. The loss of sensual pleasure was supplied and compensated by spiritual pride. Even the multitude of Pagans were inclined to estimate the merit of the sacrifice by its apparent difficulty; and it was in the praise of these chaste spouses of Christ that the fathers have poured forth the troubled stream of their eloquence. 98 Such are the early traces of monastic principles and institutions, which, in a subsequent age, have counterbalanced all the temporal advantages of Christianity. 99
91 Beausobro, Hist. Critique du Manicheisme, l. vii. c. 3. Justin, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustin, &c., strongly incline to this opinion.
Note: But these were Gnostic or Manichean opinions. Beausobre distinctly describes Autustine’s bias to his recent escape from Manicheism; and adds that be afterwards changed his views. — M.]
92 Some of the Gnostic heretics were more consistent; they rejected the use of marriage.]
93 See a chain of tradition, from Justin Martyr to Jerome, in the Morale des Peres, c. iv. 6 — 26.]
94 See a very curious Dissertation on the Vestals, in the Memoires de l’Academie des Inscriptions, tom. iv. p. 161 — 227. Notwithstanding the honors and rewards which were bestowed on those virgins, it was difficult to procure a sufficient number; nor could the dread of the most horrible death always restrain their incontinence.]
95 Cupiditatem procreandi aut unam scimus aut nullam. Minutius Faelix, c. 31. Justin. Apolog. Major. Athenagoras in Legat. c 28. Tertullian de Cultu Foemin. l. ii.]
96 Eusebius, l. vi. 8. Before the fame of Origen had excited envy and persecution, this extraordinary action was rather admired than censured. As it was his general practice to allegorize Scripture, it seems unfortunate that in this instance only, he should have adopted the literal sense.]
97 Cyprian. Epist. 4, and Dodwell, Dissertat. Cyprianic. iii. Something like this rash attempt was long afterwards imputed to the founder of the order of Fontevrault. Bayle has amused himself and his readers on that very delicate subject.]
98 Dupin (Bibliotheque Ecclesiastique, tom. i. p. 195) gives a particular account of the dialogue of the ten virgins, as it was composed by Methodius, Bishop of Tyre. The praises of virginity are excessive.]
99 The Ascetics (as early as the second century) made a public profession of mortifying their bodies, and of abstaining from the use of flesh and wine. Mosheim, p. 310.]
The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defence of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries, and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults. Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life; nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice, or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community. 100 It was acknowledged, that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven, by inspired prophets and by anointed kings. The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. Some indulgence might, perhaps, be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; 101 but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes. 102 This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect. 103 To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman empire, and the world itself, would be no more. It may be observed, that, in this instance likewise, the situation of the first Christians coincided very happily with their religious scruples, and that their aversion to an active life contributed rather to excuse them from the service, than to exclude them from the honors, of the state and army.
100 See the Morale des Peres. The same patient principles have been revived since the Reformation by the Socinians, the modern Anabaptists, and the Quakers. Barclay, the Apologist of the Quakers, has protected his brethren by the authority of the primitive Christian; p. 542 — 549]
101 Tertullian, Apolog. c. 21. De Idololatria, c. 17, 18. Origen contra Celsum, l. v. p. 253, l. vii. p. 348, l. viii. p. 423 — 428.]
102 Tertullian (de Corona Militis, c. 11) suggested to them the expedient of deserting; a counsel which, if it had been generally known, was not very proper to conciliate the favor of the emperors towards the Christian sect.
Note: There is nothing which ought to astonish us in the refusal of the primitive Christians to take part in public affairs; it was the natural consequence of the contrariety of their principles to the customs, laws, and active life of the Pagan world. As Christians, they could not enter into the senate, which, according to Gibbon himself, always assembled in a temple or consecrated place, and where each senator, before he took his seat, made a libation of a few drops of wine, and burnt incense on the altar; as Christians, they could not assist at festivals and banquets, which always terminated with libations, &c.; finally, as “the innumerable deities and rites of polytheism were closely interwoven with every circumstance of public and private life,” the Christians could not participate in them without incurring, according to their principles, the guilt of impiety. It was then much less by an effect of their doctrine, than by the consequence of their situation, that they stood aloof from public business. Whenever this situation offered no impediment, they showed as much activity as the Pagans. Proinde, says Justin Martyr, (Apol. c. 17,) nos solum Deum adoramus, et vobis in rebus aliis laeti inservimus. — G.
This latter passage, M. Guizot quotes in Latin; if he had consulted the original, he would have found it to be altogether irrelevant: it merely relates to the payment of taxes. — M.
Tertullian does not suggest to the soldiers the expedient of deserting; he says that they ought to be constantly on their guard to do nothing during their service contrary to the law of God, and to resolve to suffer martyrdom rather than submit to a base compliance, or openly to renounce the service. (De Cor. Mil. ii. p. 127.) He does not positively decide that the military service is not permitted to Christians; he ends, indeed, by saying, Puta denique licere militiam usque ad causam coronae. — G.
M. Guizot is. I think, again unfortunate in his defence of Tertullian. That father says, that many Christian soldiers had deserted, aut deserendum statim sit, ut a multis actum. The latter sentence, Puta, &c, &c., is a concession for the sake of argument: wha follows is more to the purpose. — M.
Many other passages of Tertullian prove that the army was full of Christians, Hesterni sumus et vestra omnia implevimus, urbes, insulas, castella, municipia, conciliabula, castra ipsa. (Apol. c. 37.) Navigamus et not vobiscum et militamus. (c. 42.) Origen, in truth, appears to have maintained a more rigid opinion, (Cont. Cels. l. viii.;) but he has often renounced this exaggerated severity, perhaps necessary to produce great results, and be speaks of the profession of arms as an honorable one. (l. iv. c. 218.) — G.
On these points Christian opinion, it should seem, was much divided Tertullian, when he wrote the De Cor. Mil., was evidently inclining to more ascetic opinions, and Origen was of the same class. See Neander, vol. l part ii. p. 305, edit. 1828. — M.]
103 As well as we can judge from the mutilated representation of Origen, (1. viii. p. 423,) his adversary, Celsus, had urged his objection with great force and candor.]
V. But the human character, however it may be exalted or depressed by a temporary enthusiasm, will return by degrees to its proper and natural level, and will resume those passions that seem the most adapted to its present condition. The primitive Christians were dead to the business and pleasures of the world; but their love of action, which could never be entirely extinguished, soon revived, and found a new occupation in the government of the church. A separate society, which attacked the established religion of the empire, was obliged to adopt some form of internal policy, and to appoint a sufficient number of ministers, intrusted not only with the spiritual functions, but even with the temporal direction of the Christian commonwealth. The safety of that society, its honor, its aggrandizement, were productive, even in the most pious minds, of a spirit of patriotism, such as the first of the Romans had felt for the republic, and sometimes of a similar indifference, in the use of whatever means might probably conduce to so desirable an end. The ambition of raising themselves or their friends to the honors and offices of the church, was disguised by the laudable intention of devoting to the public benefit the power and consideration, which, for that purpose only, it became their duty to solicit. In the exercise of their functions, they were frequently called upon to detect the errors of heresy or the arts of faction, to oppose the designs of perfidious brethren, to stigmatize their characters with deserved infamy, and to expel them from the bosom of a society whose peace and happiness they had attempted to disturb. The ecclesiastical governors of the Christians were taught to unite the wisdom of the serpent with the innocence of the dove; but as the former was refined, so the latter was insensibly corrupted, by the habits of government. If the church as well as in the world, the persons who were placed in any public station rendered themselves considerable by their eloquence and firmness, by their knowledge of mankind, and by their dexterity in business; and while they concealed from others, and perhaps from themselves, the secret motives of their conduct, they too frequently relapsed into all the turbulent passions of active life, which were tinctured with an additional degree of bitterness and obstinacy from the infusion of spiritual zeal.
The government of the church has often been the subject, as well as the prize, of religious contention. The hostile disputants of Rome, of Paris, of Oxford, and of Geneva, have alike struggled to reduce the primitive and apostolic model 104 to the respective standards of their own policy. The few who have pursued this inquiry with more candor and impartiality, are of opinion, 105 that the apostles declined the office of legislation, and rather chose to endure some partial scandals and divisions, than to exclude the Christians of a future age from the liberty of varying their forms of ecclesiastical government according to the changes of times and circumstances. The scheme of policy, which, under their approbation, was adopted for the use of the first century, may be discovered from the practice of Jerusalem, of Ephesus, or of Corinth. The societies which were instituted in the cities of the Roman empire, were united only by the ties of faith and charity. Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution. The want of discipline and human learning was supplied by the occasional assistance of the prophets, 106 who were called to that function without distinction of age, of sex, * or of natural abilities, and who, as often as they felt the divine impulse, poured forth the effusions of the Spirit in the assembly of the faithful. But these extraordinary gifts were frequently abused or misapplied by the prophetic teachers. They displayed them at an improper season, presumptuously disturbed the service of the assembly, and, by their pride or mistaken zeal, they introduced, particularly into the apostolic church of Corinth, a long and melancholy train of disorders. 107 As the institution of prophets became useless, and even pernicious, their powers were withdrawn, and their office abolished. The public functions of religion were solely intrusted to the established ministers of the church, the bishops and the presbyters; two appellations which, in their first origin, appear to have distinguished the same office and the same order of persons. The name of Presbyter was expressive of their age, or rather of their gravity and wisdom. The title of Bishop denoted their inspection over the faith and manners of the Christians who were committed to their pastoral care. In proportion to the respective numbers of the faithful, a larger or smaller number of these episcopal presbyters guided each infant congregation with equal authority and with united counsels. 108
104 The aristocratical party in France, as well as in England, has strenuously maintained the divine origin of bishops.
But the Calvinistical presbyters were impatient of a superior; and the Roman Pontiff refused to acknowledge an equal. See Fra Paolo.]
105 In the history of the Christian hierarchy, I have, for the most part, followed the learned and candid Mosheim.]
106 For the prophets of the primitive church, see Mosheim, Dissertationes ad Hist. Eccles. pertinentes, tom. ii. p. 132 — 208.]
* St. Paul distinctly reproves the intrusion of females into the prophets office. 1 Cor. xiv. 34, 35. 1 Tim. ii. 11. — M.]
107 See the epistles of St. Paul, and of Clemens, to the Corinthians.
Note: The first ministers established in the church were the deacons, appointed at Jerusalem, seven in number; they were charged with the distribution of the alms; even females had a share in this employment. After the deacons came the elders or priests, charged with the maintenance of order and decorum in the community, and to act every where in its name. The bishops were afterwards charged to watch over the faith and the instruction of the disciples: the apostles themselves appointed several bishops.
Tertullian, (adv. Marium, c. v.,) Clement of Alexandria, and many fathers of the second and third century, do not permit us to doubt this fact. The equality of rank between these different functionaries did not prevent their functions being, even in their origin, distinct; they became subsequently still more so. See Plank, Geschichte der Christ. Kirch. Verfassung., vol. i. p. 24. — G.
On this extremely obscure subject, which has been so much perplexed by passion and interest, it is impossible to justify any opinion without entering into long and controversial details.
It must be admitted, in opposition to Plank, that in the New Testament, several words are sometimes indiscriminately used. (Acts xx. v. 17, comp. with 28 Tit. i. 5 and 7. Philip. i. 1.) But it is as clear, that as soon as we can discern the form of church government, at a period closely bordering upon, if not within, the apostolic age, it appears with a bishop at the head of each community, holding some superiority over the presbyters. Whether he was, as Gibbon from Mosheim supposes, merely an elective head of the College of Presbyters, (for this we have, in fact, no valid authority,) or whether his distinct functions were established on apostolic authority, is still contested. The universal submission to this episcopacy, in every part of the Christian world appears to me strongly to favor the latter view. — M.]
108 Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, l. vii.]
But the most perfect equality of freedom requires the directing hand of a superior magistrate: and the order of public deliberations soon introduces the office of a president, invested at least with the authority of collecting the sentiments, and of executing the resolutions, of the assembly. A regard for the public tranquillity, which would so frequently have been interrupted by annual or by occasional elections, induced the primitive Christians to constitute an honorable and perpetual magistracy, and to choose one of the wisest and most holy among their presbyterians to execute, during his life, the duties of their ecclesiastical governor. It was under these circumstances that the lofty title of Bishop began to raise itself above the humble appellation of Presbyter; and while the latter remained the most natural distinction for the members of every Christian senate, the former was appropriated to the dignity of its new president. 109 The advantages of this episcopal form of government, which appears to have been introduced before the end of the first century, 110 were so obvious, and so important for the future greatness, as well as the present peace, of Christianity, that it was adopted without delay by all the societies which were already scattered over the empire, had acquired in a very early period the sanction of antiquity, 111 and is still revered by the most powerful churches, both of the East and of the West, as a primitive and even as a divine establishment. 112 It is needless to observe, that the pious and humble presbyters, who were first dignified with the episcopal title, could not possess, and would probably have rejected, the power and pomp which now encircles the tiara of the Roman pontiff, or the mitre of a German prelate. But we may define, in a few words, the narrow limits of their original jurisdiction, which was chiefly of a spiritual, though in some instances of a temporal nature. 113 It consisted in the administration of the sacraments and discipline of the church, the superintendency of religious ceremonies, which imperceptibly increased in number and variety, the consecration of ecclesiastical ministers, to whom the bishop assigned their respective functions, the management of the public fund, and the determination of all such differences as the faithful were unwilling to expose before the tribunal of an idolatrous judge. These powers, during a short period, were exercised according to the advice of the presbyteral college, and with the consent and approbation of the assembly of Christians. The primitive bishops were considered only as the first of their equals, and the honorable servants of a free people. Whenever the episcopal chair became vacant by death, a new president was chosen among the presbyters by the suffrages of the whole congregation, every member of which supposed himself invested with a sacred and sacerdotal character. 114
109 See Jerome and Titum, c. i. and Epistol. 85, (in the Benedictine edition, 101,) and the elaborate apology of Blondel, pro sententia Hieronymi. The ancient state, as it is described by Jerome, of the bishop and presbyters of Alexandria, receives a remarkable confirmation from the patriarch Eutychius, (Annal. tom. i. p. 330, Vers Pocock;) whose testimony I know not how to reject, in spite of all the objections of the learned Pearson in his Vindiciae Ignatianae, part i. c. 11.]
110 See the introduction to the Apocalypse. Bishops, under the name of angels, were already instituted in the seven cities of Asia. And yet the epistle of Clemens (which is probably of as ancient a date) does not lead us to discover any traces of episcopacy either at Corinth or Rome.]
111 Nulla Ecclesia sine Episcopo, has been a fact as well as a maxim since the time of Tertullian and Irenaeus.]
112 After we have passed the difficulties of the first century, we find the episcopal government universally established, till it was interrupted by the republican genius of the Swiss and German reformers.]
113 See Mosheim in the first and second centuries. Ignatius (ad Smyrnaeos, c. 3, &c.) is fond of exalting the episcopal dignity. Le Clerc (Hist. Eccles. p. 569) very bluntly censures his conduct, Mosheim, with a more critical judgment, (p. 161,) suspects the purity even of the smaller epistles.]
114 Nonne et Laici sacerdotes sumus? Tertullian, Exhort. ad Castitat. c. 7. As the human heart is still the same, several of the observations which Mr. Hume has made on Enthusiasm, (Essays, vol. i. p. 76, quarto edit.) may be applied even to real inspiration.
Note: This expression was employed by the earlier Christian writers in the sense used by St. Peter, 1 Ep ii. 9. It was the sanctity and virtue not the power of priesthood, in which all Christians were to be equally distinguished. — M.]
Such was the mild and equal constitution by which the Christians were governed more than a hundred years after the death of the apostles. Every society formed within itself a separate and independent republic; and although the most distant of these little states maintained a mutual as well as friendly intercourse of letters and deputations, the Christian world was not yet connected by any supreme authority or legislative assembly. As the numbers of the faithful were gradually multiplied, they discovered the advantages that might result from a closer union of their interest and designs. Towards the end of the second century, the churches of Greece and Asia adopted the useful institutions of provincial synods, * and they may justly be supposed to have borrowed the model of a representative council from the celebrated examples of their own country, the Amphictyons, the Achaean league, or the assemblies of the Ionian cities. It was soon established as a custom and as a law, that the bishops of the independent churches should meet in the capital of the province at the stated periods of spring and autumn. Their deliberations were assisted by the advice of a few distinguished presbyters, and moderated by the presence of a listening multitude. 115 Their decrees, which were styled Canons, regulated every important controversy of faith and discipline; and it was natural to believe that a liberal effusion of the Holy Spirit would be poured on the united assembly of the delegates of the Christian people. The institution of synods was so well suited to private ambition, and to public interest, that in the space of a few years it was received throughout the whole empire. A regular correspondence was established between the provincial councils, which mutually communicated and approved their respective proceedings; and the catholic church soon assumed the form, and acquired the strength, of a great foederative republic. 116
* The synods were not the first means taken by the insulated churches to enter into communion and to assume a corporate character. The dioceses were first formed by the union of several country churches with a church in a city: many churches in one city uniting among themselves, or joining a more considerable church, became metropolitan. The dioceses were not formed before the beginning of the second century: before that time the Christians had not established sufficient churches in the country to stand in need of that union. It is towards the middle of the same century that we discover the first traces of the metropolitan constitution. (Probably the country churches were founded in general by missionaries from those in the city, and would preserve a natural connection with the parent church.) — M.
The provincial synods did not commence till towards the middle of the third century, and were not the first synods. History gives us distinct notions of the synods, held towards the end of the second century, at Ephesus at Jerusalem, at Pontus, and at Rome, to put an end to the disputes which had arisen between the Latin and Asiatic churches about the celebration of Easter. But these synods were not subject to any regular form or periodical return; this regularity was first established with the provincial synods, which were formed by a union of the bishops of a district, subject to a metropolitan. Plank, p. 90. Geschichte der Christ. Kirch. Verfassung — G]
115 Acta Concil. Carthag. apud Cyprian. edit. Fell, p. 158. This council was composed of eighty-seven bishops from the provinces of Mauritania, Numidia, and Africa; some presbyters and deacons assisted at the assembly; praesente plebis maxima parte.]
116 Aguntur praeterea per Graecias illas, certis in locis concilia, &c Tertullian de Jejuniis, c. 13. The African mentions it as a recent and foreign institution. The coalition of the Christian churches is very ably explained by Mosheim, p. 164 170.]
As the legislative authority of the particular churches was insensibly superseded by the use of councils, the bishops obtained by their alliance a much larger share of executive and arbitrary power; and as soon as they were connected by a sense of their common interest, they were enabled to attack with united vigor, the original rights of their clergy and people. The prelates of the third century imperceptibly changed the language of exhortation into that of command, scattered the seeds of future usurpations, and supplied, by scripture allegories and declamatory rhetoric, their deficiency of force and of reason. They exalted the unity and power of the church, as it was represented in the Episcopal Office, of which every bishop enjoyed an equal and undivided portion. 117 Princes and magistrates, it was often repeated, might boast an earthly claim to a transitory dominion; it was the episcopal authority alone which was derived from the Deity, and extended itself over this and over another world. The bishops were the vicegerents of Christ, the successors of the apostles, and the mystic substitutes of the high priest of the Mosaic law. Their exclusive privilege of conferring the sacerdotal character, invaded the freedom both of clerical and of popular elections; and if, in the administration of the church, they still consulted the judgment of the presbyters, or the inclination of the people, they most carefully inculcated the merit of such a voluntary condescension. The bishops acknowledged the supreme authority which resided in the assembly of their brethren; but in the government of his peculiar diocese, each of them exacted from his flock the same implicit obedience as if that favorite metaphor had been literally just, and as if the shepherd had been of a more exalted nature than that of his sheep. 118 This obedience, however, was not imposed without some efforts on one side, and some resistance on the other. The democratical part of the constitution was, in many places, very warmly supported by the zealous or interested opposition of the inferior clergy. But their patriotism received the ignominious epithets of faction and schism; and the episcopal cause was indebted for its rapid progress to the labors of many active prelates, who, like Cyprian of Carthage, could reconcile the arts of the most ambitious statesman with the Christian virtues which seem adapted to the character of a saint and martyr. 119
117 Cyprian, in his admired treatise De Unitate Ecclesiae. p. 75 — 86]
118 We may appeal to the whole tenor of Cyprian’s conduct, of his doctrine, and of his epistles. Le Clerc, in a short life of Cyprian, (Bibliotheque Universelle, tom. xii. p. 207 — 378,) has laid him open with great freedom and accuracy.]
119 If Novatus, Felicissimus, &c., whom the Bishop of Carthage expelled from his church, and from Africa, were not the most detestable monsters of wickedness, the zeal of Cyprian must occasionally have prevailed over his veracity. For a very just account of these obscure quarrels, see Mosheim, p. 497 — 512.]
The same causes which at first had destroyed the equality of the presbyters introduced among the bishops a preeminence of rank, and from thence a superiority of jurisdiction. As often as in the spring and autumn they met in provincial synod, the difference of personal merit and reputation was very sensibly felt among the members of the assembly, and the multitude was governed by the wisdom and eloquence of the few. But the order of public proceedings required a more regular and less invidious distinction; the office of perpetual presidents in the councils of each province was conferred on the bishops of the principal city; and these aspiring prelates, who soon acquired the lofty titles of Metropolitans and Primates, secretly prepared themselves to usurp over their episcopal brethren the same authority which the bishops had so lately assumed above the college of presbyters. 120 Nor was it long before an emulation of preeminence and power prevailed among the Metropolitans themselves, each of them affecting to display, in the most pompous terms, the temporal honors and advantages of the city over which he presided; the numbers and opulence of the Christians who were subject to their pastoral care; the saints and martyrs who had arisen among them; and the purity with which they preserved the tradition of the faith, as it had been transmitted through a series of orthodox bishops from the apostle or the apostolic disciple, to whom the foundation of their church was ascribed. 121 From every cause, either of a civil or of an ecclesiastical nature, it was easy to foresee that Rome must enjoy the respect, and would soon claim the obedience of the provinces. The society of the faithful bore a just proportion to the capital of the empire; and the Roman church was the greatest, the most numerous, and, in regard to the West, the most ancient of all the Christian establishments, many of which had received their religion from the pious labors of her missionaries. Instead of one apostolic founder, the utmost boast of Antioch, of Ephesus, or of Corinth, the banks of the Tyber were supposed to have been honored with the preaching and martyrdom of the two most eminent among the apostles; 122 and the bishops of Rome very prudently claimed the inheritance of whatsoever prerogatives were attributed either to the person or to the office of St. Peter. 123 The bishops of Italy and of the provinces were disposed to allow them a primacy of order and association (such was their very accurate expression) in the Christian aristocracy. 124 But the power of a monarch was rejected with abhorrence, and the aspiring genius of Rome experienced from the nations of Asia and Africa a more vigorous resistance to her spiritual, than she had formerly done to her temporal, dominion. The patriotic Cyprian, who ruled with the most absolute sway the church of Carthage and the provincial synods, opposed with resolution and success the ambition of the Roman pontiff, artfully connected his own cause with that of the eastern bishops, and, like Hannibal, sought out new allies in the heart of Asia. 125 If this Punic war was carried on without any effusion of blood, it was owing much less to the moderation than to the weakness of the contending prelates. Invectives and excommunications were their only weapons; and these, during the progress of the whole controversy, they hurled against each other with equal fury and devotion. The hard necessity of censuring either a pope, or a saint and martyr, distresses the modern Catholics whenever they are obliged to relate the particulars of a dispute in which the champions of religion indulged such passions as seem much more adapted to the senate or to the camp. 126
120 Mosheim, p. 269, 574. Dupin, Antiquae Eccles. Disciplin. p. 19, 20.]
121 Tertullian, in a distinct treatise, has pleaded against the heretics the right of prescription, as it was held by the apostolic churches.]
122 The journey of St. Peter to Rome is mentioned by most of the ancients, (see Eusebius, ii. 25,) maintained by all the Catholics, allowed by some Protestants, (see Pearson and Dodwell de Success. Episcop. Roman,) but has been vigorously attacked by Spanheim, (Miscellanes Sacra, iii. 3.) According to Father Hardouin, the monks of the thirteenth century, who composed the Aeneid, represented St. Peter under the allegorical character of the Trojan hero.
Note: It is quite clear that, strictly speaking, the church of Rome was not founded by either of these apostles. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans proves undeniably the flourishing state of the church before his visit to the city; and many Roman Catholic writers have given up the impracticable task of reconciling with chronology any visit of St. Peter to Rome before the end of the reign of Claudius, or the beginning of that of Nero. — M.]
123 It is in French only that the famous allusion to St. Peter’s name is exact. Tu es Pierre, et sur cette pierre. — The same is imperfect in Greek, Latin, Italian, &c., and totally unintelligible in our Tentonic languages.
Note: It is exact in Syro-Chaldaic, the language in which it was spoken by Jesus Christ. (St. Matt. xvi. 17.) Peter was called Cephas; and cepha signifies base, foundation, rock — G.]
124 Irenaeus adv. Haereses, iii. 3. Tertullian de Praescription. c. 36, and Cyprian, Epistol. 27, 55, 71, 75. Le Clere (Hist. Eccles. p. 764) and Mosheim (p. 258, 578) labor in the interpretation of these passages. But the loose and rhetorical style of the fathers often appears favorable to the pretensions of Rome.]
125 See the sharp epistle from Firmilianus, bishop of Caesarea, to Stephen, bishop of Rome, ap. Cyprian, Epistol. 75.]
126 Concerning this dispute of the rebaptism of heretics, see the epistles of Cyprian, and the seventh book of Eusebius.]
The progress of the ecclesiastical authority gave birth to the memorable distinction of the laity and of the clergy, which had been unknown to the Greeks and Romans. 127 The former of these appellations comprehended the body of the Christian people; the latter, according to the signification of the word, was appropriated to the chosen portion that had been set apart for the service of religion; a celebrated order of men, which has furnished the most important, though not always the most edifying, subjects for modern history. Their mutual hostilities sometimes disturbed the peace of the infant church, but their zeal and activity were united in the common cause, and the love of power, which (under the most artful disguises) could insinuate itself into the breasts of bishops and martyrs, animated them to increase the number of their subjects, and to enlarge the limits of the Christian empire. They were destitute of any temporal force, and they were for a long time discouraged and oppressed, rather than assisted, by the civil magistrate; but they had acquired, and they employed within their own society, the two most efficacious instruments of government, rewards and punishments; the former derived from the pious liberality, the latter from the devout apprehensions, of the faithful.
127 For the origin of these words, see Mosheim, p. 141. Spanheim, Hist. Ecclesiast. p. 633. The distinction of Clerus and Iaicus was established before the time of Tertullian.]
I. The community of goods, which had so agreeably amused the imagination of Plato, 128 and which subsisted in some degree among the austere sect of the Essenians, 129 was adopted for a short time in the primitive church. The fervor of the first proselytes prompted them to sell those worldly possessions, which they despised, to lay the price of them at the feet of the apostles, and to content themselves with receiving an equal share out of the general distribution. 130 The progress of the Christian religion relaxed, and gradually abolished, this generous institution, which, in hands less pure than those of the apostles, would too soon have been corrupted and abused by the returning selfishness of human nature; and the converts who embraced the new religion were permitted to retain the possession of their patrimony, to receive legacies and inheritances, and to increase their separate property by all the lawful means of trade and industry. Instead of an absolute sacrifice, a moderate proportion was accepted by the ministers of the gospel; and in their weekly or monthly assemblies, every believer, according to the exigency of the occasion, and the measure of his wealth and piety, presented his voluntary offering for the use of the common fund. 131 Nothing, however inconsiderable, was refused; but it was diligently inculcated; that, in the article of Tithes, the Mosaic law was still of divine obligation; and that since the Jews, under a less perfect discipline, had been commanded to pay a tenth part of all that they possessed, it would become the disciples of Christ to distinguish themselves by a superior degree of liberality, 132 and to acquire some merit by resigning a superfluous treasure, which must so soon be annihilated with the world itself. 133 It is almost unnecessary to observe, that the revenue of each particular church, which was of so uncertain and fluctuating a nature, must have varied with the poverty or the opulence of the faithful, as they were dispersed in obscure villages, or collected in the great cities of the empire. In the time of the emperor Decius, it was the opinion of the magistrates, that the Christians of Rome were possessed of very considerable wealth; that vessels of gold and silver were used in their religious worship, and that many among their proselytes had sold their lands and houses to increase the public riches of the sect, at the expense, indeed, of their unfortunate children, who found themselves beggars, because their parents had been saints. 134 We should listen with distrust to the suspicions of strangers and enemies: on this occasion, however, they receive a very specious and probable color from the two following circumstances, the only ones that have reached our knowledge, which define any precise sums, or convey any distinct idea. Almost at the same period, the bishop of Carthage, from a society less opulent than that of Rome, collected a hundred thousand sesterces, (above eight hundred and fifty pounds sterling,) on a sudden call of charity to redeem the brethren of Numidia, who had been carried away captives by the barbarians of the desert. 135 About a hundred years before the reign of Decius, the Roman church had received, in a single donation, the sum of two hundred thousand sesterces from a stranger of Pontus, who proposed to fix his residence in the capital. 136 These oblations, for the most part, were made in money; nor was the society of Christians either desirous or capable of acquiring, to any considerable degree, the encumbrance of landed property. It had been provided by several laws, which were enacted with the same design as our statutes of mortmain, that no real estates should be given or bequeathed to any corporate body, without either a special privilege or a particular dispensation from the emperor or from the senate; 137 who were seldom disposed to grant them in favor of a sect, at first the object of their contempt, and at last of their fears and jealousy. A transaction, however, is related under the reign of Alexander Severus, which discovers that the restraint was sometimes eluded or suspended, and that the Christians were permitted to claim and to possess lands within the limits of Rome itself. 138 The progress of Christianity, and the civil confusion of the empire, contributed to relax the severity of the laws; and before the close of the third century many considerable estates were bestowed on the opulent churches of Rome, Milan, Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria, and the other great cities of Italy and the provinces.
128 The community instituted by Plato is more perfect than that which Sir Thomas More had imagined for his Utopia. The community of women, and that of temporal goods, may be considered as inseparable parts of the same system.]
129 Joseph. Antiquitat. xviii. 2. Philo, de Vit. Contemplativ.]
130 See the Acts of the Apostles, c. 2, 4, 5, with Grotius’s Commentary. Mosheim, in a particular dissertation, attacks the common opinion with very inconclusive arguments.
Note: This is not the general judgment on Mosheim’s learned dissertation. There is no trace in the latter part of the New Testament of this community of goods, and many distinct proofs of the contrary. All exhortations to almsgiving would have been unmeaning if property had been in common — M.]
131 Justin Martyr, Apolog. Major, c. 89. Tertullian, Apolog. c. 39.]
132 Irenaeus ad Haeres. l. iv. c. 27, 34. Origen in Num. Hom. ii Cyprian de Unitat. Eccles. Constitut. Apostol. l. ii. c. 34, 35, with the notes of Cotelerius. The Constitutions introduce this divine precept, by declaring that priests are as much above kings as the soul is above the body. Among the tithable articles, they enumerate corn, wine, oil, and wool. On this interesting subject, consult Prideaux’s History of Tithes, and Fra Paolo delle Materie Beneficiarie; two writers of a very different character.]
133 The same opinion which prevailed about the year one thousand, was productive of the same effects. Most of the Donations express their motive, “appropinquante mundi fine.” See Mosheim’s General History of the Church, vol. i. p. 457.]
Tum summa cura est fratribus
(Ut sermo testatur loquax.)
Offerre, fundis venditis
Addicta avorum praedia
Foedis sub auctionibus,
Successor exheres gemit
Sanctis egens Parentibus.]
Haec occuluntur abditis
Ecclesiarum in angulis.
Et summa pietas creditur
Nudare dulces liberos.
Prudent. Hymn 2.
The subsequent conduct of the deacon Laurence only proves how proper a use was made of the wealth of the Roman church; it was undoubtedly very considerable; but Fra Paolo (c. 3) appears to exaggerate, when he supposes that the successors of Commodus were urged to persecute the Christians by their own avarice, or that of their Praetorian praefects.]
135 Cyprian, Epistol. 62.]
136 Tertullian de Praescriptione, c. 30.]
137 Diocletian gave a rescript, which is only a declaration of the old law; “Collegium, si nullo speciali privilegio subnixum sit, haereditatem capere non posse, dubium non est.” Fra Paolo (c. 4) thinks that these regulations had been much neglected since the reign of Valerian.]
138 Hist. August. p. 131. The ground had been public; and was row disputed between the society of Christians and that of butchers.
Note *: Carponarii, rather victuallers. — M.]
The bishop was the natural steward of the church; the public stock was intrusted to his care without account or control; the presbyters were confined to their spiritual functions, and the more dependent order of the deacons was solely employed in the management and distribution of the ecclesiastical revenue. 139 If we may give credit to the vehement declamations of Cyprian, there were too many among his African brethren, who, in the execution of their charge, violated every precept, not only of evangelical perfection, but even of moral virtue. By some of these unfaithful stewards the riches of the church were lavished in sensual pleasures; by others they were perverted to the purposes of private gain, of fraudulent purchases, and of rapacious usury. 140 But as long as the contributions of the Christian people were free and unconstrained, the abuse of their confidence could not be very frequent, and the general uses to which their liberality was applied reflected honor on the religious society. A decent portion was reserved for the maintenance of the bishop and his clergy; a sufficient sum was allotted for the expenses of the public worship, of which the feasts of love, the agapoe, as they were called, constituted a very pleasing part. The whole remainder was the sacred patrimony of the poor. According to the discretion of the bishop, it was distributed to support widows and orphans, the lame, the sick, and the aged of the community; to comfort strangers and pilgrims, and to alleviate the misfortunes of prisoners and captives, more especially when their sufferings had been occasioned by their firm attachment to the cause of religion. 141 A generous intercourse of charity united the most distant provinces, and the smaller congregations were cheerfully assisted by the alms of their more opulent brethren. 142 Such an institution, which paid less regard to the merit than to the distress of the object, very materially conduced to the progress of Christianity. The Pagans, who were actuated by a sense of humanity, while they derided the doctrines, acknowledged the benevolence, of the new sect. 143 The prospect of immediate relief and of future protection allured into its hospitable bosom many of those unhappy persons whom the neglect of the world would have abandoned to the miseries of want, of sickness, and of old age. There is some reason likewise to believe that great numbers of infants, who, according to the inhuman practice of the times, had been exposed by their parents, were frequently rescued from death, baptized, educated, and maintained by the piety of the Christians, and at the expense of the public treasure. 144
139 Constitut. Apostol. ii. 35.]
140 Cyprian de Lapsis, p. 89. Epistol. 65. The charge is confirmed by the 19th and 20th canon of the council of Illiberis.]
141 See the apologies of Justin, Tertullian, &c.]
142 The wealth and liberality of the Romans to their most distant brethren is gratefully celebrated by Dionysius of Corinth, ap. Euseb. l. iv. c. 23.]
143 See Lucian iu Peregrin. Julian (Epist. 49) seems mortified that the Christian charity maintains not only their own, but likewise the heathen poor.]
144 Such, at least, has been the laudable conduct of more modern missionaries, under the same circumstances. Above three thousand new-born infants are annually exposed in the streets of Pekin. See Le Comte, Memoires sur la Chine, and the Recherches sur les Chinois et les Egyptians, tom. i. p. 61.]
II. It is the undoubted right of every society to exclude from its communion and benefits such among its members as reject or violate those regulations which have been established by general consent. In the exercise of this power, the censures of the Christian church were chiefly directed against scandalous sinners, and particularly those who were guilty of murder, of fraud, or of incontinence; against the authors or the followers of any heretical opinions which had been condemned by the judgment of the episcopal order; and against those unhappy persons, who, whether from choice or compulsion, had polluted themselves after their baptism by any act of idolatrous worship. The consequences of excommunication were of a temporal as well as a spiritual nature. The Christian against whom it was pronounced, was deprived of any part in the oblations of the faithful. The ties both of religious and of private friendship were dissolved: he found himself a profane object of abhorrence to the persons whom he the most esteemed, or by whom he had been the most tenderly beloved; and as far as an expulsion from a respectable society could imprint on his character a mark of disgrace, he was shunned or suspected by the generality of mankind. The situation of these unfortunate exiles was in itself very painful and melancholy; but, as it usually happens, their apprehensions far exceeded their sufferings. The benefits of the Christian communion were those of eternal life; nor could they erase from their minds the awful opinion, that to those ecclesiastical governors by whom they were condemned, the Deity had committed the keys of Hell and of Paradise. The heretics, indeed, who might be supported by the consciousness of their intentions, and by the flattering hope that they alone had discovered the true path of salvation, endeavored to regain, in their separate assemblies, those comforts, temporal as well as spiritual, which they no longer derived from the great society of Christians. But almost all those who had reluctantly yielded to the power of vice or idolatry were sensible of their fallen condition, and anxiously desirous of being restored to the benefits of the Christian communion.
With regard to the treatment of these penitents, two opposite opinions, the one of justice, the other of mercy, divided the primitive church. The more rigid and inflexible casuists refused them forever, and without exception, the meanest place in the holy community, which they had disgraced or deserted; and leaving them to the remorse of a guilty conscience, indulged them only with a faint ray of hope that the contrition of their life and death might possibly be accepted by the Supreme Being. 145 A milder sentiment was embraced in practice as well as in theory, by the purest and most respectable of the Christian churches. 146 The gates of reconciliation and of heaven were seldom shut against the returning penitent; but a severe and solemn form of discipline was instituted, which, while it served to expiate his crime, might powerfully deter the spectators from the imitation of his example. Humbled by a public confession, emaciated by fasting and clothed in sackcloth, the penitent lay prostrate at the door of the assembly, imploring with tears the pardon of his offences, and soliciting the prayers of the faithful. 147 If the fault was of a very heinous nature, whole years of penance were esteemed an inadequate satisfaction to the divine justice; and it was always by slow and painful gradations that the sinner, the heretic, or the apostate, was readmitted into the bosom of the church. A sentence of perpetual excommunication was, however, reserved for some crimes of an extraordinary magnitude, and particularly for the inexcusable relapses of those penitents who had already experienced and abused the clemency of their ecclesiastical superiors. According to the circumstances or the number of the guilty, the exercise of the Christian discipline was varied by the discretion of the bishops. The councils of Ancyra and Illiberis were held about the same time, the one in Galatia, the other in Spain; but their respective canons, which are still extant, seem to breathe a very different spirit. The Galatian, who after his baptism had repeatedly sacrificed to idols, might obtain his pardon by a penance of seven years; and if he had seduced others to imitate his example, only three years more were added to the term of his exile. But the unhappy Spaniard, who had committed the same offence, was deprived of the hope of reconciliation, even in the article of death; and his idolatry was placed at the head of a list of seventeen other crimes, against which a sentence no less terrible was pronounced. Among these we may distinguish the inexpiable guilt of calumniating a bishop, a presbyter, or even a deacon. 148
145 The Montanists and the Novatians, who adhered to this opinion with the greatest rigor and obstinacy, found themselves at last in the number of excommunicated heretics. See the learned and copious Mosheim, Secul. ii. and iii.]
146 Dionysius ap. Euseb. iv. 23. Cyprian, de Lapsis.]
147 Cave’s Primitive Christianity, part iii. c. 5. The admirers of antiquity regret the loss of this public penance.]
148 See in Dupin, Bibliotheque Ecclesiastique, tom. ii. p. 304 — 313, a short but rational exposition of the canons of those councils, which were assembled in the first moments of tranquillity, after the persecution of Diocletian. This persecution had been much less severely felt in Spain than in Galatia; a difference which may, in some measure account for the contrast of their regulations.]
The well-tempered mixture of liberality and rigor, the judicious dispensation of rewards and punishments, according to the maxims of policy as well as justice, constituted the human strength of the church. The Bishops, whose paternal care extended itself to the government of both worlds, were sensible of the importance of these prerogatives; and covering their ambition with the fair pretence of the love of order, they were jealous of any rival in the exercise of a discipline so necessary to prevent the desertion of those troops which had enlisted themselves under the banner of the cross, and whose numbers every day became more considerable. From the imperious declamations of Cyprian, we should naturally conclude that the doctrines of excommunication and penance formed the most essential part of religion; and that it was much less dangerous for the disciples of Christ to neglect the observance of the moral duties, than to despise the censures and authority of their bishops. Sometimes we might imagine that we were listening to the voice of Moses, when he commanded the earth to open, and to swallow up, in consuming flames, the rebellious race which refused obedience to the priesthood of Aaron; and we should sometimes suppose that we hear a Roman consul asserting the majesty of the republic, and declaring his inflexible resolution to enforce the rigor of the laws. * “If such irregularities are suffered with impunity,” (it is thus that the bishop of Carthage chides the lenity of his colleague,) “if such irregularities are suffered, there is an end of Episcopal Vigor; 149 an end of the sublime and divine power of governing the Church, an end of Christianity itself.” Cyprian had renounced those temporal honors, which it is probable he would never have obtained; * but the acquisition of such absolute command over the consciences and understanding of a congregation, however obscure or despised by the world, is more truly grateful to the pride of the human heart, than the possession of the most despotic power, imposed by arms and conquest on a reluctant people.
* Gibbon has been accused of injustice to the character of Cyprian, as exalting the “censures and authority of the church above the observance of the moral duties.” Felicissimus had been condemned by a synod of bishops, (non tantum mea, sed plurimorum coepiscorum, sententia condemnatum,) on the charge not only of schism, but of embezzlement of public money, the debauching of virgins, and frequent acts of adultery. His violent menaces had extorted his readmission into the church, against which Cyprian protests with much vehemence: ne pecuniae commissae sibi fraudator, ne stuprator virginum, ne matrimoniorum multorum depopulator et corruptor, ultra adhuc sponsam Christi incorruptam praesentiae suae dedecore, et impudica atque incesta contagione, violaret. See Chelsum’s Remarks, p. 134. If these charges against Felicissimus were true, they were something more than “irregularities,” A Roman censor would have been a fairer subject of comparison than a consul. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the charge of adultery deepens very rapidly as the controversy becomes more violent. It is first represented as a single act, recently detected, and which men of character were prepared to substantiate: adulterii etiam crimen accedit. quod patres nostri graves viri deprehendisse se nuntiaverunt, et probaturos se asseverarunt. Epist. xxxviii. The heretic has now darkened into a man of notorious and general profligacy. Nor can it be denied that of the whole long epistle, very far the larger and the more passionate part dwells on the breach of ecclesiastical unity rather than on the violation of Christian holiness. — M.]
149 Cyprian Epist. 69.]
* This supposition appears unfounded: the birth and the talents of Cyprian might make us presume the contrary. Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, Carthaginensis, artis oratoriae professione clarus, magnam sibi gloriam, opes, honores acquisivit, epularibus caenis et largis dapibus assuetus, pretiosa veste conspicuus, auro atque purpura fulgens, fascibus oblectatus et honoribus, stipatus clientium cuneis, frequentiore comitatu officii agminis honestatus, ut ipse de se loquitur in Epistola ad Donatum. See De Cave, Hist. Liter. b. i. p. 87. — G.
Cave has rather embellished Cyprian’s language. — M.]
In the course of this important, though perhaps tedious inquiry, I have attempted to display the secondary causes which so efficaciously assisted the truth of the Christian religion. If among these causes we have discovered any artificial ornaments, any accidental circumstances, or any mixture of error and passion, it cannot appear surprising that mankind should be the most sensibly affected by such motives as were suited to their imperfect nature. It was by the aid of these causes, exclusive zeal, the immediate expectation of another world, the claim of miracles, the practice of rigid virtue, and the constitution of the primitive church, that Christianity spread itself with so much success in the Roman empire. To the first of these the Christians were indebted for their invincible valor, which disdained to capitulate with the enemy whom they were resolved to vanquish. The three succeeding causes supplied their valor with the most formidable arms. The last of these causes united their courage, directed their arms, and gave their efforts that irresistible weight, which even a small band of well-trained and intrepid volunteers has so often possessed over an undisciplined multitude, ignorant of the subject, and careless of the event of the war. In the various religions of Polytheism, some wandering fanatics of Egypt and Syria, who addressed themselves to the credulous superstition of the populace, were perhaps the only order of priests 150 that derived their whole support and credit from their sacerdotal profession, and were very deeply affected by a personal concern for the safety or prosperity of their tutelar deities. The ministers of Polytheism, both in Rome and in the provinces, were, for the most part, men of a noble birth, and of an affluent fortune, who received, as an honorable distinction, the care of a celebrated temple, or of a public sacrifice, exhibited, very frequently at their own expense, the sacred games, 151 and with cold indifference performed the ancient rites, according to the laws and fashion of their country. As they were engaged in the ordinary occupations of life, their zeal and devotion were seldom animated by a sense of interest, or by the habits of an ecclesiastical character. Confined to their respective temples and cities, they remained without any connection of discipline or government; and whilst they acknowledged the supreme jurisdiction of the senate, of the college of pontiffs, and of the emperor, those civil magistrates contented themselves with the easy task of maintaining in peace and dignity the general worship of mankind. We have already seen how various, how loose, and how uncertain were the religious sentiments of Polytheists. They were abandoned, almost without control, to the natural workings of a superstitious fancy. The accidental circumstances of their life and situation determined the object as well as the degree of their devotion; and as long as their adoration was successively prostituted to a thousand deities, it was scarcely possible that their hearts could be susceptible of a very sincere or lively passion for any of them.
150 The arts, the manners, and the vices of the priests of the Syrian goddess are very humorously described by Apuleius, in the eighth book of his Metamorphosis.]
151 The office of Asiarch was of this nature, and it is frequently mentioned in Aristides, the Inscriptions, &c. It was annual and elective. None but the vainest citizens could desire the honor; none but the most wealthy could support the expense. See, in the Patres Apostol. tom. ii. p. 200, with how much indifference Philip the Asiarch conducted himself in the martyrdom of Polycarp. There were likewise Bithyniarchs, Lyciarchs, &c.]
When Christianity appeared in the world, even these faint and imperfect impressions had lost much of their original power. Human reason, which by its unassisted strength is incapable of perceiving the mysteries of faith, had already obtained an easy triumph over the folly of Paganism; and when Tertullian or Lactantius employ their labors in exposing its falsehood and extravagance, they are obliged to transcribe the eloquence of Cicero or the wit of Lucian. The contagion of these sceptical writings had been diffused far beyond the number of their readers. The fashion of incredulity was communicated from the philosopher to the man of pleasure or business, from the noble to the plebeian, and from the master to the menial slave who waited at his table, and who eagerly listened to the freedom of his conversation. On public occasions the philosophic part of mankind affected to treat with respect and decency the religious institutions of their country; but their secret contempt penetrated through the thin and awkward disguise; and even the people, when they discovered that their deities were rejected and derided by those whose rank or understanding they were accustomed to reverence, were filled with doubts and apprehensions concerning the truth of those doctrines, to which they had yielded the most implicit belief. The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation. A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favored the establishment of Polytheism. So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. Some deities of a more recent and fashionable cast might soon have occupied the deserted temples of Jupiter and Apollo, if, in the decisive moment, the wisdom of Providence had not interposed a genuine revelation, fitted to inspire the most rational esteem and conviction, whilst, at the same time, it was adorned with all that could attract the curiosity, the wonder, and the veneration of the people. In their actual disposition, as many were almost disengaged from their artificial prejudices, but equally susceptible and desirous of a devout attachment; an object much less deserving would have been sufficient to fill the vacant place in their hearts, and to gratify the uncertain eagerness of their passions. Those who are inclined to pursue this reflection, instead of viewing with astonishment the rapid progress of Christianity, will perhaps be surprised that its success was not still more rapid and still more universal.
It has been observed, with truth as well as propriety, that the conquests of Rome prepared and facilitated those of Christianity. In the second chapter of this work we have attempted to explain in what manner the most civilized provinces of Europe, Asia, and Africa were united under the dominion of one sovereign, and gradually connected by the most intimate ties of laws, of manners, and of language. The Jews of Palestine, who had fondly expected a temporal deliverer, gave so cold a reception to the miracles of the divine prophet, that it was found unnecessary to publish, or at least to preserve, any Hebrew gospel. 152 The authentic histories of the actions of Christ were composed in the Greek language, at a considerable distance from Jerusalem, and after the Gentile converts were grown extremely numerous. 153 As soon as those histories were translated into the Latin tongue, they were perfectly intelligible to all the subjects of Rome, excepting only to the peasants of Syria and Egypt, for whose benefit particular versions were afterwards made. The public highways, which had been constructed for the use of the legions, opened an easy passage for the Christian missionaries from Damascus to Corinth, and from Italy to the extremity of Spain or Britain; nor did those spiritual conquerors encounter any of the obstacles which usually retard or prevent the introduction of a foreign religion into a distant country. There is the strongest reason to believe, that before the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine, the faith of Christ had been preached in every province, and in all the great cities of the empire; but the foundation of the several congregations, the numbers of the faithful who composed them, and their proportion to the unbelieving multitude, are now buried in obscurity, or disguised by fiction and declamation. Such imperfect circumstances, however, as have reached our knowledge concerning the increase of the Christian name in Asia and Greece, in Egypt, in Italy, and in the West, we shall now proceed to relate, without neglecting the real or imaginary acquisitions which lay beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.
152 The modern critics are not disposed to believe what the fathers almost unanimously assert, that St. Matthew composed a Hebrew gospel, of which only the Greek translation is extant. It seems, however, dangerous to reject their testimony.
Note: Strong reasons appear to confirm this testimony. Papias, contemporary of the Apostle St. John, says positively that Matthew had written the discourses of Jesus Christ in Hebrew, and that each interpreted them as he could. This Hebrew was the Syro-Chaldaic dialect, then in use at Jerusalem: Origen, Irenaeus, Eusebius, Jerome, Epiphanius, confirm this statement. Jesus Christ preached himself in Syro-Chaldaic, as is proved by many words which he used, and which the Evangelists have taken the pains to translate. St. Paul, addressing the Jews, used the same language: Acts xxi. 40, xxii. 2, xxvi. 14. The opinions of some critics prove nothing against such undeniable testimonies. Moreover, their principal objection is, that St. Matthew quotes the Old Testament according to the Greek version of the LXX., which is inaccurate; for of ten quotations, found in his Gospel, seven are evidently taken from the Hebrew text; the threo others offer little that differ: moreover, the latter are not literal quotations. St. Jerome says positively, that, according to a copy which he had seen in the library of Caesarea, the quotations were made in Hebrew (in Catal.) More modern critics, among others Michaelis, do not entertain a doubt on the subject. The Greek version appears to have been made in the time of the apostles, as St. Jerome and St. Augustus affirm, perhaps by one of them. — G.
Among modern critics, Dr. Hug has asserted the Greek original of St. Matthew, but the general opinion of the most learned biblical writer, supports the view of M. Guizot. — M.]
153 Under the reigns of Nero and Domitian, and in the cities of Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Ephesus. See Mill. Prolegomena ad Nov. Testament, and Dr. Lardner’s fair and extensive collection, vol. xv.
Note: This question has, it is well known, been most elaborately discussed since the time of Gibbon. The Preface to the Translation of Schleier Macher’s Version of St. Luke contains a very able summary of the various theories. — M.]
The rich provinces that extend from the Euphrates to the Ionian Sea, were the principal theatre on which the apostle of the Gentiles displayed his zeal and piety. The seeds of the gospel, which he had scattered in a fertile soil, were diligently cultivated by his disciples; and it should seem that, during the two first centuries, the most considerable body of Christians was contained within those limits. Among the societies which were instituted in Syria, none were more ancient or more illustrious than those of Damascus, of Berea or Aleppo, and of Antioch. The prophetic introduction of the Apocalypse has described and immortalized the seven churches of Asia; Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, 154 Sardes, Laodicea and Philadelphia; and their colonies were soon diffused over that populous country. In a very early period, the islands of Cyprus and Crete, the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia, gave a favorable reception to the new religion; and Christian republics were soon founded in the cities of Corinth, of Sparta, and of Athens. 155 The antiquity of the Greek and Asiatic churches allowed a sufficient space of time for their increase and multiplication; and even the swarms of Gnostics and other heretics serve to display the flourishing condition of the orthodox church, since the appellation of hereties has always been applied to the less numerous party. To these domestic testimonies we may add the confession, the complaints, and the apprehensions of the Gentiles themselves. From the writings of Lucian, a philosopher who had studied mankind, and who describes their manners in the most lively colors, we may learn that, under the reign of Commodus, his native country of Pontus was filled with Epicureans and Christians. 156 Within fourscore years after the death of Christ, 157 the humane Pliny laments the magnitude of the evil which he vainly attempted to eradicate. In his very curious epistle to the emperor Trajan, he affirms, that the temples were almost deserted, that the sacred victims scarcely found any purchasers, and that the superstition had not only infected the cities, but had even spread itself into the villages and the open country of Pontus and Bithynia. 158
154 The Alogians (Epiphanius de Haeres. 51) disputed the genuineness of the Apocalypse, because the church of Thyatira was not yet founded. Epiphanius, who allows the fact, extricates himself from the difficulty by ingeniously supposing that St. John wrote in the spirit of prophecy. See Abauzit, Discours sur l’Apocalypse.]
155 The epistles of Ignatius and Dionysius (ap. Euseb. iv. 23) point out many churches in Asia and Greece. That of Athens seems to have been one of the least flourishing.]
156 Lucian in Alexandro, c. 25. Christianity however, must have been very unequally diffused over Pontus; since, in the middle of the third century, there was no more than seventeen believers in the extensive diocese of Neo-Caesarea. See M. de Tillemont, Memoires Ecclesiast. tom. iv. p. 675, from Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, who were themselves natives of Cappadocia.
Note: Gibbon forgot the conclusion of this story, that Gregory left only seventeen heathens in his diocese. The antithesis is suspicious, and both numbers may have been chosen to magnify the spiritual fame of the wonder-worker. — M.]
157 According to the ancients, Jesus Christ suffered under the consulship of the two Gemini, in the year 29 of our present aera. Pliny was sent into Bithynia (according to Pagi) in the year 110.]
158 Plin. Epist. x. 97.]
Without descending into a minute scrutiny of the expressions or of the motives of those writers who either celebrate or lament the progress of Christianity in the East, it may in general be observed, that none of them have left us any grounds from whence a just estimate might be formed of the real numbers of the faithful in those provinces. One circumstance, however, has been fortunately preserved, which seems to cast a more distinct light on this obscure but interesting subject. Under the reign of Theodosius, after Christianity had enjoyed, during more than sixty years, the sunshine of Imperial favor, the ancient and illustrious church of Antioch consisted of one hundred thousand persons, three thousand of whom were supported out of the public oblations. 159 The splendor and dignity of the queen of the East, the acknowledged populousness of Caesarea, Seleucia, and Alexandria, and the destruction of two hundred and fifty thousand souls in the earthquake which afflicted Antioch under the elder Justin, 160 are so many convincing proofs that the whole number of its inhabitants was not less than half a million, and that the Christians, however multiplied by zeal and power, did not exceed a fifth part of that great city. How different a proportion must we adopt when we compare the persecuted with the triumphant church, the West with the East, remote villages with populous towns, and countries recently converted to the faith with the place where the believers first received the appellation of Christians! It must not, however, be dissembled, that, in another passage, Chrysostom, to whom we are indebted for this useful information, computes the multitude of the faithful as even superior to that of the Jews and Pagans. 161 But the solution of this apparent difficulty is easy and obvious. The eloquent preacher draws a parallel between the civil and the ecclesiastical constitution of Antioch; between the list of Christians who had acquired heaven by baptism, and the list of citizens who had a right to share the public liberality. Slaves, strangers, and infants were comprised in the former; they were excluded from the latter.
159 Chrysostom. Opera, tom. vii. p. 658, 810, [edit. Savil. ii. 422, 329.]
160 John Malala, tom. ii. p. 144. He draws the same conclusion with regard to the populousness of antioch.]
161 Chrysostom. tom. i. p. 592. I am indebted for these passages, though not for my inference, to the learned Dr. Lardner. Credibility of the Gospel of History, vol. xii. p. 370.
Note: The statements of Chrysostom with regard to the population of Antioch, whatever may be their accuracy, are perfectly consistent. In one passage he reckons the population at 200,000. In a second the Christians at 100,000. In a third he states that the Christians formed more than half the population. Gibbon has neglected to notice the first passage, and has drawn by estimate of the population of Antioch from other sources. The 8000 maintained by alms were widows and virgins alone — M.]
The extensive commerce of Alexandria, and its proximity to Palestine, gave an easy entrance to the new religion. It was at first embraced by great numbers of the Theraputae, or Essenians, of the Lake Mareotis, a Jewish sect which had abated much of its reverence for the Mosaic ceremonies. The austere life of the Essenians, their fasts and excommunications, the community of goods, the love of celibacy, their zeal for martyrdom, and the warmth though not the purity of their faith, already offered a very lively image of the primitive discipline. 162 It was in the school of Alexandria that the Christian theology appears to have assumed a regular and scientific form; and when Hadrian visited Egypt, he found a church composed of Jews and of Greeks, sufficiently important to attract the notice of that inquisitive prince. 163 But the progress of Christianity was for a long time confined within the limits of a single city, which was itself a foreign colony, and till the close of the second century the predecessors of Demetrius were the only prelates of the Egyptian church. Three bishops were consecrated by the hands of Demetrius, and the number was increased to twenty by his successor Heraclas. 164 The body of the natives, a people distinguished by a sullen inflexibility of temper, 165 entertained the new doctrine with coldness and reluctance; and even in the time of Origen, it was rare to meet with an Egyptian who had surmounted his early prejudices in favor of the sacred animals of his country. 166 As soon, indeed, as Christianity ascended the throne, the zeal of those barbarians obeyed the prevailing impulsion; the cities of Egypt were filled with bishops, and the deserts of Thebais swarmed with hermits.
162 Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, l. 2, c. 20, 21, 22, 23, has examined with the most critical accuracy the curious treatise of Philo, which describes the Therapeutae. By proving that it was composed as early as the time of Augustus, Basnage has demonstrated, in spite of Eusebius (l. ii. c. 17) and a crowd of modern Catholics, that the Therapeutae were neither Christians nor monks. It still remains probable that they changed their name, preserved their manners, adopted some new articles of faith, and gradually became the fathers of the Egyptian Ascetics.]
163 See a letter of Hadrian in the Augustan History, p. 245.]
164 For the succession of Alexandrian bishops, consult Renaudot’s History, p. 24, &c. This curious fact is preserved by the patriarch Eutychius, Annal. tom. i. p. 334, Vers. Pocock,) and its internal evidence would alone be a sufficient answer to all the objections which Bishop Pearson has urged in the Vindiciae Ignatianae.]
165 Ammian. Marcellin. xxii. 16.]
166 Origen contra Celsum, l. i. p. 40.]
A perpetual stream of strangers and provincials flowed into the capacious bosom of Rome. Whatever was strange or odious, whoever was guilty or suspected, might hope, in the obscurity of that immense capital, to elude the vigilance of the law. In such a various conflux of nations, every teacher, either of truth or falsehood, every founder, whether of a virtuous or a criminal association, might easily multiply his disciples or accomplices. The Christians of Rome, at the time of the accidental persecution of Nero, are represented by Tacitus as already amounting to a very great multitude, 167 and the language of that great historian is almost similar to the style employed by Livy, when he relates the introduction and the suppression of the rites of Bacchus. After the Bacchanals had awakened the severity of the senate, it was likewise apprehended that a very great multitude, as it were another people, had been initiated into those abhorred mysteries. A more careful inquiry soon demonstrated, that the offenders did not exceed seven thousand; a number indeed sufficiently alarming, when considered as the object of public justice. 168 It is with the same candid allowance that we should interpret the vague expressions of Tacitus, and in a former instance of Pliny, when they exaggerate the crowds of deluded fanatics who had forsaken the established worship of the gods. The church of Rome was undoubtedly the first and most populous of the empire; and we are possessed of an authentic record which attests the state of religion in that city about the middle of the third century, and after a peace of thirty-eight years. The clergy, at that time, consisted of a bishop, forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, as many sub-deacons, forty-two acolythes, and fifty readers, exorcists, and porters. The number of widows, of the infirm, and of the poor, who were maintained by the oblations of the faithful, amounted to fifteen hundred. 169 From reason, as well as from the analogy of Antioch, we may venture to estimate the Christians of Rome at about fifty thousand. The populousness of that great capital cannot perhaps be exactly ascertained; but the most modest calculation will not surely reduce it lower than a million of inhabitants, of whom the Christians might constitute at the most a twentieth part. 170
167 Ingens multitudo is the expression of Tacitus, xv. 44.]
168 T. Liv. xxxix. 13, 15, 16, 17. Nothing could exceed the horror and consternation of the senate on the discovery of the Bacchanalians, whose depravity is described, and perhaps exaggerated, by Livy.]
169 Eusebius, l. vi. c. 43. The Latin translator (M. de Valois) has thought proper to reduce the number of presbyters to forty-four.]
170 This proportion of the presbyters and of the poor, to the rest of the people, was originally fixed by Burnet, (Travels into Italy, p. 168,) and is approved by Moyle, (vol. ii. p. 151.) They were both unacquainted with the passage of Chrysostom, which converts their conjecture almost into a fact.]
The western provincials appeared to have derived the knowledge of Christianity from the same source which had diffused among them the language, the sentiments, and the manners of Rome.
In this more important circumstance, Africa, as well as Gaul, was gradually fashioned to the imitation of the capital. Yet notwithstanding the many favorable occasions which might invite the Roman missionaries to visit their Latin provinces, it was late before they passed either the sea or the Alps; 171 nor can we discover in those great countries any assured traces either of faith or of persecution that ascend higher than the reign of the Antonines. 172 The slow progress of the gospel in the cold climate of Gaul, was extremely different from the eagerness with which it seems to have been received on the burning sands of Africa. The African Christians soon formed one of the principal members of the primitive church. The practice introduced into that province of appointing bishops to the most inconsiderable towns, and very frequently to the most obscure villages, contributed to multiply the splendor and importance of their religious societies, which during the course of the third century were animated by the zeal of Tertullian, directed by the abilities of Cyprian, and adorned by the eloquence of Lactantius.
But if, on the contrary, we turn our eyes towards Gaul, we must content ourselves with discovering, in the time of Marcus Antoninus, the feeble and united congregations of Lyons and Vienna; and even as late as the reign of Decius, we are assured, that in a few cities only, Arles, Narbonne, Thoulouse, Limoges, Clermont, Tours, and Paris, some scattered churches were supported by the devotion of a small number of Christians. 173 Silence is indeed very consistent with devotion; but as it is seldom compatible with zeal, we may perceive and lament the languid state of Christianity in those provinces which had exchanged the Celtic for the Latin tongue, since they did not, during the three first centuries, give birth to a single ecclesiastical writer. From Gaul, which claimed a just preeminence of learning and authority over all the countries on this side of the Alps, the light of the gospel was more faintly reflected on the remote provinces of Spain and Britain; and if we may credit the vehement assertions of Tertullian, they had already received the first rays of the faith, when he addressed his apology to the magistrates of the emperor Severus. 174 But the obscure and imperfect origin of the western churches of Europe has been so negligently recorded, that if we would relate the time and manner of their foundation, we must supply the silence of antiquity by those legends which avarice or superstition long afterwards dictated to the monks in the lazy gloom of their convents. 175 Of these holy romances, that of the apostle St. James can alone, by its singular extravagance, deserve to be mentioned. From a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, he was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of the Spanish chivalry in their battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the Inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism. 176
171 Serius trans Alpes, religione Dei suscepta. Sulpicius Severus, l. ii. With regard to Africa, see Tertullian ad Scapulam, c. 3. It is imagined that the Scyllitan martyrs were the first, (Acta Sincera Rumart. p. 34.) One of the adversaries of Apuleius seems to have been a Christian. Apolog. p. 496, 497, edit. Delphin.]
172 Tum primum intra Gallias martyria visa. Sulp. Severus, l. ii. These were the celebrated martyrs of Lyons. See Eusebius, v. i. Tillemont, Mem. Ecclesiast. tom. ii. p. 316. According to the Donatists, whose assertion is confirmed by the tacit acknowledgment of Augustin, Africa was the last of the provinces which received the gospel. Tillemont, Mem. Ecclesiast. tom. i. p. 754.]
173 Rarae in aliquibus civitatibus ecclesiae, paucorum Christianorum devotione, resurgerent. Acta Sincera, p. 130. Gregory of Tours, l i. c. 28. Mosheim, p. 207, 449. There is some reason to believe that in the beginning of the fourth century, the extensive dioceses of Liege, of Treves, and of Cologne, composed a single bishopric, which had been very recently founded. See Memoires de Tillemont, tom vi. part i. p. 43, 411.]
174 The date of Tertullian’s Apology is fixed, in a dissertation of Mosheim, to the year 198.]
175 In the fifteenth century, there were few who had either inclination or courage to question, whether Joseph of Arimathea founded the monastery of Glastonbury, and whether Dionysius the Areopagite preferred the residence of Paris to that of Athens.]
176 The stupendous metamorphosis was performed in the ninth century. See Mariana, (Hist. Hispan. l. vii. c. 13, tom. i. p. 285, edit. Hag. Com. 1733,) who, in every sense, imitates Livy, and the honest detection of the legend of St. James by Dr. Geddes, Miscellanies, vol. ii. p. 221.]
The progress of Christianity was not confined to the Roman empire; and according to the primitive fathers, who interpret facts by prophecy, the new religion, within a century after the death of its divine Author, had already visited every part of the globe. “There exists not,” says Justin Martyr, “a people, whether Greek or Barbarian, or any other race of men, by whatsoever appellation or manners they may be distinguished, however ignorant of arts or agriculture, whether they dwell under tents, or wander about in covered wagons, among whom prayers are not offered up in the name of a crucified Jesus to the Father and Creator of all things.” 177 But this splendid exaggeration, which even at present it would be extremely difficult to reconcile with the real state of mankind, can be considered only as the rash sally of a devout but careless writer, the measure of whose belief was regulated by that of his wishes. But neither the belief nor the wishes of the fathers can alter the truth of history. It will still remain an undoubted fact, that the barbarians of Scythia and Germany, who afterwards subverted the Roman monarchy, were involved in the darkness of paganism; and that even the conversion of Iberia, of Armenia, or of Aethiopia, was not attempted with any degree of success till the sceptre was in the hands of an orthodox emperor. 178 Before that time, the various accidents of war and commerce might indeed diffuse an imperfect knowledge of the gospel among the tribes of Caledonia, 179 and among the borderers of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates. 180 Beyond the last-mentioned river, Edessa was distinguished by a firm and early adherence to the faith. 181 From Edessa the principles of Christianity were easily introduced into the Greek and Syrian cities which obeyed the successors of Artaxerxes; but they do not appear to have made any deep impression on the minds of the Persians, whose religious system, by the labors of a well disciplined order of priests, had been constructed with much more art and solidity than the uncertain mythology of Greece and Rome. 182
177 Justin Martyr, Dialog. cum Tryphon. p. 341. Irenaeus adv. Haeres. l. i. c. 10. Tertullian adv. Jud. c. 7. See Mosheim, p. 203.]
178 See the fourth century of Mosheim’s History of the Church. Many, though very confused circumstances, that relate to the conversion of Iberia and Armenia, may be found in Moses of Chorene, l. ii. c. 78 — 89.
Note: Mons. St. Martin has shown that Armenia was the first nation that embraced Christianity. Memoires sur l’Armenie, vol. i. p. 306, and notes to Le Beae. Gibbon, indeed had expressed his intention of withdrawing the words “of Armenia” from the text of future editions. (Vindication, Works, iv. 577.) He was bitterly taunted by Person for neglecting or declining to fulfil his promise. Preface to Letters to Travis. — M.]
179 According to Tertullian, the Christian faith had penetrated into parts of Britain inaccessible to the Roman arms. About a century afterwards, Ossian, the son of Fingal, is said to have disputed, in his extreme old age, with one of the foreign missionaries, and the dispute is still extant, in verse, and in the Erse language. See Mr. Macpher son’s Dissertation on the Antiquity of Ossian’s Poems, p. 10.]
180 The Goths, who ravaged Asia in the reign of Gallienus, carried away great numbers of captives; some of whom were Christians, and became missionaries. See Tillemont, Memoires Ecclesiast. tom. iv. p. 44.]
181 The legends of Abgarus, fabulous as it is, affords a decisive proof, that many years before Eusebius wrote his history, the greatest part of the inhabitants of Edessa had embraced Christianity. Their rivals, the citizens of Carrhae, adhered, on the contrary, to the cause of Paganism, as late as the sixth century.]
182 According to Bardesanes (ap. Euseb. Praepar. Evangel.) there were some Christians in Persia before the end of the second century. In the time of Constantine (see his epistle to Sapor, Vit. l. iv. c. 13) they composed a flourishing church. Consult Beausobre, Hist. Cristique du Manicheisme, tom. i. p. 180, and the Bibliotheca Orietalis of Assemani.]
From this impartial though imperfect survey of the progress of Christianity, it may perhaps seem probable, that the number of its proselytes has been excessively magnified by fear on the one side, and by devotion on the other. According to the irreproachable testimony of Origen, 183 the proportion of the faithful was very inconsiderable, when compared with the multitude of an unbelieving world; but, as we are left without any distinct information, it is impossible to determine, and it is difficult even to conjecture, the real numbers of the primitive Christians. The most favorable calculation, however, that can be deduced from the examples of Antioch and of Rome, will not permit us to imagine that more than a themselves under the banner of the cross before the important conversion of Constantine. But their habits of faith, of zeal, and of union, seemed to multiply their numbers; and the same causes which contributed to their future increase, served to render their actual strength more apparent and more formidable.
183 Origen contra Celsum, l. viii. p. 424.]
Such is the constitution of civil society, that whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honors, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance and poverty. The Christian religion, which addressed itself to the whole human race, must consequently collect a far greater number of proselytes from the lower than from the superior ranks of life. This innocent and natural circumstance has been improved into a very odious imputation, which seems to be less strenuously denied by the apologists, than it is urged by the adversaries, of the faith; that the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves, the last of whom might sometimes introduce the missionaries into the rich and noble families to which they belonged. These obscure teachers (such was the charge of malice and infidelity) are as mute in public as they are loquacious and dogmatical in private. Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into those minds, whom their age, their sex, or their education, has the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors. 184
184 Minucius Felix, c. 8, with Wowerus’s notes. Celsus ap. Origen, l. iii. p. 138, 142. Julian ap. Cyril. l. vi. p. 206, edit. Spanheim.]
This unfavorable picture, though not devoid of a faint resemblance, betrays, by its dark coloring and distorted features, the pencil of an enemy. As the humble faith of Christ diffused itself through the world, it was embraced by several persons who derived some consequence from the advantages of nature or fortune. Aristides, who presented an eloquent apology to the emperor Hadrian, was an Athenian philosopher. 185 Justin Martyr had sought divine knowledge in the schools of Zeno, of Aristotle, of Pythagoras, and of Plato, before he fortunately was accosted by the old man, or rather the angel, who turned his attention to the study of the Jewish prophets. 186 Clemens of Alexandria had acquired much various reading in the Greek, and Tertullian in the Latin, language. Julius Africanus and Origen possessed a very considerable share of the learning of their times; and although the style of Cyprian is very different from that of Lactantius, we might almost discover that both those writers had been public teachers of rhetoric. Even the study of philosophy was at length introduced among the Christians, but it was not always productive of the most salutary effects; knowledge was as often the parent of heresy as of devotion, and the description which was designed for the followers of Artemon, may, with equal propriety, be applied to the various sects that resisted the successors of the apostles. “They presume to alter the Holy Scriptures, to abandon the ancient rule of faith, and to form their opinions according to the subtile precepts of logic. The science of the church is neglected for the study of geometry, and they lose sight of heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth. Euclid is perpetually in their hands. Aristotle and Theophrastus are the objects of their admiration; and they express an uncommon reverence for the works of Galen. Their errors are derived from the abuse of the arts and sciences of the infidels, and they corrupt the simplicity of the gospel by the refinements of human reason.” 187
185 Euseb. Hist. Eccles. iv. 3. Hieronym. Epist. 83.]
186 The story is prettily told in Justin’s Dialogues. Tillemont, (Mem Ecclesiast. tom. ii. p. 384,) who relates it after him is sure that the old man was a disguised angel.]
187 Eusebius, v. 28. It may be hoped, that none, except the heretics, gave occasion to the complaint of Celsus, (ap. Origen, l. ii. p. 77,) that the Christians were perpetually correcting and altering their Gospels.
Note: Origen states in reply, that he knows of none who had altered the Gospels except the Marcionites, the Valentinians, and perhaps some followers of Lucanus. — M.]
Nor can it be affirmed with truth, that the advantages of birth and fortune were always separated from the profession of Christianity. Several Roman citizens were brought before the tribunal of Pliny, and he soon discovered, that a great number of persons of every order of men in Bithynia had deserted the religion of their ancestors. 188 His unsuspected testimony may, in this instance, obtain more credit than the bold challenge of Tertullian, when he addresses himself to the fears as well as the humanity of the proconsul of Africa, by assuring him, that if he persists in his cruel intentions, he must decimate Carthage, and that he will find among the guilty many persons of his own rank, senators and matrons of nobles’ extraction, and the friends or relations of his most intimate friends. 189 It appears, however, that about forty years afterwards the emperor Valerian was persuaded of the truth of this assertion, since in one of his rescripts he evidently supposes, that senators, Roman knights, and ladies of quality, were engaged in the Christian sect. 190 The church still continued to increase its outward splendor as it lost its internal purity; and, in the reign of Diocletian, the palace, the courts of justice, and even the army, concealed a multitude of Christians, who endeavored to reconcile the interests of the present with those of a future life.
188 Plin. Epist. x. 97. Fuerunt alii similis amentiae, cives Romani —— Multi enim omnis aetatis, omnis ordinis, utriusque sexus, etiam vocuntur in periculum et vocabuntur.]
189 Tertullian ad Scapulum. Yet even his rhetoric rises no higher than to claim a tenth part of Carthage.]
190 Cyprian. Epist. 70.]
And yet these exceptions are either too few in number, or too recent in time, entirely to remove the imputation of ignorance and obscurity which has been so arrogantly cast on the first proselytes of Christianity. * Instead of employing in our defence the fictions of later ages, it will be more prudent to convert the occasion of scandal into a subject of edification. Our serious thoughts will suggest to us, that the apostles themselves were chosen by Providence among the fishermen of Galilee, and that the lower we depress the temporal condition of the first Christians, the more reason we shall find to admire their merit and success. It is incumbent on us diligently to remember, that the kingdom of heaven was promised to the poor in spirit, and that minds afflicted by calamity and the contempt of mankind, cheerfully listen to the divine promise of future happiness; while, on the contrary, the fortunate are satisfied with the possession of this world; and the wise abuse in doubt and dispute their vain superiority of reason and knowledge.
* This incomplete enumeration ought to be increased by the names of several Pagans converted at the dawn of Christianity, and whose conversion weakens the reproach which the historian appears to support. Such are, the Proconsul Sergius Paulus, converted at Paphos, (Acts xiii. 7 — 12.) Dionysius, member of the Areopagus, converted with several others, al Athens, (Acts xvii. 34;) several persons at the court of Nero, (Philip. iv 22;) Erastus, receiver at Corinth, (Rom. xvi.23;) some Asiarchs, (Acts xix. 31) As to the philosophers, we may add Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Hegesippus, Melito, Miltiades, Pantaenus, Ammenius, all distinguished for their genius and learning. — G.]
We stand in need of such reflections to comfort us for the loss of some illustrious characters, which in our eyes might have seemed the most worthy of the heavenly present. The names of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human nature. They filled with glory their respective stations, either in active or contemplative life; their excellent understandings were improved by study; Philosophy had purified their minds from the prejudices of the popular superstition; and their days were spent in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. Yet all these sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system. Their language or their silence equally discover their contempt for the growing sect, which in their time had diffused itself over the Roman empire. Those among them who condescended to mention the Christians, consider them only as obstinate and perverse enthusiasts, who exacted an implicit submission to their mysterious doctrines, without being able to produce a single argument that could engage the attention of men of sense and learning. 191
191 Dr. Lardner, in his first and second volumes of Jewish and Christian testimonies, collects and illustrates those of Pliny the younger, of Tacitus, of Galen, of Marcus Antoninus, and perhaps of Epictetus, (for it is doubtful whether that philosopher means to speak of the Christians.) The new sect is totally unnoticed by Seneca, the elder Pliny, and Plutarch.]
It is at least doubtful whether any of these philosophers perused the apologies * which the primitive Christians repeatedly published in behalf of themselves and of their religion; but it is much to be lamented that such a cause was not defended by abler advocates. They expose with superfluous with and eloquence the extravagance of Polytheism. They interest our compassion by displaying the innocence and sufferings of their injured brethren. But when they would demonstrate the divine origin of Christianity, they insist much more strongly on the predictions which announced, than on the miracles which accompanied, the appearance of the Messiah. Their favorite argument might serve to edify a Christian or to convert a Jew, since both the one and the other acknowledge the authority of those prophecies, and both are obliged, with devout reverence, to search for their sense and their accomplishment. But this mode of persuasion loses much of its weight and influence, when it is addressed to those who neither understand nor respect the Mosaic dispensation and the prophetic style. 192 In the unskilful hands of Justin and of the succeeding apologists, the sublime meaning of the Hebrew oracles evaporates in distant types, affected conceits, and cold allegories; and even their authenticity was rendered suspicious to an unenlightened Gentile, by the mixture of pious forgeries, which, under the names of Orpheus, Hermes, and the Sibyls, 193 were obtruded on him as of equal value with the genuine inspirations of Heaven. The adoption of fraud and sophistry in the defence of revelation too often reminds us of the injudicious conduct of those poets who load their invulnerable heroes with a useless weight of cumbersome and brittle armor.
* The emperors Hadrian, Antoninus &c., read with astonishment the apologies of Justin Martyr, of Aristides, of Melito, &c. (See St. Hieron. ad mag. orat. Orosius, lviii. c. 13.) Eusebius says expressly, that the cause of Christianity was defended before the senate, in a very elegant discourse, by Apollonius the Martyr. — G.
Gibbon, in his severer spirit of criticism, may have questioned the authority of Jerome and Eusebius. There are some difficulties about Apollonius, which Heinichen (note in loc. Eusebii) would solve, by suppose lag him to have been, as Jerome states, a senator. — M.]
192 If the famous prophecy of the Seventy Weeks had been alleged to a Roman philosopher, would he not have replied in the words of Cicero, “Quae tandem ista auguratio est, annorum potius quam aut raensium aut dierum?” De Divinatione, ii. 30. Observe with what irreverence Lucian, (in Alexandro, c. 13.) and his friend Celsus ap. Origen, (l. vii. p. 327,) express themselves concerning the Hebrew prophets.]
193 The philosophers who derided the more ancient predictions of the Sibyls, would easily have detected the Jewish and Christian forgeries, which have been so triumphantly quoted by the fathers, from Justin Martyr to Lactantius. When the Sibylline verses had performed their appointed task, they, like the system of the millennium, were quietly laid aside. The Christian Sybil had unluckily fixed the ruin of Rome for the year 195, A. U. C. 948.]
But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were represented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, 194 or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, 195 was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. 196 It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. 197 Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny 198 is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendor. The season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets 199 and historians of that memorable age. 200
194 The fathers, as they are drawn out in battle array by Dom Calmet, (Dissertations sur la Bible, tom. iii. p. 295 — 308,) seem to cover the whole earth with darkness, in which they are followed by most of the moderns.]
195 Origen ad Matth. c. 27, and a few modern critics, Beza, Le Clerc, Lardner, &c., are desirous of confining it to the land of Judea.]
196 The celebrated passage of Phlegon is now wisely abandoned. When Tertullian assures the Pagans that the mention of the prodigy is found in Arcanis (not Archivis) vestris, (see his Apology, c. 21,) he probably appeals to the Sibylline verses, which relate it exactly in the words of the Gospel.
Note: According to some learned theologians a misunderstanding of the text in the Gospel has given rise to this mistake, which has employed and wearied so many laborious commentators, though Origen had already taken the pains to preinform them. The expression does not mean, they assert, an eclipse, but any kind of obscurity occasioned in the atmosphere, whether by clouds or any other cause. As this obscuration of the sun rarely took place in Palestine, where in the middle of April the sky was usually clear, it assumed, in the eyes of the Jews and Christians, an importance conformable to the received notion, that the sun concealed at midday was a sinister presage. See Amos viii. 9, 10. The word is often taken in this sense by contemporary writers; the Apocalypse says the sun was concealed, when speaking of an obscuration caused by smoke and dust. (Revel. ix. 2.) Moreover, the Hebrew word ophal, which in the LXX. answers to the Greek, signifies any darkness; and the Evangelists, who have modelled the sense of their expressions by those of the LXX., must have taken it in the same latitude. This darkening of the sky usually precedes earthquakes. (Matt. xxvii. 51.) The Heathen authors furnish us a number of examples, of which a miraculous explanation was given at the time. See Ovid. ii. v. 33, l. xv. v. 785. Pliny, Hist. Nat. l. ii. c 30. Wetstein has collected all these examples in his edition of the New Testament.
We need not, then, be astonished at the silence of the Pagan authors concerning a phenomenon which did not extend beyond Jerusalem, and which might have nothing contrary to the laws of nature; although the Christians and the Jews may have regarded it as a sinister presage. See Michaelia Notes on New Testament, v. i. p. 290. Paulus, Commentary on New Testament, iii. p. 760. — G.]
197 Seneca, Quaest. Natur. l. i. 15, vi. l. vii. 17. Plin. Hist. Natur. l. ii.]
198 Plin. Hist. Natur. ii. 30.]
199 Virgil. Georgic. i. 466. Tibullus, l. i. Eleg. v. ver. 75. Ovid Metamorph. xv. 782. Lucan. Pharsal. i. 540. The last of these poets places this prodigy before the civil war.]
200 See a public epistle of M. Antony in Joseph. Antiquit. xiv. 12. Plutarch in Caesar. p. 471. Appian. Bell. Civil. l. iv. Dion Cassius, l. xlv. p. 431. Julius Obsequens, c. 128. His little treatise is an abstract of Livy’s prodigies.]
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