Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Establishment of Christianity, in its Civil and Political State. — Section I.

God forbid that we should dare to mix the sacred with the profane! We seek not to fathom the depths of the ways of Providence. We are men, and we address men only.

When Antony, and after him Augustus, had given Judæa to the Arabian, Herod — their creature and their tributary — that prince, a stranger among the Jews, became the most powerful of all kings. He had ports on the Mediterranean — Ptolemais and Ascalon; he built towns; he erected a temple to Apollo at Rhodes, and one to Augustus in Cæsarea; he rebuilt that of Jerusalem from the foundation, and converted it into a strong citadel. Under his rule, Palestine enjoyed profound peace. In short, barbarous as he was to his family, and tyrannical towards his people, whose substance he consumed in the execution of his projects, he was looked upon as a Messiah. He worshipped only Cæsar, and he was also worshipped by the Herodians.

The sect of the Jews had long been spread in Europe and Asia; but its tenets were entirely unknown. No one knew anything of the Jewish books, although we are told that some of them had already been translated into Greek, in Alexandria. The Jews were known only as the Armenians are now known to the Turks and Persians, as brokers and traders. Further, a Turk never takes the trouble to inquire, whether an Armenian is a Eutychian, a Jacobite, one of St. John’s Christians, or an Arian. The theism of China, and the much to be respected books of Confucius, were still less known to the nations of the west, than the Jewish rites.

The Arabians, who furnished the Romans with the precious commodities of India, had no more idea of the theology of the Brahmins than our sailors who go to Pondicherry or Madras. The Indian women had from time immemorial enjoyed the privilege of burning themselves on the bodies of their husbands; yet these astonishing sacrifices, which are still practised, were as unknown to the Jews as the customs of America. Their books, which speak of Gog and Magog, never mention India.

The ancient religion of Zoroaster was celebrated; but not therefore the more understood in the Roman Empire. It was only known, in general, that the magi admitted a resurrection, a hell, and a paradise; which doctrine must at that time have made its way to the Jews bordering on Chaldæa; since, in Herod’s time, Palestine was divided between the Pharisees, who began to believe the dogma of the resurrection, and the Sadducees, who regarded it only with contempt.

Alexandria, the most commercial city in the whole world, was peopled with Egyptians, who worshipped Serapis, and consecrated cats; with Greeks, who philosophized; with Romans, who ruled; and with Jews, who amassed wealth. All these people were eagerly engaged in money-getting, immersed in pleasure, infuriate with fanaticism, making and unmaking religious sects, especially during the external tranquillity which they enjoyed when Augustus had shut the temple of Janus.

The Jews were divided into three principal factions. Of these, the Samaritans called themselves the most ancient, because Samaria (then Sebaste) had subsisted, while Jerusalem, with its temple, was destroyed under the Babylonian kings. But these Samaritans were a mixture of the people of Persia with those of Palestine.

The second, and most powerful faction, was that of the Hierosolymites. These Jews, properly so called, detested the Samaritans, and were detested by them. Their interests were all opposite. They wished that no sacrifices should be offered but in the temple of Jerusalem. Such a restriction would have brought a deal of money into their city; and, for this very reason, the Samaritans would sacrifice nowhere but at home. A small people, in a small town, may have but one temple; but when a people have extended themselves over a country seventy leagues long, by twenty-three wide, as the Jews had done — when their territory is almost as large and populous as Languedoc or Normandy, it would be absurd to have but one church. What would the good people of Montpellier say, if they could attend mass nowhere but at Toulouse?

The third faction were the Hellenic Jews, consisting chiefly of such as were engaged in trade or handicraft in Egypt and Greece. These had the same interests with the Samaritans. Onias, the son of a high priest, wishing to be a high priest like his father, obtained permission from Ptolemy Philometor, king of Egypt, and in particular from the king’s wife, Cleopatra, to build a Jewish temple near Bubastis. He assured Queen Cleopatra that Isaiah had foretold that the Lord should one day have a temple on that spot; and Cleopatra, to whom he made a handsome present, sent him word that, since Isaiah had said it, it must be. This temple was called the Onion; and if Onias was not a great sacrificer, he commanded a troop of militia. It was built one hundred and sixty years before the Christian era. The Jews of Jerusalem always held this Onion in abhorrence, as they did the translation called the Septuagint. They even instituted an expiatory feast for these two pretended sacrileges. The rabbis of the Onion, mingling with the Greeks, became more learned (in their way) than the rabbis of Jerusalem and Samaria; and the three factions began to dispute on controversial questions, which necessarily make men subtle, false, and unsocial.

The Egyptian Jews, in order to equal the austerity of the Essenes, and the Judates of Palestine, established, some time before the birth of Christianity, the sect of the Therapeutæ, who, like them, devoted themselves to a sort of monastic life, and to mortifications. These different societies were imitations of the old Egyptian, Persian, Thracian, and Greek mysteries, which had filled the earth, from the Euphrates and the Nile to the Tiber. At first, such as were initiated into these fraternities were few in number, and were looked upon as privileged men; but in the time of Augustus, their number was very considerable; so that nothing but religion was talked of, from Syria to Mount Atlas and the German Ocean.

Amidst all these sects and worships, the school of Plato had established itself, not in Greece alone, but also in Rome, and especially in Egypt. Plato had been considered as having drawn his doctrine from the Egyptians, who thought that, in turning Plato’s ideas to account, his word, and the sort of trinity discoverable in some of his works, they were but claiming their own.

This philosophic spirit, spread at that time over all the known countries of the west, seems to have emitted, in the neighborhood of Palestine, at least a few sparks of the spirit of reasoning. It is certain that, in Herod’s time, there were disputes on the attributes of the divinity, on the immortality of the soul, and the resurrection of the body. The Jews relate, that Queen Cleopatra asked them whether we were to rise again dressed or naked?

The Jews, then, were reasoners in their way. The exaggerating Josephus was, for a soldier, very learned. Such being the case with a military man, there must have been many a learned man in civil life. His contemporary, Philo, would have had reputation, even among the Greeks. St. Paul’s master, Gamaliel, was a great controversialist. The authors of the “Mishna” were polymathists.

The Jewish populace discoursed on religion. As, at the present day, in Switzerland, at Geneva, in Germany, in England, and especially in the Cévennes, we find even the meanest of the inhabitants dealing in controversy. Nay, more; men from the dregs of the people have founded sects: as Fox, in England; Münzer, in Germany; and the first reformers in France. Indeed, Mahomet himself, setting apart his great courage, was nothing more than a camel-driver.

Add to these preliminaries that, in Herod’s time, it was imagined, as is elsewhere remarked, that the world was soon to be at an end. In those days, prepared by divine providence, it pleased the eternal Father to send His Son upon earth — an adorable and incomprehensible mystery, which we presume not to approach.

We only say, that if Jesus preached a pure morality; if He announced the kingdom of heaven as the reward of the just; if He had disciples attached to His person and His virtues; if those very virtues drew upon Him the persecutions of the priests; if, through calumny, He was put to a shameful death; His doctrine, constantly preached by His disciples, would necessarily have a great effect in the world. Once more let me repeat it — I speak only after the manner of this world, setting the multitude of miracles and prophecies entirely aside. I maintain it, that Christianity was more likely to proceed by His death, than if He had not been persecuted. You are astonished that His disciples made other disciples. I should have been much more astonished, if they had not brought over a great many to their party. Seventy individuals, convinced of the innocence of their leader, the purity of His manners, and the barbarity of His judges, must influence many a feeling heart.

St. Paul, alone, became (for whatever reason) the enemy of his master Gamaliel, must have had it in his power to bring Jesus a thousand adherents, even supposing Jesus to have been only a worthy and oppressed man. Paul was learned, eloquent, vehement, indefatigable, skilled in the Greek tongue, and seconded by zealots much more interested than himself in defending their Master’s reputation. St. Luke was an Alexandrian Greek, and a man of letters, for he was a physician.

The first chapter of John displays a Platonic sublimity, which must have been gratifying to the Platonists of Alexandria. And indeed there was even formed in that city a school founded by Luke, or by Mark (either the evangelist or some other), and perpetuated by Athenagoras, Pantænus, Origen, and Clement — all learned and eloquent. This school once established, it was impossible for Christianity not to make rapid progress.

Greece, Syria, and Egypt, were the scenes of those celebrated ancient mysteries, which enchanted the minds of the people. The Christians, too, had their mysteries, in which men would eagerly seek to be initiated; and if at first only through curiosity, this curiosity soon became persuasion. The idea of the approaching end of all things was especially calculated to induce the new disciples to despise the transitory goods of this life, which were so soon to perish with them. The example of the Therapeutæ was an incitement to a solitary and mortified life. All these things, then, powerfully concurred in the establishment of the Christian religion.

The different flocks of this great rising society could not, it is true, agree among themselves. Fifty-four societies had fifty-four different gospels; all secret, like their mysteries; all unknown to the Gentiles, who never saw our four canonical gospels until the end of two hundred and fifty years. These various flocks, though divided, acknowledged the same pastor. Ebionites, opposed to St. Paul; Nazarenes, disciples of Hymeneos, Alexandros, and Hermogenes; Carpocratians, Basilidians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Sabellians, Gnostics, Montanists — a hundred sects, rising one against another, and casting mutual reproaches, were nevertheless all united in Jesus; all called upon Jesus; all made Jesus the great object of their thoughts, and reward of their travails.

The Roman Empire, in which all these societies were formed, at first paid no attention to them. They were known at Rome only by the general name of Jews, about whom the government gave itself no concern. The Jews had, by their money, acquired the right of trading. In the reign of Tiberius four thousand of them were driven out of Rome; in that of Nero the people charged them and the new demi-Christian Jews with the burning of Rome.

They were again expelled in the reign of Claudius, but their money always procured them readmission; they were quiet and despised. The Christians of Rome were not so numerous as those of Greece, Alexandria and Syria. The Romans in the earlier ages had neither fathers of the church nor heresiarchs. The farther they were from the birthplace of Christianity, the fewer doctors and writers were to be found among them. The church was Greek; so much so, that every mystery, every rite, every tenet, was expressed in the Greek tongue.

All Christians, whether Greek, Syrian, Roman, or Egyptian, were considered as half Jewish. This was another reason for concealing their books from the Gentiles, that they might remain united and impenetrable. Their secret was more inviolably kept than that of the mysteries of Isis or of Ceres; they were a republic apart — a state within the state. They had no temples, no altars, no sacrifice, no public ceremony. They elected their secret superiors by a majority of voices. These superiors, under the title of ancients, priests, bishops, or deacons, managed the common purse, took care of the sick and pacified quarrels. Among them it was a shame and a crime to plead before the tribunals or to enlist in the armed force; and for a hundred years there was not a single Christian in the armies of the empire.

Thus, retired in the midst of the world and unknown even when they appeared, they escaped the tyranny of the proconsuls and prætors and were free amid the public slavery. It is not known who wrote the famous book entitled “Τῶν Ἀποστόλων Δίδαχαί” (the Apostolical Constitutions), as it is unknown who were the authors of the fifty rejected gospels, of the Acts of St. Peter, of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and of so many other writings of the first Christians; but it is likely that the “Constitutions” are of the second century. Though falsely attributed to the apostles, they are very valuable. They show us what were the duties of a bishop chosen by the Christians, how they were to reverence him, and what tribute they were to pay him. The bishop could have but one wife, who was to take good care of his household: “Μιᾶς ἄνδρα γεγενόμενον γυναιϰὸς μονογάμου ϰάλὸν τοῦ ἰδίου οἴϰου προεστότα.”

Rich Christians were exhorted to adopt the children of poor ones. Collections were made for the widows and orphans; but the money of sinners was rejected; and, nominally, an innkeeper was not permitted to give his mite. It is said that they were regarded as cheats; for which reason very few tavern-keepers were Christians. This also prevented the Christians from frequenting the taverns; thus completing their separation from the society of the Gentiles.

The dignity of deaconess being attainable by the women, they were the more attached to the Christian fraternity. They were consecrated; the bishop anointing them on the forehead, as of old the Jewish kings were anointed. By how many indissoluble ties were the Christians bound together!

The persecutions, which were never more than transitory, did but serve to redouble their zeal and inflame their fervor; so that, under Diocletian, one-third of the empire was Christian. Such were a few of the human causes that contributed to the progress of Christianity. If to these we add the divine causes, which are to the former as infinity to unity, there is only one thing which can surprise us; that a religion so true did not at once extend itself over the two hemispheres, not excepting the most savage islet.

God Himself came down from heaven and died to redeem mankind and extirpate sin forever from the face of the earth; and yet he left the greater part of mankind a prey to error, to crime, and to the devil. This, to our weak intellects, appears a fatal contradiction. But it is not for us to question Providence; our duty is to humble ourselves in the dust before it.

§ II.

Several learned men have testified their surprise at not finding in the historian, Flavius Josephus, any mention of Jesus Christ; for all men of true learning are now agreed that the short passage relative to him in that history has been interpolated. The father of Flavius Josephus must, however, have been witness to all the miracles of Jesus. Josephus was of the sacerdotal race and akin to Herod’s wife, Mariamne. He gives us long details of all that prince’s actions, yet says not a word of the life or death of Jesus; nor does this historian, who disguises none of Herod’s cruelties, say one word of the general massacre of the infants ordered by him on hearing that there was born a king of the Jews. The Greek calendar estimates the number of children murdered on this occasion at fourteen thousand. This is, of all actions of all tyrants, the most horrible. There is no example of it in the history of the whole world.

Yet the best writer the Jews have ever had, the only one esteemed by the Greeks and Romans, makes no mention of an event so singular and so frightful. He says nothing of the appearance of a new star in the east after the birth of our Saviour — a brilliant phenomenon, which could not escape the knowledge of a historian so enlightened as Josephus. He is also silent respecting the darkness which, on our Saviour’s death, covered the whole earth for three hours at midday — the great number of graves that opened at that moment, and the multitude of the just that rose again.

The learned are constantly evincing their surprise that no Roman historian speaks of these prodigies, happening in the empire of Tiberius, under the eyes of a Roman governor and a Roman garrison, who must have sent to the emperor and the senate a detailed account of the most miraculous event that mankind had ever heard of. Rome itself must have been plunged for three hours in impenetrable darkness; such a prodigy would have had a place in the annals of Rome, and in those of every nation. But it was not God’s will that these divine things should be written down by their profane hands.

The same persons also find some difficulties in the gospel history. They remark that, in Matthew, Jesus Christ tells the scribes and pharisees that all the innocent blood that has been shed upon earth, from that of Abel the Just down to that of Zachary, son of Barac, whom they slew between the temple and the altar, shall be upon their heads.

There is not (say they) in the Hebrew history and Zachary slain in the temple before the coming of the Messiah, nor in His time, but in the history of the siege of Jerusalem, by Josephus, there is a Zachary, son of Barac, slain by the faction of the Zelotes. This is in the nineteenth chapter of the fourth book. Hence they suspect that the gospel according to St. Matthew was written after the taking of Jerusalem by Titus. But every doubt, every objection of this kind, vanishes when it is considered how great a difference there must be between books divinely inspired and the books of men. It was God’s pleasure to envelop alike in awful obscurity His birth, His life, and His death. His ways are in all things different from ours.

The learned have also been much tormented by the difference between the two genealogies of Jesus Christ. St. Matthew makes Joseph the son of Jacob, Jacob of Matthan, Matthan of Eleazar. St. Luke, on the contrary, says that Joseph was the son of Heli, Heli of Matthat, Matthat of Levi, Levi of Melchi, etc. They will not reconcile the fifty-six progenitors up to Abraham, given to Jesus by Luke, with the forty-two other forefathers up to the same Abraham, given him by Matthew; and they are quite staggered by Matthew’s giving only forty-one generations, while he speaks of forty-two. They start other difficulties about Jesus being the son, not of Joseph, but of Mary. They moreover raise some doubts respecting our Saviour’s miracles, quoting St. Augustine, St. Hilary, and others, who have given to the accounts of these miracles a mystic or allegorical sense; as, for example, to the fig tree cursed and blasted for not having borne figs when it was not the fig season; the devils sent into the bodies of swine in a country where no swine were kept; the water changed into wine at the end of a feast, when the guests were already too much heated. But all these learned critics are confounded by the faith, which is but the purer for their cavils. The sole design of this article is to follow the historical thread and give a precise idea of the facts about which there is no dispute.

First, then, Jesus was born under the Mosaic law; He was circumcised according to that law; He fulfilled all its precepts; He kept all its feasts; He did not reveal the mystery of His incarnation; He never told the Jews He was born of a virgin; He received John’s blessing in the waters of the Jordan, a ceremony to which various of the Jews submitted; but He never baptized any one; He never spoke of the seven sacraments; He instituted no ecclesiastical hierarchy during His life. He concealed from His contemporaries that He was the Son of God, begotten from all eternity, consubstantial with His Father; and that the Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and the Son. He did not say that His person was composed of two natures and two wills. He left these mysteries to be announced to men in the course of time by those who were to be enlightened by the Holy Ghost. So long as He lived, He departed in nothing from the law of His fathers. In the eyes of men He was no more than a just man, pleasing to God, persecuted by the envious and condemned to death by prejudiced magistrates. He left His holy church, established by Him, to do all the rest.

Let us consider the state of religion in the Roman Empire at that period. Mysteries and expiations were in credit almost throughout the earth. The emperors, the great, and the philosophers, had, it is true, no faith in these mysteries; but the people, who, in religious matters, give the law to the great, imposed on them the necessity of conforming in appearance to their worship. To succeed in chaining the multitude you must seem to wear the same fetters. Cicero himself was initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries. The knowledge of only one God was the principal tenet inculcated in these mysteries and magnificent festivals. It is undeniable that the prayers and hymns handed down to us as belonging to these mysteries are the most pious and most admirable of the relics of paganism. The Christians, who likewise adored only one God, had thereby greater facility in converting some of the Gentiles. Some of the philosophers of Plato’s sect became Christians; hence in the three first centuries the fathers of the church were all Platonists.

The inconsiderate zeal of some of them in no way detracts from the fundamental truths. St. Justin, one of the primitive fathers, has been reproached with having said, in his commentary on Isaiah, that the saints should enjoy, during a reign of a thousand years on earth, every sensual pleasure. He has been charged with criminality in saying, in his “Apology for Christianity,” that God, having made the earth, left it in the care of the angels, who, having fallen in love with the women, begot children, which are the devils.

Lactantius, with other fathers, has been condemned for having supposed oracles of the sibyls. He asserted that the sibyl Erythrea made four Greek lines, which rendered literally are:

With five loaves and two fishes

He shall feed five thousand men in the desert;

And, gathering up the fragments that remain,

With them he shall fill twelve baskets.

The primitive Christians have been reproached with inventing some acrostic verses on the name Jesus Christ and attributing them to an ancient sibyl. They have also been reproached with forging letters from Jesus Christ to the king of Edessa, dated at a time when there was no king in Edessa; with having forged letters of Mary, letters of Seneca to Paul, false gospels, false miracles, and a thousand other impostures.

We have, moreover, the history or gospel of the nativity and marriage of the Virgin Mary; wherein we are told that she was brought to the temple at three years old and walked up the stairs by herself. It is related that a dove came down from heaven to give notice that it was Joseph who was to espouse Mary. We have the protogospel of James, brother of Jesus by Joseph’s first wife. It is there said that when Joseph complained of Mary’s having become pregnant in his absence, the priests made each of them drink the water of jealousy, and both were declared innocent.

We have the gospel of the Infancy, attributed to St. Thomas. According to this gospel, Jesus, at five years of age, amused himself, like other children of the same age, with moulding clay, and making it, among other things, into the form of little birds. He was reproved for this, on which he gave life to the birds, and they flew away. Another time, a little boy having beaten him, was struck dead on the spot. We have also another gospel of the Infancy in Arabic, which is much more serious.

We have a gospel of Nicodemus. This one seems more worthy of attention, for we find in it the names of those who accused Jesus before Pilate. They were the principal men of the synagogue — Ananias, Caiaphas, Sommas, Damat, Gamaliel, Judah, Nephthalim. In this history there are some things that are easy to reconcile with the received gospels, and others which are not elsewhere to be found. We here find that the woman cured of a flux was called Veronica. We also find all that Jesus did in hell when He descended thither. Then we have the two letters supposed to have been written by Pilate to Tiberius concerning the execution of Jesus; but their bad Latin plainly shows that they are spurious. To such a length was this false zeal carried that various letters were circulated attributed to Jesus Christ. The letter is still preserved which he is said to have written to Abgarus, king of Edessa; but, as already remarked, there had at that time ceased to be a king of Edessa.

Fifty gospels were fabricated and were afterwards declared apocryphal. St. Luke himself tells us that many persons had composed gospels. It has been believed that there was one called the Eternal Gospel, concerning which it is said in the Apocalypse, chap. xiv., “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel.” . . . . In the thirteenth century the Cordeliers, abusing these words, composed an “eternal gospel,” by which the reign of the Holy Ghost was to be substituted for that of Jesus Christ. But never in the early ages of the church did any book appear with this title. Letters of the Virgin were likewise invented, written to Ignatius the martyr, to the people of Messina, and others.

Abdias, who immediately succeeded the apostles, wrote their history, with which he mixed up such absurd fables that in time these histories became wholly discredited, although they had at first a great reputation. To Abdias we are indebted for the account of the contest between St. Peter and Simon the magician. There was at Rome, in reality, a very skilful mechanic named Simon, who not only made things fly across the stage, as we still see done, but moreover revived in his own person the prodigy attributed to Dædalus. He made himself wings; he flew; and, like Icarus, he fell. So say Pliny and Suetonius.

Abdias, who was in Asia and wrote in Hebrew, tells us that Peter and Simon met at Rome in the reign of Nero. A young man, nearly related to the emperor, died, and the whole court begged that Simon would raise him to life. St. Peter presented himself to perform the same operation. Simon employed all the powers of his art, and he seemed to have succeeded, for the dead man moved his head. “This is not enough,” cries Peter; “the dead man must speak; let Simon leave the bedside and we shall see whether the young man is alive.” Simon went aside and the deceased no longer stirred, but Peter brought him to life with a single word.

Simon went and complained to the emperor that a miserable Galilean had taken upon himself to work greater wonders than he. Simon was confronted with Peter and they made a trial of skill. “Tell me,” said Simon to Peter, “what I am thinking of?” “If,” returned Peter, “the emperor will give me a barley loaf, thou shalt find whether or not I know what thou hast in thy heart.” A loaf was given him; Simon immediately caused two large dogs to appear and they wanted to devour it. Peter threw them the loaf, and while they were eating it he said: “Well, did I not know thy thoughts? thou wouldst have had thy dogs devour me.”

After this first sitting it was proposed that Simon and Peter should make a flying-match, and try which could raise himself highest in the air. Simon tried first; Peter made the sign of the cross and down came Simon and broke his legs. This story was imitated from that which we find in the “Sepher toldos Jeschut,” where it is said that Jesus Himself flew, and that Judas, who would have done the same, fell headlong. Nero, vexed that Peter had broken his favorite, Simon’s, legs, had him crucified with his head downwards. Hence the notion of St. Peter’s residence at Rome, the manner of his execution and his sepulchre.

The same Abdias established the belief that St. Thomas went and preached Christianity in India to King Gondafer, and that he went thither as an architect. The number of books of this sort, written in the early ages of Christianity, is prodigious.

St. Jerome, and even St. Augustine, tell us that the letters of Seneca and St. Paul are quite authentic. In the first of these letters Seneca hopes his brother Paul is well: “Bene te valere, frater, cupio.” Paul does not write quite so good Latin as Seneca: “I received your letters yesterday,” says he, “with joy.”— “Litteras tuas hilaris accepi.” —“And I would have answered them immediately had I had the presence of the young man whom I would have sent with them.”— “Si præsentiam juvenis habuissem.” Unfortunately these letters, in which one would look for instruction, are nothing more than compliments.

All these falsehoods, forged by ill-informed and mistakenly-zealous Christians, were in no degree prejudicial to the truth of Christianity; they obstructed not its progress; on the contrary, they show us that the Christian society was daily increasing and that each member was desirous of hastening its growth.

The Acts of the Apostles do not tell us that the apostles agreed on a symbol. Indeed, if they had put together the symbol (the creed, as we now call it), St. Luke could not in his history have omitted this essential basis of the Christian religion. The substance of the creed is scattered through the gospels; but the articles were not collected until long after.

In short, our creed is, indisputably, the belief of the apostles; but it was not written by them. Rufinus, a priest of Aquileia, is the first who mentions it; and a homily attributed to St. Augustine is the first record of the supposed way in which this creed was made; Peter saying, when they were assembled, “I believe in God the Father Almighty”— Andrew, “and in Jesus Christ”— James, “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost”; and so of the rest.

This formula was called in Greek symbolos; and in Latin collatio. Only it must be observed that the Greek version has it: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.” In the Latin, maker, former, is rendered by “creatorem.” But afterwards, in translating the symbol of the First Council of Nice, it was rendered by “factorem.”

Constantine assembled at Nice, opposite Constantinople, the first ecumenical council, over which Ozius presided. The great question touching the divinity of Jesus Christ, which so much agitated the church, was there decided. One party held the opinion of Origen, who says in his sixth chapter against Celsus, “We offer our prayers to God through Christ, who holds the middle place between natures created and uncreated; who leads us to the grace of His Father and presents our prayers to the great God in quality of our high priest.” These disputants also rest upon many passages of St. Paul, some of which they quote. They depend particularly upon these words of Jesus Christ: “My Father is greater than I”; and they regard Jesus as the first-born of the creation; as a pure emanation of the Supreme Being, but not precisely as God.

The other side, who were orthodox, produced passages more conformable to the eternal divinity of Jesus; as, for example, the following: “My Father and I are one”; words which their opponents interpret as signifying: “My Father and I have the same object, the same intention; I have no other will than that of My Father.” Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and after him Athanasius, were at the head of the orthodox; and Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, with seventeen other bishops, the priest Arius, and many more priests, led the party opposed to them. The quarrel was at first exceedingly bitter, as St. Alexander treated his opponents as so many anti-christs.

At last, after much disputation, the Holy Ghost decided in the council, by the mouths of two hundred and ninety-nine bishops, against eighteen, as follows: “Jesus is the only Son of God; begotten of the Father; light of light; very God of very God; of one substance with the Father. We believe also in the Holy Ghost,” etc. Such was the decision of the council; and we perceive by this fact how the bishops carried it over the simple priests. Two thousand persons of the latter class were of the opinion of Arius, according to the account of two patriarchs of Alexandria, who have written the annals of Alexandria in Arabic. Arius was exiled by Constantine, as was Athanasius soon after, when Arius was recalled to Constantinople. Upon this event St. Macarius prayed so vehemently to God to terminate the life of Arius before he could enter the cathedral, that God heard his prayer — Arius dying on his way to church in 330. The Emperor Constantine ended his life in 337. He placed his will in the hands of an Arian priest and died in the arms of the Arian leader, Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, not receiving baptism until on his deathbed, and leaving a triumphant, but divided church. The partisans of Athanasius and of Eusebius carried on a cruel war; and what is called Arianism was for a long time established in all the provinces of the empire.

Julian the philosopher, surnamed the apostate, wished to stifle their divisions, but could not succeed. The second general council was held at Constantinople in 1381. It was there laid down that the Council of Nice had not decided quite correctly in regard to the Holy Ghost; and it added to the Nicene creed that “the Holy Ghost was the giver of life and proceeded from the Father, and with the Father and Son is to be worshipped and glorified.” It was not until towards the ninth century that the Latin church decreed that the Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and the Son.

In the year 431, the third council-general, held at Ephesus, decided that Jesus had “two natures and one person.” Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who maintained that the Virgin Mary should be entitled Mother of Christ, was called Judas by the council; and the “two natures” were again confirmed by the council of Chalcedon.

I pass lightly over the following centuries, which are sufficiently known. Unhappily, all these disputes led to wars, and the church was uniformly obliged to combat. God, in order to exercise the patience of the faithful, also allowed the Greek and Latin churches to separate in the ninth century. He likewise permitted in the east no less than twenty-nine horrible schisms with the see of Rome.

If there be about six hundred millions of men upon earth, as certain learned persons pretend, the holy Roman Catholic church possesses scarcely sixteen millions of them — about a twenty-sixth part of the inhabitants of the known world.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01