Constantine the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.10)

As Christianity continued to grow, the Roman government continued to persecute Christians. The last and worst of the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire came in the third century. The Roman Empire suffered a series of military defeats by barbarians. There were also internal conflicts between powerful people who wanted to become emperor. In addition, a terrible plague had swept through parts of the empire and killed many people. Many Romans blamed the Christians for the wars, civil wars, diseases, and money problems of the empire. They believed that because the Christians refused to worship the Roman gods the gods had become angry with the empire and were punishing them.

As a result, the Roman emperors Decius and Diocletian each tried to wipe out Christianity entirely. In 250, Decius issued a law that said every Roman citizen must appear before a local government official and offer a sacrifice to the gods. Once a person did this, they would be given a certificate to carry with them. If they were stopped by the police and did not have this certificate they could be arrested and even put to death. After Decius’s death, Diocletian continued the persecution of Christians by ordering every Christian church in the empire destroyed and by burning copies of the Christians’ holy books.

There were other men in powerful positions, however, who were more kind to the Christians. One of these was Constantine, who was one of a group of men who were fighting each other to become emperor. While the others persecuted Christians, Constantine was more tolerant of them. In fact, his own mother, Helena, was a Christian. Although Constantine treated the Christians kindly, he did not decide to become one until a remarkable event the night before an important battle.

Constantine had been battling against a man named Maxentius for control of the Italian peninsula. Finally, the two men marched their armies out for one great final battle near the Tiber River, at a placed called the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine later told others, he looked into the sky and saw the shape of a cross. He then heard a voice say to him from the sky, “In hoc signo vinces,” which in Latin means, “By this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine immediately ordered his soldiers to paint the symbol of Christianity on their shields and on the banners they carried into battle. The next day, October 28, 312 AD, Constantine marched into battle against Maxentius and was victorious. Maxientius himself fell from the bridge during the battle and drowned in the Tiber River.

The next day, Constantine entered Rome and was greeted by cheering crowds. It was tradition for a conquering emperor to parade through the city to the temple of Jupiter. There, the conquering emperor was expected to dismount from his chariot and go into the temple to offer sacrifices to thank the king of the Roman gods for victory. Constantine shocked the people of Rome, however, by riding past the temple of Jupiter without even so much as looking toward it. Constantine was now emperor of the Roman Empire and had decided to become a Christian. He would be the first Christian Roman emperor.

The following year, in 313 AD, Constantine issued a new law called the Edict of Milan. This new law not only ended the persecution of Christians everywhere in the Roman Empire, it ordered that any churches that had been burned had to be rebuilt using the money of the Roman government and any property taken from the Christians had to be given back to them.

While Constantine did not outlaw the worship of the Roman gods, he did pass laws that showed favoritism to Christians. Now that Constantine was in charge, a person had to be a Christian to be promoted to the highest positions in government. Many who had formerly hated Christianity decided to become Christians.

Constantine also passed laws that made the empire more Christian in other ways. He outlawed practices that Christians did not like, such as using crucifixion to execute Christians. He also passed laws that made life easier for poor people, slaves, and women. In 324, Constantine even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from the city of Rome to a new city named after himself, Constantinople. While Rome was a city filled with temples to the Roman gods, Constantinople was a city filled with Christian churches. Constantine was trying to remake the Roman Empire as a Christian empire.

After Constantine’s death in 336, there would only be one more emperor who was not a Christian. Julian, who was Constantine’s nephew, reigned as emperor for only two years. He was raised as a Christian but returned to worshipping the old Roman gods. Julian tried to bring back to old Roman religious beliefs, but it did not work. By the end of the fourth century, almost everyone in the Roman Empire had become a Christian. At the beginning of the fourth century, only about 1 in every 10 people in the Roman Empire was a Christian. At the beginning of the fifth century just 100 years later, only about 1 in every 10 people was not a Christian.

 

Review Questions

  1. Who was the first Christian Roman emperor?
  1. What did Constantine say he saw and heard the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?
  1. What was the name of the law Constantine passed which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire?

Primary Source Selection: From the Martyrdom of Polycarp (155 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.9)

Polycarp of Smyrna was an early Christian bishop who was martyred, which means killed for his religious beliefs, in 155 AD. A Christian who witnessed the martyrdom of Polycarp wrote about it shortly after he died. The writings about the deaths of martyrs like Polycarp became very popular reading among early Christians remained popular reading for Christians for over a thousand years. Below is one section of the writing about Polycarp’s martyrdom. Polycarp has just been arrested and brought into the arena. Standing in front of the crowds there, he is questioned by a member of the Roman government.

 

Now when Polycarp entered into the arena there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” And no one saw the speaker, but our friends who were there heard the voice. And next he was brought forward, and there was a great uproar of those who heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore when he was brought forward the Pro-Consul asked him if he were Polycarp, and when he admitted it he tried to persuade him to deny, saying: “Respect your age,” and so forth, as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: `Away with the Atheists'”; but Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said: “Away with the Atheists.” But when the Pro-Consul pressed him and said: “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,” Polycarp said: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

But when he persisted again, and said: “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he answered him: “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you are ignorant who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn the doctrine of Christianity fix a day and listen.” The Pro-Consul said: “Persuade the people.” And Polycarp said: “You I should have held worthy of discussion, for we have been taught to render honor, as is meet, if it hurt us not, to princes and authorities appointed by God. But as for those, I do not count them worthy that a defense should be made to them.”

And the Pro-Consul said: “I have wild beasts. I will deliver you to them, unless you repent.” And he said: “Call for them, for repentance from better to worse is not allowed us; but it is good to change from evil to righteousness.” And he said again to him: “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you despise the beasts, unless you repent.” But Polycarp said: “You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”

Bishops, Apologists, and Martyrs (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.8)

In the beginning of the second century, Christianity found itself in a state of crisis. Christian believers, who all together are called “the Church,” found themselves threatened both from the outside as well as from the inside. From the outside, Christians were threatened by the Roman government and others who were very hostile to the message of Christianity. Inside of the Church, there were people who were beginning to teach different things from what the apostles had taught and were dividing Christians into different groups. The last of the apostles died at the end of the first century, so there was no longer anyone around who had known Jesus himself. A new generation of Christians began to take the positions of leadership in the Church to help it through this troubling time. These people are called the bishops, the apologists, and the martyrs.

The greatest problem facing the Church from inside Christianity was the rise of a variety of groups who had different beliefs and practices than other Christians did. The early Christians used the word “heresy” to refer to ideas that were different from those taught by the rest of the Church.

The Church needed leaders to decide what should and should not be believed by Christians, so they turned to their bishops. The word bishop comes from a Greek word that means “overseer” or “supervisor.” It was the job of the bishops to oversee and supervise the Church. The first bishops, Christians believed, had been chosen by the apostles. These bishops then chose other outstanding Christians to be new bishops. Each city had its own bishop to lead the church in that city. Some bishops of very large and important cities, such Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem, were looked to as leaders even by other bishops. The bishop of Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire, was especially important.

From the outside, the Church faced the threat of persecution by Roman authorities. Most upper-class Roman men did not like the message of Christianity. They thought it was dangerous for the Christians to tell women, slaves, and poor people that they were equal to rich men. They also thought the Christians were wrong not to worship the Roman gods. They believed the Roman gods would get angry with the people of Rome and punish them. Many Christians were tortured or even put to death by the Romans. A person who dies for their religious beliefs is called a martyr.

The first Roman emperor to persecute Christians was Nero. When a fire in Rome destroyed much the city, Nero blamed the Christians for setting the fire. He ordered Christians throughout the city of Rome put to death. Among the Christians martyred by orders from Nero were the leader of the apostles, Peter, and the apostle who wrote most of the New Testament, Paul. In fact, all of the apostles except John were eventually martyred. Later Roman emperors continued to persecute the Christians for almost 300 years.

Christians who were very educated tried to reason with the powerful Romans who were persecuting Christians by explaining Christian beliefs to them. These people, called apologists, wrote letters and books telling the Romans what Christians believed and trying to persuade them that Christianity was not dangerous to the Roman Empire. The Romans told many rumors about Christians doing bad things. The apologists tried to show why these rumors were wrong.

While most Romans thought the Christians were crazy for choosing to die rather than worship the Roman gods, many Romans were very impressed by how willing Christians were to suffer for their faith and become martyrs. By being willing to die for their beliefs, the Christians convinced many Romans to decide to become Christians as well. Through their work the bishops and the apologists defended the Church against those attacked it from outside as well as those on the inside who wanted beliefs to change. As a result, the Christian Church grew and became stronger even during these tough times.

 

Review Questions

  1. What two threats were Christians facing from the inside and outside?
  1. What is a bishop?
  1. What is a martyr?
  1. What is an apologist?

 

Vocabulary Words

Heresy – beliefs that are different from the accepted opinions of the Church

Persecution – mistreating someone because of their religious beliefs

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest
All that I have written thus far in this series of posts is not to say that Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the native religious and philosophical traditions of China and India are not valuable, nor that any other aspect of their indigenous traditions are not worthy of study. On the contrary, each of the cultures of the world contains and is a commentary upon some unique aspect of the common human experience. What has led to the success of the West over these other cultures, and what separates it from them as uniquely important, is that Western Civilization never took on the parochial nature of, for example, Indian or Chinese thought. Because it has been since its conception the product of a confluence of diverse ideas and cultures and has remained throughout its history uniquely open to outside influences, Western Civilization reflects not merely one aspect of the common human experience but the purest expression of the universal human condition. Rather than a closed, merely European phenomena, the genetics of Western Civilization reveal that it is and has been since its inception an amalgam of peoples and cultures, often with widely divergent worldviews and geographies.

Ancient Greece is generally, and rightly, credited as the birthplace of many distinctively Western ideas, including its political and philosophical systems, its art and literature, its science and medicine, and much else. The Greeks themselves, however, often credited their forebears among the Egyptians and the Babylonians as the progenitors of a great deal of their knowledge. A sizeable portion of this credit is undeserved and may be attributed to the desire, common until fairly recently, to link one’s original ideas with the respectability of antiquity;1 these attributions, however, do demonstrate a Greek admiration for and imitation of the knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Fittingly, these two nations also figure prominently among the shaping influences upon the other great early strand in the DNA of Western Civilization, the Jews. Genesis 11:31 claims the Mesopotamian city of Ur as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, and the stories that make up much of the Jewish scriptures exhibit a common origin with or perhaps an improvement upon the traditional stories of Mesopotamia, such as the creation story of the Enuma Elish and the flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, Jewish law reflects an improved and universalized application of the rule of lex talionis evident in Mesopotamian law codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.2 Jewish influence by the Egyptians is demonstrated in the Jews’ own record in the Book of Exodus of their period of enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent escape therefrom.

The commingling of these two cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, began in earnest with the conquest of the Israelite lands by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Although the relationship between the two was often a tumultuous one, as in the suppression of a distinctively Jewish identity under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the subsequent revolt of the Jews against Seleucid Greek rule under the Maccabees, it nonetheless bore spectacular fruit, particularly in the Roman period. The production of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language and the Jewish-Hellenic synthesis philosophy of Philo of Alexandria are two noteworthy early examples among many. By far the most important fruit of this contact between the Greek and Jewish cultural systems was the Christian Church. Early Christians employed Greek language and ideas to convey the events of the life of a Jewish man and their understanding of the significance of those events, which they saw as the culmination of the history and hopes of the Jewish people. When the early Christian author Tertullian wrote in a blustering attack on Christian heretics, “what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”, he had hoped for a negative response.3 Had he stopped to consider the origins of his own faith, however, or had access to its later developments, he would have heard his question resoundingly answered to the contrary of his expectations. The Christian Church, and Christians more generally, would continue this grand synthesis of the Greek and the Jewish throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating along with them a number of other cultures as well, most notably the Germanic culture of the Northern European peoples. Indeed, as Christopher Dawson has described it, Western Civilization is the product of “several peoples, composed of different racial elements, all co-operating in the development of a common cultural heritage.”4

When using the term “Western Civilization” one is referring to a great amalgam of cultures and peoples, ideas and worldviews, including but by no means limited to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Germans, all brought together within the framework of Christianity. Early Christian writers, the great majority of whom were Romans writing in the Greek language, were fond of bragging about the expansion of their religion well outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire among the various barbarian nations which surrounded it. They were not, of course, conscious of the great civilization which would be forged by the unity they were bringing to these peoples. Christianity was able to provide a framework which united such disparate cultures while sustaining their local customs because of its emphasis on one particular and central idea, namely, the Incarnation. As Dawson explains, Western Civilization’s “religious ideal,” unlike that of the Chinese, Indian, and other great civilizations, “has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”5 Western Civilization has had the marked tendency to regard all knowledge as worthy and to absorb this knowledge into itself, further accreting ever more peoples and their traditions while widening its own civilizational embrace. This is why theories of the dominance of Western Civilization which have seen race or, more recently, geography as the primary impetus fall far short of possessing full explanatory power.

Jared Diamond’s thesis in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, that the success of the West in comparison with other cultures is the result of European geography’s ability to absorb and combine elements from surrounding civilizations fails to account for a number points which must be considered. Diamond’s thesis, for example, does not account for the history of locations such as Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center for the combination, incubation, and distribution of ideas in Western Civilization but has since fallen into stagnation after being acquired and enculturated by another civilization. More importantly, his theory ignores altogether the human factor, or what Dawson calls the “psychological factor,” the place of people and their ideas, which is the primary factor in the shaping of a civilization.6 It was the “psychological factor” of the Christian belief in the Incarnation which provided the glue to hold together such divergent and disparate peoples and traditions as those of which Western Civilization consists.

From an early point, and perhaps because of its dual parentage in Greek and Jewish civilizations, Western Civilization demonstrated a unique openness to the beliefs and practices of a variety of peoples. In the words of the late historian Roland N. Stromberg, “no other civilization … has ever possessed the capacity for change that ours has shown. This was probably the result of its complex inheritance, which came to it from several sources.”7 With some exceptions (such as Tertullian, quoted previously), Christians, who have been the primary shapers of Western Civilization through the course of most of its history, generally viewed their faith not only as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations, but as the completion of the philosophies of non-Jews as well. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr unequivocally asserted that Christian “doctrines … appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul.”8 From this centrality of the Incarnation, Justin was able to simultaneously assert that the body, reason, and soul of man, which were taken on and redeemed by God in the Incarnation, were also given by God to man as tools for man’s use in acquiring wisdom and virtue.9 With this foundation in the Incarnation and its implications, Justin found it acceptable to commend a number of ideas of the Platonists, the Stoics, the Greek poets, and others as both wise in themselves and consonant with Christian teaching.10 This Christian openness to foreign ideas continued throughout the history of Western Civilization and allowed it to both absorb ideas from outside, such as the medieval Islamic translations of and commentaries upon Aristotelian texts, as well as find new homes in a stunning variety of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups, transforming each of these to meet its own requirements while not displacing their native heritages.

In short, while the applicability of the great bulk of Confucius’s ideas remains isolated from the experience of most people in the world and these ideas are antiquated even in modern China, the ideas of Confucius’s Greek contemporaries Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle remain as vital and significant as they were when first formulated nearly 2400 years ago. Importantly, the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle possess equal vitality and significance not only in modern Greece but also in modern China. It is the West’s primeval embrace of diversity and its outward-looking philosophy, perhaps most encapsulated in the Christian idea of the Incarnation of Christ, that have made this possible. This is one of the great ironies which inheres in the thought of those who wish to undermine education in Western Civilization in favor of a multicultural approach. Their very openness to foreign ideas is one of the fundamental components and ultimate strengths of Western Civilization itself. They have, however, confused this strength for a weakness and made it into a point of attack by turning it on its head.

 

Notes
1 The attribution of the Babylonians as the source of the astronomical knowledge which enabled Thales of Miletus’s famous prediction of the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, for example, is almost certainly false. See Dmitri Panchenko, “Thales Prediction of a Solar Eclipse,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy (November, 1994): 275-288.

2 Where the two most notably diverge and where the Jewish law exhibits an improvement over the other Mesopotamian law codes, like that of Hammurabi, is in its application of the law to all people. Leviticus 24:22, for example, makes explicit that there will be one law which applies to all people. Whereas Hammurabi prescribes lex talionis for offenses among equals, the Jewish law prescribes this standard for nearly all offenses by any party against any party. The difference is undoubtedly the result of the previous improvement of the Jewish creation story, in which man is created as a child (in his “image” and “likeness,” according to Genesis 1:26-27) of God and his co-operator, over the Mesopotamian, in which man is created as the slave of the gods. This Jewish emphasis on equality would enter deeply into the DNA of Western Civilization.

3 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” 7.

4 Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), 399.

5 Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Jacques Maritain, Peter Wust, and Christopher Dawson, Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 228.

6 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

7 Roland N. Stromberg, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 8-9.

8 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” 10.

9 Ibid., 7.

10 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 20.

 

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 5: The Restoration of Western Civilization

Personhood in Early Christian Thought and Practice (Personhood Part IV)

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism in the middle of the first century AD and emerged as a separate religion altogether by the end of that century. Among the most distinctive doctrines of early Christianity were the beliefs that God had become incarnate as a human being and, through a process of recapitulation, had opened the possibility of spiritual salvation to all people. The idea of the incarnation is perhaps the most central and distinctive belief of Christianity. The doctrine’s classic and arguably most eloquent statement is found in the opening to the Gospel of John, composed probably in the last decade of the first century AD: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”17 Christians believed that God had become man in the person of Jesus Christ, thereby redeeming and sanctifying human nature. The doctrine of the incarnation was linked with the idea of the Imago Dei from a very early point in Christian thought and served to significantly strengthen and solidify the importance and content of that idea.18 The early Christian author and bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in about 180, summarized the relationship of the two doctrines and their implications for humanity, writing,

And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.19

In the same work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus also offered the earliest expanded explanations of early Christian soteriology. In his explanations, he asserts that “the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred.”20 To that end, according to Irenaeus, he passed through every age and state, “not despising or evading any condition of humanity” and “sanctifying every age” as he passed through each without sinning.21 Finally, he suffered and died in perfect obedience, undoing the sin of Adam, and resurrected, defeating death. In doing all of this, he made spiritual salvation possible; in the most succinct soteriological statement of Irenaeus: “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”22 By the fourth century, the standard statement of Christian soteriology was even more succinct and direct: “He was made man that we might be made God.”23 Significantly, this salvation and deification was made available to all people of any age, class, or gender. The declaration of the universality of salvation by the important early Christian leader Paul in about AD 50-60 seems as if it had been formulated to run directly contrary to the ethos of the Greco-Roman world: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”24

For those who heard of these beliefs in Late Antiquity, they were shocking. These unique Christian beliefs were seen as perplexing, subversive, and worthy of mockery by both Jews as well as followers of Greco-Roman pagan religions and philosophies.25 Christianity was particularly threatening to members of the latter groups as its simultaneous continuation of the zeal for social justice present in Judaism coupled with the reinvigoration and expansion of this zeal in conjunction with its own original ideas proved very attractive to the oppressed and marginalized classes of the Roman Empire. One early Christian text, written in the second half of the first century, records Roman opponents of Christianity claiming Christians “have turned the world upside down.”26 In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, “Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current.”27 As a result, Christians faced persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities as well as disdain and suspicion from their neighbors. In spite of this persecution, however, the poor, slaves, women, and other marginalized and oppressed classes of the Roman Empire flocked to the new religion. Such was the pull that Christianity exerted on these groups and, simultaneously, the disgust it excited in the Roman Empire’s elite, that Celsus, one of Christianity’s early detractors, was able to write in about 178 that it was “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word [that is, Christian evangelists] wish to make converts.”28

The practical ramifications of Christian ideas about personhood were tremendous. With the introduction of the idea of a Kingdom of God which stood over and in opposition to the world and which all Christians, by virtue of membership in the Church, were members of, the idea of nationhood, and therefore any possibility of xenophobia, receded into superfluity. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic text written sometime in the mid to late second century, delights in the diversity of Christians and their ubiquitous presence in “Greek as well as barbarian cities,” asserting “they pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”29 The treatment of the poor, slaves, and other low social classes in early Christian writings similarly revels in the counterintuitive assertion that they are in fact the “happy” and “blessed” bearers of a better spiritual condition than the materially prosperous and socially powerful.30

Perhaps the most powerful and practical explication of early Christian views on slavery is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. At 335 words in the original Greek, it is the shortest surviving letter of Paul and one of the shortest books of the New Testament. Onesimus, a Christian slave whose master, Philemon, was also a Christian, had run away from his master and joined up with Paul. Paul, however, decided to send Onesimus back to his master with this letter. It must be remembered that Philemon was a Roman pater familias, or male head of household. According to the laws cited earlier in this paper, Philemon had the right of deciding life and death within his household and Onesimus was his property. Paul’s words, in this historical context, are remarkable and astounding; he admonishes Philemon to “receive” Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh [that is, as a sharer in a common human nature] and in the Lord [that is, as a fellow Christian].”31

By the end of the fourth century, this assertion of an ontological equality, shared nature, and spiritual brotherhood of master and slave would become, in the minds of some of the greatest and most influential Christian thinkers and leaders, arguably, the world’s first full-fledged ideology of abolitionism. Gregory of Nyssa, an important fourth century bishop, for instance, was one of the first writers in history to condemn slavery as an institution. Significantly, he based his arguments against slavery on Christian anthropology, writing,

What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?32

Not all Christian leaders were willing to go as far as Gregory in their condemnation of slavery. Many, including such important figures as John Chrysostom, a late fourth and early fifth century bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the single greatest influence on subsequent theological development in Western Christianity, were more equivocal in their condemnation. Both Chrysostom and Augustine insisted, for instance, that slavery was a necessary evil that had been instituted by God as a result of man’s primeval fall into sin.

As ambiguous as some of these condemnations of slavery were, they were, nonetheless, condemnations, and such a condemnatory attitude had obvious ramifications in Christian practice. Several slaves and former slaves, for example, were elected to the highest positions of leadership in the Church. In fact, one Onesimus was named as the bishop of Ephesus by Ignatius of Antioch in a letter written in about 107; while some modern historians doubt the identification, Christian hagiography has traditionally identified this Onesimus with the Onesimus about whom Paul wrote his letter to Philemon.33 34 In the third century, one former slave, Callistus, who was elected bishop of Rome, the most prominent see in the Christian Church, even decreed, in defiance of the Roman law contained in the Twelve Tables, that “among Christians a slave could marry a free person with the blessing of the Church.”35 By the fifth century, Patrick, the famous missionary and bishop of Ireland who was also a former slave, was able to write in a way that assumed rather than argued the innate immorality of Christians enslaving fellow Christians.36 Slavery declined throughout the Middle Ages, replaced by serfdom throughout much of Europe, and was not revived as a major institution again until the early modern era.

Early Christian ideas regarding women also presented a major challenge to Greco-Roman conceptions of personhood. Henry Chadwick, in his classic treatment of early Christianity, points out that, in Late Antiquity, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”37 For this belief, early Christians drew not only on the ideas of the Imago Dei and the incarnation, but a specific recognition of the distinctive role that had been played by the Virgin Mary in the redemptive work of Jesus according to the framework of early Christian soteriology. In one of his discussions of the process of salvation through recapitulation, Irenaeus of Lyons summarized this role:

The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.38

This understanding of the role played by the Virgin Mary in the scheme of salvation as well as the individual life of the believer would continue to expand throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Second century documents such as the Infancy Gospel of James make such claims as that Mary was dedicated to the service of God by her parents before her birth, raised in the Temple of Jerusalem, and remained a virgin consecrated to God throughout her life.39 By the middle of the third century, prayers were being addressed to her; the earliest surviving example of such prayers dates from about 250: “Under thy compassion we take refuge, Theotokos [Birthgiver-of-God]; do not disregard our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Blessed One.”40 In 431, the Council of Ephesus, considered the Third Ecumenical Council, officially approved the Virgin Mary’s popular title of Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer” and often, though incorrectly, translated as “Mother of God”).41 The Middle Ages would see such expansions in Mariology and in Marian devotion as the advent of the Rosary, the addition of holidays to the Christian festal calendar which celebrated her sinless birth and assumption into heaven, and her acquisition of such titles as “Queen of Heaven.”42 These views and practices surrounding Mary clearly had important implications for views about women more generally.

By the end of the fourth century, Gregory Nazienzen, the bishop of Constantinople who presided over the Second Ecumenical Council in that city in 381, was proclaiming the full ontological equality of men and women on the basis of distinctively Christian beliefs, simultaneously calling for the legal and social equality of women. In his “Fifth Theological Oration,” he wrote, addressing Roman men,

What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.

… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.43

Like slaves, women were also able to attain important positions in the early Church. The gospels record that Jesus had many followers who were women. One of them, Mary Magdalene, was the first to see and speak with him following his resurrection and was sent by him to tell the other followers that he had come back from the dead.44 For fulfilling this role, she was designated “equal to the apostles” and “apostle to the apostles” in the later Christian hagiographic tradition. Paul also mentions several important women in the first century Church throughout his letters, such as Junia, whom he describes as “of note among the apostles.”45

Christianity also offered women an opportunity to adopt a way of life which freed them from the atmosphere of subjugation and androcentrism which permeated Greco-Roman family life. From an early point, Christians adopted celibacy as their ideal. In his first letter to the Corinthians, written in about AD 55, for instance, Paul recommended that virgins remain unmarried and that widows not remarry.46 For women in the Roman Empire, a life of celibacy represented a means of escape from the patriarchal system of the Roman family in which women were subject to their fathers, husbands, and other male family members. According to Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels, “their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”47

This idealization of celibacy developed into institutional monasticism by the end of the fourth century. The monastic way of life continued throughout the Middle Ages to attract many women who desired independence from patriarchal family structures. Significantly, female monastics, like the female martyrs before them, attracted a great deal of reverence by Medieval Christians of both genders. One example of this reverence is found in the hagiography of Mary of Egypt, written by Sophronius, bishop of Jerusalem, in the seventh century. According to his hagiography, Mary had renounced her former sinful lifestyle and, like many others before her, retreated into the deserts of Egypt to adopt a life of fasting and prayer. While walking through the desert, she was discovered by Zosimas, a priest and monk at a nearby monastery, who immediately recognized her holiness. In contradiction to the traditional Eastern Christian practice, in which it is customary for anyone meeting a priest to bow, ask for his blessing, and kiss his hand, “Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing.”48 Sophronius’ account continues,

She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both:

“Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosimas:

“Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.”

This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her:

“O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”

Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said:

“Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.”

Zosimas answered:

“Amen.”49

One of the most important roles that women served in the early Church was to bring Christianity into the households of Rome’s aristocracy, which eventually allowed the Church to attain a measure of wealth, prestige, and power. According to Chadwick, “it was often through the wives that it [Christianity] penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”50 Even the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine I, probably did so under the influence of women. Although he and his hagiographers attributed his conversion to a divine vision he claimed to have witnessed the night before an important battle,51 there was no lack in Christian influence from the women in his life. His mother, Helena, was a Christian and, though the date of her conversion is debated, may have provided him with an education in and exposure to Christianity as a child.52 In addition, his half-sister, Anastasia, bore a name which was largely unique to and popular among Christians and which, in Greek, means “resurrection.” This may indicate that his step-mother, Theodora, who would have been responsible for naming her daughter, was a Christian as well.53 Though it is difficult to discern the details, it is clear that Constantine’s initial exposure to Christianity almost certainly came to him through the influence of the women in his life.

The views of early Christians about children also differed substantially from those which predominated throughout the Greco-Roman world around them. According to O.M. Bakke, a historian of Christianity whose studies have focused on the development of ideas about childhood in Late Antiquity, “whereas pagans thought that a newborn baby was not a human person in the full sense, patristic thinking implies that the newborn possesses the fullness of human dignity.”54 He concludes from his examination of the basis for this belief that “this positive assessment of the worth of babies is connected with the idea that all human beings, even small children, are created in the image of God.”55 This reasoning about the spiritual status of children is evident in the writings of Cyprian of Carthage, an influential North African bishop of the third century, who argued that infants should be baptized on the eighth day after their birth in parallel with the Old Testament admonition to circumcise male children on the eighth day.56 According to Cyprian, infants must be baptized so that “no soul be lost.”57 He continues,

For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.58

In another work, the same Cyprian also indicates that it was standard practice in the Christian Church for infants to receive communion before they were even “able to speak” or “able to understand” the Eucharist.59 That infants took part in the sacraments of the Church indicates that they were recognized as possessing full personhood and a status of spiritual equality with adult Christians.

These beliefs led early Christians to condemn practices such as abortion, infanticide, and the use of children for the sexual gratification of adults, all common practices of the Greco-Roman world. The Didache, a late first or early second century text which may be the earliest surviving Christian text not included in the New Testament and which was attributed to the apostles by early Christians, explicitly condemns all three practices in its second chapter. In regards to sexual relations between adults and children, the Didache states simply, “you shall not commit pederasty,” listing the practice along with murder, fornication, and theft.60 In its condemnations of abortion and infanticide, the Didache explicitly equates these practices with murder, commanding, “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”61

These early Christian ideas concerning barbarians, slaves, women, and children ran directly counter to the ideas prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, which ideas had been written into law in the Roman Empire. In the early fourth century, however, Constantine became the first Christian Roman emperor. Julian the Apostate, Constantine’s nephew, whose brief reign lasted only two years, was the only non-Christian emperor after Constantine, and even he had been raised as a Christian and left the Church as an adolescent. By the end of the fourth century, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. A long process by which the early Christian views of barbarians, slaves, women, and children replaced those of the Greco-Roman world in both thought and law ensued. It is this process that characterizes much of the culture, law, and philosophy of the Middle Ages.

Notes


17 John 1:1, 14 (NKJV).

18 2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15, and Hebrews 1:3, for example, all explicitly link the Imago Dei and the incarnation. This connection would play a particularly pivotal role in the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Byzantine Empire, becoming an especially important idea on Eastern Christianity as a result.

19 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 16, par. 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

20 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

21 Ibid., book 2, ch. 22, par. 4.

22 Ibid., book 5, preface.

23 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, 54, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol.4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

24 Galatians 3:28 (NKJV).

25 According to St. Paul, writing in about AD 54, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NKJV).

26 Acts 17:6 (NKJV).

27 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.

28 Celsus, as quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, book 3, ch. 49, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

29 Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 5, in Ante-Nicene Fathers , Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

30 The word μακάριος (makarios) used, for example, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), although commonly translated into English as “blessed” carries connotations of both blessedness and happiness.

31 Philemon 15-16.

32 International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Ecclesiastes: An EnglishVersion with Commentary and Supporting Studies: Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Hall, Stuart George, trans. Hall, Stuart George (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993), 73-74. This entire discussion depends upon Eric Denby, “The First Abolitionist? Gregory of Nyssa on Ancient Roman Slavery,” 9 May 2011, http://www.academia.edu/1485109/The_First_Abolitionist_Gregory_of_Nyssa_on_Ancient_Roman_Slavery (accessed 23 December 2012).

33 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 1, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

34 “Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy,” Orthodox Church in America, http://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/01/04/100036-apostle-onesimus-of-the-seventy (accessed 16 April 2013).

35 R. S. Milward, Apostles and Martyrs (Leominster: Gracewing Publishing, 1997), 98.

36 Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” http://www.confessio.ie/etexts/epistola_english# (accessed 16 April 2013).

37 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), 58.

38 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

39 Infancy Gospel of James, in Bart Ehrman, ed., Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

40 “Under thy compassion we take refuge…”, Frederica.com, http://www.frederica.com/gallery/places-and-things/1067611 (accessed 16 April 2013).

41 “Medieval Sourcebook: Council of Ephesus, 431,” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/ephesus.asp (accessed 16 April 2013).

42 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

43 Gregory Nazianzen, “The Fifth Theological Oration,” 6-7, of “Oration XXXVII,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

44 Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:10, John. 20:2.

45 Romans 16:7 (NKJV).

46 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.

47 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 20.

48 Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt,” (March 1996), http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/maryegypt.asp (accessed 16 April 2013).

49 Ibid.

50 Chadwick, 58.

51 That is the story, provided by Constantine himself, recorded in his earliest hagiography, written by a companion, admirer, and Christian bishop. Eusebius Pamphilus, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, book 1, ch. 28, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hedrickson Publishers, 2004).

52 N. D’Anvers, Lives and Legends of the Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church, With Other Contemporary Saints (London: George Bells & Sons, 1902), 106.

53 Christopher Bush Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914), 74.

54 O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 109.

55 Ibid.

56 Genesis 17:12.

57 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle LVIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

58 Ibid.

59 Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 25, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

60 Didache, 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

61 Ibid.