A New Look at an Old Christian Myth

Oct 23 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

What would you call it if a group of people set fire to a local forest, or a local building, such as a place of worship? Or ransack and set fire to an owner’s home simply because he practices a different religion than the perpetrators? If it were just a group of kids behaving badly but with no real motive other than larceny, you might term it vandalism. But if there was motive behind it, and if that motive was political, ideological or religious, you would almost certainly call it terrorism.

Welcome to the world of third and fourth century Christianity.

Does this view seem extreme to you? It might. It almost certainly will to Christian conservatives. That does not make it any less accurate. We are conditioned to see Christian behavior towards the end of antiquity as a model of brave endurance in the face of adversity, of men and women willing to give up their lives for their beliefs in the face of an intolerant, despotic government. But 1700 years later we are still seeing these events through the eyes of the Christians authors who recorded them. We are seeing what they wanted us to see; no other viewpoint is allowed to intrude. And we are almost certainly not seeing the viewpoint of the supposedly intolerant pagans who made up 90% of the population of the Roman Empire at that time.

There are several logs which must be removed from the viewers’ eyes after all this time. The first is the myth of persecution, that for no other reason than being Christians, Roman emperors for three hundred years ruthlessly persecuted the fledgling faith. Unfortunately for its modern day adherents – which undoubtedly include the unwitting majority of Americans – this view has absolutely no basis in reality. One would think from this telling that those three hundred years were an unrelenting period of persecution and suffering, that almost from the moment of its inception, Christianity was targeted by the Roman authorities for extinction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In point of fact, until Decius’ “persecution” in the third century, there is no evidence that Christians were made the targets of oppression or harassment (Sartre, 298). As Sartre says,

The spread of Christianity did not encounter any pronounced opposition from the Roman authorities, except in brief and violent cases…In general…until the middle of the third century, we find no general persecution. On the contrary, like other members of the Christian community, bishops were able to lead their lives quite openly. (Sartre, 338)

Why is this? How can something like this be reliably asserted in the face of all popular belief to the contrary? In the same way that it can be argued that Custer rode into an ambush at the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876 when in fact, no such thing happened. The facts are there for those who wish to see them: It is difficult to ambush somebody you do not know is coming. But sadly, “popular belief” is fact-proof and people do not lightly suffer their most cherished beliefs to be challenged. It matters not that there are no facts to back them up. But the facts of this case, as pointed out by Crake and others, are that there was no law, “either existing section of criminal law, or special legislation directed against the Christians, under which Christians were persecuted in the first two centuries.” (Crake, 70).

It will certainly be argued in opposition to this that Christians were put to death in those first two centuries, and even after. This has to be accepted as an inarguable fact; Christians were indeed put to death. But if not for being Christians, then why? If there was no legislation directed towards them, under what statutes were Christians punished?

The simple truth is that Christians could and did offend the status quo in a number of ways.  They were subject to charges of practicing magic, which as TD Barnes has noted was always illegal if of the wrong type (TD Barnes “Legislation Against the Christians, 49); they could be seen to be breaching the peace, like Paul and Silas in Philippi; and more importantly, as being guilty of treason and sedition like Jesus himself – the placard the Romans placed on his cross was telling. (discuss the treason aspect) And as time went on and they gained in numbers, being left relatively unmolested by the Imperial authorities as a group, they were often troublemakers – or worse – terrorists. There is no doubt that the Christians baffled and frustrated Roman officials. As Elaine Pagels says (1985), 308:

Some Roman officials, dumbfounded by the Christians’ defiance, agreed with Marcus Aurelius’s own private assessment: What motivates the Christians is not courage but a perverse desire for notoriety. Other officials burst out angrily, as if suspecting that they were being manipulated by suicidal fanatics: “If you want to die, go kill yourselves and do not bother us (2 Apol. 4).

Perhaps at this point we should pause long enough to consider what terrorism means, and how it is defined. If we go to the CIA for assistance we find that this is not a task easily completed:

The question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades. A first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The UN Member States still have no agreed-upon definition. (http://www.cia.gov/terrorism/faqs.html)

This does not mean, however, that definitions are not to be found. They are, many of them, and they are generally similar. Four our purposes here we shall examine several, just to be certain that we are not artificially limiting ourselves.

We will begin with the aforementioned 1937 attempt by the League of Nations to identify the problem: “All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public”. Some sixty years later the League’s replacement, the United Nations, returned to the problem:

“1. Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed;

2. Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them”. (GA Res. 51/210 Measures to eliminate international terrorism)

The CIA, citing A.P. Schmid (1988), gives us the academic consensus:

“Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought” (http://www.cia.gov/terrorism/faqs.html)

The ingredients of terrorism seem pretty self evident at this point, at least in the eyes of the international community, including the United States. It involves violent action intended to send a message, to coerce or manipulate the audience. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “…the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85) Again: agreement. Now we shall look at what the FBI has to say on the subject:

A terrorist incident is a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, in violation of the criminal laws of the United States, or of any state, to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives. (http://www.fbi.gov/publications/terror/terror2000_2001.htm)

If you substituted “criminal laws of the Roman Empire” for the reference to the United States you would likely have the exact viewpoint of the Roman authorities, had such a word as terrorism existed to be defined. The FBI goes onto further define domestic terrorism:

Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. [18 U.S.C. § 2331(5)] (ibid)

Mass destruction. Assassination. This brings us back to the Christian world of the third and fourth centuries. As Ramsay MacMullen says of Christianity, “they wanted a means of confronting and bringing an end to the paganism by which they were still surrounded.” This sounds like coercion in furtherance of a political or social objective. So what is it the Christians did to invite prosecution under existing criminal law?

Cyril (376-444), the Patriarch of Alexandria opposed the pagan prefect of that city for no other reason than the prefect’s religious beliefs. In the course of a riot resulting from this opposition, he lost a supporter, Ammonius, who during that riot threw a rock at the pagan prefect (again, because he was pagan) and struck him in the head, covering him with blood. Ammonius was arrested and tortured to death and as a reward for his attempted assassination was made a saint, under the name of Saint Wonderful. Yesterday a rock, today a gun. This sort of thing – the attempted assassination of a government official, were it to happen today, would be called a terrorist act. But this is of an admittedly late date and we may well ask if it is an isolated incident.

We will use T.D. Barnes (1968), 49 as an introduction to the problem:

There are present the conditions necessary for a Roman magistrate or governor to regard Christians as eo ipso malefactors. The new religion could be viewed 9as at Philippi) as something intrinsically alien to Roman ways. When the teaching of it caused rioting, someone might allege (as at Thessalonica) that a revolutionary political doctrine was being preached. A governor might well decide (like Pliny) that, whatever the true nature of Christianity, Christians merited exemplary punishment. They were, after all, troublemakers who disturbed the ‘quies provinciae’, the preservation of which was his paramount duty.

So Christians had a long history of being troublemakers and agitators, known to be disloyal to the state. How else was an emperor to take the claim that only Jesus had any authority over his followers? In America today this sort of attitude is punished when by way of it, agitators take life in the name of their cause. Was it wrong for the Roman government to do likewise?

MacMullen (1997), 15 suggests that idol smashing might have been “what got Christians onto the North African police lists as early as Tertullian’s time” and goes on to note that “it was certainly a problem by the end of the third century in Spain.” In this latter instance the Church felt compelled to deny these Christian terrorists the martyrdom they sought. (For violence involving Christians in Alexandria in the mid-third century see MacMullen (1984), 90 and n. 7).

There is clearly room for a re-evaluation of the historical record and more particularly of “perceived wisdom” with regards the long history of Christian martyrdom. The idea of the Christian movement as terrorists is not one you will see being discussed around the water cooler because everybody knows that the poor Christians were hounded by the Roman secret police (of course, the Romans had no secret police) in an oppressive totalitarian state (which somehow still allowed a wide latitude in local self-rule as the New Testament itself makes clear).

The return to claims of martyrdom and persecution brings these issues before our eyes again and makes them relevant. Far too often perception is allowed to stand-in for reality, and we should be more concerned about what really happened, and about what is really happening, than about what one group insists in happening based on a skewed and long-standing privileged position. So let’s take a new look at the past, and in so doing, at our present, and at the myths that not only exist but are being created even as I write, and as you read. In the world of good guys and bad guys, the answer is not so clear cut as you might think – or have been led to believe.

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