Eternal Life: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 15 Part 2

In the last episode we saw the Nazarenes move into the newly rebuilt Jerusalem after Hadrian had destroyed it and expelled the Jews.  This time I am looking at just  what is was about an obscure and until recently exclusively Jewish sect that enabled it to take over the Roman Empire.

Not all the Nazerenes left for Jerusalem.  Some stuck to their original ways and remained both Jewish and Christian.  This, around a century after the death of Christ, was the first split in the Church.  It wouldn’t be the last.   The ability of his followers to find different and original ways to follow him has continued to be a feature of the legacy of Jesus.

The Jewish Christians came to be known as Ebionites and were few in number and not particularly significant.  But they had the honour of being the first heretics.  A letter finding fault with them survives from around 140 written by Justin the Martyr.  This makes it one of the earliest explicit references to Christianity aside from the Biblical canon itself.  Conflict within the Church has a history nearly as long as the Church itself.

It didn’t take long for more heresy and its attendant conflict to arise.  I don’t know, some people just seem to get everything wrong.  The Gnostics got things wrong in the exact opposite way to the Ebionites.  Rather then being too attached to the Jewish tradition and the laws of Moses, the Gnostics disdained Judaism as completely as it was possible to do, barely rating it more highly than paganism.  The Gnostics were contemptuous of the Creation story in the Bible.  Seven days to create the world?  Surely slacking for an omnipotent being.  The story of the Fall made no sense to them so they rejected the concept of original sin.  If you are of a rational frame of mind and made it past the talking snake, you will probably sympathise.

They were unimpressed by the God of Old Testament who is by turns bloodthirsty, partial to his own chosen people and generally nothing like a supreme all-loving perfect being.  Once again, they chime with what a lot of us think.

The Gnostics were the opposite of the Ebionites in their social backgrounds as well.  They were not Jews and they weren’t poor.  Their name means knowledge which may indicate self confidence but was more likely to have been a sarcastic dig from people who couldn’t keep up with the increasing sophistication of the Gnostics’ beliefs.  They spread rapidly through Egypt and Syria, developing a great many varieties of faith as they imported ideas from other religions and thought out new and radical ideas about the nature of God.  They sound a lot of fun.

For several centuries they were a real alternative to the orthodox Church and continued until they were suppressed with the triumph of orthodox Christianity.

But for now, the diversity of the early forms of Christianity was helpful in the spread of the new religion.  With a number of different offerings to chose from, a convert could find one that suited his particular spiritual preferences.  But all of them offered something not available to the followers of paganism.  Eternal life was not a key part of mainstream paganism.  It was sort of there in the background if you looked.  The story of Orpheus and Eurydice shows that there was a concept of the soul surviving the death of the body.  In one of the Greek plays two deceased playwrights have a contest to see who is best.   Aeschylus, the classic founder of tragedy loses, but only because his plays are still alive.  Euripides the modish upstart wins because his plays have died with him and so are available in the Underworld.  It is hard to imagine a sincere Christian writing so flippantly about Hell.

There might be a notion of an afterlife, but there is no element of judgment or reward in classical mythology.   The gods did not wait for the afterlife to express an opinion.  If they didn’t like something they would intervene straight away to make their feelings known.  This meant that it was important to know what the gods were thinking now for practical reasons.

There was a large industry devoted to interpreting the will of the gods, and this was taken seriously. Think of the Oracle of Delphi.  Going to get advice from this source was no whimsical matter.  The fees were substantial, meaning that only the very rich and heads of state were able to access its services.  Think of it not as a quaint custom like reading a horoscope, but as employing top management consultants like Goldman Sachs.  That was the level of credibility pagan superstition had.
I do, incidentally, wonder if future generations will be as baffled by our reliance on economic experts as we are of our predecessors devotion to various forms of magic.  But that is probably another podcast.

The early Christians did not try and disprove the pagan claims, they simply reinterpreted them.  The gods were not fictions, but demons.  This neatly explained the powers of the gods when trying to win over people who had previously believed in those powers.  There is a hangover from this in the way we sometimes still use the name Beelzebub for the devil.  The Beel bit comes from Baal, a popular Semitic god.  Incidentally to give an idea of just how popular Baal was, Hannibal means beloved of Baal.

But giving pagan gods demonic powers did have a huge drawback.  By conceding the pagan entities their magic it made going through the motions of venerating them a serious threat to the good Christian’s soul.   And the trouble was that worship of the gods was really widespread.  It pervaded every aspect of everyday life.  Frustrating and time wasting as the God of the Bible is for those of us who don’t believe in Him and would rather not spend time talking to and singing dull songs about Him on family occasions, at least there is only the one of him.   And he keeps a discrete distance.  The gods of the Romans were everywhere.

There were the top league official national gods that had to be worshiped at big state events.  But there were lots of much smaller scale occasions when it was customary to involve the gods in everyday life.  Weddings and funerals involved referring to divine approbation.  A trip to the circus would catch you in the net as well.  There were images of the gods everywhere.  Idolatry was therefore almost impossible to avoid even while the church fathers wrote tracts warning their followers of its dangers.  Even listening to music and singing risked getting caught up in some story, Homer perhaps, which praised the gods and therefore involved the Christian in praising a demon and damning himself to eternal flames.

It must have been depressing.  But even so early Christians do sound like a dour bunch determined to squeeze every gram of joy out of life.  As Gibbon puts it.

“On days of general festivity, it was the custom of the ancients to adorn their doors with lamps and with branches of laurel, and to crown their heads with a garland of flowers. This innocent and elegant practice might perhaps have been tolerated as a mere civil institution. But it most unluckily happened that the doors were under the protection of the household gods, that the laurel was sacred to the lover of Daphne, and that garlands of flowers, though frequently worn as a symbol of joy or mourning, had been dedicated in their first origin to the service of superstition.”

The temptations of idolatry were everywhere and the pious Christian was in a constant battle against them.  But there was a side effect.  By doing so he was increasing his own level of commitment to the cause.  He had sunk a lot of investment in the form of social exclusion, so he no doubt was reluctant to waste all that effort by giving up on his faith. And he hoped to be richly rewarded after death.

Although the notion of the afterlife was vague in paganism, the immortality of the human soul had been speculated about by philosophers but they, being philosophers, had not come to any particularly firm conclusions.  The Epicureans were pretty sure that death was the end of everything – and taught simply that you won’t be around to know anything about it so why worry?  Pass another glass!

The stoics were, contrary to their image, a bit more optimistic. They saw death as a release from life and a return to the substance of the Universe from which we all came.  Some stoics, Epictetus for example, fitted in a single all powerful God who created everything and kept the whole show on the road.

The case of Epictetus reminds us that there was nothing particularly novel about just having the one god.  The Jews and the Persians had been doing the same for as long as anyone could remember.  Monotheism wasn’t in itself a unique selling point.  And it also illustrates that there was no particular distinction between religion and philosophy.  One idea about the rise of Christianity is that paganism was somehow worn out and ready to be replaced.  Look at the Greek myths that have survived, and you might conclude that no reasonable person could believe such transparent nonsense and assume that whatever you think of the teachings of Christ, at least they make more sense than that.

I don’t think this is what was going on.  The official state sponsored religion had always been a lot more about ceremony and giving people a shared experience.  It didn’t really have a role in private belief systems.  The roman would turn up at the temple for a particular rite but was free to decide on his own day to day religious outlook.  This was where the schools of philosophy came in.  For example there were schools of Epicurus everywhere.  They functioned a bit like a church, a bit like a self help group and a lot like a social club.

The Epicureans were probably the biggest philosophical grouping, but there were plenty of others.  And it was big business.  In a world where there were no mass media, illiteracy was widespread and books were hugely expensive, nearly all communication was done face to face.  The cohesion of the empire indeed was very much down to networks like those offered by the schools of philosophy.   The individual Roman could put together a portfolio of beliefs and practices from a number of sources.  You could have the standard pantheon of big Olympian gods for running the universe and dealing with major national and international affairs, maybe adding a regional one if you were out in the provinces.   The household gods could watch out for day to day domestic crises. And you could sign up with a philosophy to help you lead the kind of life you aspired to.

Rather than thinking of the Christians pushing against a rickety framework of decayed belief, see them as trying to get into a crowded market place (in many places a literal as well as a metaphorical market place).   The distinctive features of Christianity were not so much its doctrinal details as its organisation.   It’s clear picture of the afterlife did mark it out from other beliefs.  But even there, I wonder if that maybe built up because it was found to go down well.  A modern salesman might describe it as ‘selling the benefits’.

The other thing that marked out the Christians was that many of them sincerely believed that the world was about to end.  Christ had gone away for a little while but would soon be back.  And when he gets back he is going to sort a few people out, just you wait and see!  The imminent destruction of everything seems to be something that appeals greatly to some people.  It comes up time and again in history and still seems to get eager listeners even today.   If it is combined with score settling it is quite a package.  Gibbon finds a revealing quote from Tertulian, one of the fathers of the Church.

“How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs, so many fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded scholars; so many celebrated poets trembling before the tribunal, not of Minos, but of Christ; so many tragedians, more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers.”

Oh dear.  We can see the seeds of the centuries of intolerance to come.

The doctrine of a coming apocalypse was both psychologically satisfying to the kind of person who could write that kind of thing and also a useful motivational tool for getting people to give 100% of their efforts to the new religion.  If we are on the eve of destruction there is little to lose and a everything to gain.  But it is unlikely that the whole body of Christians were that convinced.  Jesus had already been dead for quite a while and contrary to prophecies did not return.  Reading the letters of St Paul it is pretty clear that he is planning for the long term and trying to build an organisation that will last.

So although the Christians had started from an unpromising start, their growth in the years before the accession of Constantine is not too hard to explain.  They had a good product and they had a good sales team.  There isn’t really any need to denigrate the competition.  The pagans were up against something quite formidable.

If you want to follow my extended review of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the beginning, and who wouldn’t?  It starts with Augustus founding the empire.

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