The hot topic in the empire of the 4th Century was the nature of Christ. This issue was resolved not by theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus but by the soldier emperor Theodosius. If you read between the lines of some of my earlier episodes on the history of the Church, you might pick up the sense that I am not particularly an admirer of Christianity.
I have to confirm that organised religion is something I find repellent, though I don’t extend that opinion to individual Christians. Now I am as it happens an atheist, but my dislike of the church has nothing to do with my personal beliefs. It is possible to admire institutions with which you disagree. And I also recognise that like everything else, the church develops over time so I don’t hold things that happened centuries ago against its current incarnation.
So while there is much that I detest about the role of Christianity in history, I haven’t written the whole thing off as a bad job. It is a massive project, perhaps the biggest one that mankind has ever undertaken. The balance sheet is pretty negative overall, but it would be amazing if nothing at all worthwhile ever emerged from all those man-hours.
And I quite like Christ himself. I see him as very much a proto-socialist. He was a simple carpenter who shook things up
and disturbed the authorities enough that they had to get rid of him. I am well aware that the evidence even for his existence is pretty sketchy. But some of what we hear about him rings true so I’m of the opinion that there was a real man behind the stories. And from what has survived of his teachings that real man sounds like someone I could admire. Driving the money lenders from the temple, giving a prominent role to women amongst his followers and working at the grass roots level with people from a humble background. This is all heroic stuff. And like a lot of rebels, he suffered the fate of later being co-opted to defend the very people he was fighting against.
Some of my view of Jesus comes from a very interesting snippet in Exodus Lost by S.S.Compton. He said that some of the direct quotes attributed to Jesus in the Gospels show evidence of having been translated into Greek from a Semitic language – presumably Aramaic (though it might have been Hebrew). The example he gave was the one where Jesus said the chances of a rich man getting into the kingdom of heaven were about as good as camel getting through the eye of a needle. This is a play on words used for the letters in the Aramaic alphabet current at the time. This doesn’t carry over into the Greek, or the English, so the choice of camel and needle seem to us to be quite random. Other sayings of Christ recorded in the Bible have a much purer Greek sound to them, and are quite likely to be later additions.
Given that we know Christ through the intermediary of Greek speakers, it seems to me most likely that the gospels as we have them are cleaned up for the mass market and to avoid provoking the powerful. The radicalism has been toned down. So we get for example ‘”render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s”. Christ might well have phrased it “give the Romans what’s coming to them”. And some miracles have been thrown in. Everyone likes a bit of magic. So over time Jesus becomes not just acceptable, but he can be used as a positive aid to keeping people under the thumb.
That is my take on him anyway. There will be plenty of people around who disagree and might well take great exception to my opinion. I will freely confess I haven’t done enough research to make this argument stand up to scrutiny. I don’t really read even Latin very easily so I can’t claim any expertise in these languages. I say all this not to push my pet theory about the nature of Christ, but just to show how easy it is to get into an argument about who exactly the man who has come to be known as the Messiah is, even today. This has been the case ever since people have been talking about him.
And at no time was the debate keener than in the fourth century. Gibbon finds a quote from a traveler of describing the obsession with the issue in Constantinople.
“This city is full of mechanics and slaves, who are all of them profound theologians; and preach in the shops, and in the streets. If you desire a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you, wherein the Son differs from the Father; if you ask the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply,that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you inquire, whether the bath is ready, the answer is, that the Son was made out of nothing.”
Sounds ghastly, doesn’t it. And also confusing.
I think we need a quick field guide to 4th Century heresy. Christians had been arguing about the nature of Christ from quite early on in the history of the church. The council held at Nicea in 325 had basically been called to try and sort the issue out. It established that Jesus and God were one and the same, and also included a third entity, the Holy Spirit. This last one was basically to make up the numbers. Three is a bit of a more mystical number than two. This formulation is known as the Nicene creed and is the orthodox form of Christianity. Any other variation is unorthodox and potentially heretical.
The church claimed to be both orthodox, in the sense that it was the only correct form of the faith, and catholic in the sense that it was all embracing and all Christians automatically belonged to it. So the church as established at Nicea and supported by Constantine was both orthodox and catholic.
At this stage there was no break between the East and the West, so we are talking about the organisation from which both the modern Orthodox Churches and the Catholic church arose. Gibbon often uses both terms almost interchangeably at this point in the book – his readers would have been quite familiar with religious faction fighting and would know these terms well.
It would be another 600 years before a final break would come between Eastern and Western Christianity. After that, it became customary to refer to the church headed by the Pope in Rome as Roman Catholic, and the rather less monolithic churches of the east as Orthodox. But strictly speaking all of them claim to be both orthodox and catholic.
Incidentally, some Catholics object to the prefix Roman. Their point being that by definition the Catholic church is all embracing and theirs is the only truly catholic one on the market, so limiting it to ‘Roman’ is belittling it. Religion really is a minefield isn’t it.
But back to our friends in the fourth century and the way they saw things. There could only be one true creed. Everyone should both accept it and join up. This was a God-given truth. The only problem was people who didn’t agree. And there were quite a few ways you could disagree. You could have a radically different idea about the whole basis of religion. For example, there were the Manicheans who believed that the Devil and God had equal power, and were engaged in a struggle the outcome of which was yet to be determined. This makes things a bit more exciting, but is clearly not orthodox. In fact it really is a completely different religion, so refusing to accept Manicheans as true Christians doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Then you have a group like the Macedonians. They accepted the standard Nicene model of God as co-equal with His son. They just didn’t accept the existence of the Holy Spirit. This meant that they only had two members of their trinity. I suppose that would make it a duplicity. The Macedonians would pretty much be considered to be Christians by any fair test. It is hard to see how dropping the concept of the Holy Ghost would make any difference at all on a day to day basis. But they were a breakaway group who undermined the catholic nature of the church and so were considered to be heretics.
Groups like the Macedonians and the Manicheans stood outside the mainstream. They posed a nominal threat to the souls of the faithful but hardly undermined its power very much. Much more serious were internal deviations from the true path that threatened to undermine the orthodoxy of the church itself. Of these far and away the most serious were the Arians. Arius had proposed that although Christ was the son of God, and therefore himself a God he wasn’t the full equal of the God that had created him. This sounds a lot more straight forward than the rather baffling notion of the trinity. But the problem wasn’t just a theological disagreement. The Arians operated inside the church. Given enough time and support they could well have established Arianism as the orthodoxy and replaced the Nicene creed.
Since the Council of Nicea the Arians had been pretty active and had won over many adherents. Orthodoxy still had the upper hand in Rome and Alexandria but Arianism had become the majority viewpoint in Constantinople. This was a bit more than a simple theological wrangle. The winners were the recipients of the state’s support. So they were playing for high stakes. You might have thought that pagans or really significant deviants like the Manicheans would have been of the greatest concern to the pious. But the action was where the money was. This meant that the battleground was the lucrative appointments to roles in the church hierarchy. The big prize was landing a job as a bishop. This entitled you to revenues and enabled you to dispense patronage to your supporters. So the battle was very much a question of bagging the best posts. And by this time, the tradition of election of bishops had died out and appointments were purely in the gift of the emperor.
A series of Arian inclined emperors explains why the Arians occupied all the plum jobs in the region of Constantinople. The selection of Theodosius following the death of the Arian friendly Valens broke this run. In fact his support of orthodoxy might well have helped secure his appointment. It is hard to see where his personal convictions ended and political expediency started, but he certainly did what the Orthodox party wanted, and was in turn supported by them. The most spectacular act he carried out in support of the Orthodox faction was to remove the Arian bishop of Constantinople and replace him with an Orthodox one. The new bishop was Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory himself marks a bit of a turning point in the development of the Church, being someone who actually seems to have given some priority to moral issues. He is probably the first Christian since St Paul to have written anything that a non-Christian might find worth reading. Up until now most of the religious controversies have seemed to have been not particularly opaque covers for power struggles between different groups of hucksters. Gregory, who was later made a saint, had loftier motives.
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