I first read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at about the age of 14 in a copy borrowed from my local public library. It was a huge battered old volume with thick slightly yellowed paper. It looked old enough to have been around since not long after the fall of the Roman empire itself.
I had picked it up purely for its subject matter. I had no idea who Gibbon was or that it was a classic. I just read it. Thinking about it, it was probably a nineteen thirties reprint of a Victorian edition. One of the things about it was that it had a lot of footnotes. The editor was fond of finding fault with Gibbon. And when it got to chapter 15 which covers the rise of Christianity they got to be almost every page. It was a bit like reading an argument.
The editor was far from happy with Gibbon’s dismissive attitude towards Christianity and made this crystal clear.
I didn’t have any doubt whose side I was on. I had already got to like the author and the more strident the footnotes finding fault became, the more convinced I was that Gibbon was on to something. Like a lot of people, I was quite gullible as a teenager and its possible that I wouldn’t have spotted Gibbon’s skepticism left to myself. If you take Gibbon’s account at face value he at no stage argues directly against the truth of the Gospel. The sarcasm and derision all have to be inferred. But with an obviously outraged voice sounding off all the time it was hard to miss.
Dr Johnson once said of Paradise Lost that all admire it but few have wished it longer. I dare say he could have said the same about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Personally I could happily absorb another couple of volumes of Gibbon, though I suspect I’m in a minority there. The quantity of annotations in the one I first read must have added 5 or even 10% to the number of pages, this back in the days when paper costs were not insignificant. I can’t imagine it made the publication remotely more salable. But there it is. Some people just have to have their say regardless.
So what was Gibbon’s attitude to religion? The text leaves it open to interpretation. The honest and obvious approach would be to give you the facts and let you make your own mind up. But that would be a bit dull. This is especially the case given the impact reading Gibbon on Christianity had on me and continues to have. And it is not as if nobody else has ever noticed. The book was mired in controversy over exactly this from as soon as it was published. So I am hardly on my own.
I hope any Christians listening will forgive me – I understand that is a process Christ specifically approved of. I may not have many listeners, but I have enough to be pretty sure at least some of them must be believers purely on statistical grounds. I don’t actually want to offend anyone, and I will do my best not to deliberately provoke.
If you are someone who has a faith you may not find my treatment of this subject sympathetic. In fact you won’t. Because it isn’t. But if I am to do this part of the book justice I can’t really avoid tackling it in a way that fits with my view of what Gibbon was saying, and what he was saying was pretty damning.
So lets get started. The early history of the Church is a scandalous one. Whatever you think of modern Christians one thing is for sure, they are a sight better than their predecessors. The rise of Christianity in the time of the Roman empire was accompanied by coercion, deceit and led to a river of blood. I am talking about Gibbon’s book not trying to outdo Richard Dawkins. But if you are a Christian with doubts, contemplating the early history of the Church is a pretty good place to start to see just how much of its origins are only too human rather than divine.
I am of course lucky. It takes no great act of heroism on my part to scorn religion. That freedom is very much a part of the debt we owe to the courageous men and women who created the Enlightenment. Gibbon is one of those in whose debt we are. The skeptical tone of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was one of the many ground breaking features of the book. It still has some power to shock even today, at the time it was serious stuff indeed. Religion was still an issue that could get you killed.
Given the power of the Church at the time – and there are still blasphemy laws on the statute books in the UK even today – it is little wonder he takes an indirect approach. He opens by giving himself an excuse. It is up to theologians to describe religion in its pure form. As an historian his job is to describe what actually happened. If he finds error and corruption it is only natural given he is describing the behaviour of a weak and degenerate race of beings.
The first question Gibbon sets out to answer is how the teaching of Christ managed to spread so effectively. He dismisses what would in his day have been the obvious explanation – that it was true – as not worth discussing. After all, truth and reason do not often find a favourable reception. So leaving that one he identifies 5 secondary explanations.
1. The zeal of the Christians themselves.
2. The offer of a future life, which had not been available from paganism.
3. Miracles – who isn’t impressed by a suspension of the laws of nature after all.
4. The pure and austere morals of the Christians.
5. The unity and discipline of what he calls the Christian republic.
The Christians weren’t the first people to be zealous about their religion, and indeed they inherited their single minded devotion to their beliefs and intolerance of others from the Jews among whom Christianity had its origins. The Jews had a very different attitude from the Romans.
The Romans were polytheists and pretty pragmatic ones at that. Their pantheon was flexible. It could be extended to accommodate new gods as when the need arose, or could be reinterpreted. As the empire expanded so did its theology. Egyptian gods picked up a new market in Rome – no doubt being used by teenagers to annoy their parents. Sun gods from the East found a niche too. When they first came into contact with the German tribes they found parallels between German gods with their own.
Jewish intolerance of other religions was usually just part of the mix in the religious ecosystem of the Roman empire. The Romans most of the time could handle this. The Jewish faith was a long established one with time honoured traditions. The Romans themselves valued tradition so could respect the Jews position. Given that the Jews made no effort to convert others it rarely proved to be a threat to order or stability, so there was no particular reason not to tolerate it. But a few emperors did run into difficulties. Caligula tried to get his statue erected in the temple in Jerusalem with potentially violent results. This particular crisis was diffused by the timely death of Caligula, but both Vespasian and Hadrian had to resort to extreme measures to maintain order.
Hadrian in particular went to some lengths to extinguish a troublesome group. He had originally been sympathetic to the Jews allowing the temple destroyed by Vespasian to be rebuilt. But he later fell out with them and ended up with a full scale rebellion on his hands. The Romans had more trouble than might have been expected dealing with this and ended up having to deploy large numbers of troops to sort it out. This no doubt explains why the victorious Hadrian, normally prone to finding non-violent solutions, was perhaps a bit over the top in his reprisals. Jerusalem was demolished and ploughed into the ground. Jews were sold into slavery and transported elsewhere in the empire. When it was rebuilt, Jerusalem was laid out as a pagan city celebrating Hellenic culture called Aelia Capitolina and Jews were forbidden to live there.
This episode may well have been a key one in the development of Christianity. The early Christians had been a purely Jewish sect which at this time were pretty obscure and far from the mainstream both metaphorically and literally. They were known as the Nazerenes and had had to abandon Jerusalem and base themselves in Pella about 60 miles away. The combination of believing the Messiah had already been and gone with observance of traditional Mosaic law doesn’t seem to have been a winning formula.
The destruction of Jerusalem created an opening for the Nazerenes. They artfully elected themselves a Gentile leader called Marcus, dropped Mosaic laws, and positioned themselves as a non-Jewish group. This enabled them to escape the ire of Hadrian and gave them access to the holy city of Jerusalem. This was a good career move.
Although the abandonment of their Jewish connections seems to have been simply a pragmatic reaction to a changed situation, it opened up opportunities. Their offering was no longer niche, it had gone mass market.
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.