Christian

The Persecution of Christians in Eusebius

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Koenig wrote that “Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there has been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.” This post will look at the persecution of Christians through Eusebius’ Historica Ecclesiastica and other primary and secondary sources.  

It is difficult to apportion blame for this persecution, or whether individuals can even be held responsible, for truly the greatest contributors to persecution are those who do nothing when they have power to make a difference.  Eusebius like Lactantius implies that blame lies with Galerius though his implication does not directly name him; instead addressing Galerius as the long accepted “prime mover in the calamitous persecution.”[1] Lactantius agrees with this claim announcing that, due to his mother’s conceived hatred against the Christians for not following her ways, she instigated Galerius to destroy them.[2]  Why would Eusebius make the suggestion that Galerius was responsible? Barnes asserts that Eusebius was a prime supporter of Constantine and wrote in his reign.[3] His support for Constantine suggests that he could not offend those related to the Emperor, such as Constantius who reigned during the same period as Galerius as he would be indirectly offending Constantine himself.  It is also possible that Eusebius had a personal vendetta against Galerius, blaming him for the persecution of his fellow Christians.

Eusebius’ account also suggests that divine judgement was responsible for the persecution of Christians.  Eusebius expresses that “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth.”[4] Eusebius goes on to explain that divine judgement, God himself, gradually began to order things and the persecution began with the Christians in the army.  This indicates that Eusebius thought the Christians brought the persecution upon themselves for ignoring sins and abusing their own freedom. Eusebius’ suggestion of divine judgement further indicates that he was attempting to put a positive spin on the circumstances, making it appear that persecution was part of God’s ultimate plans, God being infallible. Barnes asserts that the purpose for this suggestion was to strengthen the belief that “God intervenes in history to ensure that the Christian Church shall prosper.”[5] This indicates that Eusebius may have even been suggesting that the persecution had its benefits in the prosperity of Christianity by laying the blame of the persecution in divine hands.

The account by Eusebius and other scholars shows that the persecution affected different areas with varying intensities, some greater than others. For instance, Eusebius describes the persecution at Thebais where people were subject to wild animals and other horrendous tortures.[6]  An analysis of Eusebius’ account of Thebais, Antioch and Nicomedia among others gives us the impression that though the Christians suffered horribly, there was always a faith that could not be taken from them, that there was a “most wonderful eagerness…in those who had put their trust in Christ.”[7] This gives us the impression that many Christians saw the persecution as a chance to prove their loyalty to God.

 The place where the persecutions appear to be carried out with the greatest intensity according to Eusebius and Lactantius was not a location in the geographical sense.  Eusebius highlights that the army was a key target and starting point of the persecution.[8]  An assessment of the army being central to the persecution suggests that there was an aim to strengthen the loyalty of military powers.  Eusebius also asserts that Nicomedia was a focus point.[9]  From this account we gain the impression that the intensity in Nicomedia was to primarily strengthen imperial powers. 

Other areas where we see an intensity of persecution as told by Eusebius were Antioch and Tyre.  ‘Historica Ecclesiastica’ recounts the “ordeal of the Egyptians who championed the faith so gloriously at Tyre.”[10]  Eusebius also indicates the great intensity in Egypt and Syria, stating that “we should feel equal admiration for those of them [Egyptians] who were martyred in their own country.”[11]  This statement also suggests that the persecution was wide spread.

Religion is more apparent in history than any other reason for persecution.  The persecution of the Christians under Diocletian is one such example where the persecution had varying consequences to the population and church even with the introduction of an edict of toleration.[12] The edict of toleration would have provided the majority of the Christians with a sense of relief.   Though, the sheer number of volunteer martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Lactantius implicate that for the few the edict removed their chance to show their devotion.  Momigliano asserts that one such response is that some Christians voiced resentment in light of those who “survived in fear”[13] through the persecution rather than in physical pain. An analysis of this suggests that there may have been some resentment for the minority who appeared to seek the persecution.[14]  

The edict also created consequences in relation to ‘conscience’ and the unification of the church.  Chadwick assesses that there were many problems of conscience as a result of the persecution and that one such response was the rise of certain militant extremist groups such as the Donatists.[15]  The Donatists counted even the smallest of physical punishments as a worthy martyrdom and saw those who denied their faith, as traitors.  This suggests that militant ideas forced a widening division focusing on the legitimacy of certain clergy members. Chadwick assesses that these problems of ‘conscience’ in light of the persecution led to many adaptations of the law to meet particular cases. [16] 

Eusebius explains another ramification of the edict’s responses was that it set bishops against each other due to certain cleric’s militant ideologies.[17]  In achieving this, the church was further divided even though Constantine appears to be looking for a means of unification.  An evaluation of the responses to the edict suggest that it created a new though less severe bout of persecution, this time between the various factions of the Christian population.

The persecution of Christians under Diocletian is one example of the many religious conflicts throughout history.  Through primary and secondary sources we see where the blame of this persecution is aimed and that the persecution looked towards securing military and imperial power.  The persecution had several ramifications, showing us that even with an edict of toleration the church lay divided.  We do however see one continuing theme; that even in the face of extreme controversy and persecution, faith stood tall in the hearts of many even in the face of death.


[1]: Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), p.280 – Eusebius addresses Galerius as “the author of this edict” rather than by name.  Further reference to Galerius as the prime instigator of the persecution is found on p.281 as the man whom Eusebius wrote of on the previous page.

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History was rewritten at least twice in light of the persecution, Eusebius wishing to leave a permanent account of the martyrs of his day

[2] Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), p.271 – Lactantius recounts the nature of Galerius’ mother in regards to the Christian religion not agreeing with her own and how she made sure her hatred continued in her equally superstitious son.

[3] Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), p.150

[4] Eusebius, op.cit, p.257

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.162

[6] Eusebius, op.cit., p.265

[7] Ibid., p.265

[8] Ibid., p. 260 – primary attack on the army as an example as well as a means to secure military power on the part of the Arian persecutors

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), p.49

[9] Eusebius, op.cit., p.261 – significant centre of imperial power in the period, by securing the power of the imperial forces you secure more significantly the population which they rule over

[10] Ibid., p.264

[11] Ibid., p.264

[12] Barnes op.cit., p.159

[13] Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), p.80

[14] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), p.66 – provided a link to the apostles

[15] Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), p.XX47

[16] Ibid., p.XX47

[17] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), p.115, book II 61.2-62

Pliny and Trajan on the Judgment of Christians by the Roman State

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Pliny the Younger’s question in his letter from Book X 96-97 is centrally what is considered punishable? This suggests that what crime is actually something that eludes Pliny.  He has several ideas with associated questions which he presents to Trajan but his personal opinions appear obscured. Pliny states that he does ‘not know what offenses it is practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.’[1] He examines the nature by which he himself has punished Christians and determines that he has more questions than answers for ‘What Crime were the Christians guilty of?’ For one thing though Pliny says he has no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.[2]  But is this the answer? In Pliny’s opinion, were the Christians simply guilty of stubbornness and obstinacy and was this enough of a crime to warrant persecution?

English: Denarius featuring emperor Trajan
English: Denarius featuring emperor Trajan

Pliny however does not appear to believe that Christians constituted a threat to the security of the state as ‘he found nothing more than a malignant and immoderate superstition’,[3] which he does not consider to be a crime.  Pliny’s enquiries suggest that the Christians were plainly guilty of being Christians.  But, in his opinion the Christians bind themselves by oath and not to some crime.[4] Pliny asks ‘Whether it is the name itself…or only the offenses associated with the name that is to be punished.’[5] Which cements Pliny’s perplexity as to what type of punishment should be inflicted if their crime is only the name they bear.

The first thing that comes to mind in reading Trajan’s reply is that Trajan’s view on the treatment of Christians appears rather different to many throughout subsequent periods.  It almost appears to be a case of innocent until proven guilty; stating that denouncing others is a sort of thing that is a dangerous type of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of the age.[6] Trajan’s reply has been determined problematic by scholars.  Firstly, it does not answer all of the questions that Pliny prescribes and only assures Pliny that his actions are correct. Secondly, there is no reference to Pliny’s question regarding distinctions on the basis of age.  These suggest that persecution of Christians is already quite common; is Trajan simply following established precedents?

In relation to the subsequent treatment of Christians, Trajan’s reply also brings up a number of other questions.  For instance; does this treatment of Christians apply only to problems in Pontus, or is it a kind of general edict? This idea of a general edict has been discussed by a number of scholars.[7]  But there is no evidence of such an enactment.  Is Keresztes right, and presupposed here is an edict previously propagated by Nero?[8]  Trajan states that it is not possible to lay down any general rule.[9]  This is indicative that there is no general edict proscribing Christians.

In examining Trajan’s Rescript it seems that the state and imperial rule were not convinced that Christianity posed a political threat and they had no intention of indiscriminate application of anti-Christian legislation going unchecked.[10]  This appears almost tolerant of Christianity, an idea which would become more pronounced in subsequent dealings.  However, Trajan appears anxious not to upset public opinion by vetoing the right to take the Christians to trial.[11]

The Imperial cult is very relevant to the situation, as the centre of upholding a unified empire, which the Christians and their faith detracted from.[12]  There was also conflict as an oath to the Emperor constituted the basis of business transactions within the empire.  This was an issue to the Christians and the other involved parties as how could they accept in good faith? Eusebius states that during the period there was no open persecution but partial attacks in various provinces… notably…establishment of the imperial cult had taken two centuries in which time the Graeco-Roman world had become more unified in a common loyalty to the imperial idea.  Frend assesses that in becoming so it stood increasingly on its guard against rival ideology.[13]  This is relevant as a basis for persecution of the Christians in Pontus-Bithynia.[14]

The idea that the Christians were persecuted by name alone is viable, as to be associated with Christianity was itself a crime because Christians were seen as the culprits who brought divine retribution through their rejection of traditional forms of religion such as the imperial cult.  Sardi puts it, the Pax Decorum had been undermined and the pagan masses demanded some decisive action on the part of the state in order to restore it.[15]  The imperial cult is also very relevant to the situation based on Pliny’s location.[16]  With a centre of the imperial ideals so close, Christians were seen as potential dangers.

Christianity can also be seen as a threat to imperial rulership with the imposing idea of a Lord God, bringing up questions regarding ‘Lord Caesar vs Lord Christ’.[17]  More specifically it is relevant in the line of questioning that Pliny takes as to why the Christians are being persecuted, is it due to name alone? Does this wider idea of a threat to the traditional by association constitute a crime by the individual?

Bibliography

Dundas, G.S., Pharaoh, Basileus and Imperator: The Roman Imperial Cult in Egypt (Michigan, 1993)

Fishwick, D., The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire (New York, 1987), pp.97-149

Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), pp. 155-172, 461-466

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (Nashville, 1991), pp.52-64

Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, pp.247-315

Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), pp.428

Macmullen, R., and Lane, E.N., Paganism and Christianity 100-425CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis, 1992), pp.74-78

Macmullen, R., Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (London, 1984), pp.25-42, 132-138

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), pp.17-37

Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html])

Sherwin White, A.N., The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966)

Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), pp.57-60

Wilken, R., Pliny: A Roman Gentleman, in idem., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, 1984), pp.1-30


[1] Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]), 96

[2] Ibid., 96

[3] Ibid., 96

[4] Ibid., 96 – …not to commit fraud or adultery or the falsifying of trust

[5] Ibid., 96

[6] Ibid., 97 – Trajan’s reply to Pliny

[7] Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, p.279

[8] Keresztes, op.cit., p.279

[9] Pliny, op.cit., 97

[10] Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986)., p.58

[11] Ibid., p.58

[12] Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), p.428

[13] Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), p.156

[14] Ibid., p.162 – The area at the time had fallen into serious financial and administrative difficulties and these difficulties were blamed on the Christians and their contention to the imperial cult so causing chaos rather than the unity which the imperial powers had set out to encourage.  This idea is seen elsewhere in the empire, for instance Christians were blamed for natural disasters such as the famine of 92/93 in Pisidion Antioch.

[15] Sordi, M., op.cit., p.57

[16] Frend, W.H.C., op.cit., p.164 – Amastris in the eastern part of the province where Pliny appears to have come across the majority of the Christians after passing Amisus also was where the provincial council and priest of the imperial cult were situated. 

[17] Ibid., p.155

An Outline of the Persecution of Christians in Eusebius

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Koenig wrote that “Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there has been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.” This post will look at the persecution of Christians through EusebiusHistorica Ecclesiastica.

It is difficult to apportion blame for this persecution,  for some of the greatest contributors to persecution are those who do nothing when they have power to make a difference.  Eusebius like Lactantius implies that blame lies with Galerius though his implication does not directly name him; instead addressing Galerius as the long accepted “prime mover in the calamitous persecution.”[1] Lactantius agrees with this claim announcing that, due to his mother’s conceived hatred against the Christians for not following her ways, she instigated Galerius to destroy them.[2]  Why would Eusebius make the suggestion that Galerius was responsible? Barnes asserts that Eusebius was a prime supporter of Constantine and wrote in his reign.[3] His support for Constantine suggests that he could not offend those related to the Emperor, such as Constantius who reigned during the same period as Galerius as he would be indirectly offending Constantine himself.  It is also possible that Eusebius had a personal vendetta against Galerius, blaming him for the persecution of his fellow Christians.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Eusebius’ account suggests that divine judgement was responsible for the persecution of Christians.  Eusebius expresses that “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth.”[4] Eusebius goes on to explain that divine judgement, God himself, gradually began to order things and the persecution began with the Christians in the army.  This indicates that Eusebius thought the Christians brought the persecution upon themselves for ignoring sins and abusing their own freedom. Eusebius’ suggestion of divine judgement further indicates that he was attempting to put a positive spin on the circumstances, making it appear that persecution was part of God’s ultimate plans, God being infallible. Barnes asserts that the purpose for this suggestion was to strengthen the belief that “God intervenes in history to ensure that the Christian Church shall prosper.”[5] This indicates that Eusebius may have even been suggesting that the persecution had its benefits in the prosperity of Christianity by laying the blame of the persecution in divine hands.

The account by Eusebius and other scholars shows that the persecution affected different areas with varying intensities, some greater than others. For instance, Eusebius describes the persecution at Thebais where people were subject to wild animals and other horrendous tortures.[6]  An analysis of Eusebius’ account of Thebais, Antioch and Nicomedia among others gives us the impression that though the Christians suffered horribly, there was always a faith that could not be taken from them, that there was a “most wonderful eagerness…in those who had put their trust in Christ.”[7] This gives us the impression that many Christians saw the persecution as a chance to prove their loyalty to God.

The place where the persecutions appear to be carried out with the greatest intensity according to Eusebius and Lactantius was not a location in the geographical sense.  Eusebius highlights that the army was a key target and starting point of the persecution.[8]  An assessment of the army being central to the persecution suggests that there was an aim to strengthen the loyalty of military powers.  Eusebius also asserts that Nicomedia was a focus point.[9]  From this account we gain the impression that the intensity in Nicomedia was to primarily strengthen imperial powers.

Other areas where we see an intensity of persecution as told by Eusebius were Antioch and Tyre.  ‘Historica Ecclesiastica’ recounts the “ordeal of the Egyptians who championed the faith so gloriously at Tyre.”[10]  Eusebius also indicates the great intensity in Egypt and Syria, stating that “we should feel equal admiration for those of them [Egyptians] who were martyred in their own country.”[11]  This statement also suggests that the persecution was wide spread.

The Baptism of Constantine (1520-24) Fresco St...
The Baptism of Constantine (1520-24) Fresco Stanza di Constantino, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

Religion is more apparent in history than any other reason for persecution.  The persecution of the Christians under Diocletian is one such example where the persecution had varying consequences to the population and church even with the introduction of an edict of toleration.[12] The edict of toleration would have provided the majority of the Christians with a sense of relief.   Though, the sheer number of volunteer martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Lactantius implicate that for the few the edict removed their chance to show their devotion.  Momigliano asserts that one such response is that some Christians voiced resentment in light of those who “survived in fear”[13] through the persecution rather than in physical pain. An analysis of this suggests that there may have been some resentment for the minority who appeared to seek the persecution.[14]

The edict also created consequences in relation to ‘conscience’ and the unification of the church.  Chadwick assesses that there were many problems of conscience as a result of the persecution and that one such response was the rise of certain militant extremist groups such as the Donatists.[15]  The Donatists counted even the smallest of physical punishments as a worthy martyrdom and saw those who denied their faith, as traitors.  This suggests that militant ideas forced a widening division focusing on the legitimacy of certain clergy members. Chadwick assesses that these problems of ‘conscience’ in light of the persecution led to many adaptations of the law to meet particular cases. [16]

Eusebius explains another ramification of the edict’s responses was that it set bishops against each other due to certain cleric’s militant ideologies.[17]  In achieving this, the church was further divided even though Constantine appears to be looking for a means of unification.  An evaluation of the responses to the edict suggest that it created a new though less severe bout of persecution, this time between the various factions of the Christian population.

The persecution of Christians under Diocletian is one example of the many religious conflicts throughout history.  Through primary and secondary sources we see where the blame of this persecution is aimed and that the persecution looked towards securing military and imperial power.  The persecution had several ramifications, showing us that even with an edict of toleration the church lay divided.  We do however see one continuing theme; that even in the face of extreme controversy and persecution, faith stood tall in the hearts of many even in the face of death.

Bibliography

Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), pp.148-163

Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), pp.256-81

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), pp.66-84

Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), pp.XX47-51

Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), pp.269-275

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963),

Croke, B. & Harries, J. (eds), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome (Sydney, 1981), pp.14-19

Laistner, M.L.W., Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire (New York, 1951), pp.4, 131-138

Greenslade, S., Church and State from Constantine to Theodosius (London, 1976), pp.30-35

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), pp.48-79 & 113-25

Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), pp.78-115

Watson, A., Aurelian and the Third Century (London, 1999), pp.1-20

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), pp.271-272


[1]: Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), p.280 – Eusebius addresses Galerius as “the author of this edict” rather than by name.  Further reference to Galerius as the prime instigator of the persecution is found on p.281 as the man whom Eusebius wrote of on the previous page.

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History was rewritten at least twice in light of the persecution, Eusebius wishing to leave a permanent account of the martyrs of his day

[2] Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), p.271 – Lactantius recounts the nature of Galerius’ mother in regards to the Christian religion not agreeing with her own and how she made sure her hatred continued in her equally superstitious son.

[3] Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), p.150

[4] Eusebius, op.cit, p.257

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.162

[6] Eusebius, op.cit., p.265

[7] Ibid., p.265

[8] Ibid., p. 260 – primary attack on the army as an example as well as a means to secure military power on the part of the Arian persecutors

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), p.49

[9] Eusebius, op.cit., p.261 – significant centre of imperial power in the period, by securing the power of the imperial forces you secure more significantly the population which they rule over

[10] Ibid., p.264

[11] Ibid., p.264

[12] Barnes op.cit., p.159

[13] Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), p.80

[14] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), p.66 – provided a link to the apostles

[15] Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), p.XX47

[16] Ibid., p.XX47

[17] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), p.115, book II 61.2-62

Differentiation of Christians and Jews in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries

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Pontius Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ Both Christians and Jews viewed themselves as the portrayers of truth; The Romans viewed both as conveyers of false religion.  But how and why did the Christians differentiate themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries and how did the Romans distinguish the Christians and the Jews from each other? This essay will explore the how these groups were differentiated and distinguished in this period and what implications the Roman perspective has for the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews.

Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pontius Pilate p...
Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the people.

In order to assess how and why Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries it is necessary to explore texts by Christian writers in this period. Unfortunately there is a limited corpus of texts available from the second and third centuries. Despite this, the words of writers such as Aristides, Tertullian, Ignatius and Justin give us some understanding of the differentiation made and why they were distinguished by the Christians.  Regardless of which group is being referred to, the overriding theme is prescription of correct practices.

In examining the Christian texts, one of the main points of differentiation relates to the concept of truth.  The Christians saw themselves as the conveyors and students of truth and the Jews as a people who had erred from true knowledge.  Aristides, a second century writer, asserts that the Christians have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations and the Jews have strayed from truth and instead make observances to angels and not to God.[1]  Tertullian, writing from the end of the first century and into the second, in his Apology also makes this differentiation, explaining that with truth comes hatred of truth, Jews are strangers to the truth and hence Christians are the enemies.[2]

The Christians also differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of origins.  Tertullian explains that the Christians traced the origins of their religion to the reign of Tiberius, from Jesus the ‘son of God.’[3]  Aristides also expresses this in his Apology, saying that the Christians trace their religion to the Messiah.  Aristides explains that this is a significant difference between the Jews and the Christians as the Jews trace their origins of their religion from Abraham, ‘who begat Isaac, of whom was born Jacob. And he begat twelve sons who migrated from Syria to Egypt; and there they were called the nation of the Hebrews, by him who made their laws; and at length they were named Jews…’[4]  The Christians appear to be very determined, moving through the second and third centuries to express that there was little place in the Christian religion for Jewish laws and customs, this may be a significant reason why the Christians differentiated themselves in relation to origins.  But Christian writers in most cases do not attempt to completely divorce themselves from origins from Abraham.  Justin, for instance, asserts that Christians are the true spiritual descendants from Abraham; this terminology though still gives a distinct sense of differentiation between the Christians and the Jews.[5]

Christian texts from the second and third centuries illustrate that customs and laws were also used as a basis for differentiation. Frend assesses that Christians saw themselves as the ‘true Jews’, ‘the true vine’, but rejected Jewish ceremonial law.[6]  It was the rejection of this claim by Jews and Romans alike that led to the Christian’s often precarious situation.[7] One of the most evident of these differences is that of food laws.  Barnabas lays out the food-laws of the Jews; “Ye shall not eat swine, nor an eagle, nor a hawk, nor a crow, nor any fish…”[8]  Jews were also distinguished often by their clothes and dwellings in a separate quarter of the urban community, distinctions that the Christians rejected explicitly.[9]  Aristides also outlines some of these distinctions; he explains that unlike the Christians, the Jews celebrate the beginning of months, feasts of unleavened bread and a great fast, and fasting and circumcision and the purification of meats.[10]  Tertullian again illustrates how the Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in this way, stating that ‘we neither accord with Jews in their peculiarities in regard to food…sacred days…bodily signs, nor in the possession of a common name;’ which he suggests surely the Christians would if their God and religion were the same.[11]  The Didache even lays out the situation in reference to fasting and how Christians should make a point of fasting on days which are not fasting days of Judaism, of ‘hypocrites.’[12]

Justin Martyr
Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr wrote that the Jews ‘did not recognise Christ even when He came…He was crucified by them.’[13] In examining how the Christians distinguished themselves we see that many saw the Jews’ unrecognition of Jesus as Son of God as a key point. The Jews were seen as having rejected Christ and so were rejected by Christ.  The rejection of Christ by the Jews is an important point when assessing why the Christians took the liberty to differentiate themselves from the Jews so explicitly.  Aristides expressed that the Jews were the murderers of Jesus; pierced and crucified by them.[14]  Not only did the Jews reject the basis for the Christians origins but expressed it as blasphemy as Justin notes with Barchochebas, the leader of the Jewish revolt, who gave orders that Christians alone should be led to cruel punishments unless they would deny Jesus Christ and utter blasphemy.[15]

Melito in relation to the Jews and their rejection of Christ appears to even accuse them of deicide.[16]  The Jews are said not to have understood that which their own prophets predicted and therefore did not recognise Christ when he did come and so in seeing Jesus treated him with contempt.[17] In comparison, the Christians embraced him despite their lack of knowledge and prophecy.  In the minds of the Christians the Jews had killed Christ which is probably why this accusation of deicide appears in the likes of Melito. It seems a fair assessment that this ideology of the Jews would have been a key factor in why the Christians wished to be defined apart from the Jews as they had rejected the saviour, especially since the Christians saw themselves as the chosen people, despite lacking the wealth and the antiquity of the Jews.  Whether this rejection was out of ignorance or divine will is a subject which was debated and questioned even in the period under examination.

Throughout the majority of Christian texts addressing the Jewish religion a recurring theme of differentiation is the idea of old and new.  For instance, Tertullian asserts that the Jews had false trust in their ‘noble ancestors’; and Ignatius advises in his letter to the Magnesians not to be led astray by ‘old fables’ and that the Jewish converts walked in ‘ancient customs’ where as the Christians walked in a ‘new hope’.[18] The Christians did not have the antiquity that the Jews had and differentiated themselves through a sense of newness and regeneration.  Barnabas illustrates this stating that he made us new by the remission of sins he made us ‘another type’, that we should have the soul of children, as though he were creating us afresh.”[19] This idea of Christianity as new is also seen in the Roman texts but is seen in a different, more negative light.  Ignatius in his letter to the Philadelphians expresses that in the end Christianity was seen by the Christians as the superior group and their teachings and religion was to be preferred before all others.[20]  The Jews were seen as the lesser group and should only relate to the Christian teachings to show the superiority of the Christians.

The question remains of how the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries. The Romans distinguished the Jews as a special people in contrast to other groups due to their imageless worship (ἀθεότης), refusal to participate in the traditional and their exclusiveness (ἀμιξία). This exclusiveness and separation from the rest of society was a key point of differentiation that the Romans made between the Christians and the Jews.  The Jews kept to themselves whereas the Christians interacted with the rest of the community.  Caecilius illustrates this, describing the Jews as a people who ‘skulk and shun the light of day, silent in pubic…the lonely and wretched race of the Jews…but the Christians! What marvels, what monsters to they feign!’[21] This indicates that the Jews were distinguished from the Christians as not only a separate group but as a people who purposely isolated themselves from society.  Tacitus also expresses this idea of isolation, explaining that the Jews sit apart at meals, sleep apart and do not associate with strangers and foreigners.[22]  The exclusivity of the Jews seems to have been also a way that the groups were distinguished.  Jews were exclusive, Christians were not.

There are unfortunately few pagan references to Christianity in the second century but from the few sources available it appears that Romans also distinguished the Christians from the Jews in relation to the idea of a third race the ‘genus tertium’, though this idea is often debated by modern scholarship. The Treatise Scorpiace, for instance, indicates that the designation of Christians as a third race was common in Carthage in the third century.[23]  This designation was made on the grounds of faith and is implicit of a distinction between the Jews and the Christians; the Romans being the first race, the Jews the second, and the Christians the third. Tertullian also refers to this distinction made by the Romans, stating ‘Tertium genus [dicimur] de ritu.’[24] This distinction of Ἕλληνες, Ἰουδαῖοι, and Γαλιλαῖοι is seen throughout literary evidence, both Christian and Roman, and appears to be a key way that the groups were distinguished by the Romans.  This distinction is one that was made in relation to Roman society and is not to be confused with other ideas of race distinction based on locality which was also a common distinction in the period, as the Christians and the Jews were ‘genos’ based within the Roman populace.

The Christians differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of presenting themselves as a new hope, a new faith.  The Romans also made distinctions between Christians and Jews by distinguishing Christians as new.  Benko explains that Christianity was seen as a new superstition that could not claim the sanction of antiquity like Judaism could.[25]  Even Tacitus who describes the Jews as ‘perverse and disgusting’ admits that ‘Jewish worship is vindicated by its antiquity.’[26]  Christianity, like Judaism, was seen by the Romans as ‘perverse and disgusting’ but was distinguished by also being ‘foreign and new’ and therefore much worse than Judaism.[27]  Frend also asserts that in the second and third centuries the Jews needed not the introduction that the Christians did.  This further suggests that the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians as old and new.  The newness of Christianity and that Christians did not offer tangible substitute of loyalty to the Empire like the Jews did was regarded as proof of subversive intent.[28] Saying this, Christianity was seen as a new thing but not necessarily as a new religion in itself but an invading one, new to society, and Christians were seen as people who had turned their backs on the traditions of their forefathers.

Literary sources also indicate that the Romans distinguished Christians and Jews in relation to physical attributes, for instance, circumcision and imagery. The pagan writer Tacitus shows this distinction by asserting that the Jews adopted circumcision as a mark of difference from other men.[29]  A difference between the Jews and the Christians that the Romans also exhibited knowledge of was the idea of imagery and idolatry that was practiced by the Christians but not by the Jews.  Tacitus again alludes to this distinction, stating that the Jews ‘do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.’[30]  This indicates that the Romans, not unlike the Christians, made distinctions between the two groups on a basis of customs as well as beliefs.

The Romans also distinguished Christians from Jews as they regarded Judaism as a genuine faith and Christianity as a subversive counterfeit.[31]  This, along with the distinction of old and new, relates significantly to the large number of stories about the Christians which contributed to the distinctions made.  Tertullian shows this distinction through accusations that the Christians killed children as part of holy rites, practiced incest and impious lusts.[32]  He explains that this was the type of thing that Christians had long been accused of and that no pains had been taken on the part of the Romans to elicit the truth of the accusations.  Frend also alludes to Octavius 150-160 which distinguishes the Christians as users of black magic, initiators of scandal and Bacchanalianism.[33]  Suetonius also accuses Christians of using magic and introducing a new and dangerous superstition.[34]  This is indicative of one means of distinction used by the Romans.  The Jews do not seem to be subject to such explicit accusations in this period as they were regarded as a genuine faith; the Christians on the other hand were distinguished as a superstitio through rumours and ideas created through distinct lack of knowledge.

The majority of points of distinction made by the Romans are of a particularly negative nature during this period, especially in regards to the Christians, who they regarded as new and dangerous.  Examination of some texts though illustrates namely two things; firstly that little was known about the Christians and so many distinctions were made in relation to rumours or other groups such as the Jews, and secondly that in this period there appears to have been a sense of leniency towards the Christians that distinguished them from the Jews on behalf of the Romans. For instance, under Hadrian in the second century the Roman imperial powers appear to have made a distinction in favour of the Christians.[35] Granianus thought it unjust to kill Christians without accusation or trial, to appease popular clamour. Hadrian wrote back saying that petitions and popular accusations should not be recognised.[36]  In light of the suppression of Jews in Asia Minor at the time this presents a distinction lenient to the Christians, despite Hadrian leaving the general question of Christianity rather vague.  It also expresses that while popular view was that Christians were a threat, Roman imperial powers saw them more as just a nuisance.

This sense of distinction is also seen in Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence.  These letters display a lack of knowledge in regards to the Christians and a leniency by imperial powers.  Pliny shows this lack of knowledge, stating that he does ‘not know what offenses it is practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.’ Whether it is the name itself, even without offenses or only the offenses associated with the name that are to be punished.’[37] Pliny and Trajan do not appear to believe that Christians constituted a threat to the security of the State, though popular belief was that Christians detracted from the unified empire.[38]  Trajan almost seems tolerant and tells Pliny that Christians aren’t to be hunted but if denounced put to trial.[39]  The Roman perspective in many cases appears to be that the Christians were not a religious problem but one of disloyalty where as the Jews still paid their due to the Empire.  This suggests that the rulers were mostly acting on the demands of the pagan majority and common opinion.  In a period where the Jews were revolting and causing extensive problems, these ideas indicate a differentiation between groups.

The list of ways that the Romans distinguished Jews and Christians is diverse and variable throughout time and localities, so what is discussed above is a collection of some of the most widely spread and explicit ideas.  The way that the Romans saw the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries cannot be fully recognised in the present day, even when one attempts to fully explore these ideas and the branches of information and ideologies that spring from them.  Like the modern scholar, the writings of the second and third centuries were greatly hampered by bias and influence, and this again makes it difficult to assess how and why differentiations were made.  In order to create a better picture of how and why, a more extensive study needs to be made than is possible here.

The Roman perspective that we can reproduce from texts does have a variety of implications on the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period.  At first thought one might think that the Jews and Christians were both groups separate from Roman society and so understood each other’s predicaments.  This is the kind of idea the Roman perspective often implies.  There is the distinction of races; Romans as the first, Jews as the second and Christians as the third; despite this being a somewhat clear distinction by the Romans, the idea remains of there being the Romans and then the others.  The implication here is that the relationship between the Jews and the Christians was not a bad one, as they both fell into the category of degraded foreign cults.[40]  Other distinctions though are implicit of bad relations between Jews and Christians.  The distinction of old and new which is often imposed by the Romans has the implication that we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period on those terms, as a contest between old Israel and the new.[41]

As you can see, there are several ways that the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period can be viewed.  This is particularly influenced by whether one is looking at the Roman perspective as seen through the eyes of the Romans or of the Christians and Jews.  For instance, when looking at the Roman perspective of Christians in relation to accusations of magic, from the Roman writings we see mainly ignorance and rumour; but from looking at the Roman perspective from Christian writings we see an accusation of spreading rumours and hatred, accusations spread by the Jews to downsize and hurt the Christians, displaying a very negative relationship.  When looking at Roman writings, the implication is that we look onto the relationship between Jews and Christians with a limited knowledge and habit of distinguishing groups only to a certain point. When looking at the Roman perspective from Christian and Jewish texts, the way we view the relationship is fairly different, more severe and distinct but is influenced by the perspective of the groups in question themselves.  The Roman perspective in general implies a sense of ignorance or subjective thought in the way we view the relationship between Jews and Christians.

1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (i...
1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (identifiable by Judenhut) being massacred by crusaders

The Christians differentiated themselves explicitly from the Jews in the second and third centuries as can be seen in numerous Christian texts from the period.  This was done in relation to differences in customs, ideologies and philosophies such as origins, physical differences like circumcision and the idea of truth.  This differentiation was made based on ideas of competition and rivalry of old and new as well as clashes in ideology.  The Romans also took time to distinguish them on the basis of antiquity, origins, customs and accusation and this Roman perspective, which is seen in Roman, Christian and Jewish texts, has implications on how we view the relationship between Christians and Jews as the Roman perspective presents a different picture of the relationship than the Christian and Jewish perspectives and is generally a more available perspective due to the limitations of sources.


 

Bibliography

Modern Sources:

Adler, M., The Emperor Julian and the Jews, in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol.5, No.4 (Jul.1893), pp.591-651

Barnes, E.W., Rise of Christianity (London, 1948)

Barnes, T.D., Legislation against the Christians, in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol.58, Parts 1 and 2 (1968), pp.32-50

Benko, S., Pagan and the Early Christians (London, 1984)

Bickerman, E.J., The Name of Christians, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.42, No.2 (Apr., 1949), pp.109-124

Cochrane, C.N., Christianity and Classical Culture (London, 1968)

Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), pp. 155-172, 461-466

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (Nashville, 1991), pp.52-64

Janssen, L.F., ‘Superstitio’ and the Persecution of the Christians, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.33, No.2 (Jun., 1979), pp.131-159

Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, pp.247-315

Keresztes, P., The Jews, the Christians, and Emperor Domitian, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.27, No.1 (Mar., 1973), pp.1-28

Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), pp.428

Macmullen, R., and Lane, E.N., Paganism and Christianity 100-425CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis, 1992), pp.74-78

Macmullen, R., Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (London, 1984), pp.25-42, 132-138

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), pp.17-37

Poteat, H.M., Rome and the Christians, in The Classical Journal, Vol.33, No.3 (Dec., 1937), pp.134-144

Sanders, J.T., Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire: A Conversation with Rodney Stark, in Sociological Analysis, Vol.53, No.4 (1992), pp.433-445

Sherwin White, A.N., The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966)

Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), pp.57-60

Wilken, R., Pliny: A Roman Gentleman, in idem., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, 1984), pp.1-30

Wilken, R., The Christians as the Romans saw Them (Michigan, 1984)

 

Ancient Sources:

Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, (Trans. From the Syriac Version, by Kay, D.M., University of Edinburgh) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html]

Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912)

Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]

Diadache (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html]

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. J. E. L. Oulton, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. 1932)

Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

Ignatius, The Letter to the Philadelphians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

Josephus, trans H. St. J. Thackeray et al., Loeb Classical Library, Vols 1-10 (Cambridge, Mass, 1926)

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html]

Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html]

Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html]

Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html])

Polycarp, The Epistle of Polycarp (Trans. Lightfoot, J.B.,) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-lightfoot.html]

Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html]

Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian08.html]

Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html]

Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm]

The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (Trans. Hoole, C.H., (1885))


[1] Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, (Trans. From the Syriac Version, by Kay, D.M., University of Edinburgh) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html] Chapter XV

[2] Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html] Chapter 7

[3] Ibid., Chapter 7

[4] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[5] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html]

[6] Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), p.130

[7] Ibid., p.130

[8] Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912), Chapter 10 – the food-law of the Jews

[9] Frend, op.cit., p.146

[10] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[11] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21

[12] Diadache (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html] 8:1

[13] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html] Chapter 36

[14] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[15] Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 31

[16] Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html] II 224-44

[17] Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter XLIX

[18] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21 and Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm] 8.1 and 9.1-2

[19] Barnabas, op.cit., 6.11

[20] Ignatius, The Letter to the Philadelphians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

[21] Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]

[22] Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html] Book 5

[23] Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm] x.: a word to heretics who shunned martyrdom

[24] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., I.xx

[25] Benko, S., Pagan and the Early Christians (London, 1984), p.21

[26] Ibid., p.22

[27] Ibid., p.22

[28] Frend, op.cit., p.192

[29] Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5

[30] Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5

[31] Frend, op.cit., p.208

[32] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 7

[33] Frend, op.cit., p.187

[34] Ibid., p.124

[35] Ibid., p.169

[36] Ibid., p.168

[37] Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]) Book X, 96

[38] Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), p.58

[39] Trajan in Pliny, op.cit., Book X, 97

[40] Benko, op.cit., p.21

[41] Frend, op.cit., p.133

Pre-Constantinian and Byzantine Christian Attitudes towards Images

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Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.”

Christian attitudes towards images in the early periods have been the subject of many scholarly debates over the more recent centuries.  First it seems necessary to look at the attitudes of Christians before the time of Constantine through the works of academics and Christian images themselves.  Scholars have often maintained that the attitude of the early Christians towards art was very negative.  Klauser set out to define proof of early Christian opposition to images based n the archaeology of the third and fourth centuries and believed that the attitude towards art was decidedly negative and aniconic.[1]  Finney assesses that the consensus view of images was primarily based on the Judaic roots of Christianity and Exodus 20:4.[2]You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below.’[3]

It is difficult to analysis the attitudes towards images throughout both the pre-Constantinian and Byzantine periods let alone compare them and determine whether there was significant differences in attitudes between the periods.  One of the main reasons for the issues in analysis is the many varying opinions of recent scholars on the attitudes of early Christians.  Adolf Van Harnak for instance believed that early Christianity was undermined and thrown off track by Hellenic influence and that the new ideas and the manufacture of religious images was an intrusive and hostile move by the Greeks.[4] Klauser and Van Harnak among others appear to have set out to prove an opposition to images before the pre-Constantinian period.  This suggests that much of the evidence that scholars were examining of the era was in fact positive towards images.  So how is this positive view of images seen in the archaeology of the period and how does this attitude differ from the post-Constantine/Byzantine period if at all?

Klauser’s three step view of the changing attitudes of the early Christians towards artwork is an interesting standpoint by which to compare the archaeological and written evidence.  Klauser defined the pre-Constantinian period as iconophobic and aniconic on at least a clerical level.  The later periods are defined as a progression through the submission to pressures from the uneducated laity and then the introduction of images into the church itself as a compromise of early attitudes and practices that he describes as typically early Christian.[5]  With these points in mind it is possible to compare and assess the attitudes of the early Christians on art, keeping in mind that the views of the laity and the clerical classes would often differ.  Belting for instance explains that ‘whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power’[6] where as Klauser’s interpretation of attitudes includes the views of the people being a contributing factor in the placement of images in churches.

The Catacombs at Rome provide a unique standpoint from which the attitude to art and images can be analysed for the first centuries of the Christian religion.  Until recently with the works of Wilpert, the monumental nature of images in the catacombs has been widely ignored.[7]  The catacombs contain a large variety of early Christian artwork and imagery dating from the first to the fifth century AD.[8]  The evolution of imagery can through these examples be traces and in relation the attitudes towards images of the early Christians.  For instance, the earlier images in the catacombs consist of many traditionally pagan ideologies and symbols that have been inserted into a Christian context to serve as part of the new religion with either the same ideas behind them or an idea sculpted to suit a more Christian framework.  The images from the fourth and fifth centuries show an evolution to more crude and clumsy interpretations of the Christian artwork, indicating a change in attitude.  This suggests that the attitudes of the early Christian population pre-Constantine were largely based on a traditional foundation where as the later periods saw a change in attitudes and in relation a change in the imagery displayed.

Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early...
Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, 4th century.

Pre-Constantinian attitude to images can also be assessed through the interpretations made of the images in the Rome Catacombs.  Richter asserts that the outcome of the art is very sure of itself indicating that the portrayal of images in a Christian context was a widely accepted and perhaps desirable part of the Christian tradition in the pre-Constantinian period.[9]  This idea is also expressed by the evidence of conformity to prototypes seen in the catacombs which suggests that certain images were widely displayed.  For instance, two images of the good shepherd in the catacomb of Domitilla which resemble each other in ‘conception and motive, but differ in important details…although evidently deprived from a common prototype.’[10]  Other images in the catacombs that appear to conform to a common prototype include the breaking of bread and the adoration of the Magi.[11]  Along with this evidence of commonality, scholars have asserted in recent years that the Christians wished to adorn the tombs of their loved ones with images like those that had been put up in their earthly homes, indicating a link to traditional classical antiquity that the early Christians seem to have continued in part whether purposely or subconsciously.[12]  These points indicate that the Christians of the pre-Constantine period actually held images in some regard despite the opinions of the likes of Van Harnak and Klauser.

Finney asserts that the early third century and before, though being a time of artistic license for much Christian artwork, was also a time of aniconism where many Christians did see images and the display of those images as being against their beliefs.  Finney though also attributed external forces to changing this view suggesting that the negative attitude towards images in relation to the early Christians was from near the beginning a part of their ideals but not so big a part of the overall christian attitude that I could not be swayed.[13]  For instance, in the pre-Constantinian period, Christians who carried out acts of violence directed at Pagan religious artworks would have ‘invited disaster’ suggesting that that attitude was pro-image or at least tolerant.[14]  This tolerance towards images is further evidence in Rome, Ravenna and in many other places in the west which saw works of great importance ‘executed in the early years of Christendom.’[15]

The attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the period of Constantine appear to be continually mixed.  The wide variety of ecclesiastical paintings and works of art displayed and attributed to this period suggests that the general attitude was positive rather than the negative view that Klauser and Van Harnak contribute.[16]  Constantine’s edict of Milan in 313 suggests that he aimed to impress the populace and express the new state religion in a way that would appeal to all.  These edicts saw a turning point in ecclesiastical history but not in art as the old pagan ideas and motifs were simply taken over and ascribed new meanings with few changes in style that could be attributed to the new faith.[17]  Constantine did this through the creation of elaborate churches, paintings and monuments to press the impression of the new religion of the state.[18]  This suggests that the general populace in the time of Constantine had an attitude that was decidedly positive and images were appealing rather than feelings concerning heresy. By impressing the populace in this manner it is indicative that the early Christians who were converted with the enforcement of the state religion and those who were already Christian were not opposed to images and they were accepted in this period as part of the religion itself.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...
Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city.

There are many elaborate examples of images being used in conjunction with the new religion early on.  Eusebius for instance describes in his ecclesiastical history the church at Type and its painting and architecture as well as describing in his Vita Constantini the Christian monuments at Constantinople, Nicomedia and Antioch and the architecture of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.[19]  From these descriptions we can assess that the attitude of Christians in the Constantinian period was not entirely negative with Constantine himself (though he is reported to only have become a Christian on his deathbed) encouraging a taste for the liberal arts.[20]  Not only does this express the appeal of artwork to the people and the encouragement of its creation but it also illustrates that with the influence of traditional and pagan attitudes, which were still a significant part of Constantine’s thinking and the state’s, the Christians of this period appear to have acknowledged that art and in relation images had there place in society.

The attitude of early Christian is also illustrated through examples such as the early Christian mosaic at Deir Dakleh.  Dating to about the fourth century AD and discovered in 1918, the mosaic is a fine example of the high standard of art and workmanship that prevailed in the period suggesting that the attitude towards images and artwork was not completely negative.[21]  Artwork such as this indicates again that attitudes were not always towards the negative like many scholars believe but the degradation of the artwork and how like many images it was covered up over time suggests that either by the process of time or influence of changing views even the most highly of praised artwork saw a period where it was in a way downgraded in the hearts of the Christian population.

The use of images was continued in classical themes and elegance in a number of areas after the time of Constantine, for instance in Alexandria long after the adoption of Christianity.[22] This illustrates further that the attitudes were often mixed within the Christian populace as while many condemned it on the influence of Exodus and certain clerical groups and individuals, the artwork of the periods after Constantine before the era of the iconoclast still depicts many classical symbols and traditional images.  Such examples showing this include the niloctic landscape first applied to church decoration in the second half of the fourth century suggesting some symbolic meaning.  Also the famous letter of St. Nilus to Olympiodorus discussing the increasing number of biblical scenes in churches, and scenes on the walls of St. Maggiore in Rome dating to the fifth century indicate an acceptance of imagery despite much negative attention by the church.[23]

The attitude towards the image in the Byzantine period was influenced greatly between then and the pre-Constantinian era.  The constant attack on art by the Christians is seen with the belief that images were linked to atheism and superstition as well as sexual misconduct, a common complaint based on observed behaviour and a link to Judaism.[24]  Images were also condemned in light of apologist standpoints, though Clement applies platonic doctrine to refute the charge of atheism, seeing images as belonging to the plane of error and falsehood as related to platonic doctrine.[25]  For instance, some of the earliest Christian apologists interpreted the story of Diagoras as being in good sense when he ‘recognised a statue as a ‘mere piece of wood and he had the good sense not to confuse divinity…with hyle, which is created and perishable.’[26] This illustrates one of the most prominent attitudes of clerical society on and off throughout the periods which would have influenced the attitudes of the early Christians towards art as the Byzantine period went on despite the regeneration of positive iconophilic ideas and desire for images.

The attitudes towards images however would have like anything been subject to regional diversity and political, cultural and religious spheres of influence.[27]  For example, it is evidence that the elites of the fifth century suddenly and purposely turned against classicism and artistic tradition.  This can be seen in a series of diptychs made by officials in the west.[28]  The fifth century saw many conflicts surrounding this point though works of art continued to be executed in private and public sectors pointing to a continual desire for images in churches by the public and the clerical majorities.  For instance, the detail on the dome at the church of St George at Thessaloniki, showing Saints Onesiphorus and Porphyrius.[29]  This indicates that while in some areas the attitudes towards images were negative especially to the upper classes that held power, in other areas images were being embraced still by the population.

Icons in the Byzantine period are an excellent source of assessment of changing and differing views on images in the period that we can use in our discussion of early Christian attitudes.  Throughout the Byzantine period icons were continually the subject of debate throughout the empire and in a number of Councils in the eighth century.  Belting’s point is considerably the case in relation to iconography as these councils indicate that many ecclesiastical and political groups and individuals condemned the use of art when held a position of power.[30]  The debate over iconography is particularly illustrated as the icon became motive enough for murder and political repression.[31]

From the outset the display of icons was recognised as an adaption of many pagan practices and hence debate on their use appeared almost instantly.[32]  In the eighth century they became the subject of much debate, Gregory of Neo-Caesarea for instance said that ‘the foul name of images, falsely so-called, cannot be justified by the tradition of Christ, nor can it be justified by the tradition of the apostles and the fathers’ at the council of Nicaea in 787.[33]  The opinion of Gregory of Neo-Caesarea, as the tradition of Christians can not justify giving images a foul name, is just one example of one side of the debate that raged for several centuries.  The second Iconoclastic council, that of 787, condemned the definition of the first Iconoclastic council at Hiereia in 754 held under the rule of Constantine V. Both councils and the content of their debates illustrate the strong differing opinions between the iconoclastic and iconophiles factions in the Byzantine world and the mixed attitudes of early Christians on images in this period.

An Iconoclast is describes in the Oxford English dictionary as a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions or ‘a person who destroys images used in religious worship, especially one belonging to a movement opposing such images in the Byzantine Church during the eight and ninth century.’ The Iconoclasts were a faction that had a strong holding in Byzantine society and their attitude towards images is a prime example of what many early Christians thought of images.  This iconoclastic attitude is one of the main reasons that attitudes towards images would have differed from the pre-Constantinian period compared to the Byzantine period.  This attitude whether held by the many or the few within the Christian population had a great influence on the exhibition and creation of images in the public and private sectors.  The influence of the iconoclastic movement would have stuck in the mind of the Christians just as the influence of an historical event or opinion sticks in the minds of anyone as displayed in our own morals and values today; they are based if not completely then at least slightly on those of the past.

The attitude of the majority of the Christian populace is seen with the restoration of icons under Irene from 780 to 802AD during her joint reign with her son Constantine VI.  This illustrates that the attitudes of the populace which Irene is said to have represented were some what differing from that of the powerful clerical individuals and groups in the period.[34]

Hagia Sophia provides us with an excellent source of interpretation for attitudes towards images in the Byzantine period after the Iconoclastic periods.  Hagia Sophia envelopes the trends Byzantine artworks after the controversies that, as discussed above, ruled the eighth and ninth centuries of Christian tradition and thought and expresses a newly registered desire for images to be portrayed that in many ways parallels earlier models.[35] Hagia Sophia also shows us that the attitude of the early Christians in the Byzantine period paralleled in some ways those of the pre-Constantinian age as the Christians looked again to antiquity to help represent aspects of the Christian faith.  For instance, the representation of Christ in the Byzantine times in comparison to pagan representations of Hermes, Dionysis or Apollo, and also often Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.[36]

The attitudes of early Christians in the Byzantine period, though maintaining much of earlier positive vibes that are assessed with the existence and form of pre-Constantinian imagery, was however subject to the influence of the controversies of the centuries.  Morey asserts that the Christians, while they returned to a less negative attitude towards images, remained instinctively distrustful of sculpture and similar forms of imagery due to them being ‘too real’ in their depiction of supernatural themes.[37]  Hagia Sophia is a prime example of how images evolved over time after the Christians decided to look for an ideal ‘commensurate with both the humanity and the divinity of the Son of God.’[38]  The images of Christ and his associates which were for so long through blasphemous by much of the Christian population is seen at places like Hagia Sophia in abundance, displaying how the attitude towards images returned to a more desirable want for them.  The attitude to these images is further backed up by the existence of inscriptions in the same or similar contexts.  For example the inscription on the face of the apsidal arch bearing a similar line to that preserved in the Palatine Anthology, ‘Icons which the imposters here destroyed, the pious sovereigns have restored again.’[39]

Christian Attitudes towards images changed and differed through out the periods from pre-Constantine to the Byzantine period.  Not only was it subject to change over the natural course of time but due to the events that define some of this time; the reign of Constantine, the reigns of emperors after Constantine, the iconoclastic councils and the establishment of an attitude in the majority of the population which was pro-icons. Due to these influential events, edicts and the like, though the attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the Byzantine period were in some ways similar to that of the Pre-Constantinian period, they also differed.  The attitudes of the early Christians throughout the ages is seen in a large number of examples such as the catacombs at Rome in relation to pre-Constantine and the Hagia Sophia in the later times.  These show that attitudes differed over time though some ideas were maintained and renewed at intervals.


Bibliography

An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), pp.144-145

Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996), pp.1-14, 17-26, 30-36, 49-63, 102-109, 144-155, 164-173, 184-195

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), pp.14-92

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), pp.1-37, 38-75

Downey, G., Education in the Christian Roman Empire: Christian and Pagan Theories under Constantine and His Successors, in Speculum, Vol.32, No.1 (Jan, 1957), pp.48-61

Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997), pp.1-15, 39-58, 69, 146, 229

Frend, W.H.C. Religion Popular and Unpopular in the Early Christian Centuries (London, 1976)

Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), pp.600-610

Harl, K.W., Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and sixth-Century Byzantium, in Past and Present, No.128 (1990), pp.7-27

Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), pp.46-65

Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), pp.7-22, 45-66

Laistner, M.L.W., Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire (New York, 1951), pp.4, 131-138

Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), pp. 3-21, 32-50, 55, 113-117, 123-181

Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), pp.7-9, 17-32, 43-70, 111, 137-143

Michaelides, D., The Early Christian Mosaics of Cyprus, in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol.52, No.4, From Ruins to Riches: CAARI on Cyprus (Dec., 1989), pp.192-202

Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), pp.201-210

Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), pp.286-262

Spieser, J.M., The Representation of Christ in the Apses of Early Christian Churches, in Gesta, Vol.37, No.1 (1998), pp.63-73

Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), pp.47-67, 132-135

Talbot Rice, D., Byzantine Icons, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.86, No.506 (May., 1945), pp.127-128

Treadgold, W., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California, 1997)

Vermeule III, C.C., Roman Art, in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol.20, No.1, Ancient Art at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), pp.62-77

Whittemore, T., The Unveiling of the Byzantine Mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.46, No.2 (Apr.-Jun., 1942), pp.169-171


[1] Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997)

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.9

[2] Ibid., p.15

[3] Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

[4] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[5] Finney, op.cit., p.10

[6] Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996)

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), p.1

[7] Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), p.286 – even though the source for this information is rather old in comparison to today’s newer resources, written 1905, it is still a well defined and structured description of the catacombs at Rome and holds significance evidence of points that are unchanged in the century since it’s publication.

[8] Ibid., p.287 – fifth century is the latest date that can be given to the catacombs images with any certainty as the latest inscription found in the catacombs does not go higher than this century.

[9] Richter, op.cit., p.290

[10] Ibid., p.290

[11] Ibid., p.292

[12] Ibid., p.292

[13] Finney, op.cit., p.9

[14] Ibid., p.39

[15] Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), p.7

[16] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[17] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.9

[18] Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), p.3

[19] Eusebius, Hist. Eccles X, 4.37ff – the church of Tyre (c.317) – describing painting in 63 – Mango, op.cit., p.9

[20] Cod.Theod XIII, 4.1 – edict of Constantine to the Praetorian Prefect Felix, posted at Carthage in 334 – ‘need as many architects as possible…encourage…a taste of liberal arts’ – Mango, op.cit., p.14

[21] An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), p.145

[22] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.14

[23] Mango, op.cit., p.22

[24] Finney, op.cit., p.40

[25] Ibid., p.43

[26] Ibid., p.49

[27] Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.45

[28] Ibid., p.47

[29] Ibid., p.54

[30] Belting, op.cit., p.1

[31] Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), p.43

[32] Ibid., p.45

[33] Finney, op.cit., p.5

[34] De sacris aedibus Deiparae ad fontum, p.880, Mango, op.cit., p.156

[35] Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), p.202

[36] Ibid., p.202

[37] Ibid., p.202

[38] Ibid., p.202

[39] Morey, op.cit., p.206

Society for the Study of Early Christianity

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Background

The Society for the Study of Early Christianity (SSEC) was established at Macquarie University within the Ancient Cultures Research Centre (ACRC). This assists SSEC to fulfill its aims through the study of the New Testament in its times, including its Jewish and Graeco/Roman context, and the development of early Christianity.

The Society was launched by the Vice-Chancellor on 8 May 1987, and a Constitution for the Society was approved by the Council of Macquarie University in December 1987.

The study of Christianity poses important historical questions and intense interest has surrounded the investigation of its origins in the first century and the early phases of its growth. Fresh information on this period continues to become available in astonishing quantities, ripe for research. Macquarie University is also committed to undergraduate and postgraduate teaching in these areas.

The Society has no ecclesiastical ties but may collaborate on academic occasions with theological colleges of all denominations and with the Jewish community.

Aims of the Society

  • To encourage the study of the New Testament in its times and related topics.
  • To build up resources for this study (for example, books, papyri, coins).
  • To organise conferences, public lectures, seminars and other activities to which the Society’s members are invited.
  • To circulate three Newsletters a year outlining forthcoming activities.

Membership

Membership is open to the public by payment of the annual subscription. Donations above this amount may be claimable as a tax deduction. See our web page calledMembership.

  • A Visiting Fellow of high academic standing is invited to be the key speaker at the annual Conference each May.
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