Religio Philologi: The Creation of the Church, Part Two

Most histories of the early Church emphasize its antagonistic relationship with the Roman Empire.  There is some truth in this approach, though the truth, when overstated, tends to overshadow another dimension of the troubled relationship.  

The limitations of this black-and-white depiction of Church and Empire was brought home to me some decades ago, when my wife and I went with a friend, not long before Christmas, to a German Reform church in Maryland.  The pastor was a very nice man, but his sermon elicited at least one guffaw.  After expatiating, quite properly, on the superiority of Christianity over ancient paganism, he drove the nail home. “Da crool, crool Caesar Augustus. Imagine, da croolty and arrogance of da man: He wanted to tax da whole world, but today, when everybody in da world knows da name of Jesus Christ, who has ever heard of Augustus?” 

Well, actually, there were at least three of us in church that day, all having done graduate work in classics, who remembered Augustus’ name with respect and understood that the taxation referred to by St. Luke was nothing more sinister than a census.  

The good pastor’s sermon was only one of many such anti-Roman outbursts I have listened to over the years, not so much from leftists as from Christians and political conservatives. Some years back, I learned of a bone-head conservative group whose motto was “Carthage must be preserved.”  Since the Carthaginians excelled in torture and murder, I assumed that some of the members of this group had joined the Defense Department.  I wonder, though, how they feel about the massive sacrifices of children?  Perhaps abortion is the modern equivalent:  G.K. Chesterton would certainly have thought so.

My wife and I used to help out by teaching Latin to home-schooled children.  We had more than one Latin student who objected to any material referring to a Roman deity, and I have had countless letters, emails, and personal conversations in which I was informed that the Roman Empire was evil to the core, an anticipation of Nazi Germany.  Not content with asking Tertullian’s question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” they wanted to draw a line in the sand between Christianity and the Empire whose only contribution to the Church was the blood of martyrs.  

It goes without saying that the Faith is vastly more important than historical accuracy.  It is, nonetheless, a bit disconcerting to read of saints martyred in persecutions organized by Alexander Severus, a young and mild-mannered Syrian with sympathy for Eastern cults.  He and his mother are said to have interviewed Origen.  Sometimes, it seems to me, that some Christians are so exclusively focussed on Christ as “the way” that they forget He is also “the truth.”

Several years ago, I read an interview (in I Tempi, a conservative Catholic weekly in Milan) with the well-known Roman historian, Marta Sordi.  After explaining that her study of ancient historians has taught her how to find insights (e.g. into the character of the neurotic but successful Emperor Tiberius), which the historians themselves would have disclaimed, she then explained that “the discovery of the historical method” served to reinforce her Christian faith.  Specifically, she had learned to respect those whom Christianity calls, the preambles of faith, namely, the rational certainty of God’s existence and in the divinity of Christ. 

Asked to clarify what she meant, Sordi tells of a a conversation she had with a non-believing schoolmate who asked her, “How in the world can you who are an historian believe in these things?” She answered:

“Precisely because I am an historian, I have been brought to believe in the reality of Christ’s claim to be God.  Certainly, faith cannot be reduced to an historiographic operation; it is a qualitative leap.  But historical study, to be precise study of the Gospels, show that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed and was a man of definite characteristics.  To acknowledge His claim to divinity, I repeat, is another matter, but the historical study of the Gospels favors (or I should say prepares) the way for the leap of adherence to the Faith.  Either that concrete man, who really existed, whom the Gospels show us, was a charlatan, a madman, or he was what he said he was, God.  It is extremely illogical to affirm, as so many do, that Christ was a great prophet, a reformer, or whatever, and to deny that he is God….  Christianity is a religion, which has an historical foundation, not simply believing in God, but that God has been incarnated in an historical person.”

Asked about her other historical studies, not limited to Christian history, Sordi replies that it is: 

“a mistake, something artificial to separate Christianity and the civilization of the classical world. There is an evident continuity between ancient civilization and Christianity. The ancient world opens up and receives Christianity. Rome is the place in which Christianity is diffused, not only because the Empire, as has often been observed, offered the roads and security that enabled the Christian message to travel, but above all because the Roman mentality was ready to receive that message.”

The first point has been made by many Christians, including Chesterton (in The Everlasting Man), who argued that for God to descend to this world, the world had to be cleansed of the evil paganism of the Carthaginians: Rome had to win the Punic Wars in order to prepare the Mediterranean for the Incarnation.  

The second point is not very commonly understood, namely, that the pagan idea, expressed by Pindar, “One is the race of gods and men,” is in some way a better preparation for the Son of God than Judaism’s relentless distinction between God and man, a distinction that discouraged some of them from accepting the Messiah. (This is not at all meant to slight the precious and indispensable testimony of ancient Jews from whom our Lord was born as a man.)

Like it or not, the Christian Church and the Roman Church were born in the same age, and while the Empire would persecute Christians for nearly 300 years, the two would begin to fuse in the time of Constantine, and by the time the Western Empire collapsed finally in 476, the Christian Church in the West was ready to take over its role in the European world.

The Roman imperial order was the political order of the West, the civilized world.  Judged by its failures—the execution of Christ, the stoning of Stephen, the oppression of the provincials, the very imperfect justice it administered, one cannot blame some Christians—for example, the author of the Apocalypse, writing after the persecution had begun–for condemning it as Babylon.  But St. Paul, writing before the Great Fire at Rome, advised his followers that the sword of justice was given to the ruler by God almighty.  Paul was proud enough of his Roman citizenship to invoke it when his Jewish enemies demanded his execution. Indeed,  it was only the Roman imperial authority that prevented the Sanhedrin from going house to house killing the heretical followers of the “false” messiah.

By the end of the 1st Century, Christianity had grown beyond a Jewish sect that claimed that the prophecies had been fulfilled. Looking back on their experiences, Christian leaders as different as Paul and John could see that the Incarnation had a universal significance.  

The preface to John’s Gospel locates Him before time: “In the beginning was the word.” Mathew’s sequence of “Begats,” however, locates Christ in time and space, which is entirely appropriate since He was the God who became Man and entered history at a particular time and place. 

Christians would begin to see history less as the cycle of ages eternally recurring and more as a projection from the past into the present and beyond toward the future when His return would change the earth. Though Christ himself had told his disciples that they would not know the time or manner of his coming, they were mere human beings who wanted an apocalypse now. “All creation groaneth,” said Paul [Ro 8:22], “and travaileth in pain until now.“ The entire universe was being transformed and the Kingdom of God was emerging. What this might mean would only become clear as millennialist expectations gave way to a longer perspective.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. David Wihowski says:

    And the Greeks (especially though Alexander’s Hellenization), were forerunners of the Roman Empire, in many ways “preparing the way” for Rome.
    When I was young, an evangelical teacher with an agenda told me: “History is ‘His story.’” He was cherry-picking bits of history to support his dispensationalist views; a year of (actually not horrid) Western Civ in college, along with some honest Bible reading, put his dispensationalism on a crumbling foundation. I do believe, however, to the careful Christian who studies history, glimpses of Divine Providence can be caught if we do not try too hard and begin reading tea leaves.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It has been said repeatedly that the Incarnation took place at a crucial time when the special contributions of Greeks, Jews. and Greeks could converge.