Christianity’s Intolerant Zeal


October, 312 A.D. Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, sees a vision in the sky. The event is commemorated, here, near Malborghetto outside Rome (Author’s photo).

I recently decided to play a little game. I decided to write a book about early Christianity which never mentions “the Romans” or “the Christians.” Why? I have a problem with gross generalizations, and they’ve been around the field of ancient history for quite a while.

Edward Gibbon, who published his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the late 1700s, attributed the changes in Roman history to Christianity’s “intolerant zeal.” Fast forward three centuries and you can still find scholars flying this same flag. The reason early Christians modeled their churches on Roman basilicas, not temples? “Christianity was clearly incompatible with the old faith,” wrote architectural historian Richard Krautheimer in his often-cited Three Christian Capitals, published in 1983. Versions of this architectural canard still appear in basic Roman art surveys and academic monographs. Indeed, many people — inside the academy and without — still believe that “the Christians” of Rome were incapable of living in the world around them, and that’s why Rome eventually changed.

I have to admit, on first glance, the thesis looks like it makes some sense. Why else would there be so many tales of ancient martyrdom? And what explains the pace by which many Romans left their own religious traditions to join the church — in the late fourth century, for example? Only something akin to a superior evangelical campaign, selling the promise of new spiritual rewards, could possibly explain the growth of Christian numbers and the rise of a Christian empire. “The Romans” never stood a chance against such formidable religious doctrine, and that must be why Jesus’ followers were always causing so much trouble. Inherently incapable of living in Rome’s pluralistic society, “the Christians” were waiting out the clock on an empire where they didn’t belong.

As readers of my blog and of my scholarship can probably tell by now, I have a rather different take on what happened in the period we now call Late Antiquity. I don’t believe that Roman religion died a “natural death,” as one scholar recently argued (relying upon some of my work). Nor do I believe that Christianity succeeded because of “the faith’s intrinsic appeal,” as another scholar once phrased it (at p. 667) and as many others after him have so tacitly assumed. And it should be equally obvious at this point that I certainly don’t believe in any fourth-century cultural clash. So how did the Roman world become Christian? (T-minus four months until the book drops!)

Well, here’s the thing. In order to tell that larger story, I had to start well before Constantine. In fact, I had to go back to Jesus. Why? I had to tell the stories of all of Jesus’ followers who ever made a concerted effort to downplay their differences by playing up their connections to the culture at large. They weren’t easy to find, but they were there. And they can be found in every generation of their movement. I wanted to give them their own place in history, center-stage. And I wanted to show how many of them there were from the first century into the fourth century. Call them Rome’s “quieter Christians.”

In the early first century A.D., some of Jesus’ followers were teaching each other to follow traditional codes of behavior so as not to stand out from their neighbors. Women were taught to obey their husbands; children, their parents; and slaves, their masters. Today, we’re more likely to stumble upon these exhortation in “the Bible” (in Colossians and Ephesians, for example, expanding upon ideas expressed by Paul). In antiquity, Jesus’ followers were being taught to value the things that mainstream culture valued. The goal? Show their neighbors that they were good Romans, too. That trend continued.

By the second century A.D., Christians were being taught to honor the Roman emperor. That instruction is found in the letter known as 1 Peter. Men and women who died as martyrs apparently chose to ignore it, but by the third century A.D., many Christians, like those in the army, were honoring the emperor without fuss. That’s also about when two Spanish bishops took part in a local celebration, the sort of festivity the martyrs shunned. We know because the two men earned the wrath of their peer, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, who tried to convince his listeners that such a despicable act of identity juggling “had been predicted to happen at the end of the world.

Of course, the Roman world never came to an end because some Christians had learned to do two things at once. Just the opposite: within two generations of Cyprian, all of Jesus’ followers would win the right to worship as they pleased. The best guess for how many Christians there were in the Roman world at the time of their “victory”? Ten percent of the empire.

Now — amid a national debate about whether other religions are inherently intolerant — might be the perfect time to relearn what we think we know about the history of Christianity, both before Constantine and after him. As for what happened in later Rome? This story is “TO BE CONTINUED.”

Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire will be released from Bloomsbury Press in March 2015.

Identity, Rome