Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sunday Thought: the Name itself

In applying his First Note of a True Development, Newman recalls our ancestors in the Faith, the primitive Christians, those of whom the modern world knows no more, for whose memory we cast no care; whose sufferings in their severity, in the calumnies heaped upon them, and in the courage and perseverance with which they bore it, ought to incline us to keep them close in memory - through gratitude at best, shame at the least.

No unbiased observer could have been sanguine about their prospects. They were the latest adherents to one of those "magical" and "superstitious" cults always emanating from the East to trouble the kingdom. At several points, Newman conveys the atmosphere under which they labored by offering the words of some of the most cultivated minds of the day:

The primâ facie view of early Christianity, in the eyes of witnesses external to it, is presented to us in the brief but vivid descriptions given by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, the only heathen writers who distinctly mention it for the first hundred and fifty years.

Tacitus is led to speak of the Religion, on occasion of the conflagration of Rome, which was popularly imputed to Nero. "To put an end to the report," he says, "he laid the guilt on others, and visited them with the most exquisite punishment, those, namely, who, held in abhorrence for their crimes (per flagitia invisos), were popularly called Christians. The author of that profession (nominis) was Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, was capitally punished by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate. The deadly superstition (exitiabilis superstitio), though checked for a while, broke out afresh; and that, not only throughout Judæa, the original seat of the evil, but through the City also, whither all things atrocious or shocking (atrocia aut pudenda) flow together from every quarter and thrive. At first, certain were seized who avowed it; then, on their report, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much of firing the City, as of hatred of mankind (odio humani generis)."

After describing their tortures, he continues:

"In consequence, though they were guilty, and deserved most signal punishment, they began to be pitied, as if destroyed not for any public object, but from the barbarity of one man."

Suetonius relates the same transactions thus: "Capital punishments were inflicted on the Christians, a class of men of a new and magical superstition (superstitionis novæ et maleficæ)."

When Pliny was Governor of Pontus, he wrote his celebrated letter to the Emperor Trajan, to ask advice how he was to deal with the Christians, whom he found there in great numbers. One of his points of hesitation was, whether the very profession of Christianity was not by itself sufficient to justify punishment; "whether the name itself should be visited, though clear of flagitious acts (flagitia) or only when connected with them." He says he had ordered for execution such as persevered in their profession, after repeated warnings, "as not doubting, whatever it was they professed, that at any rate contumacy and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished." He required them to invoke the gods, to sacrifice wine and frankincense to the images of the Emperor, and to blaspheme Christ; "to which," he adds, "it is said no real Christian can be compelled." Renegades informed him that "the sum total of their offence or fault was meeting before light on an appointed day, and saying with one another a form of words (carmen) to Christ, as if to a god, and binding themselves by oath, (not to the commission of any wickedness, but) against the commission of theft, robbery, adultery, breach of trust, denial of deposits; that, after this they were accustomed to separate, and then to meet again for a meal, but eaten all together and harmless; however, that they had even left this off after his edicts enforcing the Imperial prohibition of Hetæriæ or Associations." He proceeded to put two women to the torture, but "discovered nothing beyond a bad and excessive superstition" (superstitionem pravam et immodicam), "the contagion" of which, he continues, "had spread through villages and country, till the temples were emptied of worshippers."


Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, Pliny's rather clinical attitude to the Christians in that famous letter is very striking. He tortures them without thinking twice about it. Notice, too, how religiously conservative the Romans are. Basically, they persecuted Christianity because they viewed it as a cult, as non-traditional, as a challenge to the by then fairly nominal and meaningless standard worship of the Roman gods. They considered it vaguely unlucky for the sellers of animals for sacrifice to be going out of business and so forth. Judaism at least had ahistory, and the Romans had worked out a modus vivendi with the Jews. But this new-fangled stuff...they were having none of it. And Pliny just wants to _know_ if he's supposed to kill them just for being Christians or if it's supposed to be for something else illegal that they do as a result. He doesn't like the feeling of making it up as he goes along, so he wants to check with the Emperor. He's perfectly willing to persecute them for the name alone, but he wants to make sure he's got the right idea. No one was so committed to the forms of law, such as they were, as the Romans in the days of their decline.

William Luse said...

No one was so committed to the forms of law

Yes, no association, whether religious or secular, was permitted to assemble unless acknowledged in law. (Many, perhaps most, Christians defied this, at what cost we can readily imagine.) There's even an amusing passage in which the authorities bemoan the amount of property owned by Christians, much of it confiscated and later restored, with Christians by force of numbers becoming too economically significant to ignore. Their ownership and the restoration were technically illegal, so that we see a thing familiar to modern eyes: a law on the books whose urgent enforcement is bypassed with a wink and a nod.

The "cult" phenomenon was truly astounding, among them being the rites of Cybele, of Mithras, the Phrygians and the various brands of Gnostics (to mention only a few), and the Christians initially were despised more than any. The difference in time was that those others remained largely stagnant (save for the Gnostics, about whom I might post another time; I don't think people understand how numerous, malicious, and depraved they really were) while Christianity flowered in a manner probably unrivaled in history, unless one wishes to give the Mohammedan a nod.