Ancient History & Civilisation



The Saviour of the Christians

The first two centuries of our era produced a great number of writings which offer descriptions of the life and teaching of Christ that diverge in various ways from the canonical four Gospels. One such work of comparatively early date, the popular Gospel of Thomas, names that apostle as the Saviour’s special heir and confidant, and records one hundred and twenty sayings and incidents attributed to Jesus.1 Many other writers, too, assign to him sayings that are not found in the four Gospels.2

Yet meanwhile little by little these four, although two of them did not bear the names of apostles, obtained special recognition. The Gospel attributed to St John, in spite of a more Greek than Jewish approach and a date not earlier than the second century, was gradually included, because the author, mistakenly identified with the apostle of that name, was believed to have been a direct witness of Jesus’ life and death and then to have lived to a great age and passed on the tradition. Accordingly this Gospel was already united with the other three in the writings of Justin of Neapolis (Shechem) in Samaria (d. 165 / 7 ).3 Justin’s Syrian disciple Tatian, pioneer of Syriac-speaking Christianity at Edessa where apocrypha abounded, wove all four Gospels into a composite work with a title stressing its fourfold origin (Diatessaron, c. 170). Acceptance of the remaining books that came to be known as the New Testament was piecemeal, but before the end of the second century AD plenary inspiration was generally ascribed to the Acts of the Apostlesand a selection of Epistles; most churches also accepted the Book of the ‘Revelation of St John the Divine’.4

The establishment of this united canon was vital to the subsequent development of Christianity. The New Testament now possessed a manageable size which was lacking in the multitudinous, confusing scriptures of other religions. Moreover, although subsequent appeals to canonical authority would inevitably produce much artificial interpretation, the canon made further rewriting impossible. Certainly, there were discrepancies in what was retained. The outstanding theologian of the next century, Origen, admitted this, and Christianity’s most dangerous enemy Porphyry, much to the indignation of St Jerome, criticised the New Testament as contradictory, incoherent and illogical (p. 156). But the canon achieved its main purpose of eliminating certain doctrines which could well have changed the whole direction of the church and faith.

In particular, much of the apocryphal literature excluded by the purge was of dualist character, attempting to diminish the omnipotence of God by declaring that evil in the world was not of his creation (p. 194). To admit this would have conflicted with Christianity’s thoroughgoing Jewish monotheism, and that is why theologians became impatient when members of deviant sects and philosophers kept on asking, ‘Where does evil come from, and why?’5

Vigilant though the compilers of the canon had been, there were still passages in the New Testament which could lend themselves to dualist interpretations. The Word (Logos) of Greek philosophy, which St John’s Gospel envisaged as an actual historical person who is also divine, could be thought of as the intermediary or demiurge that enabled the god of the dualists to create and contact base matter. Moreover, although St Paul maintains the monotheistic Jewish doctrine of Adam’s Fall into which the whole human race was plunged by God until its redemption, there seemed to be dualist implications in his continual opposition between the flesh, with its ingrained bias towards evil, and the spirit. Besides, Paul also reflected the second main tendency of dualism, its concept of Gnosis(private knowledge) to be taught only to the elect of fully initiated: a doctrine which, though not wholly absent even from the Gospels, undermined the universal appeal of the faith (p. 229). Although he concludes that grace is accessible to all by means of Christ, it took the Christians centuries to outlive ideas of an elect. And meanwhile, Christianity and dualism continued to influence and stimulate one another, so that pagans such as Porphyry even saw the dualists as a Christian sect or sects; and so they often did themselves (p. 200). An enormously diverse apocryphal literature assimilates and amalgamates the two approaches.6

Irenaeus of Smyrna, who became bishop of Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul, attacked the dualists in his Five Books against Heresies (c. 185). This comprehensive work, of which only part is preserved, argues strongly against their view that an intermediary power, other than the Creator, has to be introduced to explain evil. However, the writer equally differs from those who believe that Adam had Fallen and had thereby caused the whole of mankind to fall with him. For mankind, according to Irenaeus, is God’s raw material still in the dynamic process of creation: God is working his purpose out, towards the supreme future good which was foreshadowed by the apostles.7

Irenaeus has deeply influenced the Orthodox Church. There were also modern Irenaeans until war seemed to destroy the upward curve, and recently Teilhard de Chardin and Austin Farrer, like non-religious thinkers, have favoured this same evolutionary view. Two hundred years after Irenaeus, in an age when human self-sufficiency had declined, his optimistic opinion was superseded by St Augustine’s Pauline doctrine of man’s Fall and consequent desperate ignorance, sin, guilt and helplessness8; a plight from which not evolution but only divine grace can rescue him. Augustine’s British or Irish contemporary Pelagius disagreed, discarding the Fall and original sin and teaching, like Irenaeus, that man is able to win eternal life by his own natural powers: ‘if I ought, I can’. But throughout the ages it is Augustine’s view to the contrary which western theologians and churches have made to prevail.9

The arguments of Irenaeus and Augustine were sharply opposed, and yet their starting-points were the same; for each of them was attempting to refute the dualist belief that God could not be omnipotent because evil must have been created by some other power. Both thinkers, for all their differences, saw that the denial of omnipotence to God struck at the roots of Christianity.

Another essential feature of the faith, and a difficult and unique one, was the blend of divinity and humanity in Jesus.

To believe fully in these two parts of his nature at the same time needed great faith; and that is why faith fulfilled so exceptional a role in early Christianity. It required a faith exceeding any pagan standard to believe in a Saviour who, fully retaining his divinity, had lived a human life upon earth. At first there was no attempt to assert that reason or learning or Gnosis –other than knowledge of the Old Testament prophecies –could in any way support or prove belief in the human, yet divine, life of Jesus. ‘A man’, said St Paul, ‘is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’, and Tertullian (p. 227) specifically explains that nothing else is needed. ‘The first article of our faith is this: that there is nothing beyond this that we need believe’ –anything short of it, or beyond it, is ‘knowledge falsely so called’. As Karl Barth declared, the majesty of God is beyond the scope of our petty rational discussion; and so a man must commit himself totally to the affirmation that Jesus is Christ, both human and divine. It was an affirmation which needed physical courage, because of persecution, and spiritual courage, because it had nothing but faith to rely on. St Augustine later explained that there are many other things also in our lives which we have to accept on trust –for example, facts about countries and cities we have never seen –and ‘unless we believed these things, we should get nothing done at all in this life’. But, as he was aware, pagan opponents had regarded such neglect even to attempt rationality as extraordinary. The physician Galen, in spite of his own not wholly scientific approach, deplored the contempt of the Christians for empirical knowledge (p. 114), and their professional enemies dwelt critically upon this strange, unreasoning reliance upon blind faith – this attitude of Ask no question but believe.

Before long a different feeling appeared among a small but increasing number of Christians who had received the traditional Greco-Roman philosophical education. These men wanted to reconcile their education with their faith. They found they were only able to do so by excluding Christ from truly divine status. For their philosophies could not accept the idea of God on earth; the transcendent Supreme Power, of which they like most thinkers accepted the existence (p. 163), was single and indivisible in nature, and was not therefore able to comprise a divine Son on earth in addition to a Father in heaven. Since Jesus then, living in this world, could not comprise part of this God, he must be wholly or mainly man –a more glorious successor of other great men, somewhat in the evolutionary fashion proposed by Irenaeus, and in pursuance also of the classical, humanist idea of men achieving greatness which had sometimes won a final place in heaven (p. 168).

One of the pioneers of these attempts to harmonise Christianity with pagan philosophy was Justin (p. 206), though this did not save him from martyrdom at Rome, where he had taught during the wave of anti-Christian feeling under Marcus Aurelius (c. 165/7).10For he was more courageous than tactful in attacking pagan idolatry, legends and deification of emperors who did not seem to him great enough men to merit this fulfilment. ‘Whatever had been nobly said by anybody really belongs to us Christians’; and yet Plato and Platonists and others had unwittingly played an integral, preparatory part in the Christian achievement. Jesus was not altogether unique, since the Word (Logos) of God, a sort of Stoic Divine Mind, had already appeared in various forms –as a man to Abraham, as fire in the bush to Moses. The Word in contemporary philosophy was a mediating principle between the Supreme Power and the phenomenal world (p. 141), and that is what Jesus seemed to be; not indeed separate in the sense of a dualist second power, but nevertheless distinct from the Creator and not therefore divine in the same sense as he, but requiring worship ‘in the second place’.11

Meanwhile, a certain Pantaenus, after visiting India which exercised so much fascination at this time, started the Christian School of Alexandria (c. 170?). Then for two decades, terminating with his flight from Septimius’ persecutions, its head was Clement of Alexandria. He was a convert from paganism, like so many of these apologists – whose writings were thus a personal defence of their own life’s choice. Justin and men of his persuasion, known as the Greek Apologists, had sought to commend their faith to educated pagans and Jews. The Alexandrians, belonging to an old, rich and cultivated Christian community, went further and collaborated with Aristotelian logicians in order to construct a whole intellectually satisfying philosophy of Christianity. Clement was not satisfied with faith alone, which he regarded as a summary of urgent truths suitable for people in a hurry. He wanted to endow the New Testament with a rationalist basis: to use knowledge and learning to build a faith that was scientific, employing philosophy as ‘an evident image of the Truth, a divine gift to the Greeks’ –though a somewhat esoteric gift (in the Gnostic tradition), especially as the élite would remain an élite in the world to come. Polytheism had been wrongly imposed by demons; but Clement’s monotheism is more Hellenic than Hebrew in spirit, and his explanation of sin, not by dualism but by free will, was given humanistic overtones (p. 194).12 Like Justin, he saw Christ as the final expression of the Hellenic Word or Divine Reason, and Plato as Attic Moses and forerunner of Jesus. Yet Clement expressed his Christian idea of the function of philosophy with jubilant vigour.

In Origen (d. 254/5), the most prolific author of antiquity, the church for the first time found a theologian who had really mastered Greek thought and particularly Plato, and had been in close contact with the head of a philosophical school –Ammonius Saccas, who taught Plotinus as well (p. 139). An ascetic of poetical insight and fine character, Origen succeeded Clement in the headship of the school at his native Alexandria, making it into an institute of advanced Christian studies (202–231/2). His sophisticated refutation of Celsus, whose Platonism had been anti-Christian (p. 226), is second only to Augustine’s City of God as a landmark in the struggle with paganism. Origen’s work On Beginnings presented a Christian system of theology to the educated opinion of his time as an intellectually respectable advance on other beliefs. Tackling or ignoring the pitfalls which awaited those who justified the story of Jesus by rationality instead of faith, Origen instead maintained the Alexandrian tradition that a reasoned belief is a firmer belief, more worthy of God, and brings one nearer to Him. He would not have agreed with Karl Barth (p. 208), or with Pascal’s cry that the God he needs is no God who can be proved.

This cerebral enquiring approach, however, was only practicable because Origen allowed himself wide latitude in interpreting the tradition. For he believed that the scriptures must not be accepted literally but should be interpreted symbolically or allegorically for the inner meanings that, when properly considered by philosophical methods, they will be found to contain – ‘the forms or figures of hidden and sacred things’. There was ancient philosophical precedent in allegorical commentaries upon Homer, and Origen quoted St Paul, ‘we have this treasure in earthen vessels’.13 His imaginative attitude towards holy writ was given free rein in the Biblical commentaries that were the most influential of all his works. Origen’s pagan critic Porphyry saw this process as a ‘clever reading into the falsehoods of foreigners the beliefs of the Greeks’. Certainly, like Bultmann and others in our own day, he boldly interpreted away many parts of the Bible, overlaying them with a grandiose construction of Platonic and Stoic ideas. In the manner of Justin and Clement, but with a more impressive array of arguments, Origen saw the Son of the supreme, incorporeal God as a vision of the divine which had also manifested itself in other forms at other times, progressively liberating the human soul.14 The Son was not only subordinate to God but even potentially multiple; and the philosophical tendency to deny the New Testament’s unique historical importance and the godhead of Jesus had become more pronounced.

Yet Origen was an enthusiastic Christian missionary who gave his life for his beliefs, since he died at Tyre soon after being tortured in the persecutions of 250–I (p. 229). This martyr’s death helped to perpetuate his way of thinking, not so much in Alexandria (where he had become estranged from his bishop) as in Syria and Palestine – where he spent the last two decades of his career –and particularly in Asia Minor. Philosophers, pagan and Christian alike, were now in fashion; and in the latter half of the third century, just as pagan sarcophagi pictured the after-life in terms of philosophical tranquillity (p. 190), so too their Christian counterparts show Jesus in the guise of a philosopher. While paganism reached its climax in Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus, Christianity attained intellectual status from their contemporaries Irenaeus and Origen –though the views of neither commended themselves to all Christians of subsequent ages.15

Nor did those of another thinker on similar lines, the Alexandrian priest Arius (d. 336). The emphasis of these philosophically trained apologists on the humanity of Jesus, with consequent depreciation of his divinity, reached its culmination in his work. Brought up on Origen’s doctrine of the singleness of God, Arius, like Unitarians of later times, regarded Christ as distinct from God and inferior and, although created before all time, in a sense posterior: he could even have sinned–although, because of his free-will, he did not. The influence of Arius was strong at Licinius’ court, which turned against the church when that took a different view (320). Constantine called the Council of Nicaea (325) and promoted its Creed in order to achieve a consensus, but the result was Arius’ excommunication: though his doctrine became temporarily dominant after both he and the emperor were dead,16 and later prevailed in the leading Germanic kingdoms of Italy and the west.

This underlying tendency to treat Jesus as more human than divine, despite its imbalance, was at least rooted in a determination not to lose sight of Christianity’s claim to a concrete place in history. For it was unique among the religions of the ancient world because its Saviour, unlike Mithras and Isis and the rest, was believed to have been a historical figure who had lived and died at a certain place at a certain time. In Jesus, God and man were one, spirit and matter cohered, and it seemed that a new dimension had been added to the world when the eternal Creator once for all disclosed himself in the concrete stuff of our life. And belief that this had happened, and could be pinned down to a precise moment of history, gave Christians a solid basis for their faith far more exciting than the tenuous mythical fabrics provided by other religions.

And yet at the same time there were strong, and much more passionate, Christian forces endangering that very doctrine from motives of a different kind. In contrast to the Alexandrians and other apologists who stressed the humanity of Jesus to the detriment of his divinity, there were many who preferred to think of him as divine rather than human. First, there was much vigorous hostility to the whole philosophical approach, for example from Tertullian (p. 227) and his fierce fellow-African Arnobius (c. 305).17 Belief in divine Saviours was easier and more familiar than the concept of a Saviour both human and divine. And so the narration of what was claimed to have happened in Jesus’ life on this earth sometimes took on an altogether subordinate position.

There were powerful external pressures towards these conclusions. Anti-Christians concentrated their attacks upon the unjustified presumption that limited decisive history to such a narrow focus, and denounced the Incarnation of Jesus as a clumsy attempt, incompatible with the Platonic transcendental divinity, to repair the gulf between the divine and human spheres which Christian doctrine had sundered. Moreover, within Christianity itself there were similar strong tendencies to minimise the Incarnation. This is clear from the urgent plea of St Ignatius (d. c. 117) to the cities of Asia Minor never to abandon belief in Jesus’ humanity. Yet this is what some sects continued to do –notably the Monarchians, who followed a north African preacher Sabellius (c. 250–60).

The ‘Christian Cicero’ Lactantius (d. c. 317) summed up the whole attitude of these men who believed that Jesus had never really been man at all, but was merely a temporary manifestation of God on earth. ‘They say, in short, that it was unworthy of God to be willing to become man, and to burden himself with the infirmity of flesh, since the majesty of heaven could not be reduced to such weakness as to become an object of contempt and derision, a reproach and mockery to men.’18 The conception of a suffering god –Orpheus, Attis, Osiris, Adonis, Baal, Isaac –whose death stands for the death of the year and whose resurrection brings its devotees rebirth and immortality had long been familiar in many lands where agriculture was the source of human livelihood (p. 186). But in the New Testament story the theme takes on a new and harrowing emphasis because of its actual location in history. This is what made it too difficult a doctrine for many to accept. People wanted a Saviour, and if the acceptance of Christ’s humanity itself needed a superlative act of faith, it was even harder to believe in the subtle idea that their Saviour had suffered painful ignominy and humiliation.

For such reasons, early Christianity, in contrast to a few Greek and Alexandrian intellectuals, does not emphasise the earthly life of Jesus. Except among the exalted who drew inspiration from martyrdom (p. 230), it dwells on his sufferings even less. The reliefs on sarcophagi say little about his human trials. They were influenced by pagan thought, and in times of trouble they wanted to stress not Christ’s weakness but his power to save. It is only fairly late that Christ begins to appear as sufferer rather than as divine Teacher and Wonder-Worker; and even then this is shown as a triumph in disguise, without humiliation. The Crucifixion is rarely depicted before the fourth century. As to Constantine’s alleged vision of the cross in the sky, followed by his employment of the cruciform labarum-monogram XP ( = Christos) (p. 236), the cross meant magic more than anything else to him, and in any case it stood not so much for the Passion as for the Resurrection –a new era and a new stage in the divine plan. Those wishing to see Jesus as god rather than man could rely on the Gospel according to St John. For this, despite its Hellenism, had concentrated in mystical and allegorical fashion on the divine nature of Jesus, seeing him not as a man but as a personified idea (pp. 206, 207).

The wall-paintings in the catacombs of Rome and elsewhere are strongly influenced by this Gospel, and again have little to say about the humanity of Jesus. As among pagans, burial and not cremation was the custom, in order to permit the Resurrection of the body (p. 188). Early Christians had at first preferred to bury their dead in open-air cemeteries above ground, but from c. 200, when space grew short and persecution increasingly threatened, they buried them instead in these underground corridors and cells. At Rome such catacombs evolved from subterranean graves of the Jews and other western and eastern traditions. The dark, soft, volcanic rock, strong but easily cut, was hollowed out first into a simple Greek cross or grid of the Catacomb of St Calixtus–to whom pope St Zephyrinus (d. c. 217) entrusted the administration of ‘the cemetery’19 – and then into miles of several-storeyed mazes, containing between half and three-quarters of a million tombs. During the persecutions, some catacombs may have provided temporary places of refuge, and after Christianity became official, although burials continued until the end of the fourth century, they were turned into centres of pilgrimage.

The catacombs are lined with religious paintings, which reflect all the tendencies of the time, ranging from the artistic traditions of Rome to those of Alexandria and Mesopotamia, and from natural classical style to impressionistic or illusionistic baroque on the one hand and the simple severity of popular art on the other. This is a dogmatic narrative art, owing debts to the crowded reliefs of Roman tradition, and it uses much symbolism and shorthand, not from any desire for secrecy (the intention was to instruct rather than conceal) but because supernatural truth defies analysis. The paintings seem to reflect cycles of instruction partly derived from Jewish sources; there are echoes of prayers from the liturgy and from writings attributed to the great saints, and reflections of Christian poems and paraphrases of the Resurrection story.

The artists of the catacombs reveal an almost complete lack of emphasis on the humanity and suffering of Jesus. What they stress instead is his power as a divine Saviour. For the most frequently represented scene from his life is the Raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the Dead, of which the only account is in the Fourth Gospel.20 Already a good many years ago no less than fifty-three portrayals of this theme, accompanied by a gesture of benediction found also on the imperial coinage (p. 176), were noted in the catacombs of Rome. For what most Christians really wanted from their faith was that they, like Lazarus, should be saved when the time for their Resurrection comes. The Raising of Lazarus meant the Resurrection of themselves. The doctrine of a general Resurrection and bodily survival or ascension of the dead is present in Ignatius and again in the oldest versions of the Creed, of late second-century date. For Christianity satisfied more specifically and invitingly than any other religion the almost universal craving for escape and salvation in the next world from the evils of this (p. 188). Man, says Arnobius, has received the gift of immortality unknown before21 –that is the decisive fact, and the relief from a dreadful fear. His pupil Lactantius declares that he himself became Christian because conversion guaranteed him immortality.

This salvation in the world to come is represented upon many sarcophagi,22 and most explicitly by a praying figure, the Orans, who is the human being or personified human race begging for admission to the Christian paradise.23 For example hundreds of steles from Terenouthis (Kom Abou Billou) in Egypt reflect the theme. Some show the Resurrection as self-abandoning surrender to the transcendent power: the Orans is carried off by the ship of salvation, or awaits its arrival. Other Terenouthis reliefs more materialistically depict the self-sufficient repose of a reclining figure admitted to a banquet in the afterlife. A Christian woman at Thabraca in Africa envisages her eternal peace under the protection of Mother Church. Constantine, too, tells the Council of Arelate that he expects a judgment upon his deeds after his death. Much of this is confused theology (an eternal reward for good living seems to make the Redemption unnecessary), but shows overwhelming devotion to Jesus as a Saviour.

It was from the troubles of this world that people wanted to be saved. The idea of salvation from sin also existed (p. 188), and there was a clear idea of the need for a saviour from demons –malevolent active evil spirits which were supernatural beings though below divine rank (p. 141).24 As Christian writers abundantly testify, one of the most popular and powerful assets of the church was efficient exorcism of demons. Lactantius points out that these are terrified by the symbol of the cross, and Eusebius asserts how well we know, by experience, that troublesome and evil daimonesbeset men’s bodies and souls. Just as philosophers believed in intermediary powers, so too the church saw demons pressing in from all sides: and Jesus was the Saviour from their terrors. Exorcism, the healing of the sick by expulsion of demons ‘without manipulations or the use of drugs’,25was a Christian curative activity which impressed the popular imagination – and it was a deliberate activity of the church, not as in other religions a private commercial pursuit for profit. This reflects the common Christian view, expressed by Justin, that the Son of God had become man in order to destroy demons: that was his task as Redeemer.26

Accordingly anti-Christians saw Jesus as one of the many charlatans of the period who professed magical powers (p. 191). Magic was much spoken of in Christian circles. In Egypt, where it had always been strongest, the Coptic tongue developed from magical papyri to become the language of the church. Constantine, without the church’s approval, made a concession in favour of white magic, but action against sorcery was vigilant –the Synod of Laodicea (Denizli, 363) moved against Christian clergymen who were magicians, charmers, soothsayers, astrologers and makers of amulets. Prophetic visions likewise played an immense part in the early church. In the fanatical movements of rural Christianity this was a particularly strong element: revivalist sects like Montanism originated from prophecy (p. 240) and continued to stress this aspect of the New Testament among Christians. Montanism owed its attention to women, which was even greater than that of the parent church, to their success as mediums; one such person saw a vision of Christ in female form.

Another way in which devotees claimed to have possible contact and communion with the Christian Saviour was by means of the mystic association and union which also underwent so remarkable a development at this time in paganism (p. 146). For Christianity added to its belief in the personal deity (of the Old Testament) faith in the Kingdom of God experienced in men’s own souls. The continued earthly presence of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ death had been stressed by St Paul as the principle of the new life. And then the Gospel according to St John spoke of a personalised Advocate or Comforter who would be sent to confirm the revelation.27 Whether or not its author and those of comparable apocryphal writings experienced mystical exaltation (or alternatively trance-mediumship), the fourth Gospel became the charter of mystic Christianity (p. 153). Origen, too, an older contemporary of the mystic Plotinus, often felt that the Bridegroom was ‘as far as may be’ with him, but ‘then he suddenly vanished and I could not find what I was seeking’.28

However, there were other and far more widespread Christian means of seeking union with the Saviour. After the Lazarus miracle, easily the most popular New Testament scene in catacomb paintings is Jesus’ miraculous Feeding of the Four or Five Thousand by the multiplication of loaves and fishes. Moreover, this tale had already been recorded no less than six times in the four Gospels –more often than any other incident or miracle. It was given this special emphasis because it stands simultaneously for both the sacraments: the Eucharist (Thanksgiving, Lord’s Supper), and Baptism. Christianity was by no means alone among contemporary religions in relying upon sacraments, but owing to the special, personal nature of the Saviour, with whom sacraments united the believer, these played a peculiarly large part in Christian life. The scene of the miraculous Feeding stands for the Eucharist because this was ‘the true bread and fish of the living water’. And the fish, besides spelling out in Greek the initials of Jesus’ titles, recalls the sacrament of Baptism because ‘we little fishes too are born in the water’.29

Christianity’s greatest asset was that these sacraments could bring union with God at all times. Christ had himself been baptised by John the Baptist, and the predicted baptisms with the Holy Spirit by his own agency were held to have been fulfilled in its outpouring at Pentecost described in theActs of the Apostles. These were the glorious precedents for the baptism of individual Christians, whose sins it would wash away. Since men had to live in the world and wished to avoid sin after baptism, they often did not take this sacrament until they were on their deathbeds (p. 237), though the christening of infants had already become common in the third century. Baptism, even more than the initiations of pagan faiths, was a direct, personal, intimate contact with the divinity, blending the sacramental with the transcendent, combining splendour with simplicity. Above all, the rite was believed to effect escape from damnation into immortality; it was a second birth, a birth-giving wave, a calm pure light which came from above and flooded the cleansed heart of its receiver.30 Yet there were stern conditions imposed and demanded –repentance and faith.

The bond forged by this initiation was constantly renewed by the sacraments and sacrifice of the Eucharist. The symbolic act by which Jesus had made his disciples willing partners in his death became the re-enaction of that event. ‘The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?’31 At first this solemn Last Supper was associated with the Love-Feasts (agapae) or charity dinners (p. 229). But after these in the course of the third century had gradually become ordinary banquets, the Eucharist remained as a separate rite, endowed with peculiar and wonderful efficacy. Its culmination, after a long recital of God’s mercies, was the distribution of bread and wine. This Eucharis-tic meal, depicted in catacombs by the Tree of Life,32 was the central mystery and highest spiritual expression of Christianity, renewing baptism’s initiatory promise of immortality, signalising the brotherhood of Christians throughout the world, and bestowing personal union with Christ.

The conferment of these gifts was peculiarly necessary, because the belief in an imminent Second Coming, characteristic of the earliest days, was fading as Greco-Roman ideas overlaid Jewish doctrine. Puritan revivalist movements such as Montanism still expected an immediate end of the world, and persecutions and hardships encouraged the idea, but only among an uneducated minority.33 Already by c. 200 there was a feeling that the Roman empire could postpone the end of the world (p. 225). Consequently the sacraments, uniting believers with Christ here and now, had to play the consolatory part that had previously been played by belief in the Second Coming.

The artists of the catacombs reveal how Christians of the time regarded their Saviour. They do not, normally, portray him direct, since Christianity inherited from Judaism an abhorrence of attempts to depict God, and there is literary evidence that this idea persisted during the third century AD. A Christian chapel at Dura shows its remoteness from central trends by exceptionally depicting Christ in a painting as early as AD 232–3 (some writers interpreted the Old Testament as attacking sculptural rather than painted representations). The Mausoleum of the Julii under St Peter’s at Rome, redecorated by Christians in c. 250–75, displays a less direct approach, for its vault-mosaic identifies Jesus with the Sun-divinity who was now emerging as the principal official god of Rome (p. 181). Christ is shown driving the Sun’s four horses, symbols not only of the four Gospels but of the Resurrection, against a golden background which anticipates Byzantine colour-schemes and stands for the celestial Light Everlasting that the Resurrection will herald. Another favourite idea, displayed on the floor-mosaics of rich men’s villas as well as the painting of catacombs, was the assimilation of Jesus to Orpheus, the martyred charmer of nature and mythical originator of the ancient religious movement of Orphism. This identification seems to come from a poem attributed to David which alludes to the Orpheus myth34 –and Orpheus, represented on a mosaic of Edessa(AD 227–8), looks like David in a synagogue at Dura. There was a conviction, shared by many Christians, that Orpheus and other founders of faiths were philosophers using symbols which later generations could unfold. Since their own founder was claimed to be a figure of history, they felt able to show, as paganism could not, a true Orpheus or Odysseus or Hercules. Orpheus is displayed in Christian as in pagan art as the singer: as Christ he became the Prince of Peace prophesied by Isaiah, and assumed divine patronage of the liturgical chanting which is the earliest traceable Christian form of common prayer or praise.

Obstacles still had to be overcome before the Byzantine custom of directly portraying Jesus became widely prevalent.35 In 306 the Council of Elvira in Spain was still critical of art in churches, and Eusebius rebuked Constantine’s half-sister Constantia for desiring to see and copy a representation of Christ. During the preceding century the Virgin Mary, who had been written about in the Protevangelium (Book of James) and stood for Christianity’s conspicuous emphasis upon women, had for the first time been depicted by catacomb painters.36 Yet like contemporary sculptors they continued to represent Jesus indirectly. He is shown particularly often as the Good Shepherd, who redeems his flock by rescuing and saving them ‘from the mouth of the lion’. These pictures appear more than twice as often as the Raising of Lazarus, more than three times as often as the miraculous Feeding. The Shepherd carries his ram or lamb across his shoulders like many a pagan herdsman in Greek sculptures going back to archaic times. Sometimes it is uncertain whether the representation is pagan or Christian, whether it symbolises pagan kindness (philanthropia)or Christian Love. This curly-haired youth is not only a David but an Apollo or a Hermes, conductor of souls, rescuing the lamb which is a soul snatched from destruction. But he is also bringing the Paschal Lamb to sacrifice, the divine Victim which unites past deliverance with present fellowship and hope for the future.

The Good Shepherd appears on one of the earliest known Christian sarcophagi, between portraits of the departed among the trees of paradise. From the mid third century to c. 280 he is a predominant and central subject, evoking the best artistic achievements and setting a style and iconography that lasted for many centuries. Occasionally he wears imperial robes which are a reminder that the theme is again not Christ’s humanity or pain but his power to save.37 Although martyrs encouraged themselves by believing that their sufferings were modelled upon his, believers as a whole saw him less as a pattern for imitation than as a Saviour: a deity brought into the world to complete the divine plan by bringing the faithful to salvation.

The same message is again conveyed by the phase of catacomb paintings which, in a change of fashion, superseded the Good Shepherd in c. AD 280. The serene, static compositions in which the Shepherd had appeared were replaced by a series of lively, rapidly moving narrative scenes. These concentrate upon the marvellous power of God to intervene in history, against all odds, to deliver those who have trusted in him. But, with the single exception of the Raising of Lazarus which speaks directly of salvation (p. 214), the selected incidents are not from the life of Jesus or from the New Testament at all. They are from the Old Testament, and tell of mankind’s deliverance in the time of the Hebrews and their prophets. This theme is illustrated by the stories of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Susanna, Daniel, Shadrach and his fellow-heroes, and Jonah.38 Out of 233 of these Old Testament scenes that were counted, 68 of them show Moses striking the rock, and 57 and 39 the stories of Jonah and Daniel respectively. As in Arabian and pagan traditions, Moses, under God’s guidance, gave his people the water that saved their lives; and Jonah and Daniel were preserved from terrible fates by God’s intervention – Jonah from the sea-monster to which the great persecutor-states were likened39 (his three days and nights in the belly of the whale being prophetic of the time before Jesus’ Resurrection), and Daniel from the lion’s den of the Persian oppressor. These, then, were the themes which now overshadowed all others in the minds of Christians. The Old Testament is stressed as the demonstration of God’s power to save his loyal followers. Under the pressure of persecution, Christianity returned to its Jewish origins in which this salvation had been so strongly and prophetically declared.

Another result of these pressures was total physical, geographical withdrawal from the world which was applying them. In this age, when asceticism and contemplation were both counted as supreme human virtues (pp. 201, 145), there were many people, of numerous faiths, who believed that these virtues must be practised in solitude.40 The Greek world had a Pythagorean tradition of monastic seclusion. Moreover, already in the times of the Ptolemies there had been recluses in Egypt41; and round Lake Mareotis, in the same country, lived Jewish hermits called Therapeutae.42 In Palestine the Essene sect dwelt in retirement upon the mountains near Hebron.43 During the second and third centuries AD such tendencies were increasing. Christians justified them by the contempt for the human body and condition shown by St Paul and even, so it was argued, by Jesus who had watched and prayed and taught to sell that thou hast. His own disciples could be called ‘solitaries’ (monachoi) since they, like him, had belonged to the flesh on a transitory basis.44

A sheer distaste for humanity was one dominant motif. Another was an intense and widespread guilt, which was a further feeling characteristic of the age. Some withdrew from the community because of their disgusted incomprehension of learned Alexandrian Christianity. The earliest known Christian hermit (anchorite), Narcissus in the second century AD, went into retreat to escape from slander; and others wanted to get away from family quarrels. But many fled from social wrongs, oppression and conscription, and the collector of taxes, and many, too, were escaping from persecution (pp. 229 ff). Fanatically puritanical movements such as Montanism stimulated this urge to shun the world (p. 240).

And so in the third century the monastic movement was born in Egypt. The idea was encouraged by the exile of Christian leaders, such as St Dionysius of Alexandria whom the persecution of Valerian forced to withdraw to the Kufra oasis. But already before that the persecution by Decius (250) had compelled a young ascetic, Paul of Thebes, to flee into the desert, where he stayed until he died, reputedly 113 years old. Soon afterwards St Antony began his life of seclusion which was to make monasticism famous. Born in upper Egypt in c. 251, he found a much older solitary already living near his native village.45 Antony abandoned his worldly property (c. 270), and then visited Paul of Thebes and began a hermit existence. Fifteen years later he went to live a life of total isolation, in an empty tomb at the top of a hill in the desert.46 But many people wanted to follow his example and to be with him, and during the last great persecutions he organised his followers into groups, who lived in separate and scattered cells and met only for common worship (c. 305–6).47 During the final years of the persecution St Antony helped its victims who were interned in the mines and prisons of Alexandria. But then, apart from brief absences, he spent the rest of his life in his desert retreat near Mount Quolzoum, where he was said to have lived on until the age of 105. People continually flocked to join him, no longer in fear of persecution since persecution had ended, but hankering for a substitute –martyrs for mortification in an age when blood-martyrdom was no more. This self-torment, pursued even to extreme forms such as castration (forbidden in the fourth century by canon law), seemed to such men the only way to be soldiers of Christ and to avoid worldly temptation and the eternal damnation that followed in its wake. This movement of escapist unworldliness was alien to contemporary ecclesiastical spokesmen, but gained remarkable impetus within a short time.

Although he came of a prosperous family, Antony was illiterate, and knew no other language but Coptic. He taught a very simple Biblical faith, asserting with indifference to speculation and doctrine that the scriptures are enough for salvation.48 Such men adhered to the Sermon on the Mount and to correct forms, but paid little attention to Jesus. They were more concerned with demons (p. 215). The desert was the demons’ haunt, and Antony spent his life fighting them off and teaching the other solitaries, of whom he was the pioneer, how to do the same. As many a painter fond of demonology has shown with gusto, he believed that they tortured and wounded him until he could no longer stand: he saw them in the shape of lascivious women, and he also watched the four walls of his cell opening, and demons rushing in as lions, bears, leopards, bulls and scorpions, with a terrifying noise.

Amun, who died before Antony, founded groups of three or four similar scattered cells, half-hermit and half-monastic.49 There was no Rule, but deference to the personal authority of the elders was expected. Amun did not agree with Antony about the need to concentrate on the Bible, which he felt to be eerie and incomprehensible because of its divine origin; he found it safer to use Sayings of the Fathers.50 Another Egyptian on the other hand, St Pachomius (c. 292–346), encouraged the study of the scriptures, and incorporated this in the elaborate and strenuous programme of meditation and discipline which he established for his recluses. Pachomius was also the first to bring these together in a truly communal existence by establishing a monastery at Tabennisi, an island in the upper Nile (c. 320). This centre soon contained 1,400 monks; and before he died he had founded nine such monasteries and two convents as well, with a total of 7,000 monks and nuns.51 To asceticism and isolation and vague deference was now added formal obedience: every institution was directed by a Superior, and each of these received orders from Pachomius as Abbot-General.52 Like hermits in earlier times, the inmates earned their subsistence by the labour of their hands; the monasteries were factories and economic units on a considerable scale, bastions against the miseries of the times. Many monks and nuns wove mats, visiting cultivated areas to collect rushes and sell what they had woven, and in season to till the soil.

Before very long the Egyptian deserts harboured between a hundred and two hundred thousand monks. This monastic movement, which had so rapidly achieved enormous dimensions, was among Egypt’s most remarkable gifts to the world, expressing all that is best and worst in the national temperament; it was also one of the most influential of all the phenomena that arose during this climactic period of the Roman empire, and one of the supreme achievements of eastern Christianity.

In c. 307 St Hilarion of Tabatha near Gaza visited Antony and then started a new colony of monks near his own home.53 Eugenius, a pupil of Pachomius’ monasteries, transmitted the institution to Nisibis (Nüsaybin) in Mesopotamia. St Basil the Great of Caesarea in Cappadocia (c. 330–79) gave articulate formulation to the ideals of communal monastic life; his rulings took root throughout the east, and are still followed in Orthodox monasteries.

Gradually monasticism grew closer to the church. Hitherto its exponents had generally been hostile not only to the state and its urban civilisation but to the largely urban Christian hierarchies. Monks were often thorns in the flesh of the episcopate –from whose power some of them were in flight. Pachomius did not want them to become priests, and some deliberately had their ears cut off in order to avoid consecration. Fourth-century monks were still disrespectful to clergy and bishops.54 But they had to have the services of priests, because a good monk was meant to take the sacrament daily,55 and in due course the eastern monasteries became nurseries of the priesthood. From now onwards they were launched on their long career, not only as critics of the church, but as its powerful auxiliaries as well.

St Jerome, who founded a religious house at Bethlehem (389), was one of the chief popularisers of the extreme brand of austerity of which the practitioners were disliked by Gibbon and Hume, with an eighteenth-century hatred, as gloomy hare-brained enthusiasts, delirious and dismal. But already when Jerome was a boy St Athanasius had written one of the most influential best-sellers of all time, his Life of St Antony (356–62). Mingling fantasy and fact according to an established pagan genre (p. 119), this work provided a model for many later biographies of saints, and in its Latin version carried the tradition to the countries of the west. In Ireland, the Antonian, semi-eremitical custom long remained dominant; in Gaul on the other hand St Martin founded a monastery at Ligugé near Poitiers (c. 360).56 It remained for St Benedict to stamp western monasticism with its peculiar and permanent shape. His Rule (c. 515) superimposed upon oriental asceticism the Roman virtues of gravity, stability and moderation, which made western monks into missionaries, explorers, cultivators and preservers of inherited culture.

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