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“A CROWD THAT LURKS IN CORNERS, SHUNNING THE LIGHT” The First Christian Communities

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The author of the Acts of the Apostles may never have met Paul, but he knew the Greco-Roman world well and had no inhibitions about making Paul part of it. He describes how on one of their journeys among “the Galatians” Paul and Barnabas reached the city of Lystra, in the south of the Roman province of Galatia. Here they came across a man who had been crippled since birth. Paul cured him, and the man, for the first time in his life, began to walk. The crowds shouted out in amazement: “These people are gods who have come down to us disguised as men.” Barnabas was assumed to be Zeus and Paul Hermes, the Greek messenger god.1 The priests were bringing up garlanded oxen for sacrifice when Paul and Barnabas persuaded them that they believed in another “living God” (Acts 14). Many continued to believe that they were gods, but the fantasy was soon shattered when Jewish opponents of Paul appeared and drove him from the city, even leaving him for dead. The story survives as a reminder that in the Greco-Roman world, unlike the world of Judaism, human beings could appear to cross the boundary between human and divine. While Peter and Paul had implied that Jesus became someone “exalted” by God only on his death, it was now possible, in this very different spiritual setting, to assume that he might always have been divine. The interplay between the memories of Jesus and the spiritually fertile culture of the Greek world was to be an immensely creative one, and its legacy survives in interpretations of Jesus still held today.

It is within this new cultural context that we can view the Gospel of John (which is usually dated to about A.D. 100). The background of its author is unknown and the subject of much speculation (the earliest tradition, which holds that it was written by John the Apostle, now has little scholarly support), including the suggestion that an original narrative was reworked over time by later contributors. The different emphases on the relationship between Christ and God, mentioned below, suggest two distinct conceptions of the divinity of Christ. Unlike in Matthew, there is little emphasis in the Gospel on the church as an institution, and it is assumed that John, who may well have been Jewish himself, was writing for a marginal Christian community, possibly Jewish in origin but now separate from and antagonistic to mainstream Judaism. It appears to have been uncertain of itself and riven by internal conflict. Yet it was these tensions that provided a springboard for John’s creative theological thinking. John has to provide a clear image of Jesus that will unite and heal. He does this not by reproducing any specific ethical commands (there is no equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) but by making general exhortations “to love one another.” Jesus becomes divine (which, of course, effectively separates him from the world of Judaism) and strongly associated with symbols of unity and care, the vine and its branches, the shepherd and his flock.

John may have drawn on one of Jesus’ own disciples as a witness (“the beloved disciple” who is mentioned in the Gospel but never identified), and so, despite its late date in comparison to the Synoptic Gospels, his Gospel may contain some historical detail—about Jesus’ trial, for instance—not known from elsewhere. Some of the places around Jerusalem John mentions were completely unknown until recent excavations have shown they really did exist. It has even been suggested that John’s community lived in Palestine, and another possibility is Ephesus. Yet while John may contain “new” details about Jesus’ life that are historically accurate, his overall narrative is not. John writes for theological effect and adapts the sequence of events accordingly. Jesus’ entry into the Temple, realistically placed in the Synoptic Gospels just before his arrest, comes, in John, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (2:13–22) and may have been placed there to symbolize Jesus’ transcendence over traditional Jewish religious practice. This rearrangement is typical of John’s approach; his Gospel is structured to highlight a number of signs in Jesus’ ministry that proclaim his status as the Son of God to those who can recognize them. The first, of seven, is the miracle at Cana, and the last, and perhaps best known, is the moving appearance to Thomas after the resurrection (20:24–29). Thomas doubts. Jesus appears and asks Thomas to place his hand in his wound. Thomas believes. 2

In the famous prologue to the Gospel, “the Word [logos ] was made flesh.” It is not known how John absorbed Hellenistic philosophy, but he seems either to have been aware of assertions (of Philo, for instance) that God acted directly or indirectly through logos, the force of reason, or to have drawn on the concept of Wisdom as developed in Proverbs and other Jewish sources. According to John, “the Word” (the established English translation of logos but one which fails to bring out the complexity of the concept; the Latin verbum has the same problem) is described as being with God from the beginning but now is incarnated in Jesus. Platonic philosophy never countenanced the possibility of a Form becoming human, and the entry of logos into time and space as “flesh” was a bold innovation of John’s—the Incarnation, later to be such a central concept in Christian doctrine, is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament. It opened up a rich seam in speculative theology that was to be fully exploited by the more philosophical of the Church Fathers. Logos, as we have seen, was always associated with rational truth; by equating Jesus with logos, John was assuming that what could be said about him might have the force of certainty. This was to be one of the founding stones of church authority. Furthermore, if Jesus is the logos and the logos has been with God from the beginning, then Jesus must be in some way divine. What this actually means is not always clear. Some passages of the Gospel assume that Jesus is part of the Godhead (“To have seen me is to have seen the Father” [14:9]; “I and the Father are one” [10:27–30]), others that Jesus is subordinate (“. . . for the Father is greater than I” [14:28]). At times the text comes close to asserting that Jesus even in his human form is above humanity, as in, for example, his foreknowledge of what is to happen to him. If we accept that John’s Gospel was reworked by several authors with different conceptions of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father, such inconsistencies are not surprising, but it should also be remembered that John was feeling his way into new theological territory and cannot be expected to address issues that arose only in later centuries. As in the case of Paul, John may never have imagined that his writings would be heard by anyone outside the community for which they were written.

Jesus has been sent by the Father as “the Son.” This creation of Jesus as “the Son” with a particular mission through which God the Father is revealed is another of John’s innovations, although it reflects Platonic philosophy in that it equates to a Form, here the logos, being generated by “the Good.” There is a loving God who has sent his Son “so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life” (3:16).3 In other words, Jesus as the Son/logos has the purpose of linking men back to God and offering them salvation. His role is a wholly positive one. “The Son is sent into the world not to condemn the world [sic] but so that through him the world might be saved” (3:17). So in John we have moved away from the “angry” day of judgment made so much of by Paul, and Jesus is presented as light, and as an essentially nourishing force, “the bread of life.” John goes further in his theological innovations. While Jesus may have returned to the Father, his message lives on in the Holy Spirit. John elevates the power and importance of the Spirit, and in doing so creates the possibility of the concept of the Trinity, although it was to be a further 300 years before the doctrine was elaborated. John, late as he is in the sequence of Gospel writing, and writing, apparently, for a small group on the edges of institutional Christianity, provides fertile soil for the seedlings of Christian doctrine.

However, making Jesus divine or part of the Godhead, as John does, also fostered one of the less happy developments in Christian theology. If the Jews (as a whole, rather than one faction of them, the Temple elite, which appears to have been historically the case) were responsible for Jesus’ death, then they were guilty of the murder not just of a holy man but of God himself, in other words, of deicide. John is clearly aware of this implication, as we can see when he introduces sayings of Jesus in which Jesus rejects the Jews and foresees their role as his killers: “I know that you are descended from Abraham but in spite of that you want to kill me because nothing I say has penetrated into you”; “The devil is your father and you prefer to do what your father wants” (chapter 8). Whether John himself is attempting to distance the community he is addressing from Judaism (by the time he was writing Christians themselves were increasingly excluded from Jewish synagogues) or whether he believed this is what his Jesus would have actually said, his Gospel is clear in its rejection of Judaism.

This trend was consolidated through another force that made hostility to Judaism an integral part of early Christianity, and that was its appropriation of the Hebrew scriptures. In the early years of Christianity, when the movement was an offshoot of Judaism, it was natural for Christians to use the Hebrew scriptures, as Jesus himself (from the original Hebrew) and Paul (from the Greek translation) had done, and they were now reinterpreted as foretelling the coming of Christ. Matthew had already done this in his Gospel, and the presentation of Jesus as “the suffering Messiah” drew heavily on the prophet Isaiah. However, as the Christian communities developed their own identity in the Greco-Roman world, they were forced to find further justification for their use of the texts of a religion from which they were now increasingly separate. It was perhaps inevitable that the argument would be made that the Jews had proved themselves not worthy of their own sacred texts. The fiery north African theologian Tertullian (c. 160–c. 240), the first Christian theologian to write in Latin (a reminder that for its first centuries the churches were overwhelmingly Greek-speaking), wove Paul’s views on circumcision into the argument: God had shown that circumcision was unnecessary by creating an “intact” Adam. He wrote: “And so truly in Christ are all things recalled to their beginning, so that faith has turned away from circumcision back to the integrity of the flesh as it was in the beginning.”

He wrote in another work: “Accordingly . . . we who were not the people of God previously, have been made [sic] His people, by accepting the new law, and the new circumcision before foretold.” So, it followed, the Jews, by insisting on circumcision, were living in a state that was somehow spiritually and morally inferior to that of Christians, an idea that understandably outraged Jews, for whom circumcision was a mark of their commitment to God. The nature of the “inferiority” was elaborated by the Church Fathers. Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165) argued that God had had to provide the Law for the Jews “on account of their stubbornness and insubordination.” They had shown their insubordination by openly rejecting the Messiah, even though his coming had been prophesied in the scriptures and he had lived among them. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258), preached: “We Christians, when we pray, say Our Father; because He has begun to be ours, and has ceased to be the Father of the Jews who have forsaken him.” No wonder, Christians argued, the Jews had suffered so badly at the hands of the Romans, their sacred city and Temple destroyed (A.D. 70) and a later revolt crushed by Hadrian (A.D. 132–35). Origen said: “They suffered because they were very ignoble people: and although they committed many sins they did not suffer from them any comparable calamities to those caused by what they had dared to commit against our Jesus.” 4

Almost all the early Church Fathers wrote a work entitled Against the Jews (the second quotation from Tertullian above comes from one of them). It seems to have become part of an assertion of Christian identity, almost a ritual which had to be gone through to claim credentials as a Christian theologian. This does not mean that in this early period Christians were able to make any impact on Jewish communities, other than in the negative sense of breaking off any contact with them. They were simply too isolated and vulnerable themselves. It was only much later, when Christianity achieved political power, that hostility to Jews was to become an openly destructive force. The turning point is usually seen as the moment in 388 when Ambrose of Milan persuaded the emperor not to rebuild a synagogue that had been burned down by a Christian mob.

The key to understanding the early Christian communities is their relative isolation and the desperate search for a distinct identity within a world whose gods and culture Paul had told them they must despise. To become a Christian was a conversion in the full sense of the word, a turning away from one belief system towards another, in this case one that was alien to and openly hostile to the Greco-Roman world. The consequence of the failure of the second coming was to leave Christians who followed Paul in a form of limbo. Jesus had rooted his teaching within his own religious tradition; in contrast, Gentile Christians withdrew from theirs. They focused on salvation in the next world rather than personal fulfillment or status in this one. We can assume that it was precisely this shared sense of knowing that they would be saved that provided the early Christian communities with their commitment and vigour.

Yet to survive within a culture they defined as evil, Christians had necessarily to be secretive. One Christian of c. A.D. 200 described his coreligionists as “a crowd that lurks in hiding places, shunning the light; they are speechless in public but gabble away in corners.” 5 We have almost no evidence subsequent to the days of the Apostles of Christians preaching openly.6 Celsus, one of their early critics, accused them instead of infiltrating private houses and spreading their beliefs particularly among women and children, trying in the process to break up the household’s social structure.7Christian isolation and caution is suggested in a text possibly from mid-third-century Syria: “We should shun evil in all respects, lest we give away what is holy to the dogs or cast pearls before swine . . . When pagans are assembled we do not sing psalms nor read scriptures lest we appear like musical entertainers.” 8

This deliberate seclusion makes the understanding of early Christian history, particularly in its psychological and sociological dimensions, extremely difficult. The evidence is very limited. Documentary evidence does confirm that Christians met in the houses of their richer brethren and that Christians were able to construct their own underground burial places, the catacombs, in the lava rock around Rome. Nevertheless, only one Christian meeting place dating from before the fourth century has been found, at Dura-Europus in Syria. In contrast over 400 Mithraic meeting places have been discovered. One reason for the comparative lack of evidence may have been Christian teaching (Acts 17:24) that “the God who made the world and everything in it, being the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man.” This secretiveness also meant that what was known about Christians by contemporaries was both limited and vulnerable to distortion. The “eating of Christ’s body” and “drinking of his blood” at the Eucharist could easily be presented as some kind of cannibalism, and the stress on Christian love could be mistaken for free sexual love, always a concern to traditionalists because it threatened the breakdown of social order.9

One of the many accusations made against Christians by their more sophisticated opponents was that they were of low social status. In the late second century Celsus, in the first survey of Christianity by an outsider to survive, complained that Christian communities were made up, among others, of wool-workers, cobblers and laundry workers, and that Christianity was suitable only for the most ignorant, slaves, women and children.10 This seems to be as much a reflection of Celsus’ snobbery as anything, since wealthier Christians are in fact known by name. An early example is one Lydia from Philippi, who was in the lucrative purple dye trade. Her conversion led to that of her whole household (Acts 16:13–16). Christianity drew converts from across the social spectrum, but specific groups were particularly welcomed. The ascetic element of early Christianity, with its particular distrust of sexuality, gave women who had renounced marriage or who were widows a haven often denied to them in traditional society. But there were disagreements over the roles that these women could play. The limited evidence suggests that while in Paul’s communities women were known and mentioned by name, over the next 200 years they were to be relegated to more subordinate roles in the church, a relegation justified by the sexual threat they were seen to pose, but surely reflecting as well the power of traditional Greco-Roman social attitudes to women. There is the story of a group of girls from Tertullian’s congregation in Carthage who renounced marriage and were then encouraged by the rest of the congregation to throw off their veils as they no longer needed to maintain their modesty. The conservative Tertullian disagreed. Sexual desire could not be overcome so easily—all women carry the stigma of Eve’s sin with them and are by their very nature temptresses. It was only in the fourth century that women who proclaimed perpetual virginity were given a status of their own by their fellow Christians, greater, in fact, than they would have enjoyed in pagan society. (It helped if they renounced their wealth as well.)

Any institution that distances itself from mainstream society has to create its own support systems. As with the pagan “mystery religions,” a ritual of initiation was important, and for this reason the earliest sacrament to receive a form still recognizable today was baptism, firmly in place by the end of the second century. Baptism, which effectively separated Christians from non-Christians, was normally effected after three years of preparation, though many delayed the sacrament much longer than that in the hope of shortening the period between the cleansing of sins and death. (Infant baptism was practised from the end of the second century, but in the third century theologians such as Origen could find no reason for it, as it implied that babies were sinners—which they could hardly be when only a few days old.) The Eucharist was celebrated by those baptized, although it only was much later in Christian history, in the Middle Ages, that the doctrine of transubstantiation was fully elaborated, to be rejected in its turn by the Protestant churches. Christians could only marry other Christians, and it is in fact probable that Christianity spread within kinship or household groups that already had links with each other. Within the communities Christians evolved a strong structure of social support for their members. “We Christians hold everything in common except our wives,” wrote Tertullian in the late second century. It is known that the church in Rome was supporting some 1,500 poor in the middle of the third century, while the community in Antioch was providing food for around 3,000 destitute in the early fourth century. As Christianity grew, this pattern of providing care within the community, backed as it was by specific exhortations of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, was to be extended to the sick and destitute beyond the immediate community.

One of the legacies of Paul was the need for Christians to define the boundaries between themselves and the outside world they so vigorously rejected. (The Book of Revelation, whose author by tradition was the Apostle John of the Fourth Gospel, was vituperative in its condemnation of the Roman empire, symbolized in chapters 17 and 18 as “Babylon, the mother of all the prostitutes and all the filthy practices on the earth.”) It could be argued, as Paul had done, that the coming of the kingdom was so imminent that a commitment to Christ was enough; the only question now was one of waiting until the coming. As late as the fourth century, Macrina, the sister of Basil of Caesarea, made a vow of perpetual virginity because the human race no longer needed perpetuation in view of the return of “her true promised love, Christ.”11 Some insisted, however, that Christian commitment required withdrawal from every kind of material and psychological comfort, even to the extent of leaving city life and social relationships to live in the desert, and facing martyrdom if required. Yet this was not practicable or attractive for the majority of Christians, who could hardly break completely with the pagan world. A compromise response was to create a Christian household, the conversion of the head leading to that of the family and their slaves. Tertullian believed that the traditional structure of the Roman household, with its wealth, slaves and customary obediences, of women to men, children to parents, was ideal for this, although the world was still to be treated as a potential source of contamination, particularly through the lure of sexuality. He worried endlessly as to how far a Christian should collaborate with a world full of idols. 12 It was a common and enduring problem, which appears to have caused tensions within Christian communities. One Christian of the late second century, for instance, complained that his fellow Christians were “absorbed in business affairs, wealth, friendship with pagans, and many other occupations of the world.”13 He, presumably, had rejected them.

It was as a result of the urgent need to define its boundaries and beliefs that Christianity developed sophisticated notions and structures of authority. Authority and Christianity are so intertwined that it is possible to forget how revolutionary a development this was for the Greco-Roman world, where allegiance to a number of different cults could be comfortably sustained. However, the psychological and emotional pressures on many of the early Christians must have been considerable. They had to live up to the demands made on them for moral perfection while isolating themselves from their traditional cultural backgrounds, whether in the Jewish or the Greek world. Jews were already distinguished by their own language, territory, dietary laws and practices such as circumcision, but Christians had no such distinguishing signs. Other religious groups were already adopting Jesus as a divine or semi-divine figure—the influential Gnostics saw him as a teacher able to give gnosis, “knowledge,” to those souls trapped in an evil body, while the followers of theos hypsistos saw Jesus as “an angel of God,” and the Jewish sect the Ebionites as a man who had been elected by God as “a Son” (the moment of election could be either his baptism or his resurrection). So Christians were losing control even of their ownership of Christ.

The development of Christian authority was a twofold process in which a canon of sacred texts, the Old and New Testaments, emerged alongside an institutional structure in which bishops held authority within their communities and also, eventually, claimed the absolute right to define and to interpret Christian doctrine through the scriptures and church councils. The concept of a text that contained spiritual “truths” was accepted in Judaism and in traditional Egyptian religion, but it was new to the Greco-Roman world (there are only a few examples of revered texts, such as the book of the prophecy of the Sibyl used by the Roman Senate at times of crisis). The idea that stories about God and his actions (muthoi) could be frozen in written form and interpreted to make statements of “truth” ( logoi) was alien to the Greeks, and there was to be some resistance to it in early Christianity. It is not until about 135 that we find Christians accepting that written texts had greater authority than the oral traditions surrounding the life of Jesus that had been passed on from generation to generation and could therefore develop, like Greek myths, to meet changing needs.14Once the concept of a sacred text was generally accepted, the Old Testament based on the (Greek) Septuagint could be adopted more or less entire. The differences between the Septuagint and the original Hebrew version of the scriptures were eventually resolved by Jerome, who separated the so-called Apocrypha, the books found in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew scriptures, from the rest. The adoption of the Old Testament had the added advantage of giving Christianity an ancient history, thus countering those who derided it as a religion without roots.

The Jews had a long tradition of scholarly interpretation of the scriptures, and their methods were adopted by Christians (the term used for such interpretation, “exegesis,” comes from the Greek word “to explain”). Yet Christian exegetes started out with a very different purpose, seeing the Hebrew scriptures as prophecies of the coming of Christ: for this purpose they found the books of the prophets more fruitful than those of the Law, which were the main areas of study for Jewish scholars. Early Christian exegesis shows considerable ingenuity, but its findings are, to a modern mind, extraordinarily sweeping in scope. Augustine, for instance, was to go so far as to claim that “you will rarely find phrases in the Psalms that do not refer to Christ and the Church.” Christian theologians prided themselves on being able to find meanings in the scriptures that the Jews seemed unable to find and, in fact, saw the skills they possessed as exegetes as another justification for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.15

It took much longer to complete a canon of early Christian texts (what came to be known as the New Testament), as it involved choosing between a large number of competing texts (including the twenty Gospels already mentioned), which were selected on the basis of their conformity with the evolution of doctrine. The need to define boundaries meant that the process was largely one of exclusion. “The canon was a deliberate attempt to exclude certain voices from the early period of Christianity; heretics, Marcionites, Gnosticism, Jewish Christians, perhaps also women,” writes the Swiss theologian Helmut Koester. “It is the responsibility of the New Testament scholar,” he continues, “to help these voices be heard again.”16 On the other hand, there still remained considerable diversity and a lack of doctrinal coherence between those Gospels, letters and “revelations” that were selected for the New Testament, and, as we shall see, there proved to be enormous difficulty in using them as an authoritative source for doctrine. Christians themselves had enough problems with interpretation, but non-Christians were also quick to point out inconsistencies, not only between Gospels but between the Old and New Testaments, as well as potentially embarrassing passages, such as the quarrel between Peter and Paul reported in Galatians. Critical analysis of the scriptures by non-Christians did not have to wait until the Enlightenment—it was there from the beginning of Christian history.

While almost all the texts of the New Testament were, as we have seen, written to and for specific, often small, communities faced with particular challenges, they were now assumed to have universal significance and to provide an unrivalled source for doctrine. One result was the gradual rejection of direct revelation. The Montanists, for instance, a Christian sect in Phrygia who claimed to receive messages directly from the Holy Spirit, were formally condemned by synods (local councils) of Asian bishops before A.D. 200. It is perhaps significant that the Montanists had an egalitarian rather than hierarchical leadership structure and that two of their three named leaders were women. The campaign against the Montanists made the bizarre Book of Revelation, reportedly the words of Jesus revealed to John the Apostle, vulnerable—but it was eventually included in the canon, with John given special status as the last of the prophets to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. This, in effect, gave the churches control over what was and was not to be accepted as revelation.17

With scripture to draw on and an evolving sense of tradition, the formulation of Christian doctrine gradually took shape. The affirmation of God the Father and Creator, Jesus the Son, whose death and resurrection had raised the possibility of salvation for all who repented, and a Holy Spirit who continued to act as a divine force in the world, formed the core of Christian belief. But the details of such doctrine were blurred, and there were many conflicting interpretations of the status, purpose and relationships between the three divine forces. There was not even a consensus on what salvation meant—the Church Fathers disagreed strongly on who was being saved, from what and for what purpose.18 In short, the diversity of the early Christian experience cannot be overstressed: like spiritual movements in the Greco-Roman world, Christianity fragmented as it spread, and the fragmentation became more pronounced because of the variety of the scriptural and traditional sources on which doctrine could be based. Yet, and perhaps for this reason, the search for authority became more intense and with it came an increasing stress on an institutional hierarchy. An early statement of orthodoxy comes from Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons from 178 to 200. The Adversus Omnes Haereses (to give it the Latin title by which it is normally known, although it was originally written in Greek) is one of the more important documents of the early church. Irenaeus was responding to critics who claimed that the diversity of the scriptures made it difficult to find a coherent message in them and that they should be open to interpretation by individuals. Not so, says Irenaeus. The Apostles knew what the truth was (he assumed that the Apostles were all of one mind), and they passed it down through their successors. Only those in direct succession from the Apostles “have received the sure gift of the truth according to the pleasure of the Father . . . the rest we must regard with suspicion, either as heretics or evil minded.” He was echoed by Tertullian: “wherever it has become apparent that the truth of Christian teaching and faith exists, there will be the truth of the scriptures and of their interpretations and of all Christian traditions.”19 This truth exists only for those in true apostolic succession, in effect, the bishops.

It was Cyprian, bishop of Carthage from 248 until his martyrdom in 258, who made the firmest and most influential assertion of a bishop’s authority. Cyprian was deeply humiliated in the persecution of 251, when the majority of his flock sacrificed to the pagan gods rather than face martyrdom, but he then found that his priests were readmitting the backsliders to the church. As the persecution waned, he called together his fellow north African bishops, who agreed that any readmission to the church could only take place publicly under the direct authority of the bishop through the rite of baptism, and then only after an admission of guilt. Only those who had stood firm could carry out the baptism: a baptism by anyone, even a bishop, who had buckled under persecution was invalid and would leave the “baptized” one “stained and polluted by the unholy water of heretics and schismatics.” In reiterating, in his De Unitate, “On the Unity of the Church,” that only bishops who had resisted persecution had the right to carry out the baptisms, Cyprian stressed the authority bishops had by virtue of their office. “Does anyone who acts against the bishops of Christ think that he is with Christ . . . he carries arms against the Church . . . he fights against the will of God . . . he is an enemy of the altar, a rebel against Christ’s sacrifice.” 20 Cyprian describes the bishop in similar terms to that of a provincial governor, having absolute authority in his province with his opponents described as rebels. This was a crucial stage in the evolution of church authority in that it adopted a powerful terminology of rebellion with which to describe heretics and was part of the process by which any avenues for the making of doctrine outside the institutional church were closed off. Cyprian assiduously built up support among his fellow bishops (some eighty-seven of them at one African synod he called in 256), even receiving support from as far afield as Cappadocia in Asia Minor.

Cyprian was adamant in his condemnation of any who promoted schism, but one was now in the making. On the issue as to whether those who had themselves lapsed could rebaptize Christians, Cyprian, who, as we have seen, believed they could not, embarked on a bitter conflict with the bishop of Rome, Stephen, who maintained that the lapsed clergy retained the power to baptize. The bishops of Rome, as successors of Peter, who, according to tradition, had been martyred in the city, had already tried to insist on their primacy over other bishops and had been supported by Irenaeus’ assertion in his Adversus Haereses that Rome was the see “with which all must be in agreement.” Yet Rome’s efforts had not as yet met with much success: for example, an attempt in the 190s to tell the Asian bishops on what date they should celebrate Easter had been rebuffed. As a result of Cyprian’s influence, Stephen was isolated. Firmilian, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, wrote to him: “Cut yourself off you most certainly have . . . since the genuine schismatic is the person who has made himself an apostate from the communion and the unity of the church. While imagining it was in your power to excommunicate everyone, you have in fact succeeded in excommunicating yourself alone, from everyone else!” While by the third century there is the concept of a single church (“He no longer has God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother,” wrote Cyprian), which through its bishops, its traditions and the scriptures defines orthodoxy, the reality seems to have been very different. The view put forward by Eusebius of Caesarea in the early fourth century, in what was the first detailed history of the church, that it had always been a monolithic institution with a unified faith, easily defensible from the heresies that pestered it, has little historical backing.21

While Christians looked back to the canon of scriptures and to tradition, they also accepted the continuing activity of God in the world in the form of miracles and portents that were effected through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s earlier role as a revealer of divine truths was, after the suppression of the Montanists, somewhat in abeyance. The Acts of the Apostles are full of miracles (clearly attributed to the Holy Spirit), and in the early Christian centuries the effecting of miracles became a sign that an individual was favoured by God (who was responsible for the miracle itself). So at Ephesus, where Paul had so ignominiously been driven out for threatening the lucrative worship of the goddess Diana, the Apostle John succeeded where Paul had failed by praying in front of her temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, as a result of which half the temple apparently fell down and a mass conversion followed (from the apocryphal Acts of John 38–45). Similarly, in Caesarea in the persecution of 305, when a Christian was executed by drowning, an earth tremor was felt and the body was washed ashore. The whole town was so overcome by this apparently unambiguous sign of the wrath of God that they converted en masse.

Stories of the exorcism of demons are particularly prevalent in early Christianity. Demons (who were believed to be the offspring of intercourse between fallen angels and earthly mothers—they had to have an origin later than the creation of the world as God could not have created anything evil) pervade the world of early Christianity. Far from disbelieving in the pagan gods, the Christians saw them as demons who were very much “alive.” Ramsay MacMullen, in his survey of conversions before the toleration of 312, sees the “driving out of spirits and the laying of hands” on those possessed by demons as an essential part of the Christian drama as acted out for non-believers.22 A story about the ascetic Anthony makes the point well, while also reinforcing Paul’s claim that Christians outperformed the philosophers. A group of philosophers had visited Anthony, who proclaimed that the way to show the fruits of faith was to perform a miracle. He called up some local madmen.

“Look now; here are some folk suffering from demons. Either cleanse these men by your logic chopping or by any other skill or magic you wish, or otherwise, if you can’t, lay down your quarrel with us and witness the power of Christ’s cross.” And with these words he called on Christ, sealed the sufferers with the sign of the cross twice and a third time, and straightaway the men stood forth all healed.23

Inevitably a church that relied heavily on miracles as a means of securing status was vulnerable to criticism by intellectuals. One pagan response was that if a god had to resort to miracles to show his power, then he had surrendered his dignity. Celsus claimed that Christians were able “to convince only the foolish, dishonourable and stupid and only slaves, women and little children.”24 He was echoed by the physician Galen, who criticized Christians for their adherence to faith rather than reason and for relying on “undemonstrated laws.”25 There was some truth in these attacks. As we have seen, Paul had condemned the “philosophers,” and his stress on “faith” rather than reason had shifted Christianity outside the world of traditional Greek philosophy with its stress on rational argument. This approach had now become a handicap. It was common for students in the Greek world to go from one school of philosophy to another, listening to debates and querying positions taken, and unless Christians were able to take part in such debates, Christianity was unlikely to achieve intellectual respectability. In a growing church, most Christians at any one time were converts, and there were many who had had a traditional training in philosophy either before encountering Christianity or while waiting for baptism. Some kind of accommodation had to be made with Greek philosophy. The Christian Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165), a Platonist by training, was among the first to argue that Christianity could draw on both scriptures and Greek philosophy and could even appropriate philosophy for its own ends. “Whatever good they [the philosophers] taught belongs to us Christians.” He was echoed by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215), who claimed that God had given philosophy to the Greeks as “a schoolmaster” until the coming of the Lord as “. . . a preparation which paved the way towards perfection in Christ.” “If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful [sic] use of it . . . ,” added Augustine some 200 years later.26 Whether the pagan philosophers were able to recognize the fact or not, their concept of logos, reasoning power, could be equated with the logos that was Christ. This strand of thought was developed so that Greek philosophers were even said to have absorbed “Christian” insights from the Old Testament, which they were assumed to have read. The theologian and historian Eusebius claimed that it was possible to find almost all of Plato’s philosophy mirrored in the Old Testament. There was therefore no necessary contradiction between Greek philosophy and Christianity, but now that the logos had been incarnated as Jesus, the world had, Clement argued, moved into a new phase of history. The pagan philosophers should not be discarded, but their writings should be studied in such a way that their “Christian” teachings were disentangled from the rest. In the west, however, there continued to be a strong distrust of pagan philosophy, although Stoicism appears to have been an important influence for some, such as Tertullian.

Clement was in effect drawing on Middle Platonism, which stressed the power of “the Good” or “the One” to act in the world through the Platonic Forms. Platonism was ideally suited to providing the intellectual backbone of Christianity in that Platonists, particularly Middle Platonists, were dealing with the concept of an unseen, immaterial world in which “the Good,” or God, could be described as absolute while at the same time being able to have a creative and loving role. Middle Platonists had developed the idea of the human soul from earlier Greek philosophy. They saw the soul as distinct from the human body and able to exist independently of it and to make its own relationship with a providential God, who, in his turn, might reach out to it lovingly and creatively through the Forms, or “thoughts of God,” as they were now described by Christian theologians. The logos was one of these thoughts, but distinguished by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ. It helped that Platonism had never compromised with the Greek gods and their mythology.

Platonism was to prove helpful in another sense. The Platonists argued that only a few could glimpse the reality of the immaterial world, including the true nature of “the Good”/God, but could prescribe what it consisted of for the rest. This was to be used to support the rationale for church authority, if the “few” were equated with the Christian hierarchy. The theologian Origen put the matter succinctly when he showed how the concept of faith could be used to keep the “multitude” in line: “As this matter of faith is so much talked of, I have to reply that we accept it as useful for the multitude, and that we admittedly teach those who cannot abandon everything and pursue a study of rational argument to believe without thinking out their reasons” (my emphasis).27 Here the concept of faith has shifted, from being a state of openness to revelation (or directly to the teachings and personal charisma of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels) to one of being ready to accept what is authoritatively decreed by the church hierarchy. The readiness to do this without questioning becomes a virtue in itself. So reasoning, as an intellectual power open to every man in the sense proclaimed by Aristotle, is now reserved for the few. In effect, Platonism offered no threat to the evolving authority structure of the church—if anything it reinforced it. As is clear from the subsequent history of the churches, the idea that there are set dogmas laid down by church leaders that have to be believed by those entering the Christian communities and that cannot be challenged intellectually by either insiders or outsiders became part of the essence of Christianity. It should also be remembered that Plato had denigrated the natural world as inferior to the immaterial world of the Forms, and so the adoption of Platonism did nothing to undermine Paul’s condemnation of any philosophy that concerned itself with finding truth in the material world.

So Platonism became entwined with Christianity. As Christopher Stead puts it: “The reality of God, his creation and providence, the heavenly powers, the human soul, its training, survival and judgment could all be upheld by the appropriate choice of Platonic texts.”28 With the scriptures and church tradition still providing the bedrock of Christian theology, this was a question of grafting Platonism onto Christianity rather than the creation of a new philosophy. One problem lay in reconciling the Hebrew concept of God with the single pure unity of “the Good” of Plato (a problem already addressed, as we have seen, by the Jewish philosopher Philo). The God of the Old Testament had “human” attributes; he was emotional, quick to anger but also loving and providential, and he could intervene directly in the world, winning battles for the Israelites or speaking through their prophets. The “God” of the Platonists was cooler, more austere, and both more consistent and more remote in his relationship with the world. He is essentially unchanging, “the rock of ages.” For such a concept to display even a benevolent concern for individual human beings, let alone Old Testament emotions, was awkward. Imaginative thinking was needed. It proved possible, for instance, for “the divine Craftsman” introduced as a creator figure by Plato in his Timaeus to be assimilated with the creator God of Genesis, yet the tension between the concepts remained, as later disputes were to show. A further distinction between Platonists and Christians was that Platonists believed that matter had existed eternally alongside “God,” while Christians believed that it would detract from the power of God if he had not existed before matter, which, of course, he had created.

One way of resolving the tension between scripture and philosophy was to draw a distinction between God as the ultimate supreme being (who could be equated with the Platonic God) and God as an outgoing power in the material world, able in this capacity to show some emotions, represented by the logos, itself incarnated in Jesus Christ. Most Christians agreed that there had to be a distinction between God and Jesus/the logos, in that God surely could not suffer, and so Jesus, who clearly did suffer on the cross, must be in some way a distinct creation who served as an intermediary between God and man. In the early fourth century, Eusebius provided a useful analogy when he said that if God had come down to earth himself, it would have been as if the sun itself had arrived on earth, and the result would have been devastation. God needed to reveal himself through some kind of intermediate force, and this is the logos. The logos is able to contain the power of God but then to transmit it to the earth in a milder form through the presence of Jesus in human form. In Platonic thought the relationship between “the Good,” the Forms and the material world was conceptualized in many different ways, and the same was true for Christianity. The Sabellians, at one extreme, saw Jesus Christ/the logos simply as a manifestation of God, never fully distinct from him and with no separate personality or substance; the Adoptionists, at the other, saw the logos as a distinct entity, fully human and created separately by God like the Old Testament prophets.29

In contrast to Aristotle, who had talked of the soul as the essence of a human body, using the analogy that a body without a soul would be like an axe that cannot cut, Plato had stressed the independence of the soul from the body and its continuing existence from one body to another. Some early Christian theologians (Origen, for example) actually adopted this idea, arguing that the soul was preexistent to the body in which it came to live and could move on to others after the death of a body (transmigration), but gradually the belief was consolidated that each body had its individual soul given to it at conception and that soul continued to exist eternally after the death of that body, something Aristotle could never have imagined. It could enjoy the happiness of heaven or the suffering of punishment in hell for eternity. This left major conceptual problems. Did the soul enter the body with the semen—in other words, become associated with a purely material process—or was it created by God and placed there by him at the moment of conception? The second answer seemed more likely, but it became incompatible with the doctrine of original sin when that doctrine was elaborated by Augustine in the late fourth century. It seemed unlikely that God himself would place souls already tarnished with sin into the human foetus, and the question had to be left unresolved (or ignored).30 Plato had always argued that there are echoes of the immaterial world of the Forms in the material world. The relationship works two ways. The Form of Beauty acts to create beautiful things on earth, while humans can create beautiful things themselves that give a hint of what the Form of Beauty itself might be. (This idea was later developed as part of the rationale through which Christians felt able to decorate their buildings so opulently—the opulence gives a glimpse of the reality of heaven.) In the same way, each soul has its own logos or reasoning power, which is an echo of the divine logos that reaches out to it and to which it is naturally attracted in return. This concept was to be creatively developed by the Alexandrian theologian Origen.

Origen (c. 185–c. 254), who was born a Christian in Alexandria, was a fervent believer. His father had been taken off to martyrdom, and he would have followed if his mother had not hidden his clothes. He may even, according to one report, have mutilated himself so he could not feel sexual desire, and he suffered so badly in the persecution of 251 that his health was permanently broken. He was a prodigious thinker, one of the most fertile writers of the ancient world, with possibly some 2,000 titles to his name (most have been lost or were destroyed when he was declared a heretic). He plunged himself into the scriptures, even mastering Hebrew, and is seen as the founder of biblical scholarship. He set texts from different versions of the scriptures alongside each other to explore the differences between them, and he wrote his own commentaries on the major books. Yet his approach was primarily allegorical. He claimed that much in the world was purely symbolic of something else and that the scriptures were no different. It was not necessary to adopt a literal interpretation of scripture but rather to search for the deeper truths concealed in the text. Such an approach had a respectable history in the Greek intellectual tradition. The epics of Homer, the closest the Greeks ever came to sacred texts, had long been interpreted allegorically. The reward in taking this approach was that it allowed Origen to think creatively about theological issues and to avoid the issues involved in reconciling a literal interpretation of the events of the Old Testament with his Platonic philosophy.31

Origen’s greatest work, De Principiis, survives now only in an often obscure Latin translation made in the 390s, but its four books show the breadth and originality of his thinking. Origen’s is a Platonic God, uncreated, transcendental, perfect in his unity and at the same time the source of all being. This God is given the supreme place in the powerful drama of human existence. Originally, argued Origen, all human souls were equal and attached to God, but all except one, Christ, fell away as a result of losing perfection, either through indifference or neglect of God. Origen described the unity of the logos and the soul of Christ as being like iron suffused by heat; the two are inseparable. Some remained as angels, but the more recalcitrant dropped down through the immaterial world towards the earth, where they became imprisoned in human bodies. This was the state in which most of those who neglected God existed, but a few, who were more violent in their rejection, became demons. Evil was not a separate force in the world (as some Christians believed: note “the Sovereignties and the powers which originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens” of the letter to the Ephesians 6:12); it was rather a reflection of the degree to which an individual had rejected God.

However, human souls retained the memory of their previous state of being and experienced their separation from God as a loss; they also retained logos, the power of rational thought, even if this was now separated from the logos that remains fully in Christ, the only unfallen soul. It is this sense of loss that provides the impulse to return to God. Origen drew on the Platonic idea of a long, disciplined period of training before it was possible to achieve knowledge of the true reality—in this case God. The first step, the desire to commit oneself to the long path ahead, was the most important. This created the possibility of being “transformed,” a key concept for Origen. Those who selected themselves for “transformation” were the equivalents of Plato’s Guardians, and like the Guardians their selection distinguished them from those less committed to recovery. They would also, as the Middle Platonists had argued, be aided by the power of God’s love, although Origen always emphasized the crucial importance of the individual will. The assistance of Christ was also essential. He was a reflection of God, with all the attributes of God, but he was somehow distinct from God. Origenist theology is not always clear about exactly how, although certainly it was in some form of subordinate role to God the Father—in one passage, for instance, as “the first born of all created, a thing created, wisdom.” Christ’s position as one close to God acted as a catalyst for those who wished to make the return. In so far as Origen had argued that all souls, including that of Christ, had started together, the ultimate aim was to become like Christ, in effect to reach divinity. Origen may have drawn on Paul’s idea that we are co-heirs with Christ as “sons of God,” as well as on Plato’s assertion that we can become assimilated with “the Good.” As it is human nature to try to reach God, and we have the freedom to do so, God will punish those who “have gone against the impulses of nature . . . And he threatens them through prophets and through the Saviour who came to visit the whole human race, in order that by means of the threat those who hear may be converted, while those who neglect the words aimed at their conversion pay penalties according to their deserts.” However, whatever their just deserts, Origen believed that all would ultimately be saved. There would be an end point at which even the soul of Satan, the extreme case of one who had rejected God, would be reunited with him. If God is truly providential and powerful, argued Origen, there can be no other final state of being. “And providence will never abandon the universe. For even if some part of it becomes very bad because the rational beings sin, [God] arranges to purify it, and after a time to turn the universe back to himself.” 32 Origen’s followers also argued that God’s committing a soul to hell would be an admission that he had been thwarted by a mere human being, something inconceivable if God was truly all powerful. Ultimately God’s concept of the world, one brought to order by his providence, must prevail, and so all must end subject to his care. Origen, like the traditional Platonists, also rejected the idea that there would be a bodily resurrection.

It was to prove impossible to achieve full philosophical coherence in Christian doctrine. Different sources for doctrine, a variety of scriptures, tradition and Platonism (which, as we have seen, had its own internal contradictions), conflicted with each other and were in themselves shaped by the internal needs of communities that until 312, the moment when Christianity was given toleration, had to define their identity within a hostile world. The future of Christian doctrine would depend on whether the church could open itself to these contradictions and see them as inevitable and containable or whether the desire to ensure conformity would lead to their suppression. In the end the combination of church and state authority was to prove too powerful. Origen was among those whose teachings were suppressed. After the formulation of the Nicene Creed in 325, he would be condemned for seeing Christ as a created—and thus subordinate—being rather than an eternal part of the Godhead. As Christianity became as much a political as a religious movement, the fear that without eternal punishment there would be insufficient incentive for being good predominated, and Origen was further condemned for his view that all would eventually be reunited with God. So by the end of the fourth century, the belief that God would ultimately be eternally unforgiving of some, perhaps even of most (a view found, of course, also in Paul and Matthew), with all the implications that raised about his fundamental goodness and the nature of the final state of the world, had become part of Christian doctrine. Augustine was to give his own formidable intellectual support to the idea of a hell for all eternity, pessimistically adding his doubts that humans had the freedom to overcome the burden of their sinfulness. The first condemnation of Origen, for providing a “hydra of heresies,” came from Theophilus, the powerful patriarch of Alexandria, in 402. Theophilus (who was responsible for overseeing the destruction by Christians of the massive temple to Serapis in Alexandria and pillaging the great library there) insisted on the Hebrew concept of God, “with eyes, ears, hands and feet like men,” and condemned Origen for preaching God was incorporeal. A final condemnation by the church as a whole came in 553 at the Second Council of Constantinople (although it is likely that this was on the basis of distorted interpretations of Origen’s writings).

The adoption of the Platonic “Good” as God and its amalgamation, however unsatisfactorily, with the Hebrew God marked a major shift in the perception of the divine. Pindar, the great poet of the early fifth century whose odes celebrated the victors of the Greek games, had summed up the traditional Greek view:

There is one race of men, one race of gods, both have breath of life from a single mother [Gaia, the earth, according to legend]. But sundered power holds us divided, so that the one is nothing, while for the other the brazen sky is established as their sure citadel for ever. Yet we have some likeness, in great intelligence and strength to the immortals, though we know not what the day may bring, what course after nightfall destiny has written that we must run to the end.33

Here there is a common mother for man and gods; despite the gulf between mankind on earth and the gods above, there is an overlap between them in strength and intelligence. Human beings are not entirely dissimilar to the divine. In Christian thinking, on the other hand, God, a transcendent and all-powerful force who had existed from before all time, had, at a distinct moment, created a material world totally dissimilar to him and subject to him. The gulf between God and the human race had become immense, in effect impassable, and the status of human beings had, in their own eyes, been diminished to that of sinners. This amounted to a dramatic overthrow of the traditional Greek world view, and once Christianity had been endorsed by the state as the only true religion, it became the paradigm within which debate about spiritual matters would be confined for centuries to come. There was an alternative view that drew on the verse in Genesis in which mankind was said to be created in God’s image, yet this was incompatible with Christian Platonism, where the gulf between Creator and created was absolute. This second view fared better in the Aristotelian Christianity of Thomas Aquinas (see chapter 20 below).

The self-imposed isolation of Christians from the political and religious structure of Roman society was bound to evoke reaction. “These men all act against the edicts of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus,” shouted the hostile crowds in Thessalonika in the first century (Acts 17:7). The Jews had earned grudging respect for the ancient origins of their religion and so were afforded some degree of toleration, but by breaking with Judaism Christians lost that respect and were derided (by the second-century historian Tacitus, for instance) for their creation of a religion without tradition. They also raised the challenging question of how far a society normally tolerant in religious affairs could contain a community that wished to overthrow the traditional gods. Their isolation made them easy to scapegoat as enemies. In the persecution of 64, Nero attempted to shift onto them responsibility for a great fire which devastated Rome, although it is interesting to note that this very persecution, clearly rooted in Nero’s obsessional and vindictive character rather than in any activity of Christians, caused a backlash of sympathy for Christianity.

A more measured response to Christianity is detailed in the famous letters between the emperor Trajan and his governor Pliny in Bithynia from about 110, and it reflects the astuteness of the emperor. Pliny asked Trajan’s advice about how he should deal with Christians. It was only those active Christians who refused to sacrifice who were of concern to the state, replied Trajan, but even then he was reluctant to order a witch hunt to search them out. The normal rules that accusers had to bring their case in person and be liable to a charge of malicious prosecution if their accusations proved unfounded were to be upheld. Those Christians who were no longer a member of a church community should normally be acquitted. In fact, in the second century persecution of Christians remained haphazard and dependent on the individual initiatives and responses of local governors. By the third century, however, the state was insisting on greater and more visible loyalty to the traditional gods. It was not so much the practice of Christians that offended as their refusal to sacrifice, a refusal which aroused ancient and deep-rooted fears that the protection of the gods would be lost. Persecution could be avoided by participating in an actual sacrifice witnessed by two officials, who would then issue a certificate. Many Christians complied, and then once the persecution had passed reapplied for membership of the church. As we have already seen, the conditions under which they should be readmitted caused major dissension.

Those who refused to sacrifice could face martyrdom, but this was a fate many Christians appeared to welcome, so intense seems to have been their belief in the glory of the life to come. While the numbers killed may have been small in comparison with, say, the casualties of the suppression of the Jewish revolt of 66–70, there developed a sophisticated presentation of martyrdom in which the martyr defied every attempt to make him (or her) renounce the faith and then faced appalling cruelties, often in the arena, unflinchingly. Accounts of the martyrs’ deaths stress their own individual situations and all the gory details. Some of the most influential were women such as Perpetua, killed in the arena at Carthage in 203 with her faithful slave girl Felicity, or Agnes, who defied the advances of Roman soldiers and died rather than surrender her virginity. The impact of martyrdom was immense and even, according to Tertullian, acted as a seed-bed for Christianity. By the fourth century, when it was all over, the collective memory of the persecutions and the individuals who died in them became ever more powerful. The calendar of the church was dominated by their feast days, and their relics provided a focus for the creation of churches. Martyrdom became so closely intertwined with Christian commitment and status that every single early bishop of Rome had later (and in most cases clearly apocryphal) legends of martyrdom attached to him.34

It is virtually impossible to estimate the number of Christians in this period, although even in the third century they were a small minority within the empire. The evidence left by a group that was naturally reluctant to publicize its activities and which appeared unwilling to advertise its meeting places is sparse, and only estimates can be made. Those for the mid third century vary from as few as 2 percent of the population to as many as 10 percent.35 Christianity was an urban phenomenon, eastern and Greek-speaking rather than western. Only twenty-five Christian communities, based, it seems, in apartment blocks in the city, are known from pre-Constantinian Rome, one reason why the bishops of Rome had to struggle so hard to make their voices heard among those of the bishops of the larger eastern communities. Many parts of the empire knew little of Christianity, and, as we have seen, one emperor of the west, Constantius, did not even find it necessary to implement the persecutions of Diocletian other than by destroying a few buildings allegedly belonging to Christians. Moreover, the boundaries between Christians and the rest of society were increasingly blurred. This was partly because, despite their rejection of all pagan cults, Christians borrowed from or shared many attributes with other religious movements. The pagan cult of theos hypsistos, for instance, had, like Christianity, both separated itself from Judaism and found a place for Jesus as “an angel.” Economic pressures also played their part. Most Christians needed to work; by the third century Christians were to be found as state officials, soldiers and even members of the imperial household. A Spanish synod in the early fourth century allowed Christians to suspend their Christianity to become presidents of municipal councils—so long as they did not offer theatre or gladiatorial shows, they could be readmitted to their faith after two years. In 314, after toleration had been given to Christians, a synod in Arles allowed them to become governors of provinces as long as their bishop’s approval had been sought. Tertullian may have been making a special plea for toleration when he wrote that his fellow Christians “live together with you in this world, including the forum, including the meat market, baths, shops, workrooms, inns, fairs, and the rest of commercial intercourse, and we sail along with you and serve in the army and are active in agriculture and trade,” but by the third century this was very much the case.36

What is usually concealed in the histories of early Christianity is the tensions between different groups. This is partly because the earliest history of the church, Eusebius’ fourth-century Ecclesiastical History, which was accepted as an authoritative account for centuries to come, glossed over these, presenting instead a church united in doctrine, hallowed by the blood of its martyrs and ready to take its rightful place in society with the ending of persecution. Yet in his Life of Constantine, as we shall see, Eusebius is forced to accept that there was often violent discord between Christian communities, particularly over rival interpretations of doctrine. This discord was only to be intensified as the emperors tried to integrate Christianity into the state. For Christianity was now to be transformed from a religion of outsiders to one of insiders, a transformation of incalculable importance for western history.

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