The Reconstruction of the Church (Christianity & Civilization #4)
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The earliest documents we have are Paul's letters and what do we find there? He is, ever and again, having defend himself against some other Christians who have come in and said, "No, Paul didn't tell it right.
We have now to tell you the real thing. There are different kinds of practice; there are arguments over how Jewish are we to be; how Greek are we to be; how do we adapt to the surrounding culture - what is the real meaning of the death of Jesus, how important is the death of Jesus? Maybe it's the sayings of Jesus that are really the important thing and not his death and not his resurrection.
Now, this runs very contrary to the view That is, that at the beginning, everything was unity, everything was clear, everything was understandable and only gradually, under outside influences, heresies arose and conflict resulted, so that we must get back somehow to that Golden Age, when everything was okay.
One of the most difficult things which has emerged from modern historical scholarship, is precisely that that Golden Age eludes us. The harder we work to try to arrive at that first place where Christianity, were all one and everything was clear, the more it There never was this pure Christianity, different from everybody else and clear, in its contours How did these squabbles unfold over time? The interesting thing about Christianity is that you have diversity from the beginning, and each of the diverse groups feel so keenly about their way of of seeing things that obviously, they'd like everybody else to agree with them There seems to be a sense, [among] all of the various parties that somehow, it ought to be one group; it ought to be one people.
Obviously, they inherit this from Judaism, the notion that there is one people of God, And the drive to obtain the truth and to manifest the truth is so strong that if one group cannot convince the others that their way is right, often times, it seems the only thing they can do is separate, to make sure that the truth is embodied somewhere. And so the very drive for unity produces schism, and The notion of Orthodoxy, which is only the flip-side of the notion of heresy, [developed in the second century].
So heresy which The other side of that, of course, is our side, which has orthodoxy, that is, right thinking. The great controversies of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries, which create what we will know as orthodoxy, and in the west, Catholicism, emerge from this very drive to create a a unified body of opinion. It sounds like these early Christians are having big turf wars over who gets to say what Christianity is all about. Well, the early Christians did have turf wars over who had it right and you see this from the very beginning.
The Apostle Paul and his opponents in Galatia, who say, "Wait a minute, Paul told you a very simplified gospel, it makes it easy for you to become a member of this new group, but we know, after all, that if you're really going to be a real Christian, first you have to be a real Jew and that means, you have to be circumcised and you have to keep certain regulations out of the Torah. So Paul has not got it right. Who wins? Who wins - in some sense, nobody wins, in the sense that the result of this is schisms and ultimately, some very nasty things in the history of the church, eventually the use of force and violence History is always written by the victors; if one wanted to be very cynical about it, one would say "All right, the people who finally managed the most power and the most persuasive abilities win out and they write the history, which defines everybody else as a heretic.
Obviously distorted by imperial power from the 4th century on but nevertheless, a strange kind of democracy involved It is the usage of the local churches that eventually determines which books will be included in the New Testament, for example, and which will not be included, which point of view about Jesus has the widest support and therefore will also gain political power because there are people in various places that support that.
It's a very complicated picture, obviously. The Martyrs Treated as criminals in the second and third centuries, the early Christians were subject to empire-wide persecution. And he issues a decree that everyone has to sacrifice to the Roman gods and they must produce a certificate signed by a Roman official that they have done so. Why did this happen? Clearly, one of the things which this indicates is that Christianity, which begins with such tiny groups, scattered in various cities across the empire, have become numerous, they have become a significant segment of the population in many places.
There is some evidence that in many towns in North Africa, the[y] may actually be a majority already. So they have come forcibly to the attention of the Emperor. At the same time, it clearly indicates that that counter-cultural tendency, which was one aspect of the self-understanding of Christians, from the very beginning This counter-cultural implication of their most fundamental beliefs still remains, and the Emperor has recognized this counter-cultural tendency and says, "This is dangerous - we can't have this large a group, which by the way, is also very highly organized, and, unlike other religious communities, is organized not just on a local basis, but is organized on an empire-wide basis.
Something has to be done about it They say, "All right, let's hit the leaders. Let's find these bishops and bring them into court and force them to recant, and if they won't, we'll eliminate them. You have ordinary people, for the first time, being rounded up, forced to sacrifice, or if they can buy a forgedcertificate of of sacrifice. There's some of those which have actually survived. And the odd thing is it fails The net effect of this is that a new cult of the martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the the church, which feeds on anti-government sentiment in many segments of the empire, - those remote geographical areas distant from Rome which have always been suspicious of Rome.
This simply brings those into the Christian fold and in many ways, it backfires. So the Decian persecution is very short-lived What else was going on at the empire at the time of the persecutions? At the time of the major empire-wide persecution, under the Emperor Decius, you have to realize, this is also a time when the Emperor's feeling under great pressure. The middle of the 3rd century is often time identified as a crisis in the Roman Empire. There is a lot of internal dissension, there is a lot of what Ramsey MacMullen has identified as sheer corruption in the aristocracy, from the Emperor down.
There is a sense that we are being besieged on the borders, that the barbarians may be coming in at any moment, the Persians are dangerous, the Germans are dangerous and so on. There's a great sense that anything that upsets this ancient contract between the Romans and the gods has got to be dangerous to us This is one of the factors which must be feeding into the sense of the crisis, expressed in the persecution against the church Why were the Christians persecuted?
This is one of the great questions which is passed down. One thing we have to remember is that the old Hollywood view of Christianity as kind of an underground persecuted society that skulks around in catacombs for three centuries before they finally emerge after Constantine's conversion, clearly cannot be true. Before [the year ], we hear only rarely and locally of persecution of Christians, which is small scale and often times, has purely local kinds of causes, I think.
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But the question remains, since the things we see them doing seem fairly innocuous, at least to our eyes, why did people persecute them? Where did the suspicion arise that they did all kinds of dangerous anti-social things like cannibalism and incestuous sexual relations, orgies, this sort of thing? They're different. They are a people that, in a way, declare their boundaries over against the larger society by their very rituals that lead to conversion - turning away from the gods and turning to the one God, living and true, as Paul puts it in his First Letter of the Thessalonians.
That means that they are not going to participate in a great many of not only the religious, but the civic functions, which emerged in the ordinary society of a Roman or Greek city. This is bound to arouse suspicion.
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Why do the Christians not participate in these rituals that are necessary to maintain the relationship between our society and the gods? Her name is Perpetua. And she insisted on being killed. It's an amazing, complicated story. The diary is in kind of a sandwich.
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The editor introduces the story, then there's the authentic diary of Perpetua, and then there are editorial conclusions, at the end. Perpetua has brought herself to the attention of the governor. And she is really insisting on being put into the arena. There's an incredibly powerful trial scene where Perpetua's father is pleading with her and, finally, actually trying to beat her. And the Governor has him subdued by his soldiers. And the governor says, "Please, won't you cooperate? Perpetua is visited by other Christians in prison.
If the governor were trying to get all the Christians in Carthage, he just could have arrested whoever is going to visit Perpetua. But he doesn't. She's what one historian has called an overachiever in a sense. She's insisting on being martyred as part of her Christian witness. She gives her baby back over to her family, because she's still nursing.
And she talks about this. And she's really insisting on being martyred because she says, and we have to believe her, this is the only word we have from her, because in so doing, she will get to God through Jesus The authentic diary ends before Perpetua is led into the arena. What we have concluding the diary is a description by somebody who is presenting a hero tale.
The majority of Christians were not volunteering to be martyred. For one thing, there wouldn't have been an audience for these martyr stories. For another thing, we have doctrinally, the evolution of penance as a way to reincorporate Christians who lapse in the face of persecution.
So Perpetua is really being preserved by her community as a role model. She marks off the heroic limit against which other Christians can measure themselves.
She's led out to the arena. She, with heroic chastity, faces down the animals and gladiators, and finally, after being tormented by several animals, a young gladiator is sent into the arena to dispatch her.
And it's just an incredibly moving scene; his hand is trembling so much he can't cut her. And she grabs his hand and guides his sword to her own throat.