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When Christians do really bad things.
on September 22, 2002
Concise, elegant, massively documented and beautifully endnoted, Ramsay MacMullen's book is a devastating account of the rise of Christianity and the destruction of Paganism. With 85 pages of notes to 159 pages of text, with widespread use of primary sources, archeological evidence and the secondary literature, MacMullen's book is an exhaustive update of Gibbon for the present day. The book consists of four chapters, those being Christian Persecution, the losses of the Pagans, the rise of superstition and the assimilation of pagan elements into Christian practice. I think Stalin would find it grimly amusing reading, since it suggests that whatever success Christianity achieved was by fanaticism and violence. We start off with an account of how Christians systematically suppressed non-Christian works, as well as the "heretics" amongst themselves. We hear Eusebius, the first great Church historian, announce that it is not the duty to tell the whole truth but only what is of profit. Students of the Russian Revolution will remember the gruesome story of the child who informed on his "kulak" parents, was murdered by his relatives, and became the hero of a gruesome cult. In this book we hear how the emperor Justinian was moved to raptures on hearing of how a Jewish boy convert survived being thrown into a furnace by his father. Justinian learned how angels prevented the boy from being burned, and then he had the father crucified.
Persecution: MacMullen challenges those who argues that Christianity was an improvement for women and slaves. Women did play some role in leading Pagan cults, none at all in Christianity, and he tells how while a pagan governor demanded the compensation for the family of a murdered prostitute, Saint Jerome supported beheading for extramarital fornication. He discusses how exorcisms, resurrections, and healings played a greater role in conversions than sermons or reasoned argument. He discusses the increasingly bloodthirsty demands of bishops, monks and imperial decrees as well as pointing out the weaknesses of the bureaucratic machinery.
Cost to the Persecuted: MacMullen notes how Constantine still claimed a sort of divine status for himself and his father. He discusses the joyous pagan festivals, including feasts, dancing, poetry orations and their long presistence despite the opposition of the bishops (Augustine tried to argue that giving friends presents was wicked). MacMullen also gives accounts of pagans who thought idols had actual magical powers. He discusses the destruction of pagan temples and shrines, as well as the cutting down of sacred trees.
Superstition: MacMullen discusses the shifiting attitude from the rational world view of Pliny, Seneca and Plotinus and the increase in credulity throughout the third and fourth centuries. MacMullen argues that this was a result of changes in the elite as more vulgar and less literate people increased their predominance. Whatever the merits of this thesis, MacMullen points our the contempt prominent Christians such as Tertullian, Augustine, Lactantius, Ambrose and John Chrysostom had for ancient philosophy. They denounced Plato and Aristotle by name, and mocked the idea of skeptical study and the scientific attitude. Nor did they stop there. They told stories about appartitions over the battlefield, miraculous cures, the everpresent existence of demons, people raised to life by Christians, and dragons turned to dust by the sign of the cross.
Assimilation: Here I have some slight disagreement with MacMullen's account. The fact that some pagan practices continued into Christianity does not mean that they are pagan survivals. People who put pennies on the deceased's eyes do not literally believe that Charon will ferry their soul across the Styx, anymore than people concerned about 13 are remembering Judas Iscariot's presence at the last supper. A practice may continue long after any of Paganism's original ideological content has vanished. One should look at Ronald Hotton's books on the ritual year and witchcraft to understand more. Nevertheless MacMullen provides much information about the assimilation of dancing, festival meals for the dead, and the growth about the cult of martyrs. He tells how angels and martyrs took the place of minor deities who heard the wishes that would have been apparently too petty to relate to God. Christianity also assimilated practices like valorizing the dust around certain shrines and the plants that grew there, as well as amulets and ankhs used to ward off disasters, while images of Jesus and other Christian figures spread throughout the world. "The triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation," concludes MacMullen, and it is the weakness of Christian efforts which mitigates an otherwise brutal history.