Why Europeans must reject Christianity, 13

by Ferdinand Bardamu

 
Christianity: bringer of violence and bloodshed

Word of mouth is notoriously ineffective as a means of spreading religious propaganda. This explains why Christianity’s growth remained largely unspectacular until the early 4th century. Of course, the primary reason for the Christianization of the empire was the conversion of Constantine to the new religion. The influence of Christianity in the empire was continuously reinforced and strengthened by the imperially coercive legislation of his successors. Christianization also sanctioned acts of religious violence against pagans, which contributed significantly to the religion’s spectacular growth in numbers and influence. Christianity unleashed a wave of violence that nearly drowned Europe in an ocean of blood. Without Constantine, and the religious violence of his successors, Christianity would have remained just another competing religion in the provincial backwaters of the empire, like Mithraism or the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The imperial policy of Christianization was further aided by the religion’s intrinsic advantages over rival philosophical and religious belief systems, making it more palatable to the ignorant masses. This facilitated its rapid spread across the empire until, by the reign of Theodosius in the late 4th century, most urban areas were predominantly Christian. These advantages included the egalitarian ethos of the Christian church. Unlike Mithraism, which was elitist, Christianity accepted all potential recruits, regardless of ethno-linguistic or socio-economic difference. The Christians of the first three centuries practiced a form of primitive communism. This attracted the chronically indigent, as well as freeloaders. Another advantage was the child-like simplicity of Christian doctrine.

The Crisis of the 3rd century, where rival claimants fought each other for the title of Caesar, was an internecine conflict lasting for decades. It produced widespread economic instability and civil unrest. This disruption of daily life encouraged men and women to seek refuge in the mystery religions, but also Christianity, which offered easy answers in an increasingly chaotic and ugly world. The Christian religion promised life everlasting to those who successfully endured tribulation on earth.

Passage of the edict of Milan in 313 meant that Christians would go from being a persecuted minority to a persecuting majority. Although persecution of religious dissidents had occurred before Constantine, such events were comparatively rare. Roman “persecution” of Christianity was mild and sporadic. It was not even religious in nature, but political; Christians refused to swear loyalty to the state by offering the pinch of incense to the emperor’s genius. Christians were not so much persecuted as they were subjected to Roman police action for disobeying the laws of the land. In contrast, Christian persecution of pagans and heretics was entirely motivated by religious hatred. It combined the authoritarian anti-pagan legislation of the emperors with the bigotry of the clergy and the violence of the Christian mob.

The first repressive laws against paganism were passed by Constantine. In 331, he issued an edict that legalized the seizure of temple property. This was used to enrich church coffers and adorn his city of Constantinople. He redirected municipal funds from the curiae to the imperial treasury. The curiae used these funds for the construction and renovation of temples, as well as for pagan banquets, processions and festivals. The redirection of municipal funds significantly diminished the influence of paganism in the public sphere. Constantine also showed preference for Christians when considering prospective candidates for government posts. For the first time in the empire’s history, conversion to Christianity was considered an attractive proposition.

Pagan temples and statuary were first vandalized and destroyed under Constantine. Christians believed that this first wave of iconoclasm was in fulfillment of scriptural command: “Ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves; . . . for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod. 34.13f). The earliest Christian iconoclasm included the partial destruction of a Cilician temple of Asklepios and the destruction of temples to Aphrodite in Phoenicia (ca. 326 AD).

Constantine’s sons, Constans and Constantius II, followed in their father’s footsteps. In 341, Constans issued an edict banning animal sacrifice. In 346, Constans and Constantius II passed a law ordering the closure of all temples. These emperors were egged on by the Christian fanatic Firmicus Maternus who, in an exhortation addressed to both emperors in 346, called for the “annihilation of idolatry and the destruction of profane temples.” The fact that pagans continued to occupy important posts in the imperial administration made it difficult to legislate the active destruction of temples, statuary and inscriptions without alienating a large segment of the empire’s population. Nevertheless, Constantine’s sons turned a blind eye to private acts of Christian vandalism and desecration.

After the death of Constantius II, Julian was made emperor in 361. Having succumbed to the influence of pagan tutors in his youth, he developed a deep hatred for the “Galilean madness.” Accession to the throne allowed him to announce his conversion to Hellenism without fear of retribution. Julian set about reversing the anti-pagan legislation first enacted by his uncle. He re-opened the temples, restored their funding and returned confiscated goods; he renovated temples that had been damaged by Christian vandals; he repealed the laws against sacrifice and barred Christians from teaching the classics. Julian’s revival of pagan religious practice was cut short in 363, when he was killed in battle against the Persian Sassanids.

His successor Jovian revoked Julian’s edicts and re-established Christianity as most favored religion in the empire. The emperors who came after Jovian were too occupied with barbarian invasion to be concerned with internal religious squabbles; it was more expedient to simply uphold the toleration imposed on pagans and Christians alike by the Edict of Milan. Anti-pagan conflict again came to the forefront with Gratian. In 382 he angered pagans by removing the altar of Victory from the Senate. In the same year, Gratian issued a decree that ended all subsidies to the pagan cults, including priesthoods such as the Vestal Virgins. He further alienated pagans by repudiating the insignia of the pontifex maximus.

In 389, Theodosius began his all-out war on the old Roman state religion by abolishing the pagan holidays. According to the emperor’s decrees, paganism was a form of “natural insanity and stubborn insolence” difficult to root out, despite the terrors of the law and threats of exile. This was followed by more repressive legislation in 391, which re-instated the ban on sacrifice, banned visitation of pagan sanctuaries and temples, ended imperial subsidies to the pagan cults, disbanded the Vestal Virgins and criminalized apostasy. He refused to return the altar of Victory to the Senate house, in defiance of pagan demands. Anyone caught performing animal sacrifice or haruspicy was to be arrested and put to death. In the same year, the Serapeum, a massive temple complex housing the Great Library of Alexandria, was destroyed by a mob of Christian fanatics. This act of Christian vandalism was a great psychological blow to the pagan establishment.

Pagans, dissatisfied with the imperially-sponsored cultural revolution that threatened to annihilate Rome’s ancestral traditions, rallied around the usurper Eugenius. He was declared emperor by the Frankish warlord Arbogast in 392. A nominal Christian, Eugenius was sympathetic to the plight of pagans in the empire and harbored a certain nostalgia for pre-Christian Rome. He restored the imperial subsidies to the pagan cults and returned the altar of Victory to the Senate. This angered Theodosius, emperor in the east. In 394, Theodosius invaded the west and defeated Eugenius at the battle of Frigidus in Slovenia. This ended the last serious pagan challenge to the establishment of Christianity as official religion of the empire.

Apologists for Christianity argue that imperial anti-pagan legislation was more rhetoric than reality; their enforcement would have been difficult in the absence of a modern police state apparatus. This objection is contradicted by archaeological and epigraphic evidence. First, based on stratigraphic analysis of urban temples, cult activity had virtually ceased by the year 400, after passage of the Theodosian decrees. Second, temple construction and renovation declined significantly under the Christian emperors. In Africa and Cyrenaica, temple construction and renovation inscriptions are far more common under the first Tetrarchy than the Constantinian dynasty, when pagans still constituted a significant majority of the empire’s citizens. By the end of the 4th century, the authoritarian legislation of the Christian emperors had seriously undermined the strength and vitality of the old polytheistic cults.

The emperors did not stop with the closure of pagan religious sites. In 435 AD, a triumphant Theodosius II passed an edict ordering the destruction of all pagan shrines and temples across the empire. He even decreed the death penalty for Christian magistrates who failed to enforce the edict. The Code Justinian, issued between 529 to 534, prescribes the death penalty for public observance of Hellenic rites and rituals; known pagans were to seek instruction in the Christian faith or risk property confiscation; their children were to be seized by officials of the state and forcibly converted to the Christian religion.

Imperially mandated closure of all urban temples resulted in the privatization of polytheistic worship. This further exacerbated the decline of the pagan religious cults because of the object-dependent nature of ritual practice, which could not be fully realized in the absence of statuary, processions, festivals, lavish banquets and monumental building. In urban areas, imperial legislation was clearly effective. This was ruthlessly enforced by professional Christians and zealous magistrates, who used the additional muscle of the Roman army to get their own way, especially when preaching and public example failed.

Pagan rites and rituals were still observed at rural sanctuaries and temples for some time after the closure of urban centers of worship. These remained off the beaten track, so to speak, and were harder to shut down.

Churchmen like the fiery John Chrysostom, cognizant of this fact, exhorted the rich landowning class of the east to convert the heathen on their country estates. Those who allowed pagan worship on their rural properties were just as guilty of violating imperial anti-pagan legislation as the pagans themselves. Itinerant Christian evangelists, like Martin of Tours, fanned out across the countryside, winning souls for Christ through a campaign of intimidation, harassment and violence. In the end, aggressive evangelism, privatization of pagan religious practice and social marginalization ensured the death of paganism in rural areas.

Christianization of the empire was complete by 600 AD, although it is unclear to what extent Christ was considered just another deity to be worshipped alongside the old pagan gods.

Kriminalgeschichte, 37

Below, abridged translation from the first
volume of Karlheinz Deschner’s Kriminalgeschichte
des Christentums
(Criminal History of Christianity)

 
A father of the Church who preaches looting and killing

And it was time for Firmicus Maternus, who expressed with joy that ‘although in some regions the dying members of idolatry still revolt, the complete eradication of such a pernicious aberration in all the Christian provinces’ seems near, which served to launch this proclamation to the Christian emperors: ‘Out with all the pagan ornaments of the temples! To the mint and the crucible with the metal of the idolatrous statues, so that they melt in the heat of the flames!’

In the diatribe De errore profanarum religionum (“On the error of profane religions”), written about the year 347, Firmicus incites emperors Constans and Constantius, called ‘sacratissimi imperatores’ and ‘sacrosancti’ to the extermination, above all, of mystery cults: the most dangerous for Christianity. These were the cults of Isis, Osiris, Serapis, Cybele and Attis, Dionysus-Bacchus and Aphrodite, and the solar cult of Mithraism, the most powerful of the time, characterized by numerous and surprising parallels with the Christian religion.

Many Catholic authors still deny (despite having proved incontestably in 1897) that Firmicus was the author of those bloodthirsty diatribes, which are discredited by their fanatical style full of pleonasms, prototype of future Catholic rhetoric and pamphlets.

Christ, the father of the Church congratulates himself, ‘he has knocked down the column where the devil had his image’, which appears thus ‘almost defeated, turned into fire and ashes’. ‘Little is left now for the devil, totally overwhelmed by your laws, to be totally destroyed, putting an end to the disastrous contagion, once the worship of idols, that poison has been exterminated. Celebrate with jubilation the annihilation of paganism, sing in full voice the hallelujah, for you have won as soldiers of Christ’.

Not yet, however. The religiones profanae still existed, almost all the temples still stood and the pagans still came to their sanctuaries. For this reason, the agitator demands the confiscation of their property, the destruction of the centres of worship. ‘Melt the figures of the gods and mint your coins with them; incorporate the votive offerings into the imperial treasury. The Lord has called you to higher undertakings, when you have crowned the task of annihilating all the temples’.

The spread of Christianity was the highest enterprise, along with the eradication of the pernicious pagan doctrines. Of course, adepts of the Greco-Roman world did not think so, but the other way around. ‘The opinion that, with the irruption of Christianity in the world, it had begun a general decline of the human species’ (Friedlander) was gaining strength.

Always invoking the Yahweh of the Old Testament, as is logical, until then no Christian had claimed with so much emphasis heir to the biblical hecatombs, nor had he used the precedent so systematically to justify resorting to brutality and terror. God threatens even the family and children of the children, ‘lest the cursed seed survive, and there be no trace of the heathen generations’.

As soon as the Church found itself in a position of strength, it stopped rejecting violence in order to exercise it ‘by all means’, as the theologian Carl Schneider says. The old apologetics that spoke of freedom of cults is displaced by libel and diatribe; the ideology of martyrdom and the exemplary lives of the martyrs no longer matters, it is the hour of persecuting fanaticism, of ‘the powerful calls to the crusade’ by a Firmicus ‘denigrating non-Christian religions like no other before him’ (Hoheisel).

The emperors, certainly, were the ones who had the means to apply coercion and violence. But they were also Christians and many proofs will not be necessary to suppose that the book of Firmicus Maternus, dedicated to the emperors Constantius and Constans, would not fail to influence in some measure the anti-pagan policy of them; their prohibitions and their threats. And these, in turn, would determine the position of the author of that Christian pamphlet.

Kriminalgeschichte, 18

Below, abridged translation from the first volume of Karlheinz
Deschner’s Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums

(Criminal History of Christianity)

 

Chapter 4: First attacks against paganism

‘And you, too, Holy Emperor, have the duty of holding and punishing, and it is your duty, by virtue of the first commandment of the Most High, to pursue with your severity and in all possible ways the abomination of idolatry’. —Firmicus Maternus, Father of the Church

‘Two measures interested Firmicus: the destruction of the temples, and the persecution to death of those who did not think like him’. —Karl Hoheisel

 

If from the first moment the Christians fought with ‘holy wrath’ the Jews and ‘heretics’, they showed some moderation before the heathen, called héllenes and éthne by the treatise writers of the 4th century. The concept of ‘paganism’, which was very complex and referred to both religious and intellectual life, excluded only Christians and Jews, and later Muslims. It is not, of course, a scientific notion, but rather theological, coming from the late New Testament period, with obvious negative connotations.

Translated into Latin it gives gentes (arma diaboli, according to St. Ambrose), and then, as the adherents of the old religion were being reduced to rural zones, pagani, pagan. In the meaning that designated non-Christians, this word appears for the first time in two Latin epigraphs of the beginning of the 4th century. In the ordinary sense it meant ‘peasants’ and can also be understood as antonym of ‘military’. For example, the ‘heathen’, that is, those who were not soldiers of Christ, were called in ancient Gothic thiudos, haithns, that in old high German gives heidan, haidano (modern German: Heiden), with the probable meaning of ‘wild’.

We said, then, that the initial treatment given by Christianity to these ‘savages’ was rather mild, a notable behaviour. It preludes the tactics used by the Church during the next long millennium and a half: against the majority, prudence, make oneself be tolerated to survive; then destroy that tactic as soon as possible. If we have the majority, no tolerance! Otherwise, we are in favour of it. That is classic Catholicism, to this day!

At first, the pagans only saw in Christianity a dissident sect of Judaism. This was in line with the negative opinion that the Jews generally deserved, all the more so because, in addition to having inherited the intolerance and religious exclusiveness of them, they did not even represent, like Jewry, a coherent nation. The ancient believers only found ‘impiety’ in those innumerable groups, which also took no part in public life, something that made them suspects of immorality.

In a word, they were despised and made responsible for epidemics and famines, so it was not surprising from time to time the cry of ‘Christians to lions!’ Hence the fathers of the pre-Constantinian period wrote ‘Tolerance’ with capital letters, making it a virtue. They were untiring in their demand for freedom of worship and respect for their beliefs, while making protests of detachment, of virtue, as if they lived on earth but were already walking in heaven; loving all and not hating anyone, not returning evil for evil, preferring to suffer injustices than to inflict them, nor sue anyone, nor steal, nor kill.

If almost all the pagan things seemed to them ‘infamous’, Christians considered themselves ‘righteous and holy’. By 177, Athenagoras explained to the pagan emperors that ‘every one should be allowed to have the gods he chooses’.

Towards the year 200, Tertullian is in favour of freedom of religion; that some pray to heaven and the others to altars; that these worship God and others Jupiter. ‘It is a human right and a natural liberty for all to worship what seems best to them, since with such cults no one harms or benefits others’. Origen still cited a long series of common points among the religion of the pagans and the Christian, to better emphasise the prestige of the latter, and does not want to allow blasphemy against gods of any kind, even in situations of flagrant injustice. It is possible that some Fathers of the Church expressed themselves by conviction; in others it would be nothing but calculation and opportunism.
 

The anti-pagan issue in Early Christianity

But as much as they postulated religious freedom, they attacked the pagans in the same way they did with the Jews and ‘heretics’. That controversy, sporadic or we could almost say casual at first, gained ground since the end of the 2nd century, that is, when they began to feel strong. From the time of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) we know the names of six Christian apologists and the texts of three pieces of apologetics (from Athenagoras, Tatian and Theophilus).

Arnobius of Sicca, who was Lactantius teacher, authored seven pathetically boring mammoths of polemics, Against the pagans, whose gods had sex ‘like dogs and pigs’, ‘shameful members that an honest mouth cannot even name’. He criticises their passions ‘in the manner of unclean animals’, ‘with a frantic desire to exchange the filth of coitus’.

Like many other writers, Arnobius recounts the Olympic loves of Jupiter with Ceres, or with humans such as Leda, Danae, Alcmena, Electra and thousands of maidens and women, not forgetting the Catamite ephebe. ‘Nothing displeases Jupiter, until finally it would be said that the unfortunate was only born to be a seed of crimes, target of insults and common place with all excrement of the sewers of the theatre’: the theatres that, according to Arnobius, deserve to be closed, as well as burned most of the writings and books.

An adulterous god is a thousand times worse than another who exterminates humanity by a flood! Christians judged as ridiculous legends the stories of gods that Homer and Hesiod tell. On the other hand, that the Holy Spirit could make a maiden pregnant without altering her virginity was a very serious thing, as one of the most famous Catholics of the ancient time, Ambrose, demonstrated. That pagans buried the figure of a god and dispensed it funeral honours, and then celebrated their resurrection with feasts, also seemed highly laughable to Christians, even taking as holy their own liturgy of Holy Week and Easter Resurrection.

Just as the superstitious pagans tainted with magical practices, from the first moment the Christians believed that idolatrous cults were of direct diabolical inspiration; some, like Tertullian, also include in that qualification the circus, the theatre, the amphitheatre and the stadium.

It is significant, however, that all these criticisms, these censures and ridicule were not manifested until later; in the beginning, when Christians were still a minority, they had no choice but putting on a brave face to the bad weather. The ancient world was almost entirely pagan and, in front of this supremacy, the Christians acted with prudence and even made compromises if necessary, in order to be able to end it when the time came.

This is also evident in the oldest Christian authors.