« PreviousContinue »
them rightful to pised by tharged with thi. It is a
around it heretical or infidel; it is a well-organized, well-disciplined body; it is a sort of secret society, binding together its members by influences and by engagements which it is difficult for strangers to ascertain. It is spread over the known world; it may be weak or insignificant locally, but it is strong on the whole from its continuity; it may be smaller than other religious bodies together, but larger than each separately. It is a natural enemy to governments external to itself; it is intolerant and engrossing, and tends to a new modelling of society; it breaks laws, it divides families. It is a gross superstition; it is charged with the foulest crimes; it is despised by the intellect of the day; it is frightful to the imagination of the many. And there is but one communion such.
Place this description before Pliny or Julian; place it before Frederick the Second or Guizot. “ Apparent diræ facies." Each knows at once, without asking a question, who is meant by it. One object, and only one, absorbs each item of the detail of the delineation.
The primâ facie view of early Christianity, in the eyes of witnesses external to it, is presented to us in the brief but vivid descriptions given by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, the only heathen writers who distinctly mention it for the first hundred and fifty years.
Tacitus is led to speak of the religion, on occasion of the conflagration of Rome, which was popularly imputed to Nero. “To put an end to the report,” he says, “he laid the guilt on others, and visited them with the most exquisite punishment those, namely, who, held in abhorrence for their crimes, (per flagitia invisos,) were popularly called Christians. The author of that profession (nominis) was Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, was capitally punished by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate. The deadly superstition (exitiabilis superstitio), though
checked for a while, broke out afresh; and that, not only throughout Judæa, the original seat of the evil, but through the City also, whither all things atrocious or shocking (atrocia aut pudenda) flow together from every quarter and thrive. At first, certain were seized who avowed it; then, on their report, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much of firing the city, as of hatred of mankind (odio humani generis).” After describing their tortures, he continues, “In consequence, though they were guilty, and deserved most signal punishment, they began to be pitied, as if destroyed not for any public object, but from the barbarity of one man.”
Suetonius relates the same transactions thus:“ Capital punishments were inflicted on the Christians, a class of men of a new and magical superstition (superstitionis novæ et maleficæ).” What gives additional character to this statement is its context; for it occurs as one out of various police or sumptuary or domestic regulations, which Nero made; such as “controlling private expenses, forbidding taverns to serve meat, repressing the contests of theatrical parties, and securing the integrity of wills.”
When Pliny was Governor of Pontus, he wrote his celebrated letter to the Emperor Trajan, to ask advice how he was to deal with the Christians, whom he found there in great numbers. One of his points of hesitation was, whether the very profession of Christianity was not by itself sufficient to justify punishment; “ whether the name itself should be visited, though clear of flagitious acts (flagitia), or only when connected with them.” He says, he had ordered for execution such as persevered in their profession, after repeated warnings, was not doubting, whatever it was they professed, at any rate contumacy and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished.” He required them to invoke the gods, to sacrifice wine and frankincense to the
images of the Emperor, and to blaspheme Christ; “to which” he adds, “it is said no real Christian can be compelled.” Renegades informed him that “the sum total of their offence or fault was meeting before light on an appointed day, and saying with one another a form of words (carmen) to Christ, as if to a god, and binding themselves by oath, not to the commission of any wickedness, but against the commission of theft, robbery, adultery, breach of trust, denial of deposits; that, after this, they were accustomed to separate, and then to meet again for a meal, but eaten all together and harmless; however, that they had even left this off after his edicts enforcing the Imperial prohibition of Hetæriæ or Associations.” He proceeded to put two women to the torture, but “discovered nothing beyond a bad and excessive superstition" (superstitionem pravam et immodicam), “the contagion” of which, he continues, “had spread through villages and country, till the temples were emptied of worshippers."
In these testimonies, which will form a natural and convenient text for what is to follow, we have various characteristics brought before us of the religion to which they relate. It was a superstition, as all three writers agree; a bad and excessive superstition, according to Pliny; a magical superstition, according to Suetonius; a deadly superstition, according to Tacitus. Next, it was embodied in a society, and moreover a secret and unlawful society or hetæria; and it was a proselytizing society; and its very name was connected with “flagitious," “atrocious,” and “shocking” acts.
Now these few points, which are not all which might be set down, contain in themselves a distinct and significant description of Christianity; but they have far greater meaning when illustrated by the history of the times, the testimony of later writers, and the acts of the Roman government towards its
with theividuals or on the Empire in breakin
professors. It is impossible to mistake the judg. ment passed on the religion by these three writers, and still more clearly by other writers and Imperial functionaries. They evidently associated Christianity with the oriental superstitions, whether propagated by individuals or embodied in a rite, which were in that day traversing the Empire, and which in the event acted so remarkable a part in breaking up the national forms of worship, and so in preparing the way for Christianity. This, then, is the broad view which the educated heathen took of Christianity; and, if it had been very unlike those rites and curious arts in external appearance, they would not have confused it with them.
Changes in society are, by a providential appointment, commonly preceded and facilitated by the setting in of a certain current in men's thoughts and feelings in that direction towards which a change is to be made. And, as lighter substances whirl about before the tempest and presage it, so words and deeds, ominous but not effective of the coming revolution, are circulated beforehand through the multitude, or pass across the field of events. This was specially the case with Christianity, as became its high dignity; it came heralded and attended by a crowd of shadows, shadows of itself, impotent and monstrous as shadows are, but not at first sight distinguishable from it by common spectators. Before the mission of the Apostles, a movement, of which there had been earlier parallels, had begun in Egypt, Syria, and the neighbouring countries, tending to the propagation of new and peculiar forms of worship throughout the Empire. Prophecies were afloat that some new order of things was coming in from the East, which increased the existing unsettlement of the popular mind; pretenders made attempts to satisfy its wants, and old traditions of the Truth, embodied for ages in local or in national religions, gave to these attempts a
doctrinal and ritual shape, which became an additional point of resemblance to that Truth which was soon visibly to appear.
The distinctive character of the rites in question lay in their appealing to the gloomy rather than to the cheerful and hopeful feelings, and in their influencing the mind through fear. The notions of guilt and expiation, of evil and good to come, and of dealings with the invisible world, were in some shape or other pre-eminent in them, and formed a striking contrast to the classical polytheism, which was gay and graceful, as was natural in a civilized age. The new rites, on the other hand, were secret; their doctrine was mysterious; their profession was a discipline, beginning in a formal initiation, manifested in an association, and exercised in privation and pain. They were from the nature of the case proselytizing societies, for they were rising into power; nor were they local, but vagrant, restless, intrusive, and encroaching. Their pretensions to supernatural knowledge brought them into easy connexion with magic and astrology, which are as attractive to the wealthy and luxurious as the more vulgar superstitions to the populace.
Such were the rites of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras; such the Chaldeans, as they were commonly called, and the Magi; they came from one part of the world and during the first and second century spread with busy perseverance to the northern and western extremities of the empire. Traces of the mysteries of Cybele, a Syrian deity, if the famous temple at Hierapolis was hers, have been found in Spain, in Gaul, and in Britain, as high up as the wall of Severus. The worship of Isis was the most widely spread of all the pagan deities; it was received in Ethiopia and in Germany, and even the name of Paris has
2 Vid. Muller de Hierarch. et Ascetic. Warburton Div. Leg. ii. 4. Selden de Diis Syr. Acad. des Inscript. t. 3, hist. p. 296, t. 5, mem. p. 63, t. 16, mem. p. 267. Lucian. Pseudomant. Cod. Theod. ix. 16.