Posted by: ken98 | November 21, 2009

Lost Christian Offices, Spread of Early Church, and Book Burning

Day 72 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.15, pp.490-500)

It’s the middle of the day and I’m writing (amazing!) (probably writing way too much, and way too long – maybe it’s better for me to do it half-awake – I’m sleepily succint).

We now begin Gibbon’s history/overvew of early Christianity (for the remainder of chapter 15). Chapter 16 will be a history of Christianity and the empire – most notably a history of persecutions. Both got him in equal trouble with authority back in 1776 when he first published.

The Story
 
History of the Progress of Christianity
The early church (geographical survey)

  • (1) Asia, Greece – strongest – curious letter of Pliny asserting the “temples were almost deserted”
  • (2) Antioch – time of Theodosius church=100,000 people, Gibbon approx’s 20% of pop = christian (circa 340 CE)
  • (3) Egypt, Alexandria – small until empire adopted Christianity (after 313), then rabidly christian
  • (4) Rome – small at time of Nero, Gibbon estimates at 5% (50,000) in 250’s.
  • (5) Africa and Western Provinces – Gaul, Britain, very slow in conversion, Africa quick and passionately zealous
  • (6) Beyond the Empire – Not much progress at all – even though Christians claim otherwise (ex. Justin Martyr “there exists not a people (among whom there are not Christians)”)
  •  
    Socio-Economic Considerations

  • General Population – Gibbon estimates at time of conversion of empire (313) = approx 5% of population
  • Description of early Christians – poor and ignorant? yes – there is a definite anti-intellectual bent even from the beginning (ex. Eusebius on Artemon (below))
  • Were they poor? Gibbon tries manfully to show that people of “birth and fortune” (remember, this is HIS class he’s talking about) were Christian before the conversion – but ends up with only a few references
  • Gibbon and Socio-Economics
    I’ll continue to point this out – it’s amazing to me the very modern way Gibbon jumps feet-first into sociological descriptions of the populations he’s interested in. His casual throwing out of numbers (which must have taken a little time to come up with on his own – research and calculation) are fascinating and intimidating. But just the fact that he’s interested in profiling groups of people (although to us in the 21st century, it seems obvious and necessary), and does it well and with care is a praiseworthy feat – and worthy of mention (at least in my opinion). He’s one of the first historians to do it.

    The Lost Christian Offices – Prophets and Exorcists
    Two offices Gibbon points out were among the most important in the early church disappeared entirely after the first 200 years: prophets and exorcists. Along with elders, bishops, presbyters (ministers, priests) (all 3 of which were pretty much the same people at first), the church had deacons (for administrative, financial tasks), and prophets (to access the will of the Lord directly), and exorcists (to publicly and conspicuously remove demons (the cause of sin) – a very common occurrence in the early church).

    Exorcist - poster for film (1973) - the lost office of exorcist (as common as having janitors in the early church) were both more dramatic and public, and much less exotic than modern day exorcists

    Exorcist - poster for film (1973) - the lost office of exorcist (as common as having janitors in the early church) were both more dramatic and public, and much less exotic than modern day exorcists

    Per Gibbon, Exorcists were not like the movies of the 70’s (ex.Exorcist), but were used for public repentance of sin. All sin was caused by demons, significant sins required long, public repentance and long, public exorcisms. Naturally, you needed someone to do this task, and so the church set up people to handle these things – just like you’d set up a committee to take care of the flowers each Sunday, or get someone to clean up the room after a service. Any member in good standing could perform the office.

    The role/office of prophet, was a person who announced the will of God through direct communication with God. All churches had them, many of them – they were a necessary part of a functioning church. Prophets obviously eventually fell into conflict with the rising power of the bishops, and the desire of the early church to begin to formalize beliefs and behaviors – disallowing the freedom and egalitarian nature of the early church in favor of a more lock-step, uniform look-and-feel for groups of christians in the various cities and towns of the empire. Motion, change, creativity, and growth are not the friends of a professional administrator, and so, the prophets had to go in order for the bishops to rule.

    Early Book Burning – Strong Anti-Intellectual Bias in Early Church
    Notwithstanding the Jesuits, the massive and exquisite Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and the Fathers of the Church, there has always been a contest between faith and understanding in Christianity (credo ut intelligam “I believe in order that I may understand”). Faith has always won hands down. A strong anti-intellectual, anti-book-learning sentiment, even among those who have substantial educations, has plagued Christianity from the beginning.

    Gibbon comments upon it and gives an example – an address by Eusebius to a supposed heretic teacher in Rome in the early 200’s (Artemon) “”They presume to alter the holy Scriptures, to abandon the ancient rule of faith, and to form their opinions according to the subtle precepts of logic. The science of the church is neglected for the study of geometry, and they lose sight of heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth. Euclid is perpetually in their hands. Aristotle and Theophrastus are the objects of their admiration; and they express an uncommon reverence for the works of Galen. Their errors are derived from the abuse of the arts and sciences of the infidels, and they corrupt the simplicity of the Gospel by the refinements of human reason.” (DEF, v.1, ch.15, p.509).

    Savanorola - painting by Fra Bartolomeo - charismatic preacher in Florence in late 1490's - set up a puritanical republic for 3 years - ended up burnt at the stake after torture by the Inquisition - famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities - burning of art and literature - example of faith militant against learning

    Savanorola - painting by Fra Bartolomeo - charismatic preacher in Florence in late 1490's - set up a puritanical republic for 3 years - ended up burnt at the stake after torture by the Inquisition - famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities - burning of art and literature - example of faith militant against learning

    While it’s obvious salvation cannot be given only to those who have a doctorate in Divinity, the opposite end of the spectrum (faith is all you need) leads to a dogged and conscious subordination of your own intelligence to a text or message. Subordination usually results in a helpless reliance on a charismatic leader, or a firmly entrenched spiritual bureacracy. Thus the end result of a faith-only perspective has historically been (over and over) blind obedience to a man (or woman), or to institutionalized authority (ex. Savanorola – who actually DID burn books and art (Bonfire of the Vanities) similar to Nazi book burnings).

    Its interesting to me that if you read Acts, and the Letters in the New Testament, the problems discussed are behavioral and moral (matters of conscience, excessive fighting, learning to live and love in a heterogeneous group of believers, how to have a soft heart and a loving attitude towards those around you, etc), while the business of the organized church increasingly became those of authority, belief, and power over individuals – all external acts, not internal states. I’m not sure that was the original intention of the early church – to become uber-organized and uniform. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to enforce uniformity in a group over time, with sometimes unanticipated (and sad) results (ex. the Inquisition).

    I don’t think the early christian church is the only “spiritual” organization to experience this evolution (from emphasis on inner change to outer forms), but the disappearance of such intensely internal and personal offices as prophet and exorcist are examples of the bureacratization of the early church. The church was already entirely prepared, administratively, to become an imperial, world church in the early 300’s when Constantine converted. Could we have said the same if Constantine had converted to worship of the Sun? or Mithraism? The example of Julian 50 years in the future (and his attempt to create a pagan hierarchy/bureaucracy and “church”) show how far-advanced the institutionalization of the church already was by the fourth century, and how far behind “paganism” lagged.

    I’m not sure it’s such a good thing to be so organized, if your goals are spiritual. If your goals are entirely political, then yes, it makes sense.

    As a more modern example of institutionalization of personal spiritual experience, and a reliance on outward forms rather than inward change – look at Saint Francis and the order he created (early 1200’s). Francis’ original church was simple (as befits a preacher of poverty), but the basilica (built after his death) which houses the center of his order was sumptuous, rich, and extravagant. A “sermon in stone” of how to miss the point spiritually.

    Basilica and Convent of Saint Francis in Assisi - from southeast at sunset - a massive institution enclosing the original tiny, simple church of Francis at its heart

    Basilica and Convent of Saint Francis in Assisi - from southeast at sunset - a massive institution enclosing the original tiny, simple church of Francis at its heart

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