Posted by: ken98 | November 26, 2009

Domitian’s Persecution, Jesus’ Brothers, and X-rated Martyrologies

Day 77 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.16, pp.530-540)

We continue with Chapter 16 and the history of the persecutions of Christians by the Roman Empire.

The Story
History of the Persecutions
Gibbon notes how extremely minor, limited, and un-noteworthy the persecutions are – exaggerated and overblown by later church fathers in the 5th century
Domitian’s persecution (90’s CE)

  • 1) Persecution of grandsons of St Jude (brother of Jesus Christ) – nothing – consisted of coming before the Roman magistrate, being questioned, and being dismissed as harmless
  • 2) Clemens the consul executed, Domitilla (niece) banished (this is labelled the 2nd persecution), after Domitian’s death under Nerva, Domitilla allowed to return (this was very common with persecutions and banishments – a change in imperial rule meant clemency and a total return to a normal life)
    People/State’s Reaction to Christians

  • Gibbon reminds us (again) that all of ancient civic life was permeated by references to the old gods (citizen=pious member/worshipping member of a city and its protecting gods), so Christians were by definition isolated from social/civic life (could not be contaminated by sacrifices, worship of old gods), and were therefor bad citizens (bringing bad luck to the city by their impiety) – crowds in times of crisis/disaster clamored for Christians to be herded up and punished to appease the gods
  • Trials of Christians – aim NOT to punish, but to reclaim them and bring them back into society
  • Torture not used as much as later monks writing centuries later would like to have us believe
  • Gibbon briefly rants about the rape of virgins and how common a motif it is in later monk’s stories about early Christian martyrs
  • Gibbon points out the magistrates tried to allow the Christians every opportunity to get out of punishment, and often downgraded the punishment from death to banishment
  • Gibbon continues his downplaying of the persecutions – noting how SMALL the number of martyrs actually was
  • James - one of Jesus brothers (an icon of James the Just called adelphotheos - brother of God)

    James - one of Jesus brothers (an icon of James the Just called adelphotheos - brother of God)

    Jesus’ Brothers
    Gibbon notes the very interesting history of Jude – the brother of Jesus. Mary was held to be a virgin her whole life, and Joseph was held to be celibate (by the Western church) his whole life. This left a problem in the New Testament with reference to Jesus’ brothers, since neither Mary or Joseph would have been able to have more children.

    The Gnostics and the Orthodox had (an un-celibate) Joseph marrying a second time, thus giving Jesus step-brothers. The West (after Jerome) had Joseph being celibate his whole life, and so made all references to brothers of Jesus in the New Testament re-understood as really meaning first cousins (ex. Jude, and later Simon, and James).

    A very intricate, and interesting distinction – I had no idea that the interpretation of the Bible on this point was so involved.

    For an interesting story about the descendants of Jesus’ family see Descendants in Wiki Jude. Gibbon notes that this (the account of Jude) is the supposed 1st Persecution under Domitian (see above in The Story).

    Quotable Gibbon: On the Rape of Virgins as a Constant Theme in Martyr Histories
    Gibbon is beside himself with the increasingly lascivious, graphic, X-rated content of the histories of the Martyrs in later centuries (ex. the 400’s, 500’s). You can almost feel the exasperation and discomfort leaping off the page.

    Gibbon tells the story in a footnote (DEF v.1, ch.16, p.539, fn.65) of a young man, chained naked on a bed of flowers, and assaulted repeatedly by a beautiful woman, who saved himself by biting off his own tongue (how exactly, except for the pain, did that help?). (see Jerome – the Legend of Paul the Hermit). What an imagination these monks had! – (Sorry, I know this post is getting long, but some of this is just too good to pass up).

    This per Gibbon: “The monks of succeeding ages, who, in their peaceful solitudes, entertained themselves with diversifying the deaths and sufferings of the primitive martyrs, have frequently invented torments of a much more refined and ingenious nature. In particular, it has pleased them to suppose that the zeal of the Roman magistrates, disdaining every consideration of moral virtue or public decency, endeavoured to seduce those whom they were unable to vanquish, and that by their orders the most brutal violence was offered to those whom they found it impossible to seduce. It is related that pious females, who were prepared to despise death, were sometimes condemned to a more severe trial, and called upon to determine whether they set a higher value on their religion or on their chastity. The youths to whose licentious embraces they were abandoned received a solemn exhortation from the judge to exert their most strenuous efforts to maintain the honour of Venus against the impious virgin who refused to burn incense on her altars. Their violence, however, was commonly disappointed, and the seasonable interposition of some miraculous power preserved the chaste spouses of Christ from the dishonour even of an involuntary defeat. We should not indeed neglect to remark that the more ancient as well as authentic memorials of the church are seldom polluted with these extravagant and indecent fictions” (DEF v.1, ch.16, pp.538-539)

    Emperor Domitian (90's CE) - an able emperor, but remembered for his Christian persecutions - Gibbon points out that these persecutions involved only a handful of people - hardly a vicious state policy of religious murder and intolerance

    Emperor Domitian (90's CE) - an able emperor, but remembered for his Christian persecutions - Gibbon points out that these persecutions involved only a handful of people - hardly a vicious state policy of religious murder and intolerance

    Persecutions: On the Small Number of Martyrs
    Gibbon notes that Origen (early 200’s) considers the total number of martyrs to be inconsiderable (very few in Origen’s words “oligoi – Origen advers.Celsum 1.iii) (DEF v.1, ch.16, p.540, fn.72).

    In Gibbon’s words: “The martyrs, devoted to immediate execution by the Roman magistrates, appear to have been selected from the most opposite extremes. They were either bishops and presbyters, the persons the most distinguished among the Christians by their rank and influence, and whose example might strike terror into the whole sect; or else they were the meanest and most abject among them, particularly those of the servile condition, whose lives were esteemed of little value, and whose sufferings were viewed by the ancients with too careless an indifference. The learned Origen, who, from his experience as well as readings, was intimately acquainted with the history of the Christians, declares, in the most express terms, that the number of martyrs was very inconsiderable. His authority would alone be sufficient to annihilate that formidable army of martyrs, whose relics, drawn for the most part from the catacombs of Rome, have replenished so many churches, and whose marvellous achievements have been the subject of so many volumes of holy romance. But the general assertion of Origen may be explained and confirmed by the particular testimony of his friend Dionysius, who, in the immense city of Alexandria, and under the rigorous persecution of Decius, reckons only ten men and seven women who suffered for the profession of the Christian name”. (DEF v.1, ch.16, pp.540-541).


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