After a particularly intense bout of official persecutions, the pagan emperor Gallienus granted Christians the first ever Edict of Toleration in CE 261.
“To the bishops,” it was addressed: “I have ordered the bounty of my gift to be declared through the world that the pagans should depart from your places of worship.”
Gallienus continues: “And for this purpose you may use this copy of my rescript that no one may molest you.”
Of course, these privileges “which you are now enabled lawfully to do,” Gallienus is quick to note, “have already for a long time been conceded by me,” at least, in theory.
“Therefore Aurelius Cyrenius,” the edict concludes, “who is the chief administrator of affairs, will observe this ordinance which I have given.”
He wasn’t doing them a favor; State suppression, the more familiar tack, had only turned the new religionists bolder. Left to their own devices, Christians mostly kept to themselves.
They were obnoxious, sure. Their ideology the most intolerant of progressivisms and their incessant refrain that there were no gods but God threatened, quite literally, to unstitch society. But in practice, they were inocuous, or tried to be.
Their most influential figure, Paul, had exhorted them to lead quiet lives, to work with their hands, to be good neighbors, to mind their own bloody business. And some of them had complied. But lynchings, sporadic and public, had emboldened them.
They disbelieved in “Heros,” because humanity was sinful, and “every inclination of the heart was wickedness” (Gen 6:5), but to die willingly, peaceably, wishing good for your murderer, was a kind of sanctified “antiheroism,” which they called “martyrdom.”
And so long as they romanticized a Jesus-shaped death, they could not be contained through heavy-handed coercion. They were better left alone by the State: While persecutions bred devotion, comfort might breed nominalism.
As such, a plan was hatched: Gallienus would lay off the bloodshed and the sharpest minds available would be commissioned to slay the Christic Beast in a wholly different way: Good old-fashioned debate.
As it turns out, the greatest of these sparring partners had been dead for 80 years. Celsus, the celebrated polemicist, wrote a sprawling work somewhere in the final decades of the second century cataloguing in painstaking detail the extent of the Christian menace.
“Anyone ignorant, or stupid, uneducated, or childish,” he wrote, “By the fact that the Galileans (Christians) admit that these people are ‘worthy of God,’ they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children.”
He thought it was an insult. “They would never enter a gathering of intelligent men,” he goes on. “But whenever they see adolescent boys and a crowd of slaves and a company of fools they push themselves in and show off.”
For Celsus, the measure of an ideology is the breed of folks it appeals to. “We see wool workers, cobblers, laundry workers, the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and masters,” he sneers. “And the Gallileans persuade them to their folly.”
His gripes weren’t new. About a century earlier, Tacitus (at his most Nietzschean) accused the Galileans of “hatred of the human race,” which carried with it a few associations: They only rarely married outsiders, condemned and abstained from gladiatorial games, avoided governmental positions because that often required one to deliver ‘death sentences’ (on which they frowned most vocally).
And more: Although they raised no objection to the existence of the military per se, Christian soldiers were forbidden from the act of killing, even in combat, which struck the average Roman as unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst.
There was a kind of pseudo-“religious pluralism” in the empire, but only in the sense that occupants were allowed to sacrifice to whichever cult they found most palatable. Irreligion was virulently opposed, as was any religious practice or conviction that may detract from your “patriotism.” You were free, in other words, to choose from an array of sanctioned cultic devotions which were carefully curated to ensure that your relationship to the gods did not hinder your usefulness to the emperor. Christianity was a spoke in Rome’s wheel.
So the “human race,” in this context, very much meant the machinery of Rome – because that’s what “humanity” was, in those days, in the empire. Those who were conducive (in the right ways) to the flourishing of Rome were “humans,” and those who weren’t, weren’t.
There were some loose parameters by which this might be gauged: The “nobility” were “human” by virtue of their birth. The logic was not complicated: Humans give birth to humans. Beasts don’t. If you were born in the underclass, you were born “subhuman.”
Your lot may not be entirely hopeless: Over generations, a proletarian “beast” might, by some good fortune, climb the hierarchical ladder and acquire citizenship for themselves, which conferred “humanity” upon the recipient – generally. There were exceptions, and your citizenship (and with it your “humanity”) was disproportionately easy to lose, a fact which likely weighed on every natural born citizen. There was a kind of cosmic intersection between “the flourishing of Rome” and the stratifying of its occupants into varying gradations of “humanness,” the hierarchy itself imbued with religious significance as each caste played its role in currying the favor of the gods. The Christians, by virtue of existing, disrupted this balance.
“We do not go to your feast but we patronize your industries,” replied Tertullian. “We do not buy Laurel crowns but we buy flowers. We do not buy incense for temples but we do for burial.”
More to the the point, “We do not contribute to the temples but we give more for alms than you do,” he said, and of course, “We improve business in that we do not defraud.” Thus, whatever objections their detractors may have, they “really lose by putting us to death because if we are Christians we are good men. If we are not good men, we are not truly Christians.” The measure of one’s fitness to carry on in the community (rather uniquely) was not in their “strength,” or “virility,” but their goodness.
Elsewhere, Origen insisted that the habits and norms with which “the name of Jesus” imbues His followers not only oughtn’t be threatening or suspicious, but also that His name “implants a wonderful meekness and tranquility of character, and a love to mankind and a kindness and gentleness.”
In other words, what appeared to Tacitus and Celsus to be “a hatred of the human race” was in fact the opposite. The Galileans didn’t “hate the human race. They redefined “human.” The Romans saw in their borderline pacifism a “hatred for the human race” because this potentially jeopardized Rome’s ability to defend its interests at home and abroad through force. But the Galileans refused to take a sword to the necks of Rome’s enemies – because Rome’s enemies were human, too. There was no “cultural grammar” for this. It just looked like obstinacy.
In a way, Gallienus got his wish. The early Church’s most impressive idiosyncrasies did not last forever. As Galileanism transitioned from utter obscurity into the dominant cultural force in the once-pagan empire, it became increasingly difficult to prevent cultural syncretism, often to disastrous results.
It was customary, for example, for the emperor to redirect State funds toward the cult of his preference. As a matter of course, then, the whole populace would be taxed in service thereof, and the cultic beneficiaries would change each time the emperor did. Typically, this was carried out with minimal consequences on the ground. While there was a kind of “patronage” system in which the Patrician class would make incredibly public (and generally negligible) donations to “the poor,” the pagan temples played a marginal role in this, so the shifting of State resources from one cult to the next was never earth-shattering.
But how, exactly, would Constantine, whose chosen cult, in an unprecedented move, was the cult of the Galileans, carry out redirecting State funds to a group who, unique among the religions of the empire, wholly denied the legitimacy of all of its competing cults? Rather brutishly, it turns out. He forcibly seized a number of pagan temples and bestowed them to Galileans for use as churches. Responses were mixed and many opposed the move, but the Galileans were in no position to turn down a gift from the emperor, and this practice became a barbarous precedent.
These tensions came to a head when, some time after emperor Theodosius I had banned Pagan sacrifices outright, the Bishop of Alexandria sought to renovate an abandoned temple for use as a church.
Alexandria had, for centuries, been perhaps the most of violent city in the empire, and when the renovation crew found human bones beneath the temple, certain groups declared the project to be a “burial desecration.” A riot broke out, and violent mobs began targeting Christians throughout the city.
As Christian retaliations, unfortunately, began, the mobs dwindled. In a panic, a group of them kidnapped several Christians and walled themselves in the abandoned temple of Serapis. No one was able to breach the walls of the Temple; The captors tortured and then killed their hostages.
Afraid that rogue outfits might seek vengeance by targeting pagans throughout the city, Theodosius declared the slain hostages to be martyrs. Lest the Serapeum itself become a monument for past grudges, he ordered it demolished. To avoid the issue in the future, several other abandoned temples were demolished, and the pagan idols therein were melted down and (in another move that became precedent) their precious metals redistributed to the poor.
So the relationship between the Church, which had its roots as an “alt-community” whose strange egalitarian social vision had proven contagious among those on the margins of imperial city life, and the dominant culture of Rome proved mutually modifying. Which is to say that the Church was enculturating elements of the empire even as it was inculturating its own values into the very structure of Rome. So much so, for example, that when the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate did finally wrench control back from a line of Christian emperors, the empire was already irreversibly changed.
There was no use, he realized, in trying to reclaim the empire for “the paganism of old.” Christianity had redefined “humanity,” had rendered unsustainable the stories that Rome told about itself.
Less inspiring but equally consequential, the razing of many pagan temples had cataclysmic effects on the populace that went beyond simply depriving pagans of places to worship. In the popular imagination, many of these temples, like the Serapeum, were believed to be indestructible – they were protected, the story went, by supernatural forces who would strike down any mortal who laid violent hands on them.
So when, only a few decades after Julian, a demolition crew took a hammer to the temple statue of Serapis after the great riot and were not struck down from above, what was left of the cult of Serapis largely jumped ship and sought catechesis among the Galileans instead – the Galilean had quite literally killed the gods.
Even before the Serapeum incident, Julian realized that if there was to be any popular “revival” of the old religions, paganism itself would have to change. So he set about on a project to bring popular paganism into greater conformity with the egalitarian norms embodied by the Galileans. Pagan temples were converted into community centers, in a sense, so that, like the churches that had now come to displace them, they would also be food pantries, lodging centers, refuges. Even where Christianity did not eclipse paganism, it transformed it.
The result being that only a handful of centuries after Celsus, the habits that he mocked in the Galileans had begun to remake the world. Celsus did not live long enough to be gloriously disappointed by this turn of events, which is a shame, I suppose, for those folks who like to “keep score.” But it wasn’t a shame. Because Rome’s capitulation, largely from the ground up, and not vice versa, to the strange ethos of the Galileans he so derided meant, among other things, that his great, great, great grandchildren grew up in a better Rome, and a better world, and their grandchildren, too.