The history of the early Christian church was traditionally written by clergymen—ecclesiastical historians or theologians—who had their own methods, criteria and style. In particular they tended to follow the example of their founder, Eusebius, in taking a teleological view of their subject, and consequently in discerning in the history of the church an unbroken thread of correct belief or orthodoxy leading from the age of the Apostles to the historiographer’s own time. These assumptions, which affected even those who aspired to reject them, enabled the history of the church to be separated from that of late antique society, of which it was a part.
Edward Gibbon, as befitted a representative of the Enlightenment, tried to break away from this ecclesiastical particularism, but few of his immediate successors followed his example. In more recent times some of the pioneers of socialism saw in the rise and eventual triumph of Christianity a prefiguration of the transition from capitalism to socialism which they strove to realize. In so doing they tended to oversimplify matters and to interpret Christianity as primarily the ideology of an oppressed class. Among others Engels and Kautsky, and to some extent Lenin, fell into this trap. Since 1917 socialists have been concerned with more pressing problems than the history of the early church, and the ‘oppressed class’ theory has tended to recede into the background, without however being rejected. At the same time the development of sociology as an autonomous discipline and the renewed interest in late antiquity—itself in part a reflection of the deeper preoccupations of our own society—have led to new approaches, new questions and new answers to the old problem of how a group of dissident rural Palestinian Jews became the nucleus of an empire-wide and city-based religion, which eventually provided the dominant ideology of the European Middle Ages, and which today still plays an important role in much of the world.
In the last few years many books have appeared which look with fresh eyes at the history of the early church as part of the history of late Roman society.footnote1 The two books which are the subject of the present review bear witness to the continuing interest which the topic arouses and to the stimulus which it provides to historical thought. Robin Lane Fox is an ancient historian. Like his earlier Alexander the Great (London, 1981), his present book, Pagans and Christians,footnote2 has become a best-seller, an expression to which I do not attach a pejorative sense. Long and beautifully written, the book offers an amazingly rich tapestry of fact and anecdote, narrative and argument, out of which emerge the complex and occasionally surprising continuities and breaks between the coexistent worlds of paganism and Christianity. It falls into three parts. The first describes pagan religious life in the second to fourth centuries—the relation of gods and their cults to cities and those who dwelt in them, and the many ways in which the gods communicated with their worshippers, by appearing visibly in dreams or waking visions, by speaking in oracles, by displaying their power in miraculous interventions. The second surveys the gradual spread of Christianity and some of its manifestations—asceticism and rejection of the world, prophecy and visions, reaction to intermittent persecution, in particular martyrdom and its effects, and the growth of episcopal authority. In the third part Lane Fox examines the relations within the church—or churches—between soft and hard Christians. This is not a book which can be summarized. But some important points emerge with striking clarity. First, paganism was not dying on its feet, as has often been suggested, and indeed still is, as by Alain Ducellier in his otherwise admirable Byzance et le monde orthodoxe (Paris 1986) who writes on p. 22 `propos of the age of Constantine that ‘paganism, which was simply a combination of heterogeneous and often contradictory beliefs and cults, became more a cultural fact than a truly religious one; for the people, it was hardly more than a habit, and only the elites, who made it an essential element of their class-pride, gave it a deeper meaning.’ On the contrary, religious festivals and processions offered spectacle, food and fun to whole communities and at the same time served to confirm the social order. There was much private, non-official, ritual centred on an immense variety of cult sites. There were countless religious associations of the humble, which afforded a sense of belonging and reassurance, and which could provide some kind of paradigm for the small Christian communities in the cities, though it would be a mistake to see those communities as just another kind of religious association with limited aims. There seems to have been a growth or revival of the ‘mystery’ religions, in which myth and cult were inseparably linked, which were often concerned with life after death, and which were exclusive in a way in which public religious cults were not. These provided a pattern into which Jewish and Christian religious practices might be fitted—which perhaps explains why Christian writers of the period attack mystery cults with such ferocity.
All over the Greek world—though less in the Latin west; why?—oracles flourished as never before. Lane Fox gives a fascinating account of the modus operandi of some of them and of the questions addressed to them. Many fraudulent oracular responses circulated, a token of the demand for such things. The most noteworthy were the ‘Chaldaean oracles’, which gained the serious attention of Neoplatonists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the Sibylline oracles’, which were given Jewish and Christian interpretations. The ‘Chaldaean oracles’ appeared in six printed editions in the course of the sixteenth century. And a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar, perhaps Thomas of Celano, paired the Sibyl with the Psalmist in the opening stanza of the magnificent sequence which still forms part of the Mass for the Dead in the western church:
Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeclum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.