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
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.
There seem to have been more prophetic and charismatic individuals around than in the early empire, though this may be the result of the patchiness of our sources. Men and women often dreamed of the pagan gods. Lane Fox has made good use of the handbook on interpretation of dreams by Artemidorus of Daldis (second century), which offers a rich quarry of information on ancient belief and feeling.
In the old days the gods had walked among men and ‘stood beside’ them—the phrase is Homer’s—in moments of crisis. By late antiquity an epiphany was a rare, and usually profoundly alarming, occurrence. But oracles and dreams made the gods readily accessible to those who desired their help. They had not retired to some philosophical and comfortably upper-class heaven, but were very much in business here on earth. They were powerful, but unpredictable and terrible in their wrath. Much pagan religious behaviour was concerned with averting their anger, provoked by human neglect.