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THE HISTOEY

OF THE

DECLINE AND FALL OF THE EOMAN EMPIRE
CHAPTER XV

The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners,
Numbers, and Condition, of the primitive Christians

A Candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establish- imports, of
ment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part""taqair7
of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body
was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a
pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds
of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour
from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of
the cross on the ruins of the Capitol. Nor was the influence of
Christianity confined to the period or to the limits of the
Roman empire. After a revolution of thirteen or fourteen
centuries, that religion is still professed by the nations of
Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in arts
and learning as well as in arms. By the industry and zeal of
the Europeans it has been widely diffused to the most distant
shores of Asia and Africa; and by the means of their colonies
has been firmly established from Canada to Chili, in a world
unknown to the ancients.

But this inquiry, however useful or entertaining, is attended it< difficulties with two peculiar difficulties. The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church. The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed. But the scandal of the pious Christian, and the fallacious triumph of VOL. II. 1

the Infidel, should cease as soon as they recollect not only by whom, but likewise to whom, the Divine Revelation was given. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings. FiMammef Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means chrtftiknity0 the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But, as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose; we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church. It will, perhaps, appear that it was most effectually favoured and assisted by the five following causes: I. The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. II. The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth. III. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians. V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire. The First I. We have already described the religious harmony of the rfth.Ei.w?*lancient world, and the facility with which the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other's superstitions. A single people refused to join in the common intercourse of mankind. The Jews, who, under the Assyrian and Persian monarchies, had languished for many ages the most despised portion of their slaves,1 emerged from

: i'Dum Assyrios penes, Medosque, et Persas Oriens fuit, despectissima pars servientium. Tacit. Hist. v. 8. Herodotus, who visited Asia whilst it obeyed the obscurity under the successors of Alexander; and, as they multiplied to a surprising degree in the East, and afterwards in the West, they soon excited the curiosity and wonder of other nations.2 The sullen obstinacy with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners seemed to mark them out a distinct species of men, who boldly professed, or who faintly disguised, their implacable hatred to the rest of human kind.3 Neither the violence of Antiochus, nor the arts of Herod, nor the example of the circumjacent nations, could ever persuade the Jews to associate with the institutions of Moses the elegant mythology of the Greeks.4 According to the maxims of universal toleration, the Romans protected a superstition which they despised.* The polite Augustus condescended to give orders that sacrifices should be offered for his prosperity in the temple of Jerusalem ;6 while the meanest of the posterity of Abraham, who should have paid the same homage to the Jupiter of the Capitol, would have been an object of abhorrence to himself and to his brethren. But the moderation of the conquerors was insufficient to appease the jealous prejudices of their subjects, who were alarmed and scandalized at the ensigns of paganism, which necessarily introduced themselves into a Roman province.7 The mad attempt of Caligula to place his own statue in the temple of Jerusalem was defeated by the unanimous resolution of a people

last of those empires, slightly mentions the Syrians of Palestine, who, according to their own confession, had received from Egypt the rite of circumcision. See 1. ii. c. 104.

1 Diodorus Siculus, L xl. [2 sgq.\ Dion Cassius, 1. xxxvii. p. 121 [c. 17J. Tacit. Hist. v. 1—9. Justin, xxxvi. 2, 3.

3 Tradidit arcano quaecunque volumine Moses. Non monstrare vias eadem nisi sacra colenti, Quaesitum ad fontem solos deducere verpos. [Juvenal, xiv. 102.] The letter of this law is not to be found in the present volume of Moses. But the wise, the humane Maimonides openly teaches that, if an idolater fall into the water, a Jew ought not to save him from instant death. Sec Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, 1. vi. c. 28.

* A Jewish sect, which indulged themselves in a sort of occasional conformity, derived from Herod, by whose example and authority they had been seduced, the name of Herodians. But their numbers were so inconsiderable, and their duration so short, that Josephus has not thought them worthy of his notice. See Prideaux's Connection, vol. ii. p. 285.

* Cicero pro Flacco, c. 28.

•Philo de Legatione. Augustus left a foundation for a perpetual sacrifice. Yet he approved of the neglect which his grandson Cains expressed towards the temple of Jerusalem. See Sueton. in August, c. 93, and Casaubon's notes on that passage.

'See, in particular, Joseph. Antiquitat. xvii. 6 [§ 2], xviii. 3, and de Bel. Judaic. L 33 [§ 2 sqq.\ and ii. 9 [§ 2, 3]. Edit. Havercamp.

who dreaded death much less than such an idolatrous profanation.8 Their attachment to the law of Moses was equal to their detestation of foreign religions. The current of zeal and devotion, as it was contracted into a narrow channel, ran with the strength, and sometimes with the fury, of a torrent. iu grado*] This inflexible perseverance, which appeared so odious, or so ridiculous, to the ancient world, assumes a more awful character, since Providence has deigned to reveal to us the mysterious history of the chosen people. But the devout, and even scrupulous, attachment to the Mosaic religion, so conspicuous among the Jews who lived under the second temple, becomes still more surprising, if it is compared with the stubborn incredulity of their forefathers. When the law was given in thunder from Mount Sinai; when the tides of the ocean and the course of the planets were suspended for the convenience of the Israelites; and when temporal rewards and punishments were the immediate consequences of their piety or disobedience; they perpetually relapsed into rebellion against the visible majesty of their Divine King, placed the idols of the nations in the sanctuary of Jehovah, and imitated every fantastic ceremony that was practised in the tents of the Arabs or in the cities of Phoenicia.'■' As the protection of Heaven was deservedly withdrawn from the ungrateful race, their faith acquired a proportionable degree of vigour and purity. The contemporaries of Moses and Joshua had beheld, with careless indifference, the most amazing miracles. Under the pressure of every calamity, the belief of those miracles has preserved the Jews of a later period from the universal contagion of idolatry; and, in contradiction to every known principle of the human mind, that singular people seems to have yielded a stronger and more ready assent to the traditions of their remote ancestors than to the evidence of their own

8Jussi a Caio Caesare, effigiem ejus in templo locare arma potius sumpsere. Tacit. Hist. v. 9. Philo and Josephus gave a very circumstantial, but a very rhetorical, account of this transaction, which exceedingly perplexed the governor of Syria. At the first mention of this idolatrous proposal, King Agrippa fainted away; and did not recover his senses till the third day.

• For the enumeration of the Syrian and Arabian deities, it may be observed that Milton has comprised, in one hundred and thirty very beautiful lines, the two large and learned syntagmas which Selden had composed on that abstruse subject.

TM " How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they Mint mc, for all the signs which I have shewn among them?" (Numbers, xiv. 11). It would be easy, but it would be unbecoming, to justify the complaint of the Deity, from the whole tenor of the Mosaic history.

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