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204 RECAPITULATION: WEAKNESS OF POLYTHEISM. CuAP. XV.
"If such irregularities are suffered with impunity (it is thus that the bishop of Carthage chides the lenity of his colleague), "if such irre"gularities are suffered, there is an end of Episcopal Vigour ;149 "an end of the sublime and divine power of governing the Church; "an end of Christianity itself." Cyprian had renounced those temporal honours which it is probable he would never have obtained; but the acquisition of such absolute command over the consciences and understanding of a congregation, however obscure or despised by the world, is more truly grateful to the pride of the human heart than the possession of the most despotic power imposed by arms and conquest on a reluctant people.
In the course of this important, though perhaps tedious, inquiry, I
have attempted to display the secondary causes which so tionoftho efficaciously assisted the truth of the Christian religion. If
among these causes we have discovered any artificial ornaments, any accidental circumstances, or any mixture of error and passion, it cannot appear surprising that mankind should be the most sensibly affected by such motives as were suited to their imperfect nature. It was by the aid of these causes—exclusive zeal, the immediate expectation of another world, the claim of miracles, the practice of rigid virtue, and the constitution of the primitive church—that Christianity spread itself with so much success in the Roman empire. To the first of these the Christians were indebted for their invincible valour, which disdained to capitulate with the enemy whom they were resolved to vanquish. The three succeeding causes supplied their valour with the most formidable arms. The last of these causes united their courage, directed their arms, and gave their efforts that irresistible weight which even a small band of well-trained and intrepid volunteers has so often possessed over an undisciplined mulweakness of titude, ignorant of the subject and careless of the event of polytheism. j.ne wan jn f.ne various religions of Polytheism, some
wandering fanatics of Egypt and Syria, who addressed themselves to the credulous superstition of the populace, were perhaps the only order of priests150 that derived their whole support and credit from their sacerdotal profession, and were very deeply affected by a personal concern for the safety or prosperity of their tutelar deities. The ministers of Polytheism, both in Rome and in the provinces, were, for the most part, men of a noble birth and of an affluent fortune, who received, as an honourable distinction, the care of a celebrated temple or of a public sacrifice, exhibited, very frequently
1,9 Cyprian Epist. G9 .
lao The arts, the manners, and the vices of the priests of the Syrian goddess are very humorously described by Apuloius, in the eighth book of his Metamorphoses.
Chap. XV. Advantages Of Pagan Scepticism. 205
at their own expense, the sacred games,151 and with cold indifference performed the ancient rites, according to the laws and fashion of their country. As they were engaged in the ordinary occupations of life, their zeal and devotion were seldom animated by a sense of interest, or by the habits of an ecclesiastical character. Confined to their respective temples and cities, they remained without any connection of discipline or government; and whilst they acknowledged the supreme jurisdiction of the senate, of the college of pontiffs, and of the emperor, those civil magistrates contented themselves with the easy task of maintaining in peace and dignity the general worship of mankind. We have already seen how various, how loose, and how uncertain were the religious sentiments of Polytheists. They were abandoned, almost without control, to the natural workings of a superstitious fancy. The accidental circumstances of their life and situation determined the object as well as the degree of their devotion; and as long as their adoration was successively prostituted to a thousand deities, it was scarcely possible that their hearts could be susceptible of a very sincere or lively passion for any of them.
When Christianity appeared in the world, even these faint and imperfect impressions had lost much of their original power. The «xpaHuman reason, which by its unassisted strength is incapable p»g»n world of perceiving the mysteries of faith, had already obtained favourable
„ , to I lit' new
an easy triumph over the folly of Paganism; and when religion; Tertullian or Lactantius employ their labours in exposing its falsehood and extravagance, they are obliged to transcribe the eloquence of Cicero or the wit of Lucian. The contagion of these sceptical writings had been diffused far beyond the number of their readers. The fashion of incredulity was communicated from the philosopher to the man of pleasure or business, from the noble to the plebeian, and from the master to the menial slave who waited at his table, and who eagerly listened to the freedom of his conversation. On public occasions the philosophic part of mankind affected to treat with respect and decency the religious institutions of their country, but their secret contempt penetrated through the thin and awkward disguise; and even the people, when they discovered that their deities were rejected and derided by those whose rank or understanding they were accustomed to reverence, were filled with doubts and apprehensions concerning the truth of those doctrines to which they had yielded the
1,1 The office of Asiarcli was of this nature, and it is frequently mentioned in Aristides, the Inscriptions, &c. It was annual and elective. None but the vainest citizens could desire the honour; none but the most wealthy could support the expense. See in the Patres Apostol. torn. ii. p. 200 [Epist. Eccl. Smyrn. de Martyrio Polycarpi, c. 12], with how much indifference Philip the Asiarch conducted himself in the martyrdom of Polycarp. There were likewise Bithyniarchs, Lyciarchs, &c.
JJ06 ADVANTAGES OF PAGAN SCEPTICISM. Cuap. XV.
most implicit belief. The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation. A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favoured the establishment of Polytheism. So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. Some deities of a more recent and fashionable cast might soon have occupied the deserted temples of Jupiter and Apollo, if, in the decisive moment, the wisdom of Providence had not interposed a genuine revelation fitted to inspire the most rational esteem and conviction, whilst, at the same time, it was adorned with all that could attract the curiosity, the wonder, and the veneration of the people. In their actual disposition, as many were almost disengaged from their artificial prejudices, but equally susceptible and desirous of a devout attachment, an object much less deserving would have been sufficient to fill the vacant place in their hearts, and to gratify the uncertain eagerness of their passions. Those who are inclined to pursue this reflection, instead of viewing with astonishment the rapid progress of Christianity, will perhaps be surprised that its success was not still more rapid and still more universal.
It has been observed, with truth as well as propriety, that
the conquests of Rome prepared and facilitated those of
the peace Christianity. In the second chapter of this work we have
nrnl union of , , . . . , .....
the Roman attempted to explain in what manner the most civilized provinces of Europe, Asia, and Africa were united under the dominion of one sovereign, and gradually connected by the most intimate ties of laws, of manners, and of language. The Jews of Palestine, who had fondly expected a temporal deliverer, gave so cold a reception to the miracles of the divine prophet, that it was found unnecessary to publish, or at least to preserve, any Hebrew gospel.152 The authentic histories of the actions of Christ were composed in the Greek language, at a considerable distance from
,a The modern critics are not disposed to believe what the fathers almost unanimously assert, that St. Matthew composed a Hebrew gospel, of which only the Greek translation is extant. It seems, however, dangerous to reject their testimony.*
* The best Biblical scholars since Gib- gospel of St. Matthew was originally bon's time have maintained that the written in Hebrew.—S.
CUA.P. XV. PROGRESS OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE EAST. 207
Jerusalem, and after the Gentile converts were grown extremely numerous.1''3 As soon as those histories were translated into the Latin tongue they were perfectly intelligible to all the subjects of Rome, excepting only to the peasants of Syria and Egypt, for whose benefit particular versions were afterwards made. The public highways, which had been constructed for the use of the legions, opened an easy passage for the Christian missionaries from Damascus to Corinth, and from Italy to the extremity of Spain or Britain; nor did those spiritual conquerors encounter any of the obstacles which usually retard or prevent the introduction of a foreign religion into a distant country. There is the strongest reason to believe that before the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine the faith of Christ had been preached in every province, and in all the great cities of the empire; but the foundation of the several congregations, Historical the numbers of the faithful who composed them, and their TM,TM|,*f proportion to the unbelieving multitude, are now buried in frirutiunity. obscurity or disguised by fiction and declamation. Such imperfect circumstances, however, as have reached our knowledge concerning the increase of the Christian name in Asia and Greece, in Egypt, in Italy, and in the West, we shall now proceed to relate, without neglecting the real or imaginary acquisitions which lay beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.
The rich provinces that extend from the Euphrates to the Ionian sea were the principal theatre on which the apostle of the Gentilc3 displayed his zeal and piety. The seeds of the Gospel, which he had scattered in a fertile soil, were diligently cultivated by his disciples; and it should seem that, during the two first centuries, the most considerable body of Christians was contained within those limits. Among the societies which were instituted in Syria, none were more ancient or more illustrious than those of Damascus, of Beroea or Aleppo, and of Antioch. The prophetic introduction of the Apocalypse has described and immortalised the seven churches of Asia—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira,1-* Sardes, Laodicea, and Philadelphia; and their colonies were soon
IM Under the reigns of Nero and Domitian, and in the cities of Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Ephesus. See Mill, Prolegomena ad Nov. Testament., and Dr. Lardner's fair and extensive collection, vol. xv."
**• The Alogians (Epiphanius de Hieres. 51 [p. 45.r>, ed. Paris, 1622]) disputed the genuineness of the Apocalypse, because the church of Thyatira was not yet founded. Epiphanius, who allowB the fact, extricates himself from the difficulty by ingeniously supposing that St. John wrote in the spirit of prophecy. See Abauzit, Discours sur V Apocalypse.
"This question has, it is well known, lation of Schleiermacher's version of St. been most elaborately discussed since the Luke contains a very able summary of the time of Gibbon. The Preface to the trtuiB- various theories.—M.
203 mOGRESS OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE EAST. Chap. XV.
diffused over that populous country. In a very early period, the islands of Cyprus and Crete, the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia, gave a favourable reception to the new religion; and Christian republics were soon founded in the cities of Corinth, of Sparta, and of Athens.155 The antiquity of the Greek and Asiatic churches allowed a sufficient space of time for their increase and multiplication; and even the swarms of Gnostics and other heretics serve to display the flourishing condition of the orthodox church, since the appellation of heretics has always been applied to the less numerous party. To these domestic testimonies we may add the confession, the complaints, and the apprehensions of the Gentiles themselves. From the writings of Lucian, a philosopher who had studied mankind, and who describes their manners in the most lively colours, we may learn that, under the reign of Commodus, his native country of Pontus was filled with Epicureans and Christians.1TM Within fourscore years after the death of Christ,157 the humane Pliny laments the magnitude of the evil which he vainly attempted to eradicate. In his very curious epistle to the emperor Trajan he affirms that the temples were almost deserted, that the sacred victims scarcely found any purchasers, and that the superstition had not only infected the cities, but had even spread itself into the villages and the open country of Pontus and Bithynia.158
Without descending into a minute scrutiny of the expressions or of The church the motives of those writers who either celebrate or lament of Antioch. tjje progress of Christianity in the East, it may in general be observed that none of them have left us any grounds from whence a just estimate might be formed of the real numbers of the faithful in those provinces. One circumstance, however, has been fortunately preserved, which seems to cast a more distinct light on this obscure but interesting subject. Under the reign of Theodosius, after Christianity had enjoyed, during more than sixty years, the sunshine of Imperial
145 The epistles of Ignatius and Dionysius (ap. Euseb. iv. 2:5) point out many churches in Asia and Greece. That of Athens seems to have been one of the least flourishing.
156 Lucian in Alexandra, c. 25. Christianity, however, must have been very unequally diffused over Pontus; since, in the middle of the third century, there we're no more thau seventeen believers in the extensive diocese of Neo-Csesarea. See M. de Tillemont, Memoires Eccldsiast. torn. iv. p. 075, from Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, who were themselves natives of Cappadocia."
157 According to the ancients, Jesus Christ suffered under the consulship of the two Gemini, in the year 29 of our present tcra. Pliny was sent into Bithynia (according to Pagi) in the year 110.>> '» pijn. Kpist. x. 97.
"Gibbon forgot the conclusion of this of the wonder-worker.—M. story, that Gregory left only seventeen *> Pliny was sent into Bithynia in the
heathens in his diocese. The antithesis is year 103. See Clinton, Fast. Bom. vol. i.
suspicious, and both numbers may have p. 89.—S. been chosen to magnify the spiritual fame