Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

CHAP. XV.

PROGRESS OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE EAST.

207

the reigns ofy. There is the introduction of a for the obstacles

Jerusalem, and after the Gentile converts were grown extremely numerous.153 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 view of the proportion to the unbelieving multitude, are now buried in Christianity. 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..

In the East. Gentiles 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 Berca or Aleppo, and of Antioch. The prophetic introduction of the Apocalypse has described and immortalised the seven churches of Asia-Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, 1:4 Sardes, Laodicea, and Philadelphia ; and their colonies were soon

153 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.a

154 The Alogians (Epiphanius de Hæres. 51 (p. 455, ed. Paris, 1622]) disputed the genuineness of the Apocalypse, because the church of Thyatira was not yet founded. Epiphanius, who allows the fact, extricates himself from the difficulty by ingeniously supposing that St. John wrote in the spirit of prophecy. See Abauzit, Discours sur l'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 trans- various theories.-M.

203

PROGRESS 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.156 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. the 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

umane Pliny Tathin fourscore years was filled with

155 The epistles of Ignatius and Dionysius (ap. Euseb. iv. 23) point out many churches in Asia and Greece. That of Athens seems to have been one of the least flourishing.

156 Lucian in Alexandro, c. 25. Christianity, however, must have been very unequally diffused over Pontus; since, in the middle of the third century, there were no more than seventeen believers in the extensive diocese of Neo-Cæsarea. See M. de Tillemont, Mémoires Ecclésiast. tom. iv. p. 675, 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 æra. Pliny was sent into Bithynia (according to Pagi) in the year 110.6

158 Plin. Epist. x. 97.

a Gibbon forgot the conclusion of this of the wonder-worker.-M. story, that Gregory left only seventeen b Pliny was sent into Bithynia in the heathens in his diocese. The antithesis is year 103. See Clinton, Fast. Rom. vol. i. suspicious, and both numbers may have p. 89.--S. been chosen to magnify the spiritual fame

CHAP. XV.

THE CHURCH OF ANTIOCH.

209

favour, the ancient and illustrious church of Antioch consisted of one hundred thousand persons, three thousand of whom were supported out of the public oblations. 159 The splendour and dignity of the queen of the East, the acknowledged populousness of Cæsarea, Seleucia, and Alexandria, and the destruction of two hundred and fifty thousand souls in the earthquake which afflicted Antioch under the elder Justin,160 are so many convincing proofs that the whole number of its inhabitants was not less than half a million, and that the Christians, however multiplied by zeal and power, did not exceed a fifth part of that great city. How different a proportion must we adopt when we compare the persecuted with the triumphant church, the West with the East, remote villages with populous towns, and countries recently converted to the faith with the place where the believers first received the appellation of Christians! It must not, however, be dissembled that, in another passage, Chrysostom, to whom we are indebted for this useful information, computes the multitude of the faithful as even superior to that of the Jews and Pagans.161 But the solution of this apparent difficulty is easy and obvious. The eloquent preacher draws a parallel between the civil and the ecclesiastical constitution of Antioch ; between the list of Christians who had acquired heaven by baptism, and the list of citizens who had a right to share the public liberality. Slaves, strangers, and infants were comprised in the former; they were excluded from the latter.

The extensive commerce of Alexandria, and its proximity to Palestine, gave an easy entrance to the new religion. It was at first embraced by great numbers of the Therapeutæ, org Essenians, of the lake Mareotis, a Jewish sect which had abated much of its reverence for the Mosaic ceremonies. The austere life of the Essenians, their fasts and excommunications, the community of goods, the love of celibacy, their zeal for martyrdom, and the warmth though not the purity of their faith, already offered a very lively image of the

Egypt.

159 Chrysostom. Opera, tom. vii. p. 658, 810 [edit. Savil. ü. 422, 529].

160 John Malala, tom. ii. p. 144 [ed. Oxon.; p. 420, ed. Bonn). He draws the same conclusion with regard to the populousness of Antioch.

161 Chrysostom. tom. i. p. 592. I am indebted for these passages, though not for my inference, to the learned Dr. Lardner. Credibility of the Gospel History, vol. xii. p. 370.

a The statements of Chrysostom with than half the population. Gibbon has regard to the population of Antioch, what- neglected to notice the first passage, and ever may be their accuracy, are perfectly has drawn his estimate of the population consistent. In one passage he reckons of Antioch from other sources. The 3000 the population at 200,000. In a second maintained by alms were widows and virthe Christians at 100,000. In a third he gins alone.-M. states that the Christians formed more

VOL. II.

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

primitive discipline. 162 It was in the school of Alexandria that the Christian theology appears to have assumed a regular and scientifical form ; and when Hadrian visited Egypt, he found a church composed of Jews and of Greeks, sufficiently important to attract the notice of that inquisitive prince.163 But the progress of Christianity was for a long time confined within the limits of a single city, which was itself a foreign colony, and till the close of the second century the predecessors of Demetrius were the only prelates of the Egyptian church. Three bishops were consecrated by the hands of Demetrius, and the number was increased to twenty by his successor Heraclas.164 The body of the natives, a people distinguished by a sullen inflexibility of temper, 165 entertained the new doctrine with coldness and reluctance; and even in the time of Origen it was rare to meet with an Egyptian who had surmounted his early prejudices in favour of the sacred animals of his country.166 As soon, indeed, as Christianity ascended the throne, the zeal of those barbarians obeyed the prevailing impulsion; the cities of Egypt were filled with bishops, and the deserts of Thebais swarmed with hermits. A perpetual stream of strangers and provincials flowed into the

capacious bosom of Rome. Whatever was strange or

odious, whoever was guilty or suspected, might hope, in the obscurity of that immense capital, to elude the vigilance of the law. In such a various conflux of nations, every teacher, either of truth or of falsehood, every founder, whether of a virtuous or a criminal association, might easily multiply his disciples or accomplices. The Christians of Rome, at the time of the accidental persecution of Nero, are represented by Tacitus as already amounting to a very great multitude, 167 and the language of that great historian is almost similar to the style employed by Livy, when he relates the introduction and the suppression of the rites of Bacchus. After the Bacchanals had awakened the severity of the senate, it was likewise apprehended that a very great multitude, as it were another people, had been

In Rome.

162 Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, 1. ii. c. 20, 21, 22, 23, has examined with the most critical accuracy the curious treatise of Philo which describes the Therapeutæ. By proving that it was composed as early as the time of Augustus, Basnage has demonstrated, in spite of Eusebius (1. ii. c. 17), and a crowd of modern catholics, that the Therapeuta were neither Christians nor monks. It still remains probable that they changed their naine, preserved their manners, adopted some new articles of faith, and gradually became the fathers of the Egyptian Ascetics.

163 See a letter of Hadrian in the Augustan History, p. 245. [Vopisc. Saturn. c. 1.]

164 For the succession of Alexandrian bishops, consult Renaudot's History, p. 24, &c. This curious fact is preserved by the patriarch Eutychius (Annal. tom. i. p. 332, Vers. Pocock), and its internal evidence would alone be a sufficient answer to all the objections which Bishop Pearson has urged in the Vindiciæ Ignatianæ.

las Ammian Marcellin. xxii. 16.
166 Origen contra Celsum, 1. i. p. 40 (c. 52, tom. i. p. 368, ed. Bened.).
167 Ingens multitudo is the expression of Tacitus, xv. 44.

CHAP. XV.

IN AFRICA AND THE WESTERN PROVINCES.

211

initiated into those abhorred mysteries. A more careful inquiry soon demonstrated that the offenders did not exceed seven thousand ; a number indeed sufficiently alarming when considered as the object of public justice. 168 It is with the same candid allowance that we should interpret the vague expressions of Tacitus, and in a former instance of Pliny, when they exaggerate the crowds of deluded fanatics who had forsaken the established worship of the gods. The church of Rome was undoubtedly the first and most populous of the empire; and we are possessed of an authentic record which attests the state of religion in that city about the middle of the third century, and after a peace of thirty-eight years. The clergy, at that time, consisted of a bishop, forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, as many sub-deacons, forty-two acolythes, and fifty readers, exorcists, and porters. The number of widows, of the infirm, and of the poor, who were maintained by the oblations of the faithful, amounted to fifteen hundred.169 From reason, as well as from the analogy of Antioch, we may venture to estimate the Christians of Rome at about fifty thousand. The populousness of that great capital cannot perhaps be exactly ascertained; but the most modest calculation will not surely reduce it lower than a million of inhabitants, of whom the Christians might constitute at the most a twentieth part.170

The western provincials appeared to have derived the knowledge of Christianity from the same source which had diffused In Africa among them the language, the sentiments, and the manners ared tere of Rome. In this more important circumstance, Africa, as provinces. well as Gaul, was gradually fashioned to the imitation of the capital. Yet notwithstanding the many favourable occasions which might invite the Roman missionaries to visit their Latin provinces, it was late before they passed either the sea or the Alps; 171 nor can we discover in those great countries any assured traces either of faith or of persecution that ascend higher than the reign of the Antonines. 172

western

169 T. Liv. xxxix. 13, 15, 16, 17. Nothing could exceed the horror and consternation of the senate on the discovery of the Bacchanalians, whose depravity is described, and perhaps exaggerated, by Livy

165 Eusebius, 1. vi. c. 43. The Latin translator (M. de Valois) has thought proper to reduce the number of presbyters to forty-four.

170 This proportion of the presbyters and of the poor to the rest of the people was originally fixed by Burnet Travels into Italy, p. 168), and is approved by Moyle (vol. ii. p. 151). They were both unacquainted with the passage of Chrysostom, which converts their conjecture almost into a fact.

171 Serius trans Alpes, religione Dei susceptå. Sulpicius Severus, 1. i. [p. 383, ed. Lugd. Bat. 1647). With regard to Africa, see Tertullian ad Scapulam, c. 3. It is imagined that the Scyllitan martyrs were the first (Acta Sincera Ruinart. p. 31). One of the adversaries of Apuleius seems to have been a Christian. Apolog. p. 496, 497, edit. Delphin.

172 Tum primum intra Gallias martyria visa. Sulp. Severus, 1. ii. [1. c.] These were the celebrated martyrs of Lyons. See Eusebius, v. i. Tillemont, Mém. Ecclé. siast. tom. ii. p. 316. According to the Donatists, whose assertion is confirmed by

« ForrigeFortsett »