Part Two: A three-way Fall....
NOTE: This is a continuation of my "Fall" series. You can read Part One here.

As I wrote last night, Constantine the Great's theological beliefs included the pagan god Mars along with the apparently monotheistic Jesus Christ. I say "apparently," because there was quite a ruckus among the early Christians over the Trinity. It was felt in some quarters that Jesus as a separate son of god was heresy to monotheism, because (obviously) once you allow any god -- even the one and only god -- to have kids, well, that's paganism. No more one god. To get around this problem, those early Roman anti-pagan guys (called "doctors") fought ferocious ideological battles to create and drum into the minds of all followers the idea that God the father and god the son were the same. Can't have a son of god as a separate entity. Whether Jesus himself knew or understood this, once again seems irrelevant.

Many people have had serious problems with the Trinity concept for many years. The early Christian leaders Arius and Athanasius debated it fiercely, with Constantine eventually resolving the matter in favor of the Athanasius position: Jesus was not created by God, but existed for all time along with God. One of the problems I have with the Trinity is that it contradicts the claim of Jesus being the Jewish Messiah, because the Messiah is not God, but a man descended from King David and then anointed. If he was the Messiah, then the Trinity is wrong, and if the Trinity is right, then Jesus was not the Messiah (unless Judaism is to be rewritten retroactively for Christian purposes).

Many people have died over this stuff, which gets quite complicated. A couple of lively discussions may be found here and here.

Thomas Jefferson, by the way, said this about the Trinity:

"....[T]he Athanasian paradox that one is three and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself He proves, also, that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck."
Once again, let me repeat that I am not trying to be judgmental here, because there is always the possibility that only one approach and one understanding is the correct one. I tend not to think so, but I have to be open to the possibility that even Osama bin Laden's view of the Koran might be correct. (If so, however, I shall be proud to be placed in Hell by the Bigot God of 9-11!)

During the same period that the Trinity concept was being formed (primarily during the Fourth Century), Christians made a quantum leap from being persecuted to being persecutors. For the first time in human history, Christians held real, raw, state power. It is a well-known adage that power tends to corrupt, and the early Christians, being men, would therefore have been prone to corruption like anyone else. Merely placing the label of "saint" on their leaders does not alter the reality that they had power, and they used it. Not only against pagans, but against their fellow Christians.

Here's Catholic historian Hans Kung on this subject:

Constantine, who was baptized only at the end of his life, pursued a tolerant policy of integration until his death, in 337. His sons, who divided the empire, were different. Particularly Constantius, the lord of the East, engaged in a fanatical policy of intolerance against the pagans: the death penalty was threatened for superstition and sacrifice; sacrifices were stopped and the temples were closed. Now Christianity increasingly permeated all political institutions, religious convictions, philosophical thought, art, and culture. At the same time other religions were often eradicated by force and many works of art were destroyed.

It was the emperor Theodosius the Great, a strictly orthodox Spaniard, who at the end of the fourth Christian century decreed a general ban on all pagan cults and sacrificial rites and accused of lese-majesté (laesa maiestas) those who broke this law. That made Christianity now formally the state religion, the Catholic Church the state church, and heresy a crime against the state. And after Arius, there was to be no shortage of new heresies.

What a revolution! In less than a century the persecuted church had become a persecuting church. Its enemies, the "heretics" (those who "selected" from the totality of the Catholic faith), were now also the enemies of the empire and were punished accordingly. For the first time now Christians killed other Christians because of differences in their views of the faith. That is what happened in Trier in 385: despite many objections, the ascetic and enthusiastic Spanish lay preacher Priscillian was executed for heresy together with six companions. People soon became quite accustomed to this idea.

Above all the Jews came under pressure.

Kung, Hans, The Catholic Church: A short history (Modern Library Edition, New York, 2001) pp 37-38.

The Jews were fated to come under pressure from all sides, and I think that one of the true tragedies of history -- a seminal event which led inexorably to modern anti-Semitism -- was the ill-fated Bar-Kochba Revolt of 132 AD.

I have read numerous accounts of this very impressive revolt, and I will try to summarize its essentials. Simeon bar Kochba (the name has several spellings) was a Messianic figure, and although not considered the Messiah by many people today, at the time of the revolt many Jews believed he was. Like most ancient leaders, he had to be tough and ruthless. To join his army, you had to either uproot a cedar tree or else cut off a finger! (Definitely not an army for wimps....)

The Romans were naturally skittish about rebellions in general, but especially in Judea, the locus of a very serious war just 60 years earlier. So, they kept a very close watch on arms, not allowing anyone to manufacture them except contractors under hire by the Roman military. Bar-Kochba's men very cleverly set up weapons factories which deliberately made shoddy weapons they knew would be rejected for Roman military use, and returned as "junk." This enabled them to assemble vast weapons stockpiles, which were concealed in caves.

Finally, the war started when bar-Kochba's men caught the Romans by surprise, and the latter were completely defeated. Unbelievable as it sounds, the Romans lost 90,000 men. This account and many others, also confirm devastatingly high Roman casualties.

Hadrian, still smarting from the death of Antinous, could not back down, so he sent his best generals with hundreds of thousands of more men. It took years to defeat the Jews, but ultimately they lost, and a total of some 500,000 Jews were killed. Jerusalem was completely leveled, rebuilt along Roman lines, renamed "Aelia Capitolina," and Jews were prohibited from entering under penalty of death (except once a year to mourn). Accounts vary as to the exact causes of this war, because Hadrian had been quite tolerant of Jews earlier in his reign; his laws against castration of boys (a common practice among the ancients) seem to have been interpreted as forbidding circumcision of Jewish boys -- something which certainly could trigger war.

Meanwhile, the Christians behaved in what can only be called an opportunistic manner. Hadrian's tolerance of Christianity, coupled with a Christian belief that the Roman campaign against the Jews was divine retribution, would doubtless have contributed to anti-Jewish sentiments. Considering that bar Kochba himself ordered persecution of Christians who refused to renounce Jesus, it is easy to see how Christian anti-Semitism would take on tragic, permanent, proportions. I am sure that like any intelligent leader, Hadrian would have utilized whatever divide-and-conquer tactics were available to help defeat the Jews, and it would not have been in his interest to persecute Christians during a major campaign against Jews.

Once the elements congealed, over the next two centuries, the new, officially Christianized Rome would have been naturally attracted to anti-Semitism as an official doctrine, for both practical and religious reasons.

First and foremost, it erased the stain of many Roman sins. After all, Rome might have gone Christian, but it was still Rome. Not only had the Romans killed hundreds of thousands of Jews, but a good argument can be made that they, not the Jews, were the actual "Christ killers." Religious anti-Semitism was thus in their interest. (The pagans, of course, had no need to expiate such guilt, and no more religious animosity towards Christians than Jews.) Second, if Roman Christians were as intolerant as they were of heresy and paganism, it would have been seen as woefully inconsistent for them to be tolerant of Jews.

I have studied this conflict for some time, and it is hard for me to see any truly wonderful good guys or any truly malevolent bad guys. Not, at least, when they are seen in the context of their times and places (but people who strictly adhere to their precedents today, though, are another matter).

That is the nature of tragedy. What is amazing to consider is that thousands of years later, a single rebellion against Rome continues to have such consequences, but it does. The Diaspora. Christian anti-Semitism. Arab claims that the Jews "never lived in Palestine."

More unfinished business.

(Of course, the early Christians kept having problems with Antinous. More on this problem in Part Three.)

posted by Eric on 09.24.03 at 05:22 PM


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The anniversary of Antinous's death (October 30, 130 AD) seems remarkable in its proximity to Halloween, and I don't think... [Read More]
Tracked on October 31, 2003 4:30 PM

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