Sunday 11 November 2012

Pagans and Christians

I am at last reading Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians and finding it interesting and informative but less of a joy than I expected. He writes reasonably, but not exceptionally, well but his learning is vast and his insights seem astute to a general reader like me. I wish he took the story up to the first century of Islam but of this very little is known.

It is unusual for a historian to write authoritatively about both Christians and pagans, as does Lane Fox. He admits his debt to Gibbon but finds much evidence to show that Gibbon greatly exaggerated the loss of faith in the old gods before Constantine's conversion. Only a highly educated few did not believe that the pagan gods intervened in human affairs. One is interested to see parallels between this folk religion and later folk Catholicism and I wished the book drew them out

One thing Lane Fox makes clear is that, of course, the second century church was much more puritanical about sexual morality than almost any modern Christians. Virginity was prized very highly and even sexual intercourse within marriage was suspect, at least for some. Homosexual activity and divorce followed by remarriage, both of which were considered absolutely normal in the Roman world, were always considered grave sins by Christians, as were abortion and infanticide. This distinguished Christians from Jews who, following the Mosaic law, allowed divorce and disapproved of abortion from concern for the health of the mother, rather than the unborn child. Christians today who condemn abortion and homosexual acts are therefore not distorting Christian doctrine. Au contraire. Liberal theologians who maintain that sexual rules are not really part of Christianity are simply wrong, unless they argue that the church taught differently in the first century, but we know from the letters of St. Paul and from other writings that this was not the case. Jesus, a first century Jew, of course considered fornication and sodomy as sins. The change he made was to make sexual morality much stricter by abolishing divorce and this is the rule which, according to Lane Fox, early Christians found hardest to accept.

Lane Fox explains how homosexuality and bisexuality were taken or granted in the ancient world, for men, and goes on to say:
As for homosexuality, Paul and the early epistles agreed with the accepted Jewish view that it was a deadly sin that provoked God's wrath. It led to earthquakes and natural disasters, which were evident in the fate of Sodom. The absence of Gospel teaching on the subject did not amount to tacit approval. All orthodox Christians knew that homosexuals went to hell, until a modern minority tried to make them forget it.

The last part of the book is a detailed discussion about St. Constantine, the Emperor Constantine the Great. I knew very little about him except that he was a murderer and adopted Christianity for pragmatic reasons. Lane Fox is convincing that Constantine's conversion was very genuine and a deep change of heart. 

Constantine deserves better than any other historical figure the soubriquet 'Great'. He transformed Europe far more than Napoleon or even Hitler and, unlike those two, he transformed it for the better. He also transformed Christianity. He also created Constantinople and the Byzantine cultural space in which I am typing these words, in my office in Bucharest. His reasons for executing his wife and son I do not know.

One of the reasons Constantine was converted was because, very understandably, he saw the hand of God in his victories over his opponents. So did other Christians. This belief that God intervenes in history was what made the early Muslims believe their prophet was the true one. It made the British and the Americans, who borrowed the idea from the British, believe that God had given them a special destiny. It has recently, for some reason, gone out of fashion even in America, as I discuss here

The idea that God is visible in history was replaced by Marx with the idea that the historical process is God and I think this illusion continues to influence progressive thinkers.


  1. I am always glad to see anyone interested in the early history of the church. There are just so few people who care about that neglected area.
    The story is so fascinating and so complex.
    The statements about Constantine are quite worth while. My only comment is that his importance goes beyond Europe. You should read the story of the first Nicean Council to get an idea of his mettle and how unique he was. (Note, not yet having read fox's book, I do not know if he discusses that. If so, my apologies for the suggestion.)

    Based on my readings I have to say that I am a bit skeptical about the current Fox for several reasons. Your comments bring to mind the unfortunate fact that the followers did not always stay true to the master, to say the least. This being the case, I have to question how authoritative that Fox is about Christianity. Likewise, I have read opinions of the widespread belief in monotheism held at the same time as superstitious belief in the local gods. Since the Roman state made it policy to not offend local Gods, the practice of that superstition may have distorted the widespread belief in an overall powerful single god.
    Thanks for the post.
    Gerald Ritter

  2. I am even more interested in this:

    and this:

  3. I have already faced this question some years ago when I was investigating the Pagan world of the Russian Middle Ages. I could come to some conclusions, albeit not sprinkeld with a little speculative hypoteses. In any case ine of my books on this topic has found even a certain interest in Poland (translated 2011) and, as a matter of course in Russia, Why do I say this? Just because this part of European hoistory has been neglected although it has saved many agricultural customs and uses that practically are to be found allover Europe as far as Galicia in Spain and in Asia thru the steppes. What I feel today is the fact that we are still pagans (is it negative? I don' think so!) and many signs hint to it.
    aldo marturano

  4. I've spent decades on this one and I would suggest a deeper reason for the conversion of Europe to Christianity was the ministry of Paul. I see in his trajectory, touching the urban centres of the northern Mediterranean, and its after-effects in the Patristic age, the groundwork for subsequent European history. Rome was important, as Robert says, but it was the unity of Rome with the Greek churches, and the further links to Gaul and Spain, that created a foundation. The other big factor was Constantine's trajectory: in Paul Stephenson's biography of Constantine, he makes the argument that there were essentially two halves of the later Empire. Not only was there the Latin/Greek division, but that of a relatively empty, heavily militarised North-West, and a relatively urbanised, densely populated, recently Christianised East. Constantine's military successes in the North -West - he was proclaimed Emperor at York - and subsequent interest in the far East at Constantinople, converted the Roman army, and brought Christianity to the Western half of the Empire, as well as unifying the Empire under his faith. Stephenson traces the effects of al this on the subsequent development of the Western provinces. Instead of Mithras it was Christ; and in these Western provinces, the army camps now included baptistries and followed Christian calendars. I would say that these two - Paul's foundational infrastructure in the South, and Constantine's almost accidental marriage of the army culture of the Latin North-West with the Christian culture, of the East.

    Richard Betts

  5. I'm interested in the remarks here on sexual morality and on virginity of females in particular. So far I have never read in a printed book, on any topic at all, old or modern, which takes care to point out what seems obvious from a modern (or post-Freudian) point of view. Which is that the over-estimation of the value (in the marriage market) in female virginity at the time of marriage is a tacit recognition of the power of sexual conditioning, and a way to reduce the power of sexual conditioning - women in brief shall be more tractable, by way of being inexperienced and so more easily impressed.
    This also has to do with the human preference for sexual variety, where for many reasons, some to do with sexual morality, some to do more with laws on inheritance, history has generally allowed sexual variety far more to men than to women. If a woman is not a virgin, then she is able to assess (and maybe reassess, and maybe admire, maybe scorn) the sexual prowess of any man with whom she liases. The likelihood of such scorn being experienced by a male is much less likely if the woman he marries is a virgin, and has no experiential basis for making comparisons. Social strictures in any culture about female virginity at the time of her first marriage all seem to be devoted to, preoccupied by if not obsessed about such ideas. No one seems to mention this clearly, however. Finally, the issue seems not to be female chastity, it seems to be male pride about sexual prowess. This also seems ideal territory for a sceptical remark such as - go figure. In the C17th and C18th, my genealogical work would seem to indicate that in days when lifetimes were shorter, and so many women died in childbed, both men and women often gained their sexual variety not from promiscuity, but from multiple remarriages, when quite often a man had to remarry to find a stepmother for his growing children - this also seems to go non-commented by historians, while children's fears about stepmothers and maybe step-fathers are well catered-for by tales from mostly Scandinavian writers. I wonder. (Perhaps well-read, thoughtful, older women might be best qualified to respond to this wonderment?)