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THE CHRISTIANS AND PUBLIC OPINION.
In order to be just, one must picture to oneself the prejudices amongst which the public then lived. Christianity was very little known. The lower classes do not like distinctions, or for some to live apart by themselves, for others to be more Puritan than they are, and to abstain from feasts and their usages. When one hides oneself, they always suppose that there is something to hide. In all time secret religious rites have provoked certain calumnies, which are always the same. The mysteries by which they are surrounded cause others to believe in unnatural debaucheries, in infanticide, incest, even in anthropophagy. They are tempted to believe that it is a secret camorra, organised in opposition to the laws. Besides this, informing had in ancient law, in spite of the efforts of good emperors, an importance which fortunately it no longer possesses, and thence sprang a type of libel, drawn up, so to say, in advance, from which no Christian could escape.
Everything was certainly false in those popular rumours, but some badly-understood fact seemed to give some substance to them. Certain inquiries had turned out to the detriment of those who were inculpated. The apologists do not deny it: respect for the matter which had been judged stops them, but 165they charge the sectaries with the evil, and ask that the faults of some may not be laid to all. The nocturnal gatherings, the signs of recognition, certain eccentric symbols, everything that had anything to do with the mystery in the Eucharist, the sacramental phrases with regard to the body and blood of Christ, excited suspicion. That bread which the Christian woman ate in secret before every meal must have appeared to be a philtre. A number of practices seemed tokens of the crime of magic, which was punished with death. The custom of the faithful to call each other brother and sister, and above all the holy kiss, the kiss of peace, which was given without distinction of sex at the most solemn moment of the assemblage, would be sure to provoke the most unfavourable interpretations in the mind of a public that was incapable of understanding this golden age of purity. The idea of meetings where all familiarities and promiscuities were allowed, naturally arose from such facts, which were distorted by malice and sarcasm.
The accusation of atheism was even more redoubtable. It entailed the punishment of death as a parricide, and worked up all superstitions at once. The undissembled aversion of the Christians for the temples, statues, and altars was constantly productive of some incident. There was no scourge, no earthquake, for which they were not held responsible. Every act of sacrilege, every fire in a temple, was attributed to them. Christians and Epicureans were confounded in this respect, and their secret presence in any town caused consternation, which was worked upon to raise the mob. The lower classes were thus the centre of hatred for the Christians. What the authentic acts of the martyrs treat with the greatest contempt, and as the worst enemies of the saints, are the ruffians of the large towns. The faithful never looked upon themselves as belonging to the people; 166they seemed in the towns to form the respectable middle class, very respectful towards the authorities, and very much disposed to come to an understanding with them. To defend themselves before the people seemed to the bishops to be a disgrace: they would only argue with the authorities. How plain it is that the very day the government would relax its rigour, Christianity and it would soon come to an understanding! How clear it is that Christianity would be delighted to be the religion of the government. A singular thing is that the only portion of heathen society with which the Christians had any analogy of opinion was the group of Epicureans. The name of Atheists was equally assigned to the disciples of Jesus and those of Epicurus. They had, in fact, this feature in common, that they denied, though certainly from very different reasons, the puerilely supernatural and the ridiculous wonders in which the people believed. In them the Epicureans saw the impostures of the priests, the Christians the impostures of the devil. What aggravated the case of the Christians was that by their exorcisms they were supposed to be able to stop local wonders, and to impose silence on the oracles which made the fortune of a city or of a country. When Alexander of Abonotica saw that his frauds were discovered, he said,—“There is nothing surprising in that; Pontus is full of Atheists and Christians!” That frightened the people, and restored to the impostor a momentary popularity. He burnt the books of Epicurus, and ordered the partisans of both sects to be stoned. Amastris, a Christian and Epicurean town, was particularly hateful to him. At the beginning of his mysteries there was a cry: “ If there is any Atheist, Christian, or Epicurean here, let him go out!” He himself said: “Put the Christians out!” and the mob replied: “Put the Epicureans out!” In that superstitious country the name Epicurean was synonymous 167with accursed. Like that of Christian, any one who bore it ran the risk of his life, or at least was put under the ban of society.
The Christians made use of the arguments of free-thinkers and of the incredulous to turn the popular beliefs into ridicule, and to fight against fatalism. The oracles were an object of mockery to all men of intellect and common sense; the Christians applauded this quizzing. One curious fact is that of Œnomaüs of Gadara, a Cynic philosopher, who having been deceived by a false oracle, lost his temper, and took his revenge in a book called The Deceits Unveiled, in which he wittily ridiculed as an imposture the superstition of which he had for a moment been the dupe. This book was eagerly received by Jews and Christians. Eusebius has inserted it entire in his Evangelical Preparations, and the Jews appear to have put the author on a footing with Balaam, in the class of involuntary apologists of Israel, and of the apostles amongst the heathen.
The Christians and Stoics, between whom there was really more resemblance than between the Christians and the Epicureans, never blended. The Stoics did not make a parade of contempt for public worship. The courage of the Christian martyrs seemed to them foolish obstinacy, an affectation of tragical heroism, a determination to die, which merited nothing but blame. These crowds of infatuated individuals of Asia irritated them. They confounded them with vain and proud Cynics who sought for theatrical deaths, and burnt themselves alive, in order that they might be spoken about.
There was certainly more than one point of resemblance between the Christian philosopher and the Cynic; austere dress, constant declamation against the century, an isolated life, open resistance to the authorities. The Cynics, besides a dress which was analogous to that of the begging friars in the Middle 168Ages, had a certain organisation, novices, superiors. They were the public professors of virtue, censors, bishops, “angels of the gods,” in their own manner; a pastoral vocation was attributed to them, a mission from Heaven to preach and give advice, a mission that required celibacy and perfect renunciation. Christians and Cynics excited the same antipathy in moderate men, because of their common contempt for death. Celsus reproaches Jesus, like Lucian reproaches Peregrinus, with having spread abroad that fatal error. “What will become of society,” men asked themselves, “if this spirit gets the upper hand, if criminals no longer fear death?” But the immorality, the coarse impudence of the Cynics, would not allow such a confusion, unless to very superficial observers. Nothing that is known of the Cynics authorises the belief that they were anything but attitudinarians and villainous fellows.
There is no doubt that in many cases the provocation came from the martyrs. But civil society is wrong to allow itself to be drawn into acts of rigour, even towards those who seem to ask for them. The atrocious cruelty of the Roman penal code creates a martyrology which is itself the source of a vast legendary literature, full of unlikelihoods and exaggeration. Criticism, in exposing what is untenable in the accounts of the acts of the martyrs, has sometimes gone to the opposite extreme. The documents which were at first represented as reports of the trials of the martyrs, have been mostly found to be apocryphal. As the texts of historians, properly so called, relating to persecutions are rare and short; as the collections of Roman laws contain next to nothing about the matter, it was natural that the greatest reserve should be imposed on it. One might be tempted to believe that the persecutions really were only a slight matter, that the number of martyrs was inconsiderable, and that the whole ecclesiastical system 169on this point is nothing but an artificial structure. By degrees light was thrown on the subject. Even freed from legendary exaggeration, the persecutions remain one of the darkest pages of history, and a disgrace to ancient civilisation.
Certainly if we were reduced to the acts of the martyrs to know about the persecutions, scepticism could have a free course. The composition of the acts of the martyrs became at a certain period a species of religious literature for which the imagination, and a certain pious enthusiasm, were much more consulted than authentic documents. With the exception of the letter relative to Polycarp’s death, that which contains the account of the sufferings of the heroes of Lyons, the acts of the martyrs of Africa, and some other accounts which bear the stamp of being written in the most serious manner, one must allow that the documents of this character, which have been too easily accepted as sincere, are nothing but pious romances. We know also that the historians of the empire were singularly poor in detail on what refers to the Christians as well as on other matters. The true documents concerning the persecutions which the Church had to suffer, are the works that compose the primitive Christian literature. These works need not be by the authors to whom they are attributed, to have authority on such a question. There was such a widespread taste at that date for attributing documents, that a great number of those books which have been left to us by the first two centuries are by uncertain authors; but that does not prevent these books from being exact mirrors of the time at which they were written. The first Epistle attributed to St Peter, the Revelation of St John, the fragment that is called the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement Romanus, even though it be not by him, the totally or partially apocryphal Epistles of St Ignatius and Polycarp, the 170Sibylline poems that belong to the first or second century, all the original documents that Eusebius has preserved for us on the origin of Montanism, the controversies between the Gnostics and the Montanists about martyrdom, the Pastor of Hermas, the Apologies of Aristides and of Quadratus, of St Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, show at each page a state of violence that weighs on the thoughts of the writer, besets him in a measure, and leaves him with no just appreciation of the situation.
From Nero to Commodus, except at short intervals, one might say that the Christian lived continually with the prospect of being put to death before his eyes. Martyrdom is the basis of Christian apology. To listen to the controversialists of the period, it is the sign of the truth of Christianity. The orthodox Church alone has martyrs; the dissenting sects, the Montanists, for example, made ardent efforts to prove that they were not deprived of that supreme criterion of truth. The Gnostics are put under the ban by all the Churches, above all because they declared martyrdom to be useless. In fact then, as Tertullian wishes, persecution was the natural state of the Christian. The details of the acts of the martyrs may be mostly wrong, but the terrible picture that they lay before us, was nevertheless a reality. One has often drawn a wrong picture to oneself of that terrible strife which has surrounded the origins of Christianity with a brilliant halo and impressed on the most beautiful centuries of the empire a hideous blot of blood: one has not exaggerated its gravity. The persecutions were an element of the first order in the formation of that great association of men which was the first to make its rights triumph over the tyrannical pretensions of the State.
As a matter of fact, men die for their opinions, not for certainties—for what they believe, and not 171for what they know. A scholar who has discovered a theorem has no need to die in order to attest the truth of that theorem; he proves his demonstration, and that is enough. On the other hand, as soon as it is a question of beliefs, the great sign and the most efficacious demonstration is to die for them. That is the explanation of the extraordinary success which some of the religious attempts of the East have obtained.
“You Europeans will never understand anything about religions,” said to me the most intelligent of Asiatics, “for you have never had the opportunity of seeing them formed amongst yourselves; whereas we, on the contrary, see them formed every day. I was there whilst people who were cut to pieces and burnt, suffered the most horrible tortures for days, danced and jumped for joy because they were dying for a man whom they had never known (the Bab), and they were the greatest men of Persia. I, who am now speaking to you, was obliged to stop my legend, which in a manner preceded me, to prevent the people from getting killed for me.”
Martyrdom does not at all prove the truth of a doctrine, but it proves the impression that it has made on men’s minds, and that is all that is needed for success. The finest victories of Christianity, the conversion of a Justin, of a Tertullian, were brought about by the spectacle of the courage of the martyrs, of their joy under torments, and of the sort of infernal rage which urged the world on to persecute them.172
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