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Christianity in the Making
We can be fairly certain that during the lifetime of Jesus Christ none of his disciples committed his sayings or actions to writing. The first person to do so was probably too young to have known him intimately, although as a boy he witnessed the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and when the disciples led followed him, out of curiosity, to the high priest's palace. This boy, who in a tussle with the bystanders lost his linen garment so that he ran away stark naked, was St Mark. He was not one of the Twelve but closely connected with them. His widowed mother Mary was a friend of Jesus and in her house in Jerusalem the Last Supper was held. There too the disciples first assembled after the Ascension and thither St Peter hurried after his release by the angel from prison to find the household at prayer.
The next we hear of Mark is that he was accompanying St Paul and Barnabas on the apostle's first mission to the Gentiles. For some reason or other he parted from them in Pamphylia, and went home to Jerusalem. The desertion, as Paul interpreted it, so vexed him that it brought about a quarrel with Barnabas, who was Mark's cousin and friend. For when a second mission was proposed Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them, but Paul refused to agree an went off in a pique. This happened in the autumn of 49. Paul's resentment must have evaporated because twelve years afterwards he wrote about a complete reconciliation while warmly praising Mark's cooperation. But it is Mark's closer association with St Peter at a later stage which brings him into the very limelight of history. He became at some unknown date the Apostle's indispensable companion and confidential secretary until the terrible martyrdom under Nero. The Acts relates that Peter stayed with Mark in Jerusalem. In the only authentic writing of Peter, namely the first Epistle, he refers to him as 'Marcus my son'. Clearly the older man was devoted to and dependent upon the younger. The earliest Christian writers confirm it. Eusebius in his great Ecclesiastical History relates that Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, (c. 60-130) recorded in some fragmentary jottings - now lost - anecdotes of persons who had known Jesus. Papias was, Eusebius states, although learned, a man of limited intelligence. Nevertheless he was probably accurate enough in transcribing testimonies. Papias's story was that a certain elder of the Church once told him that Mark wrote exactly what Peter remembered the Lord did and said, but not in any orderly fashion. Mark assured the elder that, although he had not known Jesus, he made no mistakes in recording Peter's quotations; and that since Peter's native tongue was Aramaic he, Mark, was his Greek interpreter. Later authorities, namely Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, repeat Papias's testimony in only slightly different words. The last adds that Peter even commended what Mark had written and approved that it should be read in the churches.
One and all of these men are agreed that Mark was St Peter's 'interpreter'. Peter may have acquired with the years a rudimentary understanding of the official and liturgical language in Rome which in his day was Greek: but not enough to speak or write fluently. He was almost certainly ignorant of Latin. Mark then will have been, as well as Peter's scribe in the official Greek tongue, his interpreter into the language of the people which was Latin. Since Peter was essentially the people's pastor, a simple working man like themselves whom they both understood and respected, Mark's services must have been indispensable.
There is every reason for assuming that St Mark's Gospel was compiled in Rome for the benefit of the Roman Church about the year 65, or shortly afterwards. It was written in Greek but abounds in Latinisms. It is discursive and frequently lacks sequence, as though the author merely jotted down the material as it fell from the old fisherman's lips, or recurred to him later, without really bothering to assemble it properly. In fact St Mark's Gospel is without literary style. Whether Clement of Alexandria had any grounds for asserting that the Apostle lived to approve Mark's writing is more doubtful. Modern scholars incline to the opinion that immediately after Peter's martyrdom the conscientious secretary decided to put on paper his recollections of the Apostle's words while they were still fresh in his memory. It is quite possible that he had notified Peter of his intention to do this and received his blessing on the enterprise, even his approval of the book being made known to the faithful after his death. At all events, Mark's Gospel bears the stamp of St Peter's bluff and straightforward character. It si not a work of literature and, as Mark's friend confided to Papias, the events contained in it are strung together haphazardly. Matthew's and Luke's Gospels are by comparison far more polished, so as to be at times over refined. For example, where Mark writes 'Master' as the term in which Christ was sometimes addressed, the other two evangelists substitute the word 'Lord' as being in their eyes more reverent and fitting. Mark's vivid narrative is that of a person who might easily have participated in it. We know that Mark had not done so but that the principal figure in his Gospel played a prominent part throughout. Furthermore, and this is an important point, Mark's is the one Gospel which contains most of the disparaging stories about St Peter, stories which we may be sure the Apostle insisted must be included, but which any other contemporary Christian chronicler would have omitted out of respect for his subject.
In addition to St Mark's Gospel, there is that first Epistle of St Peter which claims to come directly from the Apostle's own pen, or, to be more accurate, mouth. Modern scholars accept Epistle I as written either by Peter himself, or by a close disciple immediately after his death, in order to encourage Gentile converts in Asia Minor. If it were not to the Apostle's actual dictation, then it may surely have been compiled from his own words by St Mark, who is so affectionately mentioned at the end. It does not vouchsafe a great deal of biographical material, apart from the famous reference to Babylon. It is very allegorical in its mention of stones and shepherds and somewhat repetitive of Gospel injunctions. Epistle II is generally regarded as a posthumous exercise of the mid-second century and is accordingly pretty valueless as history.
You may think it is all very fine to refer, as I have been glibly doing, to the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the First Epistle of Peter as furnishing the basic life story of the Saint. For where, you will pertinently ask at this stage, are the original manuscripts of these works? Can they be produced as evidence that these sacred writings are in fact genuine history? The answer to your questions must unfortunately be a succinct - no. The original manuscripts do not exist. No one knows what has happened to them, and the genuineness of all the writings which make up the Old and New Testaments must either be rejected out of hand, or accepted on the claims and evidence which the theologians and scholars advance. After all, because no manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays and poems survive, it does not mean that they were not composed by an Englishman in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean age; nor, which is more important still, that they do not constitute the greatest poetry of the world. The early folios declare these obvious truths in Shakespeare's case. The same argument may hold good for the authenticity of the inspired writings that comprise the Testaments. The earliest complete Testament manuscript to survive is probably the so-called Codex Sinaiticus (now in the British Museum) which dates from the end of the fourth century. It is written in Greek uncials, a cursive form of majuscule script, on vellum made from stretched sheepskin, four columns to a page, in quires of eight leaves. Several hands or scribes took part in this beautifully clear and easily readable Codex. The complete Codex Vaticanus, written on antelopes' skin in three columns dates likewise from the fourth century. The original New Testament manuscripts (which do not exist) will have been written on papyrus sheets, like the Dead Sea scrolls, and subsequently bound together. In 1935 a minute fragment of such a manuscript, not indeed original but dating from about A.D. 130 and containing a passage from St John's Gospel chapter 18, was found in an Egyptian tomb. It is now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
The approximate hundred years after the death of St Peter and the majority of Christ's disciples are admittedly a dark period in our knowledge of Christian history. During this period Christianity was gradually evolving. The oral traditions of Christ and the first generation of disciples were gradually evolving. The oral traditions of Christ and the firs generation of disciples were being alive and handed down by pious admirers, some reliable and others unreliable. Piety is not necessarily dissociated from well-intentioned fraud, and access of zeal will to often strain and bend the rod of reason into uncouth and awkward shapes to attract and convert the credulous. That a few oral traditions had become misleading by the second century needs no emphasizing. We may take one example which, incidentally, did little harm to anyone. It was universally believed by the faithful that Judas Iscariot after the Betrayal grew so inordinately fat that he could not possibly pass along a road. His eyes completely disappeared into mountains of rolling flesh. And after his death the stench from his remains poisoned the locality so that no one could approach it for years to come without dropping down dead, and no vegetation would grow upon it. Towards the latter half of the second century, however, oral tradition began to give way to the written word. With the advent of the Early Church Fathers like St Irenaeus, Tertullian and others, to whom I have already referred in chapter 1, all that constitutes the New Testament of today, and the anonymous Apocryphas besides, had been written down and codified.
By now there could scarcely be a person alive who had spoken with, far less known, any of Christ's Twelve or even the disciples of Peter and Paul. The last was probably the sainted Polycarp martyred in extreme old age in A.D. 155. He had actually been a pupil of St John. His Epistle to the Philippians, in which he quotes John, is accordingly a very valuable corroboration of the authenticity of the fourth Gospel. His death marks the end of an era. Thereafter, oral tradition could not be accepted without question, and new legends must be investigated with deep suspicion. The Fathers of the Church were evidently aware of this fact because by the beginning of the third century nearly all the books in our present day New Testament were accepted by general consent of the various Churches throughout Christendom. Those books though to be spurious, or in any way casting doubts upon the divinity of Christ, such as the Essene Apocalypses, had been discarded one by one. In the Codex Sinaiticus every book of our New Testament is included, with the addition of the Epistle of Barnabas and part of the Shepherd of Hermas. By the end of the fourth century these two were eliminated. In other words, a series of episcopal pronouncements confirmed what amounted to a gradual and cautious selection over the years. The scriptural canon was not therefore the result of an arbitrary decision made at one particular date by an individual bishop or even council. It was the fruit of several generations of church theologians and scholars acting with good sense and discernment.
Before we move away from the gustatory stage of Christianity, that is to say during St Peter's lifetime and the hundred years after his martyrdom, we may as well take a quick glance at the earliest Christians. It is questionable whether St Paul when he first came to Rome in A.D. 59 found anything like an organized Church there. The believers in the crucified Christ formed a fairly scattered community. They met regularly in the housed of well-to-do Roman citizens who had embraced the newly founded faith, where they performed their exclusive rites. These were in fact of the simplest nature. Peter in his lifetime would take the chair with the chief elders grouped around him in a semi-circle facing the congregation. A pious dissertation would be followed by discussion; sometimes passages from the Hebrew Testament were read. A common meal, the agape, would be eaten, at the end of which the Eucharist was celebrated reverently in memory of the Last Supper. Recent converts would be admitted by baptism with water. The service invariably ended with the holy kiss of peace.
No doubt for reasons of safety the meeting places varied. It was not in these very early days in the brethren's interest to attract the State's attention to their activities. As it happened, the Christians soon came to be regarded as a semi-political sect of the suspicious Jewish minority. They were revolutionaries who boasted that they owed their first allegiance not to the Emperor but to a mysterious leader - was he still alive or recently dead? At all evens he was a criminal - exalted by them as the conqueror over sin and death and their rightful sovereign, a man who was about to return and claim his kingdom. Whatever that precisely meant it suggested sedition. As we have seen, Claudius had already expelled all Jews, including Christians, from Rome in 49. By the date of Paul's visit to the city they had only been back again some three years. It behoved them therefore to behave with the utmost circumspection if they wished to avoid trouble. The truth is they did not always wish to avoid it.
It would be patently absurd and unjust to blame the early Christians for the revolting persecution under Nero which brought about the death of thousands of their number including Peter and Paul. Nevertheless there is no doubt that by their provocative pietism they often attracted if they did not actually invite punishment upon themselves. The writing of Tacitus and Pliny show that the Jews and Christians, whom they confuse, were not understood by the educated Romans; nor did they set out to be. We should try to understand how this minority group of people appeared to the Romans of the second century after Christ. Tacitus complained that they were not content to ignore the pagan gods and goddesses. They positively and loudly reviled them and declined to sacrifice to them. As a result they were dubbed atheists by the Romans to who the ritual exacted by their gods implied a recognition of the structure of society and State. Unlike Christian ritual, which is an expression of religious doctrine, theirs meant to observance of civil laws and customs. To refuse to perform ceremonial rites was therefore in Roman eyes extremely wrong and shocking. The strictest Jews and, of course, the Christians did resolutely refuse to make even token sacrifice to the gods. What was most galling about their refusal was their implicit denial of the Emperor's divinity notwithstanding the Christians' recognition of the Master's injunction to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's. Withholding this recognition was tantamount to treason. The uncompromising monotheism of the brethren caused them to be particularly suspect. It led to Christianity being made a proscribed religion by Trajan, so greatly did the emperor dread the existence of secret societies. The mere confession of Christianity henceforth became a capital offence for which, in fairness to this emperor, the punishment was only imposed upon suspected persons in times of national crisis. Often such occasions were deliberately incited by the vengeful orthodox Jews, who informed upon the Christians to the governors of cities.
Again, Jews insisted upon the practice of circumcision which to decent-minded Romans seemed a very revolting and barbaric operation. Their repeated daily washings too were considered ostentatious and offensive. Their acceptance of certain meats and rejection of others as unclean was deemed ridiculous. The Christians called themselves Hagioi or Eklektoi, the holy ones or the elect, which was considered presumptuous. In one way and another they created the very worst impression. Moreover, in spite of their supererogatory claims to virtue, their rites were though to be obscene. At their meals, called by them love feasts, which were in fact perfectly innocuous, they were believed to murder and feast upon new born infants; afterwards, it was said, they extinguished the lights and indulged in promiscuous sexual intercourse under the pretence of holiness. The Romans were not squeamish about lust, whether hetero - or homo-sexual, but they liked it to be above board. The somewhat prudish Christians, instead of laughing at these accusations, pursed their lips, refused in a superior manner to contradict them and appeared more mysterious than ever. In short, they made it apparent that they welcomed persecution because it thereby opened to them the gateway to eternal bliss hereafter. No wonder then that the Romans who were cynics willingly helped them to enter it.
Had the Romans only known, the Christians far from enjoying indiscriminate sexual licence were inclined to cultivate celibacy to extravagant lengths. Some of them even tended to regard the body as irredeemably evil. A group, the Encratits, prohibited all sexual intercourse even in marriage. By the second century this unnatural doctrine became so popular among the overzealous that the Church, faced with the total extinction of the faithful, pronounced Encratitism to be a heresy. Few married Christians in fact went to such extreme lengths of abstention. Yet, according to Justin Martyr, many pious Christians who in youth took the oath of chastity observed it throughout life and in consequence were not deflected from a dedicated service to the things of the spirit. On the whole, the Christian sect was composed of virtuous, charitable men, if perhaps a trifle pietistical. The younger Pliny's well-known letter of A.D. 112 to the Emperor Trajan shows the Christians in the Asian provinces in a more favourable light than that usually viewed by Romans. As imperial legate to Bithynia he is reporting on their activities. He is perplexed by these people. They are so numerous, he says, in the cities, villages and farms that at one moment he seriously feared lest the pagan temples might become deserted. Those who make themselves a nuisance are brought to trial. If they persist in as many as three confessions of faith they are condemned to death, 'for I am persuaded,' he writes, 'whatever the nature of their opinions may be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserves correction' a delicate understatement perhaps when the word 'correction' implies crucifixion. Then Pliny goes on to tell in an objective manner what from his experience were their customs. They would assemble together before sunrise to chant an antiphonal hymn of praise to Christ, as to a divinity. Next they bound themselves by solemn oath not to steal, cheat, commit adultery, nor to break their faith. They were, he states, on the whole a harmless lot of people, only given to absurd and extravagant superstition. To this letter the emperor replied succinctly that it was not necessary to hunt the Christians out, but if when questioned they confessed, they must be punished. Anonymous delation, however, must not be accepted in any prosecution. That would be a horrid precedent quite foreign to the spirit of the age.
Notwithstanding the stringent measures against them, the Christians were, as Pliny ruefully observed, cropping up all over Asia Minor. Worst of all, they were making converts among th rich patrician families in Rome. There were several influential and virtuous ladies of the capital who shortly after St Peter's death embraced the new faith. At last they had come upon a religion which upheld the decencies of everyday domestic life, for which they looked in vain from paganism. The only pagan religion of the time with any pretension to a moral ethic was Mithraism. It at least acknowledged that the world was the battleground of good with evil, and promised that the champions of the first would be rewarded with a blessed immortality. But this tenet was offset by the revolting taurobolism, or bath of bull's blood, by which means alone purification from guilt and a rebirth into the immaculate life could be arrived at. Furthermore, it excluded women from its privileges, which meant that the Roman matron had to seek spiritual solaces elsewhere. By the middle of the second century, the new Christian faith had infiltrated through all the distant centers of the far-flung empire. The Emperor Hadrian was astute enough to realize that little could now be done to arrest its progress. He therefore reiterated Trajan's command to Pliny that no malicious accusations against the Christians should be accepted by state officials on pain of severe penalties. His tolerance did not however mean that he was drawn to the new religion and he greatly shocked the Christians by deifying the beautiful and gracious boy, Antinous, after his tragic death from drowning, and by erecting temples to him. By A.D. 180 Christianity was established in Spain, Gaul, Germany, Africa, Egypt and the countries east of the Euphrates, as well as in Italy and Greece. Nevertheless, the unrepealed statutes ordained that self-confessed Christians, whose very name was still a capital charge, had to die.
The fortunes of the early Christian Church depended very largely upon the whims of the individual emperors, and these when not prompted by personal vanity were often dictated by political vicissitudes. We have seen how the Jews of Rome, although disliked and despised by the Romans, were for periods courted by the emperors because of their money, and when this was no longer needed or forthcoming were persecuted. The Jews soon learned how and when to ingratiate themselves. For example, soon after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 when the Temple was burned to the ground and the holy vessels and the seven-branched candlestick were carried in triumph into the Roman Forum by the victorious Titus and his troops, the captive Jews through their superior intelligence and cunning made their services in court circles so necessary that they were soon raised to influential positions. The Christians, we were still identified with the Jewish colony and were indeed mostly of the same race, benefited and suffered to the same degree. Both enjoyed a comparative calm until the ten years (A.D. 85-95) of tyrannous persecution under Domitian, who demanded worship of himself as a divine being. The refusal of the Jews and Christians to comply excited violent resentment and retaliation. Domitian's successor, Trajan, as we have seen, discouraged persecution while making Christianity a proscribed religion. The motives of this wise ruler were purely political. Hadrian and Antoninus Pius (138-161), an excellent administrator, were naturally peace-loving and, in the interests of the empire, averse to persecution. The saintly Polycarp's martyrdom in distant Smyrna during Antoninus Pius's reign was not a result o the emperor's policy. The old bishop fell victim to an isolated outburst of paganism. During a jolly carnival, he was seized by intoxicated revelers and ordered to blaspheme Christ. His spirited retort, repeated so often by the early Christian martyrs, has echoed down the ages and sounds as nobly to our ears as it did to those of his faithful brethren in Smyrna in A.D. 155. 'These eighty-six years I have served him; and he has never done me wrong. He is my king and my saviour; how can I deny him?'
After many years of peace, the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) saw a resumption of Christian persecutions. This emperor was a great and religious man and his cruelty sprang, not for the first or last time in history, from an access of piety. He firmly believed in the Latin gods who had made the empire the power it was. He sincerely believed that the Christians practiced incest and cannibalism and ought in the moral interest of his subjects to be exterminated. Wherever their malpractices were brought to his notice, he set about the quickest way of getting rid of the offenders. Thus he organized at Lyons, to intense gratification of pagan sportsmen, a grand hunt o Christians just as though they were wild boars. Commodus, his successor (180-192), relaxed these persecutions. His reign brought relief to the Christians, not because he sympathized with their creed, but because his inordinate vanity demanded, instead of his subjects' worship, their ardent approval of his person. Indeed, his god-like looks and physical splendour invited unsolicited commendation. He would strut around the military camps with gold dust sprinkled on his hair, and assemble admiring crowds to watch him transfix with a spear ostriches running at full speed. His love of admiration was innocuous and rather endearing.
Septimius Severus (193-211) was of very different metal. A bluff honest soldier of little imagination he acknowledged a multiplicity of gods, and was genuinely puzzled and shocked by the Chrisians' monotheism. He employed many Christians in his household and was surprised and displeased when his second wife, the beautiful and accomplished Julia Domna, whom he had chosen by horoscope, was attracted by their belief. Septimius forbade Christian conversions and resumed persecution in violent but sporadic measures. A persistent and worse terror was only forestalled by the fearless fulminations of Tertullian, who convinced the bewildered emperor that the more the Christians were harried the more they were strengthened in their faith. On Septimius's death in 211, a long period of peace ensued broken only be the short and savage Decian persecution of 250-1, when Pope Fabian was martyred. It was brought about by the emperor's alarm at the apparently disruptive effect the Christians were having upon the imperial authority, and by his belated attempt to revive the state religion. Alexander Severus who came to the throne in 222 had been eclectic in his tastes. He built a chapel in which to set up the images of Orpheus, Abraham, Apollonius and Christ. To this curiously assorted quaternity he did homage and offered sacrifices. Gallienus (260-8) actually issued an edict of toleration of Christians and restored to the Church those lands which had been confiscated. During his reign the imperial prestige was at a low ebb and Christian proselytism in full flood. The contingency was shrewdly assessed by one who was to be a near successor to the throne.
With Diocletian everything was changed. This low-born soldier from Dalmaia was the saviour of the Roman Empire after a century of gradual dissolution, and the re-founder of its greatness. He came to the conclusion that so large a territory and so complex a federation of nations could not be governed effectively by one man. So he divided the empire into two parts, appointing himself Augustus of the East with his capital at Nicomedia, and Maximian Augustus of the West, with a Caesar delegating under each. The reorganization led Diocletian to assume during his lifetime semi-divinity, which once more occasioned trouble from his Christian subjects. The emperor would not tolerate within the State the possible menace of an independent community over whose ordinations he had no control. To strengthen the empire he, like Decius, tried to revive the old religion by decreeing that no one was to resist the authority of the pagan gods. 'The old religion', he ruled, 'must not be criticized by a new one. It is a great crime o go back on anything which, having been established by our forefathers, is now in our possession and use.' Accordingly the Christians were soon obliged either to sacrifice to Diocletian, or die. Tens of thousands preferred to meet death rather than compromise with their principles. Eusebius, a contemporary, recorded the loathsome tortures inflicted upon and the heroism displayed by the Christians in this, of all persecutions up to date, the worst and most prolonged. Diocletian was the first emperor systematically to set about razing the Christians' assembly rooms to the ground and destroying their sacred writings. The persecutions were only relaxed when the government sensed that the people were finally sickened by the profitless brutalities and bloodshed.
No wonder that during the worst persecutions early Christian fugitives took to the catacombs, where it was safer to celebrate the rites of their faith than in private houses within the city. The catacombs had not been constructed for this purpose. Thy were merely cemeteries of the Christians, where, fully in accordance with Roman law, they were obliged to bury their dead beyond the city walls. There was nothing secretive in such burials, but during bad times the almost infinite underground passages provided temporary shelter for Christians under threat of capital punishment. Since the State regarded all cemeteries as sacrosanct, it was unlikely that the authorities would dare to abuse the observance by pursuing a victim beyond the entrance unless he was obviously venturing there for public worship. This was definitely proscribed in the second century. Catacombs provided infinite loopholes. The police had no means of telling what celebrations, apart from burial services, took place inside them. After a few days and nights underground the victim could usually slip away from one of several exits, known only to the constructors of the labyrinths. The greater number of the important Christian catacombs belong to the second and third centuries. With the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 the custom of underground burial ceased entirely.
In the catacombs no recognizably Christian inscriptions of a date before the last half of the second century have so far come to light. What there are of this century usually consist of the chalice, fish, and loaf of bread: occasionally of an anchor, and never the cross. By the third century the anchor and a simple cross are common; and the dove and olive branch make an appearance. On the other hand, pagan symbols were commonly adapted and on sarcophaguses, for example, conventional Roman decorations were freely applied. The very early Christians did not beget an art form. They were far too busy defending their newly formulated dogmas and eluding the state police to attend to such matters. They merely took over the motifs of a flourishing artistic era in the greater pagan world around them.
If the periodic persecutions to which the early Christian Church was submitted were in a sense one cause of its strength - kindling in the brethren a heightened faith and inducting often an unwonted charity and virtue - the divisions and heresies which beset it were an unmitigated evil. Attack from outside will always rally a community in proud defense of its principles, whereas civil discord invariably brings disintegration within the ranks. The divisions and heresies came early on and have continued ever since. They nearly brought complete disaster to the infant Church in days when it was not firmly rooted. The first two centuries saw the Church assailed from west to east by a succession of usually senseless arguments over matters of purely academic concern. As soon as one was disposed of another arose. It was as though the devil were determined to undermine the central foundation of the Faith. The heresies have consistently proved the Church's most poisonous bane. Yet by some miraculous grace the heritage of traditional Christian theology survived intact until the Reformation; this catastrophe caused the disruption of the Church which has never recovered its universal authority.
We well know from St Paul's writings that even in this saint's lifetime different opinions were upheld by different factions among the elders of the primitive Church. There was the sharp disagreement between Paul and Peter over treatment of the Gentile converts. There was at one moment threat of a rift among the brethren over the question whether the Gentile converts should submit to circumcision. If laceration of the foreskin was considered a disgusting operation by the Romans it was equally repugnant to all orthodox Jews to eat meals with uncircumcised persons. And the common meal was the most sacred rite of the new Christian community. The quick-wittedness and authoritativeness of Paul, who scented far-reaching consequences unless the issue was tackled courageously, put an end to the trouble by instant action. He pronounced circumcision an unnecessary accompaniment of baptism. There were other arguments among the apostles about foods and the observance of fasting on certain days. After the great martyrdoms at Nero's hands, the surviving apostles closed their ranks and reached unanimity. Mark, who had known Peter so intimately, was largely responsible for the improvement in their relations one with another. St Clement in obliquely referring to the tragic result of jealousy in the early Church, bore witness that the disciples had learned their lesson from disunity. He exhorted the Corinthians to take similar heed.
The third century drew to a close in a whirlwind of the most ruthless and extensive persecution of the Christian Church by the State so far experienced, and in a crescendo of disturbing heresies. It is a wonder that the Faith, which had been inexistence only two hundred and sixty years since the death of its founder and a bare two hundred since that o the last of the Twelve, should have survived the deterrents of unspeakable pogroms from without and the insidious disturbances from within its ranks. On the contrary, it was during the third century, about which we have less factual knowledge than any other, that, tested by reverses and provoked by every sort of intellectual and ethical enquiry, the faith established itself as something supremely unassailable and perdurable. Much credit for the ultimate triumph, which was to come about in the fourth century, can be given to a succession of remarkable popes in the third. Most of them were truly saintly men, and several were martyrs. This century coincided with the puberty of the church, which survived its growing pains to blossom into adolescence in the next. Whereupon instead of being a harassed minority, victimized by the great Roman Empire it became the guiding principle of the empire. The most momentous change in its whole history was brought about by one man, astonishingly enough himself an emperor, Constantine the Great. In the year 306 Constantine, on the death of his father, was proclaimed Augustus by his troops while serving in York in distant Britain. In 312 he succeeded in establishing himself on the throne. The story of his march on Rome is one of the most notable traditions in Christian annals. While crossing the Alps to join issue with Maxentius, the imperial rival standing in his way, Constantine was confronted by a vision of the cross over the midday sun. At the same moment he clearly heard the encouraging words, 'Conquer by this!' The next day he had his standard market with a monogram, representing the first two Greek letters of Christ's name, Chi and Rho, the symbol that goes by the name 'labarum'. Thus fortified by the divine will and protected, as he believed, by a miraculous sign, he marched towards the capital. At the famous battle of the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber he destroyed Maxentius, thus becoming undisputed master of Rome and the West.
Constantine was not merely one of the greatest Roman emperors. He was the first to make the core of his greatness the Christian religion. Historians have disagreed over the measure of the man's personal belief in Christianity. Some have found it impossible to impute sincerity to one capable of such un-Christianlike acts as murdering his wife and son and stuffing the mouths of adulterous priests with molten lead. But consistency of virtuous conduct has never been peculiar to Christian rulers in any age since the fourth century. The Romans were an abominably cruel people and Constantine was no exception. On the other hand, it is impossible to suppose that Constantine's favour of Christianity was not inspired by genuine respect and reverence. The tremendous services which he, a born pagan autocrat brought up in the belief that emperors were divinities, gratuitously rendered the Church, are surely good enough indication that he acknowledged, if he did not always follow, the commandments of a sovereign even superior to himself, namely Chris. Of course, in identifying himself with the Christian cause and Church, he benefited politically. He saw in the adoption of the victorious Christian religion the last chance of preserving unity within the tottering empire. But when he sent a letter to his rival, Sapor II King o Persia, urging him to become a Christian he cannot have been impelled by motives of imperial aggrandizement. Nor were there hidden motives in the confession of faith he made shortly before his death: 'I am absolutely persuaded that I owe my whole life, my every breath, and in a word my most secret thoughts to the supreme God.' He is described as by nature not a deeply religious man. True, he was impatient with metaphysical speculation, which he deplored as leading to dissensions. With sparring theologians and churchmen he was dictatorial and brusque. He ruled the bishops with severity in the same ay as he drilled his troops. He expected them to submit to his discipline; and they did. Yet this ruthless conqueror and stern administrator, able to cope successfully with armies, governments and clerics, was also a dreamer. He brooded late into the night and tossed sleepless on his bed when other men were at rest, pondering the purposes of human existence. He stood for hours alone on the sea shore wrapt in meditation which non of his attendants dared to interrupt; or strode with a wild look in his eyes upon the open plains wrestling with his soul. He had many uncertainties to resolve and expiations to endure before the final acceptance of Christ's doctrine on his deathbed. Is it possible that such a man, who boasted that the brightest jewel in his diadem was one of the nails used upon Chris's cross, was the materialist and sceptic hat he has been called? To be fascinated by the barbed dogmas of the Christian Faith is one thing; to be able to swallow them hook, line and sinker without question is another. Many more mystical persons than the Emperor Constantine have failed to do so after a lifetime's flirtation with the Church; he managed to overcome his scruples in the end and was baptized.
The Emperor Constantine, though a layman, was, as we are about to see, the re-founder in a sense of a religion only two centuries and a half old. It does not therefore strike me as odd that this serious man, tormented by dubieties and curiously unsure of himself, waited before accepting unreservedly a creed, to the re-drafting of which he himself had so largely contributed.
In whatever way we may care to interpret the effect the vision in the Alps had upon Constantine's soul, whether it meant to him no more than a magical portent to which military commanders are sometimes prone before momentous battles, or the true revelation of Christ's dominion over man, the emperor determined instantly to advance the Christian cause. After the golden victory over Maxentius which confirmed his favour towards the Church, he undertook two courses of action. The first was to bring the persecution of the Christians to an end; the second to overthrow the heresies.
After vesting himself with the imperial purple, Constantine issued from Milan an Edict of Toleration of all religions. In this far-reaching Edict he was joined by his brother-in-law Licinius, then Augustus in the East. It put an immediate stop to the hideous processes against the Christians throughout the whole empire. 'It is one thing', the enlightened emperor wrote, 'to enter voluntarily upon the struggle for immortality, another to compel others to do so from fear of punishment.' The phrase expresses absolute conviction that freedom of belief is an ethical principle, transcending all political expedients. It shows an extraordinary freedom from bigotry hitherto unknown to pagan rulers. It implies an understanding of the charity introduced to the Roman world by Christ's teaching. If only the Church had headed these words addressed, as they were, to its own enemies! 'No person', the emperor went on, 'shall molest another; everyone shall keep in check the dictates of his heart … no one may, through his convictions, do harm to another.' Yet the Church never learned to digest these sentiments, derived as they were from the Sermon on the Mount, and, as soon as Christianity became the established state religion, turned the tables on its persecutors in an unwholesome coercion of dogmas.
Toleration had hardly been proclaimed before the emperor was obliged to adjudicate upon the Church's internal disorders. First he was asked to settle the Donatist controversy then raging among the bishops of North Africa. Donatism proclaimed that the sacraments administered by an unworthy pries were invalid. Constantine pronounced against this heresy. His decision did not exterminate the error, which persisted in an ever weakening degree until the eighth century; but it left the African clergy in no doubts that the Church condemned it. In 325 the emperor summoned the first ecumenical Council at Nicea, ostensibly to combat Arianism, which maintained that God the Son was not of the same substance as the Father. Constantine, although still not baptized, conducted the proceedings, disposed of Arianism as heresy, laid down twenty canons, instituted a number of reforms, such as the abolition of concubinage among the clergy, made Sunday a public holiday, may have fixed the celebration of Christmas Day on 25th December, and certainly drew up the Creed which takes the name of the city were the Council was held. The essence of the Nicene Creed was to settle once and for all the divinity of the second person of the Trinity. Having affirmed a strict and undeviating orthodoxy this statement of faith thereby established the absolute authority of the Church of Rome. It confirmed Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the West and, since Constantine had in 324 conquered and deposed Licinius so as to reunite the empire under his single rule, in the East also.
As head of the Emperor's religion, the Bishop of Rome became the first Christian in the first city of the reunited empire. The authority bestowed upon him by the Emperor seemed unassailable. At once the Church ceased to be a small subject community in an overwhelmingly hostile State. It ceased too to be the defender of the individual against that State's oppressive arm. Instead it was soon to associate itself with a totalitarian form of government and to be the intolerant exterminator of pagans. It had reached a stage in its history which demanded a concrete expression of its newly established greatness, its universality and might. Once again the Emperor Constantine by his munificence supplied this need. Already he had after the execution of his second wife, Faustina, in 312 given her palace called the Lateran to Pope Sylvester for a residence. At the instigation of the pope, and in expiation of the murder of Faustina, he caused to be built the two greatest basilicas of Christendom, those of St John Lateran on the Coelian, and St Peter on the Vatican Hill. Of the two, St Peter's Basilica soon became the first in size and magnificence. Clearly there were no doubts in Constantine's mind which of the apostles enjoyed the primacy over all others.