Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

GIBBON: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Books 15 and 16)

In the Great Books tradition there’s a famous scene in The Gospel of Mark. An obscure teacher named Jesus has been brought before Pilate, the Roman governor of a Jewish province. A mob has gathered and demands capital punishment for this trouble-maker called Jesus. Pilate conducts an investigation and determines that Jesus is not a criminal. But the mob insists he be put to death anyway. Pilate asks Why, what evil hath he done? The Jewish province was probably not a great assignment for a rising Roman politician. These Jews were an obstinate people and their religion was confusing not only for Romans but for most of the rest of the ancient world. The historian Edward Gibbon says We have already described the religious harmony of the ancient world, and the facility with which the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other's superstitions. A single people refused to join in the common intercourse of mankind. The Jews… The Jews alone refused to acknowledge any gods but their own God, Jehovah. Pilate sensed that Jesus was somehow involved in some controversy that was rocking the Jewish establishment. To maintain peace Jesus was executed.

From this spiritual seed blossomed a Church destined to change the course of history. This reading traces the astonishing rise of a new religion that would soon dominate the whole Western world and much of the Near East as well. How could this happen? Gibbon uses his skills as a historian to help us make sense of a huge panorama. He explains that on the one hand If we seriously consider the purity of the Christian religion, the sanctity of its moral precepts, and the innocent as well as austere lives of the greater number of those who during the first ages embraced the faith of the gospel, we should naturally suppose, that so benevolent a doctrine would have been received with due reverence, even by the unbelieving world; that the learned and the polite, however they may deride the miracles, would have esteemed the virtues, of the new sect; and that the magistrates, instead of persecuting, would have protected an order of men who yielded the most passive obedience to the laws, though they declined the active cares of war and government. From a Roman perspective, here was a religion that preached peace and love. It wasn’t some militant band of outlaws trying to topple the Roman Empire. These new “Christians” followed a ruler whose kingdom was not of this world. They were instructed by their leaders to obey the laws and live good and decent lives. Who could be against that?

If, on the other hand, we recollect the universal toleration of Polytheism, as it was invariably maintained by the faith of the people, the incredulity of philosophers, and the policy of the Roman senate and emperors, we are at a loss to discover what new offence the Christians had committed, what new provocation could exasperate the mild indifference of antiquity, and what new motives could urge the Roman princes, who beheld without concern a thousand forms of religion subsisting in peace under their gentle sway, to inflict a severe punishment on any part of their subjects, who had chosen for themselves a singular but an inoffensive mode of faith and worship. Why were Christians despised by some of the Roman emperors? The Roman Empire tolerated all types of strange and fanciful religions. Why single Christians out for persecution? The answer is complicated and depends on who was emperor at the time. Some were lenient, others were harsh. But the main point Gibbon makes is that Christianity survived. In the end it was the Christian faith that drove out the traditional Roman worship of household gods. It also ended the practice of worshipping Roman emperors. Maybe this is what the emperors were afraid would happen. This new religion prepared the imagination for the appearance of the Son of God under a human form. The Gospel of Mark was just the beginning of a much larger story.

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