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Monday, March 31, 2014

GIBBON: Decline and Fall (Chapter 16: Roman Government and Religion)

Edward Gibbon considers it his “melancholy duty” as an historian to provide an accurate and reliable account of the past. Theologians may act as cheerleaders but historians must act as umpires, and Gibbon calls them as he sees them. It isn’t easy to see the past clearly. It’s like piecing together a puzzle and this principle is reflected in a balanced approach to history. Gibbon often uses the “on one hand-on the other hand” method. This is different from the method Herodotus used. Herodotus would hear a story and use it in his own history. He then left it up to the reader to determine which stories were valid and which ones weren’t.
This wasn’t Gibbon’s style. In chapter 16 he ponders why Romans responded in different ways at different times to the Gospel message of the early Christian Church. On one hand (Gibbon muses) “If we seriously consider the purity of the Christian religion, the sanctity of its moral precepts” and the way “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.” On one hand it seems like all Romans would respond positively to the Christian message. The good news of eternal life was only one of its attractions. Gibbon also believed that “the learned and the polite, however they may deride the miracles, would have esteemed the virtues, of the new (Christian faith).” Roman patricians were generally well-educated and sophisticated people. They could fully appreciate any religion that valued temperance, courage, wisdom and justice because these were also the ancient Roman virtues.
But then Gibbon stops to consider why other Romans actively persecuted the Christians. He says “If, on the other hand, we recollect the universal toleration of Polytheism…” What Gibbon is saying is that Rome was a huge empire. In the ancient world people worshipped many different gods. Romans were generally tolerant of religion and allowed many kinds of worship under its laws. As long as it didn’t interfere with good government Rome preferred to let local authorities handle local religious conflict. Since the Roman Empire was a veritable smorgasbord of religious beliefs, this was a wise and practical policy that generally preserved the peace.
Into this Roman world Jesus was born and eventually crucified by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Then (according to the Christians) Jesus was resurrected in glory. This is where Gibbon picks up the history of Rome’s decline and fall. What happened? The Romans weren’t skilled mathematicians like the Babylonians and Egyptians. They weren’t great dramatists or artists like the Greeks. And they weren’t profound religious thinkers like the Hebrews or the sages of India. But it wasn’t for nothing that Rome built the most successful empire the world has ever seen. The Roman genius was military science, civil engineering, law and government. In these areas Rome excelled. What puzzled Gibbon was how the Roman gift of good government failed to solve the problem posed by the early Christians. Why were the emperors so perplexed by them?
Marcus Aurelius is a good example. Gibbon notes that Marcus was a humane man and a good emperor. But his Stoic philosophy made him loathe the Christian faith. Why? Apparently Marcus followed reason and nature as his guides for living a good life in this world. The gods, if they existed, were a mystery to Marcus and, in his opinion, to mankind too. The early Christian faithful didn’t just look on Jesus of Nazareth as a beloved teacher. To his followers Jesus was “the Christ” and was therefore “adored as a God.” Marcus considered this kind of worship as mere superstition. He believed it would gradually undermine Roman law and good government.


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