This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
The Christians and the Fall of Rome
by Edward Gibbon
“Disdaining an ignominious flight, the virgins of the warm climate of Africa encountered the enemy in the closest engagement; they permitted priests and deacons to share their bed, and gloried amidst the flames in their unsullied purity.”
An examination of the rise of Christianity during the fall of the Roman Empire.
I have always enjoyed reading Edward Gibbon’s work; one of my great ambitions is to re-read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the quiet senility of my dotage, when a man may best sympathize with the failings of an old empire. In the meantime, I must content myself with this thin slice, flensed from the whole.
By the standards of the time, The Christians and the Fall of Rome is clinical and ruthless in discussing the early “primitive” Christians, brought up from the dirt of centuries pressing down on them and examined by Gibbon’s cool yet eccentric eye. To use modern parlance, Gibbon’s first attempts to “cover his ass” by acknowledging that the primary reason for the spread of Christianity was “the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself” and “the ruling providence of its great Author.” This affirmation out of the way, Gibbons is free to put forth some “secondary causes”: intolerance, the promise of a future life, miraculous powers “attributed to the primitive church,” the austere morals of early Christians, and the organizational discipline of the “Christian Republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.”
A great deal of Jew-hating occurs immediately thereafter, with descriptions such as “sullen obstinacy” to their “implacable hatred of the rest of human-kind,” before an equally unscientific recognition of the piety of the Jews “of the second temple.” In reading this section, I began to think my plan of re-reading Gibbon in my dotage was a wise one, as I would be unlikely to retain any memory of such specifics.
Gibbon’s then mercilessly expands upon why early Christianity managed to survive and then to flourish. In doing so, he engages in an at times insightful analysis of the political and social situation surrounding Year Zero. When necessary, he calls into question claims as to the numbers of disciples in those early times, notes the disorganization of polytheists, points out the strange belief of early Christians in “extraordinary events,” and also ascribes certain successes to luck.
Bluntness occurs without warning: “The acquisition of knowledge, the exercise of our reason or fancy, and the cheerful flow of unguarded conversation, may employ the leisure of a liberal mind. Such amusements, however, were rejected with abhorrence, or admitted with the utmost caution, by the severity of the fathers, who despised all knowledge that was not useful to salvation, and who considered all levity of discourse as a criminal abuse of the gift of speech.”
Gibbon’s thoughts on this subject ignited controversy in Christiandom, although much of it seemed tame to me, which perhaps accounts for the tameness of this post.
To Rick Warren, Edward Gibbon would appear to be an alien intelligence.
Question for Readers
Is faith incompatible with the specific detail of established fact?
Next up, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense