Book Review: Violence in Ancient Christianity

violenceinancientchristianityTitle: Violence in Ancient Christianity: Victims and Perpetrators

Series: Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae

Editors: Albert C. Geljon and Riemer Roukema

Bibliographic info: 214 pp. + 37 pp. of indices

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

While Jesus may have been a guy who taught such things as loving one’s enemies and to not resist an evil person, his followers over the centuries have had variegated ways of interpreting such ideas. This volume consists of ten studies that explore how violence played a role in early Christianity, both in how early Christians were its victims and its perpetrators.

The first chapter in this volume looks at religious violence amongst Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Jews. The author, Jan Bremmer, contends  that “religious violence” is not an accurate phrase to describe the relationship between religion and violence in Late Antiquity. A particularly interesting facet of this study is how Bremmer scrutinizes the oft-repeated claim that polytheistic religions are less nonviolent than monotheistic religions. In this regard, Bremmer interacts with the work of Jan Assmann who has connected violence and monotheistic religions. Bremmer argues that not only is this theory not supported by the data, but that it was actually Roman polytheistic religion that was the “inventor of the phenomenon of systematic religious persecution.” An example of pagan persecution against Christians that is discussed is Emperor Decius’ edict in 249 for all the inhabitants of the Empire to offer to the gods. The prosecution practices of the first Christian emperors are also discussed, which Bremmer says was “directed at practices like magic and divination rather than against pagan of Jewish beliefs” (29). Bremmer concludes that “the pagans certainly were less bloodthirsty than our modern movies and novels suggest.”

Next up is the study from Danny Praet. Here he employs the definition of direct and cultural violence developed by Johan Galtung to discuss the extent to which violence was perpetrated by Christians and against Christians in the first three centuries. This is followed by Fred Ledegang’s study on Eusebius and his view on Constantine’s religious policies. For anyone familiar with early church history, you will probably know that Eusebius has a favorable view of Constantine and his attempts to unify the church throughout the empire. However, Ledegang rightly argues (in my opinion) that Eusebius’ attitude towards Constantine and his Christian conversion is a bit too naive for various reasons, amongst which is the religious violence that was carried out under Constantine. One thing that struck me in this study was how enamored Eusebius was with Constantine, which Ledegang says goes so far that one can say that Eusebius sees Constantine as a “new Augustus” and a “second Moses, who even surpassed the first one.”

Hans Teitler then provides a study on violence against Christians during the reign of Emperor Julian (the Apostate) in 361-363. Teitler argues that while the pagans of the Empire may have dished out violence towards Christians during Julian’s reign, the Emperor himself did not actually condone such actions. Teitler then goes on to examine two specific instances where it is usually said that Julian ordered violence against Christians in Ancyra and Caesarea. By examining the sources for these persecutions in light of contemperaneous authors who detested the Emperor’s policies, Teitler concludes that Julian did in fact not lapse into violence against Christians in these cases.

Next up is F.J. Elizabeth Boddens Hosang’s contribution which examines the relations between Jews and Christians in the early church, specifically by looking at church council texts and pieces of Roman legislation from the fourth to sixth centuries. One of the conclusions reached is that, “The negative view of Jews and Judaism in church father writings resulted in a rise in hostilities and attacks: not on fictive, but on genuine Jews. Jews suffered as a result of the theology developed in this formative period and increasing violence and distance between the religious groups was the result” (106).

Hans van Loon then looks at Cyril of Alexandria’ episcopate in the period of 412-444. He investigates Cyril’s role in the violence that occurred towards Jews during this period, specifically taking a look at the murder of Hypatia (a philosopher), concluding that Cyril was not responsible for this murder except insofar as he cultivated an atmosphere of hostility. Then Joop van Waarden investigates the torture and decapitation of Bishop Priscillian of Avila in the fourth century. This is followed by Paul van Geest’s study on Augustine’s views on the relationship between church and state, specifically on the role he played in the approval of violence towards groups such as the Donatists. The penultimate study in this volume is from Gerard Bartelink and is on the language of rejection and suppression that rivals used to designate deviant religious groups in Late Antiquity. The final study is Riemer Roukema’s examination of how the early church (in the first five centuries) received and interpreted Jesus’ teaching of loving one’s enemies.

I find the topic of religion and violence to be a fascinating one. After all, most religions seem to have a core that somehow revolves around love and peace toward people, yet adherents to religions have managed to craftily manoeuvre and corrupt such teachings so as to justify violence. The fact that this happens should not be hidden nor minimized. This volume contributes to bringing to light the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of the one who was crucified by the political, religious, and moral authorities of the world. Judging from what I have read in this volume, my overall impression of early Christians relationship with violence can best be summed up in the word ambivalence.

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