This December 25, more than a billion people will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The celebration is doubly ironic, for the date is not his birthday, and many celebrants have forgotten—or perhaps have never learned—the meaning of his birth. One of the most enthusiastic celebrants of Christmas I have known was an atheist. She loved the decorations, the smells, the songs, the food and drink, the smiling faces of children, the gifts, and the fleeting feeling of goodwill. She, like many others, was a devotee of Christmas, but not of Christ.
This is a tragedy of eternal proportions, for the work of Christ—his birth, life, death, and resurrection-is the most important event in the history of mankind. Christ’s life is the point from which we date all of world history, and it is impossible to understand Western civilization, especially the United States, without understanding Christianity.
It has been almost 2,000 years since Jesus was born, and since that time our world has changed immensely. Jesus, born and reared in small towns in Judea, one of the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire, lived only 33 years—a young man by modern standards—and taught only three years—a short career—before he was tortured and executed by a local mob and the Roman government. Had he been an ordinary man, it would all have ended there. No one would have noticed. At best he would have been another statistic in the long annals of cruelty inflicted by Rome. But Jesus was far from ordinary; he was and is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, the Logic and Wisdom of God incarnate. Three days after his crucifixion, he walked out of his guarded tomb, just as he had predicted. The worst the Empire could do had failed. Jesus was alive.
About 600 years earlier and a few hundred miles to the east, King Nebuchadnezzar of the great empire of Babylonia had had a dream. He saw “a great image. This great image, whose splendor was excellent, stood before” the King, and “its form was awesome. This image’s head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” The King watched “while a stone was cut out without hands, . . . struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. The iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
In this way God, through Daniel, foretold the coming of Christ. He was the stone that would crush the great image into dust and blow it away, and the image was the empires and rulers of the world. For the past two thousand years the stone has been growing, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes rapidly, always inexorably. The spread of Christianity has profoundly changed society, its institutions, its beliefs, and its culture. What has emerged is nothing less than a new civilization.
The World Before Christmas
Americans, if we think about the subject at all, sometimes entertain a romantic and idealized view of Greece and Rome as peaceful, pleasant, and free societies. We see the statuary and the ruins, we hear the philosophers discussed, and we read the exploits of the Caesars. Athens, we are told, was a model of enlightenment and democracy, and Rome was a model of justice and law. It is largely to Greece and Rome, to their philosophers and statesmen, so the story goes, that we owe our freedom, our civilization, and our prosperity.
The World Book Encyclopedia, commonly used by high school students, informs its readers that “The principles that bound the Roman Empire together—justice, tolerance, and a desire for peace—influenced countless generations.” But the very next sentence—so startling in contrast to the first—is closer to the truth: “Roman cruelty and greed caused great misery, and the use of force brought hardship and death.” Rome was an empire of violence, not justice; it was held together by the force of the feared Roman legions. It tolerated no disobedience, and peace was a rare event. Even at its best, the Pax Romana during the first and second centuries of the Christian era, the Empire was, in Livy’s words, “rich in catastrophe, fearful in its battles, fertile in mutinies, bloody even in peace.” The debt that we owe to Greece and Rome has been somewhat exaggerated. To understand the impact of the coming of Christ, one must have a more accurate understanding of the classical world.
Religion. The religion of Rome and Greece was everywhere. On Paul’s arrival in Athens he found a city “given over to idols.” Dreams, omens, ghosts, apparitions, and the “evil eye” were both feared as sources of harm and sought as sources of guidance. Astrology was a science and part of high culture, enjoying the respect psychoanalysis and psychiatry do today. Idols and images were everywhere. Animal sacrifice was a regular part of religious worship, and festivals and holidays—by one count 109 days each year were holidays in Rome—were frequent. Temple prostitution was commonplace. The city of Corinth, a center of religious devotion, became synonymous with sexual immorality. To “corinthianize” was to engage in the most perverted and debauched sexual practices. In the pagan culture of Rome, homosexuality was commonplace and accepted.
The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were men and women larger than life. They fought, they schemed, they lied, they got drunk, they raped, and they committed incest. The Romans worshiped twelve major gods and goddesses and thousands of lesser gods, which had arisen from the animism of early Rome. There were gods for war, fertility, love, harvest, travel, doors, and so forth. Each god and goddess had his or her own sphere of influence; the devout Roman did not worship one god to the exclusion of others, but worshipped all as the circumstances demanded. Prayers and pilgrimages to shrines and temples were a common part of life in the ancient world. Rome was a very religious society.
Roman and Greek religion was very different from Christianity, not only in its polytheism, but in the fact that the pagan religions did not emphasize learning, understanding, and teaching: They had no sermons, no books to be studied, no doctrine to believe. “The chief objects of pagan religions,” Lecky tells us, “were to foretell the future [through the study of animal entrails and later the questioning of oracles], to explain the universe, to avert calamity, [and] to obtain the assistance of the gods. They contained no instruments of moral teaching analogous to our institution of preaching, or to the moral preparation for the reception of the sacrament, or to confession, or to the reading of the Bible, or to religious education, or to united prayer for spiritual benefits.”
Those things, to the extent they were done in Rome, were functions of the philosophers, who were both an elite and largely unconnected with the religious cult. Christianity, by contrast, made theological and moral teaching central and available to all, not just to the aristocratic classes thought to be capable of virtue. “Under its [Christianity's] influence doctrines concerning the nature of God, the immortality of the soul, and the duties of man, which the noblest intellects of antiquity could barely grasp, have become the truisms of the village school, the proverbs of the cottage and of the alley.”
Because of the variety of gods in Rome, some historians have mistakenly concluded that Rome enjoyed religious liberty. But the command of the Twelve Tables (c. 450 B.C.), as well as the persecution of religious dissenters, makes it clear that religious liberty was not a feature of Roman society: “Let no one have gods on his own, neither new ones nor strange ones, but only those instituted by the State.” In the second century after Christ, the pagan jurist Julius Paulus reported a contemporary legal decree: “Of those people who introduce new religions with unknown customs or methods by which the minds of men could be disturbed, those of the upper classes shall be deported, those of the lower classes shall be put to death.” The only religions permitted in Rome were those licensed and approved by the State.
Both the Greek polis and the Roman Empire were totalitarian church-states. Socrates was executed for being an atheist, that is, for not believing in the gods of the polis. Many others suffered the same fate. A letter that Pliny the Younger, Special High Commissioner to the provinces of Bithynia and Pontus, wrote to Trajan the Emperor in A.D. 111 illustrates both Rome’s treatment of religious dissenters and its lack of a justice system: “This is the plan which I have adopted in the case of those Christians who have been brought before me. I ask them whether they are Christians; if they say yes, then I repeat the question a second and a third time, warning them of the penalties it entails, and if they still persist, I order them to be taken away to prison. For I do not doubt, whatever the character of the crime may be which they confess, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy certainly ought to be punished . . . .” In Rome, pertinacity was a crime punishable by indefinite incarceration.
Pliny explained what his subjects were required to do in order to regain their freedom: “Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods in the usual formula, reciting the words after me, those who offered incense and wine before your [the Emperor's] image, which I had given orders to be brought forward for this purpose, together with the statues of the deities—all such I considered should be discharged, especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which, it is said, those who are really Christians cannot be induced to do.” In Rome one could escape punishment by worshipping the Emperor and the gods.
In a case in which some persons had anonymously accused their neighbors of being Christians, Pliny “thought it the more necessary . . . to find out what truth there was in these statements [of accusation] by submitting two women, who were called deaconesses, to the torture . . . . Many persons of all ages, and of both sexes alike, are being brought into peril of their lives by their accusers, and the process [of inquisition and punishment] will go on. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only through the free cities, but into the villages and rural districts, and yet it seems to me that it can be checked and set right. It is beyond doubt that the [pagan] temples, which have been almost deserted, are beginning again to be thronged with worshippers, that the sacred rites which for a long time have been allowed to lapse are now being renewed, and that the food of the sacrificial victims is once more finding a sale.” Pliny is pleased to report that his methods of torture and imprisonment are encouraging people to worship the gods, and that business is booming.
In his letter to Trajan, Pliny emphasizes that worshipping the Emperor is the way to avoid punishment. At the time of Christ, the imperial cult was the cult that unified Rome. Tiberius succeeded Augustus as Emperor in A.D. 14. Here are a few excerpts from a letter Tiberius sent to the magistrate of the city of Gytheon, instructing him in the proper rituals of the imperial cult: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the god Augustus, pontifex maximus . . . . He should place an image of the god Augustus Caesar the father on the first [chair], one of Julia Augusta on the second from the right, and one of Tiberius Caesar Augustus on the third. . . . Let a table [for sacrifices] be set by him in the middle of the theater and an incense burner be placed there, and let the representatives and all magistrates offer sacrifice . . . . Let him conduct the festival on the first day in honor of the god Augustus the Savior and Liberator, son of the god Caesar . . . .”
The worship of the State, in the person of the divine Emperor, was the core of pagan society at the time of Christ.
War and Peace. The pagan world was not peaceful either. Livy reports that the Roman Republic was at peace only twice in its entire history, once at the end of the First Punic War in the mid-third century B.C. and once in 30 B.C. after Augustus’ defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. Athens, usually considered one of the most peaceful of the Greek city-states, was at war more than two years out of every three between the Persian Wars and 338 B.C., when Philip of Macedon was defeated. The following three centuries were even worse. Athens never enjoyed ten consecutive years of peace.
War was a way of life in the ancient world. In the opening pages of the Laws, Plato has Clinias say that “what most men call peace is merely an appearance; in reality all cities are by nature in a permanent state of undeclared war against all other cities.” In his dialogues Plato describes a sanitized Athens of intellectuals discoursing and discussing philosophical questions, strolling about the city, eating and drinking from house to house. “Yet for most of the time which Plato describes, Athens was fighting a long and bloody war in-which at least half the population died, many of them from a particularly horrifying plague which scarred even those who survived it, and which was partly the consequence of the unsanitary conditions in which vast numbers of citizens were camped, at first in the heat of summer and later all year, on every available space of open or sacred land within the city walls.”
As for Rome, “In the half century of the Hannibalic and Macedonian Wars, ten percent and often more of all adult Italian males were at war year by year, a ratio that rose during the wars of the first century B.C. to one in every three males.” Finley traces the prevalence of warfare in the ancient world to pagan religion: “Neither the enormously powerful Roman Mars nor the weaker Greek Ares received the slightest competition from the minor divinities of peace. It was always assumed that divine support was available for a war . . . . [T]he gods through their oracles and signs [never] recommended peace for its own sake . . . .” It is revealing that despite perpetual war in Greece and Rome, war was neither the title nor topic of a single ancient philosophical treatise. The Pax Romana during the first two centuries of the Christian era, although an improvement from earlier centuries, was punctuated by wars on the Empire’s frontiers and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Economics, Slavery, and Work. At the time of Christ, the population of Roman Italy comprised five to six million free citizens and one to two million slaves. Many slaves worked the mines of the Roman Empire, and they were sometimes forced to live below ground until they died. Slaves were forbidden to marry, and the power of masters over their slaves was absolute. The castes of Roman society—slaves, plebeians, notables, and nobles—were not so rigid at the time of Christ as they had been in earlier centuries, but Roman society remained radically unequal.
The Empire’s military conquests resulted in the influx of hundreds of thousands of slaves to Rome. These slaves were used not only for work, but for entertainment as well in the gladiatorial combats that both nobles and proles loved to attend. The enthusiasm of the Romans for gladiatorial shows both produced and reflected a savage delight in the infliction of pain. Thousands of slaves died entertaining the Romans. Because they were unmistakable evidence of the cruelty and will to rule of the Roman elite, the gladiatorial “games” were part of the official celebration of the Emperor in every large city.
Apart from the gladiatorial system, “numerous acts of the most odious barbarity were committed: . . . Flaminius ordering a slave to be killed to gratify, by the spectacle, the curiosity of a guest; . . . Vedius Pollio feeding his fish on the flesh of slaves; . . . Augustus sentencing a slave, who had killed and eaten a favorite quail, to crucifixion . . . . Old and infirm slaves were constantly exposed to perish on an island of the Tiber.”
Slavery was not only the ubiquitous practice of the pagan world, it was the theory as well. The best of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, defended slavery, for slaves were naturally inferior beings. The treatment of slaves, children, and women reflected the judgment of Aristotle that “the deliberative faculty is not present at all in the slave, in the female it is inoperative, in the child undeveloped.” The Christian notion that all men are created in the image of God, and that the image of God is rationality, was foreign to the pagan philosophers and societies.
In any society in which slavery plays a major role, idleness is a virtue. So it was in Rome. The Romans held labor in contempt and scorned those who worked with their hands. The workingman was base and a social inferior. All freedmen were artisans and shopkeepers; most shopkeepers and artisans were freedmen; and all were despised. “No one,” Aristotle wrote, “who leads the life of a worker or laborer can practice virtue.” The eloquent Demosthenes, defending himself before an Athenian jury, presented his argument this way: “I am worth more than Eschinus [the plaintiff] and I am better born than he; I do not wish to seem to insult poverty, but I am bound to say that it was my lot as a child to attend good schools and to have had sufficient wealth that I was not forced by need to engage in shameful labors. Whereas you, Eschinus, it was your lot as a child to sweep, as might a slave, the classroom in which your father served as teacher.” Demosthenes easily won his case.
Seneca, the tutor and later the victim of Nero, wrote that “The common arts, the sordid arts, are according to the philosopher Posidonius those practiced by manual laborers, who spend all their time earning their living. There is no beauty in such occupations, which bear little resemblance to the Good.” Cicero believed that “wage labor is sordid and unworthy of a free man, for wages are the price of labor and not of some art; craft labor is sordid as is the business of retailing.”
Rome’s control over the economy was hampered by the primitiveness of the economy. But wherever economic activity could be controlled, the worldly philosophers and statesmen believed the State had the right to do it. A basic feature of the constitution of Sparta was complete control of economic activity. The silver mines of Laurium were owned by Athens. Economics, probably written in the third century before Christ and incorrectly attributed to Aristotle, recounts how rulers filled their coffers by robbery and exploitation of their people. The book assumes that every sort of private property is at the disposal of the state. Hasebroek, writing in Trade and Politics in Ancient Greece, reports that the control of economic activity in the poleis was tyrannical.
As for Rome, “wholesale uncompensated confiscation of private estates and peasant farms to provide bonuses for soldiers was not an uncommon practice . . . . Eventually all generations of workers—oil-suppliers, butchers, fish handlers, bakers, transport and mine workers, and minor government officials—were frozen in their occupations to stabilize taxes and balance the budget.” For the pagans, statecraft was soulcraft. Fustel de Coulanges concludes that “The Ancients, therefore, knew neither liberty in private life, liberty in economics, nor religious liberty.”
Life and Death. In the ancient world abortion, the exposure of infants, infanticide, and suicide were common and legal. At the coming of Christ, the Roman governor in Judea, Herod the Great, in an attempt to murder Jesus, ordered that all the male infants in Bethlehem and the region surrounding it, from two years old and younger, be put to death.
The head of the Roman family had the power of life and death—patria potestas—over his children and slaves. At birth, the midwife would place the newborn on the ground, where he would remain unless the father took the child and raised him from the earth. If the father did not raise the child, he—or more likely she—was left to die in some public place. The pagans exposed their children because they were poor, ambitious, or concerned about their “quality of life”: “so as not to see them corrupted by a mediocre education that would leave them unfit for rank and quality,” to quote Plutarch. The first Christians rescued thousands of children discarded by the pagans. Thousands were also rescued by pagans, who would raise them to be slaves and prostitutes. If infants were born with defects, they were frequently killed, rather than exposed. Infanticide was not merely the practice of the pagans, it was their doctrine as well: Plato and Aristotle endorsed infanticide, and Seneca wrote: “What is good must be set apart from what is good for nothing.”
According to Roman law, the power of the father over his children remained as long as he lived. An adult Roman man could do nothing without his father’s consent; his father could even sentence him to death.
The contrast between paganism and Christianity is clearest in these matters of life and death. In his History of European Morals, Lecky writes: “The first aspect in which Christianity presented itself to the world was as a declaration of the fraternity of men in Christ. Considered as immortal beings, destined for the extremes of happiness or of misery, and united to one another by a special community of redemption, the first and most manifest duty of a Christian man was to look on his fellowmen as sacred beings, and from this notion grew up the eminently Christian idea of the sanctity of all human life . . . .”
It is not the laws of nature that determine behavior or ethics, for “nature does not tell man that it is wrong to slay without provocation his fellowmen . . . . [I]t is an historical fact beyond all dispute that refined, and even moral, societies have existed in which the slaughter of men of some particular class or nation has been regarded with no more compunction than the slaughter of animals in the chase. The early Greeks, in their dealings with the barbarians; the Romans, in their dealings with gladiators, and in some periods of their history with slaves; the Spaniards in their dealings with Indians; nearly all colonists removed from European supervision, in their dealings with an inferior race; and an immense proportion of the nations of antiquity, in their dealings with new-born infants—all have displayed this complete and absolute callousness. . . .”
Rather than the laws of nature, it was the teaching of Christianity that changed ancient culture: “Now it was one of the most important services of Christianity that, besides quickening greatly our benevolent affections, it definitely and dogmatically asserted the sinfulness of all destruction of human life as a matter of amusement or of simple convenience, and thereby formed a new standard, higher than any which existed in the world.
“The influence of Christianity in this respect began with the very earliest stage of human life. The practice of abortion was one to which few persons in antiquity attached any deep feeling of condemnation . . . . In Greece, Aristotle not only countenanced the practice, but even desired that it should be enforced by law when population had exceeded certain assigned limits. No law in Greece, or in the Roman Republic, or during the greater part of the Empire, condemned it . . . . A long chain of writers, both pagan and Christian, represent the practice as avowed and almost universal. They describe it as resulting, not simply from licentiousness or from poverty, but even from so slight a motive as vanity, which made mothers shrink from the disfigurement of childbirth . . . . They assure us that the frequency of the crime was such that it gave rise to a regular profession.
“If we pass to the next stage of human life, that of the new-born infant, we find ourselves in [the] presence of that practice of infanticide which was one of the deepest stains of the ancient civilization. . . . Infanticide . . . was almost universally admitted among the Greeks, being sanctioned, and in some cases enjoined, upon what we should now call ‘the greatest happiness principle,’ by the ideal legislations of Plato and Aristotle, and by the actual legislations of Lycurgus and Solon.”
But it was not only public violence that was condoned and encouraged at the time of Christ; suicide was also a virtue. “Suicide was accepted, even admired. The courage of the man who decides to end his suffering and accept eternal rest was extolled by the philosophers, for suicide proved the truth of the philosophical notion that what matters is the quality and not the quantity of time that one lives.”
Law and Government. Rome is commonly supposed to have given us our system of justice, but the law of Rome at the time of Christ was quite unjust: “In a society as unequal and inegalitarian as the Roman, it is obvious that formal rights, however clear, had no reality, and that a weak man had little to gain by going to court. . . .”
Veyne gives this example of Roman law: “Suppose that all I own in the world is a small farm . . . . A powerful neighbor covets my property. Leading an army of slaves, he invades my land, kills those of my slaves who try to defend me, beats me with clubs, drives me from my land, and seizes my farm. What can I do? A modern citizen might say, go to court . . . to obtain justice and persuade the authorities to restore my property . . . .
“For one thing, the aggression against me by my powerful neighbor would have been considered a strictly civil offense; it would not have been covered by the penal code. it would have been up to me, as plaintiff, to see to it that the defendant appeared in court. In other words, I would have had to snatch the defendant from the midst of his private army, arrest him, and hold him in chains in my private prison until the day of judgment. Had this been beyond my power, the case would never have been heard . . . .”
If, however, the victim succeeds in raising an army, capturing his enemy, bringing him to trial, and winning, “it then would have been up to me to enforce that judgment, if I could . . . . [A] judge could not sentence a defendant simply to restore what he had taken. Leaving my farm to its fate, the judge would authorize me to seize my adversary’s chattels real and personal and sell them at auction, keeping a sum equal to the value placed on my farm by the court . . . and returning the surplus to my enemy. Who would have considered recourse to a system of justice so little interested in punishing social transgressions?”
But the systemic injustice of the Roman legal system was compounded by its systematic corruption. “A Roman noble (or even a mere notable) [had] more in common with [a] ‘godfather’ than with a modern technocrat. Getting rich through public service . . . never stood in the way of taking public service for one’s ideal . . . .
“The honest functionary is a peculiarity of modern Western nations. In Rome every superior stole from his subordinates. The same was true in the Turkish and Chinese empires, where baksheesh was the general rule . . . . Every public function was a racket, those in charge ‘put the squeeze’ on their subordinates, and all together exploited the populace. This was true during the period of Rome’s greatness as well as during the period of its decline. . . . Even the least important public positions . . . . such as apparitor or clerk of the courts, were sold by their incumbents to aspiring candidates, because every position carried with it a guaranteed income in the form of bribes . . . . Ancient bureaucracy was nothing like our bureaucracy. For millennia sovereigns relied on racketeers to extort taxes and control their subjects.”
Even the renowned Roman legions operated this way. Tacitus tells us that “Soldiers traditionally bribed their officers for exemption from service, and nearly a quarter of the personnel of every regiment could be found idling about the countryside or even lounging around the barracks, provided their officer had received his kickback . . . . Soldiers got the money they needed from theft and banditry or by doing the chores of slaves. If a soldier happened to be a little richer than the rest, his officer beat him and heaped duties upon him until he paid up and received dispensation.” Cicero, himself a senator, wrote that the “senatorial way to get rich” was to plunder the provinces under one’s jurisdiction. Cicero prided himself on his honesty: After governing a province for a year, he was making the equivalent of a million dollars per year, a sum considered quite small.
The World After Christmas
Christ was born within this pagan culture. But his kingdom, as he explained later, while it was in this world, was not of it. It found its source, its authority, and its principles elsewhere. Instead of the prevailing polytheism of Greece and Rome he taught monotheism: “I and my Father are one.” Instead of the sinful and limited gods of paganism, Christ taught the holy and transcendent God, creator of heaven and earth, ruler of all things. Instead of the pagan gods whose primary pastimes were violence, sexual immorality, and indolence, he taught a rational God who plans and works: “My Father works even until now, and I work.” He reiterated and explained the Ten Commandments with their condemnations of idolatry, of the use of images and statuary in worship, of profanity, of disrespect for parents and the Lord’s Day, of idleness, of murder, of sexual immorality, of theft, of lying, and of covetousness. Even more important than the law, Christ bestowed grace to enable sinners, helpless in themselves, to believe and obey. Instead of the pagan notion that if men are to have truth, they must discover it on their own power, he taught that God graciously reveals truth to men, and that the revealed truth is written so that all, not just the aristocratic few, might know.
Against the totalitarianism of the pagan world empires, Christ taught the limitation of state power and the separation of church and state: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Neither Caesar nor any other man was Pontifex Maximus. Christ himself was the way, the truth, and the life, the only mediator between God and man. He explicitly challenged the political regimes of the pagans: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise dominion over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.” Christ demanded that rulers serve, not control, their people. He outlined a limited role for civil government, not as the shaper of souls, as in pagan philosophies, but simply as the punisher of criminals. He founded a church whose government was republican, whose leaders were elected by the people, and whose constitution was written. Inspired by his words, the American Founders made their plans for a new Republic, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The early Christians, condemned by learned pagans such as Celsus and Porphyry as stupid, foolish, and superstitious, were not killed for their stupidity, but because they rejected the highest value of pagan society: worship of the totalitarian state. The Christians rejected Aristotle (“The State is the highest of all . . . . Citizens belong to the State . . . .”) and followed Christ. Christ, in dying for the salvation of individual men, exalted both the individual and God. God is eternal and men are immortal; nations and rulers pass away. After Christ, Rome was no longer the eternal city; now, only individual men were immortal.
Christ taught that man was a creature of God and the lord of creation. Man’s ancestry was not animal, but divine, and the earth was made for man. Individual men were immortal; what they believed and did on earth would have eternal consequences. After death, they did not descend into a shadow land, but were required to give an account of their lives to their maker and judge. All men were equal before God and his law, and each man would be judged individually. The groups of pagan society—the nobles, the proletariat, the slaves, the citizens, the men, the women, the barbarians—meant nothing to God. In the new Christian faith, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Because Christ’s rule was to be accomplished by persuasion rather than coercion— it was to be an empire of ideas, not violence—it has taken centuries for Christian ideas to be believed and absorbed into practice. Nevertheless, as the anguished wailing of Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century so clearly indicates, that absorption of ideas has been widespread, though far from complete.
The Impact of Christianity. Harold Berman has outlined the spread of Christianity and its effect on society in these words: “Under the influence of Christianity, the Roman law of the postclassical period reformed family law, giving the wife a position of greater equality before the law, requiring mutual consent of both spouses for the validity of a marriage, making divorce more difficult . . . . and abolishing the father’s power of life or death over his children; reformed the law of slavery, giving a slave the right to appeal to a magistrate if his master abused his powers and even, in some cases, the right to freedom if the master exercised cruelty, multiplying modes of manumission of slaves, and permitting slaves to acquire rights by kinship with freemen; and introduced a concept of equity into legal rights and duties generally, thereby tempering the strictness of general prescriptions.” Even the codifications of Roman law that came with Justinian and later were due to the belief that “Christianity required that the law be systematized as a necessary step in its humanization.”
Christianity had the same effect on the barbarians who entered Rome in A.D. 410: “The rulers of the Germanic, Slavic, and other peoples of Europe during roughly the same era (from the fifth to the tenth centuries) presided over a legal regime consisting chiefly of primitive tribal customs and rules of the blood feud. It is more than coincidence that the rulers of many of the major tribal peoples, from Anglo-Saxon England to Kievan Russia, after their conversion to Christianity, promulgated written collections of tribal laws and introduced various reforms . . . . The Laws of Alfred (about A.D. 890) start with a recitation of the Ten Commandments and excerpts from the Mosaic law . . . .”
The Reformation. But it was not until the Reformation that the teachings of Christ largely freed themselves from the melange of pagan and Christian law that prevailed during the Middle Ages. Martin Luther’s courageous rejection of ecclesiastical tradition and authority in the name of revelation and reason laid the theological foundation for the emergence of religious freedom in the modern world. The result was political, civil, and economic freedom.
Berman argues that “the key to the renewal of law in the West from the sixteenth century on was the Protestant concept of the power of the individual, by God’s grace, to change nature and to create new social relations through the exercise of his will. The Protestant concept of the individual will became central to the development of the modern law of property and contract. Nature became property. Economic relations became contract . . . . The property and contract rights so created were held to be sacred and inviolable, so long as they did not contravene conscience [informed by Scripture] . . . . And so the secularization of the state, in the restricted sense of the removal of ecclesiastical controls from it, was accompanied by a spiritualization, and even a sanctification, of property and contract.”
After Luther came Calvin: “Calvinism has also had profound effects upon the development of Western law, and especially upon American law. The Puritans carried forward the Lutheran concept of the sanctity of individual conscience and also, in law, the sanctity of individual will as reflected in property and contract rights . . . . [S]eventeenth century Puritans, including men like [John] Hampden, [John] Lilburne, [Walter] Udall, William Penn and others, by their disobedience to English law, laid the foundations for the English and American law of civil rights and civil liberties as expressed in our respective constitutions: freedom of speech and press, free exercise of religion, the privilege against self-incrimination, the independence of the jury from judicial dictation, the right not to be imprisoned without cause, and many other such rights and freedoms. We also owe to Calvinist congregationalism the religious basis of our concepts of social contract and government by consent of the governed.” Our debt to Greece and Rome has been exaggerated; our debt to Christianity has been ignored.
Judea Against Rome
Despite the progress made in Europe and America since the sixteenth century, a resurgence of paganism now threatens Western civilization. Among modern philosophers it is the nineteenth-century pagan Friedrich Nietzsche who has best understood the “revaluation of all values” that Christianity achieved. Christianity overthrew the “aristocratic values” of Greece and Rome and established a new set of values.
In his Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche wrote: “The symbol of this struggle, inscribed in letters legible across all human history, is ‘Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome.’ There has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction . . . . One has the right to link the salvation and future of the human race with the unconditional dominance of aristocratic values, Roman values. . . . The Romans were the strong and noble, and nobody stronger and nobler has yet existed on earth or even been dreamed of.”
Nietzsche longed, not only for the values of the noble Greeks and Romans, but for their gods as well: “[T]he conception of gods in itself need not lead to the degradation of the imagination . . . [for] there are nobler uses for the invention of gods than for the self-crucifixion and self-violation of man in which Europe over the past millennia achieved its distinctive mastery—that is fortunately revealed even by a mere glance at the Greek gods, those reflections of noble and autocratic men, in whom the animal in man felt deified and did not lacerate itself, did not rage against itself.”
Nietzsche denied that man was lord of the creation: “We no longer derive man from ‘the spirit’ or ‘the deity’; we have placed him back among the animals . . . . Man is by no means the crown of creation; every living being stands beside him on the same level of perfection.” Anticipating the neo-pagan environmental movement of the twentieth century, Nietzsche declared: “Our whole attitude toward nature, the way we violate her with the aid of machines and the heedless inventiveness of our technicians and engineers, is hubris. . . .”
But Nietzsche’s aristocratic paganism did not merely herald the environmental movement; it was an omen of the eruption of political and economic paganism in the twentieth century. Nietzsche decried “the poison of the doctrine of ‘equal rights for all . . . . ‘ ‘Immortality,’ conceded to every Peter and Paul,” he screeched, “has so far been the greatest, the most malignant, attempt to assassinate noble humanity.”
Nietzsche praised the values of Rome: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome. Not contentedness, but more power; not peace, but war; not virtue, but fitness . . . .” He “welcome[d] all signs that a more manly, a warlike, age is about to begin, an age which, above all, will give honor to valor once again.”
Before he finally went insane, Nietzsche called himself the Antichrist, for he despised Christianity, its “slave morality,” and its civilization. For the past century paganism has been resurgent, but it will end: Christ will continue to crush world empires, and of his government and peace there shall be no end.
- Daniel 2.
- “The Roman Empire,” v. 16, pp. 380-381.
- The ancient world was one “in which a large part of the labor force worked under various forms of non- economic compulsion, in which for a long period and over wide stretches of territory gladiatorial combats to the death provided the most popular form of public entertainment for the elites and the masses alike, in which brigandage and piracy and reprisals were often encouraged and even practiced by ‘civilized’ governments.” MI. Finley. Ancient History (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 70-71.
- Acts 17:16.
- W.E.H. Lecky, History of European Morals (London: Watts and Company, 1946 ), Part II, p. 1.
- Lecky, p. 2.
- Ramsay MacMullen and Eugene N. Lane, editors, Paganism and Christianity J00-425 C.E. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 164-165.
- MacMullen and Lane, pp. 74-75.
- Oswyn Murray, “Life and Society in Classical Greece,” The Oxford History of the Classical World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 205.
- M.I. Finley, p. 68.
- Lecky, Part I, p. 127.
- E.G. Weltin, Athens and Jerusalem (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), p. 34.
- The Ancient City (Garden City: Doubleday, n.d.), pp. 222-223.
- Lecky, Part II, pp. 9-11.
- Murray, p. 229.
- Paul Veyne, “The Roman Empire,” A History of Private Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 166.
- Veyne, pp. 167, 97-98,100.
- John 18:36.
- John 10:30.
- John 5:17.
- Matthew 5-7.
- Matthew 22:21.
- Matthew 22:20.
- The words are, of course, Lincoln’s, but he got them from John Wyclif, who wrote of his English translation of the Bible: “This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
- It is an odd fact that there are so few references to Christianity among the extant writings of the pagan scholars and philosophers. It is almost as if they did not see the coming of Christianity, just as they were unaware of the coming of Christ. Perhaps it was because Christ was a Jew and the son of a carpenter, and Christianity was not a movement of the aristocratic classes, but of the scorned business, worker, and slave classes.
- Galatians 3:28.
- “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you . . . .” Matthew 28:19-20.
- Harold Berman, The Interaction of Law and Religion (London: SCM Press, 1974), p. 53.
- Berman, pp. 64-65.
- Berman, pp. 66-47.
- First Essay, section 16.
- Second Essay, section 23.
- The Antichrist, section 14. One might contrast Nietzsche with John Calvin, who wrote: “Men themselves are the most illustrious ornament and glory, of the earth, if they should fail. the earth would exhibit a scene of desolation and solitude, not less hideous than if God should despoil it of all its other riches.” Commentary on Psalm 24.
- The Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay. section 9.
- The Antichrist, section 43.
- The Gay Science, 283.