- MacCulloch writes that “[Christian] persecution petered out rather inconclusively, as the Roman authorities felt that they had better things to do than to try and wipe out a group of troublesome fanatics.” (loc. 3217) Do you think MacCulloch believes that accounts of Christian persecution in the early church were greatly exaggerated? Why or why not? Has his assessment of Christian persecution changed your mind about your previous understanding of Christian persecution or martyrdom in early church history during the Roman Empire? Cite specific examples.
- Discuss the impacts competing religions and philosophies had with Christianity; in particular, Mithriasm, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, or the teachings of Mani. Which one of these intrigued you the most and why? Which one do you believe had the most impact toward Christianity and why?
- Discuss the ways that the Syriac church was different from the church in the West. How does language (or even culture for that matter) affect the way persons worship? (For instance, MacCulloch mentions that the Syriac church in Dura Europos lacks any iconic representation of the crucifixion. (loc. 3541)) Does this knowledge dispel any notions of a single, unified, or homogeneous belief system within Christianity that most Christians think we have? Does this have any theological significance you can think of how God operates in history?
- Discuss how the Sassanian Empire in Persia affected the presence of the church there. How did this Empire and the Syriac church affect the spread of Christianity to Armenia? How has this spread of Christianity eastward towards Europe, right to the edge of Asia, affected your understanding of Christianity?
The Syriac church was different from the church in the West in that it was very Jewish due to proximity of a strong Jewish community. Conjecture from archeology of ancient church art shows more of an emphasis on Christ alive and surprisingly little or none on the Crucifixion itself. Also surprising was a lack of a specific room for communion which implies a communal last supper re-enactment may not have played a large part of the Syriac church. Even though there were differences, the East and West churches did meet and influence each other so any differences were not completely irreconcilable. Prominently Syriac musicality, chanting liturgy made a big influence in the western church.
Language and culture have a huge influence on how Christianity is worshiped and practiced. That we have 4 different gospels to meet the needs and priorities of different audiences is a testament to this. Different people have different needs; churches can be started by missionaries and sometimes they fail, but instead of it being a tragedy, in many instances the church rises again by the natives and is better suited to fulfill their needs. Instead of making Africans Europeans, Christianity makes them better Africans.
Language itself is very powerful to thought. The book 1984 had a plot to end dissent by the government by altering their language so that even the concept of dissent wasn’t possible. There is an African language that has no words for personal right or left, only for generic directions such as East or West. Interestingly the speakers had a very strong sense of direction and geography. I know someone who claimed that the greatest scientists were German, due to German being such a precise language. This person claimed eventually the entire world would adopt it since it was so superior, and yes this person was of German descent.
Another example of the power of the spoken word is with mistranslations or even choice of translation. The Syriac word for the spirit Ruha is feminine. As we have discussed before if we chose to refer to God the Mother instead of the Father. then our understanding and approach to God would be affected. Words have power, as God demonstrated by commanding let there be light and there was.
It seems that Christianity never really had a homogenous belief system. We have constantly disagreed with each other on the best way to worship and understand God. God seems to care little about dogma, but instead wants us to simply love Him and each other.
Of all the alternate religions that were present and in competition with Christianity during the 3rd century, the teachings of Mani, or Manichaeism, intrigues me the most because of its startling and seemingly “modern-era” flavor. It was quite interesting to see the broad cultural exchange that was happening during this time; this means that even in the ancient world, there was much exchange of ideas going back and forth between different cultures and civilizations during this time. As anyone will now know, no philosophy or religion comes into play out of thin air – most religions borrowed from another source.
MacCulloch writes that “The third century has been seen as an ‘age of anxiety’, when people were driven to find comfort in religion.” It’s interesting to note a common theme among the human psyche that most people will “naturally” gravitate toward something outside or greater than themselves for meaning or purpose. Most likely, it was the turmoil in Mani’s life where he witnessed the Parthians succumb to the Persians that prompted him to head East and encounter Buddhism and Hinduism there and combine them with Christianity. It is well worth noting that at its root, Christianity is a Semitic religion (a fact that we forget quite easily), so it was easy for Mani to be attracted to Christianity’s teachings. I think it was quite shrewd of him to have synthesized most of the attractive features of each major religion and come up with a composite belief system to gain the most followers, even all the way to the shores of China, which is quite remarkable.
Mani’s gnostic, dualistic worldview seems to have many similarities with some major branches of today’s Christianity who also see the world as being black or white; good vs. evil. Like Mani, believers today believe Jesus to be the “judge at the last, and a divine healer and teacher” and in many cases, some Christians relatively downplay Jesus’ humanity and opt instead to focus on his divinity, which affects their view of the physical as being corrupt and sinful, and that the physical body “was a prison for individual spirits which sought their home in Heaven.” Augustine, as we will see soon enough, was a former Manichaen, and it will be quite interesting to see how that affected his theology later on; as is without saying, Augustine’s thoughts had a huge influence on Christian theology and Western civilization as well.
Like the Christians during that time they seem to have been a persecuted community as well as forming similar monasteries and assembling in communities very much like a church. So they very much wanted to be seen as part of the larger community. However, this desire for inclusion triggered a defensive reaction from the governing church authorities and wanted them eliminated. We Christians often forget how much a part we played in persecuting or eradicating other competing belief systems in the name of God; and it’s not just a Muslim thing.