Faulkner University

CHRISTIANITY AND THE ROMAN EMPIRE

"Out of the Shadows, 193-235 A.D." - The Severan Dynasty The emergence of the Severan dynasty as rulers of the Roman world (193-235 A.D.) brought dynamic change and expansion for Christianity. From being a self-styled "third race" in between Judaism and paganism, Christianity became one of the major religions of the Roman world. The main issue for Christians was no longer their relationship to Judaism but their place in the Roman world and its institutions. Judaism was returning to its traditional role of national cult, while Christianity took up the role as a monotheistic religion of the world. This awesome task required preparation. Christians had to define their place in society and make systematic and clear a great range of teachings and discipline in both the Greek and Latin-speaking parts of the Mediterranean. Despite severe internal strains, the Church's ability to enforce relatively uniform standards of belief among communities scattered throughout the far-flung Roman Empire made it a formidable contender for power and influence.

Septimius Severus (193-211) Septimius won his empire through conquest. He ruled like a military dictator but with a religious cast of mind. His territory reached to the Sahara desert in the south and across the Tay River in what is now Scotland. There were severe local disturbances in the empire, but in general the times were good. No disasters or religious upheavals to speak of. Provincial cities continued to be prosperous. Baths, triumphal arches, temples, water fountains and enormous amphitheaters marked the Severan age. Politically, the remaining distinctions between Roman and non-Roman were almost entirely abolished by the Constitutio Antoniniana set forth by Severus' son, Caracalla, in 212 or 214 A.D. Nearly all free men could thereafter call themselves Romans.

Religious Rivals Religious life had many opportunities for expression. Traditional religions were deeply rooted. Great Territorial deities presided without rivals, assisted by an army of lesser gods and demons. Simultaneously, within this plethora of divine beings there was a great deal of assimilation and syncretism, as gods of one area were combined with gods of another and worshipped together in the same place. Some places like Dura-Europos kept their local gods, but everywhere Roman gods took precedence. At Dura-Europos, for example, there was an astonishing degree of adherence to the ancient feast days of Rome showing the inhabitants were proud of their acquired 'Romanitas.' Severans followed the example of Commodus and exalted the imperial cult to amazing heights. The divinization of the emperor had been implicit since the time of Augustus. Philostratus depicted the imperial statues in a provincial town in Asia Minor as "being more dreaded at that time and more inviolable than the Zeus in Olympia." In effect the effigies of the emperor were not merely venerated but believed to be endowed with divine power.

Mithraism While a few sophisticated and wealthy people in the Roman empire followed a revival of Pythagoreanism and witnessed a feeble effort by people such as Philostratus, author of Life of Apollonius of Tyana, to revive the pagan cults and related them directly to private morality, the religious faith which bound slave to emperor was Mithraism. Between 170 and 240 A.D. it probably became the most important cult in the Mediterranean world. Fortuitously, its prosperity coincided with that of the empire. Mithraism made dramatic the conflict between good and evil, and it combined mystery and awesome ceremony with a sense of comradery and accomplishment. To all who would submit to its discipline, Mithraism promised salvation from evil and oblivion. Mithraism combined commitment to worship with hospitality to other gods. Mithras was considered the Unconquered One, god of Time, superior to Fate and lord of the planets. He was a mediator between the worlds of light and darkness and revealer of the righteous way of life who promised "life to wandering humans." Mithras, moreover, was not selfish. He would answer prayers addressed equally to Zeus or Srapis as well as to himself.

Mithraic Worship In Mithraic worship adherents met in small rectangular buildings seating twenty to twenty-five people on each side of a central aisle. One end was dominated by a painting of Mithras slaying a bull. There were seven doors representing the seven spheres around the earth, each painted with the planetary deities before which adherents paused to pray. There was also a sacred meal of bread and wine in imitation of one taken by Mithras and the Sun god, and services gave scope for prophecy, ecstatic utterances and singing hymns. There were also mysteries, phrases, ideas, etc., of Mithras, which initiates had to swear to keep secret. If one accepted this responsibility, he would be blindfolded and then branded. Thus, he or she was "born" or "sealed," and like the initiate at Santa Prisca who wrote the date of his "birth" on the wall ("at first light 20 November 202" A.D.), could then enter the first of the seven grades of ascension towards perfection. Mithraism flourished in Rome, in ports and in garrisons, and in smaller country towns and rural areas where Mithras was associated with a range of deities including Saturn, Oceanus and the Moon-goddess.

Adherents Like Christianity Mithraism drew followers from every level of society. But Mithraism was based on the idea of accepting a myth expressing the triumph of good over evil and the believer's progressive attainment of the knowledge of the rulers of the universe that would ensure salvation. It shared these aims with Gnosticism, and like the Gnostics failed to sustain a coherent system of doctrine. It was a successful social religion, even though it seemed to have little appeal to women, but there was no "Book of Mithras" to which adherents could go in case of disputes or uncertainty. Above all, Mithras was not an historical savior who could inspire people from one generation to the next.

Gnosticism The prosperity of Gnosticism is another indication of how religious beliefs and attitudes coalesced throughout the Empire. In Carthage in 200 A.D. Tertullian painted a picture of the pulsating sects of the Empire, their growth, division, decline and reemergence, women teaching and disputing, baptizing and exorcizing. Hippolytus's described similarly the Gnostic sects in Rome, the Naaseenes, Valentinians, Carpocratians, Cainites, ascetic followers of Tatian and Marcion, and their luxurious development. Why did Gnosticism continue to flourish in the hotbed of religious growth in the third century Empire? The Gnostics regarded religion as a voyage of discovery. Tertullian said their motto was "Seek and you will find" (Matt. 7:7). Vigorous minds still found it attractive because it preserved, however faintly, the ancient Greek spirit of inquiry.

Orthodoxy Obviously, neo-Pythagorianism, Mithraism and Gnosticism remained powerful religious forces in the empire. If it had continued, the traditional cult of emperor worship would have never been threatened. Yet, the situation changed drastically in favor of orthodox Christianity. How so, in part because they won the "arguments," first against Gnostics and then against pagans. And Christian organization shielded the church during the social and political disasters that followed the rule of the Severan dynasty. And among other factors orthodox Christianity won out in the battle of morality. There was, it was claimed, an "overwhelming power" in the preaching of educated and uneducated men alike to win over individuals and prove the truth of the orthodox position. So, orthodoxy, often in painful and difficult ways, responded successfully to the intellectual challenges of the day, and even developed a momentum of its own.

Revived Sense of Mission The organizational strength in the formation of widely scattered bishoprics in major provincial capitals and the growing wealth of the church in the form of holding property as a corporate body accompanied a revived strength of mission. While converts still went through the three-year catechumenate process and made contact with the introspective Jewish outlook of many Christians, this would change. By 200 converts found the faith more attractive than ever, and by the end of the century bishops were firmly in control. The church, in short, was coming to terms with history, time and earthly life. It envisioned a destiny on earth over long periods of time and accordingly made the faith more accessible to the masses of the empire. First in Alexandria and then Carthage and Rome Christian apologists tried to spread the faith to educated pagans with an explicit missionary purpose.

Pagan Reaction The spread of Christianity from Lyons to the Euphrates frontier was sufficient to cause alarm among the pagan majority. From 195 to 212 A.D. sporadic persecution and various degrees of violence took place in the empire. Perpetua and Felicitas were killed in the amphitheater of Carthage on 7 March 203 A.D., where persecution continued intermittently until August 212 A.D. In Alexandria Clement claimed there were "roastings, impalings and beheadings" of Christians before he fled the city in fear about 203 A.D. Under the prefect of Egypt, Q. Maecius laetus (201-03 A.D.), Origen's father was executed, and after Clement left some of his associates and converts were hunted down and killed under the prefect Tiberius Claudius Subatianus Aquila from 206 to 210 A.D. In Corinth a Christian woman was executed for blaspheming the times, the emperors and idols. Most of the known examples were catechumens or recently baptized converts, which has led some scholars to suggest that Emperor Severus took the initiative in this early persecution to discourage conversion. Accordingly, Tertullian remarked about the early third century that "Christians were made, not born." Belief and commitment were costly in the first thirty years of the century, a time that ironically Christianity was emerging from the shadows of classical civilization that to many provincials seemed increasingly oppressive or irrelevant.

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"Struggle and Advance 235-260 A.D." - Fall of the Severan Dynasty The Severan dynasty fell to revolution in March 235 A.D. and with it the relative peace and prosperity of the Roman state. Threats and invasions from Germanic tribes brought down the emperor, in addition to problems with the Sassanid dynasty in Persia. Ardashir and his son Sapor I wanted to re-conquer Darius's dominions and drive the Romans back to the Bosporus. Sapor defeated the Romans in 260 A.D. and in turn had a great effect on the social, religious and military life of the empire. The greatest peril, however, was from 235 to 270 A.D. The army chose and then discarded emperor after emperor. The frontiers were devastated. Athens and Milan drowned in the horrors of invasion and siege. An independent state existed in Gaul for fifteen years from 259 to 274 A.D. The Persians and Goths overran provinces in Asia Minor. Military disaster accelerated economic decay. Currency debasement and inflation were rampant. Public buildings such as aqueducts, fountains, markets and baths, fell into disrepair. Plagues and famine raged on a worldwide scale, while agrarian discontent boiled over. In Carthage pagan magistrate and Christian bishop alike thought the end of the world was near but disagreed on whose fault it was. In fact morale did not collaspe in government. Center and provincial administrations held firm, and trade and sea routes in general remained open. Yet, the foundations of society had been shaken. Cities were impoverished and unhealthy places to visit. Plague was far more dangerous than Barbarian or Persian invasion.

Christian Progress In such circumstances there was great opportunity for Christianity to move to the forefront of internal problems. Maximin, a camp-made emperor, singled them out as the cause of Severus's death in battle. He exiled some officials who had embraced the new faith. Serenianus, the governor of Cappadocia, persecuted the church bitterly, but the crisis passed as quickly as it had come. Maximin was murdered in 238 A.D., and in the reigns of Gordian III (238-44 A.D.) and Philip the Arabian (244-49 A.D.) Christianity made remarkable progress. Massive numbers of converts were made, and for the first time the faith became attractive to the educated elites. By 250 A.D. the dominance of the territorial and regional gods that had ruled the Mediterranean for thousands of years was challenged. Origen was convinced that there was a continuous and large flow of convinced and dedicated individuals moving into the church's ranks. The question of course is why? One major reason was the decline of the cities and their major cults. Local aristocrats and magistrates were staunch supporters of the cults who depended upon these elites for upkeep and protection. The heart of the old religions had been knocked out. Somehow the Severan age and the trouble that followed it had sapped the old pagan faiths of their vitality. Christianity moved to fill this spiritual vacuum.

Conversion While prior to this time, people were apparently converted to the faith over a long period of time by gradually deciding that the new faith offered answers the pagan philosophers could not deliver, by 235 A.D. conversion seemed to stem from the hope and consolation which Christianity offered. Then the pendulum swung back to education and moral progress. In fact Origen like Justin Martyr before him stressed the moral superiority of the faith over its rivals. He argued that intelligent and educated people were impressed with the moral power of the faith to bring self-control to the lives of those most subject to their passions. Eventually, by mid-century conversion settled down to an utter rejection of one's past and an escape from sin. Cyprian writing to a friend in 245 A.D. told a story of gloom and guilt, despair of improvement, and then release from them in conversion. Baptism brought a rebirth and restoration to a new manhood. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit destroyed an earthly life of sin (this despite the fact that the Church at Rome at this time emphasized reception of the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands). And surprisingly, the Gnostics, so important a generation before, were fading. Cyprian's voluminous correspondence never mentions them. Within the church, they were replaced by Monarchianism, though Cyprian never suspected that Gnosticism was alive and well in a new form to challenge Christianity through a new universal religion founded by a genius named Mani.

Manicheism Mani (216-77 A.D.) successfully synthesized aspects of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and ideas taken, for example, from Marcion, along with his sectarian dualist Christianity. According to a papyri discovered in the 1970s discloses that Mani was born in 216 near Basra into a Christian sect of Elkesaites which his father had joined. Elkesaites flourished on both sides of the Roman/Persian fronter. Origen took note of them. They may be connected to the Jewish/Jewish-Christian "baptist" sects of the first century, for they advocated a combination of Jewish/Christian and Mandaean ideas. Like the Ebionites, they accepted only the Gospel of Matthew, and they were "Baptists" in that they spent a lot of time in purificatory ablutions.

Conversion Mani had two religious conversions, first at age twelve and then in April 240. Together they convinced him to separate from the sect and preach his own faith. In fact the second occurred under a full moon that suggests there are astrological tendencies in Mani's ideas. He also received a "companion" who was a guardian angel from the world of light to be guide, protector and personal source of truth. Mani then went to India to study Buddhism. For him the Roman Empire and Marcionite Christianity was the "west." He went there as an envoy from King Sapor in 256-57 A.D., but since he became a threat to Zoroastrianism and its priests Sapor's successor, Bahram, order Mani's execution in 277 A.D.

Ideas It was against the Elkesaites that Mani hammered out his religious ideas. He recalled while still in the sect that he rejected the idea that purity concerned the body. Ablutions were a waste of time, for the body was destined for destruction and eternal refreshment. Mani insisted that a truly religious life was ascetic, unmoved by transitory matters such as food and other matters over which the Elkesaites had developed elaborate concerns. Mani argued that purity had to do with the soul alone and came from gnosis. Gnosis, Mani claimed, freed the soul from death and destruction. Once attained baptism took place once to mark and seal this profound illumination. Gnosis in Mani's system was knowledge of the division between light and darkness, the two primary entities of the universe. While Gnostics assumed dualism, Mani defined it in concrete terms, God-Light and Evil-Darkness, which could play a role in myth. It suggests he was drawing upon, as Ephraem Syrus claimed, upon current ideas of Marcion and Bardesanes.

Mani's Credo Although the ramifications of Manichean mythology were elaborate, arcane and complex, his essential faith was simple. There were two Principles, Light and Darkness, and three Moments, Past, Present and Future. Light and Darkness were contrasting realities. The purpose of all existence was the refining and distilling of Light from Darkness, so that in the Future Light and Darkness would be separate again. Mani's theory of the process of salvation followed the Gnostic systems of his day but with some original elements. For Mani Christ was incarnate in Adam, the prophets, Jesus and in all creation. He was the Messenger, Bringer of Light and liberator from the clutches of Darkness. A true Manichee (the Elect) lived on a diet of light-bearing vegtables. One did not prepare food so as to not destroy light, nor did one do any work to avoid prolonging the Present or to delay the distillation of Light. As this sort of ascetic, bodily needs were attended to by followers who were from among the second grade of Manichee.

Historical Manifestations Mani allowed that the message of salvation had been proclaimed by a succession of prophets and teachers including Plato, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus of Nazareth and Paul, each for his own time and people. Mani thought it was now time to bring all these revelations together to proclaim a single gospel to everyone. Mani felt that Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism had much in common, more than any of their adherents would admit. Mani thought it possible to fuse them together into a system of universal validity. The appeal of the system was "knowledge of salvation" achieved by understanding the secrets of the universe. Mani thought in terms of organizations of believers and churches as rivals to the "incomplete" institutions of Christianity and disseminators of this knowledge of salvation. With a mixture of arrogance, shrewd calculation and idealism, Mani wanted to take in the whole of human religious experience and form a single complete universal system. The effort was powerful. Manichean missionaries moved to the West between 244 and 262 A.D. to establish Manichean centers in Egypt and Edessa. This provoked a bitter fight with the Church, because Christians quickly saw that Mani had fabricated a new rival universal faith and that he had struck a responsive chord in many people.

Decian Persecution This was the situation when celebrations were held in 247 A.D. on the anniversary of the founding of Rome to honor the gods for protecting the empire for 1,000 years. While the Emperor Philip proclaimed the happiness of the age, Gothic invasions were on the rise, as were urupers, brigandage and oppression. Christians such as Origen sensed a showdown with the church. It began in Alexandria, a city which for centuries had been a nerve center of racial and religious tensions. The storm broke in 248 A.D. Stirred up by a priest, mobs attacked Christians. Some were lynched, others dragged to pagan temples and forced to sacrifice. Mobs looted, burned and went on rampages destroying property of Christians. This instinctive behavior suggested the pagans of Alexandria felt Christians had become too powerful. In the midst of this trouble Philip turned to C. Messius Quintus Decius, prefect of the city of Rome. He defeated the Goths along the Danube, but troops there proclaimed him emperor in 248 A.D. After months of negotiations Philip was defeated and committed suicide. Decius took over in October 249 in the midst of a grave imperial crisis.

Persecution Decius apparently saw himself as a new Trajan, a successor to such "divine rulers," a stern noble figure of inflexible willpower and courage, the epitome of the Roman tradition of rulership and warrior prowess he had vowed to restore. In January 250 A.D. Decius performed an animal sacrifice to Jupiter and presented imperial supplications (vota) for the year. He ordered the same done in all cities and contrary forces causing disruption between the gods and humankind to be eliminated. Shortly Bishop Fabian of Rome was arrested, tried and executed. Babylas his colleague at Antioch met the same fate. Alexander of Jerusalem died in prison, and Dionysius of Alexandria barely escaped arrest. Cyprian of Carthage went into hiding, while in Pontus, Gregory the Wonderworker fled.

Lower levels Officials saw to it that this was carried out on every level of society. Everyone was ordered to sacrifice, and those who did received a certificate (libellus) and registration as a formal, judicial act. It was to be done by everyone, not just suspected Christians and was accompanied by a libation to the deity and eating his sacrificial meat (participation in him, worship). An inscription from Aphrodisias, the capital of Caria, shows that provincials understood these "just sacrifices and prayers" to be acts of solidarity and support for the empire. Refusal meant the death penalty. Even though these powers were not used consistently, the church apparently almost collapsed. Records of most major cities show huge numbers rushing to obey the emperor, Christian joining with pagan neighbor to sacrifice. At Carthage attendants at the sacrifices had to ask people to come back in a few days because they were overwhelmed by the numbers. In Alexandria it was disaster. The leadership of the church was effectively reduced to Dionysius and four presbyers in hiding. Authorities sensed the latent power of loyalty to the emperor and to Rome. Where recorded, officials were enthusiastic about the response to the edict.

Why the Near Collapse? What had happened? Throughout the empire the church had accepted a large number of nominal converts as well as committed individuals such as Cyprian. The gap between educated and uneducated in the church was widening. Some of the more important churches had developed into administrative machines whose clergy felt themselves superior to the laity. Further, some church officials had combined spiritual with secular tasks, acting as bailiffs for imperial and private estates or as trustees for family pension funds. Further, the church was basically an urban organization whose leaders were socially well placed but whose membership was made up of artisans and small traders that often disliked the leaders. Thousands of these people thought nothing of sacrificing in a pagan temple one day and then receiving the Eucharist on Sunday, for no one disobeyed an imperial edict lightly. When confronted by empire or church, the majority of Christians played it safe and sacrificed. Relatively speaking, few people were actually executed, and by the end of 250 A.D. it was all over with.

Church in Ruins The penitential and disciplinary system built up over a generation was in ruins. Thousands were "renegades" including many clergy. Imposing individual penance and maintaining the integrity of the elect that was the church on earth was no longer possible. Moreover, many of the lapsed were undisciplined and unwilling to apply for forgiveness. When Cyprian returned to Carthage in 251 A.D. he found the leadership of the church had fallen into the hands of many humble poor people who felt the Holy Spirit rested upon them, as 75 years before it had rested on the martyrs in Lyon, rather than on the bishops like Cyprian and the rest of the now disgraced clergy. The church in Carthage recovered. A council held sometime after Easter 251 that no one would be wholly or permanently excluded from penance. Clergy who lapsed would not be readmitted to orders. Those certified as having sacrificed but who actually had not would be allowed back into the church eventually. Those who actually had sacrificed would be allowed back in only on their deathbed. It was a product of Cyprian's leadership and his victory over the lay confessors, most of whom accepted the situation. In Alexandria we know less of the church's recovery. Plague struck in 252. Christians stuck to their posts when all others fled which helped to restore the church's credibility.

Retrospect In retrospect the Decian persecution emerges as the testing point between the church and the empire. The church faced a disaster from its near collapse. However, military and economic diasters that sent shock waves throughout the Empire took a very heavy toll on traditional pagan society. The church proved to be resilient. Its worldwide organization, economic power and martyr-tradition triumphed over persecution and mass temporary apostasies. In fact by 256 A.D. the church was stronger than ever before the persecution. The "unlawful association" (religio illicita) was now a rival to the empire. By the time Diocletian threw down a final challenge in 303 A.D., the battle had been lost.

Bibliography

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"The Age of Diocletian 270-305 A.D." Gradually, in the second half of the third century the Barbarians who plagued Rome were beaten back. Emperor Aurelian (270-75 A.D.) moved quickly and decisively, and within five years of 269 A.D. the "natural" frontiers had been restored. The territory that had fallen to Palmyra in the east ended in 272 A.D., while the Gallic empire was reabsorbed (273/74 A.D.). Some areas around the Danube were given up, but Britain was regained.

The Pagan Front Traditional paganism also consolidated itself in these years and defended itself against Christianity. Aurelian thought that the Sun god and Jupiter had intervened to bring him military victories. In 274 Aurelian built a magnificent temple to the Sun god in Rome. Sun worship was to be the universal faith of the empire. Before being murdered in a military conspiracy, Aurelian reportedly planned new persecutions against Christians. By 276 A.D. things had been sorted out, and an Illyrian soldier-emperor, Probus (276-82), had taken over. His coins show a growing confidence in Rome, its institutions and religion. "Roma aeterna" and "Soli invicto comiti" (the "unconquered Sun" as the emperor's "companion") are accompanied by inscriptions exalting the person of the emperor, his virtue (virtus) and his "coming" (adventus). With the gods as his helpers Probus would restore the golden age of peace.

How Believable? Much of the credibility of these hopes rested upon the emperor's success in military campaigns. Paganism, however, was also discovering intellectual defenders. Amelius, Porphyry of Gaza (d. 304 A.D.), both pupils of Plotinus, and the Syrian thinker, Iamblichus (d. ca. 326 A.D.), were examples. The movement seemingly was centered in western Syria where there were centers of Neo-Platonic study in some of the Greek-Syrian towns such as Apamea. Students of this system were steeped in the theories of Pythagoras, stoicism as well as Plato. Further, they shared many ideals with the Alexandrian Christians. The Neo-Platonists believed in the essential harmony of a providentially guided universe and that the goal of human life was the divinization of the soul. Of course, their system allowed for various gods and pagan heavenly powers that Christianity did not. Similarly, the Neo-Platonics sought mystical union with the One and release from the bonds of Fate through mystical experiences, clairvoyance and semi-magical practices connected with the so-called Chaldean Oracles. Little otherwise may have separated them from a Christian Platonist such as Origen, who for all his passionate Christianity agreed with Porphyry that the true philosopher "is a priest of the supreme God, and by his abstinence he is united to the God he serves." There were of course differences on many issues, particularly with regard to one's duty to one's city, or idolatry or morality. The supreme god of the Neo-Platonists was Jupiter. The result was a long and bitter feud between Christians and Neo-Platonists that lasted through the second half of the third century.

Porphyry The controversy was conciliatory from about 260-70 A.D. In his early work On the Return of the Soul, which influenced Augustine and freed him from Manichean dualism, Porphyry conceded the exemplary character of Christ but criticized the disciples harshly. However, in a later work, Against the Christians (c. 270 A.D.), 15 volumes in length, Jesus emerges as a worthy figure but the disciples are pictured as unworthy, shallow-minded malcontents who spread unreliable fantasies and misinformation. Porphyry had studied the OT also. He claimed the book of 'Daniel' was a Maccabean forgery and not prophetic. Like most pagan leaders Porphyry was profoundly conservative and viewed traditional religious usages as sacrosanct. Simply put, Christianity was an innovation and a radical untrustworthy threat to these institutions. The highest virtue for Porphyry was to honor the divine powers in the ancestral manner, and Christianity was an obstacle to that. In short, Porphyry was deeply upset by the spread of Christianity.

The Advance of the Faith From contemporary records it appears that Christianity advanced strongly if unevenly into three areas in the third century: (1) western Asia Minor, Cyprus, Crete, Greece, coastal towns of Italy and Rome; (2) territories outside the original Pauline missionary area where there were nonetheless strong Jewish communities--eastern Syria, Mesopotamia, parts of North Africa and southeastern Spain; (3) the Celtic and Germanic provinces including Britain.

Assimilation and Absorption Christianity moved ahead even in unfavorable circumstances and areas through its Episcopal organization. Bishops could assemble rapidly and deliver decisive decisions. The Church could discipline its members, and it knew where it stood in relation to the outside world. Where numerous, Christianity was attractive and had the ability to absorb elements of the surrounding culture to its own advantage. In Rome for example, the tombs of the Via Latina contained paintings of Christ in the passageways. One showed Christ, scenes from the OT and other Biblical figures. Most extraordin-ary, however, are the Christian tombs with pagan symbols--Meduasa and Hercules performing his labors. Perhaps, Hercules symbolizes Christ doing mighty works on earth, or the scene of Hercules rescuing Alcestis from Hades symbolized the resurrection of Lazarus. But what of Medusa, there is no cut-and-dried solution any more than there are for the peacocks, dolphins and lions in Jewish funerary art of the time. Apparently, Christians had already begun a process of absorbing and assimilating pagan symbols. On the other side of the city in the Vatican cemetery tombs dating to around 322 A.D. show Christ represented as Helios drawing a miniature chariot. Was Christ in some way associated with the Sun? Does this illustrate Constantine's "dual" religion from 312-23 A.D.?

Personal Dilemmas Christianity also moved ahead on the personal level among philosophically minded individuals who found paganism increasingly unsatisfactory. Arnobius of Sicca in proconsular Africa (fl. 290-303 A.D.) had a reputation as an anti-Christian polemicist. He became disenchanted, however, with various superstitious practices around him designed to win divine favor. He observed the pagan cults falling into confusion and decline. At heart he was a pious if abrasive Epicurean who disliked Plato and Platonic proofs of the immortality of the soul put forward by Cicero in Table talks at Tusculum. However, he thought the soul somehow possessed enough divinity to gain immortality by the gift and grace of God. In retrospect Arnobius should have become a follower of Lucretius. Instead, he converted to Christianity, and during the Great Persecution wrote seven volumes of Against the Pagans, defending Christianity from the growing pagan charges that it was responsible for the ills of the world. His pupil, Lactantius (fl. 290-320 A.D.), became a convert about 300 A.D. His On the Deaths of the Persecutors was snobbish and apocalyptical but expressed concern for injustices suffered under imperial reform. Divine Institutes was Ciceronean in style and thought in an attempt to reconcile philosophy, particularly Epicureanism, with Christianity to the latter's advantage. He wrote as one disillusioned with the injustices of the time and the vanished vision of a Golden Age. He too was involved in absorption and assimilation in a textual way just as the frescoes on the walls of the tombs in Rome had been. These were the faint echoes of a great revolution about to take place which would change the church and empire permanently.

Diocletian and the Great Pursecution - The Reorganization of the Empire The decade 275-85 saw a revival of senatorial choice of the Emperor, renewed military dictatorship and restoration of dynastic government. All failed. Another Illyrian soldier, Diocles, seized power in November 284 A.D. and by the next spring had triumphed over his rivals. No one could foretell at this point that he would survive another twenty-one years, abdicate, and survive as an elder statesman for another ten years. Diocletian launched a persecution for unknown reasons against Christianity in Feb. 303 A.D. He was a dour and autocratic person who surrounded himself with the trappings of religion. Everything having to do with the person of the emperor was invested with sanctity. In fact "sacer" became synonymous with "imperial." "Dominus" (Lord) became the normal mode of address. Diocletian made administrative progress despite this aberration. Like Carus he split the empire into two administrative districts and put the western provinces under their own ruler subordinate to himself. Dynastic succession was abandoned. Through the efforts of loyal subordinates such as Maximian, an Illyrian soldier appointed to put down rebellion in the east, and a deputy or Caesar of his and of Diocletian, security and restoration of past values marked Diocletian rule. Over a ten-year period Diocletian divided the forty-three provinces into 120 units that could be ruled easily but would be too small to support rebellious generals. The army became much larger, and the frontiers got massive fortifications. The empire resembled a vast fortified camp. Classes based on function or vocation became hereditary casts as occupations passed ineluctably from father to son. Duty and discipline were stressed.

Restoration of Roman Virtue Restoration of Roman virtue would be under the aegis of Roman gods whose worship was encouraged everywhere. Local customs had to be suppressed if they threatened religious uniformity. Concerning Marriages (De nuptiis) was an edict dating to 295 A.D. designed to stop the longstanding custom of brothers and sisters marrying one another in Egypt, because it showed disrespect for traditional morality. Divine favor might be forfeited if some citizens of the empire through ignorance or barbarity behaved indecently. Rome had survived this far by divine favor, and in such a crucial time that favor had to be curried at all costs. Uniformity was expressed elsewhere. Currency, taxation and prices were all reorganized and ostensibly put under a simply uniform system throughout the empire. This it was hoped would do away with hoarders, profiteers and the black market that flourished.

Outbreak of Persecution In terms, then, of military triumphs and economic policies, the timing and therefore the purpose of the Great Persecution becomes understandable. In 297 A.D. Galerius, husband of Valeria, Diocletian's daughter, and Caesar or subruler of the empire in the East, decisively defeated the Persians. It was well known that Manicheism, a Persian religion, had spread throughout the ranks of the Roman army and the empire in general. Although Alexander, the Neo-Platonist of Lycopolis (c. 300 A.D.), and thought the Manicheian threat vastly overestimated and its ideas too complicated when compared to the simplicity of orthodox Christianity. Diocletian and his advisors viewed Manicheism as a deadly Persian weapon to undermine the traditional faith and thus the military effectiveness of Rome. Manicheans were ordered to hand over their sacred books for burning. Galerius was a convinced pagan and a politician in ascendance. Following his victory Galerius's suspicions of the Manicheans shifted to the Christians. In 298 A.D. auguries proved unsatisfactory, and Galerius suspected the disturbing presence of Christians at the sacrifices to be the problem. Full-scale persecution was the logical outcome. Little by little Christians were dismissed from the army and imperial service. In February 303 A.D. on the date of the Feast of Terminalia the final battle for the allegiance of the empire began.

Aim of the Persecution Diocletian recognized the possibility of the plan backfiring if Christian blood was shed. He insisted, then, that the aim of the program was to call Christians back to their duty of recognizing the majesty of the Roman gods. On 24 February 303 A.D. Diocletian ordered all churches destroyed and all sacred books (Bible etc.) turned over to the government to be burned. Christians in public offices would be dismissed, and in private life upper class Christians would lose their privileges as plaintiffs in cases of injury, adultery or theft. Christian slaves could not be freed. However, there was no requirement of universal sacrifice. The attack concentrated on the organization of the church, its life represented in the Scriptures and buildings, and on its influential members. Despite Christian inroads into pagan society, Diocletian's edict commanded a fair measure of support. Pagans, educated or not, who were familiar with superstitious practices, blood sacrifices and temple ceremonies, accepted the value of ancestral customs and traditions. They were prepared to blame every disaster, from invasion to unseasonable weather, on Christians.

Effects Despite the fact there that is no record of any imperial official failing carry out Diocletian's edicts and a large measure of popular support, especially in urban areas where Christianity had never been liked, Christians were too well organized, widespread and numerous to be destroyed. At first matters went well for the Emperor. The first reaction of Christians at Cirta was flight. In Egypt Bishop Peter of Alexandria left for Oxyrhynchus. Meanwhile, all over the empire authorities set about burning churches and collecting copies of the Scriptures. In proconsular Africa where there were abundant records the first thing many people knew of the persecution was the sight of burning churches. In the summer of 303 A.D. a second edict came out ordering all bishops and other Christian leaders to be arrested and forced to sacrifice. Imperial prisons were not designed to house long-term inmates, so the situation became impossible. Real criminals had to be turned out. A third edict ordered the imprisoned clergy to sacrifice and then to be freed. Some gave way to the inducements to worship, but many more resisted. Diocletian felt confident enough in the autumn to visit Rome, but like other rulers he found the population turbulent and unwelcoming. In December 303 A.D. he went to Ravenna where he caught malaria. He abdicated in 305 A.D. having apparently recovered from this illness.

Galerius In 304 A.D. Galerius turned the persecution into an all out war against Christians, lay or clerical. A fourth edict issued in the spring of 304 A.D. order Christians to sacrifice upon pain of death. It was enforced first in the East, but later in the West. However, there is no evidence of mass sacrifice in Britain, Gaul, the Rhineland or Spain. Eusebius claims there was widespread suffering of Christians in Africa. Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in May 305 A.D., and it does not seem the persecution recommenced thereafter. Most of the terror, then, probably took place in 304 A.D. When Diocletian abidcated in 305 he told his troops he had saved the civilized world. He proclaimed Galerius his successor. He appointed two new Caesars, Severus and Maximin, two military men, to be his chief subordinates, ignoring in the meantime young Constantine, son of the Western Caesar Constantius. The first Tetrarchy had ended in an empire rent by religious upheavals and dynastic quarrels. For the immortal gods, the die was cast. The showdown with Christianity was just over the horizon clouded by now supreme Galerius with two malcontent military chieftains whose ambitions could not be satisfied unless the new settlement was destroyed.

Bibliography

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"The Constantinian Revolution 305-330 A.D." - The Victory of Constantine Imperial troops at York in 306 A.D. declared Constantine to be a "caesar" on the death of his father Constantinus. At this time the Roman empire was ruled by two emperors (augusti) and two junior colleagues (caesars). Constantine's sphere was the west, especially Gaul and Britain, but he set out to conquor the whole Empire. By 312 A.D. he had defeated his rival, Maxentius, at the battle of Milvian Bridge and made himself master of Rome and the western part of the empire. The Christian historian, Eusebius, claimed Constantine had been guided to this battle by a vision or dream. As early as 320-22 A.D. Christians in Rome believed Constantine had seen the sign of the Cross in the sky inscribed with "in hoc (signo) vinces" as noted by Eusebius. The only problem was that in 312 Christians were not yet using the Chi-Rho symbol, but what mattered was not the specific symbol but Constantine's ego. He believed in his star, whether it was the Sun god he had celebrated on his coins in 310--"To the Unconquered Sun my companion" to express how the sun preserved him and the Roman people--or the Christian God as Eusebius insisted.

Constantine and the Church Early on Constantine seems to have followed his father's tolerant ways toward the church in Gaul. Apollo had promised him victory and a reign of thirty years, and it was under allegiance to the Sun god that Constantine had entered Rome as "liberator of the world" (Liberator Orbis). Yet, throughout the campaign Hosius, bishop of Cordoba, had accompanied Constantine and tried to persuade him to commit his fate to the Christian god. Victory at Milvian Bridge seemingly confirmed the promised protection and patronage so avidly sought by Constantine. His alliance with Licinius at Milan in 313 A.D. brought an edict that ended the era of persecutions and took the first step towards the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the empire. The edict of Milan granted unrestricted freedom to Christians and complete restoration of property. Romans could now freely worship as they pleased. The edict was issued because both emperors believed they were beholden in varying degrees to the Christian god for their good fortune.

Constantine's Personal Faith From 313-24 A.D. Constantine seems to have made consistent if not stormy progress towards accepting the Christian god as the one to whom he must give exclusive service. In his passionate, turbulent and supersti-tious nature Constantine had room for many allegiances though one had to win out in the end. Up to the preparations for his campaigns in 323 A.D. Constantine remained loyal to the Sun god, even though he regarded himself as a servant of the Christian god. Constantine's public image stayed the same--the Sun god as the emperor's "companion." "Soli Invicto Comiti" (To the Unconquered Sun my companion) dominated coinage, while some western issues show the Sun's orb resting on an altar. The protection of the gods of the empire did not disappear from the coins until after c. 319 A.D. However, Lactantius, in his Divine Institutes and Deaths of Persecutors, was convinced that Christians had a friend in Constantine. Lactantius stressed the awful warning of the fates of the persecutors from Nero onward and the unfailing reality of God's justice visiting punishment on the guilty form the main themes of Lactantius's work. In 313 A.D. Constantine wrote Aelafius, a Christian official in North Africa, and revealed his ambitions to universal rule, not under the protection of the "immortal gods" of tradition, but under the Christian god. And yet, while the Cross remained Constantine's personal talisman and occasionally appeared on the emperor's helmet, coins and other figures, the Sun god was not officially dethroned. In 321 A.D. Constantine ordered no legal proceedings on Sunday. He called it "the day celebrated by the veneration of the Sun," no "the day of the Lord." When Constantine discharged veterans from the army, they shouted, "The gods preserve you, Constantine Augustus."

The Donatists When Constantine came in contact with Christianity he probably assumed the church was a single united body "the corpus Christianorum" which one could distinguish from the "worshippers of other cults." The rapid change in the imperial status of the church, from persecuted cult to an officially recognized religion, gave free rein to latent tensions within its ranks. First in the west and then in the east in 312 and 318-19 fundamental disagreements over discipline and doctrine dormant for half a century came to the surface. The problems in North Africa date back at least to 304 A.D. and the severe persecutions of that time. A dispute between Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, and the primate of Numidia, Secundus of Tigisis, broke out in 305 A.D. over Mensurius's failure to take a strong stand under persecution while the Numidian bishops had refused to try and to trick the authorities. The Numidians viewed Secundus as a traitor against whom they wanted to take a hard line. Donatus of Casae Nigrae, a Numidian agricultural settlement on the border of the Sahara, took a hard line also against clergy he felt had betrayed the martyrs and the Scriptures during the persecution. Reportedly he rebaptized clergy who had lapsed.

The Climax Matters came to a head in 311 at the death of Mensurius. Amid intrigue and dispute, and before the Numidians could arrive in Carthage to exercise their right to pick a successor, Caecilian was elected bishop of Carthage and consecrated by three neighboring bishops. One of them, however, Felix of Aptunga, was widely regarded as a traitor during the persecution. When the Numidians arrived, opposition coalesced around them. In 312 A.D. they held a council and condemned Caecilian on the grounds that he had been a traitor and had denied food to imprisoned confessors. The council deposed Caecilian and elected instead Majorinus, a deacon and chaplain to Lucilla, the Spanish grande dame whom Caedilian had offended a decade before. Conflicts over the basic nature of the church and interprovincial rivalries, between Numidia and its richer neighbor, were complicated by intrigue and personal bickering.

Constantine's Response Constantine's reaction illustrates something about the new relationship between church and state. Constantine recognized Caecilian and granted immunity from municipal burdens to his clergy. The Numidians of course protested. Constantine appointed Miltiades (311-14 A.D.), an African who was bishop of Rome, to head a delegation to look into the matter. Miltiades and his episcopal assessors ruled in favor of Caecilian, but now his opponents were led by the formidable Donatus. Donatus charged that by association, Miltiades was a traitor, since ten years before Marcellinus, then bishop of Rome, had sacrificed under persecution and Miltiades had been one of his deacons. Constantine took the charges reluctantly and appointed a new tribunal to look into the whole matter again. Thirty-three bishops assembled in August 314 A.D., actually the first council assembled in the west under imperial patronage. Again the Caecilianists won, and the North Africans demonstrated a fanatical opposition once more.

No Peace Constantine was angry that there was no peace. He tried to keep Donatus and Caecilian in northern Italy and away from the scene of battle. Constantine sent an episcopal commission to Carthage to report, and they ran into anti-Caecilianist riots but reported once again in Caecilian's favor. Donatus escaped from imperial custody and by February 316 was back in Africa. Constantine now invoked his status as "pontifex maximus" (supreme magistrate and chief priest) to judge the case. In other words Constantine now viewed himself as God's representative, his vicar on earth. Religious unity centered on the religion of Christianity was his ideal, and he intended to bring about Eusebius's dream of unity of church and state under God's providence in his person as magistrate and priest. He decided in November 316 at Milan that Caecilian was right. He published an edict the next spring against the Donatists, confiscating their property and exiling Donatus. Now the state that had proclaimed religious toleration was persecuting a branch of Christianity in favor of the orthodox party. It did little to bring peace. North Africans remained loyal to the ideals of Tertullian and Cyprian, they neither understood nor cared for Constantine's conversion. The fundamental hostility of state toward church had not been altered.

Failure The Donatists were strong, strong enough to ride out a scandal in southern Numidia. A row between Nundianrius, deason of Cirta, and the bishop, Silvanus, brought into the open information in court in Thamugadi that Silvanus and other bishops in Numidia were traitors, adulterers, simoniacs and even murderers. They remained popular heroes, a sure sign that Donatism was an expression of loyalty to the theology of Cyprian combined with profound social and regional grievances. Constantine gave up in 321 A.D. on the idea of coercion. He would never again try to beat a segment of the church into submission. The unity of western Christendom was momentarily gone.

Arius The great persecution in 303-04 A.D. also produced a divisive doctrinal problem for Constantine. In Egypt the clergy was divided between those who wanted moderate treatment for those who lapsed under fire, and clergy who wanted to treat the lapsed severly. In prison Peter, bishop of Alexandria, and Meletius, bishop of Lycopolis in Upper Egypt, disagreed. Peter wanted moderate treament, while Meletius was for severity. After Diocletian's abdication in 305 A.D. the prisoners were released. At Easter 306 Peter issued canons admitting those who gave way under torture after a forty-day fast. Other penances matched culpability, but ultimate forgiveness was denied. Then came the rule of Maximin, as one of the second Tetrarchy in the east, and the horrors of his rule. Thousands apparently were tortured and executed in the period 306-11 A.D. Meletius's cause was strengthened, including the support of a learned Alexandrian Christian named Arius. Even Peter, bishop of Alexandria, became a martry, while Arius changed to the moderate side and was condemned by Meletius as a traitor. Peter's successor, Achillas, ordained Arius as a presbyter in 311-12 A.D.

Arius and His Enemies By 318 Arius's enemies brought him down by charging him with heresy. It concerned the various theories about the relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Here was profound philosophical difficulty. Generally, following Origen Jesus was identified with the Divine Logos, the creative force linking God to the universe. As a "creature" of sorts, unlike the Father and subject to eternal generation, the Logos was forever with the Father and shared in His essence. Yet, the fact of generation rendered the Logos both different and subordinate to the Father. Further, the development of monasticism demanded on the popular level a concept of salvation in physical terms from the corruption of death. The divine Savior could meet this need but needed no redemption Himself as the entire Word of God who had suffered on the cross. Thus, there was much tension in the air over the Word of God, and Arius seemed to have added another element.

Traces of Sabellianism In the course of a public discussion on the Trinity Arius accused bishop Alexander of Sabellianism (the Trinity was a reality, but it was God existing in three modes; as Father in creation, Son in redemption and Holy Spirit in prophecy and sanctification; there was one substance but three activities). Arius argued if the Father begat the Son, then there must have been a time when the Son was not. So he could not be coeternal with the Father. Alexander was an Origenist--there was an Unbegotten Father and an eternally generated Word but with similar attributes and nature. The followers of Meletius, who were truly Sabbellians, threatened Alexander. If he did not act against Arius, they would denounce Alexander as a heretic. In 318-19 A.D. Alexander convened a council and condemned Arius.

Constantine and Unity After his victory at Chrysopolis in September 324 A.D. Eusebius of Caesarea was optimistic that this would mean a new and triumphant era for the Church. When Constantine heard of the situation in Egypt, he invoked his aspirations for worldwide unification. He intended Christianity to be the single religion of his world-state as well as his own gateway to personal immortality. Of course his notion of Christianity was that of a superior philosophy backed by the power of an invincible deity, so the points between Alexander and Arius were issues between rival philosophers. The disputants needed to live in harmony. In Antioch in December 324 Bishop Philogonius died, and his successor, Eustathius, supported Alexander. Bishop Hosius of Cordoba came to Antioch and made it clear to Eusebius that Hosius disliked Eusebius's friendship with Arius and his Origenist ideas about the Divine Word. Eusebius considered Christ the incarnate Logos, creator of the universe and humanity, but "secondary to God." Further, Eusebius was unwilling to define the divine and human natures of Christ. All of this was unexceptional in the East, but it was viewed as heresy by Western and Antiochene elements who dominated the January 325 A.D. council which elected Eustathius. Eusebius was excommunicated along with two colleagues for sympathy with Arius. Constantine decided on a great meeting to settle the matter and opened its proceedings himself in May 325 A.D. in Nicaea in Bithynia.

Council of Nicaea There are, unfortunately, no contemporary records of the debates of the council. What we know of the meeting makes it clear that no one wanted to listen to Arius's theological arguments. The main concern of the council was with the ideas of Origen and their fourth century expression. Origen (185-253 A.D.) of Alexandria, a fearless and outspoken speaker, writer and scholar, was probably one of the most influential theologians in eastern Christendom. He interpreted the faith from a Platonic perspective. His On First Principles, Commentary on John, and many other works show the immense difficulty of fitting a revealed religion based upon Scripture into a philosophical framework based on Plato. Like Clement of Alexandria, Origen tried to accomplish this fitting without falling into dualisms, determinism or antinomianism, the three great sins of the Gnostics. God, according to Origen, had three active qualities: Wisdom, Word and Power. Wisdom was "a kind of breath and power of God," coeternal with him, intelligible to humanity as ever-begotten Son and eternal image of the Father. The Son's generation was "as eternal and everlasting as the brilliance produced by the sun." The Son belonged to the very nature of God. The Son, in effect, was a "second God," mediator between God and the divine powers, images and aspects of God. He was less than God himself, but superior to all created beings.

Refuting the Gnostics Origen had set out to create an alternative to Gnosticism, but it came at considerable costs. It reflected contemporary Platonism. His view of the Trinity as three distinct and graded beings paralleled Plotinus's concept of the Divine as existing in three separate entities. More importantly, however, was his basic affirmation of the Platonic dualism between God and creation. The Word or the Son bridged the gap between the two. He was eternal, yet was eternally begotten from the Father and thereby distinguished from Him who alone was unbegotten and the source of the Son's divinity. All Scriptural descriptions of the Son included His subordination to the Father. Absolutes such as Goodness, Power, and Love belonged to the Father alone. One senses in Origen a new chapter in a long debate in eastern circles over logos/sarx, word and flesh. This was the context out of which Arian ideas arose by taking the logic of subordination and God/creation dualism to their final conclusion.

How to Put it into Words (Pun*?!?) The main problems of the council were how to state the faith in such a way that Arius's views were unquestionably unorthodox and how to cover over the disagreements between the Eastern bishops whose beliefs were similar to Eusebius of Caesarea and those of the powerful Antiochene and Western representatives. Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 A.D.) is now known as the author of the Ecclesiastical History. However, in the fourth century he was widely regarded not as an historian but as a disciple of Origen who shared his master's zeal for Christianity and his Logos theology. He was a propagandist of the first order and saw consistently in the events of Roman history confirmation of the eventual triumph of the Church and the unity of Christianity as the religion of mankind. He especially reveled in the victories of Constantine who united church and state in the providence of God. Yet, ironically, he now faced censure in a council controlled by his imperial hero.

Constantine's Intervention Constantine intervened and demanded that the Son be defined as "consubstantial with [homoousios] the Father." Origenist bishops found the term objectionable. Dionysius of Alexandria rejected the term when used by Lybian bishops, and the Council of Antioch had rejected it when used by Paul of Samasota. But most of the eastern bishops were in an awkward position. They dare not oppose the emperor, but they did not agree with Arius either. In the end only Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea, where the council was held, refused to sign the anathemas against Arius. Results--The decision of the council stood the test of time. Its statements became a touchstone of orthodoxy. Constantine had managed a repudiation of the empire's pagan past and won over a number of Eastern clerics who had previously been hostile towards him. On the other hand some wondered if the compromise between Alexandrian, Antiochene and Western theologies had any longterm validity. If the Son was consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father, in what way was He "homoousios" with man? If these questions troubled some, they did not bother the Emperor who viewed the affair as a complete success. His ardor for Christianity now had no bounds. Churches were built throughout the Empire with state funds. By 327 A.D. Constantine thought that with the exception of the Donatists all the groups within Christianity were on their way to reintegration and healing of divisions. The temporary wounds of Nicaea were being healed. Origenism plus lip service to the Emperor's homoousios had become the official religion of the Greco-Roman world, while work on Constantine's new capital moved apace. It would be a "Nova Roma" with its own senate, senate house and citizens. It was dedicated in May 330 A.D., and pagan sacrifices were forbidden. No idolatrous worship or pagan festivals were allowed. Christianity, like Judaism, was a missionary and conquering religion, and where its predecessor had failed, Christianity had now triumphed grandly over the most powerful and ancient of all human institutions, the Roman Empire. When the local, specialized and diffuse pagan deities failed to sustain the ideal of a universal autocratic state, when they lost credibility during the military and economic disasters of the third century, Christianity stepped into the vacuum and provided the new vision which many required. But it must be added, as a footnote, the dynamics of change that favored the triumph of the faith, did not favor its unity. The flames of division were waiting to be fanned.

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