Gibbon and Christianity

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Although I have been severely neglecting this blog (nearly 6 months since my last post!), I have not ceased my (slow) progress through the book.  It is now time to do a little catching up.

I have just finished the first of Gibbon’s six volumes.  This volume, published in 1776, takes us up to the accession of Constantine as emperor in the early 4th century.  It would be another five years until the next two were published.  Gibbon has been my frequent (not constant, I admit) companion for these last 8 months or so, and a pleasant one at that.  Never stuffy or pretentious, always clear and often eloquent, his writing absolutely stands the test of time.  I strongly encourage anyone remotely interested in either ancient history or 18th-century thinking to pick up a copy!

Volume one ends with two chapters (15 and 16) which focused specifically on the early history of Christianity and its relationship to Roman civilization, including the spread of Christianity and its persecution throughout the empire prior to Constantine’s conversion.  These chapters aroused heated controversy because of a perception of anti-Christian bias on Gibbon’s part.  Numerous tracts were published condemning and seeking to refute these two chapters, and Gibbon (who, according to Womersley’s introduction, did not at all expect the furious backlash), eventually felt compelled to publish a “Vindication” to answer his detractors.

Being aware of this, I was expecting to find in these chapters a ruthless evisceration of Christianity and its institutions.  However, they were surprisingly mild.  Gibbon says very little that would, by modern standards, be characterized as strongly anti-Christian.  In fact, chapters 15 and 16 are replete with statements that unequivocally-even ostentatiously-accept the premise of the absolute truth of Christian beliefs.  He does show a willingness to acknowledge some of the less admirable aspects of church history that resulted from the inevitable  collision of human ambitions, passions, and weaknesses with the ideals of this new religion.  As Gibbon himself put it:

“The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity.  A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian.  He must discover the inveitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”

In Chapter 16, Gibbon also describes a careful analysis of primary sources with regard to the scope of the last large-scale anti-Christian persecution (under Diocletian) and estimates that over ten years, the number of Christians killed was “somewhat less than two thousand persons”, and that the number killed in prior persecutions was substantially less.  This constrasts with the current popular notion that huge numbers of Christians were slaughtered over broad swaths of time in the early centuries A.D. (most of them, in the popular imagination, as lion chow in the ampitheaters).  Evidently it also contrasted with popular notions, particularly amongst English clergy, or perhaps what ruffled feathers was the approach of going straight to primary sources to address these questions rather than relying on medieval church historians’ versions-An approach that is de rigeur for modern historians, but of which Gibbon was perhaps a pioneer.

One passage in chapter 15 bears quotation here.  It is interposed amidst a disquisition of the moral attitudes of early Christians, and consists of a single paragraph with the heading “Principles of Human Nature” (Gibbon could never have been accused of diffidence!):

“There are two very natural propensities which we may distinguish in the most virtuous and liberal dispositions, the love of pleasure and the love of action. If the former is refined by art and learning, improved by the charms of social intercourse, and corrected by a just regard to economy, to health, and to reputation, it is productive of the greatest part of the happiness of private life. The love of action is a principle of a much stronger and more doubtful nature. It often leads to anger, to ambition, and to revenge; but when it is guided by the sense of propriety and benevolence, it becomes the parent of every virtue, and, if those virtues are accompanied with equal abilities, a family, a state, or an empire may be indebted for their safety and prosperity to the undaunted courage of a single man. To the love of pleasure we may therefore ascribe most of the agreeable, to the love of action we may attribute most of the useful and respectable, qualifications. The character in which both the one and the other should be united and harmonised would seem to constitute the most perfect idea of human nature.  The insensible and inactive disposition, which should be supposed alike destitute of both, would be rejected, by the common consent of manking, as udterly incapable of procuring any happiness to the individual, or any public benefit to the world.”

There is one aspect of Chapters 15-16 that, sadly, is as remarkable for the lack of controversy it elicited as it is in its own right: virulent anti-semitism.  In describing the emergence of Christianity from the Jewish communities and traditions, Gibbon’s penned so many poisonous passages that I eventually stopped underlining them, but here’s a sample:

[In describing Jews’ appearance in Western society in the late centuries B.C.]: “The sullen obstinancy with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners, seemed to mark them out a distinct species of men, who boldly professed, or who faintly disguised, their implacable hatred to the rest of human-kind.”

[Citing Jacques Basnage, the 17th-century cleric, as a source, with no hint of doubt or question]: “The wise, the humane Maimonides openly teaches, that if an idolater fall into the water, a Jew ought not to save him from instant death.”

Chapter 16, which deals with the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, opens with a discussion of the relations between the Empire and the Jews, from which community, of course, the Christians sprang.  In a footnote to a section titled “Rebellious spirit of the Jews,” Gibbon informs us that:

“From the reign of Nero to that of Antoninus Pius…humanity is shocked at the recital of the horrid cruelties which they committed in the cities of Egypt, of Cyprus, and Cyrene, where they dwelt in treacherous friendship with the unsuspecting natives; and we are tempted to applaud the severe retaliation which was exercised by the arms of the legions against a race of fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but of humankind.”

In a footnote, Gibbon notes that

“In Cyrene they massacred 220,000 Greeks; in Cyprus, 240,000; in Egypt, a very great multitude…The victorious Jews devoured the flesh, licked up the blood, and twisted the entrails like a girdle round their bodies.”

Gibbon’s stated source for the horrific accusations?  The history of Cassius Dio, a Roman statesman and historian of the early 2nd century A.D., writing of events in the reign of Trajan, a century earlier.  I’d say he was displaying a little credulousness of his own.

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One Response to “Gibbon and Christianity”

  1. stevieb Says:

    Yes..I find it very odd that contemporary sources ascibe to Gibbon that Christianity was the cause of the Decline and Fall, when it’s quite clear this acclaimed historian was clearing referring to Jews as this cause…I wonder why that is?

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