A Historian’s Assessment of Ancient Christianity
Edward Gibbon is considered to be the premier historian of the 18th century. Born in 1737 in Putney, England, he was of delicate health in his youth (only one of seven siblings to survive childhood). This circumstance, combined with his great love for learning, made him a natural student.
He was especially fond of history. At the age of sixteen he joined the Roman Catholic Church, which greatly annoyed his Protestant father, who subsequently placed the lad under the tutelage of a strict Calvinist minister. In less than two years, Gibbon abandoned Catholicism. Eventually the young man fell under the influence of the skeptical philosopher, David Hume, and the French deist, Voltaire, and the remnant of his faith faded.
Gibbon’s most notable achievement was the production of his famous, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), which originally appeared in six volumes. This comprehensive history dealt with the Roman empire from the second to the fifteenth centuries A.D. Some believe that this effort remains unchallenged as the best history of the empire. This writer has owned a set of Gibbon for almost forty years, and has, from time to time, consulted the work with interest and profit.
The most controversial aspect of this labor was chapters 15 and 16 of volume one, wherein the author described the rapid growth of Christianity — as he perceived it. It must be remembered that Gibbon repudiated all supernatural elements of the Christian system, hence it is not to be expected that he would write in such a way as to be fair to Christ and his church. At that time, an open attack against Christianity would have made him subject to civil prosecution; accordingly, he wrote with bitter irony and a ridicule so subtle as to escape ready detection.
In his discussion of the growth of the religion of Christ, the historian cited five reasons for its success (383). A consideration of these is of some interest to the New Testament student. Two things, however, must be borne in mind. First, Gibbon sought to explain the growth of Christianity on purely naturalistic bases; second, much of what he calls “Christianity” had to do with a church that was already in the throes of apostasy. Still, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from his observations.
The Inflexible Zeal of the Church
The first reason cited by the historian had to do with the “inflexible” or “intolerant” zeal of the primitive Christians. A unique circumstance prevailed in those days. “[M]ost different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other’s superstitions.”
Christians, however, with strong monotheistic convictions, refused to accommodate such a disposition. They declined, for example, to participate in the rituals of idolatry, which were woven into the fabric of virtually every aspect of society — business or pleasure.
By going against the grain of paganism, the ancient brotherhood was constantly flexing its spiritual muscles. Thus, as the historian notes, “their attachment to the faith was continually fortified” (398). Hardship made them strong (cf. Jas. 1:2-4), and the stronger they grew, the more rapidly the faith spread. Luke notes: “They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).
Surely there ought to be something that we can learn from this in these days when a multitude of radical voices — from Nashville to Abilene to Malibu — are urging that we become a syncretic movement that sacrifices doctrinal conviction for the sake of religious union.
A Future Life
A second consideration mentioned by the historian was the Christian doctrine of “a future life.” Gibbon observed: “The writings of Cicero represent in the most lively colours the ignorance, the errors, and the uncertainty of the ancient philosophers with regard to the immortality of the soul.”
For instance, Aristotle said that death is “the most to be feared of all things …. for it appears to be the end of everything; and for the deceased there appears to be no longer either any good or any evil.”
Aeschylus declared: “Of one once dead there is no resurrection.”
Another writer, Catullus, sighed: “When once our brief day has set, we must sleep one everlasting night.”
Gibbon was quite candid when he observed that “the most sublime efforts of philosophy can extend no farther than feebly to point out the desire, the hope, or at most, the probability of a future state.” He stated that “there is nothing, except a divine revelation that can ascertain the existence and describe the invisible country which is destined to receive the souls of men after their separation from the body” (399).
Christianity, of course, has the proof of a future existence. The resurrection of Jesus, as the “firstfruits” of the dead, i.e., the promise of an eventual harvest, represents Heaven’s pledge for the future (1 Cor. 15:20).
To John, on Patmos, the risen Savior said: “Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the Living one; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18).
Amazingly, Gibbon wrote:
“When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind on the condition of adopting the faith, and of observing the precepts, of the Gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman empire” (402).
A third reason was the fact that “miraculous powers” were associated with the primitive church. Gibbon says that the “supernatural gifts” which were “ascribed to the Christians above the rest of mankind, must have conduced to their own comfort, and very frequently to the conviction of infidels” (407). Two things must be remembered:
First, the writer did not believe that genuine miracles accompanied the commencement of the Christian faith.
Second, he was unable to distinguish the genuine miracles of the apostolic age from the bogus claims of some in the post-apostolic period.
The important point is this: Gibbon concedes that the conviction of the early church, relative to supernatural endowments, was a motivating factor in the explosion of the primitive movement.
There is, of course, overwhelming evidence that the kingdom of Christ was, in fact, launched to the accompaniment of miracles. The early church, for example, consisted exclusively of Jews for the first several years of its existence. The Hebrews were fierce in their devotion to the worship of one God — especially since those hard days of the Babylonian exile.
What was the cause, therefore, that led thousands of them to develop a religious devotion for Jesus Christ that was so intense they were willing to die for him? Both New Testament and secular history reveal that this was the case. The cause must have been the powerful, miraculous demonstration that Jesus was a divine Being.
Additionally, there is much testimony that even the enemies of the Lord acknowledged that he possessed powers extraordinary (cf. Jn. 11:47; Mk. 15:31). Even secular sources, i.e. the Jewish Talmud, Josephus, etc., referred to the marvelous deeds, or “magic,” that Christ did.
The truth is, no honest historian can explain the success of the Christian movement apart from a supernatural origin. And it was not a matter of what the early Christians merely “believed.” It was a case of what was actually happening in their lives! It was history.
A fourth contributing factor mentioned by Gibbon in explaining the rapid growth of the early church was the “pure and austere morals of the Christians.” He confessed that “the primitive Christian demonstrated his faith by his virtues; and it was very justly supposed that the Divine persuasion, which enlightened or subdued the understanding, must at the same time purify the heart and direct the actions of the believer” (410-11).
The power of Christ’s teaching lies not in the fact that one can find forgiveness, and then continue in his wayward life; rather, it is reflected in a reformation of character.
When Pliny the Younger wrote his letter to Trajan (ca. A.D. 112), he stated that the Christians abstained from theft, robbery, adultery, breech of faith, etc. One only has to read Romans 1 to get a sense of the moral bankruptcy that engulfed the world of the Caesars.
But Christianity, with its lofty moral and ethical influence, was a fresh breeze across the stagnant terrain of antiquity. And thousands, burdened under the oppressive weight of ungodliness, found thrilling relief in the elevating power of the Gospel of the Son of God.
Christian Union and Discipline
Finally, Gibbon argued that the “union and discipline of the Christian republic” gradually formed “an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.” Two things here are of special interest.
The early church was characterized by a sense of solidarity (cf. Acts 4:32); Christian unity provided a source of strength against the hostile forces of the world. Only later did “sects” mar the scene.
Second, the historian noted that the disciples were cautious “to detect the errors of heresy” as such evolved within the movement. The devout were willing “to expel” from the society of the faithful those, who by teaching or practice, threatened the safety of the religious community (417).
Gibbon also notes that one of the factors that preserved the integrity of the church in those early days was that every congregation was “separate and independent,” and as yet not “connected by any supreme authority or legislative assembly” (420). Thus the divine organization of the church, along with its willingness to discipline the unruly, facilitated growth.
The historian surmised that by the end of the 3rd century A.D., there were approximately 1 million Christians in Rome. Modern estimates go much higher and suggest that one out of every five persons was a devotee of Christ.
The reasons Gibbon cited for the rapid expansion of the faith certainly do not exhaust the story, but surely they reflect some valuable truths from which the serious student can profit.
- Gibbon, Edward. (n.d.). The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. I. New York, NY: The Modern Library.