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How Christianity Conquered Rome, Part 2

June 13, 2008

Last week I pointed out a quotation from Eusebius in which the church historian suggested that the compassion of the early Christians played a key role in the conversion of the pagans to Christianity. In this post I’m going to make essentially the same point, although using a very different source. Often the criticisms of our opponents can be very revealing. Such is the case with Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. Julian is a fascinating figure because as a young man he received the best Christian education of his day, but in his adulthood he forsook his inherited faith, opting instead for a return to paganism. Having an intimate knowledge of the classical Christian culture of the fourth-century, Julian knew exactly where the Christian intellectual tradition was weakest, and he did not hesitate to point it out. So severe were his attacks that eighty years after he wrote his chief work, Against the Galilaeans, Christian thinkers such as Cyril of Alexandria were still trying to answer Julian’s arguments (see Cyril’s Contra Iulianum). Furthermore, Julian was not content to keep his newfound faith a private matter, but attempted to bring about a revival of paganism, using his position to pass laws restricting Christian education.

What is noteworthy for the present purposes is Julian’s understanding of how Christianity came to have such prominence. Like Eusebius, Julian recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire, to cultural ascendancy. Writing to a pagan priest he said “when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.” “[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” In fact, Julian proposed that pagan priests imitate the Christians’ charity in order to bring about a revival of paganism in the empire. Elsewhere, Julian stated regarding the Christians, “it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [i.e., Christianity].” He went on to say that “I believe that we [i.e., the pagans] ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.” Julian’s program of moral reform forbade priests from going to licentious theaters and to sacred games at which women were present. He also encouraged priests to demonstrate hospitality by establishing hostels for travelers and distributing money to the poor. As a former Christian, Julian knew the Christian ethic well. Echoing the words of Jesus about the greatest commandment, Julian summarized the requirements for appointment to the pagan priesthood as love for (the pagan) gods and love for man.

Thus, both Eusebius of Caesarea, a prominent early church historian and bishop, and Julian, the apostate enemy of Christianity, pointed to Christian acts of charity as furthering the cause of Christ and leading to the conversion of the pagans to the faith of Jesus. We need not suppose that these good deeds were separated from the actual preaching of the gospel with words, but neither should we downplay the significance of such acts in the purposes of God. Let us hope that in the wake of recent disasters such as the earthquake in China and the cyclone in Burma, our Christian brothers and sisters are there continuing the tradition of Eusebius, preaching the gospel and demonstrating acts of love.

For the quotations above see Julian, Fragment of a Letter to a Priest, 336-37, in The Works of the Emperor Julian, II, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1913); and To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia, 69-71, in The Works of the Emperor Julian, III, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923).

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