Thus, in the big cities, deities might become associated more with certain ideologies, pleasures and vices. This is how henotheism becomes polytheism — or the worship of multiple gods. For everyone to get along, no one ethnic religion could be seen as greater than another, no god or goddess was above another at least on earth anyway, mythology was a different matter.
Inside the Conversion Tactics of the Early Christian Church - HISTORY
However, the larger ancient civilizations quickly discovered that a central government could not be ordered under this system. While such a religious system might be sufficient when societies were relatively small, and localized to specific regions, as soon as they grew beyond the scope of one race of people, who shared a common ethnic-mythology, it became wholly inadequate.
One could not order a common set of laws and regulations when everybody had a different take on morality and priorities, based on their various gods, pantheons and mythologies. In other words, the gods of one pantheon might clash with another. The morality of the Greek Zeus is not the same as the morality of the Germanic Odin, nor the same as the morality of the Egyptian Ra.
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The ancient solution was to circumvent this problem by simply bringing the divine to earth. Regardless of whatever god or goddess a person worships, a god who materializes in the flesh would have to be obeyed no matter what, simply because of his visitation to the abode of men. A man could worship whatever assortment of gods or goddesses he wants, but likewise, parallel worship of the state, via the emperor, was not only expected but demanded, sometimes on penalty of death.
This was the norm for religious life the ancient world. To worship a god on earth, the king, would be to assure that his laws take precedence to whatever moral code comes from local religions. For a god on earth is surely a more pressing matter than gods in the netherworld. As a footnote to this, we must talk about the Jews, because they alone were different.
The difference between monotheism and polytheism is that while polytheists specifically henotheists may worship only one god ess while acknowledging others, monotheists worship only one God while denying the existence of all others. In fact, other gods, if not relegated to the realm of complete superstition, were given no more credence than a cult to a lower demon. Within the Holy Land of Israel, polytheism was not even tolerated.
Shrines and temples to foreign gods were destroyed. Those who engaged in the worship of foreign gods were threatened with blasphemy, crimes against the state and could be punished accordingly — even with death in the most extreme cases. Outside of the Holy Land, Jews lived in tolerance of their host cultures. While they exclusively kept to monotheism among themselves, they politely accepted that non-Jews would worship whatever god s they wanted.
Jewish colonies, manifesting in the form of local synagogues, were founded in just about every major city in the Roman Empire. Such colonies were established when young, unmarried and pious Jewish men were sent to a particular city. Each was tasked with finding a local Pagan woman, romancing her and getting her to convert to the worship of his God. Getting a Pagan woman to convert was not that difficult for two reasons. One, the Jewish God was seen to Pagans as just another one of the many gods. Two, Pagans were usually not very pious. If the Jewish God had something to offer, that the Pagan gods did not, for example the love of a man coming from a culture where wives and mothers are highly respected then a Pagan woman was happy to give the Jewish God whatever he wanted.
Once converted, the Jewish missionary would marry her, and the two would raise Jewish children. After a few families followed this model, a synagogue would be erected in the city.
Thus, a Jewish colony was formed. It should be noted that the Kingdom of Israel worked out a treaty with the Roman Empire, wherein Jews would be excluded from Roman emperor-worship, provided they prayed to the Jewish God for the success of Caesar, and made sacrifices for the same in the Jerusalem Temple. The relationship between Rome and the Jews was generally warm in ancient times. This revolt is, incidentally, where the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah , or the Feast of Dedication, originated.
The alliance was remembered by Julius Caesar BC who recognized Judaism as an official religion within the Roman Empire, giving it the imperial status and privilege Jews enjoyed until this relationship deteriorated during the Roman-Jewish Wars AD The missionary activity of Christianity, however, was entirely different. Requiring far less physical sacrifices of converts, Pagan men could be brought into the faith just as easily as Pagan women.
Circumcision hindered this in Judaism. Thus, the gospel was freely preached to both sexes, and entire households left the gods and goddesses of their ancestors to worship the Jewish God within the Christian religion. The nagging question, however, is why? Why would an entire continent of people Europe , consisting of at least three major pantheons, dozens of cults to various deities, and ethno-religious cultures that stretch back thousands of years, just leave it all behind for an Middle Eastern religion, devoted to an exclusive Semitic Deity, framed in the context of Semitic culture and history?
Of course, you could always find a few zealots here and there, but after all is said and done, when you have a population accustomed to switching allegiance to one god over another within a pantheon, based on the mindset or convenience of the time, maintaining any form of pious exclusivity to polytheism is rather hard to achieve. In other words, this is a structural weakness built into polytheism.
Paganism is built on an idea of mutual exchange between men and gods. An exclusive God, like Yahweh, was usually avoided by Pagans, unless it was perceived that Yahweh could offer them something that the other gods could not. If what Yahweh was offering seemed like a good proposition, and in exchange all Yahweh required was exclusivity, then he could have it, because Pagans were preconditioned with this exchange mindset anyway. The best they could hope for was some of their young men romancing Pagan women, and getting them to convert, since their initial sacrifice a ceremonial bath was essentially painless.
Christianity changed all that. The Jewish ceremonial bath for women was extended to men and children in what is called baptism. Circumcision was no longer required. Kosher dietary laws became optional. Suddenly, with the advent of Christianity, the God of the Jews Yahweh became easily accessible to the whole population of the Pagan world. Another reason why European Pagans were willing to convert, fairly easily over time, had a lot to do with conditions in Europe in the centuries following the Roman-Jewish Wars.
The Jewish God Yahweh , as approached through Christianity, provided five valuable proposals to a civilization in decline. Not only where these five proposals useful in these dark times, but they also proved to be essential building blocks for the reconstruction of Europe that would follow, into what became and remains the greatest civilization in the history of the world.
These five proposals were: 1 hope of a better afterlife vastly superior to this life, 2 a stable community to rely on, built on the traditional family, 3 a concept of divinity that agreed with Aristotelian reason and seemed consistent with observations in the natural world, 4 a chance to escape the despair of fate deeply integrated into ancient Paganism, and 5 the flexibility of Christianity in dealing with various ethnicities and cultures.
Anyone who has spent any time reading Pagan mythology will notice a few characteristics. First, the gods are basically viewed as nothing more than powerful beings within the known universe. They are not above time and space, but rather subject to both. Second, the gods have lots of very human weaknesses.
Some of them are comical, and most of them are petty. Third, what the gods have to offer humanity in this world is very limited, and in the next world what they have to offer is a bit disappointing. According to Norse Paganism, most of the dead go to a similar place, except for valiant warriors who die in combat. They go to Valhalla instead, the great Hall of Odin, for great feasts at night, and war games during the day. The list goes on, but the Christian concept of Heaven and Resurrection was a bit foreign to the Pagan mindset. The Christian gospel offered three promises in the afterlife.
The first was a purging from all attachment to sin in this life. The second is Heaven itself, which is a temporary place of peace and joy for departed souls while awaiting the Last Day. The third is the Resurrection, which will occur on the Last Day, when the bodies and souls of all people will be reunited. Those who had been in Heaven will now be given perfect bodies physical and material to enjoy for eternity in a new Heaven and a New Earth effectively a New Universe that is not subject to the decay and disorder of this present universe.
All of this happens under the administration of a loving God, who actually cares about people, and wants to be with them for eternity. As the Roman Empire went into decline, and the lives of many people within that empire gradually went from a state of bad to worse, the promise of something better after this life became more and more appealing as the years rolled by. Christianity offered an eschatological package that was far more fantastic and intriguing than anything offered by Paganism. Christianity offered a level of theological depth unheard of in Pagan pantheons.
The concept of one God, beyond time and space, who made all things, and existed before all things, was something many Pagans had not given much thought to. Pagan gods existed within time and space, subject to its laws, and vulnerable to its elements. They were, after all, personifications of nature itself. The idea of a real God, a Creator God, beyond time and space, was a concept toyed with by Greek philosophers, but not put into practical application in the Pagan pantheon. To the average Pagan, the gods were the elements of nature, and the elements of nature were subject to other elements of nature, in constant rivalry.
Another layer of depth Christianity offered to the concept of God was that its teaching on monotheism, while absolute, was nuanced. Not only is there only one God, but this one Creator God who exists beyond time and space, is eternally existent in three divine Persons. The second Person of the Trinity is who came to earth in the form of a man — Jesus Christ. This mystery provided a concept of God that human intellects would ponder throughout the ages.
Christianity not only challenged the human mind on the concept of God, but it also inspired personal growth. This encouraged a dependency on God, through Christ, whom they would constantly have to trust in to meet the shortcomings of their fallen human nature. This pushes moral standards ever upward, so that when one moral hurdle is cleared, another higher one is placed.
People would spend a lifetime overcoming one moral challenge, so that when it was overcome, and the next generation came along, another higher moral challenge was offered. In the end, not only would this provide ample opportunity for individuals and families to improve themselves, but societies and civilizations as well.
As Roman civilization gradually fell apart, there came a greater need for tightly-knit communities and networking.
This is necessary not only to survive in an imploding economy, but also necessary to build a new civilization after the old finally collapses. Worship of the gods was mechanical, personal, and somewhat private. A pagan would arrive at a temple, make his sacrifices or rituals and then just leave. The Christian church was built on the Jewish model of the synagogue.
Every week Jews would gather for prayers and teaching. After this time, people would freely associate, building friendships and relationships. Christian communities were tight-knit, as were Jewish synagogues, which is why they alone survived the fall of the Roman Empire completely intact. So preservation of the traditional family was seen as top priority for the whole community. The religion itself was heavily structured around that. In Christianity, marriage was raised to the level of a sacrament, called matrimony, which is seen on par with the priesthood and religious vocations.
If you were a Christian or a Jew in the age of the collapsing Roman Empire, you would likely never be in want for food or shelter. Your kids would always have food in their bellies, clothes on their backs, and a warm place to stay. Like the Jewish synagogues, Christian churches looked out for one another.
They made sure that when one family fell on hard times, other families chipped in to help. The downside, of course, was occasional persecutions by the imperial government. Roman emperors simply used Christians as scapegoats when their political problems got too big and they needed something to distract the aristocracy.
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With bad emperors came bad persecutions. But most of the time, Christians flourished in the dying empire. They were never rich, by any stretch of the imagination, as Christian communities were mostly attractive to the poor, but they had enough to get by, and shared all wealth between them. If you were a poor family, during the time of the collapsing Roman Empire, you were most likely a Christian family, because the Church is where poor people went to get food, clothing and shelter.
Unlike Paganism, which relied heavily on superstition and belief in magic, Christianity appealed heavily to reason and natural law. To those who were interested in reason, however, the case for Christianity was strong.
Converts and Kingdoms: How the Church Converted the Pagan West and How We Can Do It Again
The Jewish concept of God, put into a universal framework, that could be easily accessed by the Gentile masses, without having to perform any acts of physical mortification circumcision , drew converts in by the millions. Christianity dispelled the fear and darkness of magic and superstition.
Under Christianity, the Jewish God Yahweh, who is the Creator beyond time and space, not only made the universe and everything in it, but loved it so much as to redeem it through his incarnation — Jesus Christ — providing a way for mankind to share in his redemptive process. Ancient Paganism dealt heavily in fate. In other words, human beings have very little control of their destinies. They are subject to fate, and the gods are really in charge of our future. The Christianization of the North Western region was, somehow, respectful with the traditional social and rural structure, and the communities, just converting the social groups, families and tribes in Christian communities, that is, churches.
But we have little evidence of this process, so we must go on with the historical data. The epigraphy, and other archaeological finds, help the historian. We have old buildings, burials or rests in relation with religion: some kind of cult, rites or natural adoration, as well as finds close to fountains and rivers, and the elevated places, especially in the coast. The first Christian evidence from North-Western Spain is from the 3rd century: the letters from Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, to the Church and bishop of Astorga after the persecution.
The military forces are one of the classical ways of spreading of new ideas, cults, and Christianity itself. Besides the historical evidence, the Late Antique and Early Medieval tradition and legend tries to connect the Christianization of the region with one of the twelve apostles, Saint James the Greater. The legend translates into a popular medieval language the difficulties and shadows of the unknown Christian origins.
These origins are as old at least as the first evidence of Cyprian. Other Christians were buried around him in the following centuries, in late roman, barbarian and early middle ages burials. We have to wait until the 4th century, after Constantine, to find some important information, in the Theodosian time. Actually, Theodose the great was himself Spanish, from the inner border of the Gallaecia. He was a relative of a rich woman, Eteria or Egeria, whose travel to the Holy Land and its long description is well known.
From this century we know the names of some local bishops and writers from the region. In the eastern border of the Gallaecia we know the poet and writer Prudentius, related to some French Latin writers and the Italian Paulinus of Nola. As him, he was also a roman land-owner who became Christian, and with him all the family and people in his possessions and territory.
Just as it recommended Saint Augustine for the rural evangelization. One of his disciples was the historian Paulus Orosius, also from the Gallaecia. He left an apologetic History of the World from Creation till Roman times, against pagan beliefs and practices. For Orosius Christianity was the legitimized continuation of Roman culture.
He became bishop of this Roman City, first accused in a bishops' Council, then in a civil court, and sentenced to death by Maximus, the new emperor in the Gaul. He was accused by other Spanish bishops of being heretical, but not condemned in the bishops' Council. The civil sentence charged him of Manichaeism and sorcery. His movement spread and was alive for two centuries in the North-Western region, in the Gallaecia. His writings show an interesting spiritual and ascetic interpretation of pagan religion and for this reason some scholars considered this some kind of syncretism.
The priscillianism succeed creating Christian communities within the old rural social structure. The Bible played an important role, both canonical and apocryphal books, as well as ascetics and lay people, both men and women. He was probably not syncretistic, but a Christian spiritual interpretation, and transition, from pagan adoration of nature, from Celtic and Roman popular rites, divination and sorcery.
From the 4th, 5th and 6th century we have more information, telling us that Christianity has become the official religion in Spain, and has spread all over the country.
Early Efforts at Christianization in Northern Europe
The Christian historians, as Hydatius, from the Gallaecia, are witnesses of how the Christian people continued the Roman tradition, culture and heritage. Once again Christian historians tell not many things about the evangelization and mission within the countryside. In the beginning of the 5th century three barbarian populations arrived in Hispania: Suevi, or Swabian, Vandali, the Vandals, and Alani. The Swabian made from Gallaecia its kingdom: they converted to the Catholic Church directly from their unknown pagan religion from the north of the River Rheine in Germany.
The Visigothic army from northern Italy became them ally from the Roman Spanish government and defeat the Alani, and forced the Vandal into North Africa. Hispania and south Gaul became then a Visigothic Kingdom, with Christian Arian religion till the 6th century, when they became Catholic. Anyway, the difference between Arian and Catholics in Spain was not too much, but just a matter of social and group identities and differences.
According to the historians, the barbarian population was not really so important, from the demographical and social point of view, and the region continued to be mostly populated by the old Celts and the Christian Roman Hispanii, Spanish people. The historian Hydathius describes the population of the region just this way. The bishops considered the Catholic Church as the Roman culture and civilization of their times.
In this century we have some important Swabian Catholic kings who aided the church. Finally we have some important documents and authors: the local councils from the head town, Braga North Western Portugal now , the division of the church, as described above, with the names of local Christian communities, and a writer, Martinus from Braga, born in the Hungarian Pannonia as Martinus from Tours was. We have the same connection between ascetism and conversion in Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola and more converted land-owners and rich men and women. Priscillianus himself was probably this kind of Christian.
They converted themselves not only to Christianity from paganism, but from simply baptized to Christian committed leaders, responsible for the Christian live and education of the people working in their lands, and legally depending on them. We know that Martinus of Braga created a kind of ascetic or monastic community besides Braga, called Dumio. It was actually his personal possession, the villa and the lands. Martinus of Tours had done something similar. Modern Scholars try not to speak of monasticism properly, or at least not formal or institutional monasticism.
They were charismatic forms of Christian radical and community live. This was what Priscillianus had begun two centuries before, and was still alive in the 6th century. In this case the movement was considered heterodox. Scholars try to relate these two writings with Arian or Priscillianist controversies.
Converts and Kingdoms
Once again, the theological differences become a matter of social identity, not just between pagan and Christians, but between different Christian identities. This is an evidence of how plural and diverse was the evangelization and mission, and how complex and difficult the formation of communities, or the Christianization of social identities.
All these problems are reflected also in the two local councils of Braga in the middle 6th century. The most important problem of the First Council was the Priscillianist Communities accused of syncretism, paganism and Manichaeism. We can follow these accusations and we find repeated ideas and accusations from the previous century.
Priscillianus himself wrote about this accusation. According to what he says at the end of the 4th century, he actually did use the pagan astrological names from stars and planets, minerals and other natural elements, but not in a superstitious or pagan way. He uses the same language as Martinus or any Christian Writer of the time when speaking of pagan deities and superstitions, as demons or idols: to be left.
But the accusation, the very defense of Priscillianus, and the fact that two centuries after him the problem was still alive, is the evidence that the attitude from priscillianist Christians and catholic ones was not just the same.