Ward-Perkins, Bryan: The Impact of Christianity

In Antioch, as in many other cities of the empire (particularly in the east), it was not the case for most of the fourth century that there were but two religions on offer. The Christians were already deeply divided between various groups, each claiming to follow the legitimate bishop, and there was also a strong Jewish element in the city, which John Chrysostom felt was threatening enough to the Christian position to merit his golden-mouthed attention.(47)

For much of the time, different religious groups coexisted in peace within the cities, a peace which was in most periods carefully protected by the state, and which was fostered by the needs of communities divided by religion but united by many social and economic bonds.(48) John Chrysostom’s anxiety about the Jews in Antioch, for instance, was not caused by the threat of Jewish-Christian antagonism (which indeed he hoped to stir up), but by the close religious ties between the two communities, which Chrysostom felt to be threatening the Christians’ distinctive identity. Respectful coexistence may even on occasion have led to some curious syncretistic beliefs. The emperor Julian was shown round the sights of ancient Troy by a certain Pegasius who was the Christian bishop and who none the less supported the worship of the heroes Achilles and Hector as entirely natural, ‘just as we worship the martyrs’ (Jul. Ep. 19). This position did not entirely satisfy Julian and it certainly would not have satisfied a Chrysostom, but it was evidently a comfortable one for Pegasius.

Archaeological evidence can also point to harmonious coexistence between different religious groups. At Sardis in Lydia, for example, a substantial synagogue was built in the fourth century within one of the city’s great monumental complexes, the baths and gymnasium, presumably with curial support. The building is eighty-five metres long (including its forecourt) and is as elaborate and impressive as any contemporary Christian church. As far as we can tell from the archaeological evidence, this synagogue stood undisturbed throughout late antiquity, and was only destroyed by external enemies in the seventh century.(49)

However, it is also true that religious difference could and did lead to violence, particularly, when local extremists sensed that the governor or the emperor would turn a blind eye to acts against public order carried out in the name of a greater religious good. On the accession of the pagan Julian in 361, the pagans of Alexandria, trusting (rightly) that the new emperor would secretly applaud their crime, lynched their overbearing Christian bishop George. In the 380s and 390s, the boot was on the other foot, and, as local Christians realized they could increasingly rely on the tacit, and sometimes even the active, support of Christian governors and the Christian emperor, there was a spate of violence against pagan temples in the eastern provinces, culminating in the destruction of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria in about 391 and of the temple of Marnas in Gaza in 402.(50)

The Jews and their synagogues could also suffer in this climate. In 386, Ambrose in Milan prevented the emperor Theodosius from enforcing an order on the bishop of Callinicum in Mesopotamia, commanding him to rebuild at his church’s expense a synagogue burnt down by the local Christians. Ambrose successfully argued that, whatever the requirements of secular law and order, the building of a new Jewish shrine with Christian money was, in the eyes of God, an absolute incontrovertible wrong.(51)

Christians did not deploy their violence exclusively to browbeat those of other religions; they were quite capable of fighting bloody civil wars amongst themselves. Ammianus Marcellinus tells of a battle for the bishopric of Rome between rival candidates, which in a single day left 137 dead in one church (xxvii. 3.11-13).

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