Amazing articles on just about every subject...


The Bible Begins To Rule The Christian Empire (325-600 A. D.)

( Originally Published 1914 )

AFTER the persecution by Diocletian a new era began. Constantine proclaimed tolerance, and by and by Christianity became the religion of the empire. The victory of Christianity was a victory of the Bible as well. This finds its expression in the remarkable fact that the first Christian emperor, the immediate successor of those who persecuted the Bible and tried to destroy it, ordered fifty splendid copies of the Bible to be prepared at his expense for the churches of the newly founded capital, Constantinople. Some scholars have thought that one or two of these copies still survive in the famous manuscript discovered by Tischendorf in the Con-vent of Mount Sinai (Plate III), or in the Codex Vaticanus at Rome. I venture rather to think that both copies belong to the period of Constantine's sons. But the fact that the Bible, after a period of destruction when most of the earlier copies were burned, got a surprising circulation under official direction accounts, I think, for a puzzling feature in the transmission of the text. From the Old Latin and the Old Syriac, as well as from the testimony of the fathers, we can infer that various forms of the Greek text must once have been widely circulated, which have now almost disappeared, whereas most of our present Greek manuscripts give a text evidently based on a late official recension. Looking at Diocletian's attempt to destroy the Bible altogether and at Constantine's official order to pro-vide a large number of manuscripts, we easily understand the situation. The older forms of text had been swept away; now there was room to sup-ply their place with the learned attempts of later scholars from the schools of Origen or Lucian who endeavoured to bring in more critical texts.

Another change is to be mentioned at the same time. The old form of papyrus rolls became obsolete and the parchment book took its place. The use of this latter form seems to originate in the law schools; the codex, or parchment book, is at first the designation of a Roman law-book. But at an early date the Christian church adopted this form as the more convenient one and gave it its circulation. We hardly say too much when we call the Bible the means by which our present form of book came into general use. Even if the Bible had done nothing else for civilisation than to give mankind the shape of its books that would be a great deal (Plate IV).

The form of a parchment book, or codex, would admit of the copying of several books in one volume. The great Bibles of the fourth and fifth centuries of which we know contained all the books; they formed one volume. So the internal unity running through the Bible as a whole came to be represented even in the outward form.

The copying of the Bible went on rapidly, monks and noble Christian ladies undertaking it as a form of ascetic work, providing a heavenly merit and sometimes earning bread and butter, too. Instead of the plain copies in an unskilled hand we now find sumptuous books of the finest parchment with purple colouring, in the most luxurious manuscripts the sacred text being written in gold and silver, and the margin sometimes being covered with beautiful paintings. A copy of Genesis in Greek at the Vienna library has forty-eight water-colours, one at the bottom of each page, telling the same story as the text. The manuscript when complete must have had sixty folios : this gives one hundred and twenty of such decorated pages for Genesis, and if it contained the whole Pentateuch we may allow for five hundred and ten illustrations (Plate V). And this manuscript does not stand alone; it is but one of a large group of illuminated manuscripts. This sumptuous appearance may be taken as a sign of the value attached to the Bible. Persecuted hitherto, it became the ruler of the Christian empire, invested with all the glory of royalty.

The place given to the Bible is best shown by the fact that it presided over the great councils, a copy of the Bible lying upon the presidential chair. It was meant as a symbol for Christ himself taking the place of honour and deciding the great questions of faith. The same holds true for non-ecclesiastical assemblies. In an ordinance of the emperor Theodosius it is required that a copy of the Bible be present in every court-room. The Bible, or rather the Gospels, or to speak even more precisely the most prominent page in them, the beginning of the first chapter of St. John's Gospel, was used for taking an oath. The worn condition of this page in many a manuscript still attests this use.

Presiding over the courts, the Bible began at once to exercise its influence upon the Law. We can al-ready trace this influence in the legislation of Constantine himself: when he forbids to brand a criminal on his face, giving as reason that the image of God ought not to be marred, it is the Biblical notion of the man's face being the likeness of God which underlies this law. When, in a law published in 334, he insists that no man, whoever he is and whatever rank he has, shall be admitted as a solitary witness unless supported by another witness, it is the well-known Biblical rule that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established. When he makes divorce more difficult, denying the right of remarriage to the man who repudiates his wife without sufficient reason on her part, we feel that it is the injunction of Jesus which is behind this law. I would not say the same of all parts of this legislation which various scholars have adduced as proving Christian influence. Roman law from the second century was influenced to a large extent by the Stoa, all the famous lawyers such as Gaius and Paulus belonging to this school and introducing its ideas into the practice of the courts and into the legislation of the magistrates, especially of the emperor. There is an evident development in the Roman law toward a more humane conception of slavery; this is due to the Stoa. The views on marriage and divorce, the position of "natural children," as the Roman law calls illegitimates, all this is largely due to non-Christian influences. Nevertheless, there are unmistakable traces of a particular influence of the Bible upon the legislation of the Christian emperors, and this influence increases from decade to decade. Constantine gives a rather vague ordinance for keeping Sunday as a day on which courts are not to be held. Theodosius is much stricter; and the climax is reached with Justinian, when Sunday has become a legal holiday.

Justinian, of course, codifies the Roman law, but his Novell, the laws issued by himself, show the new spirit of a legislation ruled by the Bible. He sometimes refers directly to the Bible as authority. Still more is this spirit prevalent in some provincial codes. One of these says that everything has to be judged according to the ancient and to the mod-ern law, i. e., the law of Moses, which antedates the laws of all other nations, and the law of Christ, as it is contained in the laws of the emperors Constantine, Theodosius, and Leo. Lawyers of this period indulge in comparisons between the Roman law and the law of Moses.

The Roman empire was Latin in some respects, Greek in others. Latin was the official language of the court, of the law, of the army. But the population spoke mostly Greek, though from the third century on large parts used their native language, Syriac and Coptic, as well. The Bible had been translated into these languages during the former period. Now the general political situation brings the empire into contact with the Goths in the North, with Armenians and Georgians in the East, with Libyans and Ethiopians in the South. As soon as the empire gains any influence among these neighbouring peoples, the Christian mission tries to get hold of them and we see the Bible translated into these languages, which hitherto have had no writing. The Bible marks for these peoples the beginning of a national literature. Their alphabets were made up from the Greek, thus showing that the reading of the Bible with these nations began in connection with their intercourse with the Roman empire.

The Bible ruled even the Greek language of this empire. There are many changes in the later Greek which are surely due to familiarity with the Bible. Words previously unknown in Greek or used in a different sense became quite familiar; everybody knows what is the meaning of Beelzebub, Messiah, Paradise, Satan, and that an angel is not a mere messenger, but is a messenger from God, a spiritual being, and that the word demon always means an unclean spirit.

Moreover, the Bible influenced the style of the writers, especially of the great preachers. One may distinguish three forms of influence in this depart-ment: artificial imitation; naïve use of Biblical names and phrases (what is usually called in Germany the language of Canaan); and, lastly, the unconscious influence which the style of any book exerts upon a careful reader. I do not think that there are many instances of artificial imitation in this period. Sometimes a preacher skilfully composed his whole sermon by adding Biblical quotation to quotation; asked to preach a sermon on a saint's day, he did nothing else than comment upon the saint's life in Biblical phrases. The second type of influence is very common; the-present emperor is usually spoken of as the new David; the story of a war is always told as if David were fighting the Philistines; each heretic is entitled to be called the new Judas Iscariot who betrays his Lord. The most famous example of this kind is the sermon attributed to Chrysostom after his first return to Constantinople, when he had fled from the wrath of the empress: "Again Herodias is furious, again she flurries, again she dances, again she desires the Baptist's head to be cut off by Herod." The preacher's own Christian name, of course, was John, and the empress was trying to get rid of him for political reasons.

The most important influence, however, is the unconscious influence simply from the use of the Bible. The great power of Chrysostom's sermons was partly due to his eminent rhetorical talent and training. He knew how to gain his hearers' attention; yet for the greater part his thorough acquaintance with the Bible seems to be responsible. Reading the sermons of those great Greek Christian orators of the fourth century, we are often struck by the embedded quotations from the Bible. In the midst of this fluent Greek there is something quite different, something stern, something austere, something dignified and solemn, which immediately appeals to the hearer. As a matter of fact, the preachers themselves, proud as they were of their classical training, had rather the opposite impression; they apologise for introducing barbarous language. Chrysostom insists, in many a sermon, on the idea that the apostles were fishermen, unskilled in literary style, and that it is one of the proofs of inspiration that those men could write at all. He evidently is not aware of the fact, clear to us, that it is just the vigour and strength of Biblical language which gave to his own sermons their magnificent effect. He was filled with Biblical phraseology as was no other preacher of his time. He himself did not realise it, nor did, I presume, the greater part of his congregation, yet it was this which so impressed them. If only the modern editors would note all the Biblical allusions in his works! Yet they are hardly able even to recognise them. We find preachers noted for their brilliancy in extemporaneous speaking, and usually the remark is added, it was because the speaker knew the Scriptures by heart.

In this way the people became accustomed to Biblical phraseology, and we do not wonder that at last the colloquial Greek also was influenced by the Bible. We can trace its influence even in the romances.

The Bible ruled the home and the daily life; people had their furniture decorated with Biblical symbols; lamps showed Noah's ark or Jonah's whale, Jesus with his disciples in a ship or Jesus treading upon the lion and adder, the serpent and dragon (according to Psalm 91). At the Strassburg Museum there is a beautiful engraved glass cup made probably in a Roman manufactory in Cologne. On one side is engraved Abraham sacrificing Isaac, on the other side Moses striking water from the rock. Rich people wore sumptuous garments embroidered with representations of Biblical scenes. The preach-ers complain that these people wear the miracles of Christ on their coats instead of taking them to their heart and conscience.

The great officials of the empire used to give to their friends ivory tablets commemorating their honours. In former times they had represented on them the emperor, the empress, or their own portraits, and scenes from the circus; now they chose Biblical subjects. People liked to have long rolls exhibiting the wars and triumphs of an emperor in a continuous series of drawings. Two gigantic rolls of this kind may still be seen at Rome; I mean the columns of Trajan and of Marcus Aurelius. Christian art produced rolls of the same kind, exhibiting the story of Joshua's battles (Plate VI). Senators and noble ladies vied with each other in arranging the history of the Bible and especially the life of Jesus in the form of poems, each word of which was taken either from Homer or from Vergil. It is a wonderful mixture of Bible and classical culture.

The Bible rules not only the public and the private life, but also the church and its organisations. At the beginning the Christians were afraid of comparing the Old Testament rites with the ecclesiastical institutions. The Law of the Old Testa-ment belonged to an earlier form of religion; it was abolished by the New Testament. Christ, according to Saint Paul, was the end of the Law. But by and by the Old and the New Testament were brought nearer together. An author of the first century remarks that God by his commandments in the Old Testament has shown himself to be a lover of order, therefore in the Christian congregation, too, order ought to rule. He does not call the Christian communion a sacrifice, the Christian minister a priest; but his parallelism comes very near to this, and a century later the step is taken. It becomes usual to speak of bishop, elders, and deacons as high-priest, priests, and Levites. Later on, even the minor degrees were taken back to Biblical models: the subdeacon, lector, exorcist, acolyte, janitor were found represented in the Old Testament. The clergy formed a separate class as distinct from other people as the tribe of Levi was among the tribes of Israel. It was upon the authority of the Old Testa-ment that they claimed rights and prerogatives to be given and guaranteed by the empire. The monks found their models in Elijah and Elisha; common life was represented by the apostles; penitents were Job, David, and the people of Nineveh; widows (as ecclesiastical functionaries) had their models in Naomi, Hannah, Tabitha, etc. The church was the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon, and each detail in the description of these Biblical buildings was made to agree with a feature in the Christian church by means of allegorical interpretation. The feasts of the church correspond to the feasts of the Old Testament; Easter is usually called Passover, and Whitsuntide Pentecost. At a rather early date a festival of the dedication of the individual church was introduced to correspond with the festival of the dedication of the temple.

As the Jews kept two days in the week for fasting, so did the Christians, choosing Wednesday and Friday instead of Monday and Thursday; and in doing so they remembered that it was on a Wednesday that Jesus was betrayed by Judas and on a Friday that he died on the cross. Even the usual hours for prayers were based on Old Testament authority; David, saying in Psalm 141: 2 "The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice," means vespers, while in the 131st Psalm he is speaking of compline, in the 63d of matins. The vigil was observed as well as commanded by Christ himself (Luke 6 : 12 and 12 : 37). The whole liturgy was explained as being in every detail a representation of the life of Christ. The sacraments, too, were prefigured in the Old Testament. This symbolism is very old and very commonly used; it has influenced Christian art. We see Noah's ark as a symbol of baptism (cf. I Peter 3 : 20); Abel's sacrifice, and Melchisedek offering bread and wine to Abraham, as symbols of the holy eucharist. Abraham entertaining at his home the three angels reveals the holy Trinity. All this is represented in splendid mosaics on the walls of the churches, as for instance in San Vitale at Ravenna.

To us this system of Biblical references for everything in the Christian service seems strange. We feel that the worship of the Christian congregation rests on other principles than the ritual of the Old Testament and does not gain anything by such hazardous comparisons. It looks like comparing the stars in heaven with beasts on earth. But the fathers thought that this was the highest achievement at which they could arrive: to allegorise and spiritualise the Old Testament law in order to deduce from it the Christian liturgy. That was what they called worship in spirit and truth. It is exactly opposite to the great idea which Jesus conveyed in those words; it is one of the greatest confusions to which the juxtaposition of the Old and the New Testament in one Bible was leading. Nevertheless, it was of great influence upon civilisation for centuries.

The church and the laity were ruled by the Bible; but the real Bible folk of this time were the monks. There had been a tendency toward asceticism from the very beginning of Christianity. At the moment when the church came into power this tendency in-creased rapidly. In Egypt as well as in Syria, wherever there was a desert place hermits gathered and monasteries were built. Now, in these monasteries the life was really filled with the reading of the Bible. Even the poorest monk would have a copy of the Gospels to read. Some of the monks, of course, were very simple, unlearned people. They could not read, so they learned it all by heart. And sometimes—we are told in the legendary tales of the monks—it happened that a monk who never before had learned to read was miraculously given the art of reading, God granting it to him as a recompense for his zeal. The monks had their hours for common worship and reading, but they were supposed to read each by himself as much as possible. "The rising sun shall find the Bible in thy hands," is one of the monastic rules, and legend illustrates how the divine grace recompensed assiduous reading: filled with heavenly light all through the night was the cell of a hermit as long as he was reading the Bible. When visitors came the talk was over questions raised by the Bible. It was with quotations from the Bible that the celebrated anchorite entertained the people who called upon him to ask for spiritual help.

Among all Biblical books the Psalter was the one most favoured by the monks. They knew it by heart, almost all of them, and they used to recite it during their manual labour. The Psalter was their spiritual weapon against the temptations of the demons; the demon liked nothing so much as to turn a monk from reciting his Psalter. But be-sides the Psalter it was the Gospel which prevailed over all other books in these ascetic circles. Many of the hermits were induced to leave the world by attending a Gospel lesson in their church at home. "If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me," or "And every one that hath left houses or brethren or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name's sake shall receive a hundredfold and shall inherit eternal life." These are the words which occur again and again in the lives of saints as the decisive ones for their "conversion," that is for leaving the world and going to the desert or entering a monastery. The first saying quoted above is referred to in the life of Saint Anthony, the greatest of all hermits, and Saint Augustine had this in his mind when the time came for him to change his life. The second saying makes Saint Hypatius go away from home; his biographer, however, is honest enough to add that the saint, a youth of eighteen, had just received punishment from his father. An actor living luxuriously with two concubines chances to enter a church, and hears read from the Gospel, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"; so he repents and becomes a monk. I do not mean to say that these tales of the monks are historical and trustworthy in every point, but I venturé to think that this statement about the motives for conversion is, after all, a correct one. The gospel is what appeals to the human heart, in all centuries and in all nations. And then the man will try to make the gospel the rule of his life. I think it is remarkable that whereas the church and the empire both were ruled mainly by the Old Testament, these ascetic circles took the gospel as their main rule, that is to say, the gospel as understood by the men of that time. It was to them a new law, a law of asceticism, of self-denial, and they kept to it as strictly as possible. Even if for other Christians it meant an almost inaccessible ideal, the monastery ought to be the place to fulfil it literally.

Our picture would be inadequate, however, if we should neglect the abuse of the Bible, the Bible showing its importance and ruling force even by its influence upon the dark domain of human superstition. The ancient world was full of magic. We remember the story in Acts 19 of how Saint Paul overcame some Jewish exorcists, with the result that "not a few of them that practised curious arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all, and they counted the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver." I suspect many a scholar or librarian of to-day would like very much to have those books among his treasures, but they were burned; and Christianity scored its first triumph over superstition. Superstition, however, did not give way at this first defeat; on the contrary, it made a strenuous effort to draw over all the forces of Christendom to its own side. There was the name of Jesus, frightening the demons; black magic took this name and converted it to its detestable uses. There was the Gospel, representative of Jesus himself in his heavenly power; superstition made it a vehicle of its own magical rites. There was the Bible, the book of divine oracles; human inquisitiveness turned it into a book from which to read the dark future. The heathen had done this with the poems of Homer and Vergil. Turning over the pages they suddenly stopped at a verse and then tried to find in this verse the answer to their question. The fathers of the early church detested this method as something quite alien to a Christian mind, but as early as the end of the fourth century people came to feel that it was all right if only they used the Bible for the same purpose. In the sixth century even church officials kept to this practice. When a bishop had to be elected they almost always consulted the Psalter first on behalf of the man to be elected. Bible verses written on parchment were attached to easy chairs in order to keep away the evil spirits. Gospels in the smallest form were hung on the necks of the babies. It is astonishing to see how great was the esteem in which the Bible was held and how terribly contrary to the spirit of the Bible this practice was, especially when the Bible was used to do harm. Lead, by its dull lustre, always has reminded mankind of the realm of death; so it was used in black magic for bringing upon an enemy a curse from the gods of the underworld. A rolled sheet of lead, inscribed with a psalm and a dreadful curse against any robber, has been found on one of the Aegean Islands hidden in the ground of a vine-yard. Evidently the psalm was supposed to be one of the most effective spells. Even the Lord's Prayer and other parts of the Gospels have been abused in the same way (Plate VII). Nothing is so holy that it cannot be turned into a crime by human sin.

It is a dark page of human civilisation. I am afraid it is a large page, too. I could accumulate instance upon instance. But however interesting this might be, it would give a wrong impression. The Bible was not primarily used as a magical means in those centuries. It was acknowledged as some-thing superhuman, bearing supernatural powers, and therefore ruling everything. It ruled the empire as well as the church. It influenced law, language, art, habits, and even magic.



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com