Below, abridged translation from the first volume of Karlheinz
Deschner’s Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums
(Criminal History of Christianity)
Chapter 4: First attacks against paganism
‘And you, too, Holy Emperor, have the duty of holding and punishing, and it is your duty, by virtue of the first commandment of the Most High, to pursue with your severity and in all possible ways the abomination of idolatry’. —Firmicus Maternus, Father of the Church
‘Two measures interested Firmicus: the destruction of the temples, and the persecution to death of those who did not think like him’. —Karl Hoheisel
If from the first moment the Christians fought with ‘holy wrath’ the Jews and ‘heretics’, they showed some moderation before the heathen, called héllenes and éthne by the treatise writers of the 4th century. The concept of ‘paganism’, which was very complex and referred to both religious and intellectual life, excluded only Christians and Jews, and later Muslims. It is not, of course, a scientific notion, but rather theological, coming from the late New Testament period, with obvious negative connotations.
Translated into Latin it gives gentes (arma diaboli, according to St. Ambrose), and then, as the adherents of the old religion were being reduced to rural zones, pagani, pagan. In the meaning that designated non-Christians, this word appears for the first time in two Latin epigraphs of the beginning of the 4th century. In the ordinary sense it meant ‘peasants’ and can also be understood as antonym of ‘military’. For example, the ‘heathen’, that is, those who were not soldiers of Christ, were called in ancient Gothic thiudos, haithns, that in old high German gives heidan, haidano (modern German: Heiden), with the probable meaning of ‘wild’.
We said, then, that the initial treatment given by Christianity to these ‘savages’ was rather mild, a notable behaviour. It preludes the tactics used by the Church during the next long millennium and a half: against the majority, prudence, make oneself be tolerated to survive; then destroy that tactic as soon as possible. If we have the majority, no tolerance! Otherwise, we are in favour of it. That is classic Catholicism, to this day!
At first, the pagans only saw in Christianity a dissident sect of Judaism. This was in line with the negative opinion that the Jews generally deserved, all the more so because, in addition to having inherited the intolerance and religious exclusiveness of them, they did not even represent, like Jewry, a coherent nation. The ancient believers only found ‘impiety’ in those innumerable groups, which also took no part in public life, something that made them suspects of immorality.
In a word, they were despised and made responsible for epidemics and famines, so it was not surprising from time to time the cry of ‘Christians to lions!’ Hence the fathers of the pre-Constantinian period wrote ‘Tolerance’ with capital letters, making it a virtue. They were untiring in their demand for freedom of worship and respect for their beliefs, while making protests of detachment, of virtue, as if they lived on earth but were already walking in heaven; loving all and not hating anyone, not returning evil for evil, preferring to suffer injustices than to inflict them, nor sue anyone, nor steal, nor kill.
If almost all the pagan things seemed to them ‘infamous’, Christians considered themselves ‘righteous and holy’. By 177, Athenagoras explained to the pagan emperors that ‘every one should be allowed to have the gods he chooses’.
Towards the year 200, Tertullian is in favour of freedom of religion; that some pray to heaven and the others to altars; that these worship God and others Jupiter. ‘It is a human right and a natural liberty for all to worship what seems best to them, since with such cults no one harms or benefits others’. Origen still cited a long series of common points among the religion of the pagans and the Christian, to better emphasise the prestige of the latter, and does not want to allow blasphemy against gods of any kind, even in situations of flagrant injustice. It is possible that some Fathers of the Church expressed themselves by conviction; in others it would be nothing but calculation and opportunism.
The anti-pagan issue in Early Christianity
But as much as they postulated religious freedom, they attacked the pagans in the same way they did with the Jews and ‘heretics’. That controversy, sporadic or we could almost say casual at first, gained ground since the end of the 2nd century, that is, when they began to feel strong. From the time of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) we know the names of six Christian apologists and the texts of three pieces of apologetics (from Athenagoras, Tatian and Theophilus).
Arnobius of Sicca, who was Lactantius teacher, authored seven pathetically boring mammoths of polemics, Against the pagans, whose gods had sex ‘like dogs and pigs’, ‘shameful members that an honest mouth cannot even name’. He criticises their passions ‘in the manner of unclean animals’, ‘with a frantic desire to exchange the filth of coitus’.
Like many other writers, Arnobius recounts the Olympic loves of Jupiter with Ceres, or with humans such as Leda, Danae, Alcmena, Electra and thousands of maidens and women, not forgetting the Catamite ephebe. ‘Nothing displeases Jupiter, until finally it would be said that the unfortunate was only born to be a seed of crimes, target of insults and common place with all excrement of the sewers of the theatre’: the theatres that, according to Arnobius, deserve to be closed, as well as burned most of the writings and books.
An adulterous god is a thousand times worse than another who exterminates humanity by a flood! Christians judged as ridiculous legends the stories of gods that Homer and Hesiod tell. On the other hand, that the Holy Spirit could make a maiden pregnant without altering her virginity was a very serious thing, as one of the most famous Catholics of the ancient time, Ambrose, demonstrated. That pagans buried the figure of a god and dispensed it funeral honours, and then celebrated their resurrection with feasts, also seemed highly laughable to Christians, even taking as holy their own liturgy of Holy Week and Easter Resurrection.
Just as the superstitious pagans tainted with magical practices, from the first moment the Christians believed that idolatrous cults were of direct diabolical inspiration; some, like Tertullian, also include in that qualification the circus, the theatre, the amphitheatre and the stadium.
It is significant, however, that all these criticisms, these censures and ridicule were not manifested until later; in the beginning, when Christians were still a minority, they had no choice but putting on a brave face to the bad weather. The ancient world was almost entirely pagan and, in front of this supremacy, the Christians acted with prudence and even made compromises if necessary, in order to be able to end it when the time came.
This is also evident in the oldest Christian authors.