Editors’ note: To contextualise these translations of Karlheinz Deschner’s encyclopaedic history of the Church in 10-volumes, Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums, read the abridged translation of Volume I.
The great Christian ideal:
The inversion of Greco-Roman values
Already at the end of the 4th century and only in the desert regions of Egypt, there were apparently 24,000 ascetics. They were buried in subterranean places, ‘like the dead in their graves’, they dwelt in huts of branches, in hollows with no other opening than a hole to creep up to them. They squatted like troglodytes on large rocks, on steep slopes, in grottos, in tiny cells, in cages, in dens of beasts and in trunks of dry trees, or else they were placed on columns.
In a word, they lived like wild animals because Saint Anthony, the first Christian monk known to history, had ordered ‘to lead an animal life’: a mandate that also the so often praised Benedict of Nursia adopted in his rule. And according to the currency of the ancient ascetics, ‘the true fast consists of permanent hunger’ and ‘the more opulent the body, the more minute the soul; and vice versa’. They limited themselves to picking out a grain of barley from the camel dung with their fingers, remaining, for the rest days or even whole weeks, in total abstinence.
Surely we should not always give credence to what the Christian chroniclers wrote. Some of these saints did not even exist. Some of these stories are of analogous nature of the ‘ancient Egyptian novels adapted to new ideas’ (Amélineau). Other stories, despite their propensity for hyperbole, are touching. Macarius of Alexandria, for example, kills a horsefly on a certain day and punishes himself. For six months he lies on the ground from which he would not move, in a wasteland ‘in which there are big gadflies like wasps, with stingers that pierce the skin of boars. His body is in such a state that when he returns to his cell they all take him for a leper and only recognise the saint by his voice’.
Whatever the degree of veracity of these stories, from them it clearly transcends everything that influenced, mislead and annoyed the Christians of that time and those of subsequent centuries: the sublime ‘ideal’ by which they had to abide. Those lunatics were idolised, celebrated, consulted and they and their peers passed for saints.
The Temptation of St. Anthony
by Matthias Grünewald.
Anthony wandered from one hiding place to another along the Libyan desert, attracting other anchorites, attracting demons and angels, having full visions of lascivious women, earning more and more the fame of sanctity, of the ideal (Christian) hero. Towards the end of his long life his stature literally grows, with so many miracles and visions, to enter heaven.
In relation to all this, the Vita Antonii (Life of Anthony) of that old forger that was Athanasius, exerted a most than nefarious influence. Written in Greek towards 360 and promptly translated into Latin, it became a popular success; even more, a paradigm of Greek and Latin hagiography.
And it is quite possible that, as Hertling praises, this fable of Anthony has been ‘one of those books that decide the fate of humanity’, since, according to Hartnack, ‘no other written work has had a more stunning effect on Egypt, Western Asia and Europe ‘that that despicable product which emerged from the pen of St. Athanasius the Great’, ‘perhaps the most fateful book of all that have ever been written’. That work is ‘the ultimate piece responsible for which demons, miracle stories and all kinds of goblins found their accommodation in the Church’ (Lexicon of Concepts for Antiquity and Christianity).
Throughout those centuries, most authors of primitive Christianity resolutely reject Greco-Roman culture, philosophy, poetry and art. In the face of all this, they maintained an attitude of profound distrust, of declared hostility: an attitude determined both by the resentment and the anti-Hellenic hatred of the more or less cultured Christians.