« ForrigeFortsæt »
results from a revolution variable and advancing under the vast varieties of the Roman empire. Having no newspapers to effect a level amongst the inequalities and anomalies of their public experience in regard to the Christian revolution, when collected from innumerable tribes so widely differing as to civilization, knowledge, superstition, &c.; hence it happened that one writer could report with truth a change as having occurred within periods of ten to sixty years, which for some other province would demand a circuit of six hundred. For example, in Asia Minor, all the way from the sea-coast to the Euphrates, towns were scattered having a dense population of Jews. Sometimes these were the most malignant opponents of Christianity; that is, whereever they happened to rest in the letter of their peculiar religion. But, on the other hand, where there happened to be a majority (or, if not numerically a majority, yet influentially an overbalance) in that section of the Jews who were docile children of their own preparatory faith and discipline, no bigots, and looking anxiously for the fulfilment of their prophecies (an expectation at that time generally diffused),
- under those circumstances, the Jews were such ready converts as to account naturally for sudden local transitions, which in other circumstances or places might not have been credible.
This single consideration may serve to explain the apparent contradictions, the irreconcilable discrepancies, between the statements of contemporary Christian bishops, locally at a vast distance from each other, or (which is even more important) reporting from communities occupying different stages of civil
ization. There was no harmonizing organ of interpretation, in Christian or in Pagan newspapers, to bridge over the chasms that divided different provinces. A devout Jew, already possessed by the purest idea of the Supreme Being, stood on the very threshold of conversion: he might, by one hour's conversation with an apostle, be transfigured into an enlightened Christian; whereas a Pagan could seldom in one generation pass beyond the infirmity of his novitiate. His heart and affections, his will and the habits of his understanding, were too deeply diseased to be suddenly transmuted. And hence arises a phenomenon, which has too languidly arrested the notice of historians; namely, that already, and for centuries before the time of Constantine, wherever the Jews had been thickly sown as colonists, the most potent body of Christian zeal stood ready to kindle under the first impulse of encouragement from the state; whilst in the great capitals of Rome and Alexandria, where the Jews were hated and neutralized politically by Pagan forces, not for a hundred years later than Constantine durst the whole power of the government lay hands on the Pagan machinery, except with timid precautions, and by graduations so remarkably adjusted to the circumstances, that sometimes they wear the shape of compromises with idolatry. We must know the ground, the quality of the population, concerned in any particular report of the fathers, before we can judge of its probabilities. Under local advantages, insulated cases of Oracles suddenly silenced, of temples and their idol-worship overthrown, as by a rupture of new-born zeal, were not less certain to arise
as rare accidents from rare privileges, or from rare coincidences of unanimity in the leaders of the place, than on the other hand they were certain not to arise in that unconditional universality pretended by the fathers. Wheresoever Paganism was interwoven with the whole moral being of a people, as it was in Egypt, or with the political tenure and hopes of a people, as it was in Rome, there a long struggle was inevitable before the revolution could be effected. Briefly, as against the fathers, we find a sufficient refutation in what followed Christianity. If, at a period five, or even six hundred years after the birth of Christ, you find people still consulting the local Oracles of Egypt, in places sheltered from the pointblank range of the state artillery, there is an end, once and forever, to the delusive superstition that, merely by its silent presence in the world, Christianity must instantaneously come into fierce activity as a reägency of destruction to all forms of idolatrous That argument is multiplied beyond all power of calculation; and to have missed it is the most eminent instance of wilful blindness which the records of human folly can furnish. But there is another refutation lying in an opposite direction, which presses the fathers even more urgently in the rear than this presses them in front; any author posterior to Christianity, who should point to the decay of Oracles, they would claim on their own side. But what would they have said to Cicero, by what resource of despair would they have parried his authority, when insisting (as many times he does insist), forty and even fifty years before the birth of Christ, on the languishing condition of the Delphic Oracle?
What evasion could they imagine here? How could that languor be due to Christianity, which far anticipated the very birth of Christianity? For, as to Cicero, who did not "far anticipate the birth of Christianity," we allege him rather because his work De Divinatione is so readily accessible, and because his testimony on any subject is so full of weight, than because other and much older authorities cannot be produced to the same effect. The Oracles of Greece had lost their vigor and their palmy pride full two centuries before the Christian era. Historical records show this à posteriori, whatever were the cause; and the cause, which we will state hereafter, shows it à priori, apart from the records.
Surely, therefore, Van Dale needed not to have pressed his victory over the helpless fathers so unrelentingly, and after the first ten pages by cases and proofs that are quite needless and ex abundanti ; simply the survival of any one distinguished Oracle upwards of four centuries after Christ that is sufficient. But if with this fact we combine the other fact, that all the principal Oracles had already begun to languish, more than two centuries before Christianity, there can be no opening for a whisper of dissent upon any real question between Van Dale and his opponents; namely, both as to the possibility of Christianity coëxisting with such forms of error, and the possibility that oracles should be overthrown by merely Pagan, or internal changes. The less plausible, however, that we find this error of the fathers, the more curiosity we naturally feel about the source of that error; and the more so, because Van Dale never turns his eyes in that direction.
This source lay (to speak the simple truth) in abject superstition. The fathers conceived of the enmity between Christianity and Paganism, as though it resembled that between certain chemical poisons and the Venetian wine-glass, which (according to the belief of three centuries back) no sooner received any poisonous fluid, than immediately it shivered into crystal splinters. They thought to honor Christianity, by imaging it as some exotic animal of more powerful breed, such as we English have witnessed in a domestic case, coming into instant collision with the native race, and exterminating it everywhere upon the first conflict. In this conceit they substituted a foul fiction of their own, fashioned on the very model of Pagan fictions, for the unvarying analogy of the divine procedure. Christianity, as the last and consummate of revelations, had the high destination of working out its victory through what was greatest in a man through his reason, his will, his affections. But, to satisfy the fathers, it must operate like a drug-like sympathetic powders like an amulet or like a conjurer's charm. Precisely the monkish effect of a Bible when hurled at an evil spirit—not the true rational effect of that profound oracle read, studied, and laid to heartwas that which the fathers ascribed to the mere
* Which belief we can see no reason for rejecting so summarily as is usually done in modern times. It would be absurd, indeed, to suppose a kind of glass qualified to expose all poisons indifferently, considering the vast range of their chemical differences. But, surely, as against that one poison then familiarly used for domestic murders, a chemical reägency might have been devised in the quality of the glass. At least, there is no prima facie absurdity in such a supposition.