By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Theodosius I virulently opposed Arian Christians and vehemently advocated the kind of orthodox Christianity that had emerged from the Council of Nicaea; thus, we have a law issued early in his reign: “…According to the apostolic discipline and the evangelic doctrine, we shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit under the concept of the equal majesty and the Holy Trinity.”
Not Many Care About Orthodox Christianity
Nicene orthodoxy was to be the law of the land. That did not bode well for either Christian heretics or pagans. It’s important to stress that even at this time and despite the anti-pagan legislation, the majority of the empire was still not Christian. Something like 5% to 7% of the empire was still probably Jewish, and well under 50% was Christian.
So, pagans were in the majority despite the leanings of the emperor. Moreover, even though here we’re focusing on questions about religion, most people had other issues on their minds and problems on their plates. Things other than religious preferences and practices. Foreign evasions, the economy, and the fair running of the state were, as a rule, far more important to far more people.
The Tables Turn
Even so, there were clearly efforts being made to change the cultic practices of the general population and some pagans resisted this move with pagan intellectuals defending the old ways. We might call these pagan apologists.
Christian apologists of earlier times, authors such as Justin Martyr in the 2nd century and Tertullian and Origen in the 3rd century, when they were in the extreme minority, pleaded with the Roman officials to let them be, to allow them to practice their religion in peace without the threat of persecution.
Now, at the end of the 4th century, the shoe is on the other foot. Now, it’s the Christians who are taking charge, and rather than continuing to subscribe to the idea that everyone should be free to worship as they like, the argument of the earlier Christian apologists, now the Christians began to argue that pagan practices should be disallowed. Whoever is in power seems to think that the other party should be proscribed. It happens all the time.
So, now, quite apart from official Roman legislation, Christian leaders began to insist that the pagan religions should be stamped out completely, urging that those who continue to practice them should be severely punished, just as pagan leaders had argued against the Christians decades earlier. This in itself was not brand new.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Christian Radicalism in the Ancient World
Even before Theodosius’s time during the reign of Constantine’s sons, we know of the writings of the Christian intellectual Firmicus, who cites the Bible itself to show that pagans should not merely be forbidden to practice their cults; they should be executed by the state.
To this end, Firmicus pleads with the emperors to act decisively by following the directives found in the Old Testament passage of Deuteronomy 13:6-10. The original context of this passage in Deuteronomy involved ancient Israel as it was preparing to conquer the promised land and then associate with the people who worshiped gods other than Yahweh, the one God of the Israelites. In Deuteronomy, Moses is said to have commanded the people the following:
If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son, or your mother’s son, or your own son, or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friends—saying, “Let us go worship other gods”… any of the gods of the peoples that are around you … you must not yield or heed any such person. Show them no pity or compassion, and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD, your God.
These words from scripture are pitiless. Firmicus takes them literally, and he allows for no exceptions. The followers of the Christian God are to kill anyone who promotes the worship of other gods, even if it is their spouse, son, or daughter, and not just family members, Firmicus urges the emperors to destroy entire cities as discussed in Deuteronomy, which directs the Israelites to kill everyone in any pagan city and destroy the city itself with fire:
You shall slay all who are in the city with the death of the sword and you shall burn the city with fire.
Common Questions about the Kind of Orthodox Christianity Theodosius I Advocated
The orthodox Christianity that Theodosius I believed in was a result of the Council of Nicaea. So he believed in the Trinity and based laws on that specific doctrine. An example of such a law was issued in the early years of his reign as Roman emperor.
At the time, less than 50% of the population were Christian, and approximately 6% of the population were still Jewish. Also, people cared about other things in life far more, like a foreign invasion, the economy, and issues of the state itself. They didn’t have time to care much about the emperor’s orthodox Christianity.
Firmicus, a figure who lived in the Roman empire before the reign of Theodosius I and his advocation of orthodox Christianity, advocated that pagans should be executed by the state. To him, being forbidden from practicing paganism wasn’t enough, even if they were members of the family.