How do pagans see Christianity?
They razed the temples of the "pagans", drove them into exile or even killed them
The London historian and journalist Catherine Nixey on the destructiveness of the early Christians. A story that was pretty much unknown until now.
We'll meet at the British Museum in London. There couldn't be a better place. Here you can see statues lacking extremities, with their noses chopped off. Most visitors are likely to think that this is simply due to the ravages of time. You are wrong. This is the work of the early Christians. The journalist and historian Catherine Nixey tells in her book Holy anger of these barbaric acts. In a "frenzy of destruction" the early Christians destroyed an incredible number of ancient works of art. From a world of the Romans, which calmly accepted all gods and easily integrated foreign cults, one stepped into a fundamentalist world of religious exclusivity. Anything that didn't fit was removed. The monasteries, whose task it was to preserve knowledge, had texts deleted, overwritten or destroyed. Saints of the Catholic Church were zealots who preached death and ruin to the unbelievers and operated themselves as destroyers (Benedict of Nursia was celebrated as a fanatical destroyer of ancient works of art).
Unfortunately, this story is not told to the public in the British Museum - even if you have a Germanicus standing here who is missing his nose and a Christian cross has been chiseled on his forehead.
Therefore, the facts of the horror of that time should be recalled. In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity after Christians helped him defeat his enemies at the Battle of the Milvinian Bridge in Rome. From 330 onwards, "pagan" temples are desecrated. In 385 the Christians take the temple of Athena in Palmyra and behead the goddess. 392 Bishop Theophilus destroyed the temple of Serapis in Alexandria. In 415 the Greek mathematician Hypatia is murdered by Christians. In 529, Emperor Justinian excludes Christians from teaching. In the same year the Academy in Athens closes its doors, which brings a 900-year-old philosophical tradition to an end.
Catherine Nixey was already sitting in the museum café when I raced up the steps. Her book, to her own surprise, has become a bestseller, especially in Latin countries. She orders a tiny lemon tart. Here we go.
NZZ history: Ms. Nixey, is a person who believes in one true God a stupid person?
Catherine Nixey: No. There are many good reasons to believe or to follow a religion. Although there are many aspects of many religions that are difficult to describe as enlightened. However, I believe that surrendering one's mind to someone or anything is extremely dangerous - and no doubt every religion requires that. So I prefer to rely on my mind. I never wanted to give it up for anything else.
Did you believe when you were young?
Absolutely. My parents, who lived as nuns and monks before I was born, went to church with me and I prayed every day.
Well, I asked for certain things. Health for my family, for myself. Prayer is often nothing more than a wish list for yourself - and rarely for others. You don't pray for the status quo. And, sometimes, in quiet hours, I also long for faith. How nice it is when someone or something tells you what to do.
Is Christianity then a stupid manifestation?
"Dumb" is not the right word. I would rather speak of a mental illness. Those who give up their minds for something higher that are promised to them are sick.
So were the early Christians who committed "the greatest destruction in human history" sick?
No, that's too extreme. But they drew great satisfaction from their deeds. That's what the sources say. And when you have an omnipresent God who calls these works of art evil, it's easy. Then it is a noble act, even a favor, to destroy a statue. My father often says, had he been younger, he would have become a suicide bomber: "It would not have been difficult for me to kill for my religion." He believed so strongly.
As you quote a scientist in your book, the early Christians committed “the greatest destruction of cultural property in the history of mankind”. How did that go?
It was mostly hard work. It is not easy to destroy a statue. You need axes, sledgehammers or swords. But first they set about overturning the statues - a lot broke off in the process. And then they finished off the rest.
Why did the early Christians do this?
At that time it was believed that statues lived in demons, or that the statue itself represented a demon. Or it was said that statues point people the wrong way - and therefore have to be destroyed.
Only ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire were Christians when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD. 120 years later it is 70 to 90 percent. What was the incredible attraction of this monotheistic religion that it could destroy a polytheistic culture?
Constantine was crucial. That such an important man converted to Christianity was a beacon for a movement that had existed before him. He also passed laws against the "Gentiles," and that was the beginning of the persecution. It was very important that the people who worked for the Christian Church were paid really well. Whose bread I eat, whose song I sing. The main thing is that you can feed your family. So Christians were given an advantage. Even in the army. Christian soldiers, it is assumed, had Sunday off under Constantine, the others were drilled even harder on Sundays.
"Anyone who gives up his mind for something higher that is promised to him is sick": Catherine Nixey.
So was monotheism just the easier way?
In these times already. In itself, of course, polytheism is a more relaxed way of life. You create a new God for every need, and someone can easily be Christian. You have others too. There are many sources that say that the early Christians also had other gods at that time. One day you visited a "pagan" temple and the next day a Christian one. Constantine then brought the turning point.
Would you call Christianity tyranny?
That was without a doubt then. Constantine was a tyrant towards the "pagans". He had their temples razed, closed or rededicated. And if the "pagans" did not follow the new state religion, if they were not baptized, they were exiled, if not killed.
Are there sources that report protests against this brutal Christianization?
There are writers who say they should leave their temples alone. There are poems that lament the destruction. And there are reports of the violent encounters.
But there were never any mass protests?
I didn't find any. When the Christians attacked temples, those temples protested. But they weren't permanent. But what can you do when you have a governor with an army against you?
In addition, Constantine also had his "hooligans", the monks.
Terrible. What they did was really sheer terror. It was no different from the vandalism we saw here in London a few years ago. They just ran through the streets and broke things. Simply because they wanted to.
There is a lust for destruction.
Absolutely. I can even imagine that this can be fun. If you hate anyone else, the rich, the government, the others.
It always goes with alcohol. The monks at that time were also drunk.
And they used this as an excuse. How can you use alcohol as an excuse?
Was Christianity perhaps more morally convincing than the Roman way of life, which was already quite effeminate at the time?
I do not believe that. The raids in the temples, however, helped the Christians a lot financially. They could also use the stones of the temples to build their own temples - as was the case during the Reformation in England. The "pagans" also had the best places, the best land for their buildings - the early Christians had to be content with small house churches. That changed now. This may not be the most exciting story, but it is a pragmatic story of money and land.
A "tyranny of lust" began. Why do people obey such tyranny?
People still do that today. But that is a question for psychologists, not for historians. Why do people choose the more difficult path? In the texts, however, you can at least see that many people have welcomed these new, clear rules. I can understand that. When you eat less, you become holier - this seemed to many to be an easier way to achieve your goal.
Christianity was more successful than other religions. Why?
The facts are impressive. Many people gave up their possessions and the monasteries became huge. The reason was probably the apparent security that this religion gave many people.
Why did you write this book?
It's a great story. And I wasn't taught that in religious education and in the Catholic Church. And there are already enough books about the good sides of Christianity, about its good deeds.
When did you discover this story?
Actually already at school and then later at university. First I was taught an ideal, classical world, but I discovered breaks, other sources that reported violence - and I saw my teachers feel uncomfortable when I asked. Then I read more, texts that my teachers hadn't mentioned.
Did you also talk to your parents about it?
Yes, with my father. He hadn't known that. And he was interested. But by then he no longer believed.
Is your father an atheist today?
Even a very confident one. We are both staunch atheists.
So your father has gone to another extreme.
Why should it be extreme not to believe in something that has never been seen and for which there is no evidence?
Well, you just couldn't care less about religious issues.
He does not hate the Church, he also kept in touch with some of his former confreres until they died. But he never argued with them again.
So this book is also your personal explanation.
Yes. But that sounds a bit pathetic to me.
Excuse me, I'm German too.
It's okay, your question is justified. For me this book was a kind of liberation. It took me a long time to break away from Catholicism, from this indoctrination. For a long time I went to pray regularly and also got married in white in church. I wouldn't do that anymore today. I felt guilty for a long time not to believe more strongly. I felt guilty. And, God knows, I've been trying for a long time to find my way back to faith. I didn't succeed, luckily. This book has helped me a lot.
So you're telling a story that wasn't told in school. But you also say that the persecution of Christians, as you have been told, never took place on this scale. That is a product of the marketing techniques of the Catholic Church. There were no more than 1,500 killed in the ten years of persecution.
There were only a few hundred - but I too can only speculate, like any historian who deals with this subject. The sources do not give exact numbers. But what we do know: Most of the time, Christians were only accused, they were only rarely persecuted. But google “indictment of Christians”! The search program will then ask you if you didn't mean "persecution of Christians"?
Does that mean the real story has still not reached our heads?
Is that why your book became a bestseller in Spain, Portugal and Italy?
In any case, I always heard from there: That we didn't know! But that's generally how it is with history. Here in Great Britain people remember the “Blitz”, the bombing of the Germans in World War II, as a heroic, wonderful time of resistance. Three years ago I was hired by the Times to ask readers how they remember that time. They sent in their own written memories. I was frightened. The reports were so horrific. There wasn’t a bit of heroism left. There was a reader who described how he came to the surface after an attack from the bomb shelter. And then something rolled through the street, he thought it was a football. As he got closer, he saw that it was a boy's head. I mean, this horror could have been described earlier - if you had turned your head on. We don't live in an autocracy. The "lightning bolt" couldn't have been a great time. But I believed what I was told - I guess I wanted to believe it.
There is no such thing as heroism.
You are absolutely right. If you take a closer look, there is always mud, ridicule and death.
Has humanity evolved for the better since the time you write about?
Are you seriously asking that?
I just ask one question.
Fortunately, our governments, our societies have changed, but the people themselves? I ask you!
One has to be honest: the story you tell has only been told by very few historians before you.
That's true, unfortunately. Historians also tell the story you want to hear.
So the consequence has to be: never trust a historian!
You would like me to say this sentence.
If it's true.
I'm just saying: never trust one historian alone, read at least two.
Did you get aggressive reactions?
Of course, many. I was torn apart in Christian publications. In Spain, an interview was canceled because the editor-in-chief didn't like the tone of the book. But I can understand that, it doesn't matter. You must find me repulsive at what I write - it disturbs your belief. I recently saw the new Yorker a cartoon. The wife comes to her husband, who is sitting in front of the computer, and says: "Now come to bed at last." He replies: "That doesn't work, someone on the Internet is wrong."
There was also serious criticism. One accused you of exaggerating. Of the 700 temples of the time, only 10 were actually razed.
That's unfair. First, we don't know exactly how many temples there were. And, yes, maybe only around ten were totally destroyed. But you don't have to totally destroy a temple, a few smashed or even damaged statues are enough to frighten people. To say that only ten temples were destroyed is like finding ten human bones to conclude that only ten people lived in this area.
Whoever reads your book will be reminded of the present, whether they like it or not. Did you do the same?
It is noteworthy that, 600 years later, IS inflicted exactly the same injuries to the statues in Palmyra as the early Christians. The IS says that demons live in the statues and must be destroyed.
They show that intolerance, ignorance and hostility towards cultural diversity are nothing new.
Unfortunately, that's the way it is. Those who are ignorant and hostile can easily find a victim.
Based on your historical knowledge, do you have a recipe for what could be done against this trinity of ignorance?
It's so boring, but we have to defend our good, but at the same time unattractive values: democracy, education, freedom of expression. It is so much easier for the right when they say: Do that, believe this!
Are we the Greeks and the Romans of today, overrun by the narrow-minded and spiritless?
I do not think so. I see pluralism winning and atheism too. What can be observed, however, is that the core of the strict believers is becoming harder and more numerous.
Are we not entering a new Middle Ages?
No, but into a new age of communication.
In which you do not participate. You are not on Twitter or Facebook.
I don't like to communicate into a black hole. When the book came out, I tried Twitter. But what came up was so aggressive and hurtful that I let it go again. I just don't believe that people can be reeducated. If someone believes, then he believes. No matter what I write on Twitter.
In your book you take a strong moral stance.Your text is not simply a description of what happened. Historians don't usually do that.
Do i do that? I have never thought about it.
You do, yes. You write, for example: "Art lovers saw with horror how some of the greatest sculptures of antiquity were destroyed by people who were too stupid to appreciate them - and certainly too stupid to restore them." That is a moral statement.
If I were to run into this museum with a sledgehammer and start smashing statues, the world would have every right to call me “stupid” or even “insane”. Just because someone lived in the past does not give them the right to evade my judgment. Yes, I know there is this view that as a historian one should abstain from all judgment. I just don't share that view.
And that's why you are scolded as a journalist.
I can live with that. The main thing is that I can tell an interesting, surprising story based on facts. Besides, this is hypocritical. Of course you can expand on all your knowledge and leave out all adjectives - and still judge. By leaving out, I am judging. Whoever takes a photo is choosing a section of reality. But that is not the whole reality.
Catherine Nixey, born in 1980, studied history at Cambridge. She worked as a history teacher before moving to the Times culture department. Today she is a freelance journalist and mainly writes for the Economist, the New York Times and that Times. She lives in London with her husband, who heads the Times' science department. Her book Holy anger. How the early Christians destroyed antiquity has been published by DVA.
This article was published on July 11, 2019 in the 23rd issue of “NZZ Geschichte”.
Addressed by this excerpt? Order the issue here now and read on. “NZZ Geschichte” is also available by subscription.
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