The Imperial Response to the Explosion of Monotheism

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Peggy Carter
Theology 204
Professor Heather Nolting
28 August 2018

From Monotheism to Polytheism:
The Imperial Response to the Explosion of Monotheism in a World of Pantheons

The transition from polytheism to monotheism in the Roman Empire was heavily impacted by the explosive growth of Christianity shortly after the timely end of Rome’s republican system. Christianity was largely molded by the preconditions set by Second Temple Judaism, which is credited as the oldest existing monotheistic religion; however, Judaism’s ancient roots reveal henotheistic tendencies, begging the question of how religious norms transition from polytheism to monotheism. The response of the general Roman populace to the increasing popularity of Christianity over the traditional Roman cults—which served as identifiers for political and spiritual unity in the Empire—was to regularly accuse Christians of committing local terrors. The Roman transition from polytheism to monotheism, therefore, was a bloody road wavering between tolerance and conspiratorial suspicion until Christianity’s royal confirmation by Emperor Constantine I.

The Roman attitude towards Christianity was initially indifferent, as the Roman Empire characteristically tolerated minor religions in principalities under Roman rule providing that the religious communities did not grow overly contrary to imperial beliefs. Religious unity was fostered throughout the empire with a combination of syncretism and emperor worship, often resulting in the historical phenomenon of mystery cults.

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Jews and Christians were viewed by Roman society as uniquely strict and unbending to the demands of Roman authorities, a conflict which resulted in several violent revolts during the Roman occupation of Israel (Popovic 3). As Christianity grew, however, Romans became increasingly suspicious of Christian theology, often accusing worshippers as anti-Roman and atheistic for their lack of participation in traditionally Roman identifiers (Gonzalez 20). Other minorities within the Roman Empire, most notably the Hebrew people whose history and scriptures were the cornerstone of Christianity, reacted in a multitude of different ways.

Jews during the Second Temple Period became divided after the advent of Jesus; however, various Jewish sects existed prior to the inception of Christianity in the Judeo-Roman world: the Pharisees, who emphasized personal piety and lawful living; the Sadducees, who held to strict textualism rather than oral transmission; and the Essenes, a quasi-monastic communal sect centered around self-understanding and extra-templar living. Between the 1st century B.C.E and the 1st century C.E, during the chronological proximity of Jesus’s birth, several charismatic Jewish leaders developed the Mishnah which would further define Judaism in its Rabbinic form distinct from its Christian counterpart. Christianity established a small Jewish presence of adherents who believed that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled long awaited messianic prophecies, but majority of the Jewish population who did not affirm the messianic figure of Jesus occasionally reacted vehemently against Christians, whom they considered to be distorters of the Torah rather than a separate religion entirely.

Roman authorities sporadically held early Christianity in contempt, and Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and renowned historian from the 3rd century, documents his survival of an intensive period of Roman persecution under Roman Emperor Diocletian (Gonzalez 150).

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Additionally, Jewish Christian communities often faced persecution by their orthodox Jewish peers, and in the second half of the first century, the large Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem was forced to relocate to the Gentile-majority city of Pella across the Jordan River due to both Jewish persecution and Roman suspicions regarding the new beliefs being described by Christians in Judeo-Roman provinces (Gonzalez 28). After Jewish nationalism and parochialism came to a “boiling point” in 66 C.E, a rebellion broke out in Jerusalem leading into the devastation of the city by Roman armies, and the early Jewish Christian communities became remarkably scarce and soon Gentile Christianity dominated the Roman world outside of its Jewish form (Gonzalez 29).

Both inscriptional and biblical sources have documented henotheistic tendencies in early Hebrew thought (Sérandour 35). Modern reconstructions of early Hebrew spirituality built from scattered evidence supports a pre-canonical pantheon. According to Christian scholar Bernard Lang, the early Hebrew pantheon possessed four facets, “a wisdom goddess associated with a high god who created and therefore owns the universe, a young warrior deity, and possibly also a fertility goddess,” (215). This natal form of Hebrew thought possesses significant similarities to Mesopotamian folk religions, denoting either a common source or significant influence (Perry 37). The Book of Genesis offers historical context for the life and experiences of the patriarch Abraham, who dwelt in the ancient Sumerian city-state of Ur until migrating to northern Mesopotamia in approximately the 18th century B.C.E (Gen. 12:15).

It is unlikely that a drastic theological shift in ancient Mesopotamia began in the personage of Abraham; however, Abraham’s devotion to a singular deity denotes a significant psychological and socio-religious paradigm shift in human history and separates Hebrew religion from strict polytheism akin to that of the Roman mystery cults.

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It should be noted that while the theory of early Hebrew henotheism admits that ancient Israel acknowledged foreign gods, the difference between henotheism and polytheism resides in the legitimacy given to pantheon(s) external to one’s local religious system.

During the Golden Age of the Roman Empire in the form of the late Republic, Judaism had largely abandoned its ancient preconception of henotheism and all Hebrew sources indicate that Second Temple Judaism (515 B.C.E – 70 C.E) observed strict monotheism. This form of religious observance is unique, and Judaism is credited as being the oldest existing monotheistic religion. When the advent of Jesus of Nazareth occurred at the turn of the 1st century C.E, the Jewish world split over the understanding of messianism, God, and the role of Jesus in salvific history. Christianity accepted the foundation for monotheism supplied by parochial Jewish though and fought against the imperial pressure of participating in local rituals that they believed to be incompatible with Christian thought.

The Roman Empire, then, found itself with a rapidly expanding Christian population refusing to participate in characteristically Roman festivals or attribute to the emperor what Christians believed was due only to God. In response, the imperial persecution of Christianity began with Emperor Nero, who blamed the Roman Christian population for a terrible fire that devastated the Roman economy despite any authentic evidence (Burkett 14). In following centuries, persecution against Christians was sporadic, with Christians occasionally being thrown into pits filled with lions for refusing to renounce their strict monotheism and embrace the Roman syncretic system (Reyes 33).

The most violent episode of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire was conducted by Emperor Diocletian from the end of the third century, with estimates of Christian deaths approximating between 3,000 to 3,500 directly caused by imperial edicts (Frend 251).

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The Diocletian Persecution would be the last intense imperial persecution of Christians, as Constantine I would begin his rule in 306 and—despite being raised in a pagan household—played a central role in the Edict of Mila in 313, an imperial document that promoted religious tolerance within the empire, specifically pertaining to the imperial treatment of Christians. Constantine converted to Christianity and was baptized on his deathbed in 337.

Constantine’s legalization of Christianity resulted in the eventual Roman conception of the Christian god as the “strongest deity,” (Sordi 134). Fostering support for Christianity on behalf of the imperium, Constantine paved the road for the formalization of Christianity as the national religion. In 380, Emperor Theodosius I, the last Roman emperor to rule over both the eastern and western hemisphere of the Roman Empire, effectively decreed Nicene Christianity as the official state church of the Roman Empire (Hughes 24).

The transition of the Roman religious environment from polytheism to monotheism; therefore, involved the development of Hebrew monotheism, Roman suspicions and persecutions, and eventual imperial confirmation. The explosive growth of Christianity drew the attention of the Roman Empire, which responded with a chronological progression from indifference, persecution, to codified adoption of the religion as a state-sponsored entity. The unwillingness on behalf of Christian communities to partake in Roman cultural festivals that conflicted with Christian theology contributed to their unique position within the transitional religious period. The complete abandonment of the pagan Roman pantheon in favor of Nicene Christianity embodies both a spiritual and psychological development among the Romans as a nations, and the scope of this paper has sought to describe this specific geographic transition and the historical elements necessary to its occurrence.

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Works Cited

Burkett, Delbert. An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Frend, William. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church. Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2008.

González, Justo. L. The Story of Christianity. 2nd ed., vol. 1, New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

Hughes, Philip. A History of the Church. London: Sheed and Ward, 1948.

Lang, Bernhard. “The Hebrew God: A Very Short Summary.” Hebrew Life and Literature: Selected Essays of Bernhard Lang, edited by Margaret Barker, 1st ed., London: Routledge, 2008, pp. 13-28.

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. Vol. 1, Boston: Cengage, 2016.

Phillips, Gervase. “Deviance, Persecution and the Roman Creation of Christianity.” Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2014, pp. 250-270.

Popović, Mladen. The Jewish Revolt against Rome: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

Reyes, E. Christopher. In His Name. Vol. 5, Trafford, 2018.

Sérandour, Arnaud. “On the Appearance of a Monotheism in the Religion of Israel (3rd Century BC or Later?).” Diogenes, vol. 52, no. 1, 2005, pp. 33-45.

Sordi, Marta. The Christians and the Roman Empire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

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