The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

by Adolph (von) Harnack
translated and edited by James Moffatt
Second, enlarged and revised English edition;
London: Williams and Norgate / New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908 (from the 2nd German edition)..
Theological Translation Library, volumes 19-20

From the German, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924)

[[being updated (also consulting the 4th German edition) and adapted by RAK for use in 2004 America]]

[[Book 4, Chapter 3, page 312]]



One of the most practical ideals of the leading bishops and theologians was to secure the unity and integrity of Christendom as a whole; and this ideal, in its essence, sprang from the Christian idea of a close bond of the brotherhood (cp. Paul, John, Ignatius; elpiPI K-a'i e'y(ocriv, "peace and unity"). As against Montanism and gnosticism, this idea passed over into the sphere of doctrine and organization, where it was carried out almost to the verge of uniformity. The consequence was that the church became a great social, political, and intellectual force within an empire which was crumbling away both outwardly and inwardly.

No unity, however, was reached at two points--either in the matter of language or of customs (or of discipline).

(1) As regards language, Christianity was a Greek movement: almost to the end of the second century. Even in the following century, despite the conflict with Hellenism, it reinforced the Greek spirit in many regions of the East where several languages were spoken, and in this way it carried on of Alexander the Great. The fact that it had to make room for Latin after the close of the second century did not mean any cleavage, either at first or for some time to come. The Latin spirit was dependent on the Greek everywhere in the intellectual sphere, and it could not injure the latter. The characteristic element of authority which it embraced meant no more during the early centuries than a reinforcement of the [[313]] Greco-Roman spirit, which was still unbroken and still all-pervading.

But the Christian Greeks could not Hellenize the Syriansans, Copts, Armenians, and Goths, even while they Christianized them. These nations had to make versions of the Bible for themselves and to create a liturgical speech of their own,\1/ and this meant a steady weakening of Hellenism; it involved very serious loss to Christianity in the future. No one gained by this development. The nations themselves, with the exception of the Goths, had eventually to reckon the increase of their ecclesiastical nationality at the cost of a melancholy deterioration, which perhaps the Armenians alone were able to avoid. If we could imagine them Hellenized by the influence of the church, the course of the world's history would have been very different, and Islam would probably have never spread beyond Arabia.

\1/ They did so at once, as soon as Christianity penetrated their life. We often hear of bishops who preached in Greek and Syriac, Greek and Gothic, Greek and Coptic, etc. Socrates (HE., v. 23) tells of a bishop who preached in Greek and Phrygian.

The course of affairs in the West went otherwise. Here Latin was the one Biblical and liturgical language for a thousand years and more. Now why was this? Cumont has recently raised and answered this question finally.\2/ In the West, as he points out, "the paganism" which the church encountered in the provinces (Gaul, Spain, Africa, etc.) was either already Latinized,\3/ or at any, rate was so rough, barbarian, and therefore insignificant, that it did not represent any serious factor in history. When idolatry disappeared, I doubt if there was a single temple in all the provinces of Italy or Gaul where the ceremonies were performed by the priests in a local tongue. The catholic clergy naturally did not care to use any dialect save that which was in universal use, and in this way the force of habit and of tradition gradually led to the principle that the distinctive language of the Roman church was Latin." This [[314]] remark is borne out by a study of the Western controversial writers against paganism in the fourth and fifth and sixth centuries. Wherever they wrote, at Tours or Bracara or elsewhere, their blows were struck at Jupiter, Juno, Venus, etc., ie., against the Latin gods. When the devil appeared to tempt the saints in Gaul or Germany, he was in the guise not of a Gallic or German god but of Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, or Minerva (cp. Vita Martini, 22). Hence, in Christianizing the nations subsequently (viz. the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, the Upper and Lower Germans), both popes and bishops availed themselves of a principle which had been long established and which was consequently a matter of course. The rigorous ecclesiastical process of Romanizing all converts rested not on any "lust of power" or sacerdotal despotism but on an extremely elementary basis--on the insignificance of all Western cults, and the victory won by the Roman religion over these cults prior to the Christian mission. In the East, upon the contrary, when Christianity came upon the scene the local cults (which were occasionally of great influence and at any rate most impressive) had been barely Hellenized; their liturgical language was the vernacular. In Lydia, in the temples of Anahita, the priests sang Bap,8apa a' '8alAC aK t ov og CUVET ' 'EXXlo-ty ("hymns wbich were barbaric and quite unintelligible to Greeks"); Elagabalus spoke Syriac, the Armenian gods spoke Armenian, and Mithra was ov'S'e c'XX?Ivtcwp Ti Owyi. It was the same in Egypt. The Copts who became Christians were for the most part untouched by the Greek spirit. Bven when the Oriental deities migrated to foreign countries, they frequently retained their language and compelled their worshippers either to learn it or to worship in dumb show.\4/ When the church won her great triumphs in Syria and Phoenicia, Edessa and Armenia, Egypt and the Thebais, she drove out the local gods and desecrated their shrines. But she failed to substitute Greek for the vernacular of these new believers, who retained part of their former worship under the new modes [[315]] of religion. She tried everywhere to achieve this result, and her efforts were not entirely unsuccessful. But the preliminary conditions were awanting. "In founding their churches beside the temples of the barbarian gods, Christians preserved the idiom in which prayer had always been offered. Thus the multiplicity of languages which prevailed in the Eastern church perpetuated the variety of those which had been employed by the pagan cults."\5/ It was no accident which led afterwards to the emergence of doctrinal differences between the Greek Byzantine church and the Eastern church; this was directly due to the differences which were already in existence. The future history of Rome and Constantinople is already foreshadowed in the fact that during the pre-Constantine age, while the Bible was translated into Syriac and Coptic (and shortly afterwards into Armenian), it was never rendered into the Punic, Celtic, or Basque vernacular.

\2/ "Pourquoi le latin fut la seule langue liturgique de l'occident " (Extrait de Milanges Paul Fredericq, Brussels, 1904).

\3/ This is true of Africa as well: Saturnus and Asclepius were the new names given to the old gods.

\4/ Cumont has certainly shown, in his work on Mithraism, that Greek was the normal language of that cult; but it is doubtful whether this was so from the first in regions where Greek was not spoken; cp. Roese, Uber Mithrasdienst (1905), p. 20.

\5/ But Cumont underestimates, I think, the efforts made by the church in the direction of Hellenizing.

(2) Along with the linguistic differences, the variety of local customs formed an increasing peril to the unity and power of the church, as that made itself felt in the propaganda. These differences related to the celebration of feasts (eg., Easter) and fasts, ritual, discipline, the local and provincial organization of the churches, the popular religious customs of each district, and even the schools of learning. With regard to the first five, the Roman bishops took great pains (so, even in the second ,century, Anicetus and Victor) to maintain uniformity (after the Roman model, of course), while large synods in the middle of the third century and shortly after the presecution of Diocletian attempted not unsuccessfully to enforce discipline and order in the most important matters under dispute. But the majority of the bishops were of the opinion of Irenseus, that, provided there was unity in doctrine, and provided love was supreme, any difference of customs was irrelevant or had to be put up with. Cyprian, indeed, carried this principle so far that he would even have opposite views on the validity of heretical baptism tolerated by the church. Firmilian of Caesarea (in Cypr., Ep. lxxv.) writes, circa 250 A.D.: "Nec observari Romae omnia aequaliter quae [[316]] Hierosolymis observantur, secundum quod in caeteris quoque provinciis multa pro locorum et hominum diversitate variantur" ("All things are not observed at Rome alike which are observed at Jerusalem, just as in many other provinces also there are great varieties due to the variety of places and of people"). He does not take umbrage at this. Incidentally we learn from Sozomen (v. 3) that Gaza and its port of Majuma had a festal calendar of their own; while it is clear, from August., Ep. xxxvi. 32, that there were differences in the observance of fasts within the African churches of a single district.\6/ The result was that even by the fourth century there was a great variety of liturgical and other customs in the churches of the various provinces; Socrates (v. 22) and Sozomen (vii. 19) give a list of these which is by no means complete. Particularly in the supreme act of worship liturgical differences of no small moment made their appearance as early as the third century, while the regulations for the various feasts and fasts were by no means uniform. Still more divisive must have been the local religious usages which passed into the church from earlier popular traditions and pagan cults in various provinces, and were then re-consecrated. These, more than anything else, stamped the national and provincial churches with their idiosyncrasies; they were the presuppositions of subsequent differences in doctrine; they separated the churches one from another, and flnally broke up the unity of the church catholic. Their centrifugal tendency was also accelerated by the schools of learning. A large amount of the controversies over dogma was determined by the differences between one school and another. Arius himself was a Syrian, and he laboured at Alexandria in the spirit of the school of Antioch.

\6/He does not sanction, however, the preference of new arrangements in any individual provincial church, in opposition to the authority of the church at Carthage, or any refusal to fall in with a decree of the central church (Efi. -ii. 4).

[[end of 4.3.Appendix 2]]