Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

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Paganism and Christianity.

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

In a note at the end of Ch. XXI of the Decline and Fall, Gibbon traces, with his customary accuracy and learning, the origin and use of the word "pagan." The idea which is now common in literature, that the worshippers of the old gods began to be called pagans when the cult was banished from the cities and had taken refuge in the villages (pagi), is inaccurate. The imperial rescripts against the old religion speak of its votaries as pagans about the year 365, when they were still the great majority in the Roman cities; and the word itself in the sense of "villagers," goes back at least to the first century. Tacitus and Juvenal indicate that in their time it began to be applied to those - generally the rustics - who were not called up for military service and did not take the military oath (sacramentum). Since the Christians deemed themselves the soldiers of Christ and borrowed the word "sacrament," they called those who did not take their oath "pagans." So Tertullian, De Corona Militis, X. The old religion, it is true, lingered longest in the villages; but in the fourth century, when the word "pagans" was commonly used as it now is, the cities were still strong for the Greek and Roman gods. Chrysostom says, in a sermon in 385, that the Christians are only one-fifth of the people of Antioch, and there is ample evidence that it was the same at Rome. Augustine's greatest work, The City of God, was written (after 410) against the pagans, who were, his letters show, the best-educated men of the African cities. This misrepresentation is, how-ever, trivial in comparison with the claim or general belief that the early Christians were an aloof and ascetic body who brought light and virtue into the pagan, or Greek-Roman, world. The letters of Paul to the Corinthians warn us that from the start not all the little communities were oases of virtue in wicked cities, but, except that the fury of the struggles against Jews and Gnostics cannot have edified the pagans, there was doubtless a general maintenance of the primitive severity and simplicity of cult and doctrine. After the middle of the second century these virtues shrank as the Christian body grew. Almost every outstanding Christian writer or preacher from Hippolytus (of Rome, about 220) to Salvianus (in the second half of the fifth century) describes the majority as vicious in all parts of the Empire. At the critical period, when the bishops were trying to enforce the new religion by imperial law - the second half of the fourth century - the Roman Church presented [see Damasus] a spectacle which astounded the pagans, and it was comprehensively degraded [see Jerome]. Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa in the East, and Augustine in Africa, are equally unflattering. On the other hand, modern historical experts on Rome, even Protestants like Sir Samuel Dill and Dr. E. Reich, show that the melodramatic idea of pagan vice is as false as the picture of Christian virtue. This has been shown in many articles [Divorce; Juvenal; Marriage; Philanthropy; Rome; etc.], in which the literature is indicated. Yet we still read in apologists the wildest claims for their Church. In a work issued by an American Catholic organization which boasts of the patronage of Dr. N. Murray Butler (rector of Columbia University) and six other non-Catholic professors, the public are told that "no student worthy of the name who peruses the story of the world can but be impressed with the fact that it was organized Christianity, the Catholic Church, that laid the foundation for all present-day civilization" (The Calvert Handbook of Catholic Facts, 1928, p. 17, a book which circulates by the hundred thousand in America). Such statements are based, if they have any basis at all in the minds of the writers, on long-discredited claims that the Church destroyed slavery, provided schools, taught the Roman world charity and justice, etc., and on the equally discredited melodramatic antithesis of Christian virtue and pagan vice. The non-Catholic "appeasers" of our time would find, on inquiry, that the myth of general Christian virtue is based upon a few exceptional characters and to a very great extent upon stories of saints and martyrs which even Catholic experts now repudiate; and that all modern experts on Roman character refute the charges against it, particularly in the fourth century, when it was brought into full contrast with the Christian character. [See Rome, Morals in Ancient.] That the pagans were not attracted to the Church by either the high character of the Christians or their doctrines is established in every work on the transition from the old religion to the new. It was accomplished by force. Gibbon is here guilty of one of those inconsistencies which we easily understand in a work written in an age of truculent intolerance and imperfect knowledge. In the famous fifteenth chapter, on the progress of the Christian religion, he not only greatly exaggerates the progress made before Constantine, but ascribes a large share of this to Christian virtue and the new hope of immortality (which Christianity had in common with Mithraism, Manichaeism, Isisism, and Platonism). But in Ch. XXVIII, on the destruction of paganism, he shows how it took many decades of violence and persecution to win the triumph of the Church. As the persecuting decrees are still found in the Theodosian Code, there was never any obscurity on this point, and special writers on the fall of paganism, Christian and non-Christian, have always described the decrees and the stubborn resistance of the pagans. Count Beugnot (a Catholic) gives them in the first large work on the subject, Histoire de la destruction da paganisme (2 vols., 1835), and Prof. V. Schultze (a Protestant) in the second, Geschichte des Untergangs des griechisch-roemischen Heidenthums (2 vols 1892) and the story is retold with ampler knowledge in G Boissier's Fin du paganisme (2 vols 1891) Tzscherner's Fall des Heidenthums (1829) and Ferrero's Ruin of Ancient Civilization (Engl. trans 1921). As soon as Constantine was dead the bishops produced a decree ostensibly signed by that Emperor (who, in their interest, had at first been induced to pass a decree of religious liberty), imposing "condign punishment" on all who sacrifice to the gods. This is acknowledged to be a Christian forgery, but it became law and opened the era of persecution. It is enough here to state that it was renewed, sometimes with express indication of the death-sentence, in 345, 350, 381, 383, 386, and 391. The repetition during nearly half a century proves the reluctance of the pagans to enter the Church, and, although in the East the temples were in large part destroyed, and the revenues were everywhere confiscated, the old religion was still strong when Rome fell (410) and the disorganization of the Empire began. The extinction of paganism, to which the great majority of the educated Romans clung until that time, since the conduct of the new Emperors generally was as repugnant to them as that of the body of Christians, was facilitated by the paganization of Christianity. The simple supper in memory of Christ, with "overseers" (bishops) of each community and "servers" or assistants (deacons) at the meetings, was, we learn from the Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians , preserved until the second century. In the second century doctrine and cult became more elaborate. At Rome this was deliberately effected by Pope Callistus , who, in the second decade of the third century, set up the first chapel (a room above an old wine-shop), hardened the line between clergy and laity (or marked off the sanctuary as a sacred arena), and threw membership open to people of looser character. In the course of the third century the Mass was fully developed and the sacred character of the priests emphasized. Constantine plundered the temples and gave their silver altars and gold vessels to the Church, but it was not until the closing of the pagan temples, between 380 and 390, that the larger borrowing was effected. Lustral (holy) water had been a feature of many religions. The Mithraic temples had had darkened buildings, a blaze of lamps and candles, incense, and some sort of floral decoration. The temples of Isis had statues of the divine mother and child, priests in linen and silk robes with shaven polls, candles, incense, altars, etc. The cult of Cybele had another divine mother (Queen of Heaven) and son, hymns to her, statues, and a "Holy Week." All of them had a handsome young god who was in some sense the Saviour of men. Even the Roman national cult contributed its midwinter festival of the "Birth of the Unconquered Sun," the title of Sovereign Pontiff Pontifex Maximus), and the attributes of various goddesses for the new cult of Mary. See articles on each. It would be ingenuous to question the borrowing when, as we have seen in subsidiary articles, the Church gets its Holy Week and Birthday of Christ celebrations, its paraphernalia of worship, its cult of Mary and of saints (minor gods), and so many other new features just when similar festivals and paraphernalia had to be abandoned by suppressed rivals. The pagans now found the new religion more attractive; and it must not be forgotten that just at this period the school-system foundered, and the Romans, who had been literate to the extent of at least 90 per cent., became at least 90 per cent. illiterate. There is no substantial Rationalist book on the transformation. J. A. Farrar's Paganism and Christianity (1891) is still useful, and H. Cutner's Pagan Elements in Christianity (1939) contains much interesting material. Standard works are G. Boissier, La religion romaine (2 vols., 1874), A. Loisy, Les mystères paiens et le mystère chrétien (2 vols., 1930), and F. Cumont, Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (4th ed., 1929). A. Baudrillart's Moeurs paiennes, moeurs chretiennes (2 vols., 1929) is Catholic, but scholarly and fairly liberal; as is also Mgr. Duchesne's Early History of the Christian Church (Engl. trans., 3 vols., 1904-29 - the fourth French volume was too strong for English Catholic consumption). The best book on the Protestant side is T. R. Glover's temperate Influence of Christianity in the Ancient World (1932).

 

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