How the church changed after Constantine

Seen on Twitter this week, via David Walsh:

Jesus: ‘If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek’.
Chrysostom in 387AD: ‘Slap them in the face!’
– something lost in translation there.

It is always good practice to verify your quotations, but this is entirely genuine.  The reference is to the Homilies on the Statues, 1, 32.  In the NPNF version this reads:

32. But since our discourse has now turned to the subject of blasphemy, I desire to ask one favor of you all, in return for this my address, and speaking with you; which is, that you will correct on my behalf the blasphemers of this city.

And should you hear any one in the public thoroughfare, or in the midst of the forum, blaspheming God; go up to him and rebuke him; and should it be necessary to inflict blows, spare not to do so.

Smite him on the face; strike his mouth; sanctify thy hand with the blow, and if any should accuse thee, and drag thee to the place of justice, follow them thither; and when the judge on the bench calls thee to account, say boldly that the man blasphemed the King of angels!

For if it be necessary to punish those who blaspheme an earthly king, much more so those who insult God. It is a common crime, a public injury; and it is lawful for every one who is willing, to bring forward an accusation.

Let the Jews and Greeks learn, that the Christians are the saviours of the city; that they are its guardians, its patrons, and its teachers.

Let the dissolute and the perverse also learn this; that they must fear the servants of God too; that if at any time they are inclined to utter such a thing, they may look round every way at each other, and tremble even at their own shadows, anxious lest perchance a Christian, having heard what they said, should spring upon them and sharply chastise them.

When I first read this, without considering the context, it looked like the utmost expression of arrogance, of the attitude of those in power.  But this is to ignore the circumstances.

In 387 the emperor Theodosius imposed an extraordinary tax on the city of Antioch, and the enraged citizens rioted and threw down the statues of the emperor.  The emperor then threatened to destroy the city, and negotiations took place between the emperors representatives and the townsfolk.

Paganism was still the official religion of the empire.  But it seems that pagans and Jews were taking advantage of the crisis to jeer at the Christians of the city, and perhaps even at the religion of the emperor.  This in turn couldn’t help the negotiations, when the survival of the city is at stake.   This is a reaction to a threat to everyone, not a gratuitous attack on unbelievers.  The citizens are appealing to the feelings of a Christian emperor – and, he reflects, these people are screwing it up!  Slap them in the face if they won’t pipe down.  It’s politics, in other words, and John Chrysostom speaks as the bishop of the city, almost in Byzantine terms as the ethnarch, rather than personally.

But Christ did not give his teaching conditionally.  Christians often feel a great deal of reluctance to endorse the actions of the church, post-Nicaea.  This is one reason why.  Here we have a popular preacher, and a gifted expositor of the bible, who, faced with a pagan reaction, incites his congregation not to turn the other cheek but instead to go out and do battle in the streets, for the benefit of the community as a whole.  It’s understandable; but somehow we are not in the same world any more.


12 thoughts on “How the church changed after Constantine

  1. My impression was that turning the other cheek was about insults to me, not insults to my mom, dad, son, daughter, Uncle Bob, neighbor, and God.

    The problem is that one has the right to choose not to defend oneself, and sometimes that is indeed one’s duty. But Jesus did not command us never to defend other people. Salvation history is pretty darned full of examples where this was even commanded by God. So is this about the optics or the principle of the thing?

    Now, obviously one can argue that God is more than powerful enough to defend His own honor, and that it may be a bit presumptuous to attempt violent defense of Truth instead of being ready to provide an explanation of it. This is generally the attitude that works in a civil society. But the early Christians were pretty big on deprecatory prayer frequently being answered, which isn’t exactly turning the other cheek and yet is something Jesus had no trouble deploying, either.

    Shrug. It’s a question that’s been answered a lot of different ways.

    In the US, most churches that had troubles with the neighbors getting persecute-y have handled it by letting it be known that they had armed men willing to stay up all night and guard the church, people’s houses, etc. Mr. Shotgun doesn’t usually need to be fired, because the mere presence of weaponry can discourage the drunk and high-spirited.

    So it would be interesting to know whether people actually ended up slapping anybody, or whether Chrysostom was just authorizing a low-level use of force so that the harassers would hear about it, and be discouraged from casual harassment.

  2. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.
    If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.
    Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
    Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”
    Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.
    (Romans 12:17~21 – this is not a conditional statement)

  3. I’ve been reading lots of material (mostly historical) after Constantine’s time (though, I think I’ve read every possible pre-Constantine writing that is translated into English, including all of Origen’s long-winded commentaries that are not in the ANF collection), and I have to say, there’s a MASSIVE contrast between pre and post Constantine. Way more than I knew before I did my reading.

  4. My recollection is that Chrysostom advises this before the riot. The issue is the honour of God. If it is treasonable to let the emperor be dishonoured, how much more so God. So first warn people, then hit them if they continue. Chrysostom wants those who might dishonour God to be trembling at their own shadows.

    This sermon then seemed particularly apt when the riots occurred, and the emperor was dishonoured.

    The lesson for me is that if you start worrying about God’s honour, it permits you to do almost anything. You see a similar dynamic at work in some parts of Islam: blasphemy against God or the prophet bring a violent response. Late antique Christianity is in this regard similar to some current forms of Islam. Pagan temples were burnt down or destroyed; pagan books were burnt and some pagans paid with their lives (Hypatia…).

    Calling ‘blasphemy’ is an extremely dangerous thing to do.

  5. I don’t think calling “blasphemy” is dangerous unless… you have political power. Then indeed it becomes very dangerous, because disagreement is itself seen as blasphemy. Indeed much of our modern identity politics is the same; and the result is a ratchet towards extremism. For who could object to those who were opposed to “blasphemy”?

  6. Jonathan – Your point about seeing in Late Antique Christianity a similarity with Islam has often crossed my mind.

    I often search for the disguised hand of the muslim or the Jew at work whenever I research something.

    Although the black hand is there it is hard to get evidence for it.

    Even the crusades appears to be very much a copy cat of the jihad since christians were and still are very much the brunt of the islamic fury.

    And then how dealing with the muslims was a trauma to the DNA on its own for many different peoples on earth.

    But it is evident, that christians should never have allowed for the state and the church to meld. This is the great misfortune of the story of christianity. Since due to this error, the evil actions of those who would call themselves Christians are attributed to Christianity.

Leave a Reply