Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What the pagans thought about some of our Christian practices


This is from the book The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity by Peter Brown (this is from the Kindle edition)


""Nothing could be more misleading than to assume that, by the middle of the fourth century, some insensible tide of religious sentiment had washed away the barriers by which Mediterranean pagans had sought for so long to mark off the human dead from the living. Far from it: on this point, the rise of Christianity in the pagan world was met by deep religious anger. We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. 
For the progress of this cult spelled out for the pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers which presaged the final spreading again over the earth of that “darkness spoken of in the old myths” in which all ancient landmarks would be blotted out.27 In attacking the cult of saints, Julian the Apostate mentions the cult as a novelty for which there was no warrant in the gospels; but the full weight of his religious abhorrence comes to bear on the relation between the living and the corpses of the dead that was implied in the Christian practice:

“You keep adding many  corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago. You have filled the the whole world with tombs and sepulchres.”28


He turned against the cult practiced at the tombs of the saints all the repugnance expressed by the Old Testament prophets for those who haunted tombs and burial caves for sinister purposes of sorcery and divination.29 As an emperor, Julian could give voice to his own profound distaste by reiterating the traditional Roman legislation that kept the dead in their proper place. How could men tolerate such things as Christian processions with relics? …The carrying of the corpses of the dead through a great assembly of people, in the midst of dense crowds, staining the eyesight of all with ill-omened sights of the dead. What day so touched with death could be lucky? How, after being present at such ceremonies, could anyone approach the gods and their temples?30

In an account of the end of paganism in Egypt, by Eunapius of Sardis, we catch the full charnel horror of the rise of Christianity

: For they collected the bones and skulls of criminals who had been put to death for numerous crimes…made them out to be gods, and thought that they became better by defiling themselves at their graves. “Martyrs” the dead men were called, and ministers of a sort, and ambassadors with the gods to carry men’s prayers.31


In the course of the late fourth and fifth centuries, the growth of the cult of martyrs caused a visible shift in the balance of importance accorded to the areas of the living and the areas of the dead in most late-antique towns. Great architecture mushroomed in the cemeteries. To take only one example: at the beginning of the fifth century, the north African city of Tebessa came to be flanked by an enormous pilgrimage site, built in the cemetery area, presumably around the grave of Saint Crispina. The shrine was in the full-blooded, public style associated with the Theodosian renaissance. Its pilgrim’s way, 150 meters long, passed under great triumphal arches and along arcaded courtyards, echoing, among the tombs outside Tebessa, the porticoes and streets of a classical city.32 In the same years Paulinus of Nola could congratulate himself on having built around the grave of Saint Felix, in a peripheral cemetery area still called Cimitile, “the cemetery,” a complex so impressive that the traveler might take it for another town.33""

Brown, Peter (2009-02-15). The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Haskell Lectures on History of Religions) (pp. 7-8). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.



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