The Moment the Church Turned Violent

A short while before Jesus walked the earth and the Romans conquered the western world, Antiochus IV ruled Judea.  He was a Seleucid (Greek) and he didn’t like the Jews.  He thought they were too…uncivilized and uncouth.  And so, in an attempt to bring them kicking and screaming into the 2nd century BC, he passed a series of laws forcing them to become more Hellenistic and less Hebrew.  As you can imagine, this didn’t go over too well with the Jews, especially when he did things like forbade them from reading the Torah and observing the Sabbath.  If that weren’t bad enough, he forced them to put bacon in everything—green beans, pintos, corn bread.  Now, that might sound yummy today, but forcing a Jew to eat pork is like inviting a Texan to a barbecue and offering tofu and hummus.

But it got worse.  Soon, he built gymnasiums with built-in plumbing where men could engage in sports and bathe.  Again, that may not sound so bad to modern ears, but the Greeks liked to do this in the buff, which didn’t go over well with the modest Jews.

But the coup de grace occurred when Antiochus IV forced the Jews to worship Zeus in the Jerusalem after sacrificing a pig on the altar.  An enraged Jew named Mattathias Maccabees slapped a fellow Jew, killed the king’s officer, and moved his family to the hills, where he engaged in guerilla warfare against the Seleucids.

It worked–mainly because for the first time in Ancient Near East history, men were encouraged on a large scale to die not just for their king or clan, but for their God, introducing the concept of the “martyr” to the world.

But after a few generations, the Maccabees weren’t content with just ruling the small parcel of land around Jerusalem.  And so they decided to expand their borders by invading their neighbors.  But this wasn’t just a land grab.  They wanted their neighbors to behave more like Jews and less like whatever it was they were.  And so, as they captured men, they pulled down their pants to check whether or not they had been circumcised.  If not, they held out a sword and said, “I can either use this to turn you into a Jew or slice your throat.  Your choice.”

In this, the Maccabees introduced another concept to the world, “religious zealotry,” i.e., men who were not only willing to die for their beliefs, but also kill for it.

Early Christians rejected the latter, but picked up on the “martyr” notion.   And soon, it became very popular among believers to get thrown to the lions. For to do so made you a a super-Christian whose remains were blessed with special miraculous powers. AND, you got a “go-straight-to-heaven” card  that allowed you to bypass a long slumber in the grave waiting for Jesus to return.

The fact that Christians willingly (and sometimes enthusiastically) sought martyrdom  garnered a great deal of attention.  Who dies for a god? Gods were to be manipulated, cajoled, or tricked. What kind of god was worth dying for? The attention soon resulted in a surge of people flocking to the church, in part because it offered an attractive passion and hope that the morose and cynical Greco-Roman culture lacked.  This led Tertullian, an early church father, to remark, “The oftener we are mowed down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of the Christians is the seed.”

But then Constantine came to power in the 4th century, and he made it chic to be a Christian.  Pastors who once were dragged into the prisons and flogged because of their faith, were now flush with wealth and power.  And like the Maccabees, they soon became discontent with just shepherding their little flocks.  They wanted more. They wanted all the people in the empire to be more like their version of Christianity and less like whatever it was they were, especially if they were pagans.

And so, a subtle shift in attitude occurred that went from viewing money and power with suspicion as Jesus taught (you cannot serve both god and mammon) to viewing it as a blessing to be used as leverage to force people to conform. After all, it was for their own good!

And so, a mere half a century after Constantine legalized Christianity, a group of bishops in Spain conspired against a fellow bishop named Priscillian.  This in itself was not all that unusual.  As Christianity grew, groups of bishops fought with one another on a fairly regular basis, especially over doctrine.  And sometimes, their vitriol got quite personal and mean.  And though it’s a little difficult to know for sure what Priscillian actually believed since our knowledge of him is based largely on his critics, it’s clear he was a bit eccentric.  He practiced strict asceticism and became enamored with what we would call charismatic gifts today.  He allowed women to participate in ways normally reserved only for men.  And every now and then, he apparently liked to pray buck naked.

But that was enough for the neighboring Bishops to want Prsicillian gone, one way or another. They attempted to have him fired. When that failed, the rival bishops appealed up the hierarchical ladder.  Eventually the case was heard at the imperial court in Trier by the emperor Maximus.  As the bishops expressed their concerns,  Maximus saw a political opportunity. You see, the emperor had long wanted to send a clear message to the world that he was the champion of Jesus. And he saw in Priscillian’s case a way to do just that. It’s a strategy that became known as the “church militant.”

And so, under the gaze of the bishops, Maximus extracted a confession from Priscillian after a great deal of torture, which he used to charge his victim with sorcery (a crime he never committed).  With this damning piece of evidence, though, Maximus could do whatever he wanted.

After a brief trial, Priscillian, two clergy, a rich female supporter, and a Christian poet were all sentenced to death by the command of the Christian emperor and with the blessings of the Christian bishops.

And for the first time in history, a Christian killed another Christian.

Unfortunately, this would not be the last time.

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on Visualhunt / No known copyright restrictions

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