Peter Brown on Christianization, Part III: “Tempora Christiana”

The previous post covered another essay by Peter Brown on the modern narrative of the Christianization of the fourth and fifth centuries that we have inherited. There, Brown was replying to Ramsay MacMullen. In our modern narrative, MacMullen writes, any alleged process of Christianization ought to show “Christians not just talking but doing; and it must show them in some opposition to evidently accepted standards” [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 324]. That is, there must be widespread socio-moral (and legal) change, or there is no manifest Christianization.

In the first essay of Authority and the Sacred that we earlier summarized, Brown notes three areas in which the Roman world did begin to change under the influence of Christianity, though “with the slowness of a glacier” [Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (New York: Cambridge, 1997), 9]. The third of the three areas of Christianization concerned the heritage of the past as the inheritance of pagan habits to be overcome by Christian habits.

This is what concerns us here, the idea that history and a heritage can be divided into chronological epochs with their own moral worlds. I mentioned in a somewhat-recent post about how people began to divide time based on the birth of Jesus in the sixth century. There are roots in the fourth century for dividing history this way. After the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, pagans began to speak disapprovingly of the times in which they lived as “Tempora Christiana“, “Christian Times”, by which

they meant, not the stability of the Constantinian order, but a new age, overshadowed by a crisis of authority which led to renewed barbarian raids throughout the Roman provinces of the West. [Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2013), 86]

Christians in the late fourth century thought that the times had changed. The Apostolic period had passed. This was a new era. The empire was now conceived of as an instrument of divine providence, as part of sacred history that would advance the purposes of God in the world, and this lead to a sense that, in this era, things were both permissible and prescribed that were not before. Christianization had ushered in a new age in sacred history. What is the trajectory that enables this to be possible, and which made this a problem for those who lived through this period of alleged Christianization? (We will look more closely at this in the coming weeks, as we cover R.A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, but what does Brown give us as a background in chapters two and three of The Rise of Western Christendom?)

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Stars Down to Earth


In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]

These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]

This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot. Continue reading