Ramsay MacMullen on Christianization, Part I: What Difference Did Christianity Make?

Ramsay MacMullen begins his essay “What Difference did Christianity Make?” by citing a question from E. A. Judge:

“What difference did it make to Rome to have been converted?” Self-evident changes like basilica-building or people’s attendance at churches instead of temples are surely not what the question is getting at. The point (or at any rate my point) is rather to discover how broad patterns of secular life changed as a result of the population being now believers. Inquiry promises interesting results because Christianity is known to us as a religion, along with Judaism and certain others, that offers powerful prescriptions for living this secular life. There is a Christian morality, in short; and the introduction of the new faith should thus have had historical impact. [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 322]

MacMullen looks at the period from A.D. 312 to about A.D. 410 for evidence to marshal in the answering of this question, as he suggests that Christian influence upon society, to be relevant to Judge’s question, must be visible prior to the religion’s becoming a majority, when there is no longer something else it can easily be said to resist and change.

The sources themselves are too often “bookish” (such as Clement of Alexandria), drawing much on pagan themes, while we have no idea to what degree said authors (and preachers) influenced their hearers and readers. If influence on action cannot be demonstrated, moral literature reduces “to the compass of a pastime.” [“Difference”, 323]

Doing, and not just talking, and doing “in some opposition to evidently accepted standards”, is the litmus test of difference. ‘Without opposition [Christianization] cannot have produced any difference.” The standards for what constitutes difference must come from this time. [“Difference”, 324] MacMullen looks at five areas of potential change: (1) Slavery, (2) Attitudes to Sex, (3) Theatrical and Gladiatorial Shows, (4) Judicial Savagery, and (5) Corruption.

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Summaries: Peter Brown on Christianization


The first post introduced the historian Peter Brown and offered a summary of a lecture he gave at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on two fourth century figures, the Roman Emperor Constantine I and the bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. In it, Brown asked what the horizons of possibility were for the two men regarding Christianization. In the course of answering this, he noted:
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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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Peter Brown on Christianization, Part II: Narratives of Christianization

The previous post (very) briefly introduced the historian Peter Brown and offered a summary of a lecture by him on Constantine I and Eusebius of Caesarea. In it, Brown asked what the horizons of possibility were for the two men regarding Christianization. This sense of the horizons of possibility changed during the course of the fourth century. The fact that Brown felt he needed to clarify what was distinctive about the Constantinian age and its hopes indicates something about how later history and later narratives were afterwards projected onto earlier times within the same century, making it difficult to see the world of the early- and mid-fourth century for what it was apart from these narratives. What can be said about the history that resists being assimilated by the narrative of Christianization we have inherited today? Continue reading