Ancient History & Civilisation

Christian Diversity

By the beginning of the fifth century the religious landscape of the Roman Empire had changed irrevocably. Christian writing from the mainstream tradition of patristic literature is responsible for the impression that religious belief, with certain exceptions, had been homogenized into a universal pattern of Christian orthodoxy. In practice this profoundly misrepresents the real situation. There were major divisions even within the mainstream Christian tradition, represented by the schismatic groups within the church itself. These included Donatists in Africa, Melitians in Egypt, Arians at odds with the followers of the Nicene Creed across most of the East for much of the fourth century, and Monophysites irreconcilable with Chalcedonians in the later fifth and sixth centuries. These were huge fault lines, which emperors and the ecclesiastical politicians of late antiquity strove to bridge with the theological formulas devised at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and 449, Chalcedon in 451, and Constantinople again in 553.

However, there were also innumerable smaller groups, heretics in the eyes of the state and the mainstream church. Epiphanius, the late fourth-century bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, gathered information from throughout the East as he compiled the case studies that went into his Panarion, a handbook of remedies that were to be used against eighty heresies that he had identified and described.34 The work is a compendium of often outlandish beliefs and practices, and of the arguments and practices that were to be deployed against them. Heresies thrived in rural regional strongholds. In the 370s Basil, one of Epiphanius' correspondents, wrote a lengthy canonical letter from Caesarea in Cappadocia to his fellow bishop, Amphilochius of Iconium, and provided detailed instructions for dealing with the ascetic heretical groups of Apotactites, Saccophori, Encratites, and Cathari, who flourished in the territory of Iconium and its neighboring cities (Basil, ep. 188.1, 199.47). These groups are all well attested by inscriptions and it is evident that Nicene orthodoxy was a minority creed in the fourth and fifth centuries in this region, as in most of the rest of central Anatolia.35 Heretical groups were also numerous in northern Syria, especially among the Syriac-speaking communities of monks and hermits in the country regions. These presented a particular challenge to Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, who wrote a lengthy treatise designed to combat heretical ideas, which concluded with an exposition of true belief.36 Augustine's On Heresies is the main work in this tradition written in the western part of the empire. The fight against heresy was also an imperial priority. In age-old fashion Roman religious unity was seen as a way of guaranteeing political and military success. Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, told Theodosius II, “give me the earth undefiled by heretics, and in return I will give you heaven. Help me to destroy the heretics and in turn I will help you to destroy the Persians” (Socrates 7.29.5). The reality was different. The military commands under Theodosius were controlled by Arian barbarians, and even sometimes by pagan generals and political leaders. Nestorius was driven into exile by his theological enemies within three years of assuming office.

To judge from the frequency with which they are mentioned in Roman legislation, the religious groups which were regarded as posing the greatest challenge to the supremacy of the orthodox church were the Jews, the Manichees, and the Montanists. Each represented different strands in the religious traditions of the eastern Roman Empire, with complex histories and separate origins. Jewish communities were to be found throughout the Roman Empire. Christian and state attitudes towards the Jews were highly ambivalent. Ambrose displayed intransigent anti-Jewish convictions in an ugly form in his letter to the emperor Theodosius concerning the destruction of the synagogue at Callinicum in 388.37 Such views helped to inflame the violent hostility that was shown towards Jews in the major imperial cities, above all at Alexandria in 414–15, where a notorious pogrom was organized by the bishop Cyril (see pp. 298 and 345). On the other side there is important evidence for close contact, mutual sympathy, and interest between Christian and Jewish communities. As during the early empire, large numbers of non-Jewish sympathizers throughout the cities of the Diaspora were attracted to synagogues and participated in Sabbath worship. The two best-documented examples in the late empire of this phenomenon are to be found in Asia Minor. At Sardis a wing of the gymnasium building was converted during the fourth century into a synagogue.38 The location of this conspicuous building itself demonstrates that Jewish worship was completely integrated into the city's community life. However, it is particularly telling that many of the features of the synagogue, including the fine mosaics and marble wall-cladding were paid for not by Jews but by non-Jewish sympathizers, the god-fearers (theosebeis). It is impossible for us to tell now whether these sympathizers had made their way towards Judaism from paganism, or whether they had in fact been Christians.39 A similar picture can be seen at Aphrodisias, which has produced the most important epigraphic evidence relating to Judaism in late antiquity. A tall marble slab carries two lengthy texts. The first, probably dating to the fourth century, seems to be the dedication of a building to commemorate the dead and ease the grief of the community, set up by a funeral association called the dekania of the lovers of wisdom and praise-singers. Its members included thirteen Jews, three Jewish converts (proselytai), and two god-fearers. The second, which is probably later in date, simply has the names, patronymics, and profession designations of members of the community, nearly half of whom were not Jews but god-fearers. Again there is no way of telling whether these had come to the synagogue from pagan backgrounds or from the church.40

This epigraphic evidence indicates that Jewish communities thrived in late antiquity and attracted non-Jewish sympathizers to the synagogues. This was precisely the situation at Syrian Antioch. The Jews of Antioch had lived peacefully with their pagan and Christian fellow-citizens since the early imperial period, and may have amounted to 15 percent of the local population. They were to be found both in the city and in the countryside, and were well integrated in the wider community. Highly educated Jews were on good terms with their pagan counterparts. In the late fourth century the Jewish patriarch, the leader of the entire Palestinian Jewish community, corresponded with Libanius, and his son nearly became one of the sophist's pupils (Libanius, ep. 1098). In 386–7 the preacher John Chrysostom delivered a series of sermons, which virulently attacked the common practice among Antiochene Christians of attending worship at the synagogue.41 This was during a period of notable religious intolerance in Syria, when Cynegius Maternus, the zealous praetorian prefect of Theodosius I, was giving Christian monks their head in attacking pagan shrines, and it also coincided closely enough with the Christian attack on the synagogue at Callinicum, on the province's eastern frontier. John Chrysostom's incitements to religious hatred would have met no official opposition from the Roman authorities. However, in Antioch itself, it is evident that in general Christians and Jews lived in harmony, to the extent of taking part in one another's religious festivals.42

There is also plentiful evidence for close cooperation and even shared worship among the Jews and the non-orthodox Christians of Asia Minor. The two largest Christian sects of rural Anatolia were the Montanists, a millenarian movement, whose spiritual center was the obscure Phrygian town of Pepuza,43 and the Novatians, who had numerous followers both in the large cities of Asia Minor and in the rural hinterland. Between the 360s and the 380s the Novatians split into two groups over the question of the date of Easter. The city communities followed orthodox practice, as laid down at the Council of Nicaea. However, Novatians in the country areas obdurately maintained the practice of celebrating Easter according to the lunar calendar on 14 Nisan, with the result that they were called quartodecumani (tessareskaidekatitai). Sozomen and Socrates, the church historians of the mid-fifth century, both have lengthy discussions of the debates concerning the date of Easter and refer to these practices. Socrates, who may well have been a Novatian himself, from the Constantinople community, indicates explicitly that, as a result of a decision taken at a synod in Phrygia, the rural Novatians not only celebrated Easter on the same date as the Passover, but actually attended the Jewish Passover festival (Socrates, HE 4.28.17), precisely the behavior of god fearers who frequented Jewish synagogues. This point is emphasized in the reference to this synod in Theophanes' Chronographia (Theophanes, Chron. 5867).44 A remarkable set of documents attached to the acts of the Council of Ephesus of 431 shows the Monophysite representatives at the council receiving reports from their emissaries who had been sent to the region of Lydian Philadelphia, where they received depositions of orthodox faith from individuals who had formerly been tessareskaidekatitai.45 It was also the practice of the Montanist communities to celebrate Easter on 14 Nisan, and an inscription from Ankara shows that the organization of the Montanist Church there was very closely modeled on that of Jewish diaspora communities.46 Relations between Jews and Christians were close and complex. They are also systematically misrepresented by orthodox Christian sources.47 The rhetoric of the Christian emperors, to be found in their laws about the Jews, often creates the impression of extreme intolerance and hostility, but closer attention to the detail shows that they preserved many of the Jews' privileges, including particularly their freedom to worship.48 Persecution was sporadic and a product of local conditions, not of systematic policy.

The Montanists were one of the main heresies attacked by Epiphanius in the Panarion. He distinguished several different branches of the Montanist Church, calling them variously Pepuzianoi, Montanists, named after their founder, or Priscillianoi, after Priscilla, one of their first prophetesses. Epiphanios identified one group as Quintillians, the followers of another prophetess, Quintilla. She, it was said, had experienced an extraordinary vision of Christ, dazzlingly dressed in a woman's clothes, who imbued her with wisdom, declared that Pepuza was a holy place, and foretold that Jerusalem would descend there from heaven (Epiphanios, Pan. 48.14.1–3, 49.1.2–3). Such sensational and titillating stories were a standard way of belittling the beliefs of heretics. In fact, the Montanists offered a genuine challenge to the authority of the orthodox church. They were inspired by the books of the New Testament that had the closest affinity to Judaism, the Gospel of John, and the millenarian prophecies of the book of Revelation. They challenged orthodoxy in particular by their faith in the New Prophecy, that God's will continued to be revealed to them after the apostolic age by their own prophets. It was for this, not for their interpretation of doctrine, that they were repeatedly outlawed by Roman legislation. In the Secret History Procopius records that, when threatened with military force to convert to orthodox Christianity, the Montanists committed mass suicide by burning themselves to death in their churches at Pepuza (Secret History 11.23).49

The Manichees also faced furious intolerance that originated in the legislation of Diocletian and his colleagues. Although Mani, the founder of the sect, was of Mesopotamian origin, the fact that beliefs of the Manichees incorporated Mazdaean (“Zoroastrian”) dualism caused them to be equated with Rome's eastern rival, the Persian Sassanian Empire.50 Ironically, Manichaeism was persecuted by the Persians as well as by the Romans. The religion was a sophisticated and original mixture of Persian, Christian, Jewish, and other beliefs. It had an internal hierarchy of priests, “the elect,” who were bound to a life of chastity, and a wider circle of devotees known as hearers. Mani himself was the self-proclaimed prophet of Jesus' revelation. He spread his teachings by missionary work that went far beyond the boundaries of the Roman and Sassanian empires as far as China, and he ensured that his message would last by producing a large body of scripture, which became the focus of his followers' beliefs.51 The most famous Manichee convert, the young Augustine, was attracted not only by the exclusivity and dualistic theology of Manichaeism, which seemed to offer a solution to the world's moral problems, but also by their resplendent holy books (Augustine, Confessions 5.7.12).

The Manichees were a renewed target of Roman legislation from the time of Theodosius I, and always seem to have been a secretive sect, meeting in “nefarious retreats and wicked recesses.” Certainly there are no epigraphic or archaeological remains of Manichaeism, as there are of Montanism and of Judaism. However, collections of their scriptures found their way into libraries, and some of the main evidence for their beliefs and activities comes from finds of Coptic manuscripts, including those in the gnostic library of Nag-Hammadi in Egypt. Edicts outlawing Manichaeism were issued under most emperors until the time of Justinian. In 383 they were banned from inheriting property (CTh. 16.7.3, May 383, Constantinople) and from assembling for worship (CTh.16.5.11, May 383, issued in Padua). It was precisely in this year that Augustine, now at Rome, admitted that he was losing his enthusiasm for their beliefs (Confessions 5.10.18–19). Under Zeno, and under Justin and Justinian between 520 and 527, acknowledged Manichees were exposed to exile or the death penalty (CJust. 1.5.11–12).52 By the later fifth century the name Manichee seems to have become an all-purpose term of abuse for an extreme heretic. Even the emperor Anastasius was labeled a Manichaean for his Monophysite tendencies. A recent study by Richard Lim concludes that a great deal of the supposed evidence for Manichaeism in late antiquity should not be objectified, but seen as a product of the discourse between those who used the term Manichee to classify Christians with unorthdox views, and those who answered to this label, thus internalizing it as part of their religious identity.53 A high level of sophistication is necessary in assessing all manifestations of heresy in late antiquity. Most heretics, at one level, saw themselves straightforwardly as Christians; the nature and extent of their heresy is only palpable in the terms of the argument and polemic that surrounded them, mostly propounded by their opponents.

Orthodox Church leaders made every effort to force conformity on the subjects of the empire, frequently using violent language, and occasionally resorting to force against religious dissenters. The state authorities by contrast had to reckon with the fact that the eastern Roman Empire remained a variegated patchwork of diverse religious beliefs and practices. Although legislation against Jews, pagans, and heretics appears throughout the period, and seems to reflect a high level of religious intolerance, emperors and administrators were conscious of the need to hold a balance between rival religious communities. In practice, until the time of Justinian, tolerance of diversity was more normal than outright religious warfare.

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