That persecution of Christians under the Romans cannot be attributed to an inferior deity
The so-called De Recta in Deum Fide, or Dialogue on the True Faith in God is a relatively little known work, only recently translated into English, and in its present form suggestive of a date after the Christianisation of the Roman empire, no earlier than 313 CE, although from Rufinus’s Latin translation of the original Greek, it seems that an earlier Greek text existed than that which we currently possess, possibly from the late-third century when Christianity was still suffering persecutions. The text takes the form of an anti-Marcionite and anti-Gnostic polemical debate, in which a certain Adamantius, a defender of the “orthodox” Christian position, debates with two followers of Marcion (Megesthius and Marcus), a disciple of Bardaisan (Marinus), and two followers of Valentinus (Droserius and Valens). Because Jerome and Eusebius gave the name Adamantius (“man of steel”) to Origen (Ecclesiastical History VI.14.10; On Illustrious Men LIV), Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus wrongly identified the author of the dialogue with Origen. However, as Robert Pretty argues, this theory should be rejected on the grounds that the text not only differs in matters of style and theology from Origen’s writings, but also because it contains quotations from Methodius’s On Free Will, and Methodius was a fierce critic of Origen(Dialogue on the True Faith, p. 9-16).
The debate is mediated by a supposedly non-Christian judge named Eutropius, who decides in favour of Adamantius’s position at the end of the second dialogue, which might suggest that the text as we now have it is the result of two compositional stages. At the end of the fifth dialogue, the pagan judge again chooses to side with the “orthodox,” even deciding to join the church himself. While the reliability of the text is somewhat questioned in terms of the information it provides about the particular “heresies” attacked in the dialogue, it is useful nonetheless as a representation of the doctrinal conflict which occurred within the early church. However, the present extract is useful for our purposes in that it reveals the conflicting viewpoints between two early Christian groups—the so-called “orthodox” represented by Adamantius and the Marcionites represented by Megethius—over the level of responsibility God has for the persecution of Christians, specifically in terms of how much he influences the decisions of the Roman rulers.
The argument is somewhat complex. Moreover, matters are complicated due to the textual tradition, which as explained in the note to the Greek text above, indicate that Rufinus’s Latin, upon which the English translation is based, is the translation of an earlier Greek version composed prior to the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. We will therefore attempt to unpack the argument in what follows, in order to distil the two positions represented.
Megethius believes there to be two Gods, one who was responsible for the creation of the world, and is hostile to human beings, and another, whom Adamantius identifies in his response as the “Good God.” For Megethius, this first creator god influences the minds of the earthly kings, which in context we can interpret as the Roman emperors, and inclines them towards persecution of the Christians (he quotes here Proverbs 21:1 LXX: “The heart of the King is in the hand of God”). This creator god, therefore, ought to be seen as contrary to the “Good God,” with his manipulation of Rome being part of his expression of hatred towards humanity. Marcion famously rejected the God of the Hebrew Bible, believing him to be a malicious tyrant, entirely separate from the God of the New Testament. All of Marcion’s writings have been lost, so we are dependent largely on his critics for reconstructing his views, notably including Tertullian, who wrote an entire treatise – Against Marcion – against him. There is not space to discuss Marcion and his movement in detail here, but for a detailed recent discussion, which begins with a survey of the key scholarship, see Sebastian Moll’s The Arch-Heretic Marcion.
The notion of an inferior demiurge (from the Greek term δημιουργός, dēmiourgos, literally meaning a workman or craftsman) responsible for the creation of the material world, but distinct from the true and supreme Deity, is common to various so-called “Gnostic” worldviews (indeed, Marcion has been identified by some as a Gnostic). For example, see the commentaries on the Apocryphon of John and the Trimorphic Protennoia, both of which also view the Roman government as being directly under the influence of the demiurge. The author of the Trimorphic Protennoia in particular discusses the need for his/her Christian followers (referred to as the “Sons of Light”) to break free from the tyranny and persecution of the earthly rulers.
Adamantius’s response, which upholds the “orthodox” position that the God of the Hebrew Bible was the creator of the material world and rejects the dualist perspective of the Marcionites, essentially proceeds as follows. As Adamantius sees it, Megethius’s argument suggests that all rulers controlled by the god opposed to the “Good God” should therefore have persecuted Christians, and this same rule should apply to both earlier and later rulers if they are controlled by the same malevolent god. However, this logic is flawed, as there are rulers from earlier times who acted with hatred towards certain groups that later rulers support. Adamantius alludes to the attestation in the Hebrew Bible that Cyrus, the king of Persia, was commanded by God to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem (see Isaiah 44:28, and also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XI.1), which two Roman leaders, Pompey and Titus later destroyed in 63 BCE and 70 CE respectively. Adamantius suggests that it is foolish to believe as Megethius would that the God who inspired Cyrus to rebuild the Temple is different to the deity who allowed Roman leaders to decimate it later, even though the two events seem to contradict each other and on the surface might appear not to be the will of the same deity. Adamantius then supports his argument by emphasising that it is not only the Christians who have been persecuted. The same supreme God who for whatever reason allows Rome to persecute the Christians also oversaw the martyrdom of prophets of the Hebrew Bible (the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the “three lads” is used, who were thrown into the furnace by king Nebuchadnezzar, but in fact miraculously saved from death by God: Daniel 3:19-27). The persecuted Christians of the present day, therefore, are in this sense the same as the ancient prophets, and just as the Maccabees willingly became martyrs for God, Christ’s disciples do also in the present day. Indeed, Paul’s citation in Romans 8:36 of Psalms 43:22 (“For Thy sake we are put to death all the day long”) supports this continuation.
As suggested in the note to the edition above, the Greek text as we presently have it suggests that a fourth century redactor has adapted the original text to fit with the current situation in the empire, where Christians were no longer persecuted after the conversion of the emperor Constantine. In 313 CE, the terminus ad quem for the original text which Rufinus works from, Christianity was legally recognised in the empire as a legitimate religio. The following passage, therefore, might be taken to be describing the Christian emperor, who “rules better” owing to his religion, and has worked to reverse the damage done by previous emperors, by loving the previously persecuted Christians, and shunning the gods worshipped by his pagan predecessors:
“But now, since the King worships God, why do you say that it is one God who holds the hearts of those kings in earlier days and persecutes, and another God who holds the heart of the present King? This king rules better than and the opposite of those earlier ones. He rebuilt what they destroyed; he loved the people whom they hated, and he destroyed the shrines and idols which they revered.”
This text is interesting for our purposes on more than one level, therefore. Firstly, it potentially offers evidence of redaction which has adapted to a Christianised empire, and wishes to portray the present emperor in a more positive light. Secondly, it offers an example of an intra-Christian theological debate highlighting differing responses to the persecution Christians suffered at the hands of Rome. Adamantius wishes to counter the claim made by Megethius that an inferior, malicious deity is the driving force behind Roman power and its oppression of Christians by arguing that even though terrible suffering has befallen both the ancient Jews and the Christians at the hands of tyrannical rulers, this is not sufficient to conclude that there is more than one deity. In this perspective, the one supreme God that Adamantius champions must be understood as at the very least to be allowing the persecutions, even if they are understood as the result of impious human leaders who oppose him (or rather oppose the actions of his followers). The issue of persecution was dealt with by some authors, such as Eusebius (see Ecclesiastical History VIII.1.7-2.2), as punishment for sin within the Christian church, or taken as an opportunity for Christians to imitate Christ’s suffering (e.g. the martyr acts), and viewed as the result of God allowing humanity to enact its free will, even if this led to great suffering for his people. For the so-called “heretics” that Megethius represents, the brutality of the Roman authorities was best explained by their actions being under the ultimate control of an evil demiurge, whose power is limited to the material realm and the earthly kings who rule over it. However, for the “orthodox,” who could not tolerate the notion of the one true God being separated from the creator god of the Hebrew Bible, persecution was something which had to be accepted even if it did not sit comfortably with the concept of an all loving deity. The argument here does not go so far as to say that the one true God encourages or inspires the brutal actions of the Roman authorities, but does not believe it justifiable to remove the potential for any questioning of God’s motives by attributing oppression to another divine being.
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