The Story Of Religious Controversy
Legends of Saints and Martyrs
THERE came a stage in the evolution of the ancient world when the old creeds decayed, and new religions and moralities arose in every country out of their smoldering remains. Asia had passed through a somewhat similar stage hundreds of years earlier, and Buddha and Kong-fu-tse had pointed the true moral: the rejection of all religion. There were philosophers in Europe who urged the same conclusion, for Greece had already produced several schools of skeptics; but the Greco-Roman world was so sodden with superstition that “progress” generally took the form of a new religion. A hundred religions offered their myths, and displayed their ritual, in the cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire. A hundred reformers, from Persia to Spain, groaned over sin and superstition, and formed little sects, in that age of purple and gold, to cultivate with them the chaste and austere virtue of the lily.
Jesus was one of these; and one of the most obscure. No authentic literature mentions him until nearly a century after his death. Hardly do we descry the slenderest outlines of his personality in the only literature about him which we can trust. We know that the rigid frame of Judaism had, like that of all other religions, yielded to the solvent of the new thought. There were still Pharisees, or Fundamentalists; but there were also Sadducees, liberal and humanitarian Rabbis like Hillel, eclectic philosophers like Philo, and ascetic rebels and purists like the Essenes and the Therapeuts. Out of the latter school emerges, very dimly, the form of the prophet of Nazareth, preaching no distinctive message except one — the approaching of the end of the world — which his modern followers are only too eager to disavow, sinking back into obscurity when he pays the penalty of his revolt.
Obscurity! Is his name not stamped upon a new era of world- history? Have not fifty generations of men bowed with awe and reverence at the mere sound of his name? Do not five hundred million people in this age of light and power proudly confess themselves his followers? What can you mean?
I mean precisely what I say. Jesus at his death sank back into the obscurity of the humbler folk of Galilee. His most ardent followers, even in the Gospels, returned to their nets. Ten years later a small group of ignorant men cherished his memory in Jerusalem. Thirty years later small groups of generally ignorant men and women held suppers in his name in a score of Greek and Roman cities. The new sect was one of the least successful, the least respected, of that sectarian world. What happened later. …
Yes, you say, precisely what happened later is the evidence to which I close my eyes. Out of that humble beginning God made the mightiest religion that ever was on this earth. Grant all the lowliness, the apparent poverty, of the commencement. Christianity, like Jesus, was born in a stable. Within a few centuries it lived in the palaces of kings. Christianity seemed a feeble and unpromising growth amongst the sturdy religions and philosophies of the time. Within five hundred years it commanded the allegiance of the world, and they were forgotten. It refused to temporize with any one of your creeds and philosophies; and your scholars can hardly discover their remains today when they sift the ruins of the past. It refused to temporize with the most powerful empire the world had yet known; and in a few centuries that empire was dead, and the world raised to its altars the tens of thousands of humble folk — slaves, women, even refined young girls — who had spat defiance at its tortures and perfumed that decaying world with the fragrance of their lives.
Quite so. That is the next part of my program. But let us proceed reasonably. Common sense says: Yes, a very wonderful religion, one of the most powerful in history, arose in the name of Jesus, but there might be many causes for its success. Common sense says that possibly Christianity made Jesus, instead of Jesus making Christianity. Common sense reminds you that there is hardly a point on which religious writings and sermons, which are so eager to make us truthful and good, tell the truth. We will approach this “triumph of Christianity” with an open mind; and first of all we will examine this wonderful body of saints and martyrs which is supposed to have given a unique glory and an irresistible power to the early Church.
Last night I passed through the chief park in the city of London, and I lingered for a few moments to listen to the orators in the open space near the gate. It is forty years since I first heard them, and the change that has come over the scene is remarkable. Even twenty years ago a tense, excited crowd gathered about two platforms: the Christian and the Atheist. Now there is Catholic Truth and Christian Evidence and heaven knows what; but the mass of the crowd gathers round two hoarse and horsy men who are selling infallible predictions for the next race. A couple of hundred idle folk listen idly, coming and going, to Catholic Truth, and I stand on the fringe for a moment to hear it.
A callow youth, probably a clerk or grocer’s assistant who reads pamphlets when he ought to be courting at the week-end, is giving London a learned and of course original dissertation on the grand old pun of Jesus to Peter: “On thee will I build my Church.” I am for a moment tempted to paralyze him by asking him what he supposes the Aramaic word for “Church” is, or what Galileans of the time of Jesus would have made of the mysterious word (an interpolation of the second century). But I refrain. The answer would probably be that we have to trust the text of the Gospels as “the Church” would see that no false writings about Jesus would get into circulation!
These Catholic orators imagine ancient Judea — they seem to think that the Gospels were composed in Judea — to have been as sober and well organized as a section of Pennsylvania. They have the most weird ideas of ancient history, and they are forbidden to read accurate versions of it. Hilaire Belloc once, in conversation with me, expressed the opinion, in his customary dogmatic and scornful way, that Harnack was a fool. Let me turn over for you a page in the Migne (Roman Catholic) collection of the Fathers which is better than many tons of sermons and pamphlets. I turn to a decree of a Council held in Rome under the presidency of the Pope. The editors have put it in the year 494 A.D., and they make the Pope Gelasius. But I agree with certain modern scholars who think that the Pope was Damasus (“the tickler of matrons ears,” as some of his priests called him), and that the Council was held between 370 and 380.
The Pope is nervous about the kind of literature which, even in the fourth century, and in Rome, is circulating amongst the faithful. Evidently — that is why it is impossible to put the Council back to 494 — the educated pagans are making fun of “Catholic Truth.” The decree says this. So the Pope and his clergy solemnly warn the faithful that a vast amount of spurious literature is current.
They even draw up a list of some of the books; and the Catholic who trusts the Gospels on the ground that “the Church” would guard the faithful against false literature will be surprised if he reads the list. It contains a score of spurious Gospels (there is one in the name of each of the apostles, besides our four), Epistles and Acts. Our four Gospels are just a selection out of a muddy stream of legendary literature; and “the Church” had let all this have a free run for at least two centuries (to the time of Constantine) before it made any protest. There was no control whatever of Gospel-writing. But by the fourth century the Church found it prudent to suppress wild stories about “the boyhood of Jesus” and picturesque accounts of “the midwife of Jesus,” and so on.
From the second (or end of the first) century onward, therefore, the new religion was confessedly nourished on spurious literature. And the beginning of persecution opened to the forgers a new and magnificent field. Very rightly and naturally the early Christians treasured the memory and the remains of the few priests and many simple-minded maids and matrons who had died rather than forswear what they believed to be the truth. A particular church became — naturally again — proud of the number of its martyrs, of the beauty of their lives, of their “miracles,” even of their noble birth or high position. And we have seen enough about this myth- making ancient world, from Judea onward, to find it just as natural that a legendary and utterly mendacious literature grew up to meet the Christian sentiment. If a church had no martyrs, it made them.
The spurious literature that existed in the fourth century is a mere trifle in comparison with the river of forgeries of the early Middle Ages. But it was serious enough to bring discredit on the Church. The “infidels,” says the decree, are laughing at the Christians because their stories of martyrs are full of historical errors and patent absurdities. The Pope names, in particular, the accounts of St. George (who is still treasured by British Catholics), St. Quiricus, and St. Julitta, and says that they were probably written by heretics. He specifies a large number of spurious works, and he gives a general caution that many others are in circulation.
Incidentally, let us notice that the Pope includes in this first “index of prohibited books” that famous forgery, the letters of “King Abgar” to Jesus and of Jesus to King Abgar. And only a few years ago a priest of the Church of England had the effrontery to try to impose these spurious letters on his ignorant congregation as a recent discovery!
This list is generally called, as I have called it, an “index of prohibited books.” But do not take the phrase literally. The faithful were not “prohibited,” in the modern sense, to read the books. The books were condemned as false, as forgeries; but there were no penalties for reading them. And people not only continued to read them, but the forgers got busier than ever. The Roman Empire was sinking; and with it civilization was leaving the planet, except in China, for many centuries. The gloom of the Middle Ages was setting in. The educated free workers of the Roman Empire were succeeded by a besotted population of feudal workers of whom not one in a thousand could read. The literate minority even were so densely ignorant that the grossest forgeries could be imposed upon them. Those were the days when the voluminous collection of stories of saints and martyrs, of which the Catholic is so proud, emerged into the light of the new Europe.
The Protestant may impatiently say that he is not interested in the Catholic’s saints and martyrs. He is, and he is bound to be. All his literature boasts of the divine power that sustained the early Church in its conflict with the Roman Empire; and the details on which that boast is based are generally spurious. The modern, who cries a plague on both Catholic and Protestant houses, will, nevertheless, find a singular interest in the spectacle of a religion being imposed upon a world partly by means of the most extensive and audacious mass of forgeries that the world has ever known.
From the sixth century until the Reformation this mass of fraudulent literature circulated with impunity. Much of it was as grotesque as the legends which had circulated in the Roman world. but the educated minority of the pagan world had smiled at the legends, whereas the most learned men of the Middle Ages accepted the wild legends of the saints and martyrs. They paid, as a rule, no attention to history, to facts. The rage was theological speculation. What men like Abelard or Roger Bacon might have said of the legends — it is useless to speculate. It was not worth while to incur the fiendish tortures of the Inquisition by examining whether St. George had really fought a dragon, or St. Denis had carried his head in his bands.
During the Renaissance, of course, scholars smiled at these things. So did Popes, when they happened to be scholars; which was not often. It did not matter as long as you respected one very valuable set of forgeries: those on which the Temporal Power of Rome was based.
At last, when the darkness of the ages of faith began to be relieved by the slow dawn of modern knowledge, the Church got a few historical scholars; and the moment they turned their scholarship upon the stories of the early saints and martyrs, even the most Catholic of them put their fingers to their nostrils and closed them. There was Cardinal Baronius, Librarian of the Vatican Library, almost elected Pope, who in the year 1600 published an ecclesiastical history (“Annales Ecclesiastici”) in thirteen folio volumes. It is by no means critical; it is intensely Roman Catholic. Yet when the learned Cesare had to weave the stories of the martyrs into the web of his history and came to examine the legends closely, his scholarly feelings revolted. A hundred years later, Father Pagi, a learned Franciscan friar, revised Baronius; and his pen itched even more than that of the Cardinal had done.
But the great slaughterer of the martyrs in those early days was M. Le Nain de Tillemont, a French priest of the second half of the seventeenth century. Tillemont was a good Catholic, but he was a good man and a very learned man. Moreover, the world had won a little freedom, and Tillemont was no ordinary priest, but a wealthy man, living on his estates, going from library to library to compare editions and manuscripts. Even Catholic scholars have now got a long way beyond Tillemont in criticizing the legends, but he did grand work, for his age. Strictly orthodox, of the Puritanical Jansenist school, he had, nevertheless, a tinge of Voltairean humor and satire; and his criticisms of the stories of martyrs, though discreet, for he dreaded the censor, read entertainingly today. In fact, his “Memoirs to Assist the Ecclesiastical History of the Six First Centuries” (a curious slip, that, for a great scholar) appeared mainly after his death (1698). The work had just reached the age of the martyrs (Volume V) when he died. The remaining twelve volumes — I have just run through a beautiful old edition of them — cut the poor martyrs to bits once more, boiled them in oil, and buried the fragments.
The ordinary believer has a vague idea that it is only Rationalist critics, or at the most wicked Modernists, who strip the early history of the Church of these fragrant blooms of sanctity and martyrdom. He could not make a greater mistake. We saw that the criticism of the Old and New Testaments, the detection of forgeries and interpolations, has been conducted almost entirely by learned theologians. From the group of Rationalist critics (Robertson, Drews, Smith, Couchoud, etc.) I have, on purely historical grounds, derived nothing. No theological authority on it today would say less than old Tillemont; and there are few who would not say a great deal more. I am content to follow these religious writers.
About half a century after the death of Tillemont a scholar, Prosper Lambertini, was by some rare mistake on the part of the Holy Ghost, chosen to fill the See of Peter. Benedict XIV, as he was called, knew well that the sacred books of his Church, to say nothing of its popular literature, were full of lies; and he, being a scholar, did not like lies. It was a liberal age, and Prosper was almost a friend of Voltaire. The great French skeptic gracefully dedicated his “Mahomet” to the Pope; and the Pope gracefully defended Voltaire against a charge of writing bad Latin. Prosper more or less — a great deal less than more, for the clergy were ignorant and hostile — reformed the “Martyrology.” You should read it today, and you will wonder how much it differed from “The Arabian Nights” before Prosper cut out the more daring myths! However, there remained the Breviary, with its short life of a saint for every day. Prosper directed a liberal Jesuit to report on it, for the purpose of reform; but when the bulky and ruthless report reached him, be sighed, and put it on the shelf. So the official books of the Catholic Church, the Breviary and the Missal, which the priest reads every day, are still full of what the Catholic scholar regards as lies and forgeries.
I beg his pardon. Of course he does not admit “lies” and “forgeries.” I am putting my own rude language into his suave mouth. Read the modern Jesuit and Bollandist, Father Delehaye. The Bollandists are the Jesuit associates and successors of Bollandus who, in the seventeenth century, made a voluminous collection of the “Acts of the Saints.” And the modern Bollandists, and scores of Protestant theologians, dissect that body of fairy tales as cheerfully as butchers cut up sheep.
Let me give the Catholic reader one further illustration. He is permitted, even encouraged, to read the “Catholic Encyclopedia.” Ordinarily I would not recommend any person to waste his time in that unentertaining and unprofitable way. The work is a tissue of inaccuracies, antiquities, and lies. But the truth about the martyrs is now so well known that even this egregious “Encyclopedia” has to admit a good deal of it. Look up, for instance, the article on St. George. “Remembering,” says the Jesuit writer, “the unscrupulous freedom with which any wild story, even when pagan in origin, was appropriated by the early hagiographers to the honor of a popular saint,” we have to be on our guard. That is a very rare morsel of Catholic Truth. Father Thurston tells you, coldly, that all that we know about St. George, the patron of England and for ages the most popular saint in Christendom, is that he existed, and that he was martyred in or near Lydda some time before 300 A.D. What a disillusion after the old story!
Even the most orthodox reader will recognize the force of the modern criticism of martyr-legends when so retrograde a work as the “Catholic Encyclopedia” is compelled to admit it. Usually its writers deny the most certain facts of science or history with an ease that must command the envy of a politician.
You are, I hope, familiar with the traditional story. If not, let me for a moment imagine myself back in the pulpit — it makes my flesh creep — and tell it to you as, I suppose, I told it to an admiring thousand in my twenties.
By about thirty years after the death of Christ, after the disheartened apostles had returned to their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee, the new faith had spread so triumphantly through the Roman world that the Emperor Nero, in his Golden House on the Palatine Hill, marked it and trembled. With all the might of Rome he flung himself upon the followers of Jesus. The most diabolical tortures were devised for them; and in their thousands, in every province of the Roman Empire, they went smiling to their atrocious deaths. But the blood of the martyrs was the seed of Christians. Twenty years later Domitian saw the hated religion overrunning the Empire, and again the decree went forth that it was to be “rooted out” of the planet. Thirty years later it had grown so miraculously that crowds came up to the tribunals in a single remote province of the Empire, and Trajan renewed the bloody attempt to extirpate it. Ten times in two hundred and fifty years the mighty forces, the fiendish tortures, the unquenchable hatred of Rome were set in motion against it; and refined maids of high birth braved the lions and the shame which is worse than death (though less unpleasant), and mothers were torn from the arms of loving husbands, and ….
My sermon style has degenerated a little, I fear. But this is still the belief of the great majority of Christians: that ten times the scythe of the Roman power went bloodily through the whole Christian world, and ten times it raised again its proud head to heaven, until God, content with its heroic endurance, gave it peace. ),”) and Lactantius, the Christian historians of the fourth century, say so. Nero, says (Chap. vii), tried to eradicate the very name of Christian and hunted the faithful “through every province of the Empire.” Domitian, he says, made the same effort to “root it out.” And so on. Motive? The inspiration of the devil, of course. Result? To enrich the world with hundreds of thousands of martyrs, whose beautiful stories still bring tears to the eye … And, sad to say, the cold historical truth is that we cannot admit more than two, or at the most three, “general persecutions.” So Professor Gwatkin, the ecclesiastical historian of Cambridge University (England), sums up the matter in the authoritative “Dictionary of Religion and Ethics.” We may be content with his verdict, and need not draw upon the more radical, and sometimes strained, criticism which reduces the persecutions still further. Decius and Diocletian, in the third and fourth centuries, set afoot general persecution. Valerian, in the third century, possibly did the same, in milder terms. The rest is mob-movements locally against the unpopular Christians.
Why Rome, one of the most tolerant of powers, persecuted will be made clear as we proceed. Each Emperor had his own reason for enforcing or supporting the law. The oldest Roman law, the Law of the Twelve Tables, forbade any man to practice any religion not formally admitted by the state. But the state was remarkably hospitable and admitted all kinds of religions. Christianity was detested mainly for three reasons. First, and from the start, because its meetings were secret, and generally by night; so they were put down as orgies if not conspiracies. Secondly, the Christians spoke with infinite scorn of the beliefs of their pagan neighbors, of the official deities of Rome. Thirdly, as time went on, because in proportion as the difficulties of the Empire increased, the Christians became increasingly disloyal, refusing service and almost exulting in its enfeeblement.
A number of competent modern scholars doubt if there ever was a persecution under Nero. We have serious reasons to think that there was. The passage in which the Roman historian Tacitus describes the persecution half a century later is strongly suspected of Christian adulteration. It speaks, not only of Jesus being crucified under Pontius Pilate, but of the martyrdom of “an immense multitude” of Christians at Rome. There were only a few thousand (as we shall see) two centuries later, so the phrase is very doubtful. But the style generally of the long passage, the fearful hatred of Nero that spread through the Church, the red glow of some persecution in Revelation, the early claim that Paul (the martyrdom of Peter is generally rejected, and is not claimed until about 170) was beheaded at Rome, all point to a severe persecution. Let us take the familiar story. Nero, who was of unbalanced mind, was suspected of setting fire to Rome, so as to have the glory of rebuilding it. He turned the blame on the Christians and mercilessly punished them. But we have no reason whatever to think that he persecuted them outside Rome.
Now let us turn to the worthy Tillemont. He wrote his history in a singular way, with one eye on the censor and one on truth. The text of each chapter he composed out of fragments of more orthodox historians, such as Baronius. Then, at the end of each volume, he added a series of lengthy and destructive notes.
The first martyr of the Neronian persecution is St. Paulinus, and in his life there is a reference to “the Governor of Tuscany.” Says Tillemont slyly: “We leave the learned to examine whether there were governors of Tuscany under Nero.” Of course not; it is like mentioning Presidents of the United States under Queen Elizabeth of England. The life of Paulinus, Tillemont concludes, after examining it, is of unknown (but very late) age and no authority. Poor Paulinus. The next Roman martyr is St. Torpetus; and we are told that the account of him is “one of the worst pieces imaginable.” The next is St. Vitalis; and the life of Vitalis is a ninth-century production, and “contains more words than facts.” St. Ursicinus follows; and he also is under a cloud, for there has been a fatal confusion of names and the legend is valueless.
St. Hermagoras comes next to the block; and, as the seat of his martyrdom, Aquileia, is said to be “a town of the province of Austria” (which is very much like describing Mexico City in the sixteenth century as “a town in the province of Bolivia”), his head soon falls. Then we reach the very touching and beautiful tale of St. Thecla, which nuns still read with blushing admiration.
Thecla was a “very beautiful and very learned” (of course) pagan lady who was converted by Paul (the tent-maker), and her constant and tender companionship alleviated the burden of his apostolate. She took a life-vow of virginity; and, when the persecution broke out, the pagans thought it a relevant punishment to remove all her clothes before she was presented to the lions. But even the lions, Tillemont elegantly (with just a spice of irony) quotes from the legend, “did not dare to violate her virginity by too free a look.” (She is said in the Roman Breviary to have been ninety years old.) So the lions — I mean on account of her vow — veiled their eyes, and licked her feet, and even the fire would not burn her, and so on. Tillemont ungallantly proves that the sources of these stories are absolutely worthless, and that, according to the most reliable of the documents this “first lady martyr,” as the Greek church calls her, died peacefully in her bed at an advanced age — if there ever was such a person.
Next for trial are Sts. Gervasius and Protasius; and this is really interesting. There came a time, in the fourth century, when St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, found himself in bitter conflict with the Empress, a Christian but an Arian. In order to inflame and sustain the zeal of the faithful, St. Ambrose (the story runs) was directed in a series of visions to dig in the ground and discover a number of bodies of the early martyrs. Thus came to light the precious bodies of Gervasius and Protasius; and such was the zeal of the faithful that Ambrose beat the Empress.
Tillemont fastens truculently on this story. The bodies were of a remarkable size, and Tillemont seems to wink as he notes Ambrose’s explanation, that this at least proved them to be centuries old. Then, as now, people were supposed to be bigger “in the good old times.” Further, no less a person than St. Augustine was at that very time in Milan, and he tells us that the bodies were miraculously “uncorrupted,” whereas Ambrose tells us that he found only bones — which lets us see how myths grow. In the end Tillemont proves that the remarkable story of Gervasius and Protasius — strange that Ambrose knew even their names, he says — is built entirely upon spurious works attributed to Ambrose, and is quite worthless.
Tillemont does not venture to impugn Ambrose, though he makes a few nasty innuendoes. We need not be so diplomatic. Ambrose found an old cemetery and exploited it. “Gervasius and Protasius” were probably Goths from the north, or brigands from the mountains, who had been buried there. Their relics are still in great honor in the Church of Rome.
So Tillemont admits the Neronian persecution, but he annihilates every martyr (except Peter and Paul) he mentions in connection with it. I am not going to follow him through his ten volumes, but these terrible notes scratch the halos from saints and martyrs at the end of every volume. He next notices the famous “St. Denis the Areopagite.” The story will not bear criticism, he shows. St. Domitilla, a martyr of noble birth, follows. A tissue of contradictions, says Tillemont; there is no proof that the lady was martyred at all. St. Linus and St. Clement, Popes and martyrs, fare little better.
In short, the learned and pious historian covers the first century of the Christian era, in which, according to bs and common belief, there were two fierce general persecutions; and he does not leave a single martyr’s crown (except those of Peter and Paul, whom he dare not challenge) undamaged. And it is much the same in the second century. He throws serious doubt on or dilutes away the stories of four out of five of the martyrs mentioned in his text.
He takes up the wonderful story of St. Caesarius. “I think,” he drily concludes, “the safest way is to leave him in the number of those whose holiness we are acquainted with, but of whom we know nothing else.” Of the story of St. Hyacinthus be unkindly says that it “looks very much like a fable.” St. Eudocia’s life is based upon “a very sorry piece,” a piece of “mere fiction.”
Then we get one of the big events of the calendar, the martyrdom of St. Romulus and eleven thousand Christian soldiers! This preposterous story moves the historian to wrath. It is, he says worthy of the Greek who wrote it.” This audacious Greek, Metaphrastes, the greatest writer of martyr legends — lived in the tenth century!
So they come up for execution once more, one after the other. St. Evodius: no evidence that be died a martyr. St. Ignacius: story reeks with errors. St. Eustachius; a “mere romance.” St. Sophia: record full of anachronisms. St. Eleutherius — here the good priest seems to be getting tired of it. Of Eleutherius he says that there is “no ground to assert that he was a martyr, or even a man.” The story of the next, St. Babbina, is “outrageous language.” The record of St. Symphorosa is spurious, full of errors. And so on.
The truth is that no man now knows how many or how few Christians were put to death by the Roman authorities. For every score of martyrs that Tillemont slays, the modern Bollandist Father Delehaye slays a hundred, and more independent critics may be said to slay a thousand.
Nero’s persecution in Rome, if we admit it, was the work of a man whom all historians now regard as more or less insane; and Tacitus implies that it was not liked by the Romans themselves. Moreover, it is too often forgotten that “an immense number” of good pagans met their death under Nero. A later pagan writer composed a “martyrology” of the men and women who were victims of Nero’s insanity; and it has been suggested that the Christians borrowed this model, if not many of the pagan names in the book.
Domitian, the next persecutor, also confined his action to Rome, and, as far as we can ascertain, only enforced the law against a number of prominent men who professed the illicit religion. And Domitian, again, was a “persecutor” of pagans as well as Christians: a man of sinister and gloomy character, living in an atmosphere of plots. The statement of the Christian historian rises, which is followed by every later Christian historian, that he tried throughout his Empire to “root out” the very name of Christ, is entirely false.
Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, who are counted as the third and fourth persecutors, were men of very different, and very high character. All the Stoic Emperors detested Christianity as a mean superstition and an anti-social philosophy. The Empire was laboring, and a sect which cut off its members from civic and imperial life deserved no indulgence. They let the law stand — it is quite false that they issued persecuting decrees — and interfered little with the local passion which occasionally flamed out against the Christians. The only historical sign of any large persecution is the famous letter in which Pliny, Governor of Bithynia, asks Trojan’s permission — that is the real purport of the letter — not to enforce the law. The authenticity of the letter is seriously disputed and some of the rhetorical passages in which Pliny describes the temples as deserted, and whole regions converted to Christianity, are quite inconsistent with the known facts. In any case, as Tertullian afterwards said, Trajan’s reply “partly frustrated” the local passion.
Septimius Severus, the next persecutor, a hundred years after Trajan, is said to have been alarmed at the number of prominent Romans who became Christians and to have enforced the law to some extent. We have, however, very few accounts of genuine martyrs. The succeeding two Emperors were too vicious to persecute, and the next, Alexander Severus, actually put a bust of Christ in the private chapel of his palace. He was succeeded by Maximin, and the legends put thousands of martyrs under the “bloody tyrant.” But, says the learned religious historian Professor Gwatkin, “We hear of no execution!”
Decius (249-251), Valerian (257), and Diocletian (303) were the only general and systematic persecutors. There is no doubt in the mind of any historian that in trying to suppress or check Christianity — at first in each case by the lighter penalties — they were consulting the welfare of the state, which was then sinking. Professor Gwatkin himself remarks that many of the Christians, so far from being willing to defend the Empire, were “half inclined to welcome the Goths and Persians as avengers.” The Pope insolently and openly defied Valerian at Rome: and Diocletian’s decrees were torn down by Christians in his own palace who relied on the protection of his womenfolk. Before Diocletian the Church had had forty years of peace, and it had grown sufficiently to make its anti-patriotic teaching a matter of concern. Yet in not one of the three decrees of Diocletian is the death sentence imposed.
The work so auspiciously begun by M. Tillemont has been in modern times so zealously and effectively pursued that a martyr’s crown or a saint’s halo must now be worth less than a dollar even in the Church of Rome. Relatively few crowns remain on the historic heads. Indeed relatively few historic heads remain. In batches of from four or ten to twenty thousand the long-revered figures have melted into the nebulosity of popular legend or priestly strategy. And a large number of the martyr-figures which are retained as historical, shorn of their golden miracles, are retained on grounds which a profane historian would deem insufficient for an honest affirmation.
For once the zealous Protestant rubs his hands at the work of the critics. He wants no saints and martyrs, no relics or statues, no legends or martyrologics. Let him thank the “higher critics” in this department that they have justified the work of the Reformation. But let him not be too hasty in his congratulations. In slaying the martyrs these modern historians have destroyed one of the time-honored arguments for the supernatural origin of Christianity, and in exposing this prodigious volume of untruthful literature they have given us proof of a tendency of the new religion which is far from complimentary to its ethic. Let me, as usual, first put before the reader as many facts as can be conveniently packed within narrow space. And, again in harmony with my usual procedure, I do not turn to extreme Rationalists or mythologists or psychoanalysts for my “facts.” I am going almost entirely to rely on Catholic writers; and the little that I shall borrow from Protestants is endorsed by Catholic writers. Indeed, as I have already observed, the results of this modern criticism are so certain that even the very conservative “Catholic Encyclopedia” reduces hundreds of the more famous saints and martyrs of old to a mere formula and rejects the most treasured legends of popular Catholic literature.
The study of the lives or legends of saints and martyrs is now a science, hagiography (from hagios, or saint). It has engaged the labors of hundreds of first-class scholars for the last hundred years, and only a small minority of these have been Rationalists. Leading Catholic scholars like Mgr. Duchesne, leading Protestant scholars like Harnack, and scores of less prominent though more concentrated workers have joined in the search.
The conditions of modern life have made the task easier than it was in the days of Tillemont. One does not now lumber in a stage-coach from Tours to Paris to consult a library, or brave the terrors of the Macedonian hills or the Syrian deserts to see a manuscript that lies in the dust of an ancient monastery. Modern transport takes the martyr-slayer over the whole field in a month; and he then prints the new manuscript he has discovered in some sleepy Greek or Syrian monastery, and a hundred experts get to work on it.
The result may be seen in such a work as Dr. Albert Ehrhard’s “Die altchristliche Literature” Ehrhard is a Catholic, but he summarizes and entirely endorses the work of the critics. He gives the authors and titles of more than a hundred books and essays dealing critically with the martyrs. Neumann, he tells you, has made a special study of all the legends of martyrs under the Emperor Commodus, and has found the whole of them spurious except two or three. Fuhrer has thoroughly studied what was thought to be the sound story of St. Felicitas and her seven sons, and has shown that two quite different legends have been blended, so that the saint really only got her “seven sons” in the Middle Ages. Delehaye, a Jesuit, has made a special study of the martyrs of the Roman Church and has found that all the “Acts” of them — including such treasured memories as St. Agnes and St. Cecilia — are late compilations which do not even profess to quote earlier authorities.
Let me note here one particular result of this criticism which will amuse the reader. So deep-rooted is the belief that Christian martyrs were exposed to the lions in the Amphitheater (now called the Coliseum) of ancient Rome that even Bernard Shaw built upon the legend one of those plays (“Androcles and the Lion”) in which he teaches us how to write history. It appears that twenty years before Mr. Shaw took up the theme, Father Delehaye had proved in his book “L’amphitheatre Flavien et ses environs (1897) that no Christian was ever exposed to the lions in the Coliseum! I have not been able to consult the book, but the Catholic Dr. Ehrhard tells us this. The “acts of the martyrs” of the Roman Church in particular are amongst the most spurious of all. Yet Catholic writers continue to tell Catholic readers how Gelasius (or Damasus) warned the faithful not to read spurious books, and ask them to believe that the authorities of the Church were ever on the watch. On the contrary, as we shall see, Rome was the main center of the manufacture of spurious documents.
Duchesne particularly studied the martyrs of his own country, France, and few of them kept their crowns and halos. Ehrhard studied the Greek martyrs, and they melted one by one into myth. One man, Professor von Gebhardt, spent almost a lifetime in studying the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” and, says Father Delehaye, “the result shows us the fatal lot reserved for hagiographical documents which have long been esteemed.” Professor Usener and others showed that pagan deities had been dressed up as Christian martyrs. Others took up the study of the “saintly” actors who, as pagans, refused to parody Christianity on the stage, and wiped out all their naughtiness of a long and happy life by martyrdom; yet one legend, which proved popular, was the basis of all the stories (St. Genesius, St. Gelasinus, St. Ardalion, St. Porphyrius, St. Philemon, etc.).
Father Delehaye’s works are — if he will pardon the expression — even more entertaining. Never before was such ruthless devastation so cheerfully perpetrated. Father Delehaye sits in the middle of the field which is strewn with the corpses of the “martyrs” and he smiles as only a Jesuit can. Of course, you understand the smile. It is the smile of the tennis-player who has been beaten and wants to put a good face on it. It is to reassure, to retain Catholics. Nothing to worry about in the least, he says. We have to give up the old legends; but it was all very natural, and quite lovely and charming.
The learned Jesuit is a Bollandist; that is to say, he is a member of the permanent committee or association of Jesuit saint- describers of the Catholic Church who (under the lead of Father Bolland, of the seventeenth century) compiled the most monumental collection of saints ever put together. Up to the time when the French Revolution checked its pious work, it had published fifty- three enormous volumes, telling the stories of more than twenty- five thousand beautiful saints and martyrs. What other church or religion in the world could get together such a concentrated mass of fragrant holiness? When Gibbon elegantly observed of the work that “through the medium of fable and superstition it communicates much historical and philosophical instruction,” white hands were raised to heaven. It was supernatural. Now we have the modern Bollandist pleasantly endorsing Gibbon. It was all quite natural. He insists on that: because the only alternative today is deliberate deceit and forgery.
Naturally we want to know how many genuine stories, how many accounts which on ordinary historical canons would be regarded as reliable, have survived this stupendous massacre of the martyrs. In most of the works of these hagiographers this most important point is evaded. No Catholic dare write a new “Acts of the Saints,” with a proper respect for truthfulness.
I have not included any of my own modest efforts in the way of martyr-slaying; though the reader will find, if he cares, that in the earlier chapters of my “Crises in the History of the Papacy” I have exposed many. I have shown that Roman Popes who died comfortably in their beds (after equivocal lives) are honored as “Saints and Martyrs.” I have shown that even anti-Popes and their supporters, slain by Christians in the bloody fights for the Papal throne (which I show in another book), are in the Martyrology. But I have preferred here to get together the admissions of Christian and Catholic scholars and help the reader to draw a few clear and sound inferences.
One point of primary importance is to ascertain what proportion of the martyrs survives the modern ordeal. You are never told that, but Father Delehaye’s book enables you to form an idea. It is, surely, the gravest part of his work as an apologist, a Jesuit, to assure his Catholic readers that a sufficiently large number of the best known saints are described to us in genuine or nearly contemporary documents. Well, from that point of view his work is feeble and scanty. I will give my final conclusions here:
- Less than one in one hundred of the “early martyrs” can be proved to have died for his religion or even existed in it.
- Ninety-nine statements in one hundred, at least, in the lives of the martyrs are lies on somebody’s part; and we can prove that the writers were almost always clerics.
- The Christians, when they obtained power, made more “martyrs” in a century than they had had in three centuries, and in the next one thousand years they made hundreds of times more martyrs than the Romans had made if we include Jews, witches, Albigensians, etc., as we ought, thousands of times more.
No, no, says the Jesuit, gently, you must not use these harsh words. Stories of the martyrs were handed down, and such things grow naturally in the course of time. Then someone puts them on parchment, and they circulate. And copyists are careless, or they shift remarks on the margin into the text, or they feel that it is a work of piety and edification to touch up the narrative here and there. So the stories get into quite different versions in the east and the west, and the great legend-writers of the fifth and later centuries tried to blend different versions and insert every detail they found mentioned anywhere.
A very large part of this polite hagiographical talk is bunk: a mere cloak for Christian lying. Let us freely admit the large part due to the natural play of the imagination and to such alterations by copyists as we should not harshly call forgeries. But there is a limit both to the spontaneous enlargement of memory by imagination and to the “license of honest copyists.”
Hagiographers will not elicit much sympathy from the modern world unless they use plain English. Father Delehaye does select few, a very few, of the most extravagant medieval myth-makers and permits us to call them liars and forgers. For the others, since the charge would brand every section of both Latin and Greek Churches for several centuries, we are to use milder language even to admire their simple piety and zeal to edify the faithful. At one moment we are told that great martyr-describers like the Greek Metaphrastes always used some kind of manuscript source. At another time, when there obviously was no source, Father Delehaye wonders if the fabricator meant his story to be taken as a real account of the Martyr! One might as well “wonder if the Popes and bishops and priests, who saw these things taken literally all over Europe for a thousand years, wondered if people really believed them. Any man who questioned them was in danger of the stake.