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7-08-2015, 20:19

Justinian’s drive against pagans and quest for christian unity

The world-viewthat Justinian’s achievements – whether part of a grand plan or not – were seen to support set great store by an unblemished priesthood offering pure prayer to the true God, the God of the Christians. Unlike other religions of late antiquity – whether the varieties of what Christians called paganism, Judaism, or even (although yet to evolve) Islam – for Christianity, ‘purity’ or being ‘unblemished’, embraced not just moral (and especially sexual) purity, but also the correctness of a considerably elaborated system of belief. For most Christians of the sixth century, this system of belief had been defined at councils regarded as universal, or ecumenical, although there were differences, as we have seen, as to whether the council of Chalcedon was to be regarded as the fourth ecumenical council. Emperor Justin’s embrace of Chalcedonian orthodoxy had healed the long-standing schism between the east and Rome, but left unresolved the disagreement between those who accepted Chalcedon (with whatever refinements) and those who rejected it as a betrayal of Cyril of Alexandria, the ‘seal of the fathers’. But all Christians, whatever their differences, were opposed to what they had come to call the ‘exterior wisdom’, the learning of the classical philosophers. As Romanus the Melodist, the Christian poet who spent most of his life in Constantinople during Justinian’s reign, put it: And why do the fools outside strive for victory? Why do the Greeks puff and buzz? Why are they deceived by Aratos the thrice accursed? Why err like wandering planets to Plato? Why do they love the debilitated Demosthenes? Why do they not consider Homer a chimera? Why do they go on about Pythagoras, who were better muzzled?20 This antipathy had been returned in kind, and some adherents of Neoplatonism, loftily indifferent to the new-fangled teachings of the ‘pale Galilean’, developed a world-view that openly ignored Christianity and through their religious practices sought to revive traditional paganism. A notableNeoplatonist was the deeply learned philosopher Proclus, who lived the life of an ascetic, pagan holy man, with an especial devotion to the sun. For fifty years, until his death in 485, he taught in Athens as head (diadochos) of the Academy that had been founded by Plato in the fourth century bc. Part of Justinian’s commitment to Christian orthodoxy was expressed in his closing of the Academy in 529. The closure, however, did not take place before much of the pagan language and intellectual structures had found Christian expression in the writings ascribed to St Paul’s Athenian disciple, Dionysius the Areopagite; these began to make an impact in the 520s, very shortly, it is thought, after they had been written. The philosophers made their way to Persia in 532, led by Damascius the last diadochos; but they returned after a few years, Damascius going to Emesa where he seems to have continued to teach.21 Neoplatonism continued to thrive in Alexandria for another century, where it was not stridently anti-Christian. Indeed most, if not all, of the Alexandrian philosophers were Christian. But the closure of the Academy meant the end of any institutional expression of intellectual opinion. Alongside the suppression of paganNeoplatonism, there was suppression of other forms of heterodoxy. In various parts of the empirewe learn of more vigorous attempts to suppress survivals of traditional paganism.22 In the 540s, the monophysite bishop John of Ephesus embarked on a missionary campaign in western Asia Minor with imperial support. He claimed to have converted 70,000 souls there, destroying many temples and founding ninety-six churches and twelve monasteries. In Egypt, too, we know of the destruction of temples. Other forms of heterodox opinion fared no better. The dualist doctrineManichaeism, whose founderMani had died in Persia in 276, dogged the Christian church through its years of growing success and was an offence punishable by death. The Samaritans embraced what was perhaps a primitive form of Judaism; their revolt against repression was savagely suppressed in 529. Ancient Christian heresies likeMontanism also suffered repression under Justinian. The monophysites, who were both more numerous and closer in belief to the imperial church, are a special case to be dealt with presently. The Jews formed a relatively privileged group of second-class citizens. In contrast to heretics and pagans, who had no rights and no civil status, Jews were allowed to exist and their existence was protected. Jews were allowed to practise circumcision and to observe the Sabbath; their synagogues were protected from violence or desecration, although not always effectively; they kept their Rabbinic courts of law and were not to be molested. But they were to exist as ‘living testimony’ to the truth of Christianity, living testimony to the wretchedness of those who had deliberately rejected their Messiah. So the laws protecting their existence also enshrined the principle that Jews must never enjoy the fruits of office, but only suffer its pains and penalties. They were not to expand, so no new synagogues were to be built, and difficulties were often raised over repairing existing ones. The Jews were to be encouraged to convert, but it was to be from a genuine change of heart; they were not to be coerced. They were thus allowed to exist, with rights and civil status, but in a permanently inferior state.23 In the 530s, in parallel with the furthering of legal reform, reconquista and rebuilding, Justinian sought to achieve a reconciliation between orthodox Chalcedonianism and monophysite anti-Chalcedonianism. The basis for this reconciliation was the doctrine of theopaschism. Brought to Justinian’s attention by the Scythian monks a decade or so earlier, this was now part of a wider theological movement usually known as neo-Chalcedonianism, or Cyrilline Chalcedonianism – after Cyril of Alexandria. This theological movement, which was quite independent of Justinian, seems to have been inspired by attempts to counter the attack by the great non- Chalcedonian theologian Severus, patriarch of Antioch (512–18), on the definition of Chalcedon as being incompatible with the teaching of Cyril. Those eastern Christians who had accepted Chalcedon were by no means a minority and did so believing that it endorsed Cyril’s teaching. Cyrilline Chalcedonianism sought to interpret Chalcedon in the light ofCyril’s teaching, believing (not unreasonably) that this represented the mind of the fathers of the council. It was based on three clarifications of the council’s definition: first, that the ‘one person’ of the Incarnate Christ is the second person of the Trinity; second, consequent acceptance of the theopaschite formula ‘one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh’; and third, agreement that one of Cyril’s favourite ways of describing the Incarnate Christ (‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’) was acceptable and only verbally appeared to contradict the doctrine of one person and two natures. This phrase is the source of the term by which the non-Chalcedonians have come to be called: monophysites, believers in (only) one nature. Notable adherents of Cyrilline Chalcedonianism included John of Caesarea and Leontius of Jerusalem. Justinian was convinced that this provided a way of reconciliation and at a conference held in Constantinople in 532, a large measure of theological agreement was reached; however, discussions faltered over practical arrangements for reinstating non-Chalcedonian bishops. 24 Thereafter Justinian resorted to persecution, thwarted by the protection given to the monophysites in the palace itself by Theodora. But he never gave up his attempt to promote Cyrilline Chalcedonianism, which culminated in the fifth ecumenical council, held in Constantinople in 553. The fifth ecumenical council was concerned with two issues: the condemnation of the so-called Three Chapters, and the condemnation of Origenism.25 The condemnation of the Three Chapters was part of Justinian’s attempt to achieve reconciliation between the orthodox and the monophysites, for theywere the writings of three bishops whowere particularly obnoxious to the monophysites: Theodoret of Cyrrhus; Ibas of Edessa; and Theodore of Mopsuestia, who died in 428. Theodore was regarded as the inspiration behind Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople (428–31). The emphasis in his teaching about Christ on the separate integrity of his two natures, divine and human, and especially his consequent denial (or at least heavy qualification) of the title Theotokos (‘Mother of God’) of the Virgin Mary, had provoked the wrath of Cyril of Alexandria, who secured his condemnation at the third ecumenical council, held at Ephesus in 431. Theodoret and Ibas had been condemned at the ‘robber council’ of Ephesus of 449, but reinstated two years later by the council of Chalcedon. There was considerable resistance to the condemnation of the Three Chapters in the west, where it was regarded as an attempt to interfere with Chalcedon, Pope Leo’s council. Pope Vigilius was forcibly summoned to attend the council called by Justinian in Constantinople, where he was held under house arrest until he accepted the condemnation of the Three Chapters, and his successors were required to accept his action, although Pope Gregory the Great only ever speaks of ‘four councils’. But others in the west were not so pliant: the pope was excommunicated by bishops in North Africa and northern Italy, and the schism between Rome and Aquileia was not healed until 700. The condemnation of Origenism has often been regarded as a counterbalance to the condemnation of the Three Chapters, but there seems no reason to accept this. There was nothing monophysite about Origenism: its condemnation really belongs with Justinian’s attack on pagan Neoplatonism, for Origen and the Origenists were regarded as deeply indebted to Platonism. Indeed, Origen had been a disciple of Ammonias Saccas, the master of Plotinus. For this reason, it was an action for which Justinian could count on the applause of most Christians, despite Origenist ideas remaining popular among some more intellectually inclined monks. All these attempts to achieve reconciliation amongst the Christians of the empire achieved nothing. By the time the fifth ecumenical council met, the schism had already become irrevocable. Some ten years earlier, in 542, Theodosius, the exiled monophysite patriarch of Alexandria, had secretly consecrated Jacob Baradaeus in Constantinople as bishop of Edessa; Jacob was responsible for the Ghassanids, an Arab realm allied to the empire (see below, p. 188). Once ordained, he set about ordaining bishops for monophysite congregations throughout the east, thus providing a parallel hierarchy to that of the orthodox church of the empire. Imperial attempts to crush this rival church through persecution met with little success. On the face of it, Justinian’s religious policies look to be a downright failure. This is true, if his endeavours are simply regarded as attempts at healing the schism in the church, especially in the east. But these endeavours can be viewed from another perspective: that of leaving the emperor’s mark on the orthodox church of the empire. From this perspective his success was real. The reception of the council of Chalcedon in the sixth century took place along the lines that Justinian promoted: the Christology of the council was henceforth to be interpreted in the east along the lines of Cyrilline Chalcedonianism, and a theopaschite understanding of the Incarnation became accepted, with implications beyond the narrowly theological. By the ninth century the hymn ‘Only-begotten Son’, ascribed to Justinian, formed a regular part of the eucharistic liturgy. Whether or not the literary composition was Justinian’s, the theopaschite theology of the hymn is certainly his (‘you were crucified, Christ God . . . being One of the Holy Trinity’), and such theopaschite devotion, flanked by the development of angelology and Mariology, found expression in the flourishing iconographic tradition of the eastern church. The answer to the first of the questions raised earlier about understanding Justinian’s reign in terms of a grand design would seem to be negative, although in the first decade of his sole rule Justinian may have entertained some such idea. But when we consider the second question – whether Justinian had the means to implement a grand design – even had its components fitted together as well as has often been maintained (legal reform, reconquest, rebuilding and the furthering of orthodoxy), there are other factors in Justinian’s reign that would have prevented any such grand design from reaching fruition.

 

 

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