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7-08-2015, 21:00


Although Christianity would seem by its very nature to be a missionary religion, both the sense of what ‘mission’ means and the specific motivations of missionaries have varied as each generation reads afresh the Gospels’ injunctions. Early Christianswere keen to stress the ‘international’ character of their religion and the primordial equality of all peoples, yet a different conceptual system was embedded in the very language in which the early Christian apologists wrote. St Paul already uses the term barbarian, with its implicit contrast between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Early Christians also appropriated the discourse of the Roman world, which was similarly permeated with the spirit of empire. If the empire was ‘the world’, then those beyond the imperial borders were automatically assigned to an ‘other’ world, not inhabited by real people. Primitive Christianity opposed this kind of logic. St Christopher, for example, was – according to his Life – ‘from the race of dog-heads, from the land of cannibals’;1 but this did not prevent him becoming a Christian martyr. Does this imply that natural savagery could be eradicated? An answer can be found in another legend – the ‘Tale of St Christomeus’ – one of the apocryphal stories of the wanderings of the apostles Andrew and Bartholomew. The legend tells how a certain cannibal was visited by an angel, who breathed grace into him and ordered him to assist the apostles. When the inhabitants of ‘the city of the Parthians’ incited wild beasts against the preachers in the circus, Christomeus asked God to give him back his former nature: ‘and God heeded his prayer and returned his heart and mind to their former savagery’. This monster then tore the beasts to pieces, whereupon many of the pagans died of fright. Only after this did Andrew come up to Christomeus and say: ‘“the Holy Spirit commands that your natural savagery should leave you” . . . and in that moment his good nature returned’.2 The legend is clearly designed to glorify Christomeus and its superficial message is that even a cannibal can become a Christian. Yet the deeper message – which perhaps reveals itself despite the author’s best intentions – is precisely the opposite: that there is always a beast sleeping within any barbarian. By taking the first step, by assimilating the discourse of barbarism, early Christians were also well on the way to assimilating a Roman conceptualisation of barbarians.3 In Christian apologetics one increasingly finds the idea that Christianity was useful to the empire because it could help in moderating barbarian savagery; not, one might think, a matter of prime concern for persecuted Christians. This notion is already fully formed in the writings of Origen. It could have prompted missionary undertakings, but in fact did not. From a Christian viewpoint, conversion was something so fundamental that it could not depend on the paltry efforts or specific initiative of mere humans. Oddly, not even the apostles in their apocryphal wanderings were portrayed as missionaries in the proper sense of the word. Among the agents of the initial Christianisation of the barbarians we find merchants, mercenaries, hostages and political exiles: that is, missionaries without a mission as such. If priests travelled to barbarian lands, it was only in order to minister to Romans in foreign captivity.4 The Syrian monks probably constituted the only group of deliberate propagandists for the faith.