I’ve been reading Peter Brown’s immense and marvelous Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, The Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West 350-550. It’s a magisterial examination of the transformation of Rome and of Christianity in those two centuries, looking at those transformation through the lens of attitudes toward wealth and the poor. The standard account of the rise of Christianity focuses on the conversion of Constantine and sees a rapid move from paganism to Christianity and an equally rapid and thorough transformation of the pagan aristocracy into the hierarchy of the Christian church.
Brown tells a much more complex tale of a slow conversion to Christianity picking up speed in the late fourth century. But even so the tug of paganism remained and aristocratic Christians continued to put on games and donate to secular causes well into the fifth century. The same is true of wealth as those who converted to Christianity and sought to donate their wealth to the church were challenged by family members who saw this as a threat to the family. Interestingly, because legally it was difficult to leave legacies to corporate bodies or institutions, wealthy Christians had to name the local bishop in their wills.
Brown ranges far and wide in his study. He looks closely at Jerome and Rome, at Ambrose and Milan, and Augustine of Hippo. But he also pays close attention to Paulinus of Nola. Importantly, he offers a vivid picture of life in the country villas of Gaul and Spain.
There is much to commend this work as scholarship, but I couldn’t help but reflect on its significance for helping us think about Christianity in the twenty-first century. The fourth century has remained fascinating to Christians and it has re-emerged as something of a battleground among competing versions of twenty-first century Christianity. One of the most powerful narratives at work is the idea of the “Constantinian fall of the Church” that’s recently been challenged by Peter Leithart.
As we move to what many call a post-Christian society, many look back to the pre-Constantinian church for guidance, a church that wasn’t in power. Brown problematizes the idea that suddenly with Constantine the church became the center of political and economic power. The story he tells is much more complex. He shows conflict between clergy and laity, especially lay people who resisted conforming simply to certain standards of Christianity. But he also points out that in the sixth century, the main force trying to set the clergy apart as a separate caste (special dress, tonsure, continence) came from the laity, not the clergy. Brown shows for the fourth and even into the fifth century, many lay people tried to negotiate between competing versions of Christianity, and also tried to remain true to the traditions of Roman civic religion and of their families.
One of the dangers of contemporary Christianity is to revert to a sectarianism. There is seductive appeal in the image of a gathered church following Jesus Christ closely in a hostile world. That image fuels much of the rhetoric of the religious right, but it also drives Anabaptism and neo-Anabaptism. Even mainline congregations in the midst of a different narrative of decline, might find such an image attractive. But the story Brown tells is of different visions of Christianity competing in the fourth and fifth centuries. Importantly, his evidence that the emperors did not lavish wealth on the church until very late in the fourth century is absolutely convincing. The Christianity that emerged in the fifth and sixth centuries did not succeed primarily because it had the power of the empire behind it, but because it was best adapted to the changing historical circumstances. And even then (as now), the institutional church, the clergy and hierarchy, had limited power to shape the faith and practice of ordinary Christians.
Whether or not we are facing the same magnitude of cultural shift in the twenty-first century that late Antiquity experienced is not clear. Certainly Christianity is facing a context it has not encountered before. Brown’s book is an important reminder that history is much more complex than we often assume, and that the future may turn out very different than anyone could imagine. He also shows the creative ability of Christianity to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
G.W. Bowersock’s glowing and thorough review is here.