This article proposes an alternative way to think about the violence that swept the Roman Empire in the wake of Constantine's conversion to Christianity. Traditionally seen as the inevitable result of Christian intolerance, recent experience suggests that this violence can be better understood by casting a broader net and including political as well as theological issues. The result shows this violence to be the by-product of a struggle between emperors and bishops to control access to the divine. In an age of widespread belief in the active intervention of deity in human affairs, this religious prerogative was fraught with profound secular implications that make our distinction between Church and State meaningless. Martyrs play an important role in this process, but it is a symbolic one. Bishops use martyrs to control emperors. But, as a famous confrontation between Ambrose of Milan and the emperor Theodosius shows, bishops also relied on their new role as patrons of a large and volatile constituency. Their efforts were abetted by significant rethinking of the meaning of martyrdom and persecution that followed Julian the Apostate's ill-starred efforts to rein in Christianity without producing martyrs.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 25, 2011
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