The Greek and Eastern Churches/Part 2/Division 1



(b) Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, Book iv. chap. iii.; Neale, Patriarchate of Antioch, pp. 40, 74–78, 114–133, 146–150; Duchesne, Les Missions Chrétiens au sud de l'empire Romain, 1896; C. A. Scott, Ulfilas, the Apostle of the Goths, 1885; Bessell, Ueber das Leben des Ulfilas, etc., 1860.

Before proceeding to sketch in brief outline the continuous story of the various Eastern Churches down the ages till our own day, it may be well to revert to the earliest period of the spread of Christianity in the outer world, and gather up the chief events in connection with the origin and growth of primitive churches beyond the confines of the Roman Empire. Much of this is shrouded in the mists of legend; but even that fact comes into history because the mere existence of the legends is significant, as an indication of the condition of the contemporary districts to which they refer. If we come upon the story of the conversion of any place, we may be sure that Christianity was well established there at least by the time when that story was afloat, however fantastic it may be in itself. While we cannot accept the alleged correspondence between Jesus Christ and King Abgar recorded by Eusebius,[1] or place any reliance on his account of the labours of Thomas and Thaddæus, the flourishing condition of Christianity in Edessa in the second century, when Tatian produced his Harmony for the use of the Church in that Syrian metropolis, points to a very early extension of Christianity in the East. Barsedanes the Gnostic, whom Hippolytus called an "Armenian,"[2] came from this place, which became an important centre not only for Syrian Christianity, but for missionary activity and the spread of the gospel into Persia and Armenia The large province known as Armenia Magna—east of Armenia Minor—which had been included in the Roman Empire when at its greatest extent, was lost to the empire during our period; and therefore its Christian inhabitants were more or less cut off from their brethren in the main body of the Church, while they were subjects of Parthian, Persian, or Saracen rulers. This territory had been recognised as a Christian country as early as the fourth century.[3]

It is Origen who tells us that Thomas "received Parthia as his allotted region," and that "Andrew received Scythia,"[4] a statement which implies that the extension of Christianity into these two districts, the one directly east of Syria, the other consisting of little known regions indefinitely located at the north of the Euxine, was at least some time earlier than the third century, or no such traditions could have been then current. That points to a second century extension of Christianity beyond the confines of the empire in two directions. Then we have the famous journey of Pantænus, who resigned his professorial chair and the cultured society of Alexandria about a.d. 180 to go as a missionary to some far-off land known as "India," probably South Arabia, which was never conquered by the Romans, or, as Harnack suggests, "even the Axumitric kingdom,"[5] i.e. Abyssinia. There, as it was reported,[6] he already found a Christian Church, the origin of which was attributed to Bartholomew, using a Hebrew version of St. Matthew, that is to say, the "Gospel according to the Hebrews." This then would be a Jewish Christian Church. The "Acts of Thomas" shows that Christianity had reached the north-western part of India itself, our modern India, as early as the third century. By the time of the council of Nicæa there were churches in Arabia east of the Dead Sea, a region over which the empire had very little control. The gospel was carried up the Nile to the towns and villages of Egypt at an early time, and thence it penetrated the Soudan—"Æthiopia," the south country beyond Philæ—in the fourth century, till perhaps it reached the mission in Abyssinia, which had entered Africa from the east.

When we pass over to the fourth century the accounts of foreign missions and the experiences of the churches in the outlying regions round about the empire become more definite and explicit. The Armenian Church, with the story of its famous apostle Gregory the Illuminator; the Ethiopian and Abyssinian Church, the origin of which is traced to the labours of two shipwrecked young travellers, Frumentius and Ædesius; the Georgian Church, springing from the influence of a woman—the Armenian slave girl Nunia; the Syrian Church in India, which claims St. Thomas as its founder—all of them independent churches in regions outside the Roman Empire—will claim our attention later on; because as they have remained in independent existence on to our own day we shall want to know something about the course of their history right down the centuries. But incidents in connection with two outlying communities of Christians lead the interest connected with them to be concentrated for us in the early period, and therefore seem to demand our consideration at once. These incidents are the persecution of the Persian Christians and the mission of Ulfilas among the Goths.

1. The origin of Christianity in Persia is hidden in obscurity; but, as we have seen, in all probability it was an offshoot of the activity of the Syrian Church at Edessa, which in turn must be traced back to Antioch, the earliest great missionary church. In the district of Garamæa, east of the Tigris, and south-east of Mosul, there appear to liave been Christians as early as a.d. 170.[7] This was then part of the Parthian Empire, made famous in history by the brilliant career of the great Queen Zenobia, which was superseded by the new Persian Empire, known as the Sassanid kingdom, in the year 227. Zenobia had shown Christian sympathies—of a sort. When in possession of Antioch she had petted and protected the gorgeous heretic Paul of Samosata; but then he had been condemned by the Christians of the Roman Empire, through whom perhaps she thought to spite Rome. By protecting and patronising heretical Christians she gained the enthusiastic support of one section of her subjects. It was the very opposite with the Persians when they founded an empire on the ruins of Zenobia's splendid dominion. They were equally inimical to Rome; but by this time Paul and his faction had passed away. Besides, the Persian Empire did not include Syria. The Christians in Persia were in communion with their brethren in the Roman Empire. This fact roused suspicion of disloyalty in the minds of their masters. It was feared that they were disaffected subjects, spies in communication with the terrible enemy in the West, perhaps conspirators plotting for the downfall of the Sassanid throne. The adoption of Christianity by Constantine and the growing combination of Church and State that followed, immensely aggravated this suspicion. In the Roman Empire the Church was now treated as a State department. Therefore, for subjects of Persia to be communicating with the Church at Constantinople would appear to be much the same as for English Roman Catholics in the times of Elizabeth and the Stuarts to be in communication with fellow-Romanists in Spain and France. Whatever may have been their real sentiments before the persecution broke out, there can be no doubt that when it was raging the Persian Christians would look with longing eyes to their brethren safely sheltered within the Roman Empire.

There was another factor in this persecution which added fuel to the fire, or which perhaps had kindled the fire at the first. This was the antagonism of the Magi. That the leaders of so enlightened a religion as that of Persia should have stirred up a persecution of the Christians is a plain proof of their vitality and vigour. In earlier days a similar influence had roused violent opposition to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Thus the Valerian persecution was instigated by a famous magician, Macrianus. We must not confound the ancient order of Persian Magi with the vulgar charlatans who professed magic in the Western world. And yet the science of the Magi itself was fast degenerating into magic, a practice against which the Church waged deadly war, accusing it of alliance with the devil.

The great Persian persecution of the Christians broke out under Sapor, whose reign was extended to the extraordinary length of seventy years. His father had died before his birth, and since the crown was then placed on the spot that was supposed to conceal the future heir, the years of his reign are reckoned from a time earlier than his appearance in the world. The Magi began to work on Sapor's mind when he was a youth, and there were many violent deaths of Christians in consequence during the early part of his reign. The first of them are dated two years after the council of Nicæa (a.d. 327). But these cases are scarcely noticed in comparison with the army of martyrs that fell in Sapor's thirtieth year (a.d. 343) and during the succeeding thirty- five years, over the whole of which the persecution was spread intermittently. The diptychs of the Persian Church celebrate the names of 16,000 clergy, monks, and nuns. We have no means of estimating the number of the laity who suffered. At first there were many apostasies. But the wonder of the persecution is that as this proceeded down its path of blood through many years, instead of wearing out the patience of the Church, it welded her metal to the temper of fine steel. According to the confession of the acts of the martyrs the religious character of the Christians was low at first, but as in the case of the two great Roman persecutions—the Decian and the Diocletian—the fires of tribulation purged the Church.

The immediate motive of this especially severe persecution at the exact time when it broke out appears to have been political. The Magi had been urging the king to suppress their rivals all along. But now Sapor saw the Christian bishop James at Nisibis keeping that city firm in its allegiance to the Roman Emperor Constantius, so that it successfully withstood two sieges by the Persians. This was a clear case of action on the part of the Church in favour of Rome against Persia, although not within his own territory. It was enough to embitter him against those of James's friends and co-religionists whom he had in his power.

The persecution began with a heavy capitation tax on the Christians. Their bishop Symeon proved himself to be a very haughty passive-resister. "Christ," he answered, "who had freed His Church by His death would not permit His people to bow to such a yoke." Like the young officer Marcellus who had spoken to his superiors scornfully about "your emperors," during the Diocletian persecution, because his sovereign was Christ, and like the "fifth monarchy men" in the seventeenth century, Symeon seemed to think that his status as a Christian involved escape from the authority of the civil government; or if he did not go so far as that, he took it as a full justification for refusing to pay an iniquitous tax. He was arrested, tried, urged in vain to worship the sun, and condemned to perish in torture. At the same time other martyrs were beheaded. The very day of Symeon's martyrdom a fresh and more severe edict was issued against the Christians. It only stimulated the heroism of the martyrs. Sapor's queen being attacked by an unknown disease, the Jewish physician who attended her attributed it to the practice of witchcraft by two Christian ladies of high station. They were stripped, tied to posts, and hacked to pieces, and then the queen was led through the yet reeking portions of their remains. The stories of the persecution, its horrors and its heroism, are too numerous to repeat. A glance over them reveals the fact that a great number of the martyrdoms occurred in the district of Adiabene, which appears to have been almost wholly Christian. But multitudes fell in ail the provinces. At first only the clergy were aimed at; nevertheless the persecution was not confined to the official leaders of the Church.

When we next meet with Persian Christians we find them adopting Nestorianism; and the later fortunes of Christianity in Persia will be considered in the division of this volume dealing with the Nestorians.

2. The other series of events occurring beyond the borders of the Roman Empire during the earlier period of our history that now claims our attention is found in connection with the story of Ulfilas and the conversion of the Goths.[8] These people of our own Teutonic stock, whose repeated invasions were among the most serious troubles of the Roman emperors, first meet us in the lands north of the lower Danube during the third century of the Christian era. Their traditional earlier connection with Scandinavia has not been verified; but the fact that in the restless migrations of their teeming populations they had swept eastward from the ancient forests of Germany, and thus early begun the characteristic colonising habit of which their English representatives, the Jutes, gave evidence, is the probable explanation of their appearance in Eastern Europe, wedged in between the Sclavs on the north and the Greeks on the south. Still pressing onward, during the course of the fourth century they poured into the Roman province of Dacia in repeated and disastrous raids, the first of which occurred in the year 238, ravaging Mœsia in the reign of Philip the Arabian, and later defeating the Emperor Decius, who fell while fighting them (a.d. 251).[9] Thus indirectly they saved the Church by putting an end to the first persecution that was systematically planned by a determined emperor to effect its total destruction. During the next seventeen years they devastated Eastern Europe and Western Asia by land and sea as far as Trebizond; but at length they were defeated and driven back by the Emperor Claudius (a.d. 269), just about the time when the elder Theodosius was repulsing the Saxons in Britain. A wise compromise was now agreed upon. The Romans ceded the province of Dacia, north of the Danube, which Trajan had added to the empire, so that the river became the boundary between Roman and Goth, while the name Dacia was preserved by being transferred to the district south of the Danube (a.d. 274). The political sagacity of this arrangement was seen in the ensuing peace of ninety years' duration, only once seriously broken by an incursion of Alaric, which was successfully repelled after its brief, brilliant success. Under Ermanaric, in the fourth century, the Goths north of the Danube grew into a great power, conquering the Sclavs, and, according to their own historian Jornandis—who is not altogether reliable—extending their dominion as far as the Baltic.[10] Ermanaric was only a kind of overlord, for the Goths had no kings, and therefore when Socrates[11] describes a civil war as a contest between two rivals—Athanaric and Frithigern — for the sovereignty, we must understand this as a quarrel between two separate chieftains for the place of primus inter pares.[12] But the important fact in regard to the history of Christianity among the Goths is that these two chieftains followed opposite lines of policy both in relation to the Roman Empire and with reference to Christianity. The close neighbourhood of the two powers led to intercommunication and interaction. Athanaric took the side of a usurper in making war on the emperor, but afterwards came to terms with Valens. Christianity had already penetrated into his dominions, and he had persecuted the converts severely. On the other hand, Frithigern had found it politic to cultivate the friendship of the empire, and therefore to be himself friendly to its religion, the type of which, we must remember, was Arianism, then favoured by the government.[13]

The actual beginnings of Christianity among the Goths cannot be traced. A twofold process was at work leading to the introduction of the gospel to the Teutonic tribes beyond the Danube. In the first place, Christian captives carried off in the Gothic raids of the empire brought their religion with them; and, inasmuch as every genuine Christian is bound to be a missionary, we are not surprised to learn that some of these captives made the gospel known among the heathen people with whom their lot was now cast.[14] In the second place, Goths served in the Roman army and there came under Christian influences, so that those who were converted, when they went back to their own country, would go as Christians ready to spread the new faith among their people. To these influences we must add that of fugitives from persecution in the empire, who took refuge among the more liberal "barbarians."

The earliest Gothic colony within the empire appears to have established itself at Crim—the Crimea—long before the Arian supremacy, to have become Christian of the Catholic type, and to have remained such throughout. There was a bishop of the Goths named Theophilus at the council of Nicæa (a.d. 325).[15] According to Philostorgius, raids as early as the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus had resulted in Christian captives planting the gospel among the Goths; among these captives, he says, were the ancestors of Ulfilas.[16]

We may therefore be certain that this famous man was not the first to introduce Christianity to a Teutonic race. Nevertheless, it is with justice that Ulfilas has been described as "the Apostle of the Goths," because it was owing to his labours that a great part of the nation was won over to the faith of Christ. The discovery of a Gothic account of his life by one of his own disciples has enabled scholars to supplement and correct the prejudiced narratives of the Greek Church historians from a more authentic source.[17] There are reasons for doubting Philostorgius's statement that Ulfilas was a descendant of one of the Cappadocian captives.[18] His name is thoroughly Gothic, and his pupil Auxentius does not hint at a foreign parentage. He was born among the Goths in the year 311. We cannot test the statement of Socrates that he was converted by Theophilus, the bishop who attended the council of Nicæa. If that were correct, he would have been orthodox at first. But afterwards he was identified with one of the schools of Arianism. While quite young, probably in the year 332, when he was twenty-one years of age, he was sent to Constantinople, either as an envoy, or, as seems more likely considering his youth, as a hostage. Arianism was now dominant in the city, and naturally enough Ulfilas came under its influence. While at Constantinople he learnt Latin and Greek, and served in the minor order of a reader in the Church, probably working in the city as an evangelist to his fellow-countrymen among the imperial troops. In the year 341 he was ordained as a missionary by the Semi-Arian party and sent back to his own country to evangelise it. This fact throws an interesting sidelight on the period of fierce controversy which follows the council of Nicæa. As we read the Church histories we are in danger of regarding it as a time when religion was nothing but a battleground of angry polemics between the factions into which the Church was broken up. But this mission of Ulfilas is a sign that something better was to be seen in it, though that did not make so much noise. It is interesting also to observe that the missionary zeal was found among the Arians, whom the Nicene party were for ever denouncing and anathematising as impious infidels.

Ulfilas was thirty years of age when he set out on his great enterprise, and he continued in it for forty years of arduous toil, amid great perils and persecutions. He began among the Visigoths beyond the Danube, where he laboured for seven years with great success. He won so many converts that the pagan chief, who appears to have been wrongly identified with Athanaric, was roused to anger and commenced a persecution of his Christian people. Ulfilas then obtained permission from Constantius to retire with his converts across the Danube into Mœsia, within the confines of the empire, settling near the foot of the mountain range of Hæmus. In the year 360 he attended a council at Constantinople, called together by the Homœan party. It was the creed of this party to which he gave his assent—a creed, it will be remembered, devised for political reasons, in order to retain Arianism within the Church. It aimed at so doing by putting an end to controversy, by excluding all party watchwords—homoousios, homoiousios, and the rest, and affirming a simple likeness between the First and Second Persons in the Trinity.

There is no reason to doubt that Ulfilas was perfectly honest in the theological position he occupied. As an earnest missionary, more concerned with practical evangelistic work than with theological controvery, he may have been thankful for a simple form of Christianity that he could make intelligible to his rough fellow-countrymen more easily than one which was involved in subtle Greek metaphysics. There is no ground for the malignant insinuation of orthodox Church writers, that Ulfilas adopted Arianism in a bargain with the Emperor Valens when seeking protection from the persecution of the pagan Goths. He states in his will that he had always held the same principles.[19] The probability is that the Goths were already Arians of the mild, non-metaphysical type. Arianism was strong in Mœsia and along the line of the Danube, and the natural explanation of the facts is that Ulfilas and his people were simply carried with the current of their times and became Arian without ever supposing that they were adopting a specifically heretical position.

The result, however, was curiously complicated. In the first place, it was a great thing for Europe that when the Goths poured over Italy and even captured Rome they came as a Christian people, reverencing and sparing the churches, and abstaining from those barbarities that accompanied the invasion of Britain by the heathen Saxons. But, in the second place, many of these simple Gothic Christians learned to their surprise that they were heretics, and that only when their efforts towards fraternising with their fellow-Christians in the orthodox Church were angrily resented.

Ulfilas supplemented his direct missionary work by his writings; above all, by his translation of the Bible into the Gothic language. For this purpose he had to create an alphabet, since previously the art of writing was unknown among the Goths. Thus he is really the founder of Teutonic literature—that great literature which afterwards blossomed out in Chaucer, Luther, Shakespeare, Goethe. Ulfilasus omitted the Book of Kings from his translation because of their warlike character—lie considered that his people did not need Scriptural encouragement for fighting, being only too ready for it already.[20] Perhaps this is the first instance of a Bible expurgated on moral grounds.

Ulfilas's translation only exists in fragments, the most important of which is the Codex Argenteus, containing portions of the Gospels. This manuscript is described by Scrivener as "the most precious treasure of the university of Upsal."[21] It consists of quarto leaves of purple vellum, with letters in gold and silver. The date assigned to it is the fifth or early sixth century; that is to say, only about a century later than the time of Ulfilas himself. Other copies are the Codex Carolinus and the Ambrosian fragments published by Mai.[22] Ulfilas went to Constantinople in the year 380, and there he died, either that same year, or the next year—the year of the second œcumenical council, worn out with his heroic, lifelong toils and the anxieties for his people, which crowded upon his later years. He was succeeded by Selenas—a man accounted " well fitted to instruct the people in the Church."

The subsequent history of Gothic Christianity belongs to Western Christendom, since it follows the migration of the Goths. In Thracia, the home of its origin, it disappeared with the break-up of the nation in the year 395. But it became most important in the Gothic kingdom of Theodoric, which saw Arianism re-established for a time in Italy long after it had been extinguished in the Roman Empire. Under the influence of the same wave of emigration, it passed into Spain and across the Mediterranean to Africa, where at length it perished together with Christianity itself. The lust remnants of Gothic Christianity in Africa disappeared under the devastating scourge of the Arab invasion, to give place to Islam and its blight upon civilisation. Meanwhile, at its old home in the East, another race and another type of Church life had blotted out all signs and all memories of Ulfilas's Church, its victories and its martyrdoms.

  1. Hist. Eccl. i. 13.
  2. Refuta. vii. 19.
  3. See Sozomen, ii. 8.
  4. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. iii. 1.
  5. Ibid. v. 10; see Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, Eng. trans., vol. ii. p. 299.
  6. Observe Eusebius's cautious phrase, "He is said to have found there," etc., Hist. Eccl. v. 10.
  7. Mueller, Hist. of Christian Church, Eng. trans., vol. i. p. 104, gives authorities for this statement, drawn from the Syrian Acts of Persian martyrs.
  8. Formerly but erroneously identified with the Getæ.
  9. Zosimus, i. 19 ff.
  10. Jornandis, 23.
  11. Hist. Eccl. iv. 33.
  12. Ammianus calls Athanaric a "judge," Hist. xxvii. 5. According to Freeman, he would be the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon ealdorman or heretoga. See Freeman's article "Goths" in Encycl. Brit.
  13. Sozomen, vi. 37; Socrates, iv. 33.
  14. Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. ii. 6.
  15. Socrates, ii. 41.
  16. Philostorgius, ii. 5. Athanasius, writing before the council of Nicaea, mentions both Scythians and Goths among barbarians who had received the gospel. Cf. Cyril, Cat. xvi. 22.
  17. See C. Anderson Scott, Ulfilas, the Apostle of the Goths, a book which is mainly founded on a Gothic MS. at the Louvre, discovered by Waitz in the year 1840, containing the life of Ulfilas by Auxentius, one of his pupils, and Arian bishop of Dorostorus (Silistria).
  18. Prof. Anderson Scott adduces three reasons—(1) Philostorgius, though himself a Cappadocian, writing forty years later, was less likely to know the origin of Ulfilas than people at Constantinople [surely a doubtful statement]; (2) since the Ostrogoths of the Crimea were the Gothic people who made raids on Cappadocia, it is improbable that a Cappadocian captive would be found among Gotlis of the Danube; (3) it is also improbable that young descendants in the third generation of captive from the empire would be sent to represent the Goths at Constantinople (Ulfilas, etc., pp. 50, 51).
  19. Ego Ulphilas semper sic credidi.
  20. Philostorgius, ii. 5.
  21. Introd. to the Criticism of the New Testament, 4th edit. vol. ii. p. 146.
  22. Since Ulfilas was an Arian, the question arises. Did his heresy affect his translation of the Bible? Prof. Scott finds a faint indication of such influence in the crucial test of the text, Phil. ii. 6, where Ulfilas has the Gothic word galeiko as his rendering of the Greek ἴσα, although this word corresponds to the Greek ὅμοιος, the watchword of the mild Arians whom he represented. For the rest, his version has no suspicion of heresy. We must remember—(1) that the Greek-speaking Arians claimed the Scriptures to be on their side; and (2) that Ulfilas was neither an extreme nor a controversial Arian.