God and History in the Christian West

God and History in the Christian West

The three assigned chapters in John Tolan’s Saracens present three different historical
and geographic contexts. Chapter 1 (which we had skipped earlier) focuses on the writings of
Isidore of Seville, an early seventh-century bishop in the Christian Visigothic kingdom that ruled
what is today Spain and Portugal, after the collapse of the Roman Empire in western Europe.
Although Isidore (c. 560-636) was a contemporary of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632), he
knew nothing of the emergence of Islam. Why begin a book about medieval Christian views of
Islam with a chapter on someone who knew nothing about Islam??? Isidore’s encyclopedic
writings illustrate how early medieval Christians understood their world: when they encountered
Islam, they tried to fit it to these pre-existing ideas about history, geography, ethnography, and
religious diversity.
In chapter 3 (we read chapter 2 two weeks ago to help introduce the Qur’an), Tolan talks
about the responses of Christian writers in the Near East to the Islamic conquests in the seventh,
eighth, and ninth centuries. I have included a short piece by one of these writers, John of
Damascus, a Syrian Christian whose father was a civil servant for the Umayyad caliphs. John
may have also been a civil servant, but he retired to a monastery. In this excerpt from his treatise
on Christian heresies, he describes Islam (“the heresy of the Ishmaelites”) as if it were a new
Christian heresy.
In chapter 4, Tolan turns to western Europe and considers the place of Islam in the
writings of the Venerable Bede, a monk in early eighth-century Northumbria (today: northern
England), and the responses of Christians in Spain to the Muslim conquest. I have also included
the short and slanderous “biography” of Muhammad which Tolan explains that the Christian
monk, Eulogius of Cordoba, claimed to have copied in a Christian monastery in Spain. As Tolan
says, it includes some basic facts about Muhammad but these “are presented in the worst possible
light, twisted almost beyond recognition by the hostile pen of the author.” (As in the case of the
caricatures of Jesus in the Toledoth Yeshu and Talmudic writings, or the bitterly anti-Semitic
Christian texts we will soon read, I remind all of you that one part of our course is understanding
conflict and prejudice. That involves looking it and analyzing the very ugly portrayals of a
religion, its believers, and its most revered figures which its hostile rivals sometimes created.)
As we enter Unit 2, we shift our attention from the scriptures to the relationships among different
religious communities and the ways they represented each other. Here, I begin with “snapshots”
of key moments and concepts in the history of Christianity, Europe, and the Near East from late
antiquity to the early middle ages to supply you with a historical context
1. Martyrdom in Christian History: Tolan discusses two sets of examples of Christians who
were martyred (killed because of their faith) by Muslims: first, in the Near East (pp. 55-57), then,
in Spain (pp. 85-97). To understand their significance, one must be aware of the place of
martyrdom in Christian history…
In the Gospels, Jesus predicted several times that his followers would suffer persecution
(e.g., John 15:18-20, Matthew 24:9). In Acts 7, we saw how the deacon Stephen was stoned to
death by the Jews after delivering a speech rebuking them for rejecting Jesus and earlier
prophets. We also learned of Herod’s killing of James the apostle (Acts 12:1-2). During the
second century, Christians suffered sporadic, local persecution by Roman authorities, not for
what they did or believed as Christians, but for refusing to take part in religious and civic rituals
that involved sacrifices or worship of pagan deities or the emperor. Some Christians sought out
martyrdom (“voluntary martyrdom”) by turning themselves in, but Christian leaders often
condemned this. After 235, the Roman empire entered a period of crisis and Christians were
subjected to widespread, systematic persecution under the emperors Decius (249-251) and
Valerian (253-260) and in the Great Persecution during the first decade of the fourth century.
Martyrs were commemorated with accounts of their trials, suffering, and execution. Once the
persecutions ended, the courage of the martyrs was remembered as a “heroic age” for the church.
Martyrdom was celebrated in the writings of early fourth-century historian Eusebius and the late
fourth-century poet Prudentius, and it became a heroic ideal for later Christians.
The stories of Christian martyrs, revered as saints by Roman Catholics and Orthodox
Christians, may be more widely known today, but there were also numerous cases of Jewish
martyrs, killed by the Greek and Roman authorities in Palestine and elsewhere for defending their
religious traditions and practices. They were remembered and memorialized in Jewish literature
and rituals, and their examples contributed to the shaping of contemporary Christian ideas about
martyrdom and its portrayal. Important examples include the woman with seven sons killed
during the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BC, and the Ten Martyrs, rabbis who are
commemorated as martyrs killed by the Emperor Hadrian, although they may, in fact, have been
martyred at different moments following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the Bar
Kokhba revolt of the 130s.
2. The Third-Century Crisis, the Division of the Roman Empire, the Conversion of
Constantine, and the End of the Empire in the West: When Tolan introduces the seventhcentury bishop Isidore of Seville, he is describing a post-Roman world in western Europe with
the Visigoths ruling over the former Roman provinces of Spain. When he talks about the
seventh-century Muslim conquest of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, he refers to a Christian Roman
Empire in the East with its capital at Constantinople. This was the world that had emerged from
the crises and transformation of the Roman Empire which I described briefly in the Study Guide
for Week 1.6 as a background to the emergence of Islam and our readings from Fred Donner’s,
Muhammad and the Believers.
After the crisis of the third century, the reforms of the emperor Diocletian, and the
collapse of the tetrarchy (the system of co-rulership he initiated), the emperor Constantine’s rule
brought two fundamental changes to the Roman Empire. First, his own conversion to Christianity
in 312 was followed in 313 by the Edict of Milan, proclaiming toleration for Christians. After
this, the Roman emperors were Christian, with the exception of a brief pagan restoration under
Emperor Julian (361-363), and the pace of conversion to Christianity quickened throughout the
empire. Under Emperor Theodosius (379-395), Christianity became the state religion, as public
support for pagan cults ended and pagan practices and associations were restricted or banned.
Second, Constantine founded a new Eastern capital, Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey), in
324, on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium. The new capital was dedicated in 330. Although
Constantine ruled a unified empire from 324 until his death in 337, the division between East and
West, originally established under the tetrarchy became permanent after his death (with only brief
periods of united rule, as in the last years [392-395] of Theodosius’ reign).
With its capital at Constantinople, the Eastern Roman Empire endured until the Ottoman
Turks captured the city in 1453. It is often referred to as the Byzantine Empire (named after the
city of Byzantium), though its Greek-speaking Christian inhabitants called themselves “Romans”
throughout the Middle Ages. This was the Christian Empire that battled the Muslims in the Near
East in the seventh and eighth centuries. When the Muslim Arabs began raids and military
campaigns in the 630s, the Eastern Empire under Emperor Heraclius and its rival, the Sasanian
Persian Empire, had been weakened by nearly three decades of war, as I explained in the Study
Guide for Week 1.6. Major territories (Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia) had changed hands and
Constantinople itself was threatened by the Persians.
In western Europe, the Western Roman Empire faced civil wars, military rebellions, and
invasions by the Goths and other coalitions of peoples in the late fourth and fifth centuries. Rome
was sacked by the Goths (410) and Vandals (455), the last Roman emperor in the West was
deposed in 476, and the western provinces of the Roman Empire came under the control of the
“barbarian” peoples. The Visigoths eventually ruled over modern Spain and Portugal, and
converted from Arian Christianity to Catholic Christianity under King Reccared in 589. The
Franks ruled over modern France and, in 800, one of the Frankish kings, Charles the Great
(Charlemagne) took the imperial title again, re-establishing the “Empire” as what is known as the
Holy Roman Empire in the West.
3. Church Doctrine and Heresy in the Christian Empire When Tolan describes the Muslim
conquests and Christian responses to Islam, he frequently refers to “heresies,” forms of
Christianity that deviated from orthodox teaching and were condemned by Christian bishops and
councils. At first, Christian writers viewed Islam as a new brand of heresy, and Islam profited
from the way heresies divided Christians within the Christian Empire. What were these Christian
heresies and how did they shape the reception of Islam in the Christian lands of the Near East?
I briefly introduced heresy, and specifically the Arian heresy, in Study Guide 1.4, when
we discussed John Chrysostom and the ways in which his attacks on the Jews were a tool for
attacking Christian heretics. Remember, you can’t have heresy without orthodoxy, and you can’t
have orthodoxy without authorities and institutions who are empowered to define “correct” and
“incorrect” belief and practice. Even our brief look at the Gospels made clear that the earliest
followers of Jesus had different perspectives on Jesus’ life and mission. Throughout the first
centuries of Christianity, Christian texts reveal a remarkable variety of beliefs concerning Jesus
and his teachings.
In the third and fourth centuries, we move from a period of Christian “diversity” to one in
which there are sharper boundaries between “orthodox” and “heretical” belief. Why? As
Christianity grew, a network of Christian communities led by bishops defined a widely accepted
body of Christian teaching. With the conversion of Constantine and the establishment of a
Christian Empire, the emperors sought to enforce uniformity in doctrine and practice, and the
consolidation of church institutions made it possible to do so. In the fourth and fifth centuries,
church councils (Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431, and Chalcedon in 451)
and the contemporary writings of the Church Fathers (leading theologians, usually bishops)
determined the basic principles of Christian doctrine that would be accepted throughout the
Middle Ages. In particular, these defined the relationship between Jesus’ human and divine
nature, the Trinity (three “persons” in one God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and Mary’s role as
“mother of God”, and addressed questions about free will, divine grace, and salvation. Some
of these questions, not necessarily addressed directly or consistently in the New Testament, had
grown in importance, as educated elites, familiar with Greek philosophy, converted to
Christianity and sought to shape a more comprehensive theological and philosophical framework
for belief.
In the seventh-century Near East, deep divisions over doctrine sparked conflicts between
local Christian communities and imperial authorities. In addition, Christian communities in
Mesopotamia and other areas beyond the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire often adhered to
doctrines and practices regarded as heretical by the imperial church of Constantinople
(sometimes known as the Melkite church). Tolan mentions two major movements:
The Nestorians, named after Nestorius, a fifth-century patriarch of Constantinople, were
condemned as heretical at the fifth-century councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon: they argued that
Jesus’ human and divine natures were separated, while the orthodox position held that the two
natures were united and inseparable. The Nestorians remained important in Mesopotamia and
Persia, outside of the Christian Roman Empire
The Monophysites believed that Jesus had only a single nature, and they emphasized his
divinity. They rejected the Council of Chalcedon’s definition of Jesus’ two inseparable natures.
Alexandria, Egypt was a center of Monophysitism and it was popular in the Near Eastern
provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, alienating those populations from imperial rule. The
Eastern Emperors made some attempts to compromise with the Monophysite position. Justinian
(527-565), for example, moved from persecution of the Monophysites to unsuccessful efforts to
bridge the gap between their position and the doctrines approved at the Council of Chalcedon.
Emperor Heraclius promoted a doctrine known as Monothelitism by which Jesus had two
natures (human and divine) but only a divine will. This position, however, was condemned as
heretical by the Third Council of Constantinople in 681.
CHAPTER 1: “God and History in the Christian West, c. 600”
Tolan uses the encyclopedic writings of Isidore of Seville to show how Christian clergy
and intellectuals understood history, geography, ethnography (the differences among peoples),
and religious diversity (pagans, Jews, Christian heretics) in the early seventh century. Isidore (c.
560-636) was a contemporary of Muhammad. As bishop of Seville, he was a leading churchman
in the Visigothic kingdom of Spain. His encyclopedic writings were widely read in the Middle
Ages. Although Isidore was unaware of Islam, his writings illustrate how medieval Christians
looked to the Bible and the classical learning of ancient Greece and Rome to explain their world.
For some time, the historical, geographic, ethnographic, and religious categories that we find in
Isidore’s work (and that of other early Christian writers) would be applied to the new religion of
Islam. Be sure to understand what these categories were, and, in the later chapters, pay
attention to how they recur and are applied to Islam. As we consider later Christian responses
to Islam, we must always ask whether these writings reflect direct knowledge of the new religion
and contact with Muslims, or whether they are trying to “fit” a largely unknown religion and
culture to pre-existing concepts based on the Bible, history, and the learning of classical
Quotations to note and think about:
“While in other religions God is timeless and man’s history essentially cyclical, for the three
Abrahamic monotheistic faiths, history is linear and the study of history is a window on the
divine plan for humankind.” (p. 6)
Referring to the Jews’ parody of Jesus’ life (the Toledoth Yesu which we read about in Week
1.5) and the Christians’ caricatures of Muhammad, Tolan says, “…These legends…show how an
embattled, despised religious minority created walls and boundaries between itself and the
dominant (Christian or Muslim) majority. Because he had a detailed and disparaging biography
of the founder of the majority religion, with derogatory explanations for its principal rites and
holidays, the Jew (or Christian) could protect himself from doubt, could construct a wall of
contempt between himself and Christianity (or Islam).” (p. 18)
Tolan addresses the hostility among these religions, “It is precisely because Christians and Jews
are fighting for rightful ownership of a common spiritual heritage that their disputes can be so
bitter. Each claims to be sole legitimate heir to Moses and Abraham; each claims exclusive rights
to the correct interpretation of the Torah: those who are ‘too close for comfort’ provoke
‘uncharacteristic and bitter fury.’ When Islam steps forward as a third claimant to that heritage,
the attacks from Jews and Christians will be harsh.” (p. 18)
Key names and terms
-Eusebius, early fourth-century author of Ecclesiastical History and Chronicle, links traditions
of biblical history and Roman imperial history (p. 6)
-Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, an encyclopedic compilation of knowledge (p. 5)
-Isidore’s Chronica maiora (Greater Chronicle, uses six-age structure for biblical and classical
history) and On the Origins of the Goths (legitimates the lineage and history of the Visigoths
who ruled Spain and had converted from Arian Christianity to Catholicism in 589) (pp. 6-8)
-Isidore’s Against the Jews, treatise, proving Christian doctrine based on the Hebrew Bible, and
attacking Jewish practices as described there (pp. 14-15)
-Antichrist, enemies of Christ, particularly one who comes before the Second Coming to
mislead Christians as a false Christ (pp. 8-9)
-Saracens, Agarenes, Ishmaelites: names Christian writers used to give Near Eastern desert
tribes a “genealogical ethnography” based on Biblical figures: Sarah, Abraham’s wife; Hagar,
Sarah’s slave who bore a child to Abraham; and Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar) (pp.
10-11, 18)
-Simon Magus, magician and protagonist of a legendary c

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