Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 18: Novatian, the Apostate Clergy and the Anti-Montanist Reaction


The breath of popular Christianity fanned the pyres in which the faithful were consumed and the resentment of the crowds accustomed to pogroms and hunting for Jews was nourished. According to its custom, imperial power imputed responsibility for the disorders not to the executioners, but the victims. The State’s persecutions replaced cunningly fomented instances of lynching, which indiscriminately struck all of the partisans of a God who was hostile to the other divinities.

In 202 – contrary to the wishes of his wife, Julia Mamaea, who was favorable to the new religion (or so one says) – Septimius Severus promulgated an edict that prohibited Jewish and Christian proselytism. The death of the Emperor suspended this repression; it was revived under Maximinus and then disappeared again, not without sporadically being rekindled in the ordinary flames of the pogroms. One of them exploded in Cappadocia, at the instigation of the governor. The pogrom in Alexandria in 249 inspired increased rigor on the part of Decius. Thus he dreamed of restoring the ancient religious values and reinvigorating the unity of the Empire through the annihilation of the Jews and the Christians. A similar project revolved in the heads that the influential bishops managed to keep on their shoulders. Little by little, a new doctrine was formed, a realistic and political kind of Christianity: Catholicism.

Among the small number of victims of the trials begun in 250, the philosopher Origen, an adept of Montanist asceticism, died following prolonged torture.

A ruling promulgated against the Christians by Valerian in 257 suggested that they need not repudiate their worship, but make sacrifices to the ancient gods. The edict of tolerance issued by Gallienus reestablished the peace in 260. Nevertheless, the idea of a national religion pursued its course. Emperor Aurelian, penetrated by the desire to revive the brilliance of Rome through the radiance of a universal belief, readjusted the old monotheism of the Sol invictus, the cult of the Sun King, to fit himself. Death prevented him from restoring an authority that ecclesial propaganda soon after recuperated: it identified Jesus-Christ with the unconquered Sun. Under the ferule of the bishops who were attached to their prerogatives and on the lookout for all compromises that would be profitable for their power, the austere Christianity of the Essenes, the Nazarenes, the Gnostics, the Marcionites and the New Prophecy prepared to prostitute itself devotedly to the State.

After Gallienus’ edict, the police and the governors tolerated the exercise of Christianity. But the truce was brutally interrupted to create room for the last and bloodiest of the repressions, that of Diocletian, who, from 303 to 305, pursued both Christians and Manicheans in a crazy fury. Those who abjured – and they were many – ceased to be troubled.

The edict of tolerance issued by Galere in 311 suffered a brief interruption under Maximinus, but he was vanquished in 313 by Licinius, whose victory announced the triumph of Christianity as the religion of the State.

Eusebius of Caesarea, a sycophant of the emperor who, through cunning and flattery, assured his credit with the court, had good reason to exalt the faith and the firmness of the martyrs, whom he estimated to number in the tens of thousands. Frend, a historian of persecutions, counted between 2,500 and 3,000 victims in the East and 500 in the West over the course of more than a century.[1] (The catacombs of the Via Latina date from the years 320-350 or 350-370. Contrary to the assertions of the Saint Sulpician legends, no known Christian sarcophagus was anterior to the Third Century.) Priests and bishops close to Rome abjured more willingly than those in the East, who were in solidarity with the local Churches, whose hostility to Roman power would not soon be disarmed, thus kindling Donatism and Arianism before provoking the schism of Byzantium.

Eusebius’s hyperbolic cult of the martyr makes one think of Stalin, who allied the glorification of Bolshevism with the massacre of its survivors. Who worked the most effectively for the triumph of Eusebius and the clerical bureaucracy, the fishnet of which would fall upon the world? The lapsi, the apostates, the backsliders. As for authentic Christianity, the party of the New Prophecy (the only holder of the laurels of the martyrs), it would fall – under the name Montanism – into the trashcan of “heretical perversion.”

From the beginning of the Third Century, the tension grew between the fervent Christians, who were more attached to faith than to life, and the bishops, whose sense of reality preferred a abjured priest to a dead one. Refusing torment, the renegade – for the greater glory of the Church – in fact made use of leisure to exploit the work of the martyrs for edifying ends. This was an old argument in which principle ceded place to necessity. The delirious masochism of the Christians of the Second Century, it is true, offered moderate spirits several reasons to calm down and reject offerings to death. All right. But the “party of the bishops,” which was scorned by Hermas, Origen and Tertullian, applied itself – while Rome increased the magnitude of its repression – to the safeguarding of an ecclesiastical power that made double use of moderation by protecting itself with police-related fury, on the one hand, and by condemning an asceticism that was hardly compatible with Greco-Roman license, on the other.

Tertullian had already stigmatized the laxity of certain bishops and their taste for power. “Episcopatus semulatio schismatum mater est,” he wrote in his Adversus Valentinos: “The rivalry of bishops is the source of schisms.”

Calixte, one of the principal bishops of Rome between 217 and 222, drew the reprobation of another bishop, Hippolytus, sometimes identified as the author of the Elenchos. Accused of laxity because he accorded ordination to remarried priests (Tertullian and Montanism prohibited remarriage), Calixte was a heretic in the eyes of the author of the Elenchos: “A Christian from another school has sinned; this sin, whatever it was, was not imputed to him, they say, provided that the guilty one hastened to join the school of Calixte.” The school of Calixte – whom the historians have long taken to be a pope and whose name was given to certain catacombs – was, according to the Elenchos, in the hands of the henchmen of abortion: “It was then that the women, self-avowed Christians, began to make use of medications capable of preventing conception and bandages intended to make them have abortions.”[2]

Pseudo-Hippolytus did not hesitate to situate Calixte in the line of the Elchasaitism that had been born in the third year of Trajan’s rule (around 100); a certain Alcibiades possessed the Elchasaites’ sacred book. The heresy, as it appeared here and would be confirmed later, at first circumscribed a category in which anything that opposed or contested the bishop’s authority was attacked in a slanderous manner. Assassinated during a riot in 222, Calixte suffered the thunderous displeasure of the Elenchos, [though] his “lax” policies would open the doors of holiness for him. Even better, the dictionaries consecrated Calixte the sixth Pope of Rome, although the papacy did not appear until the Seventh Century.


Around 250, Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage – in which Tertullian and the New Prophecy were dominant – set himself up as the defender of the lapsi. His doctrine, expounded in an essay called On the unity of the Church, laid the political foundations for Catholicism. For him, every legitimate bishop was the inheritor of the “Peter’s pulpit” and had the right to combat anyone who contested him. Such was the principle that most often founded heresy. The expression “Peter’s pulpit,” intended to reinforce local power, was attacked by Etienne, the Bishop of Rome around 254-257: this foreshadowed the conflict in the Fourth Century between Rome, which monopolized “Peter’s pulpit” and accredited the execution of Simon-Peter in the imperial city, and the Churches that were firmly established in the East.

Against ecclesial Realpolitik, Novatian attempted to revive the ardors of Montanist faith. Ordained a bishop in 249, he did not escape the quarrels about precedence, which set the various community leaders against each other. After the execution of Bishop Fabian, Novatian took control of a part of the Roman clergy and extolled a rigor that was strengthened by asceticism and the duties of faith. Indignant about the great number of faithful people and priests who abjured by agreeing to make sacrifices to the emperor or by buying certificates of abjuration, Novatian refused to re-admit into the community those guilty of renunciation. Opposed to another bishop of Rome named Cornelius – a partisan of moderation – Novatian developed a penitential current and assured himself of the support of many Churches. He ordained himself on the basis of other bishops rallied to his determinations.

Novatian’s doctrine emanated directly from the New Prophecy. In On the Advantages of Chastity, he implored the members of the “Virginal Church” to remain pure in order to keep a place of welcome for the Holy Spirit. Tertullian did not say anything different. The influence of Origen was discernible in Novatian’s text On Jewish Food, in which he perceived an allegorical description of the vices in the dishes condemned by the biblical texts.

Novatian’s enemies, Cornelius of Rome and Cyprian of Carthage, held in esteem a treatise later called On the Trinity, although the word trinitas did not figure in it. This treatise discoursed upon the unity of the Father and the Son. Because the Son of God became man, he could lead humanity to eternal salvation. After the Constantinian turn, such speculations were invoked in support of a conflict that it accentuated: the one between the local Churches, which were close to the faithful and attentive to matters of faith, and the centralized and bureaucratized Church of Rome and its emperor.[3]


[1] Frend. [Translator: rest of footnote missing from original. Two works by W. H. Frend are listed in the book’s bibliography: Martyrdom and persecution in the early church, Oxford, 1965, and The Donatist church: A movement of protest in Roman North Africa, Oxford, 1952.]

[2] A. Siouville, Hippolyte de Rome: Philosophoumena ou Réfutation de toutes les hérésies, Paris, 1928, p. 194.

[3] H. J. Vogt, Coetus Sanctorum: Der Kirchenbegriff des Novatian und die Geschicte seiner Sonderkirche, Bonn, 1968.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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