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A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the dawn of the Monotheistic State

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A.D. 381
Heretics, Pagans, and the dawn of the Monotheistic State
By Charles Freeman
The Overlook Press, 2009, 252 pages
ISBN 978-59020-171-8

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 16, 2010

Charles Freeman presents an excellent, readable, and surprising history of Christianity, filled with many unknown facts, that focus around the events of the year 381 when the Roman Emperor Theodosius issued a decree mandating that all Christians believe in the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an idea not contained in the New Testament and rejected by most Christians at that time. Theodosius called those who refused to accept his view "demented and insane heretics."

Freeman shows how many early Christians enjoyed a diverse spiritual life. The court orator Themistius, for example, wrote in 360 that religious belief should not be controlled by the state or by the inclinations and motivations of certain popular clergy. He said that God "enjoyed being worshipped in a variety of ways." Freeman writes: "It is one of the tragedies of western thought that this approach was, in effect, suppressed as a result of Theodosius' decrees against 'heretics' and pagans in" 381. As a result, countless thinking men and women lived under the continual threat of excommunication and the promise of eternal punishment in fiery hell, a concept and threat that had not existed previously. It was not until the seventeenth century that religious toleration was reinstated, and then only partially.

This insistence upon acquiescence to a single idea is startling since it ignores Church history. Only sixty years earlier, in 313, the emperor Constantine had issued an Edict of Toleration in which he had removed Christianity from being a despised religion and promised "that no one whatsoever should be denied freedom to devote himself either to the cult of Christians or to such religion as he deems best suited for himself." Now, the religion that had been despised was despising many of its own faith.

Freeman shows how emperors and clergy with non-religious motivations brought about many Christian innovations. Besides the court decrees of Constantine and Theodosius and other government officials for civic reasons, to assure peace, priests pushed ideas to help their advancements and the money and freedom from taxes that accompanied it. "The high level of religious violence (to secure higher level priestly posts) has been largely ignored by historians…almost every vacant bishopric gave rise to murder and intimidation as rival candidates fought for the position."

Freeman's book has many other insights and whether one agrees with his history or not, it is worth reading since it offers many facts and is thought provoking.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.

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