Julian’s attempt to destroy Christianity

We concluded our preceding article with the remark that we would call attention to Julian’s attempt to destroy Christianity. 

Viewing his plan from its positive aspect, we may remark, in the first place, that he reinstated, in its ancient splendor, the worship of the gods at the public expense. He called forth hosts of priests from concealment, conferred upon them all their former privileges, and showed them every honor. He enjoyed upon the soldiers and civil officers attendance at the forsaken temples and altars, forgot no god or goddess, although he himself was especially devoted to the worship of Apollo, or the sun, and, notwithstanding his parsimony, (stinginess) in other respects, caused the rarest birds and whole herds of bulls and lambs to be sacrificed until the continuance of the species became a subject of concern. He removed the cross and the monogram of Christ from the coins and standards and replaced the former pagan symbols. He surrounded the statues and portraits of the emperors with the signs of idolatry, that every one might be compelled to bow before the gods, who would pay the emperors due respect. If you love the emperor, if you love your father, he declared, you like to see his portraits; so the friend of the gods loves to look upon their image by which he is pervaded with reverence for the invisible gods who are looking down upon him. 

Julian led the way himself with a concrete example. He displayed on every occasion utmost zeal for the heathen religion, and performed with the most scrupulous devotion the offices of a pontifex maximus, which had been altogether neglected, although not formerly abolished, under his two predecessors. 

Continuing with Julian’s attempt to destroy Christianity, as described by Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church, we quote the following lengthy description as set forth by this eminent church historian.


“Every morning and evening he sacrificed to the rising and setting sun, or the supreme light-god; every night, to the moon and the stars; every day, to some other divinity. Says Libanius, his heathen admirer: “He received the rising sun with blood, and attended him again with blood at his setting.” As he could not go abroad so often as he would, he turned his palace into a temple and erected altars in his garden, which was kept purer than most chapels. “Wherever there was a temple,” says the same writer, “whether in the city or on the hill or the mountain top, no matter how rough, or difficult of access, he ran to it.” He prostrated himself devoutly before the altars and the images, not allowing the most violent storm to prevent him. Several times in a day, surrounded by priests and dancing women, he sacrificed a hundred bulls, himself furnishing the wood and kindling the flames. He used the knife himself, and as haruspex (a soothsayer or diviner of ancient Rome who interpreted the will of the gods from inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals—H.V.) searched with his own hand the secrets of the future in the reeking entrails. 

But his zeal found no echo, and only made him ridiculous in the eyes of cultivated heathens themselves. He complained repeatedly of the indifference of his party, and accuses one of his priests of a secret league with Christian bishops. The spectators at his sacrifices came not from devotion, but from curiosity, and grieved the devout emperor by their rounds of applause, as if he were simply a theatrical actor of religion. Often there were no spectators at all. When he endeavored to restore the oracle of Apollo Daphneus in the famous cypress grove at Antioch, and arranged for a magnificent procession, with libation, dances, and incense, he found in the temple one solitary old priest, and this priest ominously offered in sacrifice—a goose. 

At the same time, however, Julian sought to renovate and transform heathenism by incorporating with it the morals of Christianity; vainly thinking thus to bring it back to its original purity. In this he himself unwittingly and unwillingly bore witness to the poverty of the heathen religion, and paid the highest tribute to the Christian; and the Christians for this reason not inaptly called him an “ape of Christianity.” 

In the first place, he proposed to improve the irreclaimable priesthood after the model of the Christian clergy. The priests, as true mediators between the gods and men, should be constantly in the temples, should occupy themselves with holy things, should study no immoral or skeptical books of the school of Epicurus and Pyrrho; but the works of Homer, Pythagoras, Plato, Chrysiuups, and Zeno; they should visit no taverns nor theatres, should pursue no dishonorable trade, should give alms, practice hospitality, live in strict chastity and temperance, wear simple clothing, but in their official functions always appear in the costliest garments and most imposing dignity. He borrowed almost every feature of the then prevalent idea of the Christian priesthood, and applied it to the polytheistic religion. Then, he borrowed from the constitution and worship of the church a hierarchical system of orders, and a sort of penitential discipline, with excommunication, absolution, and restoration, besides a fixed ritual embracing didactic and musical elements. Mitred priests in purple were to edify the people regularly with sermons; that is, with allegorical expositions and practical applications of tasteless and immoral mythological stories. Every temple was to have a well arranged choir, and the congregation its responses. And finally, Julian established in different provinces monasteries’ nunneries, and hospitals for the sick, for orphans, and for foreigners without distinction of religion, appropriated to them considerable sums from the public treasury, and at the same time, though fruitlessly, invited voluntary contributions. He made thenoteworthy concession, that the heathens did not help even their own brethren in faith; while the Jews never begged, and “the godless Galileans,” as he malignantly styled the Christians, supplied not only their own, but even the heathen poor, and thus aided the worst of causes by a good practice.

But of course all these attempts to regenerate heathenism by foreign elements were utterly futile. They were like galvanizing a decaying corpse, or grafting fresh scions on a dead trunk, sowing good seed on a rock, or pouring new wine into old bottles, bursting the bottles and wasting the wine. 

II. The negative side of Julian’s plan was the suppression and final extinction of Christianity (the positive side of his plan was the restoration and reformation of heathenism—H.V.) 

In this he proceeded with extraordinary sagacity. He abstained from bloody persecution, because he would not forego the credit of philosophical toleration, nor give the church the glory of a new martyrdom. A history of three centuries also had proved that violent measures were fruitless. According to Libanius it was a principle with him, that fire and sword cannot change a man’s faith, and that persecution only begets hypocrites and martyrs. Finally, he doubtless perceived that the Christians were too numerous to be assailed by a general persecution without danger of a bloody civil war. Hence, he oppressed the church “gently,” under show of equity and universal toleration. He persecuted not so much the Christians as Christianity, by endeavoring to draw off its confessors. He thought to gain the result of persecution without incurring the personal reproach and the public danger of persecution itself. His disappointments, however, increased his bitterness, and had he returned victorious from the Persian war, he would probably have resorted to open violence. In fact, Gregory Nazianzen and Sozomen, and some heathen writers also tell of local persecutions in the provinces, particularly at Anthusa and Alexandria, with which the emperor is, at least indirectly, to be charged. His officials acted in those cases, not under public orders indeed, but according to the secret wish of Julian, who ignored their illegal proceedings as long as he could, and then discovered his real views by lenient censure and substantial acquittal of the off ending magistrates. 

He first, therefore, employed against the Christians of all parties and sects the policy of toleration, in hope of their destroying each other by internal controversies. He permitted the orthodox bishops and all other clergy, who had been banished under Constantius, to return to their dioceses, and left Arians, Appollinarians, Novatians, Macedonians, Donatists, and so on, to themselves. He affected compassion for the “poor, blind, deluded Galileans, who forsook the most glorious privilege of man, the worship of the immortal gods, and instead of them worshipped dead men and dead men’s bones.” He once even suffered himself to be insulted by a blind bishop, Maris of Chalcedon, who, when reminded by him, that the Galilean God could not restore his eyesight, answered: “I thank my God for my blindness, which spares me the painful sight of such an impious apostate as thou.” He afterwards, however, caused the bishop to be severely punished. So in Antioch, also, he bore with philosophic equanimity the ridicule of the Christian populace, but avenged himself on the inhabitants of the city by unsparing satire in the Misopogon. His whole bearing towards the Christians was instinct with bitter hatred and accompanied with sarcastic mockery. This betrays itself even in the contemptuous term,Galileans, which he constantly applies to them after the fashion of the Jews, and which he probably also commanded to be given them by others. He considered them a sect of fanatics contemptible to men and hateful to the gods, and as atheists in open war with all that was sacred and divine in the world. He sometimes had representatives of different parties dispute in his presence, and then exclaimed: “No wild beasts are so fierce and irreconcilable as the Galilean sectarians.” When he found that toleration was rather profitable than hurtful to the church, and tended to soften the vehemence of doctrinal controversies, he proceeded, for example, to banish Athanasius, who was particularly offensive to him, from Alexandria, and even from Egypt, calling this greatest man of his age an insignificant manikin, and reviling him with vulgar language, because through his influence many prominent heathens, especially heathen women, passed over to Christianity. His toleration, therefore, was neither that of genuine humanity, nor that of religious indifferentism, but a hypocritical mask for a fanatical love of heathenism and a bitter hatred of Christianity.” 

The Lord willing, we will continue with this quotation, from Schaff’s History of the Christian Church in our following article.