In the region surrounding the principality of Orhay (Edessa), which claimed for itself the title of the first Christian state in the world, there was also a latent monotheism. There the god Marilaha was worshiped as the universal Lord-God. This proto-monotheism first paved the way for the success of Judaism in Edessa. Since there were in Edessa, as in all of Syria and western Mesopotamia, numerous examples of divine triads, the environment was again peculiarly receptive to Christianity, as it enriched these two concepts with the figure of a divine-human mediator and made them more accessible.
Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 11-12
What exactly was going on in the progression of ancient peoples away from a pantheon of gods and toward something more like monotheism? And this seemingly right around the coming of Christ? Was the Holy Spirit using the influence of Judaism to slowly disseminate ideas in the ancient world that would prepare the it for the gospel? Or resurrecting an ancient “memory” of the monotheistic origin of the broken polytheistic systems of late antiquity?
Whatever was going on, a remarkable number of peoples in the Roman and Persian empires – and in their borderlands – were peculiarly ready for the preaching of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Perhaps this is one part of what the Scripture means when it says, at the fullness of time (Gal 4:4).
How did Patrick do it? We have noted already his earthiness and warmth. But these are qualities that make for a lowering of hostility and suspicion; of themselves they do not gain converts among the strong-willed. We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage – his refusal to be afraid of them – would have impressed them immediately; and, as his mission lengthened into years and came to be seen clearly as a lifetime commitment, his steadfast loyalty and supernatural generosity must have moved them deeply. For he had transmuted their pagan virtues of loyalty, courage, and generosity into the Christian equivalents of faith, hope, and charity.
Roman religion had long since ossified, since it provided no oral principles, no way of salvation, no possibility for a personal relationship with the divinity, and no emotional home in a faith community. It functioned, at best, as the personified ideal of civic life and the state. At worst, it deteriorated into a cult of the ruler, the idolization of a living person, which began with Emperor Nero and under Domitian was required of all citizens. In 85 CE Domitian began presumptuously signing documents as ‘Lord and God.’
Since no god, except for the Jewish, made a claim of absoluteness, the gods became interchangeable. ‘The various cults were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the authorities as equally useful.’
The phrase “the violent bear it away” fascinated the twentieth-century Irish-American storyteller Flannery O’Connor, who used it as the title of one of her novels. O’Connor’s surname connects her to an Irish royal family descended from Conchobor (pronounced “Connor”), the prehistoric king of Ulster… In the western world, the antiquity of Irish lineages is exceeded only by that of the Jews.
Rome remained the sole capital of the empire until Emperor Constantine I (ruled 312-337), for strategic reasons, made the city of Byzantium on the Bosporus into a second, new capital, thus shifting the imperial centre of gravity to the east. Constantine I took this step for two reasons. First, increasing military pressure from the Goths and Sarmatians on the Danube and the Sassanians on the Euphrates called for the presence of the emperor and the organs of government close to the threatened eastern border. Second, the new capital controlled the maritime trade with Egypt and the Middle East, as well as the continental trade routes that linked Europe with Asia.
Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 11
Better profit and fear of the barbarians, plus a leader not afraid of upsetting the traditionalists. Remember, this is the same Constantine who also called for the council of Nicaea and made Christianity legal and then later the official religion of the empire. The man was obviously OK with shaking things up.
Patrick devoted the last thirty years of his life – from, roughly, his late forties to his late seventies – to his warrior children, that they might “seize the everlasting kingdoms” with all the energy and intensity they had lately devoted to killing and enslaving one another and seizing one another’s kingdoms. When he used that phrase in his open letter to the British Christians, he was echoing the mysterious saying of Jesus, which seems almost to have been uttered with the Irish in mind: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” In the gospel story, the passionate, the outsized, the out-of-control have a better shot at seizing heaven than the contained, the calculating, and those of whom this world approves. Patrick, indeed, seems to have been attracted to the same kinds of oddball, off-center personalities that attracted Jesus, and this attraction alone makes him unusual in the history of churchmen.
The cultural policy of the Parthians was, until the start of the Common Era, hellenophile. In addition to the Parthian language of Arcasid Pahlavi, Greek and Aramaic remained in use. In the realm of religion, Greco-Roman deities were popular with the ruling family, until a nationalistic resistance movement from the Persian heartland led to a revival of the old Iranian beliefs of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. The Parthians then fostered the building of fire temples and began to collect the the Zoroastrian traditions that were later codified in the Avesta.
While the spread of Zoroastrianism was confined to the Parthian-Iranian cultural sphere, the cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian god Mithra, widespread in Iran, crossed the cultural boundary of the Euphrates and won over so many followers in the Roman Empire that in the second and third centuries it was one of the chief rivals of early Christianity. Mithra was the chief deity of the pre-Zoroastrian Iranian pantheon. He was worshiped as the god of justice and the patron of treaties. In Zoroastrianism, he supported Ahura Mazda in his battle against evil. In the Hellenistic context he was identified with the sun god Helios, and in Roman belief with Sol Invictus, which made him the favourite god of the army. The goal of the Mithra mysteries, widely popular in the Roman Empire, was to free the soul, which had been born in heaven, from the constraints of the body and to return it, via the seven cosmic spheres, to its origin. On the whole, a spirit of religious tolerance predominated among the Parthians, which helped enable the rapid spread of Christianity.
Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 10-11
It’s interesting to note that for the first several centuries of Christianity, Christians experienced greater toleration in the Parthian East than in the Roman West. This situation would dramatically reverse in the 300s.
Is there evidence that other ancient civilizations believed in a past where the world had one language, as Genesis 11 teaches? Yes, apparently.
11:1 one language. A text from Mesopotamia called the Enmerkar Epic indicates that the people in that culture also believed that the earth had previously had a single language. The tablet reads in part:
“Man had no rival.
In those days the lands of Shubar (and) Hamazi,
Harmony-tongued (?) Sumer,
the great land of the decrees of princeship,
Uri, the land having all that all is appropriate (?),
the land Martu, resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison (?),
To Enlil in one tongue…”
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 27
Like the better-known parallels to the great flood (e.g. Gilgamesh), it appears that language disaster of Babel was also remembered and passed down in other Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Fascinating.
This is a fascinating documentary showing how recent archaeology in Central Asia is expanding our knowledge of the nature of ancient and medieval Christianity in this part of the world. I’m convinced the more research that can be done, the more we will learn that Christianity spread far earlier and further than we ever expected.
Even Patrick’s great prayer in Irish – sometimes called “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” because it was thought to protect him from hostile powers, sometimes called “The Deer’s Cry” because it was thought to make him resemble a deer to the eyes of those seeking to do him harm – cannot be definitely ascribed to him. Characteristics of its language would assign it to the seventh, or even to the eighth, century. On the other hand, it is Patrician to its core, the first ringing assertion that the universe itself is the Great Sacrament, magically designed by its loving Creator to bless and succor human beings. The earliest expression of European vernacular poetry, it is, in attitude, the work of a Christian druid, a man of both faith and magic. Its feeling is entirely un-Augustinian; but it is this feeling that will go on to animate the best poetry of the Middle Ages. If Patrick did not write it (at least in its current form), it surely takes its inspiration from him. For in this cosmic incantation, the inarticulate outcast who wept for slaves, aided common men in difficulty, and loved sunrise and sea at last finds his voice. Appropriately, it is an Irish voice.