An unusual early Christian manuscript was offered for sale on the Istanbul flea market last week. Scholars identify the papyrus, which apparently survived in excellent condition after being hidden in what was once a summer palace in ancient Turkish Galatia, as shedding important light on the frustrations facing the campaign of the early Christian church to oppose all vestiges of paganism following the accession of the Emperor Constantine, and his decrees increasingly favoring Christians beginning in A.D. 313. The manuscript appears to be a letter from a former Christian church missionary in northern Galatia written to Archbishop Eudoxius of Constantinople in A.D. 360-61, just after that patriarch had assumed office.
The letter is surprisingly contemporary in tone, and uses different-colored inks and lettering to make its points in a style not seen before in early papyri. It reflects the considerable difficulties its author had encountered -- particularly among younger people -- in asking them to put aside their polytheistic and pagan ways and to become followers of Jesus Christ. Of significance is that it was written right about the time that Julian the Apostate assumed the emperorship on the death of Constantius II, in November 361. The latter, as a Christian, had issued several decrees against pagans, including closing their temples and banning sacrifices. The former earned the title "Apostate" because he tried to take the Roman Empire back to paganism. The author of the manuscript seems to believe that strategies such as Constantius' were harming the early Church, and favored moves such as those adopted by Julian upon his ascension. He (or she) also cites two anti-Christian polemics of the day by a certain Mercutius Leucippus, an author previously unknown to scholars.
A preliminary and unofficial translation, based on the work of author, scholar and speaker Rachel Held Evans, and using a typographical scheme to convey the different lettering styles, is as follows:
When we ask our audiences, after telling them we are followers of Jesus Christ the Messiah, what words or phrases best describe us, the most frequent response among the younger ones is that we are “anti-pagan.” For a staggering ten cities in a row, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for eight out of ten people we met on the road. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too rigid.”)
In a book written against our teachings, titled unChristian, Mercutius Leucippus writes:
“The pagan issue has become the ‘causa maxima’, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward pagans...has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”
Later inquiry, documented in Leucippus' You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons six out of ten of our recent converts have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their Apollo-worshipping friends. Eight thousand twenty-somethings have left the church, and this is one reason why.
In my experience, all the anecdotal evidence backs up the surveys.
When I speak at academies, I often take time to talk to students in the cenatio. When I ask them what issues are most important to them, they consistently report that they are frustrated by how the Church has treated their pagan Hellenistic friends. Some of these students would say they most identify with what groups like the Jesus-Jupiter Network term “Side A” (they believe pagan temples and ceremonies have the same value as Christian liturgies in the sight of God). Others better identify with “Side B” (they believe the Holy Eucharist is God’s eventual intent -- but only after many years of patient and brotherly dialogue -- for pagans and Christians alike). But every single student I have spoken with believes that the Church has mishandled its response to paganism.
Most have close Latin- and Greek-speaking friends.
Most feel that the Church’s response to pagansm is partly responsible for high rates of depression and suicide among their Greek and Roman friends, particularly those who are both multilingual and Christian.
Most are highly suspicious of ministries that encourage men and women with pagan attractions to marry fully practicing Christians in spite of their feelings.
Most feel that the church is complicit, at least at some level, in anti-pagan bullying.
And most...I daresay all...have expressed to me passionate opposition to legislative action against polytheism, such as that first introduced by the Emperor Constantine.
“When apostolicals turn their anti-pagan sentiments into a political campaign,” one college senior on her way to the Vestal Virgins school told me, “all it does is confirm to my Latin-speaking friends that they will never be welcome in the church. It makes them bitter, and it makes me mad too. This is why I never refer to myself as a Christian, except as necessary to get an imperial scholarship. The whole central idea -- that Christ was nailed as a criminal on a tree for everyone's so-called sins -- is a huge stumbling block to anyone's acceptance of it. Ugh. I’m embarrassed to be part of that group.”
I [the author] can relate.
When Bythnia's ruler amended his previous decrees by banning pagan-Christian marriage (even though it was already illegal under Roman law), members of my church at the time put signs in the agora declaring support for the initiative. From my perspective, the message this sent to the entire community was simple: EVERYONE BUT PAGANS WELCOME.
Marcus and I left the church soon afterwards.
Which brings me to North Galatia and Decretus Unum.
Despite the fact that in North Galatia, as in all Roman provinces, the law since Constantius Secundus has stated that marriage in the eyes of state is only between a Christian man and a Christian woman (since churches will not marry pagans), a proposal permanently to ban mixed (pagan-Christian) marriage in the region's churches was put to the plebiscite. The decree doesn’t appear to change anything on a practical level (though some are saying it may have unintended negative consequences on Christian relationships), but seems to serve primarily as an ideological statement
....an expensive, destructive, and impractical ideological statement.
Freemen in North Galatia—who you would think would be more opposed to tampering with religious laws—supported the proposal, and last week it passed. Religious leaders led the charge in support of the amendment, with 93-year-old Gulielmus Grammicus taking out multiple inscriptions supporting the proposal in fora across the state.
As I cast my urim and thummim last night in the caupona, the reaction among my friends fell into an imperfect but highly predictable pattern. Christians over 40 were celebrating. Christians under 40 were mourning. Reading through the comments, the same thought kept returning to my mind as occurred to me when I first saw that Gulielmus Grammicus inscription: You’re losing us.
I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again...(though I’m starting to think that no one is listening):
My generation is tired of the Christian-pagan culture wars.
We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.
And when it comes to paganism, we no longer think in the black-at-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the Greek and Latin communities to consider polytheism a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Decretus Unum hurts like hell.
Regardless of whether you identify most with Side A or Side B (or with one of the many variations within those two broad categories), it should be clear that proposals like these needlessly offend Greeks and Romans, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and pagan—from the Church.
So my question for those apostolicals leading the charge in the culture wars is this: Is it worth it?
Is a political “victory” really worth losing hordes of more young people to cynicism regarding the Church?
Is a political “victory” worth further alienating people who identify as pagan?
Is a political “victory” worth perpetuating the idea that apostolical Christians are at war with Jupiter- and Juno-worshippers?
And is a political “victory” worth drowning out that quiet but persistent internal voice that asks—what if we get this wrong?
Too many Christian leaders seem to think the answer to that question is “yes,” and it's costing them.
Because young Christians are ready for peace.
We are ready to lay down our arms.
We are ready to start washing feet instead of waging war.
And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the Church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere.
* * *
[End of unofficial translation.] There is no indication of whether Eudoxius ever replied to this letter -- shortly after it was written, his main problem became disagreements over Arianism. Indeed, the location where it was found -- upper Galatia, which is not known to have been visited by Eudoxius -- may be an indication that, for whatever reason, the letter was never sent.