Wednesday, September 5, 2012
"The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" [Ch. 15-16]: Divorcing Theology and History
In Chapter 15 of "The Decline" Gibbon describes what he considers the chief reasons for Christianity's success in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries AD and in Chapter 16 he outlines the relationship between the early Christians and the Roman Emperors from Nero to Constantine.
Gibbon attempts to provide an impartial account of the rise of Christianity contrasted with the biased traditional histories of the Church. For me reading Gibbon raised the question of the possibility (or impossibility) of being truly objective. For the most part I think Gibbon was successful as he debunked mistaken beliefs about the early Christians using primary sources rather than Church-sanctioned secondary sources. On the other hand, Gibbon had a habit of making value judgments on people and things. He was particularly harsh on the Jews. Wouldn't a truly objective writer withold his opinions even if he were writing about the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan? He also referred to many religions (Christianity, paganism, Judaism) as "superstition" but wouldn't a truly impartial writer not dismiss any religion (or athiesm, deism etc.) as none can be proven or disproven based on empirical evidence?
I say none of this to slam Gibbon. He proved to be a very capable historian and I found "The Decline" very informative and readable. History and religion/mythology are two of my favourite subects, so naturally I was interested in the topic Gibbon was writing about. Modern skepticism is in full force in "the Decline" as Gibbon removes God from view and focuses on what can be discovered on empirical evidence and brainpower alone. Perhaps the boldest statement Gibbon made in his book is that the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire has been exaggerated by the Church. Gibbon estimated just under 2,000 Christians were put to death by a lawful sentence. It's still a significant number, but far lower than the Church maintained in the past.
So overall, I quite enjoyed Gibbon and would like to read "the Decline" in its entirety one day.