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The Church of Apostles and Martyrs:
Volumes 1 & 2

by henri daniel-rops
translated by audrey butler
cluny, 786 pages, $55.95

The young are eschewing marriage. Birth rates are collapsing. Abortion and even post-natal infanticide are commonplace. Yawning inequalities divide the haves from the have-nots, spreading decadence among the former while immiserating the latter. Society is losing the thread of its ­noblest aspirations, the meaning of its civic ideals. And the faith is widely reviled, its claims illegible in the public square.

This is all true enough for contemporary Christians. But I’m describing the situation of our spiritual ancestors in imperial Rome, the chief setting for the first book in Henri Daniel-Rops’s monumental History of the Church of Christ, recently reissued by the invaluable Cluny Media. Published in a ten-book series over the span of two decades, from 1948 to 1965, Daniel-­Rops’s ecclesiastical history became a massive global hit before falling into relative obscurity, as masterpieces sometimes do.

The books owed their popularity in the last century not just to Daniel-­Rops’s lapidary prose style and hefty erudition. Equally important was how the author refracted his subject through two lenses simultaneously: that of a serious modern historian, and that of a serious Catholic. He thus approached the Christian past with the mind of the Church, without sacrificing the demands of ordinary intelligence in the bargain.

He followed a well-trodden path. Almost from the beginning, the people of God have been writing their history. The books of the Old Testament are notable for their ­many narratives of Israel’s encounters with the one God. Over and over, the same milestones are recalled: Egypt, Moses, Sinai, the Law and its betrayal, divine punishment and redemption, a land flowing with milk and honey . . .

The New Testament, in the Christian telling, fulfilled this progression and disclosed its innermost meaning. The joys and travails of the past now appeared more clearly as chapters of a universal salvation history, the record of God’s redemptive action in the world. Dragged before the Jewish mob, the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, spoke as a historian of sorts. He retold the same story—only insisting, at the price of his life, on its cruciform denouement (Acts 7).

Fulfilled in Christ, salvation history wasn’t over. The locus of divine action now shifted to the Church, which extended the Incarnation into present time, into the “already and not yet.” The Book of Acts, in which Stephen’s testament appears, is, strictly speaking, a work of ecclesiastical history. True, the inspired author leaves out many basic facts that a professional historian might have agonized over, such as the exact dates of events. Instead, he focuses on peculiar details: for instance, that it was a Macedonian man, and not, say, an Egyptian, who haunted Saint Paul’s famous dream, beseeching him to “come over and help us” (Acts 16:9). These little details are pregnant with a meaning and mystery that point to the generous interventions of a higher power.

There must have been a reason that Paul was called to the Greco-­Roman sphere; a significance, as well, to the apostle’s overlapping identities, as a member of the Jewish community and a Roman citizen (with rights he not infrequently invoked to dodge trouble). It wasn’t a mere coincidence, but a matter of divine will, that the faith put down its deepest roots on the civilizationally fertile shores of the Mediterranean, lands tilled by the Greek passion for philosophy and the Roman love of law.

Or so concluded generations of Christian historians, concerned as they were with recording not just human actions, but their providential design. Early ecclesiastical historiography was thus mission-oriented: It helped Christians navigate a given conjuncture by reference to how, in the past, their forebears had cooperated with God’s action through the Church—or how they had failed to do so. The past, to belabor the obvious, was a guide to the present and future.

Daniel-Rops’s majestic history unfolds in this spirit. The Church of Apostles and Martyrs begins with the emergence of the first Christian communities as a Jewish offshoot in Palestine and ends (roughly) with the Constantinian conversion and the Church’s battles against the earliest heresies. Telling this story means venturing far beyond the lives of apostles, Church Fathers and early popes, heroic virgins and martyrs.

There is plenty of that, to be sure, but the book also compasses Jewish and Roman history, art history, archaeology, historical theology, scriptural history, and psychology. (A supremely insightful portrait of Paul defends the authenticity of the Damascene conversion against attempts to frame the apostle as a victim of delusional or epileptic visions—how else to explain, asks Daniel-Rops, Paul’s otherwise “perfectly balanced and unified life of efficacious service”?) There is even what today would be called social history, in richly detailed accounts of how Roman Christians of different social classes related to each other (the upshot: as brothers). Daniel-Rops’s descriptions of the earliest liturgies will move Christians of every denomination.

At the same time, the book offers a robust defense of the Catholic Church’s claims, not least the principle of Petrine supremacy. The evidence marshaled here is familiar enough—Pope St. ­Clement’s handing down orders to the church at Corinth and apparently being obeyed; St. ­Ignatius of Antioch’s characterization of Rome as “president of the brotherhood of the faithful, according to the law of Christ”; St. Irenaeus’s injunction that Christians elsewhere “must be in harmony” with “the church which presides in the city of the region of the Romans”; and on and on. For Daniel-Rops, those who resist this mountain of evidence must finally cop to an ahistorical ­ecclesiology. “The feeling of unity,” he writes, “was deeply ingrained in the Christian conscience. Was it not to be made manifest in deeds” through submission to a living principle of unity?

But these are wearisome debates, now relegated to committees on ecumenical dialogue ever on the verge of making “progress.” More useful is the light Daniel-Rops’s history sheds on modern intra-Catholic debates that, if anything, have become more acute in the decades since the book was first published. The Roman imperium he describes bears some striking resemblances to the liberal imperium under which Christians labor today, right down to the elites mouthing ideological pieties they themselves barely believe, and holding others, namely Christians, accountable for refusing to go along.

In response to our crises, some Christians have been tempted to return to the “catacombs,” or even to see the Church “purified” down to mustard-seed size as a prelude to healthier growth. Rather than seek to envelop modern ­civilization, such as it is, they would build smaller communities characterized by intense piety, homespun institutions, and a readiness for ostracism.

For others, today’s disorders are cause to emphasize local and national political forms, over and against the more capacious and generous modes of political belonging that once structured Christians’ collective experience and the Catholic Church’s relations with temporal powers. This second group—Christian nationalists of various stripes—is Rome-wary not necessarily in a theological or ecclesial sense, but in a political one.

Daniel-Rops’s book militates against both tendencies. The most important lessons of his history are, first, that the Church of the Catacombs was, in fact, a highly organized, hierarchical, corporate institution prepared to capture an empire for Christ; and second, that the ­universalist—in the sense of world-spanning—religion of this new church was from the ­beginning suited to and even prefigured by the political universalism of the Roman Empire. Roman-ness, this history teaches, is of the essence of ­Christianity.

Start with the modern Catholic yearning for catacombs and mustard seeds, the new abhorrence of worldly power and authoritative structures in favor of everything small. The romance is based on an ahistorical fantasy. As Daniel-Rops archly notes, the very word “catacombs tends to represent these early believers as a race of troglodytes, spending the whole of their lives underground, hiding from their enemies, and leaving their subterranean hideouts only to go and die amid the sunlight of the amphitheaters.” Yes, the catacombs were used as a shelter against successive waves of persecution, but “it would be absurd to regard them as the sole framework of Christian life during the faith’s first few centuries.”

On the contrary, Christians were deeply and publicly embedded within the larger structures of pagan social and political life. “We Christians,” wrote Tertullian, “do not live apart from the rest of the world. We visit the Forum, the baths, the workshops, the stores, the markets and all the public places.” This interpenetration took place within ­individual families, many of which included Christian and pagan members, now raging in antagonism, now living in uneasy accord; the historical record even preserves the case of a pagan husband who, when he discovered that his wife was no longer leaving the home to cheat on him, but to worship Christ, “begged her to take back her lovers”—better a cuckold than married to a Christian.

Even those monastics, missionaries, and wild-eyed visionaries who consciously chose to live apart from the world for the sake of the gospel, Daniel-Rops shows, were integrated within and hierarchically governed by the outward-facing Church. There were even rules dictating how laypeople should treat missionaries and “prophets” who spoke in tongues, whether because God spoke to them or because they were a little touched in the head. (The rules: Don’t lodge them for too long and don’t give them any cash.)

As for martyrdom, the author makes judicious use of the ancient martyrologies to demonstrate the sheer scale of the Romans’ savagery toward their “most loyal subjects,” as Christians often earnestly professed themselves to be, as well as the heights of supernatural heroism summited by these victims. Martyrdom, the author writes, “was a fundamental attribute of the primitive Church, a sacramental act, which was granted like a gift, ‘the Grace of the Graces,’ to certain privileged souls, and whose supernatural effects were transferred upon the whole community of the children of God.”

Yet contrary to the popular image of a Church of the Catacombs composed entirely of supernatural heroes, Daniel-Rops delicately notes that there were plenty of lukewarm or otherwise nonheroic Christians in the first few centuries, people who succumbed under torture or found themselves unable to bear social ostracism. Their murky betrayals of the Lord caused the sacrifices of the martyrs to shine even more brightly (though Daniel-Rops suggests that at least some of the most prominent Roman cases, such as St. Agnes’s, were probably embellished by the community long after the fact, while many other martyrs subjected to unspeakable brutality are known only to God, hailing as they did from less distinguished families or the provinces).

Here, too, Daniel-Rops’s account throws cold water on the fatalistic over-eagerness for “martyrdom” among today’s doom-mongering would-be troglodytes. As he notes, the Church as a whole and most individual Christians didn’t go out of their way to bring about martyrdom, and they looked askance at members who threw ordinary prudence to the winds and tried to force the hands of the Romans: “We reprimand those who [willingly] submit themselves to the tribunals,” declared one ancient text. “This is not the spirit of the Gospel.” There is a lesson there for Christian intellectuals today who urge their fellow believers to forgo political solutions to persecution by gender ideologues and others, on the grounds that ours is a martyr’s faith.

Which brings us to the second of Daniel-Rops’s two main contributions to contemporary debates, namely, his clarification of the Church’s political congruity with Rome. “The Revolution of the Cross,” as the author calls the rise of ­Christianity, pitted a new doctrine against the ideology of an established imperial order. Sadistic madmen like Nero aside, some pagan rulers recognized this fundamental opposition and proved to be the most ferocious and systematic of the early Church’s persecutors. And yet, just as there was a providential synthesis between Greek philosophy and Judeo-­Christian revelation in the realm of ideas, so there was a natural kinship between the legal and political practice of Rome and that of the nascent Church. The result was that, notwithstanding the violence meted out by Rome to Christians, the Church came to assume Roman political forms.

For Daniel-Rops, the essence of this unlikely congruity is universalism, beginning with Rome’s drive to subject all nations to its own governing rationality. The Romans built reliable roads linking their vast domains. And down these roads they spread the same legally ordered way of being in the world, whether their subject peoples liked it or not. At great length, the author argues that these were the essential “material conditions” (his term) without which early Christianity couldn’t have flourished. But more than mere material conditions, Roman reality structured the Christian mind and lent it the same universalist impulse. “While Roman universalism still appears far inferior to Christian universalism, it must nevertheless have been a useful introduction to the latter.”

This ambition runs counter not just to the relatively new “conservative” Catholic fashion for playing small ball, but to the movement for nationalism and the ­nationalization of churches that was of the essence of Protestantism. Contrary to a certain Protestant narrative, unfortunately adopted by some Anglosphere Catholics, the Constantinian conversion didn’t suddenly shift Christianity’s organizational gears, away from the humble and small and toward the cosmopolitan and imperial. As Daniel-Rops argues, “as far back as 220 Origen was already writing: ‘Because God was anxious that all the nations of the world should be ready to receive the doctrines of Christ, His Providence subjected them all to the Emperor of Rome.’”

Christianity could have emerged as a religion of isolated, inland ­places. But it didn’t take that shape. It was a religion of polyglot ports and city-states under the administration of a multinational empire. Administration itself—the dread hobgoblin of the American conservative mind—wasn’t alien to the Church, but came naturally. “As soon as it needed to provide itself with an administration,” writes Daniel-Rops, “it borrowed its ideas on the subject from the Imperium,” including the office of pontifex maximus.

In this sense, a critic of Catholicism like Yoram Hazony is right to claim, in his book The Virtue of Nationalism, that the Church stood for a universalist imperium. He goes terribly wrong in linking the Catholic empire with modern Germanic imperialism, including Nazism—a fundamentally particularistic enterprise and an especially nasty one at that. And whether Catholics should go along with Hazony in his normative judgment of the ­imperial form and political universalism as such is still a different matter. But Hazony is not wrong about the fundamental political form of Catholicism, which to this day inclines senior churchmen to prefer to deal with large transnational institutions and to strive everywhere for legally regularized, well-administered relations with even hostile worldly powers, such as Communist China. These are deeply ingrained Roman impulses.

Time and again, Daniel-­Rops shows how developments often taken to be post-Constantinian ruptures with early Christianity are, in fact, in deep continuity with the era of martyrdom and the catacombs. It’s ­unfortunate, then, that in the largely sympathetic profile of ­Constantine that concludes the political portion of the book, the author falls into the same ahistorical tendencies criticized in much of the rest of the book.

To wit, Daniel-Rops decries “the contact between Church and State” that occurred after Constantine. As far as the Roman East goes, the author’s heartburn is understandable. It really was that case that in Byzantium, “the Orthodox Church, Hellenic Culture and the State were to merge into a single entity,” as he says. Such collapsing of the realms (as opposed to rightly ordering them) is antithetical to Catholic politics. It is, sadly, the pattern that to this day prevails in Orthodox lands. But Daniel-Rops doesn’t stop there. Rather, he traces “all” of the Church’s subsequent problems to the Constantinian germ of a “Christian authoritarianism”—a curiously unqualified declamation for an otherwise careful historian.

He reproaches the post-Constantinian church for appealing to Roman temporal authorities to crack down against paganism and various heresies, but he makes scant effort to explain why the early Christians didn’t see this procedure as a violation of their principles. Nor do the charges sit comfortably with his own arguments earlier in the book. If the Church of the Catacombs deployed administration, obsessed over its hierarchical structures, and sought to compass civilization with the loving message of the Incarnation, then why wouldn’t it seek to extend the Incarnation into the political sphere, which, in the classical telling, stood in an architectonic relationship with everything else men and women did?

Glancing through a rearview mirror, one framed by the Church’s own moral teaching and the humanizing sensibility she bequeathed to humankind, we might condemn the specific methods deployed seventeen centuries ago. We might with justification bristle at the burning of Porphyry’s books. But Daniel-Rops goes further than that—too far, indeed. He objects to the Church’s determination to enshrine the faith as the Roman public cult by appeal to the “secular arm.” But had she renounced this right, the Church would have transgressed the whole logic of classical political rationality, according to which “patriotism was piety, and exile excommunication,” in Fustel de Coulanges’s famous formulation. The Church resolved not to break with the classical world on this count, and Daniel-Rops’s ­objection in effect puts him at odds with the whole political thrust of historic Christianity.

In these final pages, one feels more strongly than elsewhere the postwar atmosphere of ­Daniel-Rops’s time bearing down on, and distorting, his historiography, not least in the jarringly anachronistic use of “authoritarianism” where he might have used “authoritative structures.” Even with the constant presence of danger and the occasional need to retreat to the catacombs, Christian life in the centuries prior to the Constan­tinian conversion was already developing authoritative structures, and at a relentless pace. Such structures are always necessary for governance, spiritual and temporal.

The general tendency of these structures was expansion, away from the margins and into the center of human affairs. Organization was the name of the game. There were rules for worship, for resolving disputes among brethren, for receiving new members, for dealing with apostasy, and on and on. None of this would make sense if the goal were to live apart from the world—or to eschew the coercion that inevitably is a part of all social organization. It all makes perfect sense, however, if the community conceived itself as a corporate extension of the Incarnation into the world at large, determined to burrow its way into the heart of universal civilization. And thank God it succeeded.

Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact.

Image by Larry Koester via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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