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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Defeat of Paganism

Any imperial sympathy for pagan or Jewish worship ended with Julian's death, and antipagan and anti-Jewish legislation continued throughout the fourth and into the fifth and sixth centuries. Beginning in the decades before Julian's accession to power, the imperial campaign against paganism escalated gradually. By the end of the fourth century, both antipagan and anti-Jewish legislation would serve as licenses for the increasing number of acts of vandalism and violent destruction directed against pagan and Jewish places of worship carried out by Christian mobs, often at the instigation of the local clergy.

In 383, Gratian (emperor in the west, 367–75; joint emperor in the west, 375–83), one of whose mentors was Ambrose, the powerful and aggressively antipagan bishop of Milan, had relinquished the title and remaining responsibilities of the pontifex maximus, ordering also the removal of the altar of Victory from the senate. This action further widened the breach between the state and the old Roman religion. In 391, Theodosius I (379–95; joint emperor, 379–92) ordered that all temples be closed and that all forms of pagan worship cease. In the aftermath of the emperor's edicts, the bishop of Alexandria ordered the destruction of the city's main temple, the great Serapeum. This pattern of destruction continued, in Alexandria, Carthage, Gaza, and elsewhere, as the severe legislation directed against temples, pagan worship, and the old priesthood increased.

The repetitive nature of antipagan legislation bears witness to the persistence of traditional worship. Thus in 435, Emperors Theodosius II (emperor in the east, 408–50) and Valentinian III (emperor in the west, 425–55) ordered the destruction of all temples and shrines “if even now any remain entire.” As late as the sixth century, legislation was promulgated demanding the death penalty for the practice of sacrifice.

The policies of Emperor Justinian (527–65) were especially instrumental in the final phase of the Roman government's struggle against paganism. Justinian's policies were repressive not only toward pagans but also toward Jews, Samaritans, Manichaeans, and heretics. In 529 he closed the Neoplatonist school at Athens—an action consistent with his policy of prohibiting pagans from teaching, proclaimed in the same year, although not enforced consistently throughout the empire. Justinian also issued an edict demanding that all who were not yet baptized receive instruction in the “true faith of Christians” to become eligible for baptism. Failure to comply could result in confiscation of property or the loss of the right to an inheritance. Pagan worship was punishable by death.

Organized traditional worship seems to have persisted in the east somewhat longer than in the west. The dissolution and division of the western empire in the fifth and sixth centuries by the now Christian “barbarian” tribes of Europe was not fertile ground for the continuation of paganism in any organized form. Some pockets of paganism survived, especially in the countryside, and some pagan practices coexisted with Christianity, especially in the lives of new Christians. Astrology and the use of amulets for healing would have been especially difficult to eradicate. In fact, paganism continued to be of concern to church councils into the seventh century, though sources for organized pagan worship are spotty after the sixth. Christianity triumphed, but only after incorporating and then promulgating much of the classical culture formerly identified with paganism.

Many historians of religion also argue that the triumph of Christianity was facilitated by its ability to adapt, transform, and internalize facets of the religious traditions with which it had competed during its formative centuries in such areas as its calendar and its evolving understanding of its key personages. Thus, even as Justinian was endeavoring to suppress in its entirety the worship of the goddesses who for millennia had been believed to sustain the recurring seasonal cycles of death and rebirth, he was building magnificent churches to Mary, mother of God and God-bearer, a more powerful, complex, and significant figure than the Mary of the New Testament, who receives relatively scant attention in the four Gospels. Although of ficially a focus of veneration and not worship as such, Mary shared, well before the sixth century, some of the features of the old goddesses such as Athena and Artemis, who, like her, were both virgins. Like Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose worship had spread throughout the empire, Mary was also the queen of heaven and an intercessor for humankind, whose love for her son had brought her honor and adoration; in both hymns and statuary Mary and Isis share attributes.

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