Chapter 13. Opposing Christians: Donatists and Caecilianists
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Chapter 13  Opposing Christians Donatists and Caecilianists Resistant Christians in North Africa Resistance to Constantine’s religious agenda did not arise from pagans alone. Constantine had only barely announced his conversion publicly when he became aware of dissent in the Christian community of North Africa. Probably in 308, a controversy had broken out there over episcopal succession that would prove agonizingly long lived and disturbingly virulent.1 This region, it must be remembered , had suffered more from the Great Persecution than any other in the West. Although our evidence indicates that only the first of Diocletian’s four persecutory edicts—ordering the destruction of churches and the confiscation of scriptures and sacred vessels—was ever promulgated in North Africa, we have clear indications that sacrifice was also frequently demanded as a test of loyalty and that resisters were executed in considerable numbers between 303 and 304.2 These same texts confirm in explicit detail the degree to which the apparatus of civic and state governance was deployed in the process of prosecuting and executing North African Christians. In compliance with the imperial edict, curial officials conducted thorough inquests to identify suspected Christians and ferret out their property for confiscation and destruction; if the Christians resisted the order and refused to surrender sacred belongings, they were tried by civic officials and remanded to the court of the provincial governor in Carthage; there they were again tried and, if they continued to profess Christianity, executed.3 The enforcement of the imperial order against the Christians was thus possible only with cooperation from the leadership classes of North African cities. Although this pressure did not lead to the collapse of the Christian community , it created rifts in its membership when some—likely many—succumbed to pressures to hand over sacred vessels and scriptures in order to avoid arrest, loss of status, and even execution. Fellow Christians of a rigorist bent labeled these Opposing Christians 247 compromisers traditores, Latin for both “handers over” and “betrayers.”4 They questioned the faith of the accommodationists and argued that the taint of betrayal by any who were Christian clergy extended outward to those they had baptized, ordained, or consecrated. After all, could a bishop guilty of surrendering the scriptures for destruction baptize a catechumen or ordain another clergyman in any legitimate way? Rigorists and accommodationists alike agreed that any cleric proven to have turned over holy property should be deposed, but the rigorists went so far as to argue that those whom the traditores had baptized before their deposition should be rebaptized by a legitimate episcopal authority, and those they had consecrated were equally stained with the taint of betrayal and were thus unworthy of recognition. In other words, the rigorists believed that resistance to state persecution was definitional for Christian self-identity. True Christians were those who had stood up to the persecutors or who could claim direct descent—confessional and ritual rather than genetic—from these original martyrs and confessors. The divisions this created in the African church came to a head after the bishop of Carthage, Mensurius, died in absentia and his deacon, Caecilianus, was hastily elected in his stead, probably in 308.5 A shadow was cast over Caecilianus’s election from the beginning, both because he was consecrated in the absence of the bishops of Numidia, who were normally charged with installing the Carthaginian prelate, and because his opponents also accused him of being a traditor, of having forcibly prevented faithful Christians from bringing aid to confessors in prison, and of having been consecrated by another alleged traditor, Felix, bishop of Abthugni.6 Caecilianus’s adversaries thus assembled a council of seventy bishops in Carthage (sometime between early 308 and early 311) that ordered his deposition and replacement by a lector named Maiorinus.7 Thus was born a schism between two competing bishops of Carthage, each of whom immediately began rallying rival subordinates throughout the North African provinces to their respective sides. In the years to come, the community of rigorists would be referred to as the Donatists, after Donatus of Casae Nigrae, who succeeded Maiorinus as bishop of Carthage in the course of 313.8 Although modern scholarship preserves this collective appellation for convenience’s sake, the rigorists referred to themselves as “the church of the pure” and “the church of the truth” because of their belief that their heritage had not been tainted by the stain of falsehood and betrayal.9 Likewise , the Donatists foisted on their opponents the collective...


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