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  • There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire
  • H. A. Drake
There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire. By Michael Gaddis. [The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 39.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005. Pp. xiv, 396.)

One of the most difficult questions for students of early Christianity to confront is the reason for the violence and coercion that followed in the wake of Constantine's conversion early in the fourth century. Scholarship, of course, has had a comfortable answer for generations:Christianity, as Edward Gibbon taught us, is inherently intolerant; once Constantine gave them access to the levers of power, Christians quite naturally used them to suppress and persecute their religious rivals. Despite this solution's prima facie plausibility, however, it has always had gaps, one of the biggest being its failure to grapple with a strong pacifist movement based on Jesus' central commandment to return hatred with love. For scholars attuned to this problem, the issue has been to find a plausible alternative explanation for Christianity's coercive turn.

With this book, Michael Gaddis does just that. Using as both his title and a leitmotif for the strands of his argument the Egyptian firebrand Shenoute's retort to a pagan magistrate whose house he had ransacked ("There is no crime for those who have Christ"), Gaddis takes his reader into the mind of those late antique zealots who did so much to reshape the face of Christianity during the period between the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Demonstrating how these rigorists and their supporters justified such actions as God's anger and not their own, Gaddis argues that religious violence grew out of a distinct shift in Christian thinking about martyrdom. What was once the reward for exemplary suffering and endurance became instead a reward for "those who struck out directly against the enemies of the faith"(p. 93).

But the thinking of zealots is only part of the problem. More important, as Gaddis recognizes, is understanding why their actions were accepted by the wider community. Scholars have long recognized that monks drew much of their prestige from their willingness to suffer like martyrs, but this connection did not explain either the greater propensity to violence or the readiness of other Christians to accept it. A new discourse about martyrdom supplies the missing link. It shows itself in John Chrysostom's urging his congregation to rebuke and even strike "blasphemers," because in this way they would be imitating the martyrs (p. 175).

Discourse, more than violence itself, is the real subject of Gaddis' interest, and it leads him to two important conclusions. First, unlike so much modern scholarship, Gaddis does not identify the thoughts and actions of the Shenoutes of Late Antiquity with mainstream Christianity; instead, he firmly labels theirs an "extremist discourse" and devotes much space to demonstrating that it did not go uncontested. Second, he is equally attuned to the rhetorical strategies developed [End Page 130] by the imperial center to justify the violent suppression of Christian as well as pagan adversaries in the name of unity and salvation.

What tipped the balance in favor of extremists was their readiness to put their lives' on the line, and the readiness of their followers to read such behavior as martyrdom. "Their willingness to die,"he observes (in one of many fine turns of phrase), "gave them the right to kill"(p. 181). Gaddis is fully aware of the contemporary implications of his study. Indeed, he concludes that both secular and religious ideologies of the modern world have their origins in this Late Antique discourse. Such thinking makes this book not only important, but also timely.

H. A. Drake
University of California, Santa Barbara