Gibbon - Decline and Fall chs. 15 & 16

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  • Created by: Nikita
  • Created on: 02-04-13 00:17

Gibbon questions the legitimacy and persuasiveness of the early church doctrine, but he does this indirectly, in a thinly veiled attempt at understanding the concept of the parousia in the first generation of Christianity. Whilst trying to explain the fervent nature of Christian faith, he states that the “primitive” Christian might have his “fears” about “eternal tortures” which might then “assist the progress of his faith” as he would come to see Christianity as “the safest and most prudent party that he could possibly embrace”, all the while persuading the reader that people joined Christianity out of fear rather than genuine faith inspired by providence. This was a claim that attracted much criticism in Gibbon’s own time, because he clearly does not believe that the spread of Christianity had been an extraordinary event, or that it could not be explained rationally.

Scepticism or critical method? Gibbon uses references to wider scholarship to try and support his controversial statements. For example, where he discussed the idea of exclusivist salvation existing up until his own time he writes that we cannot “refuse to admit the conclusions which must be drawn from the viiith and xviiith of her [the church’s] articles”. This is cogent as it proposes that Gibbon’s own conclusions from these theological articles must be universal, and it also presumes that Gibbon has the understanding and learning to have researched this as an independent issue in the text.The reader is naturally more persuaded to then sympathise with the condemned pagans, as this exclusivist attitude of the church is projected back onto the church of Roman times, with Gibbon’s own conclusion now tainting our view of all early Church activity. Gibbon suggests with some success that the persecution of early Christians has been exaggerated, in order to enlarge the number of early martyrs who died for the Christian faith. He proposes that the Romans always acted under the “maxim of universal toleration”, and by implying that the Romans tolerated the Jews, he implies, by extension, that they would have tolerated the early Christians too. Gibbon uses several techniques to persuade the reader of his claim, most cogent is his rational, and mathematical calculation of how many martyrs actually died, using the approximate geographical dominion of various emperors and then dividing by the number of years they reigned. Gibbon also uses comparisons to more modern rulers (Charles V and Louis XIV) whose conduct was apparently much more “criminal”. The advantage of this comparison here is that more people would be familiar with these religious persecutions (particularly those against Protestants by Louis XIV) and so automatically view the Romans in a better light, by comparison, making it harder to believe that they persecuted so many Christians.  

This polemical tone intensifies when Gibbon criticises monks (authors of the earliest church chronicles and histories) directly, as the origins of Christianity have apparently been “negligently recorded”. He proposes forward that the monks recorded “legends”, not true history, and that these legends were


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