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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Page 96, cont.


The evidence as to the actual refusal of the early Christians to bear arms cannot be properly appreciated, or even fully stated, without a consideration of the parallel evidence touching the extent to which they were willing to serve as soldiers. The material of the present section will therefore be found to a certain extent to interlace with that of the corresponding section in our next part. For the sake, however, of simplicity of arrangement, it will be best to marshal the facts as we have them, first on one side, and then on the other, and to postpone our final generalizations until we have given full consideration to both.

It will probably be agreed by all that the substance of the last four sections creates at least a strong prima facie presumption that the persons who expressed themselves in the way explained in those sections would decline on principle to render military service. This presumption becomes very much stronger when we are reminded that there was practically nothing in the conditions of the time which would put such pressure on any early Christian as to compel him either to be a soldier against his will or to suffer the consequences

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of refusing to do so.

We should expect therefore to find these Christians, at all events during the first few generations, refusing to serve as soldiers. With that expectation the little information that we possess is in almost entire harmony.(1) Apart from Cornelius and the one or two soldiers who may have been baptized with him by Peter at Caesarea (? 40 A.D.) and the gaoler baptized by Paul at Philippi (circ A.D. 49)(2) we have no direct or reliable evidence for the existence of a single Christian soldier until after 170 A.D.

Partly in justification, partly in amplification, of this negative statement, a few words must be said in regard to one or two incidents and epochs within the period indicated. Thus it is stated that Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus, 'believed' as a result of the teaching of Paul on his first mission journey(3) (47 A.D.). If this meant that Sergius Paulus became a Christian in the ordinary sense, he would have to be reckoned as another Christian soldier, for the proconsul of Cyprus was a military, as well as a civil, official: but the adherence of a man of proconsular rank to the Christian faith at this early date would be a very extraordinary occurrence; no other event of the same significance occurs till nearly the end of the century; no

1. Such is the conclusion of Harnack, who is not likely to be suspected of exaggerating the evidence in its favour. See his ME ii. 52 ("The position of a soldier would seem to be still more incompatible with Christianity than the higher offices of state, for Christianity prohibited on principle both war and bloodshed"), MC 11 ("We shall see that the Christian ethic forbade war absolutely (überhaupt) to the Christians"), 47 f ("Had not Jesus forbidden all revenge, even all retaliation for wrong, and taught complete gentleness and patience? and was not the military calling moreover contemptible on account of its extortions, acts of violence, and police service? Certainly: and from that it followed without question, that a Christian might not of his free will become a soldier. It was not however difficult to keep to this rule, and certainly the oldest Christians observed it").

2. Ac x. 1 ff, 7 ff, 47 f, xvi. 27-34.

3. Ac xiii. 12.

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mention is made of the baptism of Sergius Paulus; and when it is said that he 'believed,' what is probably meant is that he listened sympathetically to what the apostles said and expressed agreement with some of their most earnest utterances.(4)

In writing from Rome to his friends at Philippi (60 A.D.), Paul says: "My bonds became manifest in Christ in the whole praetorium and to (or among) all the rest."(5) Various opinions have been held as to the exact meaning of 'praetorium' here(6); but, even if it means the camp of the Praetorian Guards, the passage would not imply that some of the guards became Christians, but only that it became known to all of them that Paul was in custody because he was a Christian, and not for any political offence.

A more positive piece of information consists in the fact that, shortly before the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 A.D.), the Christians of that city, in obedience to "a certain oracular response given by revelation to approved men there,"(7) left Jerusalem, and settled at Pella in Peraea beyond the Jordan, thus taking no part in the national struggle against Rome. We are too much in the dark as to the details to be able to ascertain the motive that really prompted this step. How far was it due to a disapproval of the national policy of the Jews? how far to a sense of a final break with Mosaism? how far to a simple desire for personal safety? how far to a recollection of the Master's words, "Flee to the mountains"? or how far, possibly, to a feeling that the use of the sword was


4. Cf. Knowling's note on Ac xiii. 12 in The Expositor's Greek Testament; McGiffert, Apostolic Age, 175; Bartlet, Apostolic Age, 68 n 2. Bigelmair (125) believes in his full conversion.

5. Phil i. 13: en olo to praitorio kai tois loipois pasin.

6. See Purves in HDB iv. 33.





7. Eus HE III v. 3.

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forbidden them?

None of these reasons can be either definitely affirmed or definitely denied. The one last suggested is by no means impossible or unnatural. It is in keeping with what we know of the facts of the case. At all events the flame of Jewish patriotism was extinct in the hearts of these Jerusalemite Christians. Their policy on this occasion formed a contrast to that of a certain section of the Essenes, who, despite the fact that they were not usually over-patriotic and that they abjured the use of arms on principle, yet joined with their fellow-countrymen in the revolt against Rome.(8)

The letter written about 112 A.D. by Plinius, proconsul of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajanus concerning the Christians, does not refer either to their willingness or unwillingness to serve in the legions, and there would therefore be no occasion to mention it in this connection, were it not for the attempt which has been made to represent its silence as implying that the Christians of that time had no objection to bearing arms. Thus, Professor Bethune-Baker says: "Pliny's letter shows that there was no complaint against the Christians then with regard to their view of war"; and in this judgment he is followed by the Venerable Archdeacon of Ely.(9) But inasmuch as there was nothing in the circumstances of the time to bring about a collision between the imperial government and the Christians on the subject of military service, and very probably nothing even to bring the views of the latter to the governor's notice at all, the silence of the letter is perfectly compatible with the supposition that the Christians would not serve; and the attempt to deduce







8. Holtzmann, Neutestamentliche Theologie (1911) i. 147.








9. B. Baker ICW 21; Cunningham 251 (quoted above, p. 58 n).

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the opposite conclusion from it can only be described as entirely unwarranted. While we are speaking of the reign of Trajanus, it may be mentioned that in the Acts of Phokas, who is said to have been put to death in Pontus under this Emperor, the martyr-bishop baptizes a number of soldiers at their own request.(10) But the acts as a whole are of very questionable authority as history(11); and least of all could an ornamental detail like this be accepted on such slender grounds.

The idea has also been entertained that there is evidence for the existence of Christian soldiers in the time of the Emperor Hadrianus (117-138 A. D.). The late Dr. J. Bass Mullinger of Cambridge says: "Aringhi (Antiq. Christianae, i. 430) gives an epitaph of a soldier of the time of Hadrian, and (ii. 170) that of a soldier in the praetorian guard; Boldetti (Osservazioni so sopra i cimiteri, &c., p. 432.), one of a VETERANUS EX PROTERIORIBUS (? "protectorioribus"), and also (p. 415) one "Pyrrho militi," and (p. 416) that of one who is described as "felicissimus miles." Marangoni (Act. S. Vict. p. 102) gives us that of a centurion, and Ruinart (Act. Mart. i. 50) that of two brothers, Getulius and Amantius, who were military tribunes under Hadrian."(12)

The first of these inscriptions, (which occurs, by the bye, on p. 525, not on p. 430, of Aringhi's first volume), reads as follows: "Tempore Hadriani Imperatoris: Marius adolescens dux militum, qui satis vixit dum vitam pro Ch(rist)o cum sanguine consunsit, in pace tandem quievit. Benemerentes cum lacrimis et metu




10. Conybeare 118.

11. Harnack (C i. 317 n 3) says that Conybeare has not convinced him that the Armenian text of these acts contains a genuine ancient document. The acts were rejected even by the Bollandists.







12. DCA ii. 2028b (Art. War).

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posuerunt." It is, I am informed on competent authority, unquestionably a forgery. As regards the second inscription from Aringhi, there is not only no evidence of its pre-Constantinian date, but none even of its Christian origin. As regards the three inscriptions given by Boldetti, there is no evidence that any one of them is as early as the second century. That given by Marangoni is probably post-Constantinian, as it contains the nomen Flavius in the contracted form FL.(13) As for Getulius and Amantius, their existence rests on the witness of the highly-coloured Acts of Symphorosa.(14) The names of Symphorosa and her seven sons are those of real martyrs: but that apparently is all that can be affirmed in support of the historicity of the story. Lightfoot, after a full discussion, decides that "the story condemns itself both in its framework and in its details," and that "there is no sufficient ground for assigning their martyrdom to the reign of Hadrian."(15)

It has already been remarked that the sentiments expressed by Christian authors in regard to the iniquity of war, the essentially peaceful character of Christianity, the fulfilment of the great ploughshare prophecy in the birth and growth of the Church, the duty of loving enemies and so on, all point to the refusal to bear arms as their logical implicate in practice. What has already been said, therefore, on these various points has a certain





13. On the evidence of the inscriptions for Christians in military service, cf DCA ii. 2028 f, Brace, Gesta Christi, 91, Harnack MC 121 n, Bigelmair 182 f.

14. Ruinart 71 (ET in ANCL ixb. 192-194): Symphorosa says to Hadrianus, Vir meus Getulitis. cum fratre suo Amantio, tribuni tui cum essent, pro Christi nomine passi sunt diversa supplicia, ne idolis consentirent ad immolandum . . . Elegerunt enim magis decollari quam vinci. etc.

15. Lightfoot AF II i. 503-505.


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place in the consideration of the concrete topic now before us. While this is so, it would be merely tedious to reiterate all the evidence previously adduced: but there are certain pieces of that evidence which are more direct and explicit than others, and which therefore deserve to be either repeated or referred to here.

First in order among these are one or two passages in Justinus. What view, we may ask, in regard to military service must have been taken by the man who said:


We who hated and slew one another, and because of (differences in) customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate (us) unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same (reward) from the God who is Master of all?(16)

We, who had been filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness, have each one--all the world over--changed the instruments of war, the swords into ploughs and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.(17)

Hefele(18) maintains that the language of Justinus in his (first) Apology, ch. xiv, does not necessarily imply a general disapproval of the profession of the warrior; and Professor Bethune-Baker, referring to ch. xi (where Justinus denies that the Christians are looking for a human kingdom) and xiv ff, remarks that he















16. Just I Ap xiv. 3: cf xxxix. 3: "We who were formerly slayers of one another, not only do not make war upon our enemies, but," etc. (see above, p. 61).




17. Just Dial 110 (729).

18. Quoted in DCA ii. 2028A.


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no definite view on the subject of war. . . . What he says . . . really only amounts to a general repudiation of warlike aims or methods on behalf of Christians. Had he regarded war as actually incompatible with Christian sentiment he would probably have taken this opportunity of disposing absolutely of the suspicion to which the Christians were exposed by their Master's use of earthly metaphors to shadow forth eternal spiritual relations.(19)  

This reasoning is, in my opinion, faulty. Justinus said all that was necessary in order to controvert the suspicion in question, and also, I would add, quite enough to show where he stood on the subject of military service: he would needlessly have prejudiced the Emperor against his main plea, viz. for toleration, had he gone out of his way to say that, if ever the attempt were made to compel Christians to serve in the legions, they would refuse to obey the Emperor's order. It is worth while to notice, though Justinus does not mention the point in connection with war, that he regarded the Christians as making a positive contribution to the maintenance of peace by their very Christianity, and he commends them to the Emperor's favour on this ground.(20)

Tatianus, as we have seen, condemned war as murderous,(21) and, as Harnack says, "was undoubtedly opposed to the military calling." He wrote: "I do not want to be a king: I do not wish to be rich: I decline military command: I hate fornication."(22)







19. B.-Baker ICW 21.






20. Just I Ap xii. I (see above, p. 60 n 4).

21. See above p. 50.

22. Tat 11 (829). Harnack (ME, ii. 55 n 5) understands the word translated 'military command' (ten strategian) to indicate the praetorship, i.e. a magisterial office. But Tatianus has already dealt with magistracy in his first clause (Basileuein ou thelo); and in a list of this sort some reference to military life is almost desiderated.


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What again must have been the attitude of Athenagoras, who declared that the Christians could not endure to see a man put to death, even justly, considering that to do so was practically equivalent to killing him, and that for this reason they could not attend the gladiatorial games?(23)

The heathen philosopher Celsus in the 'True Discourse' which he wrote against the Christians about 178 A.D. (the approximate date of Athenagoras' 'Legatio' also), not only exhorts the Christians to take part in civil government, but "urges us" (so Origenes said later, quoting Celsus' words) "to help the Emperor with all (our) strength, and to labour with him (in maintaining) justice, and to fight for him and serve as soldiers with him, if he require (it), and to share military command (with him)." Celsus argued that, if all did as the Christian, nothing would prevent the Emperor being left alone and deserted and earthly affairs getting into the hands of the most lawless and savage barbarians, so that the glory neither of Christianity nor of true wisdom would be left among men.(24) "It is quite obvious from this," Harnack says, "that Christians were charged with a disinclination to serve in the army, and the charge was undoubtedly well founded."(25)



23. Athenag Legat 35 (969). Hefele (quoted above) does not regard this as disapproving of the warrior's profession: but Bigelmair (166) recognizes that it is at least possible that Athenagoras had war in mind.

24. Orig Cels viii. 73, 68: cf 74, 75 (see below, pp. 131 ff).

25. Harnack ME ii. 57 n 1. Guignebert (190 f) imagines that Celsus is attacking the doctrines of the Christians rather than the "applications pratiques qu'ils en peuvent déjà faire." Professor B.Baker (ICW 21 ff) ignores the evidence of Celsus for the latter part of the second century: he does not mention his date, but treats him along with Origenes, as if they were contemporaries (ib. 27: cf 29: "By this time, therefore," (i.e. the time of Origenes' reply, 248 A.D.) "many Christians shrank from military service").

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The first reliable evidence for the presence of Christians in any number in the Roman army belongs, as we shall see later, to the reign of Marcus Aurelius ( 161 - 180 A.D.), more precisely to about the year 174 A.D. This epoch is therefore an important landmark in the history of the subject, and we may pause here for a moment to summarize one or two aspects of the situation. It is only in this period that the question of service or abstention becomes one of real and practical significance to Christian people. Up to that time the conditions had constituted no challenge for anyone. "It is not therefore surprising," says Harnack,


that until about the time of the Antonines, in particular Marcus Aurelius, a question of military service (Soldatenfrage) did not exist in the churches: the baptized Christian did not become a soldier; and those who were caught by the Christian faith in the camp had to see how they could come to terms with their military profession.(26)

The same scholar gives a useful enumeration of the various features of military life, which could not have failed to thrust themselves on the Christian's notice as presenting, to say the least, great ethical difficulty. The shedding of blood on the battlefield, the use of torture in the law-courts, the passing of death-sentences by officers and the execution of them by common soldiers, the unconditional military oath, the all-pervading worship of the Emperor, the sacrifices in which all were expected in some way to participate, the average behaviour of soldiers in peace-time, and other idolatrous and offensive customs-all these would constitute in combination ail exceedingly powerful deterrent against any Christian joining the army on his own initiative.(27)












26. Harnack MC 51.








27. Cf Harnack MC 46 f.

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As a transition from this point to the full material furnished by Tertullianus, we may recall in passing the phrase in the Pseudo-Justinian 'Address to the Greeks,' exhorting them thus: "Learn (about) the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on (the) peoples,"(28) the passage in Eirenaios, in which he applies the ploughshare prophecy to the Christians and says that they "now know not how to fight, but, (when they are) struck, offer the other cheek also,"(29) and the remark of Clemens of Alexandria: "We do not train women like Amazons to be manly in war, since we wish even the men to be peaceable."(30)




28. Ps-Just Orat 5.


29. Eiren IV xxxiv. 4 (ii. 271 f), quoted above, pp. 61 f.

30. Clem Strom IV viii. 61.