Conversão ou cristianização?


Deviations from the Christian Church in the 4th century AD. W.

Written by: Azenathe Braz

There is nothing more voluntary than faith. It is part of what we understand as individual freedoms, protected by religious tolerance laws. Thus, religious freedom is considered one of the most basic and precious rights in the contemporary Western world. It is an indispensable attribute of a multicultural society, as it safeguards the right to be respected for personal choices, regarding what individuals want to believe, since this is part of individual freedom. In this way, throughout history, legal and political circumscriptions have been established in order to maintain individual conscience and social stability through religious tolerance. Making the right to freedom of worship an emblematic value in the West. Embodied in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is thus for many an absolute value, something out of the question

However, religious freedom is an issue that still needs to be discussed, due to its extreme complexity. This discussion is complex because it depends on an interdisciplinary approach and studies that contemplate more than legal aspects, but involve the analysis of historical contexts, cultural and philosophical systems. Mainly because what is observed is that this right remains largely misunderstood, since history indicates that the absence of compromise, that is, intolerance, is something that human beings are subject to, regardless of place or period. If we take a look at the news we capture the contemporaneity of this discussion. As for example, the case of Russian legal sanctions that were undertaken against religious groups framed in its new "law of extremism". Russian President Vladmir Putin in 2016 implemented the so-called "Yarovaya law" in which he determines that "terrorist militants" and "extremist threats" are repressed by the authorities. Since then, this law has been a threat to religious minorities who do not fit the undefined qualitative of "extremism". For example, what happened to the Jehovah's Witnesses, who in 2017 had their administrative center and almost four hundred communities banned from operating in this country, as they were considered an extremist group. Such repression took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which found that what Russian law defines as extremist is wide-ranging and can make any religious group an offender. Interestingly, the law contemplates the exemption of some groups, including the Orthodox Church.

About the terms tolerance and its opposite intolerance, we understand that they are related to coexistence in society and the need to maintain a certain stability even among groups that have differences in beliefs, values ​​and religious practices. Since the word tolerance derives from the Latin term tolerantia, which in the Oxford Latin Dictionary is defined as "ability to endure pain or adversity, patience, courage". However, we understand that such a term cannot be conceived uniformly, since its range of meanings must be analyzed according to the moment, since it can cover different meanings depending on its historical context.

Not only nowadays, but in the History of the Christian Church, we realize that the voluntariness of faith was extremely misunderstood. Christians, in the first four centuries of the formation of Christian communities, experienced conflicts based on the misunderstanding of the voluntary nature of faith. This is because for three centuries Christianity was violently repressed as an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. It is understood that these moments of religious persecution constitute one of the hallmarks of Late Antiquity (MOMIGLIANO, 1989). Conflicts between Christians and pagans are evidenced in the documentation, and this bequeathed some understandings about violence in this period. Harold Allen Drake, in his work, Violence in Late Antiquity, analyzes how violence served as the basis for the construction of a new rhetoric based on Christian assumptions that, in turn, were under construction. He claims that Christian historians used the memory of these moments of persecution to support a new argument about religious tolerance and contradictorily legitimize violence against non-Christians (DRAKE, 2016, p.6-8). Michael Gaddis (2005) corroborated this motto, when he stated that Christian rhetoric supported the understanding that criminal acts in defense of religion should not be considered transgressions if they were carried out in the name of Christ.

With the end of the persecutions of Christians in the advent of the imperial enactment of Constantine and Licinius in the so-called Edict of Milan, Christianity began to enjoy freedom of worship throughout the Empire. In addition to this freedom, Emperor Constantine returned the temples that had been confiscated and began not only to reimburse the Churches, but also to benefit them with donations. The greatest representative of the Empire sought support from these Christian communities, in a clear policy of reconciliation between state power and this new religion. However, Constantine, in an evidently diplomatic attitude, continued to worship the Roman gods and receive their veneration.

Only in the last decade of his reign did Constantine confiscate the treasures and endowments of pagan temples, and probably banned sacrifices. Under his sons, sacrifices were certainly forbidden, and many temples were demolished. From Constantine, Christianity took on enormous proportions in economic and political power, as Christian leaders went from preachers of the Word to administrators of huge tracts of land donated by the government, which gradually became like small kingdoms where the Bishop's determinations had a character legislative and judicial. The autocratic powers of the Bishops were bequeathed by the Roman Emperors and the Church's form of administration was inspired by the imperial model, copying its hierarchy in the ecclesiastical body. Thus, the Church distanced itself from the instruction left by Jesus:
"Jesus called them and said, "You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and the important people exercise power over them.It will not be so between you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become important among you must be a servant,and whoever wants to be first must be a slave;like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."Matthew 20:25-28

In this way, the foundation of the Church's administrative form was inspired not in this direction, but in the models of men and sought to equate its power to human political power. From the 4th century AD. C., the Church that was intended to be universal (Catholic) tried to assert itself as an institution not through spiritual means, but through political harangues.

The affirmation of the power of the Church was very successful, because throughout the Medieval period it wielded not only spiritual but also temporal powers. Thus, what we see later is the Catholic Church copying the intolerant and persecuting pattern of those who once martyred it. As for example, in 591 d. C., the Christian Emperor Theodosius I issued the first of a series of laws that progressively prohibited not only sacrifice, but all pagan ceremonies. The ancient Roman traditional religion temples were closed and many of them demolished by the power of the Roman army


So pagan worship was never legal after that, but the laws were laxly enforced and from time to time needed to be reiterated. In 407 d. C,, in response to the representations of the Catholic bishop Honorius, in Africa, a constitution was issued that determined the confiscation of donations from temples and ordered that cult images be removed and altars demolished. In 415 d. C., he reiterated this law and extended it to other dioceses. In the East, sanctions against pagan worship were implemented by Theodosius II in 423 and 435 AD. C., by Martian in 451 d. C., by Flávio Leo in 472 d. C., and by Anastasius, who even at this late date forbade legates for the maintenance of pagan rites.

During the fourth century AD. C., the pagans did not suffer persecution, as long as they refrained from exercising their cult. Honorius excluded them from any militia or dignita, that is, he restricted their right to join the army and receive Roman honors. Seven years later Theodosius II imposed the same ban on the East. In 468 d. C. Leo, by a law admitting only orthodox Christians, excluded all pagans from the legal profession. And further, the Emperor Justinian forbade heathens to occupy chairs as professors, and subjected them to the same legal handicaps as imposed upon Jews and heretics—inability to make wills, to receive inheritances or legacies, or to testify in court.

In 529 d. C., Justinian even ordered all pagans to accept baptism under pain of confiscation and exile. John, bishop of Ephesus, was appointed, in A.D. 542. C., official worker for the conversion of pagans in the provinces of Asia, Caria, Lydia and Phrygia. He left written documentation in which he states that with a team of priests and deacons, he worked for several years, demolishing temples, destroying altars and cutting down sacred trees. And who baptized 80,000 people and built for them 98 churches and 12 monasteries.

However, these data from legislation and ecclesiastical reports do not lead to questions: How many of these baptisms were voluntary public confessions? Faced with persecutory laws, did the followers of the traditional Roman religion before Christianity decide to convert or did they just adapt to the new forms of power? What happened was the Empire's conversion or Christianization?

In fact, the historical context of the Christian Church in the first centuries leads us to reflect on the mistakes of the Church, which gradually moved away from the teachings of Jesus and became a universally powerful institution, according to the molds of the political power where it developed. What we perceive is a relationship of reciprocity between the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire. This reciprocal relationship is observed between Christianity and Paganism, where Christianity had a powerful influence on Paganism which thrived in the ancient world, to some extent, I suggest, no less important than the influence - much more frequently observed - of Paganism on Christianity .

In this way, what happened was a gradual legitimization of what we understand as the Christianization of the Empire, that is, innumerable forced conversions of the inhabitants of the regions where Christianity developed. Deviating from the voluntary nature of Jesus' teachings in which he declares: "If anyone wants to accompany me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24, emphasis added). False conversions generated a very accentuated religious syncretism, so that the Church began to admit pagan customs among its communities, legitimizing practices rooted since antiquity - of worshiping holy men.But this is another deviation.


ALVAREZ, Manolo Garcia. The persecution of pagans. Createspace: Soliman El-Azir, 2013.

DRAKE, Harold A. Violence in the Late Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 2016.

GADDIS, Michael. There is no crime for those Who have Christ. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

JONES, A. H. M. The later Roman Empire 284-602. A social, economic, and administrative survey, 3 vols. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964.

MOMIGLIANO, A. (org.). The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the IV siglo. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1989.