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The following is a book review of Katherine L. Jansen’s renown scholarly contribution to medieval studies that focuses on how so many legends developed during the Medieval period about Mary Magdalen to the point that she became second only to Mary (the mother of Jesus) in veneration. She doesn’t just tell us how these stories developed, but what they say about medieval notions of godliness/sanctity/piety. She shows how the supply and demand principle can also be applied to preaching during the medieval period (and probably to preaching in every age). That is, she shows how Mary Magdalen was shaped into all sorts of colorful legendary images to fit the needs of the day as perceived by the preachers of the day. The friars couldn’t help but let their imaginations run wild with the Magdalen stories in order to use her as the “model” alternative to whatever they perceived as the corruption of society. The legends developed because they were practical for preaching.
Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in Later Middle Ages. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Jansen’s Aims and Concerns
Jansen’s overall concern is to give a complete picture of the cult of the Magdalen in medieval times, its symbolic meaning, and how it reflects changing views of sanctity at that time (14). She interprets the process of gender reversal as an aid for the mendicants in opposing “the [masculine] institutional church” of Peter (15). Emphasis on the invention of a Magdalen that went beyond historical accuracy is intended to underscore how the image of the Magdalen reflects medieval philosophical and social exigencies about women—the dignity of women, whether they are permitted to preach and have authority, the problem of prostitution, etc. (15). The author is concerned to show just how the Magdalen of legend became so many different things to medieval laity—the penitential symbol, the exemplar of the active and contemplative life, the symbol of hope for all sinners, the apostle of the apostles, etc. Finally, she is concerned to expose the audience response to the preaching of the Magdalen (16).
The author believes that preachers were prone to bend the truth about Mary Magdalen and invent all sorts of fanciful things about her in order to have better fuel for their fiery preaching. For example, she says wittingly: “The subject of the Magdalen’s vanities itself became a vanity, as it were, inasmuch as besotted medieval writers spent endless hours lingering on detailed descriptions of them” (156). She also believes that men used the symbolism of the Magdalen to reinforce medieval gender ideology. For example, she says: “Vanity, lust, prostitution: how did these things pertain to the sketchy facts of Mary Magdalen’s life as recorded in the gospels? In a word: they did not. … Preachers made them conform to the rather vague biographical facts of her life in order to address exigent questions about the nature of Woman, women’s place in society, the need for female protection, and the problem of prostitution” (146).
She also has confidence that the laity’s voice can be discerned in the preaching when one listens carefully. In fact, she believes that the preaching of the medieval period (and probably preaching in general) can easily mirror audience values and devotion. For example, after giving an excerpt from a Franciscan preacher’s sermon in which he represents the Virgin Mary as “the more powerful light” in the heavens (the sun) and Mary Magdalen as “the less powerful light” (the moon) “leading sinners lest they despair,” Jansen says the lights correspond to two paths of salvation. Then she says: “The friar’s audiences, often for very personal reasons, were eager to find the confluence of the two paths. That is, it shows how members of the preachers’ audiences interpreted the symbol of the holy sinner in the light of his or her own desires” (286).
These assumptions shape Jansen’s historical account decisively. She is constantly filling the reader in on how the assumptions of medieval preachers are based on legends that developed through imaginative embellishments as well as political events. Her careful detail in tracing the “making” of the Magdalen from the sketchy biblical figure to the hagiographic sources show that the mendicant sermons (that drew heavily from them but added even more imaginative detail) were structured by the interests of their audiences (and therefore, medieval society as a whole). The figure of the Magdalen that preachers and hagiographers were “making” was one that would fit the needs of medieval times and values. Her chronological “tracing” of this “making” is intended to underscore this point.
The Vita Mixta [the mixed life]
Through Gregory the Great’s sermons, he associated Mary Magdalen with the women “whom John calls Mary,” then interprets the Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet (while Martha became anxious with work) as mystically representing the contemplative life (34). Mary had chosen the better life. This was also furthered by the vita eremitica [life of a hermit] which “assimilates Mary Magdalen’s biography to the vita of Saint Mary of Egypt,” who fled to solitude in the Egyptian desert and lived as a hermit.
The identification of Mary Magdalen with Mary of Egypt in the vita eremitica was a crucial step toward the making of another Magdalen image, the vita apostolica [life of an apostle]. Once the Magdalen was associated with Mary of Egypt and Abbot Geoffrey’s inventio in Burgundy, the vita apostolica incorporated the popular explanation of how the relics of the Magdalen came to be in Burgendy through the “holy theft” of Badilus, who supposedly stole them from Provence. The vita apostolica, building on this legend, goes further in explaining, then, how Mary Magdalen’s relics came to be in Provence before the “holy theft”—during the first wave of persecution, she and her family members fled from Egypt by sea, landing in southern Gaul and evangelizing the people there before retiring back to solitude (39). Combined with the embellishments based on the biblical depiction of Mary Magdalen as having the privilege of announcing the resurrection of Christ to the rest of the apostles (Christ having appeared to her first and given her this directive), the title apostolorum apostola [apostle of the apostles] became a powerful symbol of the vita apostolica. This inspired the laity and in turn raised questions about women’s ability or authority to preach.
With both the image of Mary as apostolorum apostola and as representing the contemplative life of a Hermit, the Magdalen came to be seen as representing the vita mixta—the mixed life of active works of mercy and mystical contemplation.
The Symbol of Vanity
Mary Magdalen was used by medieval preachers as a symbol of vanity to address what they thought of as female specific sins. How did Mary come to be thought of as a symbol of vanity in the first place? The first step was to identify the unnamed sinner in Luke’s gospel (Lk 7:36-50) as Mary Magdalene according to the “famous Gregorian conflation” (147). Gregory also allegorized the Magdalen’s seven demons as the seven deadly sins, which transformed the pre-Christian Magdalen’s demonic possession into “a disease of the soul caused by sin” (147). The second step was to use the medieval imagination to fill in the gaps in Luke’s story—namely, to answer this question: What was the sin of this unnamed sinner (i.e. Mary Magdalen)? The medieval preachers—for pragmatic reasons—identified the sin as a sexual sin. This identification was reinforced by association, since this was also the nature of sin attributed to the unnamed female sinner of John’s gospel (Jn 8:3-11). Preachers could not help themselves in indulging their imaginations where scripture was silent in order to make good preaching material to condemn what they thought were gender specific sins of the Women of their day.
The third step was to assume the need to explain how it was that the unnamed sinner (assumed to be Mary Magdalen) came to be caught in the snares of sinful vices. Since it was thought that Mary had been named after a castle (the castellum of Magdala) preachers began to tell a very creative story about how she was stripe regia (royal stock) and therefore fell into the vices were thought to attend riches: luxuria [lust], idleness, sinful autonomy (i.e. not under the rule of a man). Because it was already believed that Mary Magdalen was a beautiful women, preachers exploited the relationship between vigorous and youthful beauty with vanity and sexual sins. Furthermore, these warnings of the medieval preachers were attended by all sorts of gender assumptions of the medieval period. Since one’s physical appearance represents the constitution of their souls, women were weak and easily seduced. Thus, by a combination of imaginative embellishment of a story in the Bible of an unnamed sinner combined with gender assumptions of the middle ages, medieval preachers depicted Mary as the perfect example of vanity—she was a young women easily deceived, susceptible to vanity for so many reasons—her beauty, her gender, her riches, her idle time, her autonomy, etc. “Heaven help the fragile woman, her powers of ratiocination and moral scruple enfeebled by her sex, when cursed by the quadruple threat of wealth, freedom, beauty, and fooloshness”! (154).
By using Mary Magdalen—who was also the perfect example of penitence—the preachers gave themselves the opportunity to exhort the women in their audience to repent of their vanities according to typical medieval “anti-vanity discourse” (155) that condemned makeup, jewelry, dancing, costly clothes, superfluous hair, lack of subordination to men, etc. Jansen claims that in spite of such imaginative vanity (pun intended) of medieval preachers, “they never wandered too far from the parameters that Gregory the Great had established for them” (158).
The Exemplar of Perfect Penance
When Pope Innocent III assembled patriarchs, bishops, priors and abbots for the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, among other things, they set out to reformulate penitential theology. Medieval theologians had already paved the way with their distinctions between culpa (guilt) and pena (temporal consequences/punishment for sin)—the pena being something that could be remitted by the proper performance of satisfaction. Canon twenty-one of the council, omnis utriusque sexus (“everyone of both sexes”), demanded that no one participate in holy communion unless they have an annual confession of his or her sins and made satisfaction according to their priest. Although contrition, satisfaction, and absolution were already a part of official church teaching, confession itself was not (that is, it was never required by the authority of the church although it was widely practiced before the Fourth Lateran Council). Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 C.E.) would go on to defend this decree (along with Scotists) by maintaining that remission of the culpa was contigent on two things: 1) perfect contrition, and 2) the priests absolution.
The combination of this decree with the fresh emergence of mendicant preaching created an irresistible diffusion of the new demands of penance by the usage of the symbol of Mary Magdalen—even thought she never actually makes a confession in the gospels! Although preachers were quick to draw on other examples of contrition in the Bible—David, Peter, Matthew—the example of choice for such mendicants was, of course, Mary Magdalen. As we have already seen, according to so many legends that developed in the Middle Ages, she was seen as having gone from being the perfect example of sinful vanity and sexual sin to becoming a woman who was one of Christ’s most faithful followers, having completely abandoned the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert after announcing Christ’s resurrection to the disciples, then by fleeing persecution evangelized Southern Gaul! According to the Magdalen lore, she went from one extreme to the other. Therefore, with the new demands of the Fourth Lateran Council, she became something else—the exemplum perfecte penitentie (the example of perfect penance) according to the fourfold obligation spelled out by omnis utriusque sexus. Her seven vices were all transformed into seven virtues through penance. Her tears became a powerful symbol of her perfect contrition—signifying an archetypal emblem gendered female, and simultaneously symbolizing baptism and rebirth because her tears (representing perfect contrition) washed away her sin. In this case the gender associations of medieval times predisposed women to “more inclined to enter the salvific state of contrition” (210) because the physiology of the female body made women more disposed to cry.
Since it was common for medieval preachers to teach that Magdalen’s tears of contrition “washed away her sins” (that is, removed her culpa and pena), once confession was demanded by the Fourth Lateran Council, preachers were in a sticky situation. Where was a place for confession the Magdalen’s example? Many continued to preach that perfect contrition alone was salvific, in spite of the demands of the Fourth Lateran Council. Others argued that for Mary Magdalen it was salvific, but that after Christ ascended, sacramental confession was established (216). For others, however, it was just the right occasion to embellish the story of the Magdalen once more by adding something not in the text of the gospels—her long and well articulated confession to Christ! This was the solution of Innocent III. In his sermons, he completely reconstructed a confession that ended up making its place in literary history, for “in both Cavalca’s vita,” “the Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ,’” and a text dating in 1474 that has a seventeen-verse confession written in first person, “Mary Magdalen makes long, lachrymose confessions” about everything under the “fifteenth-century sun”! (217-18). Other aspects of penance were easily added to this: her whole life of service and contemplation was her works of satisfaction and her kisses (or her alabaster according to the culinary motif) signified her absolution (229-30). By following her example—who was once the peccatrix—average Christians could have true hope of absolution—the speculum spei (“mirror of hope,” 232-33)!
Examples of the Magdalen Cult’s Influence
The Lollardy who followed Wycliffe’s teachings was in theory committed to the idea of lay preaching—both men and women. Walter Brut—an educated lay Lollard even believed women could have the authority to grant absolution. He defends his view of bi-gender preaching by recourse to Mary Magdalen when on trial in 1381. He said: “It is confirmed, for we read that blessed Mary Magdalen preached publicly in Marcilia and in the area around about, which through her preaching she converted to Christ. Because of this she is called the ‘Apostle of Apostles’” (273). He was not alone in defending women’s right to preach by recourse to the Magdalen. Other heretical groups such as the Waldensians and even “semi-orthodox” groups also used her in a like manner.
Margaret of Cortona, when perplexed about her loss of virginity (based on the assumption that virgins had a better change at heavenly reward) found her conscience somewhat appeased when, supposedly, the Lord spoke to her in a vision and told her that Mary Magdalen was among the chorus of virgins in heaven (288). Since by the late Middle Ages, the Magdalen was seen considered a virgin on account of her “vigilantly maintaining her chastity after her conversion,” she became a hope to people like Margaret that she too could still have the chance of achieving a similar status in heaven.
Charles II spent thirty years of his life erecting physical signs of his devotion to the Magdalen (308). Charles believed she would protect his kingdom so long as she was honored properly (309). He founded churches in her name and “desired that the Magdalen’s praises be sung” (312). Charles also commissioned many works of art that depicted her and founded convents in her name (312). The Dominican Order was the primary beneficiary of his devotion, so in return, the Dominicans became “the principal publicists of [Charles’] singular relationship with the saint” (313). Charles even had the supposed skull of the Magdalen “transferred to a golden head fitted with a crystal face through which the faithful could view the rather macabre relic” (313). The house of Anjou would continue this sort of devotion long after Charles was gone. The Magdalen cult indeed became a royal cult, to the point that “there was no better way to show loyalty to the king than to show reverence for his heavenly protector” (315).
The following story comes from the book The Making of the Magdalen by Katherine Ludwig Jansen (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 204-05. [The only thing you have to know is that Mary Magdalen (the women who cried at Christ’s feet and wiped his feet with her hair) was the most common example of a repentant sinner in medieval preaching].
There was some danger, however, in using penitents as models of comportment. Ludovicus, a Franciscan preacher, seems to have encountered such a difficulty. In the text of his Mary Magdalen sermon, he reports that there was always the possibility that obstinate parishioners, when asked why they had fallen into sin, would retort, “Don’t the saints sin?” But the good friar anticipated the reply and circumvented the difficulty by citing an exemplum [example of their penitence]. Saint Ambrose, it seems, had rebuked a certain emperor for having asked, “Didn’t David sin?” “If you have followed him erring,” replied the saint, “also follow him practicing penance.” The emperor was duly impressed: “Pricked by conscience, he converted immediately to penance.”
Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, eds. John Curtis and Nigel Tallis. Berkeley Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
**The following material comes from pages 14-17 of the above cited work.
Artaexerxes II (below): “A plaque from Achaemenid times depicting … Artaxerxes II (404-359 BC ) being faced with the figure of goddess Anahita who is dpeicted as riding a lion – in the background (of Anahita) is the clear depiction of the sun.” (HT: KavehFarrokh.com)
Artaxerxes II’s reign is the last stable reign that did not end in an assassination. Between civil wars, assassinations of kings, and alliances among the Greeks, the tide of Persian dominance over the Mediterranean would begin to subside. Although Artaxerxes II would overcome the civil war that marked the beginning of his reign as well as the strap revolts toward the end of his reign, and would go on to have the forty six years of power as the sole ruler of the largest Empire in the world, he would be the last of the ancient Persian kings to enjoy such stability.
His son, Artaxerxes III (359/8—338 BC), would control the Empire for a considerable twenty years, even gaining back control of Egypt and putting down a revolt at Sidon in Phoenicia. A little over ten years after this accomplishment, however, he would suffer the fate of assassination by a eunuch named Bagoas who at first appointed one of Artaxerxes III’s sons to the throne (Artaxerxes IV, 338—336 BC). After a meager two short years on the throne, however, Bagoas changed his mind, removed him from power, and promoted Artashata under the respected name Darius (Darius III, 336 BC—330 BC).
If Artaxerxes III’s reign was less than half that of his father (who enjoyed the longest reign of all the Ancient Kings in Persia), his son suffered a much worse fate, and illustrates the point I made in my last post about how fragile these dynasties became during times of power transition. Whoever controlled the armed forces controlled the Empire, and dynastic successions only worked when those succeeding the throne were successful in military relations and battle.
Darius III did not fair much better than Artaxerxes IV. Egypt revolted again during his reign. He was assassinated after only six years on the throne (330 BC) by his close relations. Considering that Alexander took control of Egypt just two years later (332 BC) it has been commonplace to assume that the Persian Empire was by that time in full decline, but in reality the situation was much more complicated. When Darius III’s imperial military reserves faced the Macedonian army at Granicus their navy was undeniably superior—even though, for some strange reason, they did not oppose the Macedonian landings.
Finally, however, in 333 B.C., Alexander defeated the Persians at Issus and in 331 B.C. the Macedonians defeated the King’s troops in Upper Mesopotamia (Gaugamela). The conflict appears to betray the reality that although the Persian empire had almost an inexauhstable amount of reserves of soldiers and funds for war, the Macedonians were better at military tactics and war strategy. It was only after Alexander won the loyalty of the satraps in the Western empire that Darius III’s chances of maintaining control were hindered. Defections only occurred little by little as Alexander won the loyalty of the satraps whose lands he conquered one by one (first the governor of Sardis, then the governor of Damascus). When the satrap Mazaeus struck a deal with Alexander in exchange for the post of satrap of Babylon his example was followed by the satrap of Susa, then by the commanders of Persepolis and Pasargadae.
Through this kind of political maneuvering, Alexander was able to finally put the Persian rule on the defense. Even then, however, the Persian king Darius III had an impressive amount of satraps and strategists all ready to serve him and many of the places Alexander conquered put up stubborn resistance in loyalty to the Persian king (e.g. Tyre & Gaza).
Whilst the Greek and Latin texts like to testify to the triumphal entry of Alexander into Egypt and Babylon, and to explain that the populations were delighted to be rid of their Persian oppressors, the situation was not like this in reality. In the course of his conquests, Alexander faithfully adopted the strategy followed by the Achaemenid kings since Cyrus: to make alliances with the local elites, to recognize the position and the privileges which they enjoyed in their own countries, and to respect their sanctuaries, gods and local cults. … In other words, the reception which Alexander received in various cities does not reflect how the people felt about Achaemenid domination. … Alexander decided very early (from the capture of Sardis in 334 B.C.) to propose to the Iranian nobility that they work with him and in collaboration with the Greeks and the Macedonians. (17)
After 330 B.C. when Darius III was assassinated, Alexander presented himself as the avenger of Darius and re-established the borders of the Persians at Syr Darya in the north and the Indus in the east before imposing imperial domination on the Persian gulf.
With this in mind, the true end of the Achaemenid imperial ideal should be dated not to 330 B.C. but to 323 B.C. when Alexander died: after this fighting broke out between the Diadochi (the Successors), which eventually led to the creation of competing and hostile kingdoms (the Hellenistic kingdoms), instead of the united empire created by Cyrus and his successors, and then revived by Alexander. (17)
Dale T. Irvin & Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006, pp. 234-41.
Muhammad (570-632 C.E.)
Born into the ruling tribe of Quraysh in Arabia (a tribe that claimed to trace its lineage to Ishmael) and after traveling with his uncle Abu Talib on caravans and being exposed to various forms of paganism and idolatry (while his business was prospering), Muhammad began to receive direct revelations from the angel Gabriel in 610 C.E. that he would begin to preach and that would also eventually become the content of the Qur’an. The basic message was a call to turn away from paganism and idolatry and begin to worship the one true God of Abraham, who was Allah.
When his message was seen as a threat, he fled Mecca (once seeking refuge in Ethiopia, and once in Medina) and gathered political and military support to defend the Muslim religion, a move that culminated in a new monotheistic political state that would spread far beyond the Arabian desert over the next century. Since the revelations Muhammad received instructed him to exterminate polytheism and idolatry, he forced the people to either worship the one true God or face extinction (his policy, however was to spare monotheistic Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Sabeans).
In addition to the five pillars of Islam (reciting the shahada, seven prayers a day facing Mecca instead of Jerusalem, almsgiving, fasting from sunup to sundown in the month of Ramadan, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca during one’s lifetime), Muhammad also engaged in polemics against the central Christian beliefs about God (that Jesus was God, that Jesus was crucified, that God has a son, that God is three persons, etc.). Therefore, although Muhammad did not execute Christians automatically but granted them the status of dhimmi (“protected people”) and let them practice their religion, he forced a heavy tax on Christian communities, forbid them from proselytizing (sharing their faith), and began the slow process of taking over much of the previously Christian “worship space” (e.g. building mosques that dominated the cultural landscape in previously Christian dominated areas).
Muhammad’s aggressive promotion of Islam and his political success enabled him to unite Arabia and set a precedence of expansion that would lead to the first ever great historical decline of Christianity.
Dale T. Irvin & Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006, pp. 234-41.
Charlemagne (reigned from 768-814 C.E.)
Forcing entire peoples to either undergo Christian baptism or face execution and establishing capital punishment for worship of any traditional gods, failing to baptize one’s children, cremating the dead, or even eating meat during Lent, Charlemagne’s rule was excessively brutal (at one point he had four thousand Saxon prisoners of war executed) and was the first full-scale use of military force and violence to compel peoples to convert to Christianity.
Ruling from his capital Aachen (in modern Belgium), at the height of Charlemagne’s power, he ruled the majority of modern France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary (all the way to the Balkans) and eventually took on many of the trappings of Roman imperial identity. Even the Islamic caliph Harun al-Rashid (best remembered for his role in “1001 Arabian Nights”) responded to news of Charlemagne’s enthronement by sending a gift!
The rule of Charlemagne ushered a period known as the Carolingian Renaissance in the West in which Charlemagne encouraged schools and a steady flow of Latin texts into his capital, invited the best theologians in the West to come to his capital, and issued a series of General Directives intended to address a number of social reforms (for example, the legal status of marriage put an end to polygamy even in the aristocracy and forbade priests to marry, he enforced the exclusive use of the Rule of Benedict, secured the caliph’s permission to build a monastery in Jerusalem, endorsed and forced the filioque phrase to be used in the Latin versions of the Nicene Creed recited in the churches to the displeasure of the Pope Leo III, etc.).
Charlemagne’s legacy lived on beyond his kingdom and long after the Carolingian line of kings (which came to an end in 911 C.E.) and set a precedent, one that Christian rulers would emulate in the centuries to come.
64 C.E.—The Burning of Rome—When Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome in 64 C.E., he incited the first imperial persecution of Christians and set the tone for imperial relations with Christians for future Roman Emperors. The Neronian Persecutions were followed by four major waves of imperial persecution (under Septimius Severus’s reign from 193-211 C.E., under the reign of Decius beginning in 250 C.E., under the emperor Valerian beginning in 258 C.E., and under the reign of Diocletian beginning in 303 C.E). Ironically, such persecution aided church growth after the waves died down because of the courage that Christians showed in the face of violence.
70 C.E.—The Fall of Jerusalem—The fall of Jerusalem—especially the destruction of the Jewish Temple—that ended the First Jewish-Roman War would drastically alter Judaism by removing one of its two pillars (Temple & Torah). This event would be seen as a vindication for Christians because many of them interpreted the event as punishment on the Jews for rejecting Jesus as their Messiah in according with prophecies attributed to Jesus by early gospel writers.
313 C.E.—The Edict of Milan—Following Constantine’s vision before the decisive battle of his campaign in 312 C.E. against Maxentius (who controlled Italy and North Africa after the division of the empire by Diocletian known as the tetrarchy or “rule of four”), Constantine decided to join forces with Licinius (the emperor in the east). Together they issued the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E., granting freedom of religious practice to Christians and ending the early waves of imperial persecution but also marking the beginning of imperial intervention into the controversies of the Christian church.
325 C.E.—The Council of Nicaea—In response to Arian’s teaching that the Son was not eternal (a teaching received from Lucian, bishop of Antioch, who was executed under the emperor Constantine in 324 C.E.)—“there was a time when the Son was not”—a council was called to meet in Nicaea (a summer resort near the emperor’s court in Nicomedia) and presided over by the emperor Constantine. Arius’ teachings were decisively condemned and Constantine himself is credited for introducing the word homoousios (“same substance”) to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, and followed Tertullian who first used the term trinitas for God and described it as three persons of one substance. The view of God endorsed by this council would be considered by many as the touchstone orthodox Christian doctrine and lead to centuries of persecutions between followers of Arius and followers of the Nicene Creed.
367 C.E.—Deciding the Canon—After Christians had over two hundred years to respond to the challenge of Marcion’s proposed canon (144 C.E.), Athanasius writes a letter in which he commends a certain list of books to be the authoritative body of literature for Christians. Not only was Athanasius’ letter the first time the word “canon” is applied to such a list, but his proposed list eventually became accepted by most Christians and remains today the widely accepted content of the Christian canon—the New Testament.
451 C.E.—The Council of Chalcedon—Questions left unanswered by the Council of Nicaea about how the human Jesus could also be considered God led to the condemnation of Apollinaris (forerunner of one-nature Monophysitism) by the Council of Constantinople in 381 and Nestorius (who supposedly separated the two natures of Christ) at the council of Ephesus in 431. This controversy culminated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. where Eutyches (exponent of Monophysitism) was also condemned and the explanation of Leo’s Tome, which posited Christ’s having two united natures (divine and human, each of whose characteristics were distinct), was endorsed. The decision of the council would become known as “The Chalcedonian Definition,” and the relationship of Christ’s natures as delineated by this council would be called a hypostatic union. This decision would lead to centuries of persecution for non-Chalcedonian Christians.
589 C.E.—The Third Council of Toledo—After many years of pressure from Catholic Franks on the Arian Visigoth kings of Spain, when the Visigoth king, Reccared, converted to the Catholic faith in 587 C.E. he called together the Third Council of Toledo of 589 C.E. in which anathemas were pronounced against Arianism afresh. Unfortunately, however, while reaffirming the Nicene Creed, the council took the liberty to endorse the view that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son (a view later strongly endorsed by theologian Isidore of Seville in the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633 C.E.). Since by inserting this word filioque (“and the Son”) the Western church had tampered with the Nicene creed and endorsed a view not shared by the Eastern churches without an ecumenical council, this fueled the already existing tensions between the Eastern and Western churches culminating in The Great Schism of 1054.
610 C.E.—The Rise of Islam—610 C.E. would mark the year that Muhammad would begin to receive direct revelations from the angel Gabriel who told him to “recite” the very words (Qur’an means “to recite”) that would comprise the Qur’an. The result of Muhammad’s preaching a message of submission (Islam means “to submit”) to only one God (Allah means “God”), along with an organized military force that reduced Christians to the humble status of dhimmi communities, eventually led to a succession of Islamic Dynasties ruled by Caliph’s (“deputies” or “successors”) encompassing nearly half of the previously Christian world by the year 750 C.E., stretching from the Indus River in the East to Spain in the West.
800 C.E.—The Coronation of Charlemagne—Following the example of his grandfather Charles Martel and his father Pepin who formed alliances with the pope’s of Rome, by the time Charlemagne went to Rome to strengthen connections with the Pope he had (by his success against the Saxon’s to his north and east, the Spanish to his west, and the Lombards to his south) become the ruler of much of Europe. The crowning of Charlemagne as the new Augustus (evoking the majesty of the old Roman Empire) on Christmas day of 800 C.E. by Pope Leo III illustrates how the wake of the expansion of Islam turned the attention of the popes from the East to the North for political alliance (realizing that the emperor in the East could not necessarily secure Europe against Islam), signaled the papal willingness to give up on the ideals of a Mediterranean centered Empire and look for a similar Empire in the North, and helped lay the foundations for shaping the vitality of Christian existence in Europe for almost 800 years that would become known as “Christendom.”
1054 C.E.—The Great Schism —When the Normans took Leo IX captive for seeking alliance with the Eastern Emperor and Leo sent three envoys to Constantinople led by Cardinal Humbert to pursue negotiations, the fierce debate between these envoys and the Eastern theologians over longstanding political, cultural, and theological differences led Humbert to charge the Greeks with an assortment of heresies and draw up a bull of excommunication against Patriarch Cerularius. The patriarch responded by excommunicating the papal legates, illustrating the great distance that had developed in the Latin and Greek traditions over the past seven centuries that would be intensified by this mutual excommunication and even moreso by the sack of Constantinople by western crusaders in 1204.
Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, second ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.
Dale T. Irvin & Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006.
Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.
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