Before I started reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a couple of years ago, I had heard that author Edward Gibbon offended many Christians of his time and afterwards because of some less than respectful treatment of the Christians in his history. Reading only 150 pages a year (albeit 150 long pages), I didn’t get to any Christians until my second year with the book: last year. There, the only thing I could see that might have troubled people is that he took a long time to show that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, wasn’t always such a good guy, and that Julian, who left the Church and declared himself a believer in the Roman pantheon, was a wise and virtuous ruler. Those two points seemed true to me, and Gibbon didn’t offend me with either one.
In this year’s passage, Gibbon has a lot of good things to say about Christians and a lot of bad things to say about them. The negative criticisms pertain mostly to the intolerance of Trinitarians for Arians and vice versa. How is this offensive? There aren’t any Arians around anymore (unless the Unitarians want to claim that pedigree), so I think the purported libel must apply to the Trinitarians. But many of them were intolerant (Gibbon carefully points out a couple of notable exceptions), and they did abuse their political privilege. If I’m offended, I’m offended by the fourth-century Christians for leaving a legacy of exiling and executing those who didn’t agree with them. Christianity stayed purer and when Christians had no political power, which is why I’m not overly upset by the increasing secularism of our society.