Ronald J. Sider

The Early Church on War and Killing

Distinguishing speculation from historical fact.

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As for the later period of the early church, inscriptions on tombstones demonstrate that there were some Christians in the Roman army. But both Shean and Iosif tend to overstate what the data indicate. Iosif says the number of inscriptions is "astonishingly large," and Shean speaks of "plenty" of inscriptional examples confirming the presence of hundreds of Christian men in the Roman army through the 3rd and 4th centuries.

But we dare not lump the 3rd and 4th centuries together if the question is evidence of pre-Constantinian Christian soldiers. Shean himself acknowledges that "the inscriptional evidence for Christian soldiers prior to Constantine is meager." In fact, he notes that in the major collection of these inscriptions, only eight can be clearly dated to be pre-Constantinian. In my research, I identified eleven pre-Constantinian epitaphs that clearly speak of Christian soldiers.

The stories of military martyrs (Christian soldiers who were martyred for their faith) also demonstrate the presence of growing numbers of Christians in the army in the later 3rd century. Many of the stories of military martyrs are more imaginative fiction than historical fact. But historians generally accept the basic historicity of the stories of Marinus (AD 260) and then several others in the last decade of the 3rd century and the early years of the 4th century. But again, Shean makes claims that go beyond the evidence when he says that "it is clear that by the time Maximilian [martyred in 295 for refusing to join the army] was inducted that Christians serving in the army had been a commonplace and that few Christians had any qualms about participating in military life."[2] That an increasing number of Christians were in the army by 295 is clear. But to claim that few Christians had any qualms about joining the army simply goes beyond the evidence we have. In fact, the extant Christian authors—Arnobius of Sicca and Lactantius—whose works date from this period and who mention killing and warfare say clearly that Christians do not do that.

Iosif basically agrees with Shean and develops some additional arguments. She suggests that since "most of the early Christian literary creations lack any discussion on the issue of the legitimacy of war and military service," we should conclude that most Christians in the first three centuries had no problems with joining the Roman army. She cites the fact that the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache do not discuss the topic of war and concludes that these late 1st- or early 2nd-century Christian writers "were equally unconcerned about Christians entering the Roman army." But this argument from silence proves nothing. One could just as well argue that these writers simply assumed that Christians knew they should not join the army and therefore did not need to discuss the topic.

What the careful historian must do is deal with the evidence we do have. It is true that we do not have a large number of treatises on the topic of how Christians should act with regard to war and killing. But we do have a number of statements by many authors, including a full treatise by Tertullian and many chapters in Contra Celsum by Origen. The relevant data take over one hundred pages to present. And every extant writing by every Christian writer before Constantine who discusses the topic says Christians do not kill or join the army.

Another argument by Iosif is that when the early Christians speak of loving enemies and not being trained in war, they were not talking about public life: "The early Christian Fathers were only explicitly fervent against unnecessary violence among individuals, violence incited by private initiative. There is nothing to prove that these comments reveal a disapproval or aversion of Christian participation in armies and wars."

The data flatly contradict this argument. Lactantius mocks the Roman idea of a just war and condemns every kind of killing, not just the kind of violence prohibited by Roman law but killing in warfare. Those who love their enemies are "ignorant of wars," he writes. Justin Martyr relates Jesus' call to love enemies to the fact that people who formerly were "filled with war and mutual slaughter" now as Christian have changed their swords into ploughshares. Tertullian cites Christ's command to love enemies and declares that God "puts his prohibition on every sort of man-killing."

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