Friday, April 26, 2019


Peter Van Nuffelen, Penser la tolérance durant l'Antiquité tardive. Les conférences de l'Ecole pratique des hautes études. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2018. Pp. 192. ISBN 9782204126489. €16,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Evgenia Moiseeva, Boston (

Version at BMCR home site

Religious violence and intolerance in various periods and geographic zones occupy a central place in the contemporary discourse in humanities. This vast and thought-provoking topic increasingly attracts attention of religious historians. Violence triggered by Christian believes, or at least presented as such, has been discussed by such influential scholars as G. Stroumsa, 1 C. Kimbal,2 and W. T. Cavanaugh.3 The conversion of Constantine into Christianity is often considered a watershed, following which Christians, formerly victims of persecution, turned on their opponents. Numerous scholars emphasized the gap between the tolerant attitude of pagans in Antiquity and the intolerant and oppressive stance of Christians in Late Antiquity. For example, S. Goldhill4 and R. Lim5 blamed Christianity for the termination of public disputations practiced so ubiquitously in ancient Greece and Rome, whereas B.D. Shaw went as far as to compare the attitude of Catholic bishops vis-à-vis Donatists with political trials (followed by executions) in Soviet Union in 1930s.6

A new book by the Belgian historian of religion Peter van Nuffelen, Penser la tolérance durant l'Antiquité Tardive (Paris: Cerf 2018), can be considered a response to the radicalism of the authors asserting the violent rise of Christianity. Nuffelen argues that the view of Christianity in Late Antiquity as an unprecedentedly violent and intolerant religious movement has been formed largely under the influence of the modern concept of tolerance. Failing to take into account what tolerance means for us as the heritors of the Age of Enlightenment and what tolerance, tolerantia, meant for Christians in the III- VIIth centuries, many studies unavoidably end up with biased conclusions. Nuffelen raises the question of methodology that should be employed by scholars studying the intellectual history of Late Antiquity in general and early Christianity in particular. He argues that the modern discourse in humanities should involve not only historical facts such as the destruction of temples or burning of books, but also evaluative judgements made by ancient authors about their own time. For example, if ancient Christian historians were concerned with the justification of violence accompanying the destruction of temples, this means that they saw the use of violence as exceptional and requiring justification. Likewise, in the case of the persecution of Donatists, Nuffelen employs St. Augustine's letters as evidence that the use of the imperial power in religious disputes was seen by Christian bishops as exceptional and problematic.

Nuffelen's book is based on four lectures given at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 2013. Each of the four chapters can be read independently as an excursus in a certain concept related to the theme of religious violence. Tolerance, persuasion, constraint, violence, and their perception in Late Antiquity are discussed successively by the author.

In the first chapter Nuffelen discusses the concept of tolerance, or, rather, three different concepts encountered in three groups of sources. Christian apologists of III-IVth centuries argued that Christianity should be tolerated by the Roman state as a religion of the true God. Imperial edicts on "religious tolerance" of 311 and 313 considered monarchic monotheism a necessary condition for a religion to be tolerated. Finally, pagan authors in the IVth century Roman Empire suggested that tolerance should be extended to the religions useful for the stability of the Empire. The author concludes that unlike the modern concept of tolerance which is connected to ethics and law, tolerance in antiquity is based on the ideas of truth and utility for the state. Nuffelen also argues that the conversion of Constantine in Christianity was not a watershed in the ancient thought on tolerance because it did not significantly change the discourse we encounter in either Christian or pagan authors.

The second chapter aims to show that the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire did not immediately result in the rise of violent religious intolerance. In order to prove his point, Nuffelen analyzes public debates in the IV- Vth centuries. According to the author, these debates were an essential characteristic of Antiquity, which saw a victory in a public disputation as a matter of the highest prestige. A large number of hagiographic and historiographic treatises describing public disputations (real or alleged), letters, and dialogues written by pagan, Christian and Jewish authors of the IV- Vth centuries demonstrate that rational argumentation was considered superior to the use of force in religious polemics.

In the third chapter Nuffelen focuses on the limits of tolerance as perceived in Late Antiquity, especially on the attitudes towards the use of constraints and coercion. For ancient authors, coercion was justified as long as it helped strengthen the cohesion of a religious community. The humiliation of the public penance, practiced in the Christian Church, as well as the behavioral standards and rules required by philosophical schools from their adepts involved exerting pressure on members of the community but were considered normal by the standards of the time. In contrast, the use of civil authority in disputes between Catholic bishops and Donatists was considered problematic because it involved an outside entity (i.e., the state) in the resolution of problems within the community. Augustine, who led the polemics with Donatists, insisted in his letters that the use of civil authority should be exceptional and limited. According to Nuffelen, Augustine's position shows that resorting to force was not generally welcomed by his contemporaries.

In the last chapter Nuffelen studies ancient representations and typology of violence on the example of two texts: the Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia and the Letter on the Conversion of the Jews of Severus of Minorca. Rufinus, whose opinion would become a paradigm for the later Christian authors, distinguished conventional violence (e.g., imprisonment of Christians), religious violence (forcing Christians to make sacrifices) and symbolic violence (the destruction of the statue of Serapis by Christians). Rufinus condemns the first two kinds, but approves the last one despite of its illegality from the point of view of the Roman state. The Letter of Severus unequivocally condemns any kind of religious violence. It aims to prove that the use of force by Christians was limited and that Jews accepted Christianity willingly. On the basis of these examples, Nuffelen argues that Christian authors were less tolerant to the use of violence in religious disputes than represented by modern scholars.

Nuffelen concludes his book asserting that the discourse on tolerance in Late Antiquity was built up around the question whether the society was virtuous and how the virtue could be achieved. Coercion and persuasion were both seen as legitimate ways to virtue. It means neither that Late Antiquity was intolerant nor that our modern concept is totally irrelevant. In contrast, the author finds similarities between the concept of tolerance in Antiquity and the modern view that considers certain uses of coercion beneficial, for example, in education or in the public health system.

An obvious weakness of Nuffelen's book is acknowledged by the author himself: since only a few texts are analyzed, the opinions of their authors are taken as representative for the whole Late Antiquity. The book lacks diachronic analysis: Nuffelen admits that there are differences in the vision of tolerance and violence between the IVth and VIIth centuries but does not discuss these differences. Indeed the format of this small book (180 duodecimo pages) would not be suitable for a thorough analysis of the questions raised by the author. Rather, the aim of the book is to attract attention to the methodological aspects of studying tolerance in Late Antiquity and to challenge the paradigm that presents post-Constantine Christianity as severely intolerant. I would welcome a more detailed study on the latter topic—perhaps a good thesis subject for an aspiring historian of religion. In the meantime, Penser la tolérance durant l'Antiquité Tardive is a great stimulating read that will be of interest to students discovering the theme of religious tolerance and intolerance as well as to scholars interested in the religious history of Late Antiquity.


1.   "Open Religion and Its Enemies," Confronting Religious Violence. A Counternarrative, ed. R. A. Burridge, J. Sacks, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2018, 59-73.
2.   When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, New York: Harper San Francisco, 2002.
3.   The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
4.   The End of Dialogue in Antiquity? (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
5.   Public Disputation, Power, and Social Order in Late Antiquity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
6.   Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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