Forgetting Christian Spain

Forgetting Christian Spain September 29, 2017

“In the West … early Christianity has lost its history.” That powerful statement demands some explanation.

I have been working on early Christian history, chiefly in the era between the closing of the New Testament and the time of Diocletian – say, the second and third centuries. One sobering lesson to learn from all this is how very partial indeed is our knowledge of what was actually happening in this era, and how much probably is lost forever.

Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians (1986) offers a valuable map of churches known to be founded before 300 AD (pp. 274-275). This shows six particularly dense clusters, which presumably indicate the greatest bulwarks of Christian strength and numbers. These are:

-Asia Minor, chiefly in the southern and western regions, especially in the provinces of Asia, Lycia, Pamphylia and Galatia. That regional concentration shades seamlessly into

-The Levant, mainly the coastal regions of Syria and Palestine.

-Egypt, in the Delta, but also spreading up the Nile Valley

-North Africa, chiefly in modern Tunisia and the far eastern parts of Algeria

-Italy, mainly the central regions

-Southern Spain, in the province of Baetica.

Five of these make wonderful sense, as these reflect the heavy concentration of known Christian activity in five great cities, namely Rome, Carthage, Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus. With very few exceptions, every piece of surviving Christian writing from the era 100-250 that we can plausibly locate comes from one of those five centers (Those exceptions include Lyon, probably Jerusalem, and almost certainly Edessa). The first five of the regions outlined above correlate very well to the local “urban empires” of those respective Big Five cities.

But what about the sixth grouping, that gaggle of churches in southern Spain, centered on Córdoba? This territory comes strongly into focus around 300 with the famous Synod or Council of Elvira, near modern Granada. An impressive nineteen bishops attended, suggesting a potent and widespread church network – although there is no evidence how far back that dated. At the Council of Nicea in 325, one of the key players was Córdoba’s bishop, Hosius. Seville (Hispalis) also boasted a very early Christian background, however hard it is to dig through later legends. By the later fourth century, Spain was playing a really active role in the larger Christian world, with the Priscillianist heresy, and the influential poetry of Prudentius. Priscillian, incidentally, has the honor of being the first Christian heretic to be executed by the state – technically, though, for practicing magic rather than for his beliefs.

What are the origins of this tradition? St. Paul had expressed a wish to visit Spain, and very early tradition suggested that he had done so. Perhaps he left a strong legacy. That Christianity should have sunk early roots here looks plausible given the extreme importance of Spain in the larger story of imperial Rome. Spain (in fact, Baetica) was the birthplace of the second century emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Such a Christian concentration in this area makes good sense in terms of the traditions of the Jewish Diaspora, which claimed prominent centers in the same territory, at Córdoba, as well as further north at the cities that would become Toledo and Mérida. Commonly, Christian and Jewish populations overlapped closely. (The Council of Elvira was very concerned about Christian-Jewish relations).

But if early Christian communities really proliferated in this region, history has been remarkably silent about them. Spanish Christians left few written records before the end of the third century, Eusebius knew nothing about them, and was never too strong on Latin-speaking communities anyway. Carthage and Africa compensated for that absence by producing the prolific Tertullian, but there was never a Spanish equivalent – at least, not in this age. Or if there was, his writings have been entirely lost. As far as we know, Spaniards before 300 made no contributions to the great controversies rending the Great Church, like the debates over the date of Easter in the 190s. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Just what was Spanish Christianity like in 150 or 225? Was there a whole lost cohort of Spanish Church Fathers? Did Spain in this era have its local equivalents of Irenaeus or Cyprian? Were there early Gnostic sects in Spain? We have no idea. If we knew more, might we be counting Córdoba and Mérida alongside Carthage among the spiritual powerhouses of the early Church?

Early Christian Spain is a black hole. It’s theoretically possible that Roman Córdoba might have produced the most brilliant and challenging heresy in Christian history, which never made any impact outside Spain, and which vanished utterly. If it had existed, we would know nothing about it. Presumably, these Spanish churches produced very early Latin versions of the gospels, but again, if they did, we don’t know about the tradition or how it developed.

By way of comparison, think how much we know about one Western center, namely Lyon. We have all the critical writings of Irenaeus, from the 170s, and a major martyrdom account. All those survived because of Irenaeus himself and his extensive contacts in Asia Minor (he was from Smyrna). He wrote in Greek, and addressed a Greek-speaking audience. That meant that he was involved in larger church politics, and moreover that his writings survived to be used by Eusebius. If he had not had those eastern contacts, we would presumably know nothing of him or his work, and Gaul before Constantine would be a complete blank on our maps.

What matters here is not specifically that we have lost the early history of Christian Spain, but that an area seemingly so thriving in the early Christian story could so totally have vanished into historical oblivion.

This example raises the obvious question of what other regional churches might be escaping our attention, particularly in the West. We know of some scattered early churches across Gaul and into the Rhineland, towards the frontier, but we are surely missing much important activity. As Robin Lane Fox writes, in the words with which I began, “In the West, in short, early Christianity has lost its history.” For historians, that is a humbling insight.

What other critical parts of the early church story are we missing? What other regions have dropped off the map?


For late Roman Spain, see Kim Bowes and Michael Kulikowski, eds., Hispania In Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (Brill, 2005); and now Paula Hershkowitz, Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture, and the Cult of Martyrs (Cambridge 2017).

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