Julian the Faithful Apostate

Julian the Faithful Apostate November 11, 2022





Today the 11th of November is the feast for Mercurius, soldier and martyr in the Coptic Church. He is similarly honored in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church on the 25th of this month.

In the official story he was martyred at the order of the pagan emperor Decius. But there’s another story with a strong following, that it was he, guided by an angel who even provided the sword, who assassinated the emperor Julian.

Julian was the last non-Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. The Christian tide had already probably ebbed past any subsiding, but Julian gave it his best to stem that tide. And his best was impressive. While raised an Arian Christian, he converted himself a pagan, propagating a high version of the ancient pagan traditions.

The Wikipedia article on Julian outlines his beliefs.

Julian’s personal religion was both pagan and philosophical; he viewed the traditional myths as allegories, in which the ancient gods were aspects of a philosophical divinity. The chief surviving sources are his works To King Helios and To the Mother of the Gods, which were written as panegyrics, not theological treatises.

“While there are clear resemblances to other forms of Late Antique religion, it is controversial as to which variety it is most similar. He learned theurgy from Maximus of Ephesus, a student of Iamblichus; his system bears some resemblance to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus; Polymnia Athanassiadi has brought new attention to his relations with Mithraism, although whether he was initiated into it remains debatable; and certain aspects of his thought (such as his reorganization ofpaganism under High Priests, and his fundamental monotheism) may show Christian influence. Some of these potential sources have not come down to us, and all of them influenced each other, which adds to the difficulties.

Julian coin“According to one theory (that of G.W. Bowersock in particular), Julian’s paganism was highly eccentric and atypical because it was heavily influenced by an esoteric approach to Platonic philosophy sometimes identified as theurgy and also Neoplatonism. Others (Rowland Smith, in particular) have argued that Julian’s philosophical perspective was nothing unusual for a “cultured” pagan of his time, and, at any rate, that Julian’s paganism was not limited to philosophy alone, and that he was deeply devoted to the same gods and goddesses as other pagans of his day.”

As emperor Julian rescinded various benefits that had been bestowed upon Christian bishops, including generous stipends and the right of consultation on matters of state. He declared that teachers of the pagan classics be pagans, which was seen as a major move to marginalize the Christian hegemony over education. He didn’t outlaw the Christian church, but instead in 362 through an edict he legalized everyone’s freedom of religious conscience. He supported the Jewish community, and undertook a project to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, which like many other of his projects ended with his premature death.

Julian established a state pagan religion, which he hoped would not only rival but supplant the now enormously powerful Christian church. To this effect he tried to adapt the most successful aspects of the Christian organization to his own religious community. He appointed high priests who were marked out for their deep learning and high moral character. While they were accountable to him as pontifex maximus, they supervised the many priests who served the community. He restored and endowed numerous temples.

Something very interesting was taking shape.

And it all ended abruptly with his death in 363. Julian had reigned for two years.

In some circles Christians celebrate this. They even, if informally, say the murderer was guided by an angel, and who is celebrated as a saint.

Me, I find it all a terrible sadness. One of those moments in history, where it is hard not to think, what if?

What if…

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