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EARLY CHRISTIANITY IN ALBANIA

 © 1988, Dr. Edwin E. Jacques

Used by the kind permission of Dr. Edwin E. Jacques with whom RCM's Rev. Donnan was in frequent phone contact during 1993.  He provided the following material.
Originally distributed in UK by Albanian Evangelical Trust PO Box 388, Wrexham, Clwyd, LL11 2TW U.K.

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Christian Penetration of Albania in the Apostolic Age

 Christianity in Albania claims apostolic foundation.  The geographical position of Albania makes this almost inevitable.

The Christian gospel was first planted in Europe by the apostle Paul at Philippi in Macedonia.1  Travelling westward on the Via Egnatia he preached at Thessalonica, the largest city on this great highway. This became the centre from which Christianity radiated to Athens and Corinth, also to the province of Illyricum.

It is interesting to note how closely Paul's missionary journeys followed these Roman highways, and along them extends the chain of early churches.  Indeed, a trip of 150 miles along the Egnatian highway from Thessalonica westward would penetrate to the heart of Albania.

The apostle Paul travelled that road.  On his third itinerary, about 59 AD, he wrote to the Christian church at Rome that "From Jerusalem, and round about even unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ" (Romans 15:19).  The Greek preposition "unto" is somewhat ambiguous, admitting either an exclusive or inclusive usage"2.  Paul did not state certainly whether he had taken the Christian gospel as far as the Illyrian frontier or whether he had actually penetrated the entire province.  Ancient tradition holds that St. Paul introduced Christianity into Albania.

Farlati3, the Catholic historian, claimed that the church of Durrės was the most ancient in Albania, having been founded by the apostle Paul while preaching in Illyria and Epirus.  He wrote that in 58 AD there were seventy Christian families at Durrės having for bishop one Caesar or Apollonius.  Further evidence is lacking. One can only conjecture.

Lavardint4, writing about the antiquities of Dukagjini in the mountainous northern part of Albania, mentioned that "In the interior of this region can be seen monuments of marble, on which can still (1576) be read the names of many emperors, Romans and others, and among these, certain remarks or testimonies by which it is evident that St. Paul the apostle preached the Law of the Son of God to the people".  Unfortunately, Lavardin is no more explicit, and he seems to have held a monopoly on this information.

The Christian gospel could have reached Albania through the Illyrian soldiers who predominated in the famous Praetorian Guard. These men were housed in their barracks called the "Praetorium", and were responsible for guarding the palaces of the Roman emperors and governors.

These imperial guards had two excellent opportunities to become acquainted with the new Christian religion.

First, when the Roman provincial governor Pilate turned Jesus Christ over to the soldiers for crucifixion, they "led him away into the hall called Praetorium, and called together the whole band" (Mark 15:16).  The brutal soldiery mocked, abused and finally crucified their captive.  And it was one of them who at Christ's death finally expressed what others of their number must have concluded by then: "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39)

Some years later the apostle Paul certainly evangelised the Praetorian guardsmen.  In 64 AD, during his imprisonment at Rome, the apostle wrote that his "bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace" (literally "in all the Praetorium"), and added that his imprisonment had resulted in "the furtherance of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12-13).

Undoubtedly his two years of imprisonment and Christian witness to the rotating Illyrian guardsmen would have brought conversions among them, as it did among the servants of "Caesar's household" (Philippians 4:22).

Thereafter the Christian faith would have reached their families and friends in Albania when they returned home on furlough.

Although very probable, this too is conjecture.

Paul may have visited southern Albania personally.  Writing to his assistant Titus after release from the first Roman imprisonment, Paul charged him, "Be diligent to come unto me to Nicopolis, for there I have determined to winter" (Titus 3:12).  It is generally conceded that of the several "Victory Cities" in the ancient world, Paul was referring to this more important Nicopolis, a well-known winter resort on the Ambracian gulf just below Corfu.  This was a chief city of Epirus, connected to the Via Egnatia and Durres by a branch highway through Buthrotum (Butrint), Apollonia (Pojani) and Clodiana (Peqin).  History is silent, however as to whether the apostle Paul ever did actually winter at this riviera port of southern Albania.

Even if actual visits of the apostle Paul to Illyricum be questioned in these instances, it is impossible to question the visit of his assistant Titus.  While imprisoned at Rome Paul wrote that Titus had gone to Dalmatia (2 Timothy 4:10).  But we have nothing further.

The alleged mission of the apostle Andrew rests on a less substantial basis. He is said to have preached in the vicinity of Albania, for St. Gregory of Nazianzus5 (380 AD) associated him with Epirus. Six centuries later Nicephorus"6. declared that Andrew in his missionary ministry passed through Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly and Achaia.  As early as the second century a heretic, Leucius Charinus7, wrote about the apostles, referring to Andrew's mission and martyrdom in Epirus at Patras, 75 miles south of Nicopolis.  An allegedly contemporary encyclical letter of the priests and deacons of Achaia tells the story"8.

Thus we have several traditions which indicate the evangelisation by the apostles of southern Illyricum and northern Epirus. But the apostolic foundation of Christianity elsewhere in Albania, although possible or even probable, is not explicitly stated.

Christianity in Albania Until the Division of the Empire in 395 A.D.

During this post-apostolic period also, information on the existence of Christian churches in Albania is unfortunately vague.

Before the end of the first century Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and martyr, declared enthusiastically that "bishops were settled everywhere to the utmost bounds of the earth"9.  While the many similar statements of contemporary church leaders can hardly be accepted literally, they certainly do bear witness to the extensive if not intensive propagation of the Christian gospel throughout the empire.  Yet the status of early Christianity in Albania is obscure.

Harnack10, an authoritative German church historian, stated cautiously, "We have but a faint knowledge of Christianity in the Balkan peninsula (the diocese of Illyricum) during the first centuries.  No outstanding figures emerge... the large part of the peninsula cannot have had more than a scanty population of Christians up till 325."

Duchesner11, [an] equally prominent Catholic historian, wrote that we have little light on the Christian churches of Greece at the end of the second century, and no particulars as to the countries farther north.

The North African church father Tertullian12 however, did affirm (c. 204) the early existence of churches in the "barbaric" provinces north of Greece. "Throughout Greece and certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of churches keep their virgins covered... But I have proposed as models those churches which were founded by apostles or apostolic men."  No specific provinces are named, but Macedonia, Epirus and Illyricum were all considered "barbarian" by the Greeks.

The saintly martyr Ignatius was in a position to have enlightened us on early Albanian Christianity, but left us no record of what he observed there.  Condemned to death by the emperor Trajan, chained and guarded, Ignatius was hurried from Antioch to Rome and martyrdom (c.110).   Sailing from Smyrna to Troas to Neapolis, he went on foot "by Philippi through Macedonia, and on to that part of Epirus which is near Epidamnus (our Durrės); and finding a ship in one of the seaports he sailed over the Adriatic sea."13  He described the journey thus. "From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves the worse."14  These "benefits" were probably gifts presented to the soldiers by sympathising Christians, that the aged Ignatius might be treated more kindly.  Referring to the churches en route, he wrote, "The churches received me in the name of Jesus Christ and not as a mere passerby.  For even those churches which were not near to me in the way, I mean according to the flesh, have gone before me, city by city, to meet me."15  This letter was written from Smyrna, however, before reaching Europe.  We have no later document from him, so shall probably never know whether there were Christian churches along the Via Egnatia in Albania to extend the same expressions of love and sympathy.

Nicopolis in Epirus was known as an early Church center.  It seems that one of its members was elected to the papal throne.  According to the Liber Pontificalis, Pope Eleutherius (c. 174-189) was a native of Nicopolis.

The Christian theologian Origen (185-254) visited Nicopolis and found there a version of the Old Testament hitherto unknown to him.  Eusebius16 (264?-340) the historian described Origen's zeal in collecting and studying Biblical manuscripts.  "These he searched up and traced to I know not what ancient lurking places, where they had lain hidden from remote times, and brought them to the light.  In which, when it was doubtful to him from what author they came, he only added the remark that he had found this translation at Nicopolis near Axium (Actium), but the other translation in such a place."  So, concluded Harnack,17 there must have been local Christians there at the time.

The early martyrologies compiled by the Church alluded to no martyrs in southern Illyria or northern Epirus.

Probably the earliest persecutions would have had little bearing on these areas.  The Neronian outbreak following the Great Fire (64 AD) was confined to Rome.  Trajan's proscription of Christianity as a criminal offence against the state (111 AD) brought sharp local outbreaks in the more thoroughly Christianised districts, as Asia Minor, North Africa, Gaul and Italy.  Yet the actual number of martyrdoms in this early period seems to have been comparatively small.  While no estimate of the Christian population is possible, Harnack placed Illyricum in his third category, where Christianity was thinly scattered, and probably for this reason escaped prominence in the martyrologies.

Yet there were some Illyrian martyrs.  Hecquard18 wrote that among the three bishops of the early church cited in Farlati's Illyricum Sacrum, the second, St. Astius of Durrės, was martyred under this same Trajan, together with seven Romans who had fled persecution in Rome and sought refuge at Dyrrhachium.

How strange it is that Illyrians were responsible both for the systematic persecution of Christianity, and later for its establishment as the official religion of the empire!

The Illyrian emperor Decius undertook the first universal and most vicious persecution to stamp out Christianity.

Following a series of Illyrian soldier-emperors, the great Illyrian Diocletian made his native Salona, just above Shkodra, the administrative seat of the province Illyricum.  He erected here his magnificent Palace of Diocletian.  Under imperial patronage the city rapidly flourished, putting even Dyrrhachium into eclipse.  Christianity in Illyricum seems also to have centred on Salona, where a wealth of inscriptions reveal a considerable Christian presence.

The otherwise benign reign of the statesman Diocletian was stained by bitter persecutions (303-311) instigated by two fanatical Illyrian colleagues, Maximian and Galerius.  So many Christians died here that the authorities erected a monument bearing the Latin words "Extincto nomine Christianorum" (The name of Christian is extinguished).19

But just one year after the retirement of Diocletian (305) another Illyrian, Constantine, became a Caesar, then an Augustus.  In 313 he issued his famous Edict of Milan guaranteeing religious toleration.  This freedom from persecution was not made effective in the Eastern empire until his defeat of a co-emperor, the persecuting Licinius, in 323.  Then Constantine seized complete control of the empire and established Christianity as the religion of the state.  Thus the first and last great persecutions of the Church and the peace of the Church came alike from Illyrian hands.

Council of Nicea

In his effort to sink deep foundations for his newly established State-Church, Constantine called the first ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325.

The representative attendance of 318 bishops from all over the empire is important inasmuch as it indicates the expansion of the Christian Church during the preceding difficult centuries.

The existence of Christianity in the Balkans is indicated by thirteen signatures of bishops present at Nicea, of whom three came from localities very near our present-day Albania:  the bishops of Soupi (Skoplje or Uskup), Stobi (north of Thessalonica) and Corcyra (Corfu).

Harnack20 indicates Christian centres existent in 325 at Nicopolis, Buthrotum (Butrint) and Corcyra.

Reorganisation of the Empire

Although the establishment of the Christian religion brought relief from persecution, it brought new problems.  Eleven years later Constantine dramatised his departure from pagan Rome by dedicating imperial Constantinople as a New Rome.  He established a "symphonic" relation between the new State and the Christian Church.  He recognised the Church as autonomous, having final authority over doctrinal matters, while the State would protect the Church and maintain uniformity.  Constantine called himself, in relation to the Church, its "bishop in externals."

Thus he determined the peculiar character of the Eastern Church under the Bishop of Constantinople.  The Church's proximity to the imperial court led to its infection by courtly conflicts and intrigues.  The clergy soon became characterised by worldly ambition and servility to worldly men.  In the West the Church had more firmness of character, being also protected by distance from the dangers of imperial patronage.

But the Christian emperor, who by his decrees and ecumenical council had sought to unify Christendom, had by his creation of New Rome given rise to a rivalry which was to exercise the most profoundly adverse influence on preparing the Church to resist the later Muslim invasions.

Illyricum, lying midway between these rival giants, became a bone of contention.  Her allegiance became the cause of a protracted and jealous enmity between Constantinople and Rome, as well as the prize of countless intrigues.

Constantine's symphonic relationship between Church and State was partly responsible, as was his inappropriate partition of Illyricum.

His reorganisation of the empire recognised four great divisions called prefectures:  those of Gaul, Italy, Illyricum and the East.  These were subdivided into thirteen dioceses, and these again into one hundred and sixteen provinces.

But the Balkan peoples were split up quite unnaturally.  The provinces of Macedonia, Thessaly, Epirus, Hellas, Crete and Praevalis (Dalmatia south to Epirus) composed the diocese of Macedonia, which with the northeasterly diocese of Dacia formed the prefecture of Illyricum.  The northwesterly provinces between Dalmatia and the Danube formed the diocese of Illyricum under the prefecture of Italy.  And the eastern Balkan diocese of Thrace came under the prefecture of the East.  Thus, part of the old Roman Illyricum was now oriented towards Rome, part towards Constantinople, and the heartland between the two was "up for grabs."  To compound the misfortune, Constantine's symphonic relationship between Church and State determined ecclesiastical organisation on the basis of the political organisation.  Henceforth the Church was inextricably joined to the State.  Political vicissitudes would have their ecclesiastical counterparts.  And there would be plenty of each.  Church leaders in the great centres assumed ecclesiastical authority over their regional church leaders comparable to that of the civil authorities over their regional officials.  The bishops of Constantinople, Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria competed among themselves for primacy just like their political counterparts.

During the turbulent period following Constantine, Theodosius I ("the Great") became emperor of the prefecture of the East responsible for prosecuting war with the Goths.  For geographic and strategic reasons the two great dioceses of Macedonia and Dacia, constituting the prefecture of Illyricum, were temporarily added to the dominions of the Eastern empire.

On the death of Theodosius in 395 the Roman empire was formally and permanently divided between his two sons Honorius and Arcadius, who ruled over the Western and Eastern empires respectively.

The northern Illyrian provinces of Noricum, Pannonia and Dalmatia were in the diocese of Illyricum, politically and ecclesiastically part of the Western empire.

The Illyrian provinces constituting the diocese of Macedonia were permanently united to the Eastern empire.  But incredibly, while these latter provinces came politically under Constantinople, they remained ecclesiastically under Rome!

This unfortunate discrepancy between the political and ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the prefecture of Illyricum provided the perfect occasion for the rival bishops to express their growing rivalry and to test their comparative strengths.

This date marks the transition from ancient to mediaeval history.

More significant however, this age-old religious divisiveness handicapped the Albanian population in their effort to resist the Ottoman invasion and to survive the Ottoman occupation.  Still later, it provided the Marxists with their rationale for outlawing all religion and substituting Albanianism as the unifying alternative.

FOOTNOTES

1Acts of the Apostles 16.12

2Expositors' Greek Testament, Vol. ii, W, Robertson Nicoll, editor (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1900 following), p. 713

3Hecquard, Hyacinthe, Histoire et description de la Haute Albanie ou Guégarie (Paris: Arthur Bertrand, 1857) p, 480 cites Farlati, French consul in Shkodra.

4Lavardin, Jacques de, Histoire de Georges Castriot, surnommé Scanderbeg, Roy d'Albanie (Paris: Denys Moreau, 1621) p. 47.

5Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, tr. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1993) Oration 33, Series 2, vii. 332.  

6Migne, Jacques P., Patrologia Graeca, CXLV (Paris: 1865) col. 960, editing Nicephorus Callistus, Ecclesiasticae Historiae, Lib. II, II, xxxix.

7Spiphanius, adv. Haer., lxi, 1; lxiii, 2.

8Catholic Encyclopaedia New York: D. Appleton Co., 1907-22) 1.471 and vi. 737 citing a text published by Tischendorf.

9Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Editors, Roberts and Donaldson (Edinburgh: T. and J. Clark, 1867) Ignatius' 'Epistle to Ephesians" iii, i.50. Cf. also Justin, 'Apology", ANCL 1.25,26,32,40,53,56, Justin, "Dialogue with Trypho", cxvii in ANCL i.258; Tertullian, "To Scapula", ii in ANCL iii.106; Lactantius, "On the Death of the Persecutors" iii in ANCL vii. 302.

10Harnack, Adolf, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity, ed. 2 (New York: Putnam, 1908) ii. 230.

11Duchesne, Louis, The Early History of the Christian Church (New York: Longmans Green and Company, 1905) i.190

12Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. ii, Tertullian, "On the Veiling of Virgins" iv. 27

13Ibid., 1.295, "The Martyrdom of Ignatius"

14Ibid., i.75, Ignatius, "Epistle to the Romans" v

15Ibid., 1.77, Ignatius, "Epistle to the Romans" ix

16Eusebius, Pamphilius, Ecclesiastical History. Jr. from Greek by C.F. Cruse (London: George Bell and Sons, 1097) vi. 16.

17Harnack, op. cit.,

18Hecquard, op. cit., 479, 480

19Moody Monthly, Chicago, June, 1978, p.7

20Harnack, op. cit., p 13

 
 
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