We know that the Roman Empire became a Christian state. Was it illegal to blaspheme God in Antioch in 360.-410.? What punishment was prescribed (if it was illegal)? If it was punishable, who could carry out the punishment?


So pardon for my rough approximation in the original post, I would really like to know the law which governed blasphemy (of Christ) in Antioch in the period of 386.-397.

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    I don't see any evidence in the quotes presented that blasphemy was illegal. Offensive to the author, but I don't see anything that suggests illegal. I think he is advocating that your legal defense against the charge of assault & battery is, "He insulted someone important to me"; that isn't a countercharge, it is a defense that is entirely within the normal proceedings of Roman court. (their legal system was based less on law and more on character/loyalty).
    – MCW
    Aug 30, 2019 at 13:56
  • Nicholas of Myra is said to have slapped Arius twice at the Council of Nicaea, for blaspheming both Christ and Mary.
    – Lucian
    Sep 1, 2019 at 16:36
  • @According to the Wikipedia article about St. Nicholas you linked to, that storty is a later embellishment.
    – Spencer
    Oct 20, 2019 at 8:31

3 Answers 3


Well, if we can change venue to Alexandria, which was a Roman city in Egypt with roughly similar standing to Antioch (they both housed a Christian Patriarch), and roll the date forward by only 5 years, then the fate of Hypatia might be a pretty good guide.

The short version is that she was a pagan philosopher, who was well-liked in the pagan community, and was a close friend and advisor to the Roman Prefect. When the Prefect got into a political dispute with the new Bishop of Alexandria, she became a target. Eventually a Christian mob captured her and ... well did about all the disgusting things you can imagine a mob doing to a target, and then some.

What this incident tells us:

Being pagan (and teaching philosophy that wasn't Christian) was not against the law. Not only was she able to do that openly in Alexandria, but it didn't stop her from being pals with the person primarily in charge of enforcing Roman Law in the city. Additionally, she wasn't the only one. There was an entire community of Pagans.

We have a pretty good idea she was accused of all kinds of blasphemous things, not only because that's what would be required to rile a Christian crowd into a lynch mob, but because there seems to be a memory of them from the later writings of Bishop John of Niku:

and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic.

Apparently these charges were not something one could take to the secular authorities to get someone arrested, or the mob would not have been nessecary. So it wasn't against the law.

One might note from the question's Chrysostom passage that he specifically suggested listeners take physical (violent) actions themselves when they see such a "crime", which also indicates that simply having the person antiseptically arrested and handed over to authorities is not actually an option.

Anyone from a minority community can tell you there's often a large difference between what's technically legal for them to do, and what the majority will actually allow them to do. Hypatia would probably tell you the same, if she could.

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    Agreeing with this--some additional data: Theodosius may have made Christianity the official religion, but the emperors didn't make a sharp break in state traditions, not even to accommodate the church. This is especially noticeable in divorce law. Divorce had always been possible under Roman law, and the emperors refused to change this even though the church wanted them to.
    – C Monsour
    Aug 30, 2019 at 2:28
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    It's an interesting questions how much of the hatred aimed at Hypatia was due to her paganism and how much was due to being a woman in a man's world.
    – C Monsour
    Aug 30, 2019 at 2:45
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    @CMonsour : unless they murdered the majority of women because they existed and they were women, and then they all died out due to the lack of women (which, strangely, didn't happen), then your comment makes absolutely no sense.
    – vsz
    Aug 30, 2019 at 7:52
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    @vsz To be clear I meant in the man's world of learned discourse, where she would have been just about the only female participant, much as Joan of Arc was described in rather similar terms, having been the only female participant in the army.
    – C Monsour
    Aug 30, 2019 at 9:29
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    @vsz - If one clarifies "in a man's world" to mean "holding actual political influence", it makes perfect sense. Compare with Jim Crow 20th Century America being just fine with blacks being a huge percentage of the population in southern states, but coming down on any of them who attempt to vote (or participate in White society at all really) like a ton of bricks. Its about exclusive control of political power.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 30, 2019 at 14:40

In 361-363 the Empire was ruled by a pagan emperor. His successors were Christian, but the empire was still a multi-religious state. It is only in 381 (under Theodosius) that introduction of uniformity and persecution of non-Christians began. So you can expect blasphemy laws from that time only and they were gradually introduced.

The citation from John Chrysostom that you give supports this: he calls to "rebuke and inflict blows" rather than "denounce to the authorities". Which makes it clear that blasphemy was not illegal at the time he wrote this.

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    Yes. In modern terms, he is counseling the use of assault & battery to intimidate non-believers.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 30, 2019 at 4:42
  • But he also counseled blasphemy as a defense to the assault.
    – WGroleau
    Aug 30, 2019 at 14:55
  • @WGroleau: I don't see that, unless he's advising his Christian followers to go into court and blaspheme against the Roman gods. Or are you saying that he's advising them to try to justify the assaults in court that way, like jihadists & Charlie Hebdo?
    – jamesqf
    Aug 30, 2019 at 18:08
  • "when the judge on the bench calls you to account, say boldly that the man blasphemed" (from the OP's quote)
    – WGroleau
    Aug 30, 2019 at 18:09
  • @WGroleau: The word does not carry any distinctly-religious connotations, which is what the OP is specifically interested in. The quote simply reads: the man blasphemed the King of angels! For if it be necessary to punish those who blaspheme an earthly king.
    – Lucian
    Sep 1, 2019 at 16:42

To blaspheme which god? In 363, if you blasphemed the pagan gods, an emperor wrote disparagingly about your city. If you blasphemed Christ, the Persian army slew you at Samarra.

This doesn't apply to the other years. It's interesting that you included Julian's reign.

  • By God I meant Christ. Thanks a lot for your answer.
    – Thom
    Aug 29, 2019 at 20:36
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    This doesn't seem to answer the question.
    – MCW
    Aug 30, 2019 at 13:57
  • I strongly suspect that Julian's defeat had much less to do with "blasphemy" against Christ than with poor tactical decisions.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 31, 2019 at 2:55
  • @jamesqf Surely my point is that there were no legal prohibitions against blasphemy if even an emperor was reduced to ridiculing blasphemers rather than punishing them. As for what happened to Julian at Samarra, you're probably right but (A) that's not how his contemporaries likely thought about it and (B) there are certainly claims that he was NOT killed by the Persians but rather assassinated by Christians within his own army. So, maybe the blasphemy did matter...
    – C Monsour
    Aug 31, 2019 at 3:31

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