In view of the current debate about the rights and wrongs of suicide, Terry Jones in his recent book on ‘Barbarians’ provides some interesting background material.

The Christian doctrine about suicide, he argues,   goes back to St Augustine’s attack on the Donatists: “In the early fifth century, very large numbers of poor African Romans converted to Christianity, but the Christianity they adopted had little in common with the religion of Ravenna and Constantinople. Instead, it drew directly on the buried traditions of Phoenician Carthage. Baal, their old god, was now understood to be the God of the Bible. The old religion had at its centre ritual and blood sacrifice; this one had ritual, penance and martyrdom…”

“Donatists were fanatical, martyr-terrorists attacking landlords and money lenders and sometimes forcing rich men to run behind their carriages while their slaves rode. And since they believed that martyrs went straight to heaven (nothing new for the Muslims!) they would reportedly challenge passersby to kill them or throw themselves en masse off cliffs.”

“St Augustine was the anti-Donatist rhetorical hit-man. By logic and authority he demonstrated that suicide was not martyrdom but a sin. (It must have been very disheartening for any Donatist, having persuaded a passerby to kill him, to find that instead of entering heaven he had just bought a ticket to hell.)”

St Augustine’s arguments against the Donatists still live on.

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