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5.5 Early Christian Beliefs

The attitude of the cities and the people towards the Roman Empire was one of acquiescence, and even respect, as long as they were left alone. The early Christians cannot be described as an association of rebels against the Conquerors, even if the church included many slaves, but any analogy with the present meaning of this term would be misleading. Many slaves were, in fact, highly educated and put in charge of important work (secretaries, teachers, managers). Probably the church drew most of his adherents from the middle class people, such as tradesmen and artisans, but some of the converts were of high social rank. Before the end of the first century the Consular Titus Flavius Clemens, a cousin of the Emperor, became Christian although his children had been designated as heirs to the throne. The early Christian writings cannot be classified as preaching the revolt against the Empire even if, sometimes, they criticised the Romans but, generally, only after a bloodshed by the state authorities, as for instance in the “Revelations of St. John”. The “Epistle of St. Clement” with its obvious respect for the authorities, written one or two years later, is more representative of the current style. Even Paul told the Christians in Rome to obey the state authorities. Prayers for the Emperor were even offered by Christian assemblies. Obviously the converts were not happy with the present state of affairs and were looking forwards to the return of the Lord on this earth.

As far as we know, Christians were first harassed and killed by the authorities in Rome in 64 AD. Afterwards they were regarded as renegades and treated as such by the magistrates, although it is not clear if a law had been promulgated to allow such a harassment. The Government, on the other hand, did not persecute them much. The Christians suffered at the hand of their Pagan neighbours, but the Government repressions were rare and local. Christians in Rome suffered repression in 64 AD, and other cities suffered later on, but this was not the general policy of the Empire until 303 AD when Diocletian tried to exterminate them, but by that time it was too late. Probably the Roman authorities did not know how to deal with this new religion. There was no special reason why the Romans should have persecuted the Christians. There were many Pagan sects with secret rites all over the Empire, and they were left in peace. However by taking over the worshipping of Israel’s Gods the Early Christians also took the Jews’ intransigence. Like the Jews the New Church refused to worship the Emperor. However the Jewish religion was well confined to one nation in the Empire. This was different with the Christians who aimed to convert all the subjects of Caesar. Christianity had declared war on all the polytheist religions of the Empire and, in any family, a member could be induced to join and, after, to refuse to take part in the familiar rites addressed to the old deities of the house. The members of the Pagan religions did not object to participate in other Pagan rites, including the adoration of the Emperor. All these cults, including Isis and Mithras, formed a happy family that the Christians refused to join. They refused to adore any God but their own, and this justified their persecution by the Empire that could not understand their intransigence. As a result Christianity still exists whereas the cults of Isis and Mithras have disappeared.

Septimius Severus in about 200 AD proclaimed an edict that made baptism of new adherents a crime but the following persecution did not last long. Maximin the Thracian (235-38 AD) issued an edict aimed at eliminating the bishops and the priests but, in this case too, the persecution was short lived. Decius (249-251 AD) persecuted them for about a year and in 303 Diocletian attempted to exterminate Christianity by killing and torturing its members. In the East the persecution lasted until 311 but, in the West, Constantine, who was proclaimed Emperor of the Western provinces in 306, was pro-Christians. When he made himself master of Italy and Rome in 312 he adopted the Cross and the monogram of Christ as his Imperial standard (the Labarum). In 313, together with Licinius, his colleague in the Empire until 324, he promulgated the Edict of Milan that established religious toleration and gave back to the Church all the properties confiscated. Constantine who reigned alone until 337 professed himself to be a Christian to the surprise of all.

The attraction to Christianity, from the very beginning, was more social that religious. It was the corporate life of the little Christian communities in the cities that attracted people more that the acceptation of the Christian Good News, in which they believed, that gave the Good News its power and made the Church grow. It is not clear even now if the moral standard of these Christian communities was better, worse, or the same, as that of the main streams of the society of that time. It seems reasonable to say that the Greek moral standards of that time were as high as the Christian’s. The only big difference concerns sexual relations. The Christians accepted sexual relations only between married people. The remarriage of one party during the life of the other, after separation, was considered on the same level as adultery. The Pagan Greek society was much more open minded in this respect, but it would be exaggerated to say that it sanctioned sexual indulgence in all its forms. Marriage was considered a desirable civic arrangement where passion did not necessarily enter. Moreover, ideally, intercourse outside wedlock was often considered as evil and, within wedlock, it should be limited to the procreation of children. The Christian ideal of chastity was then nothing new in the Greek-Roman society. The Christians only made it compulsory for its members, whereas before it was only an ideal. In addition Christianity invested marriage with a divine significance and sanctity that it never had before for the Romans and the Greeks.

From the beginning of Christianity there were two schools of thought that could be classified as contradictory. One the one hand there was the obligation to obey authority and, on the other, the right to individual action and speech according to the impulse of the Spirit. The latter was especially strong in the primitive Church where “Prophets” were known to say what they wanted even in unintelligible language. The former, the obedience to authority, was also there from the start. For instance the relation between the Apostles and Jesus was clear: there was one Master and his Disciples. The New Testament and the Epistles tell us that Jesus first, then Paul in the Lord’s name, appointed the leaders of the communities. However the two strains -the authority of the leaders and the “Charismatic” freedom of the individual- worked together, sometimes with some difficulties. From the second century AD each community was headed by a “episcopos” (overseer), or bishop, assisted by a council of men known as “presbyteroi” (elders), or priests, and a lower order of “diaconoi” (servants), or deacons. The bishops filled the vacancies after being elected, or approved, by the communities. The rules used in the period between the Apostles and the second century are not so well known. For the Catholics the rules used in the second century were introduced by Christ: all bishop derived their authority by transmission from bishops ordained by one of the Twelve or by St Paul. However the New Testament and the other Christian documents of the first century are silent on this point. It is more probable that the rule was imposed by the third or the fourth generation of Christians. In the first century, for instance, there was no indication of a single leader in each community, with the exception of Jerusalem where Jesus’ brother, James, held a position similar to a later day bishop from 56 AD. Elsewhere there was generally more that one leader, sometime appointed by Paul or on his order, but we are never told that they were ordained by Apostles. We do not know either how new leaders were appointed. It is probable that each community had its own rules.

Sixty years after the death of Paul the “Prophets” of the first century had disappeared, and the worship of the assemblies was conducted by the bishops with a well-defined liturgy and, as far as possible, without interference of the members. It is obvious that the strain of authority had imposed itself on the charismatic freedom. The growth of the Church, in numbers and diffusion, made the problem of holding it together, and united, a very difficult one. There was a permanent danger that the New religion, surrounded by numerous forms of paganism, would be absorbed and lost. The Apostles and Paul had been dead for a long time and nobody could say to have known Jesus. In the second century nobody had the authority that Paul had, and the Church went through a difficult crisis, struggling against Gnosticism.

In the Greek-speaking world many people before had speculated about the universe and the destiny of Man after death. There were many theories but the most diffused stated that the soul of Man was divine, belonged to a higher world, and was imprisoned in a material body. There was a strong craving for salvation, that is the liberation of the divine soul from the material body and its reunion with the divine world where it belonged. One of the way by which it was thought that reunion could be secured was through knowledge (or Gnosis), accessible to a privileged few. Some people, whose mind was filled with these ideas, joined the Christian Church and tried to combine them with the Christian faith. >From the time of Paul a process of rejection and exclusion of ideas and beliefs, as well as a process of assimilation, took place. Some ideas and modes of expression, accepted at first, were rejected later on, but this does not mean that a selection process was not present from the beginning.

Before the end of the first century some priests had modified the Christian faith by introducing ideas from the outside environment. In particular the Gnostics had brought in the following points:

– The explanation of how the world came about. They made a distinction between the earth, where man was living, and Heaven, the domain of God and of the people he had saved. Earth was not created by the Supreme God but by a lower God, ignorant of the Supreme God, or hostile to Him. It was this lower God that was the God of Israel, and from whom the Old Testament had come. One of the divine Powers of the Higher World had fallen in the lower world and was now under the domination of the inferior and malignant God. It was this fallen Divine Power that constituted the Divine element in man, or in the privileged ones according to some Gnostics, as the majority belonged to the lower world.

– The explanation of why the Divine Jesus Christ descended in the lower world to save the divine element in man and bring it back to heaven. The “Saviour”, according to the Gnostics, had been manifested in Jesus, but they could not accept the Christian belief that he was the son of God as a Divinity could not suffer or die. They explained the Passion in two ways. Some, known as Docetists (from the word dokein or “to seem”), said that the body of Jesus had not been real but apparent only, and his suffering had been an illusion to deceive the spirit-rulers of this world. The others distinguished between the Divine Being in Jesus and the man called Jesus. The Divine Being had quitted the body before the Passion and gone back to Heaven.

– The means by which the salvation, that is the liberation of the divine element, would occur were numerous. There were many kinds of sacramental and ritual processes according to the particular school of Gnosticism. For instance, sexual reproduction was always seen negatively as it led to the reproduction of the imprisonment of the Divine element in other bodies. Some Gnostics practised extreme asceticism and abstinence, whereas others accepted extreme licence and very complicated contraceptive practices.

The later documents included in the New Testament show that the Church was alarmed by doctrine similar to second century Gnosticism spreading in the community. In the second century the risk of complete dissolution of Christianity due to Gnostic influence was extreme. There was not yet a well-accepted New Testament as a reference, even if most of the books that were to be included in it had already been written by 110 AD (at the exception of 2 Peter) and in circulation as separate book. Unfortunately other books were also in circulation including a Gnostic Gospel that pretended to record Jesus’ teaching. It was, of course, difficult to know which was the true doctrine as all pretended to come from the original Apostles. In addition the Gnostics proclaimed to have received from one or more Apostles a secret oral teaching that now formed the core of their faith. The only certainties in this confusion were the “Overseers”, or bishops, having been chosen publicly by their predecessors who held their authority from the teachers of the first generation. These orthodox leaders were able to say which writings had been recognised as true to the faith by the original leaders from those which contained strange doctrines. Important leader like Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, insisted in his Letters that every local church should obey its bishop. This is understandable if we remember that the original apostles with their personnel authority had died, that the New Testament did not exist yet as such, and the Christian teaching was not yet firmly codified. To survive, the Church had to follow their leaders and, in particular, the teaching from the central church in Rome. The church had to define very clearly its doctrine and this led to a hardening of forms and a firmer drawing of outlines. Without any authoritative centre like Rome, the Christian Church, in the second century, would have exploded in many fractions and disappeared. By the end of the second century the list of books to be included in the New Testament was more or less accepted by all the Christian churches, even if some were still accepted by some and rejected by the others (James, Jude, Hebrews, Apocalypse of John, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John were included; the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas were excluded). As a result, the New Testament became the official book of the universal Christian Church. The decision to accept, or not, a book was based on whether its teaching did, or not, agree with the true doctrine, and not on the fact that he had been written, or not, by the ascribed author. In the end, that is from the eighth century, it was generally admitted that the New Testament was composed of twenty-seven books only. The Council of Trent (1552-1563) confirmed this list of books for the Roman Catholic Church.

The Gnostics were expelled from the Christian Church in the second century but this did not end the controversy. Christianity rejected also Greek culture that was the only one available at that time. Rejecting it was like saying that Christians should remain uneducated. A strong minority refused to follow especially in Alexandria. Clement (150-215), for instance, although rejecting the Gnostic theories, stated that a large part of the Greek culture was acceptable, and that a Christian who combined it with the Christian faith was a better Christian that one who had only his faith. Origen (185-253) succeeded him and influenced the Christian thought for many generations. He preached against the Gnostics but his theories (he believed in reincarnation, and held that all souls had existed originally in a state of equality in Heaven, that they had fallen on the earth at different levels, that in the course of successive lives they moved up and down, but in the end, all of them including Satan, would return to heaven) were not acceptable for the Church that repudiated them. Origen was tortured and killed during the Decian persecutions in 250 AD.

Two kinds of questions preoccupied the Church in the third century. The first concerned the standards and character of the Christian life. It was important, if the Church was to survive in the middle of a Pagan world, to impose a code of conduct to the members. The line between membership and expulsion was difficult to trace. This was especially true when a member had betrayed the Church rules under torture: must they be taken back afterwards? Tertullian (160-245) said that they were seven kinds of sins that led to permanent expulsion: murder, idolatry, theft, apostasy, blasphemy, fornication and adultery although Callistus, Bishop of Rome (219-223), gave absolution to the repentant adulterers and fornicators. He was heavily criticised, but in the end the Church followed him. Of course all the Christians admitted that God received all repentant sinners in his community as baptism was washing away all past mistakes. The question arose with those who already had been baptised and who fell back in their bad conduct. Could they be cleansed a second time as there could not be a second baptism? According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, written perhaps by St. Barnabas, the baptised Christians who committed one of the seven most important sins could not be forgiven by the Church and, at the best, could hope for mercy at the Last judgement. Others said, like Callistus, that repentant adulterers and fornicators could come back in the Church but they were firmer towards those who had betrayed under persecution.

The followers of Novatian, who was ordained bishop of Rome in 251, left the Church because they said that by taking back repentant sinners the Christian Church had forfeited its right to be considered the Divine community. They created their own church that lasted until the seventh century. They did not deny that God could forgive them, but they said that the Church had not this authority.

The second question that preoccupied the Church from the third to the seventh century was theological. What was the true doctrine about the Person of God? The Christian Church took over from the Jews the principle that the Power behind every thing was personal, and was One. On the other hand the Christian treated the person called Jesus more or less as God. At the beginning there was not clear explanation to this apparent contradiction. It took about six centuries to arrive to an acceptable explanation that is still questioned even these days. The representatives of the different churches could meet in Ecumenical Council and define a common policy on controversial questions only after the Roman Emperor became a Christian. Before that time each bishop could have their own interpretation. Their only possible contact, within the Greek-Roman world, was in writing, and the more prestigious churches such as Rome, Alexandria, and Ephesus would try to lead the others but they had no way to impose a unique rule to the whole Church. The controversy with the Gnostics, for instance, had led to different views as to the relation of Jesus to God. Already at the beginning of the third century some scholars such as Noëtus said that there was no distinction between God and Jesus, and they accused their opponents to have two Gods. Of course these opponents replied that Noëtus implied that God the Father died on the cross. In the second part of the third century Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch, said that Jesus was not God but a man, who, through the presence of some divine qualities in him, was judged to be worth to go directly to Heaven.

After Christianity had become the religion of the Empire all the Bishops would assemble, at the Emperor’s request, in Ecumenical Council. Seven such councils were organised before the Western (Latin) and Eastearn (Greek) Churches separated. Constantine called the first council in Nicaea in 325 AD. It was followed by the councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople (553), Constantinople (680) and Nicaea again (787). Other councils organised by the Catholic Church have taken place but, of course, they are not recognised by the Greek Orthodox Church, or by the Protestants. The first seven Councils had to deal with the question of the nature of Jesus. The first Council of Nicaea in 325 was gathered to deal with the Arian controversy. In 318 Arius, a priest of the Greek Christian Church in Egypt, preached that the Being called “the Son” was the highest of God created beings, but he was himself no God. This Being had appeared as a man in Jesus, but as the Son was not God, so Jesus had not properly been a Man; he had not really had a human nature though he had a human body. Arius based his teaching on the Scriptures, and many priests agreed with him. Another Egyptian called Athanasius opposed these views. The first Ecumenical Council had to decide who was right, and the decision was in favour of Athanasius who preached that the Son was also God, “begotten”, not created. The son was not the Father but he was “of the same substance” as the Father.

The bishops at Nicaea were of course trying to raise Jesus to the level of God himself. At the same time Christians were also concerned to assert the real humanity of Jesus, that could be obfuscated by claiming that he was of divine nature.

At the first Council of Constantinople in 381 the view of Apollinarius, that in Jesus the Divine Logos (Word) took the place of a human soul, was defeated. For the bishops, Jesus had not only a body as any man, but also a human soul. If Jesus was both a God and a Man, would it be right to speak of things true of him as a human Being, as true of God? For instance could one call the Mother of Jesus the Mother of God? Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople, believed that it was wrong. Christians of the Reformed Church would agree with him to-day but in 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the union of Divine and Human in Jesus allowed the use of such affirmation. The doctrine of the two natures joined in the one Person was emphasised at Chalcedon in 451. Some Christians of the Greek East (mainly in Syria and Egypt) could not accept this decision and split away from the main body of the Church. They are known as “Monophysistes” (“One nature people”), or Jacobites, because they maintained that the Divine and the Human in Jesus did not form two natures, but coalesced to form one single nature. To-day the ancient Armenian Church, the Copts, the Abyssinians, and the “Syrian” Christians of South India are still Monophysites in opposition with the Greek Orthodox Churches.

The Second Council of Constantinople (553) did not bring any big doctrinal change, but the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) rejected the doctrine that Jesus had no real human nature. This Heretic doctrine is known as “Monothelite (“One-will”). The Seventh, and last, Council recognised by both the Western and the Eastern Churches, the second Council of Nicaea of 787, accepted the right to make paintings and sculptures of Jesus and the Saints, and to adore Him using them. A minority of the Christians in the Eastern Empire, recorded as Iconoclasts (“Image-breakers), thought that this was not right. The majority believed that if Jesus was a man, it was logical to represent him in visible form. It is true that the Jews had forbidden to make images of God, but this could easily be explained by the fact that their God had not materialised yet, whereas for the Christians God had shown Himself in Jesus. To refuse to make images of Jesus would deny the Incarnation.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the Spirit is named together with the Father and the Son. However this did not mean for the early Christians that the Spirit was considered as a “Person” equals to the Father and the Son. The early Christians were binitarian and not trinitarian. At the first council of Constantinople (381) the Holy Spirit was affirmed to be a “Person” (hypostasis) equal with the Father and the Son but “proceeding from” the Father. From that time the term “Holy Trinity” had the meaning that it has still to-day.

All this seems very confusing and a clarification of the meaning of the words used was then, and is still now, necessary. It was also necessary to impose a unified doctrine to be followed by all the members of the Church, even if this meant to expel those who refused to accept the general rules. Heretical teachers had to be deprived of their office if the Christian Church was to survive as one community. Unfortunately brutal force was sometimes used to impose one point of doctrine, as when Constantine in 316 confiscated the churches and banished the North-African Bishops who followed Donatus’ teaching. In addition the secular Power interfered in the Church’s disputes, as when Arius and his followers refused to accept the decisions taken at Nicaea and Constantine interned them at Illyricum. Some people may think that the decisions taken in these conditions are not worth much. Yet Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox believe that the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils are infallible. Even the Protestant reformed Churches agree that some, but not all, of the decisions taken by these Councils were right.

When Constantine became Christian, the religion of a persecuted minority became the religion of the Court, even if it did not become straight away the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine remained the “Pontifex Maximus” of the old Pagan religion and he was baptised only on his death-bed. Both religions existed side by side until the Emperor Gratian (375-383) refused to be Pontifex Maximus and took steps to eliminate the old religions, first by cancelling their subsidies, and then by confiscating their properties and revenues. His successor, Theodosius and his sons, Arcadius (395-408) and Honorius (395-423), destroyed many temples, amongst them the temple of Sarapis at Alexandria, and fined those who went on practising the old religion. Justinian (517-565) forbid the Pagans to own properties and closed the Academy (529), the school of Philosophy created by Platon in Athens 900 years before.

With the approval of the Church, the Roman Emperors prohibited their subjects to follow any other religion and persecuted those who did not follow his orders. In this case the persecution was successful, and the old Pagan Greek religions disappeared. Unfortunately the business of the world went on as before. The Christian Church, after being persecuted, instigated the rulers of the world to persecute on its behalf, not only the Pagans, but also any forms of Christianity that the leaders of the Church regarded as heretical. St. Augustine, for instance, used his authority within the Church to establish persecution as a principle. To justify the suppression of the heretics the Church appealed to the laws of old Israel that said that anyone introducing idolatry or witchcraft in the community of Jehovah should be put to death. Here, again, the Jews are guilty.

One consequence of Christianity becoming the religion of the Roman empire was to widen the gap between clergy and laity. Initially, in their ordinary life, the bishops and the priests could not be distinguish from the other members of the community. For instance, they had to work for their living. After the Empire became Christian, the priests were given a privileged position in the State, as had been the case with their Pagan predecessors: they did not pay taxes, they were paid by the State, bishops had some disciplinary power over laymen, the churches had sanctuary-rights, … The clergy was not only an order in the Church, but an authority in the State. Soon the priests started to wear special dress to distinguish them from the laymen and, after the sixth century, it was made obligatory.

The administration of the Church became more elaborate. The bishop of the capital city of a province of the Empire had authority over the other bishops of the province and was called “Metropolitan”. Above them were the bishops of the five main cities of the Empire -Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem- and, from the ninth century, they were known as “Patriarch”. The Bishop of Rome, as vicar of Christ, was assumed to have authority over the whole church and was called “Papa” (daddy) from the sixth century. Initially the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome was not recognised everywhere. Some though that the supreme authority was held by the college of all the bishops. However, even as early as the end of the first century, the Bishop of Rome enjoyed a special prestige due to the fact that Rome was the capital of the Empire, but also due to the connection of Rome with St Peter and St Paul.

In the Christian Empire the Church formed a kind of spiritual state alongside the earthy state. It had its own organisation, its hierarchy, its large properties, its philanthropic institutions (orphanages, schools, hospitals, and its tribunals. However it had no material force (army, police) at its disposal. If force was required to suppress heresy, or for any other reason, the Church would appeal to the State for help. For instance no heretics were ever killed by the Church; the Church handed them to the state authority on the understanding that they would be killed. The Church did not use its strength to reform the state institutions. In the sphere of law, punishments were even more drastic in the Christian Empire that they had been before in the Old roman Empire. Slavery went on, and the Church used many in its properties.

The world was very far from being Christianised. Many people called Christians were in fact as Pagan in heart as before. When the Emperors became Christian the Old Roman Empire was breaking up and the Barbarians, who were incorporated in the State authority, dominated more and more over the government. From the end of the fifth century the Roman Emperor, with his seat in Constantinople, had little or no control over the Latin-speaking lands (Italy and the West). Finally, in the ninth century, a German chieftain, Charlemagne, took over the West and founded the Holy Roman Empire whose Emperors were Germans. Europe had entered the “Dark Age” and this explains, in part, why the Church had so little influence on the state institutions. It is also true that the Church was not interested in changing the institutions as its main interest was to prepare people for the eternal divine society, as the world was assumed to pass away soon. However it was concerned with limiting their consequences when they produced sin or suffering. In this time of widespread misery the Church carried a vast program of relief for the poor, using part of the money and properties received since the time of Constantine. Hotels (hospitalia) for the reception of indigents were built in most towns, and they were later on used for taking care of the sick. Slavery went on even if, in the Church’s view, the slaves were “equal before God” to their masters, religious or not. Many masters in fact free their slaves although the Church did not. The Church, with all its dignity and privileges, could sometimes stand up to the Imperial Power in defence of the weak. When Theodosius I massacred most of the population in Thessalonica, St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, banned him from communion until he had done public penance (390). Before Constantine the Church was very poor and the bishops lived in very difficult conditions. But later, the day of the Christian martyrs seemed to be over, and as the number of members increased a lot, the religious leaders could not go on living the way the first Christian did within their small communities. A consequence of this relative peace was the spread of monasticism or ascetic societies separate from the world, whose members lived according to a rule written by the founder. Tradition says that they started in Egypt, in the desert, and that the founder was a certain Antonius (260-360). From there some communities spread to Palestine, Sinai, and Syria. St. Basil of Caesarea (330-379) laid down the monastic rules used in the Greek-speaking half of the Empire. Before the end of the fourth century such monastic communities were also found in Italy, Gaul, and Spain. In the sixth century St. Benedict (480-540) founded well-known monasteries in the West. The monks lived in extreme austerity but self-torture was forbidden. They combined religious exercises with useful manual labour (agriculture, weaving, building or copying manuscripts). The monks practised asceticism, abstinence, renounced to private properties, and to any activity that competed with religious devotion; each of them had to put themselves entirely to the service of the community. It was mainly through the monasteries that the Church did its poor relief work as the monks’ agricultural labours cleared the waste-lands of Europe. They contributed a lot to preserve, and copy for us, the documents of the past. (6)