Gothic Christianity

Gothic Christianity

Gothic Christianity refers to the Christian religion of the Goths and sometimes the Gepids, Vandals, and Burgundians, who may have used Wulfila's translation of the Bible into Gothic and shared common doctrines and practices. Gothic Christianity is the earliest instance of the Christianization of a Germanic people, completed more than a century before the baptism of Frankish king Clovis I.



During the 3rd century, East-Germanic peoples, moving in a southeasterly direction, migrated into Dacian territories previously under Sarmatian and Roman control, and the confluence of East-Germanic, Sarmatian, Dacian and Roman cultures resulted in the emergence of a new Gothic identity. Part of this identity was adherence to a pagan religion, the exact nature of which, however, remains uncertain. [Jordanes' 6th century "Getica", written a century and a half after Christianity largely replaced the older religions among the Goths, claims the chief god of the Goths was Mars. See also: Germanic paganism.] In 238 AD, an army described by the Romans as Gothic crossed the Danube and plundered the Roman province of Moesia Inferior, taking numerous hostages, which were later returned to the Romans in exchange for monetary compensation. Within two years - possibly on the basis of a contractual agreement which ended the same raid [Todd, Malcolm, "Die Germanen" (2000), pp. 138-9] - Goths were enlisted into the Roman Army for Gordian III' campaign against the Persians, which ended in 243-244 AD. At the conclusion of this campaign, the Gothic soldiers were released from military duty and all subventions were stopped. This was met with widespread disapproval, and by 250 AD a large army consisting of Goths, Vandali, Taifalae, Bastarnae and Carpi assembled under the Gothic king Cniva. In 251 AD, the Gothic army raided the Roman provinces of Moesia and Thrace, defeated and killed the Roman emperor Decius, and took a number of (predominately female) captives, many of which were Christian. This is assumed to represent the first lasting contact of the Goths with Christianity. [Simek, Rudolf, "Religion und Mythologie der Germanen" (2003), pg. 229]


The conversion of the Goths to Christianity was a relatively swift process, facilitated on the one hand by the assimilation of (primarily female) Christian captives into Gothic society [Simek, Rudolf, "Religion und Mythologie der Germanen" (2003), pp. 229-34] and on the other by a general equation of participation in Roman society with adherence to Christianity. [Todd, Malcolm, "Die Germanen" (2000), pp. 114] Within a few generations of their appearance on the borders of the Empire in 238 AD, the conversion of the Goths to Christianity was nearly all-inclusive. The Christian cross appeared on coins in Gothic Crimea shortly after the Edict of Tolerance was issued by Galerius in 311 AD, and a bishop by the name of Theophilas Gothiae was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. [Simek, Rudolf, "Religion und Mythologie der Germanen" (2003), pg. 229] However, fighting between Pagan and Christian Goths continued throughout this period, and religious persecutions - ecoing the Diocletianic Persecution (302-11 AD) - occurred frequently. The Christian Goths Wereka, Batwin and others were martyred by order of Wingourichos ca. 370 AD, and Saba was martyred by order of Athanaric in 372 AD.

Bishop Wulfila

The initial success experienced by the Goths encouraged them to engage in a series of raiding campaigns at the close of the 3rd century - many of which resulted in having numerous captives sent back to Gothic settlements north of the Danube and the Black Sea. Wulfila, who became bishop of the Goths in 341 AD, was the grandson of one such female Christian captive from Sadagolthina in Cappadocia. He served in this position for the next seven years. In 348, one of the remaining Pagan Gothic kings ("reikos") began persecuting the Christian Goths, and Wulfila and many other Christian Goths fled to Moesia Secunda in the Roman Empire. [Auxentius of Durostorum, "Letter of Auxentius", quoted in Heather and Matthews, "Goths in the Fourth Century", pp. 141-142.] He continued to serve as bishop to the Christian Goths in Moesia until his death in 383 AD. [Philostorgius via Photius, "Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius", book 2, chapter 5.]

Wulfila was ordained by Eusebius of Nicomedia, the bishop of Constantinople, in 341 AD. Eusebius was a pupil of Lucian of Antioch and a leading figure of a faction of Christological thought that became known as Arianism, named after his friend and fellow student, Arius of Alexandria.

Wulfila's Bible translation

Between 348 and 383, Wulfila translated the Bible from Greek into the Gothic language. [Auxentius of Durostorum, "Letter of Auxentius", quoted in Heather and Matthews, "Goths in the Fourth Century", p. 140.] [Philostorgius via Photius, "Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius", book 2, chapter 5.] Thus, some Arian Christians in the west used vernacular languages - in this case Gothic - for services, as did Nicaean Christians in the east (Eastern Orthodox), while Nicaean Christians in the west (Roman Catholics) only used Latin.

Gothic Christianity in the Roman Empire

According to Patrick Amory, the Gothic churches had close ties to other non-Nicaean churches in the Western Roman Empire. [Amory, Patrick, "People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy", p. 238]

Later Ostrogothic Christianity

After 493, the Ostrogothic kingdom included two areas, Italy and much of the Balkans, which had large non-Nicaean churches. [Amory, Patrick, "People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy", pp. 237-238.]

Later Visigothic Christianity

Gothic Christianity in the Crimea

Church Figures

* Theophilus, possible predecessor of Wulfila
* Wulfila, or Ulfilas, first bishop of the Goths and bible translator.
* Auxentius of Durostorum, Wulfila's adopted son, and later bishop of Milan.

Political Figures

* Fritigern


While one might suppose that the "Gothic Churches" of Europe were built by the Goths, this is not the case. Few structures dating to the Gothic era still exist in Europe, and those don't conform to the style of Gothic architecture, which dates to the Twelfth Century. The term "Gothic architecture" was originally a derogatory term meaning something like "crude and barbaric" that did not really relate to the historical Goths.

The Gothic tribes were predominantly Christian for more than a century before they sacked Rome in the Fifth Century.

The Gothic Christians were followers of a doctrine (Homoianism) associated by their opponents with the priest Arius,Fact|date=July 2007. The theological differences between this and orthodox Christianity are discussed under Arianism. The Goths translated the Bible into the Gothic language. Portions of this translation survive.

After their sack of Rome, the Visigoths moved on to occupy Spain and southern France. Having been driven out of France, the Spanish Goths formally embraced Catholicism at the Third Council of Toledo in 589.


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