Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying

(Three weeks ago I posted a piece on Albert Göring, who was being considered for inclusion in the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations for his work in rescuing Jews. Apparently he did not make it, presumably because of a rumor of a Jewish father, which would make him ineligible, and Israel avoids the embarrassment of having Reichsmarschall Göring’s brother among the honored.)

The Roman persecution of Christians is a well-known episode in the history of the religion, but inasmuch as these events occurred almost two millennia ago, there is no longer a Roman Empire and the Church was the winner, one might expect that some distortion has crept into the popular narrative. And it has, primarily because few people have any real knowledge of the Empire beyond what Christianity and Hollywood have suggested and even fewer understand the nature of traditional Roman religion. As a result a key fact has been lost: so long as you observed Roman tradition the state did not give a damn what gods you worshipped (at least until the state became Christian).

At first of course Rome did not even notice the new cult. Those with any knowledge of Judaea assumed it was yet another Jewish heresy, doomed to disappear, as in fact the sect of Christian Jews did. As the adherents of the new faith spread and multiplied, it was popular dislike that first caught the attention of the authorities. Like the Jews, Christians were monotheists, compelled by their beliefs to deny the existence of other gods, and they were doing this in a society that was completely polytheist. Polytheist societies are generally tolerant when it comes to religion, even in states with a religious establishment supporting a divinely connected kingship, as in the Sumerian city-states and Egypt. Inasmuch as deities were typically personifications of natural phenomenon, it was easy to identify gods across cultural lines, and in any case no one (excepting perhaps Akhenaten) was about to deny the existence of other gods and certainly not resort to violence in order to teach others a lesson.

Into this world come the Christians, telling their neighbors that the gods of their fathers do not exist and that they are wasting their time worshipping idols. Of course the Jews had been doing this for quite a while, but apart from small communities in some of the cities of the Empire, they were essentially a phenomenon localized in Judaea, and in any case they did not proselytize. Early Christians were in fact confused with Jews, but as their numbers grew, people realized this was something new – and very annoying. And if modern evangelicals are any indication, these early Christians likely often displayed a holier-than-thou attitude; they had the good news after all.

There was also a feeling that for all their professed love these people actually hated mankind. The first generation or so of Christians believed that the Christ would be returning soon, perhaps in their lifetimes, and there was consequently talk of what would happen then. And if Revelations is the guide, it would be unmitigated horror, suffering and death for non-believers, which was of course virtually all of humanity. There were also rumors of strange and disgusting rites, such as incest and cannibalism, the sort of things that are said of the despised and alien throughout history. Natural disasters and unexplained misfortunes were blamed on them. The Christians were strangers in a strange land and initially played the same role of the “other” that the Jews would play in medieval and modern Europe.

Capping it all off was the growing suspicion that they were disloyal as well as obnoxious. The traditional religion of Greece and Rome was primarily civic in nature, concerned with the cohesion and well-being of the community, and as such, it was closely connected to the idea of the state. The sacrifices and rituals were communal, designed to keep the community in the right relationship with heaven, and in the case of Rome this led to the emergence of priesthoods, such as the Pontifex Maximus, that were actually state offices. The holders of these positions were not “priests” in the familiar sense of the word, that is, representatives of a centralized church, as the priests of the temple of Amon-Re or the Catholic Church. Their job was not to intercede for or counsel the individual, but to conduct the rituals necessary for the survival and prosperity of the community.

As a result, honoring Jupiter Best and Greatest and his colleagues was more of a social act than a religious one, declaring ones good standing as a member of the community. If the worshipper had other more personal concerns regarding heaven, he would turn to gods more pertinent to his situation, especially traditional local deities among the provincials. As with most things, Rome had always had a laissez faire attitude regarding non-Roman religions, so long as there was no threat to public order and morals, such as led the Senate to ban certain Bacchanalian rites in 186 BC. She was even ready to tolerate an extremely intolerant religion, Judaism, because it was essentially local and no threat to the state. Nevertheless, denying the existence of the Olympic gods was in fact directly assaulting one of the foundations of the state and endangering the well-being of the society.

Even so, Christianity might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that they quickly became almost universally unpopular, even hated, and their vociferous rejection of the Roman gods struck people as disloyal. Constantly claiming that their god was their only true “king” and master also did not sit well in an autocratic society, and the ideas of their founder/prophet regarding the poor and the rich were absolutely revolutionary in a world always dominated by the propertied classes. So, there was in fact public disorder in the form of anti-Christian riots, which the authorities were compelled to deal with. All the evidence indicates that the Roman government was completely aware of the essentially innocent nature of the new religion, but Roman officials were hardly likely to defend an unpopular minority in the face of overwhelming public displeasure.

Apart from their refusal to pay even lip service to the imperial cults, there was actually a legal problem for the new church. Since the time of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first emperor, new clubs and associations were prohibited unless they were specifically granted imperial approval. The reason was clear: private associations could easily harbor conspiracies against the state (as they did during the collapse of the Republic), and autocrats tend to be very sensitive about this issue. And here was a new and offensive cult spreading throughout the cities of the Empire.
As it happened, the Empire was mellow about the whole issue, and generally confronted the issue only when it could not be avoided because of public clamor. This was certainly the case under Trajan (98-117), who when asked what to do with Christians by his governor in Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, instructed him not to search them out but only act when it was unavoidable. The typical procedure was to require the Christian to make a token sacrifice, a pinch of incense, to an imperial cult, generally that of Roma et Augustus. For the authorities this was far more a pledge of allegiance than a religious act; perform this one act and you would get your “ticket,” your libellus, and could go home and worship whatever gods you pleased. Of course, for a Christian this was apostasy, and though many took the plunge, many did not, which baffled the Romans, who could not fathom such religious fanaticism.

Decius: "Smoke 'em"

Decius: “Smoke ’em”

The result of all this was that violence against Christians was for two centuries limited to popular outbursts, such as blaming Christians for the fire in 64 (encouraged by Nero), and the odd official currying favor with the locals. Not until the third century was there an actual persecution in the sense of the central government taking Empire-wide action against the religion, and this would come during the Anarchy (235-285), a fifty year long civil war that essentially killed the Empire, even though it would stagger on for another century or so. During his short reign Decius (249-251) required that all Christians be put to the test and imprisoned if they refused, and this was repeated, with more severe penalties, by Valerian (253-60) in 257-258. Both of these men were ruling during a period of widespread instability coupled with serious barbarian invasions and internal military revolts and were desperately attempting to restore loyalty to the state. An obvious target was the Christian community, which was now highly organized and blatant in its rejection of the state religion, which now included deified emperors.

Diocletian (285-305) ended the Anarchy, but the Empire would never again come close to the stability and economic well-being it enjoyed before 235, and the history of the Late Empire was one of military autocracy alternating with periods of civil war. In 304 Diocletian launched the last anti-Christian crusade, destroying churches and sacred books and imprisoning priests, but it ended with his abdication the following year and seems to have petered out because of lack of popular support. His ultimate successor, Constantine the Great (305-337), legalized Christianity with the Edicts of Toleration (311-313), and with his conversion it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Valerian: "Crush 'em"

Valerian: “Crush ’em”

And then the real persecutions begin, as the government implements a continuous policy of crushing polytheism and eliminating the pagani (“rural folk”), so called because the old cults hung on the longest in the rural areas. Unlike those carried out against the Christians this persecution was moved by nothing other than simple religious intolerance.

Diocletian: "Eat 'em"

Diocletian: “Eat ’em”

In the end Christians themselves would slaughter tens of thousands more Christians than the Roman Empire ever did.

Paris 1572 - Christians killing Christians

Paris 1572 – Christians killing Christians


Our Desert Shepherd God

One constantly hears of the importance of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to Western society and values.  Apparently Islam, which is clearly also part of the Abrahamic family, does not count, perhaps because it is so obviously at odds with the values touted in the West.  Yet apart from the fact that the West has been essentially Christian, with a smattering of Jews, it is not exactly clear how Judeo-Christian ideas are so important to modern society.

The two religions certainly espouse basic social values common to virtually all of humanity – homicide, theft, adultery, etc. are bad and family, compassion, charity, etc. are good – and they at least suggest that law and justice are vital to a well-organized society.  But does not the classical tradition also support all these values and do so within a context of rationalism, eliminating the need for any god?  Further, the Greco-Roman legacy lays the foundation for scientific enquiry and the democratic state, emphasizing a rule of law disconnected from any sort of faith.  The mainstream versions of the three Abrahamic religions ultimately accommodated, at least to some degree, rationalism and constitutional government, but this evolution took a very long time and segments of these faiths are still hostile to such Western notions.  Yahweh/God/Allah is manifestly not a democratic figure and has required unthinking acceptance of his words.

Inasmuch as they are rooted in faith rather than reason all religions are inherently silly to one degree or another, but the believer will of course only see the silliness in the other guy’s religion, especially if it is not Abrahamic.  There are, to be sure, differences in what might be called sophistication: god as a first principle behind the universe is more sophisticated than god as a personal savior requiring certain ethical behavior, which is in turn more sophisticated than god as nature spirit requiring offerings and ritual behavior.  But no matter how primitive or sophisticated all religions require a suspension of reason, and consequently Athena springing full grown from the brow of Zeus is inherently no more unreasonable than Jesus being born of a virgin mother or a Buddhist being reborn as a bug.  In fact, it is easier to make sense of the utterly anthropomorphic Olympic gods, who act just as humans do, than of the Abrahamic deity, who demands often strange behavior and proclaims his love of humanity while loosing all manner of evils upon us.

The many flocks of Abraham are of course generally oblivious to such considerations and display an arrogance possible only for a monotheist, dismissing poor benighted polytheists (the term “pagan” – “those of the countryside” – carries the contempt) as ignorant fools who cannot see how obviously false and man-made their gods are.  Ironically, the historical and cultural roots of the Abrahamic god, particularly in his Christian and Muslim incarnations, are quite evident, as obvious as the environmental origins of any weather god or fertility goddess.

The invisible tribal god of the people who would become the Hebrews readily betrays his local and west-Semitic character, particularly in his often bizarre prohibitions and punishments, many of which are common to other deities in
Syria-Palestine at the time.  Despite centuries of redactions the early books of the Old Testament still reveal signs of the polytheist and mythic past of the Judge of Nations, the creation of one time semi-nomadic stock herders.  This nameless desert shepherd god shares the original henotheistic nature possessed by many of his Canaanite colleagues, and only because of the understandable historical circumstances that detached him from nature and made him the sole god in the universe does he escape the scrap heap of religion to which they were ultimately consigned.  He becomes the ethical deity, but remains encrusted with the ritual and animal sacrifice of his early days.

His next incarnation comes out of the conjunction of a number of religious and historical factors that are found in Judea in the first century AD.  Because of the return of the Babylonian exiles, who had preserved his ancient character, and the successful nationalist revolt of the Maccabees, which helped stem the tide of Hellenism, Yahweh survived intact in a rapidly changing world.  The centuries old tradition of religious activists – the prophets – challenging the authority of a wealthy and corrupt priesthood allied with the state continued with the appearance of a charismatic preacher from Galilee.  As a heretic and potential revolutionary the popular Jesus would have to die, and his execution was approved by a Roman governor interested in maintaining order and keeping the propertied classes happy.

But because of the Greeks the story did not finish there, and Jesus did not simply join the line of martyrs for the Mosaic god.  The Hellenic wave that washed over Judea in the wake of Alexander brought with it a new religious form, the mystery cult, at the heart of which was a new idea of deity, the dying and resurrected god.  Jesus could thus live on, united with his divine father and divine spirit in a new version of the sole god, one more concerned with the downtrodden rather than the powerful, with forgiveness rather than punishment.  This was the Prince of Peace rather than the Lord of Hosts, Yahweh with a smiling face – and in a questionable three pack edition.

And the timing was perfect, which is of course why a new major religion emerged from this amalgam of ideas.  The Roman Empire allowed for the easy and rapid spread of the Christian god into the most distant corners of the Mediterranean and western Europe, and that Empire was packed with people ready to hear about the first truly poor man’s god, who preferred the powerless and offered a reward in the next life.  Facilitating all this was Saul/Paul of Tarsus, who striped the new creed of all the intimidating dietary and ritual practices of traditional Judaism.  The one ethical god was now available to the uncircumcised.

Some six hundred years later the third and seemingly final model of the god of Moses appeared, essentially the work of a single individual.  Growing up in the polytheist and socially retarded society of Red Sea Arabia, Mohammed did not have to create an Arabic supreme being from scratch but could draw upon the ideas of the Jews and Christians found in Medina.  Fully reflecting the primitive and semi-Bedouin environment, the resulting deity was a return to the more west-Semitic Jewish version, a Lord of Battles suitable for the constantly warring tribes.  Even more aniconic than his Hebrew predecessor, Allah was the ultimate desert shepherd god, who would carry his barbarian adherents to world power.

Yahweh/God/Allah is now worshipped by more than half the people on the planet, quite an achievement for a deity who started out as the tribal god of a tiny group of semi-nomadic herders.  And while he has undoubtedly satisfied the spiritual needs of millions upon millions of humans and has certainly inspired incredible art, he has equally clearly brought untold misery into the world.  Polytheists are almost relentlessly religiously tolerant (extremist Hindus only demonstrate what happens when you share a country with Arab Muslims), but monotheism introduced humanity to religious arrogance, holy war and baptism by the sword.  Two millennia after Christ and fifteen hundred years after Mohammed the world is still plagued with religious bigotry and violence and hostility towards rationalism.

Even worse, this is the no-fun god, enshrining the puritanical and narrow-minded attitudes of his herding and Bedouin progenitors and the uneducated and rural masses that underpin his worship.  Human sexuality, an inescapable element of our being, is suppressed and considered virtually an evil necessity, and the human body, celebrated by the high civilizations of Greece and India, has become an object of shame.  Islam carries the travesty even further, prohibiting alcohol, the chosen drug of the human race and the solace of millions, while its more extreme adherents seek to remove all the most colorful elements from the tapestry of life.  How is that sex and drink have fallen into the same category as theft and murder?

Suppose that priestly Judaism had disappeared under the impact of Hellenism or that the Galilean preacher had never appeared.  The educated elites in the classical world were already abandoning polytheism for a more unitary understanding of god, a divine principle rather than a personal savior.  How would that have played out without the intervention of Christianity and Islam?  In the midst of all its polytheist beliefs Hinduism has produced for the educated a more unitary notion of deity.  It is far too much to believe that humanity would have moved away from religion altogether, but the absence of the desert shepherd god would likely have resulted in a more pleasant history for the race.

Stuff From Way Back # 6: Jesus And the Gods

The Judaic roots
of Christianity are universally recognized: the idea of the one personal
creator god who is the embodiment of the Good.
But there is the other important facet of Christianity, the concept of
the dying and resurrected god, and that ironically comes straight out of Greek

The inherited religion of the Greek
Archaic Age (c.750-479 BC) was that embodied in the works of Homer and Hesiod,
the world of the Olympic gods.  These
deities were perfectly anthropomorphic, differing from their mortal worshippers
in only two respects: they did not die and they wielded immense power.  Otherwise, they were perfectly human,
manifesting all the flaws and foibles of humanity and thus singularly
ill-equipped to serve as ethical role models for Greek society.  As a result, the Greeks possessed a religion
that allowed them the leeway to discover rationalism and humanism and thus
ultimately marginalize their belief system, at least for some.

The seventh and sixth
centuries were tough times for the average Greek, and men who find no justice
on earth inevitably look to heaven. But the inherited Olympic faith, primarily
a communal or civic religion, was devoid of any real inspirational quality, any
serious spiritual element that allowed the troubled suppliant to find emotional
solace. Zeus was essentially not concerned with the equitable dispensation of
justice, and as an evolving society attempted unconsciously to moralize the
Olympians, grim times only produced a grim vision of a supernatural world filled
with threats.  But men require some hope,
and as the years rolled by, these same needs and desires stirred the
development of an alternative religious form, the mystery cult.

Elements of these cults
appear to go back to prehistory, but it was the pressures of the Archaic Age
and the discovery of the individual that fostered their growth.  The cults varied in their content, but they
shared certain characteristics and all of them provided the worshipper an
intense and personal emotional experience generally missing from the civic
religion.  They focused on a single or
small group of gods, offering a more intimate involvement, and the participant
would undergo some sort of initiation (telein or myein, hence
“mystery”), which would ultimately lead him to the central mysteries of the
cult, in theory unknown to outsiders.  As
the continued popularity of fraternal organizations and secret societies
demonstrates, initiation and secrecy, which create special bonds and a sense of
elevated status for the group, are always a good draw.

The cults also revolved
around sex and most importantly the issue of death, the fear of which the cult
hoped to dispel with its rites.  The cult
of Dionysus (or Bacchus) offered temporary release from pain and suffering
through ecstatic possession, but the other important Greek mysteries, the
Eleusinian, Orphic and the later Hellenistic cult of Isis and Serapis,
possessed as central figures gods who died and were resurrected, either
literally or metaphorically, thus confronting the initiate with the terror of
death and the hope of rebirth.  It
appears that at first the cults thought in terms of a rebirth in this world,
that is, entering into a better life, but there is evidence that by the end of
the fifth century reward in the next life was expected.  Some sort of judgment based on the
individual’s behavior was involved, an element generally missing from the
everyone-goes-there underworlds of the Olympic and pre-classical religions.

In the constantly changing
and anxiety-filled world of post-Alexander Greece
the mystery cults grew in popularity, partly because of their salvationist
inclinations and partly because the old civic religion was so closely tied to
the declining polis (“city-state”) society.  In the new Greek-dominated eastern Mediterranean,
the cosmopolis (“world polis”), Hellenic culture, including its
religious forms, rubbed shoulders with non-Greek ideas, including the ancient
religious practices of the Hebrews.  This
sometimes led to friction and violence, such as the Maccabbean revolt, but in
the end produced a sort of hybrid religion, Christianity.  The idea of the dying and resurrected god, so
critical to Christianity, had played no important role in the Near Eastern
religious traditions, and while the new faith may have developed a fresh
understanding of death and rebirth, one linked to the rigorous moral code of
Judaism, the notion of the suffering god appears nevertheless to come straight
out of the Greek experience.