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In approximately AD 175, shortly after the death of Claudius Ptolemy, another Alexandrian scholar named Celsus penned a withering broadside against a new religion known as Christianity. His book, which bore the sarcastic title of The True Word, heaped scorn on the faith and its followers for page after numbing page. According to it, the whole religion stemmed from one wayward girl’s tall tale of a “virgin birth,” the same sort of story which girls like her had been inventing for millennia when they suddenly turned up pregnant. The only difference was, this girl had had a family stupid enough to believe it.

Christianity was suitable only for “foolish and low individuals and slaves.” Who else would worship a god who would allow himself to be tortured, humiliated, and finally executed by the very mortals he had created? Certainly not the wise and educated men of Alexandria’s library and museum.

Wherever one finds a crowd of adolescent boys, or a bunch of slaves, or a company of fools, there will the Christian teachers be also, showing off their fine new philosophy. In private houses one can see wool workers, cobblers, laundry workers, and the most illiterate country bumpkins, who would not venture to voice their opinions in front of their intellectual betters. But let them get hold of children in private houses — let them find some gullible wives — and you will hear some preposterous statements. You will hear them say, for instance, that they should not pay attention to their fathers or teachers, but must obey them. They say that their elders and teachers are fools, and are in reality very bad men who like to voice their silly opinions. Now if, as they are speaking thus to the children, they happen to see a schoolteacher coming along, some intelligent person, or even the father of one of the children, these Christians flee in all directions.

It is silly to suppose that when God, like a cook, brings the fire, the rest of mankind will be roasted, and only the Christians will remain — not merely the living ones, but those who died long ago, rising from the earth with the identical flesh they had before. Really, it is the hope of worms! It is only the simpletons, the ignoble, the senseless — slaves and women and children — whom Christians can persuade. Wool dressers and cobblers and fullers, the most uneducated and common men, whoever is a sinner… or a godforsaken fool.

One doesn’t have to be an expert in human psychology to recognize that Celsus protests rather too much. Lurking between the lines of the contempt which he heaps upon a religion that he insists is beneath contempt is a deep-seated wariness of it — even, we might venture to say, a palpable fear of it. And why not? To a man like Celsus, so invested in the traditional social structures of his time, Christianity was as radical and as terrifying as, say, communism was to a twentieth-century man of capital. “God chose the weak in the world to put to shame the strong,” the Christian apostle Paul had written. Has a more subversive statement ever been made?

Celsus wrote his screed against Christianity almost a century and a half after Jesus Christ had been martyred, and probably at least a full century after the religion had first become a presence on the streets of Alexandria. According to church histories, the man who first brought Christianity to Alexandria was none other than the apostle Mark, author of one of the four New Testament gospels, who limped into the city with a damaged sandal some time between AD 41 and 44. The cobbler whom he asked to fix his shoe was named Anianus. Whilst doing so, Anianus injured his hand with his awl. But rather than shouting an oath, as one might expect in such a situation, he screamed out, “God is one!” Much surprised at hearing this humble pagan make reference to a singular God, Mark asked for an explanation, but this Anianus could not provide; a spirit had simply come over him, he said. Taking this as a sign, Mark laid his own hand over that of the cobbler to heal his wound, and then told him about the life and death of Jesus Christ. Anianus and his family soon became the first people in Egypt to be baptized into the Christian faith. Mark later made him his anointed successor, the first pope of Egypt.

Modern secular historians view this founding narrative with considerable skepticism even after discounting Mark’s miraculous healing of Anianus as a bit of poetic embellishment. Still, it’s clear that by the time of Celsus Christianity was both long- and well-established in the city. And yet his book constitutes the oldest comments on Christianity by a non-Christian Alexandrian to have reached us. Surely there must have been many similarly strident condemnations, and perhaps even some commentaries that offered a more balanced perspective, but they were all destroyed by Christians of later centuries in a concerted effort to expunge anything that cast their religion in a negative light  — or, even more importantly, that cast doubt on the notion that the version of Christian dogma which had been set in stone by the end of classical times was the same as that which had existed, complete and inviolate, since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They had good reason to be so sensitive on this point: the notion of an immaculately conceived Christianity was, as we’ll see, thoroughly at odds with the real early history of the religion. Indeed, for all that it was already well removed from the crucifixion, the Christianity that the Alexandrians of Celsus’s time knew was still a very different faith from the one that would be standardized in later centuries.

We saw in an earlier chapter how the Jews, that first of the Peoples of the Book, established their claim to that title in the Alexandria of an earlier age by translating and collecting in a standard format first the books of the Torah and then the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The Alexandrian Christians that Celsus knew were a long way yet from that stage; nothing like a Christian Bible yet existed. Theirs was still a mostly oral tradition — as it must be, considering that most Christians were illiterate — supported by a diffuse collection of texts that were passed about among the relative few able to read them. Some of these texts would later appear in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, while others would be forgotten and lost to time, or denounced as heresies and more purposefully erased from history. Christian beliefs in Celsus’s time were no more standardized than Christian texts, with many interpretations being bandied about of exactly who Jesus had been and still was, and what his relationship to God really was.

Alexandria’s large size and fairly close proximity to Christianty’s birthplace in Jewish Palestine made it the most important early locus of the religion outside its homeland. When we add to this Alexandria’s longstanding position as the classical world’s premiere intellectual center, a haven for thinkers and writers of all stripes, we can see how it became the place where many of the debates that eventually led to a more doctrinaire, institutional form of Christianity took place. This evolution will be a major focus of future chapters. But before we can turn to those things, we need to understand how the religion came to be in the first place. The picture that emerges from such an inquiry is inevitably different from the one that is typically painted in Sunday schools.

Still, we need not cast doubt on all aspects of that story. The vast majority of secular historians believe that a religious leader named Jesus really did live in ancient Palestine. We now believe that his birth, that epochal event from which later generations would attempt to number all of the human history that followed, is more likely to have been in 4 BC than AD 1, while he was probably crucified by the Roman provincial governor Pontius Pilate — a real historical figure of whose existence we do have incontrovertible evidence — in about AD 30. Almost everything else, however, is more or less speculation. Jesus’s followers were drawn almost exclusively from the lower classes, and must have been well-nigh universally illiterate. We have no written accounts of Jesus’s life penned by firsthand witnesses to it; virtually no secular scholars of the Bible believe today that any of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John was written by someone who was actually there. These four texts, the bedrock of the eventual Christian Bible in the same way that the Torah is of the Hebrew Bible, are rather believed to be written versions of stories that were first passed around orally. The Gospel of Mark, which is believed to be the oldest of the four, likely dates from at least 35 years after the crucifixion; the Gospel of John, which is believed to be the newest, from perhaps 25 to 30 years after the Gospel of Mark, with the other two falling somewhere in between.

Thus we cannot rely exclusively on the gospels for our understanding of Jesus’s life. For, not being firsthand accounts, they are in the end a reflection of what people were saying about his life decades after its mortal phase at least had ended on a lonely cross in Jerusalem — after, as we’ll soon see, his followers’ very understanding of who and what Jesus was had undergone a radical revision.

What follows represents the rough consensus among secular historians about the origins of Christianity. It presumes that no supernatural elements were involved. I approach the subject with this assumption already made not because I wish to offend any readers who happen to be Christian believers, much less put my oar into the tiresome war of words between theists and atheists — I belong to neither camp personally, being a resolutely irresolute agnostic — but simply because to do otherwise would be to move this book out of the realm of historical inquiry and into another form of literary endeavor entirely.

In order to come to terms with the historical rather than the divine or mythical Jesus, we need to place him firmly in the context of his time and place. And that in turn means realizing that he was first and foremost a Jew, both in his own mind and those of his followers, bringing a message meant not so much for all of humanity as for his own sect. So, we must begin with the political situation in the once-independent nation of Judea during his life.

Herod the Great, the last of the famed Jewish kings of antiquity, died at some point between 4 BC and AD 1. Judea’s independence had long been at the sufferance of the Romans, and in AD 6 Emperor Augustus opted to remove that sufferance, deposing Herod’s son and making Judea a province of his empire along with the rest of Palestine. Some Jews — an upper crust who would later be demonized as the principal agents of Jesus’s execution — did quite well for themselves under the Romans, but the lower classes suffered poverty and oppression. These turned to their faith and its holy texts for comfort, as Jews have done so often in times of trouble. The rabbis told their flocks of the Book of Daniel, the story of another subjugation of Jews at the hands of a foreign people, in this case that of the Babylonians of the early sixth century BC. In Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel, the titular prophet has a mysterious vision of four fearsome monsters. He discovers through prayer that “these great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.”

The downtrodden Jews of contemporary Roman Palestine now concluded that the monsters symbolized the successive empires which had conquered Judea in the centuries since Daniel had had his vision. And so they rejoiced at what had come next to Daniel:

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

And he shall speak great words against the most high, and shall wear out the saints of the most high, and think to change time and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most high, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.

Apocalyptic thinking, inspired by this text and a number of other prophetic visions found in places like the apocryphal Book of Enoch, became all the rage in Palestine. The Son of Man must be coming soon, many Jews believed, because the four imperial beasts had now run their course. Surely the time was nigh for God to grant his chosen people dominion over all the world, as he had promised Daniel he would do.

Downtrodden people looking forward to an apocalypse tend to be receptive to would-be prophets among their ranks. We can presume that Jesus was far from the only self-proclaimed enlightened one who wandered among the Jewish villages of Galilee, the particularly hardscrabble northern region of Palestine. In fact, children today still learn of one of the others in Sunday school: John the Baptist, the itinerant preacher and prophet whose “meat was locusts and wild honey,” and who, according to the gospels, baptized the young Jesus in the Jordan River.

Jesus may or may not have been unique in preaching that he himself would be entrusted by God to rule the world after the final vision of Daniel had come to pass. The second name which he gave to himself, or was given by his followers, implied as much. The name of “Christ” by which we know him today is a Greek translation of “messiah,” a Hebrew word which literally means “anointed one”: i.e., one — presumably a mortal — who is separate from God but anointed by him to carry out his purpose on earth. At any rate, all earlier Jewish texts which refer to a messiah hew to this interpretation.

There is no reason, on the other hand, to think that Jesus ever called himself the incarnate son of God, or ever believed himself to be such a person. He was a mortal — God’s chosen mortal, yes, who was destined to rule the world when the apocalypse came, but a mortal nonetheless. Some of his most famous prophecies from the gospels take on a markedly different flavor when understood in his light, such as this one from the Gospel of Mark which has been vexing believers for the better part of two millennia now, thanks to its manifest failure to come to pass: “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” In this problematic passage, Jesus was quite likely referring to a temporal kingdom ruled by his mortal self rather than, as later Christians would come to believe, his triumphant return from beyond the grave to pass a final judgment on all the people of the world, past and present, and live in peace with those who passed muster for all eternity.

Jesus’s transformation in the minds of his followers from a mortal anointed one to the immortal son of God himself came in response to an extremely awkward series of events. In AD 30, this supposed next and greatest Jewish king traveled to the old Judean capital of Jerusalem to claim his crown, only to be arrested for his rabble-rousing, given a hasty show trial, and executed by crucifixion without further ado. At this point, his followers’ options were either to accept that Jesus had been a false prophet, or to re-frame his story in such a way that it could continue to inspire them.

This re-framing was surely neither as cynical nor as conscious as the previous sentence might imply. There is no particular reason to doubt that those who claimed to see a resurrected Jesus after his death really did believe in the truth of their visions. The fact is that people have visions all the time of things that aren’t actually there, in the sense of being verifiable by any empirical means at our current disposal. Many who have recently lost a loved one experience what psychologists refer to as “bereavement visions,” in which the deceased come back to communicate with them in dreams, as ghostly presences in the waking world, or even as apparently solid flesh-and-blood entities. Intriguingly, such visions are most common among those who feel some sense of guilt or shame involving the deceased, as those of Jesus’s followers who fled Jerusalem upon his arrest must have, and among those who are angry at the circumstances of their loved one’s death, as all of Jesus’s followers certainly would have been. The presence who returns almost always takes an idealized form, with all faults and blemishes smoothed away; this was definitely the case with the resurrected Jesus. Further, visions — especially religious visions — that are shared by large numbers of people are by no means unheard of even in the modern world. During the twentieth century, mass sightings of the Virgin Mary, sometimes by hundreds of people at a time, occurred in Venezuela, Egypt, France, Portugal, Spain, and Bosnia-Herzegovina among other places. All of which is to say that the visions of the resurrected Jesus experienced by his followers are not of themselves hugely exceptional in a situation such as theirs.

But what of the story that seemed to provide a sort of physical proof of the resurrection of Jesus: the story of a group of his female followers visiting his tomb two days after his crucifixion, only to find it empty? The historian of religion John Dominic Crossan among others has pointed out what a bizarre story this is even long before one gets to the big reveal of an empty tomb. Why on earth should Jesus have been buried in a tomb at all? He was, after all, a pauper who was executed like any other common criminal — executed alongside, as the gospels famously tell us, two petty thieves. Crucifixion was not typically followed by any form of dignified burial. Its real purpose was to serve as a deterrent to anyone else who might be thinking of breaking the laws of Rome or otherwise challenging Roman hegemony, and one of the ways it accomplished that goal was the degradation of its victims even after their deaths on the cross, by leaving their bodies hanging there to rot and be slowly devoured by birds and scavenging animals. Anyone who attempted to interfere with such a corpse could expect to face crucifixion himself. Thus, as Crossan has stated, the real body of the real Jesus Christ is more likely to have wound up in the bellies of hungry dogs than in a cozy cliff-side tomb. At best, it might have been tossed into a mass grave after the birds and beasts had had their fill. Tombs were awarded to the rich and to the nobility, not to peripatetic prophets preaching dangerous anti-Roman propaganda.

The early Christians were not unaware of this incongruity at the center of their tale of the resurrection. In fact, being much more acquainted with the realities of Roman crucifixion than we are today, the problem would have stood out that much more clearly for them. To put it bluntly, they needed to find an excuse to get Jesus’s body down off his crude cross and into a palatial tomb. The Gospel of Mark describes the following as occurring immediately after Jesus has expired on the cross:

Joseph of Arimathea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus. And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead; and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead. And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus beheld where he was laid.

But this story too is very hard to reconcile with the other details of Jesus’s crucifixion. The council to which Joseph of Arimathea belonged was the ruling body of Jews in Jerusalem, who were in league with the Roman government there. In fact, it was this council which had decided to arrest Jesus in the first place. Mark tells us that they held a debate on his fate after doing so, and “they all [emphasis mine] condemned him to be guilty” and deserving of death. And so they passed him on to Pontius Pilate along with their recommendation.

Mark, then, asks us to believe that Joseph of Arimathea first voted to execute Jesus, then went to extraordinary lengths to recover and honor his body. Why would he do such a thing? The only motivation Mark provides him is that he “waited for the kingdom of God.” But if he believed Jesus’s claims about the coming kingdom of God, why did he vote to execute him for making those claims? The later Gospel of Luke attempts to address this issue, by inserting as a literal parenthetical that Joseph of Arimathea “had not [emphasis mine] consented” to the decision of the apparently no longer unanimous council. By this point a distinct whiff of retroactive continuity-fixing is clinging to the whole narrative.

And what of Pontius Pilate, the man Joseph of Arimathea would have had to convince to release Jesus’s body? We can see his personality undergoing an alteration over the course of the four gospels, from being a faceless and heartless tool of Roman oppression in Luke to being a decidedly reluctant executioner in John. “I can find no fault with him,” he says of Jesus to the council in the latter gospel, and explicitly asks them whether they wish him to grant the prisoner clemency as part of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which was being celebrated at that time. But the council is implacable: “Then they cried all again, saying, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas.’ Now Barabbas was a robber.” Pilate feels he is duty-bound to honor the council’s wishes, sparing the robber and killing the messiah. It’s easy enough to imagine this version of the man agreeing to release the body of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea for a decent burial after the ugly deed has been done.

This picture of a conflicted Pontius Pilate was filled in even more indelibly by the crucifixion literature that came after the New Testament. He came to live in the collective Christian imagination as a thoughtful and fundamentally fair-minded if overly diffident bureaucrat, deeply unsettled by the execution he feels compelled to order. In time, as Christianity separated itself fully from Judaism and antisemitism took root among Christian thinkers and believers, this version of Pilate provided a neat way to scapegoat Jews as the killers of Christ — ignoring, of course, the fact that Jesus was himself a Jew, preaching what was during his lifetime a profoundly Jewish message of salvation.

But the Pontius Pilate whom we meet in ancient records other than the New Testament bears little resemblance to this vaguely tortured figure. The two most prolific Jewish writers of the first century both mention him, neither of them in a positive way. The philosopher Philo, who was living and writing in Alexandria at the very same time that Pilate was crucifying Jesus in Jerusalem, never wrote a word about the latter but did describe the former’s “venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.” And Josephus, an  historian who migrated from Judea to Rome, wrote of a governor who couldn’t care less about the sensitivities of his Jewish subjects, who besmirched their holy places with graven images of the Roman emperor despite their howls of protest and thought nothing of raiding temple coffers to finance his infrastructure projects. It’s hard to imagine this man showing any compunction whatsoever about executing a Jewish troublemaker like Jesus, and harder still to imagine him giving the body special treatment at the request of a Jewish subject of any stature.

In light of all these circumstantial but persuasive arguments against the probability of an entombed Jesus, one might well ask why it needed to be part of the tale at all. Couldn’t he just as well be raised from a mass grave, or for that matter from the bellies of carrion dogs? But in reality, the story of an empty tomb was vitally important to what would emerge as the orthodox version of the Christian religion, in that it provided a form of proof that he was physically rather than just spiritually resurrected. In the next chapters, we’ll return to the question of why this distinction became such an obsession of early Christian thinkers. Right now, though, we move on to another pivotal moment in the history of Christianity, one almost on par with Jesus’s crucifixion and (alleged) resurrection.

The most prolific author of the New Testament in terms of attribution is the apostle Paul; fully 14 of its 27 books are credited to him, although these take the form of epistles — i.e., letters — written to others rather than  consciously created holy texts. Scholars today believe that only about half of the epistles attributed to him were definitely the products of his pen, but these probably constitute the oldest texts to be found in the New Testament, predating even the Gospel of Mark.

The story of Paul’s conversion is perhaps the most famous of all the Christian tales that postdate Jesus’s ascension to heaven. Paul was a well-born Jew from the city of Tarsus, who would appear to have held a fairly high position in the Roman provincial government of Palestine at the time of the crucifixion. He used his position to, as he himself put it, “persecute beyond measure” Jesus’s followers before and immediately after that event — until, just a few years after the crucifixion, he had a vision of Jesus while he was traveling the road to Damascus; the splendor of it left him blinded for three days. When he recovered his eyesight, he set about spreading the good word far and wide, working to set up new communities of believers all across the Roman Empire. He became the first great Christian missionary, “planting churches” everywhere he went. The letters which constitute his contributions to the New Testament were written in connection with this work. They provide a precious window into the rapid early evolution of Christian thought.

The most important of all the arguments advanced by Paul in his epistles is that Jesus had actually been a messiah for all peoples, that Gentiles — i.e., non-Jews — could also accept him and achieve salvation thereby. Those who would become Christians, in other words, should not need to first convert to Judaism as a prerequisite, and should not need to obey the strictures of the Halakha, or Jewish Law: they would not need to refrain from eating pork, would not need to circumcise themselves and their male children, etc. All of that was now in the past. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law,” wrote Paul.

His position was not accepted unanimously or immediately. For evidence of this, we need only turn to the Gospel of Matthew, which was written some time after Paul’s epistles. Its author, who would appear to have been of a markedly more conservative disposition, placed precisely the opposite words in Jesus’s mouth. One can easily imagine them being intended as an explicit riposte to Paul’s radical views on conversion.

Think not that I am come to destroy the Law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Despite the best efforts of this author, Paul’s argument won the day in the end, condemning the above to become another problematic passage, to be unconvincingly explained away by non-Jewish Christian believers after the Gospel of Matthew was canonized.

One can hardly overstate the magnitude of the decision to welcome Gentiles into the ranks of Christians. Instead of being a closed, ethnically homogeneous religion for a single chosen people, as Judaism had always been and would remain, Christianity would be a faith for everyone, of each and every ethnicity, nationality, and social class. And conversion to it was relatively easy, entailing no obligation to give up treasured foods or submit to uncomfortable and potentially dangerous surgeries. Had Paul not gotten his way, the course of world history would have been very, very different.

As it was, though, this universalist religion proved to be extraordinarily appealing to the teeming masses of the Roman Empire. Over its first 270 years, the ragged handful of believers who fled Jerusalem in despair at the time of the crucifixion increased their numbers to as many as 3 million. Christianity grew at this pace not because it was imposed on anyone — that would not begin until later in its history — but because its core tenets were so intrinsically appealing. “All in all,” notes Will Durant, “no more attractive religion has ever been presented to mankind.” In addition to eternal life after death, it offered much comfort and wisdom that was directly applicable to this life. It said that the lowliest slave was no more nor less worthy of salvation than the emperor himself. Instead of wealth, fame, or power, it prized the noblest human virtues: kindness, compassion, mercy, love, service, forgiveness. And it told everyone, regardless of her rank, that she was empowered to make her own choices in life. Small wonder that it unnerved so many like Celsus, who were so invested in the hierarchical status quo of ancient society.

In time, more dogmatic, authoritarian impulses would be joined to this egalitarian, humanistic philosophy, as the simple faith of Jesus’s original disciples took on the trappings of a bureaucratic institution as heavily invested as any in the ethos of control; we’ll have plenty of time to examine these developments in later chapters. Right now, though, we should be careful not to let them blind us to the potency of Christianity as a meme. The story of Jesus Christ resonated not because it was true but because it was truthy — because it was one of the best stories humans had ever told to one another, this tale of a man who was somehow more than a man, who chose to die for humanity’s long litany of sins, thereby to give all humans everywhere a chance of redemption. Like all the best stories, the power of this one is ineffable, impossible to fully verbalize in the language of literary criticism or psychology or anything else. It just is, throbbing in humanity’s collective soul. The British humorist (and outspoken atheist) Douglas Adams once summarized the story of Jesus as that of a man who was “nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” At bottom, that perhaps really is all there is to it — but this “all” encompasses an awful lot.

It’s been fashionable for decades among some species of intellectuals to treat the rise of Christianity in the ancient world much as one might the takeover of a modern multicultural, democratic, secular state by a fundamentalist cult. This point of view is deeply anachronistic and ahistorical, ignoring or glossing over such inconvenient realities as the fact that the economy of the Roman Empire was built around the loathsome institution of slavery.

The prolific secular Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman goes to the opposite extreme to make a maximalist argument for Christianity as a force for good in the world. He too perhaps exaggerates his case, in that he might almost lead one to believe that human kindness of any sort did not exist before Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, there is more than a little truth in the contrast he draws with the accepted ethic of the ancient world before Jesus, which he sums up in the word “dominance.”

In a culture of dominance, those with power are expected to assert their will over those who are weaker. Rulers are to dominate their subjects, patrons their clients, masters their slaves, men their women. This ideology was not merely a cynical grab for power or a conscious mode of oppression. It was the commonsense, millennia-old view that virtually everyone accepted and shared, including the weak and marginalized.

This ideology affected both social relations and government policy. It made slavery a virtually unquestioned institution promoting the good of society; it made the male head of the household a sovereign despot over all those under him; it made wars of conquest, and the slaughter they entailed, natural and sensible for the well-being of the valued part of the human race (that is, those invested with power).

With such an ideology one would not expect to find governmental welfare programs to assist weaker members of society: the poor, homeless, hungry, or oppressed. One would not expect to find hospitals to assist the sick, injured, or dying. One would not expect to find private institutions of charity designed to help those in need.

The Roman world did not have such things. Christians, however, advocated a different ideology. Leaders of the Christian church preached and urged an ethic of love and service. One person was not more important than another. All were on the same footing before God: the master was no more significant than the slave, the patron than the client, the husband than the wife, the powerful than the weak, or the robust than the diseased. Whether those Christian ideals worked themselves out in practice is another question. Christians sometimes — indeed, many times — spectacularly failed to match their pious sentiments with concrete actions, or, even more, acted in ways contrary to their stated ideals. But the ideals were nonetheless ensconced in their tradition — widely and publicly proclaimed by leaders of the movement — in ways not extensively found elsewhere in Roman society.

As Christians came to occupy positions of power, these ideals made their way into people’s social lives, into private institutions meant to encapsulate them, and into governmental policy. The very idea that society should serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized became a distinctively Christian concern. Without the conquest of Christianity, we may well never have had institutionalized welfare for the poor or organized health care for the sick. Billions of people may never have embraced the idea that society should serve the marginalized or be concerned with the well-being of the needy, values that most of us in the West have simply assumed are “human” values.

But of course the rise of Christianity was not an unmitigated positive. In addition to the humanistic, humane impulse which Ehrman justly celebrates, it would bring with it in time its own full measure of intolerance, accompanied by a rabid anti-intellectualism. The details of Christianity’s rise from the simple faith of a handful of hardscrabble illiterates to a rigidly formulated, institutionalized religion are not always as appealing as the beautiful tale of Jesus that Christians told to one another. Yet these arguments over dogma, conducted in harsh words and sometimes in orgies of violence that would seem the antithesis of the Christian savior’s teachings, also shaped the world that we know today. And more of them took place in Alexandria than anywhere else.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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11 Comments for "Chapter 15: The Prophet from Galilee"

  • Jaina

    Genuine question, I don’t know a lot about early Christianity…. Did it actually tell women ” that she was empowered to make her own choices in life”? I know there’s a strong vein of “Woman, obey your husband” in a lot of Christianity.

    Very interesting article, lots to think about, and largely well said.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      That’s a somewhat complicated question, as you’ve doubtless anticipated. On the one hand, ancient society was profoundly, unthinkingly patriarchal, and early Christians were by no means exempt from this sentiment. On the other hand, there’s a strong feminine/maternal element to the Jesus story that’s missing from paganism. The Virgin Mary was venerated, of course, but also consider that, according to most versions of the story, it was a group of *women* who discovered Jesus’s empty tomb, and whom Jesus then elected to appear before and entrust to carry the message of his resurrection to the world. While there are female gods in, say, Greek mythology, they are seldom particularly maternal — except perhaps for Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and even she isn’t *personally* maternal to individual humans — and the mortal females who star in the tales are almost always cast strictly as either vixens or victims.

      During the early years after the crucifixion, it seems that many Christian missionaries focused their efforts on women, surmising that Jesus’s message of love and peace would be perhaps more immediately appealing to them than to their husbands, but trusting that, once converted, they might just win said husbands over as well. This is really what I mean when I say that early Christianity “empowered women to make their own choices.” Accepting Jesus as the savior was a *choice*; this is foundational to the religion even today. (This explains why early Christians in particular had an aversion to astrology; their faith depended on human beings having absolute free will.) Both men and women were empowered to make this choice, which was quite a revolutionary idea.

      Reply
      • Ilmari Jauhiainen

        I’d add a few more points to Jimmy’s already great explanation why women would especially have found early Christianity appealing:

        * Infanticide of especially female children was quite common in both Greek and Roman culture (healthy male children were preferred). Christianity forbid this, so a woman would have more chances to grow up in a Christian family.
        * Greek and Roman culture expected widows to remarry, which would then lead to the property inherited by the widow being transferred to the new husband. Christians, on the other hand, were more positive about widows remaining unmarried, which might in the best case let the widow live an economically independent life. Even poorer widows fared better with Christians, since they would be sustained by the church and could thus more freely choose whether to remarry.
        * At least some studies (based on dates inscribed on surviving tombstones etc.) suggest that pagan Roman women were more likely to be married off at a very early age (at worst, in their twelfth year or earlier) than Christian women.

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      • Jaina

        Makes sense, thank you.

        Reply
  • Leo Vellés

    Although I’ve been baptized, I really don’t care for any religión, but I always was interested in Jesús as a historical and even subversive figure whose preachings were coopted and used by the Church for its own convenience. So, I’m looking forward for the next articles cause this one was enlightening.

    Reply
  • Epistaxis

    Great article! Religion is difficult material to tackle even-handedly, and I’m impressed at your willingness to dive deep into it.

    Typo: “title” for “tittle” in the Matthew 5:18 quote.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      Reply
  • Michael Waddell

    Early Christianity and the historical Jesus are areas of special interest for me, and I’ve spent a lot of time keeping myself current on the scholarship and controversies. And I have to say, this is a solid introduction to what historians think really happened. It’s nearly impossible to put together a “consensus statement” on what Biblical scholars agree on, since the topic is so important to so many people, and the primary source information is so scanty. But it’s always great to read a well-written and reliable summary for the general reader. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Brian Quirt

    So, to start with I’m really sorry both about how late this comment is (or these comments are/will be) and how much rambling I’m probably going to do. I’m writing these because, back when I was an undergraduate, but before I left Classics for Astronomy, the early Christian movement (or, as it’s often called, the early Jesus-follower movement) was my main research entry, and I’ve done the best I can to keep up with scholarship in the intervening time, and as with any movement that actively worked to re-write its own history, everything is very complicated.

    To start with the Ehrman quote above annoyed me a bit, and would probably also have annoyed the many Greeks and Romans who were in fact engaged in charitable work both before and after the life of Christ. Some of the ways that charity worked looked different, and we have enough of the surviving writing of both populists and their critics to be able to see self-serving motivations in almost any form of charity, but Christianity was hardly free of that either.

    We know from archaeology that a lot of the offerings made at (e.g.) temples of Asclepius either in the hope of being healed or as thanks for having been healed were very much token offerings, probably because that’s all that could be afforded. And yes, at the temple it was notionally Asclepius who healed you, but it was often in the form of a dream or vision where he told you how to remedy your illness, and at least some temples saw it as a part of their mandate to help fulfill those divine commands.

    When wealthy Greek and Roman citizens paid for city (and provincial) government themselves, including public games and the like, it was partly for name recognition in order to further their career, and partly to show off their own wealth, but it was also seen as one of the duties of the wealthy to put on shows (and feasts and celebrations) and to give out money to the poor. The grain dole in Rome was to reduce the likelihood of riots and destruction, but it was also because there was so clearly a need.

    Especially in previously Hellenistic Greek cities, there were also a wide variety of fraternal organizations that banded together to build civic buildings, put on festivals, and also support their members who were old, poor, or disabled. And yes it was a spotty welfare state, and yes there were benefits to being in a fraternal group even if you were paying more than you received, but this sort of private socialism was common in a lot of the ancient world, it just doesn’t show up in the surviving speeches and inscriptions created by the elite (here, again, archaeology has greatly changed the picture of how this all worked).

    In Rome, virtus (sometimes translated as manliness, but probably best understood here as what Ehrland was getting at in his term “dominance”) was absolutely a virtue, but so was pietas (often translated piety, but a much broader concept, which included duties both up and down the hierarchy. And even the old-school senatorialists like Cicero, who thought that the big problem with Rome was that the lower classes just didn’t know their place anymore, also thought (or at least wrote and argued) that it was important, when acting as a Roman magistrate (e.g. governing a province), to behave justly to the governed. And when Livy was writing his extremely aristocratic history of Rome, especially when he was writing about the early years and making up most of what he wrote, he filled his story with characters like plebeian veterans who would stand in front of the people (or the senate, or the army), show the wounds they had received from their faithful service over many years (all to the front, none to the back, because they never even thought of running away), explain their current woes, and say words to the effect of “I have fought and bled for Rome all my life. Now, in my old age and poverty, is Rome going to abandon me? Am I not owed something?” This is not dominance, but very clearly Livy generally intended such characters to be the hero of whatever story he was telling.

    On to the treatment of women and slaves in my next comment.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks so much for these!

      To be clear, I don’t accept the Ehrman position at face value either — I think some of his background as an evangelist Christian may be creeping into his scholarly persona there — but I wanted to include it as a push-back to this peculiarly modern idea that Christianity came along and ruined a pluralist, multicultural, fair and just ancient world — and because I’ll have much that’s inevtiably less kind to say about early Christianity in future chapters. Certainly there was also an agenda to Christian charity: it’s difficult to reject the faith of the man who’s feeding your family when he offers it to you.

      That said, I do agree with Ehrman that many of our modern Western notions about human rights, the pursuit of happiness, and the worth and dignity of every individual can ultimately be traced back to Christianity. (Whether Christianity is *still* needed for those notions to survive and thrive is if course a different question…)

      But really, thanks for deepening the discussion.

      Reply
  • Brian Quirt

    Slavery in the ancient world is extremely complicated, especially because of the history of racialized chattel slavery that still exerts so much effect over the way that the United States works. On the one hand, ancient slavery was in some ways much better than that system, but on the other hand no one should think that it was not, often, horrible and dehumanizing. The stories that we have from slaves often paint a (relatively) nice picture of the institution, but that’s because the people who wrote about life as a slave tended to be freedmen who had not seen the worst of Roman slavery. Mine slaves and latifundia (plantation) slaves did not leave much trace on history (although the famously upright moralist Cato, in his treatise on running a latifundia, did advise that once your slaves got too old to work you should kick them off your estate and let them starve). Archaeologists have found mass-produced branding irons made to brand the words “I am an escaped slave, return me to _______ for a reward” onto the faces of slaves when they were brought in to an estate. Shepherd slaves were often provided with neither clothing nor food by their overseers, and were expected to make their own without tools, or to steal it from (preferably) slaves on neighboring estates (we know about this largely from court cases when the slaves actually just robbed and killed people traveling through the estate lands in order to get food and clothing).

    That said, there was also a strong tradition of manumission in Roman slavery, especially of house slaves, tutors, shopkeepers, and other (relatively) higher-status slaves. And, because the main source of slaves was prisoners from military ventures, there was an understanding that, often, becoming a slave was not something that you deserved, but the result of a misfortune brought upon you by the gods, who sometimes did things like that. The clever slave is a stock character of both Greek and Roman theatre, at least in part because it was recognized that a slave *had* to be smart to survive, whereas a master only had to be wealthy.

    So, while Christianity did absolutely preach the moral equivalence of slave and master, so did a lot of Greeks and Romans (and other cultures as well, but I in particular know a lot more about the Greeks and Romans). And the canonical Pauline epistles (not all of which were written by Paul, of course), were not shy about telling slaves that God had placed them in their role, and that it was their duty to God, as Christians, to obey bad masters as well as good masters. And the thing is, I do actually agree that the canonical bible *has* a broad message of liberation, including the liberation of slaves, but much of that was not unique to the bible. And, of course, in the era of early Christianity, there wasn’t a bible, or even an agreed on set of gospels and beliefs.

    And the same is true when it comes to the position of women, albeit much less so. Greek and Roman societies were incredibly misogynistic, and that should not be minimized. And whilst the pastoral epistles (which were not written by Paul, but which did become canonical) have a lot of writing about how women should not speak or lead, and should obey their husbands, part of the reason that they exist is that this was an active area of controversy in early Christianity. At least some epistles that are still believed to be actually written by Paul are addressed to women who were clearly in leadership positions. And, in pseudo-Pauline epistles, you have writings like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which place Thecla, as Paul’s equal in faith and in wisdom, and show Paul defending her calling to chastity against those (including her family) who wish to force her into marriage. Which is part of why Paul and Thecla didn’t become canonical (another part is that it took the point of view that the apocalypse was imminent, and one of the reasons why chastity was such a virtue was that the world would end before any children born now could grow up, so what was the point in bringing children into the suffering of the last days?)

    In early Christianity, you could in some sense pick the version of the faith that you most wanted to follow, not because there were different entrenched denominations along today’s lines, but because no one really knew for sure who Jesus was, or what he believed, only that he was a vitally important figure (it wasn’t even established yet that he was definitely divine, and the canonical gospels are at least in part one side of a long-vanished argument over whether Jesus was human or divine, and to what extent). The biblical canon preserves traces of many of these arguments. You’ve already mentioned the disagreements between the gospels (and especially between the synoptic gospels and John), but the gospels of course are also in debate with Paul’s writings, and the pseudo-Pauline epistles are in debate with the gospels, and with the genuine Pauline epistles, and with many other gospels and wisdom books that didn’t end up in the canon.

    In the early church, there were women referred to by the same titles that, when used for men, are translated as “bishop”. There are also men who deny that it’s possible for women to hold any leadership position at all. It was an incredibly fascinating period, it was (and remains) a poorly understood period (largely because the early Christian church was very dedicated to removing evidence of the early breadth of opinion), and thank you so much for writing about it.

    Reply

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