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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Some Kind of Blood: Gladiators and Martyrs in Popular Christian Imagination

Edward Gibbon had depicted the early Christians as zealous anti-intellectuals, draining the
empire of all its science and art in favor of simple reliance on faith (15.187). In “The Anti-Christ,”
Nietzsche portrayed Christianity as a vampire sucking the blood from the Roman Empire (168).
Though this portrayal is meant to denigrate the Jesus movement, in a certain light it has its truth, since Christians were obligated not to participate in the imperial sacrifices or the gladiatorial games.
Earlier, Gibbon had characterized the Christians in this pacifistic fashion: “nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow creatures,
either by the sword of justice or by that of war” (Decline 15.99). Nevertheless, Christians invested in a different sort of blood: the blood of the martyrs. But where this blood-love lies on the
social-psychological level was and is a matter of debate. Most recently Rodney Stark has sought to
understand Christian martyrdom in congruence with rational-choice theory. With the former authors
and the latter one lies a battle between two narratives: one of the decay of Hellenism, and one of the
triumph of Christianity.

Stark derides previous psychoanalysts who believed early Christians to be irrational, though he
does not provide many sources (Rise 166). He also complains that social scientists have an anti-religious agenda (167). In some ways this is true, since many social scientists look for socio-economic conditions underlying religious movements, without regard for the power (primacy?) of belief in motivating such movements.

Yet Stark does seek an economic model to understand martyrdom: that of cost-benefit analyses.
Though Stark admits that private faith cannot be quantified (172), he still places benefits like 'rewards
in the afterlife' as prime motivators for martyrdom (168), as well as benefits like honor and fame on
earth (181). For lack of a better model, it seems like for a select group of people, Stark's assertion is
probably right: zeal for death can be seen in modern cult movements; yet Christianity provided space
for fanatics and low-investment believers. One obvious objection to Stark's theory is that the vast
majority of Christians facing martyrdom wussed-out rather than faced death with a smile, indicating
both that many Christians preferred a normal Roman life rather than a glorious death, and that Stark's
model of cost-benefit analysis is so individuated that it is almost unfalsifiable, since the model can
always be supported by ad hoc rationalizations.

Stark next depicts the rising Christian movement as a simplified response to the flooded
religious market of late antiquity. There were simply too many gods (197), which was somehow related to human depravity (200). He even suggests that Paganism needed the imperial government to function, which is blatantly incorrect, since many traditional Hellenists continued to practice their ancestral religions far into the 8th century. His argument that a state religion needs state support has some merit, but it goes against the plain fact of religious pluralism in Roman society (194).
Ultimately, Stark contends that doctrine has the central victorious element in Christianity's
arsenal (211). While it is true that Hellenism did not have doctrine per se, or even a consistent approach to ethics, neither did most Christians put doctrine or ethics first. Certainly social-acceptability led to more and more people joining the Christian movement, since many people who were baptized continued to live out their traditional lifestyles.

Certainly doctrines like mercy and universal humanity mattered to high-level theologians and
Bishops—indeed the Emperor Julian called for greater humanism in reviving Hellenism—it probably
did not concern most average Christians (212). Whereas Stark depicts traditional Romans as sadistic,
delighting in seeing people torn to shreds (214), he writes that Christianity succeed because “what [it]
gave to its converts was nothing less than humanity” (215). When juxtaposing Gibbon and Nietzsche
with Stark, it begs the question: who is the real vampire?

The answer to such a loaded question is complicated. Suffice it to say that by Stark's final
chapter, he abandons any devotion to social science and delves naively into secular theology. On his
final page, Stark draws from Tertullian's De Spectaculis, arguing that “Christians condemned both the
cruelties and the spectators” of the gladiatorial games (215). While this statement certainly holds true
for Tertullian and his fellow Church authorities, it misses the fact that Tertullian is writing to other
Christians who in fact are attending the games! The work is meant to persuade these Christians not to
live in the same manner as the pagans, indicating that a sizable chunk of the Christian population
behaved in the same manner as anyone else in the empire. Perhaps then, under the leadership of
Bishops, the grandeur of Rome gradually faded, but for the majority of everyday Christians, they were still as pagan as could be.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Opting out of the Roman Ritual Economy


The famous Pliny/Trajan correspondence from c. 111 CE serves an important historical role as a source on early Christianity. Less studied is the economic stratum that runs beneath the correspondence. Writing about civil unrest he mediated in Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny details how local townspeople had composed a anonymous blacklist of suspected Christians. While Pliny does not approve of such mob action, he takes the complaints of the locals seriously, and interrogates suspected Christians, eventually leading some off to execution or further trials in Rome. The problem for Pliny was not Christianity per se (he considered it a 'degenerate sort of superstition'), but loyalty to the empire and the gods; so his method of interrogation involved compelling the suspects to sacrifice and venerate images of Trajan and the gods, and to curse Christ.
Noting that members of every class and social group belongs to this new superstition, Pliny assures Trajan that he is actively fixing the problem by pointing to the rebound of the local economy: “certainly enough, it happens that the temples, which are now nearly empty, have begun to be frequented; and the sacred rites, which have not been performed for a long time, are again being undertaken; and the sacrificial meat is on sale, a buyer of which until this point was most hard to find.” Pliny likely received this positive news from the local magnates and meat mongers. Huge amounts of money went to the temples from local people: paganism was not just a top-down apparatus as Stark suggests (Rise 208). It appears that the major concern of the townspeople was that the Christians had opted out of the local ritual economy, encouraging people not to visit or donate to the temples, nor to buy goods for ritual purposes. This refusal to participate in the ritual economy presented an immediate danger to the well-being of the town.

A similar situation is dramatized in the Acts of the Apostles 19:23-41, where a silversmith, who produces “shrines of Artemis” persuades his fellow craftsmen to stir up a mob against Paul and company: “...this Paul has persuaded and won over a sizable crowd, saying that there are no gods which are made by hands. And not only is there there danger that this business of ours may come be to exposed, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be reckoned for nothing, and she may be destined to be deposed from her majesty” (19:26b-27b). Luke depicts the ritual business in Ephesus to as a profitable industry (9:24), which has fallen under threat from the Christian movement that (at this time) has no religious buildings or salable ritual goods, save perhaps loaves of bread and wine. The situation Luke constructs is unlikely to have occurred during Paul's own lifetime, but probably reflects a later period like that found in the Pliny/Trajan correspondence, where Christian presence in towns was large enough to undermine the market economy.


These writings represent Christianity as a threat to industry, and ultimately to the livelihood of the workers and the welfare of the city. The Roman Empire was a collectivist society of limited goods where production and sale of goods was vital for most people to live above subsistence level. In this case, the craftsmen keep producing, but their products become obsolete, or at least no longer in demand. We lack archaeological evidence before the year 180, since Christians lacked distinct art and buildings (Stark 8). Instead, Christians simply opted out of traditional ritual practices and sought cheaper ways of worship, I.E. in houses with bread and wine. The Christian movement interiorized material ritual activity, thereby threatening the wealth of industrial workers, and in turn threatening a large sector of the local economy. Here, as in the Pliny/Trajan correspondence, the production of goods is inextricably bound up placation of the gods. The ritual economy was one essential factor of the overall economy of the empire. In a theological system of reciprocal circulation, transactions with the gods mattered. So there was a religious element to it; not just money, but the two were tied together. Roman religion was based on a reciprocal relationship between the gods and the citizens. Yet in order to maintain that relationship, a great deal of human production was needed; then the gods would ensure the health of the empire.

The time frame in the Pliny/Trajan correspondence fits neatly with Friesen's suggestion that the Roman economy peaked in the mid second century (Economy 62). There was a middle-class, but the greater majority was close to subsistence level (Economy 63). Friesen states that “actual mean non-élite income was between one-fifth and one-half higher than basic subsistence” (Economy 82). This cuts against Kautsky's blanket statement that “The craftsmen in the ancient world, and particularly so in the Roman world, remained poor devils” (Book II. 10). By contrast, Stark depicts many early Christians as coming from privileged groups who were open to joining novel cults (Rise 39). This image runs counter to Pliny's description of Christians coming from all classes, which seems of special interest to him. People did not have comparable levels of education to the modern west, and the middle class was small, so there are really only a few similarities that Stark can draw upon. Stark puts people into distinct groups because he needs to for his demographics. Stark's theory of history is that it is repeatable and predictable, and that religion spreads through social networks. These principles are good for asking questions, but they amount to bad historiography, leaving his analyses more explanatory than predictive.


Why does Pliny initially frame the issue from a religio-political rather than monetary angle when traditionally, the Roman government had an interventionist approach to economics?

Stark suggests that converts do not respond as quickly to doctrine as they do to praxis (Rise 15), making a further link between class and praxis, but not belief (Rise 35). Since abstention from “idol meat” is actually an absence of praxis, does that complicate Stark's theory?
Historical precedence for the situation in Bithynia is found in both 1 Cor. 8:1-13 and Rev. 2:18-29, which proffer opposing views on eating “idol meat.” Though it is difficult to ascertain how these texts guided the Christians of Bithynia, if at all, it seems that the Johannine hardline view won out over the Pauline compromise view. Why might the extreme impetus succeed in this case?

In light of Stark's analysis of the role of social networks in the rise of religious movements, to what degree can we say religion is voluntary?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Comparing the farewell addresses in Acts and the Clementine Homilies

I wrote this a long time ago. It's a section on an article about the reception of the canonical Acts of the Apostles within the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies. This section focuses on a comparison in the Farewell Address narratives. 

Though it has long been suggested that the Homilies’ vision of the Gospel is essentially anti-Pauline, what invites commentary is the strong anti-Paulinism in Peter’s farewell speech to the church in Tripolis in Hom.11, which consequently contains several allusions and challenges to Paul’s farewell address to Ephesian presbyters in Acts 20. Let us now brusquely summarize the narrative in Acts 20. Paul extols the Ephesian presbyters to walk by the Gospel he has proclaimed. He recounts his own experience with the church as proof of his divine mission (20:18-27). In Acts 20:29, Paul warns his disciples to be on guard for false apostles: ἐγὼ οἶδα ὅτι εἰσελεύσονται μετὰ τὴν ἄφιξίν μου λύκοι βαρεῖς εἰς ὑμᾶς μὴ φειδόμενοι τοῦ ποιμνίου. “I myself know that after my departure, savage wolves will enter among you, not sparing the flock.” Finally, after Paul exhorts the presbyters to follow his example of self-denying toil, he recalls a saying of Jesus: Μακάριόν ἐστιν μᾶλλον διδόναι ἢ λαμβάνειν. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (20:35). Luke uses this narrative to explain the apostolic origin and situation of the Ephesian church in his own day, as well as to magnify Paul’s character. 

In the Homilies, Peter gives his own farewell address, albeit much briefer than Paul’s in Acts. The first parallel with Acts is obvious: a farewell address by an apostle to the church. Admittedly farewell addresses are not uncommon in ancient narratives, so the Homilies’ address in itself would not suggest a literary dependence on Acts. However, the specific contents of Peter’s farewell address show unmistakable allusions to the Acts account. 
Peter turns to the presbyters of his own church and reminds them of the tenets of keeping the true Gospel. Peter makes explicit reference to the deceptive work of Simon, who arguably represents Paul in this speech, who pretends to work in Jesus’ name, but who truly works in the service of Satan: “…νῦν ἡμῖν τὸν Σίμωνα ὑπέβαλεν προφάσει ἀληθείας ἐπ’ ὀνόματι τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν κηρύσσοντα, πλάνην δὲ ἐνσπείροντα. “…now he (Satan) has thrust Simon upon us, by a façade of truth preaching by the name of our Lord, sowing deceit” (Hom.11.35).22 This warning alludes to Paul’s own address to the presbyters in Acts, as well as to a doctrinal struggle of the apostolic church; for Peter next details to the presbyters how to distinguish a true apostle from a false one. He explains that one must judge self-proclaimed teachers by how closely their teaching coheres with the teaching of James the Brother of Jesus, who holds preeminence in the universal Church because of his fraternity with Jesus, his role as Bishop of Jerusalem, and of course, the truth of his doctrines: 
διὸ πρὸ πάντων μέμνησθε μηδένα δέχεσθαι ἀπόστολον ἢ διδάσκαλον ἢ προφήτην μὴ πρότερον ἀντιβαλόντα αὐτοῦ τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰακώβῳ τῷ λεχθέντι ἀδελφῷ τοῦ κυρίου μου καὶ πεπιστευμένῳ ἐν Ἱερουσαλὴμ τὴν Ἑβραίων διέπειν ἐκκλησίαν. 
(“On this account, above all remember to accept no apostle or teacher or prophet who has not beforehand exchanged his kerygma with James, the one called the brother of my Lord, and who has been entrusted to manage the church of the Hebrews in Jerusalem” (Hom.11.35).23 
This saying essentially draws upon Paul’s self-promotion to the Ephesian Church based on his righteous conduct, but it says that works can be decieving; what matters is apostolic approval, which the Homilist denies Paul possesses. Instead of Paul, the Homilist contends that he has received the more orthodox teaching through Peter, James, and ultimately, Jesus himself. However historical this contention may be is a matter for separate discussion. 
Next follows the clearest allusion to Paul’s address to the Ephesian presbyters. In addition to the apostolic criterion of discernment, Peter reminds his presbyters of Jesus’ own prophetic words concerning false teachers: 
οὗ χάριν ὁ ἀποστείλας ἡμᾶς ἔφη· «Πολλοὶ ἐλεύσονται πρός με ἐν ἐνδύματι προβάτων, ἔσωθεν δέ εἰσι λύκοι ἅρπαγες· ἀπὸ τῶν καρπῶν αὐτῶν ἐπιγνώσεσθε αὐτούς.» 
(“For the sake of which, he who has sent us (Jesus) said: ‘Many will come to me in sheeps clothing, but inside are ravenous wolves. From their fruits you will know them’” (Hom.11.35).24 
The prophecy of the “wolves” is found in both apostles’ farewell addresses. The Petrine address in the Homilies seems directly opposed to its Pauline predecessor in Acts, which it in effect turns upside down. It is now Paul, along with the story and theological message of Acts, who typifies the wolf. It is a bold expression of superiority by a competing orthodoxy in the early Christian world. After this warning, Peter departs to Syrian Antioch. The Homilist sums up Peter’s activities: he cured diseases, exorcised demons, preached the Gospel, appointed a bishop and twelve presbyters, and bid he adieu (Hom.11.36). To sum up the case for the Homilies’ use of Acts in this section, we have parallels of a farewell address, injunctions to the presbyters, warnings about wolves coming in among the congregation, coupled with a saying of Jesus. In essence, these clear allusions to Acts represent the Homilies’ rejection of the popular narrative of Christian origins in favor of what the Homilist argues is more apostolic and genuine. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Weirdsdom of the ages...

"All good men are gods."--Apollonius of Tyana

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Academic Failure

Academia is a cut-throat world. It demands the academic not only to dream up new insights in fields picked over by scholars much more intelligent and experienced, but also to keep on top of the insights of others on a daily basis. It demands that the academic practice foreign and ancient languages, not as part of course work, but simply as preparation for coursework. And it demands that the academic had already prepared his/her language and critical thinking skills from very early on in his/her academic endeavor. It's a life-long process best begun in youth. Not everyone has ample time, privilege, or energy to develop these skills, and that fact can ultimately lead to academic failure, even and especially after a long road of academic success. Some academics succeed through college and MA programs, only to hit a brick wall with PhD applications. I had hoped and prayed that I would not fall into that category, but I did, two years in a row. It hurts to devote one's life to an academic subject only to be rejected by that subject. And now, it appears as if I must 'reevaluate my life goals,' a consequence much more frightening than the rejection itself. I don't know what to do, and I don't want to do anything else. I love the academic world, even though it's stressful, even though it's uncertain, even though it doesn't yield much financial prospect. It's a world of constant learning, of the exchange of grand ideas both ancient and new, a guild of experts who live off education. I want desperately to be part of that world. I once was, and I miss it.
Since June 2011, I've been out of school. I've stayed close to the University of Chicago, residing in Hyde Park, participating in classes, that is, until recently. I've finally landed a day job after half a year of unemployment. I pour coffee. I never thought that I'd be working in service again. It's ok. I've met great friends at work, the coffee is top-notch, and I now have a steady paycheck, but I miss academia so much. I'm still reading when I can, both for leisure and to keep up on Greek and German. But at this point, I'm worried that I'll never get back into the field. It's very disheartening. There's no advice that anyone can give that isn't hard to accept. What do I do? I'll try again next year perhaps. Until then, there's job prospects. I'm done talking.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dostoevsky's words to live by...

"And with love one live even without happiness. Life is good even in sorrow, it's good to live in the world, no matter how." As a jaded son of a bitch, these words speak even to me. I want to believe them, and I think I do, especially the next part: "And what is there here except...stench. Phew!" So many times, everyday when I'm not so busied, do I ask myself if it's all worth it, and what does it mean for it to be worth it, or not worth it. Would it have been better for me to never be at all? I don't know. Magic 8-ball says signs point to yes. But inside me there's always been .099th% of doubt--doubt about everything, about my existence, about God, about everything--this time a healthy, life-saving doubt, the doubt that keeps one going, the doubt that says "you're wrong in the most wonderful way. You're wrong about the stench. You're wrong about it all being shit." Well, it is shit, but there's a gem of joy underneath all the shit. I don't know where it is. I don't know for sure that it's there. That's another doubt. But I can't be sure that it's all for nothing and that the nothing is not worth fighting for. Maybe, somehow, it really is better to live in the world. I don't know how. I don't know it's not. Maybe the not knowing is the is.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

This is an exercise in writing and social analysis. It's not good.
So I walked into the living room and on was an episode of 'the big bang theory.' The show depicted four mid-twenties male buddies in an apartment playing video games, and very much into it. In the midst of their adrenal euphoria, the front door opens to introduce a gaggle of four conventionally hot bombshells. The boys, concentrating solely on the galactic struggle at hand, fail to even notice the sudden change of scenery. A fifth woman, clearly a friend of the buds, exclaims that she's brought these women for the sexual delight of the buds. But the boys remain utterly oblivious to the beautiful women. So the beautiful women give each other a shrug of "iiuuoo", and turn away, shutting the door behind them, thus shutting close the boys' chance at some serious sex. Hearing the door close, one boy stops the game and says "I thought I heard something," but then figures it must have been nothing, and they continue on their merry gaming. The laugh track plays, and the credits roll. What a hilarious closing. These socially awkward boys were so caught up in their childish game that they missed their opportunity to have sex with beautiful women. They should have dropped their little game, high five each other, and promptly gone for the sex. This scene sends the message that the highest achievement a dude can make, or at least the highest level of pleasure that also awards serious social brownie points, is sex with a beautiful woman, often a stranger. So not only were boys behaving in a childish way, they were in effect stupid, missing the obviously most important thing they could do with themselves. The pursuit of sex is somehow now an intellectual pursuit: why wouldn't you want the highest good--sex--over anything else? While I think video games stifle creativity and talent, what these friends were doing was not simply playing videos games: they were being friends, working together as a team to achieve a goal, albeit a cheap and trivial goal. But the message was clear: men want/need sex, women have sex; if you pass up sex, there's something hilariously stupidly risible about you. In spit of this, there could be a positive message if viewed from an angle that the producers did not intend, that is, that people should not yield to societal expectations about what they should want and how they should act in the world, but should focus on the things that they connect with and develop themselves as persons.
Ok, this has been a very disorganized post, and I'm not sure I even agree with myself or know what I'm talking about. But I'm trying to work on my organization and writing skills, which somehow never improve. Critical thinking and writing are arts that should go together. Sometimes a person has one without the other, some people have neither.