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.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
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?