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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.