Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Christian Problem

One of the most hardest problems which the patricist and classicist share is the problem of understanding why Christian was such a problem for their pagan neighbours. After all, paganism could deal with a lot of different gods at the same time. The Romans, for instance, could absorb cults from all over the Empire and not even break a sweat; objecting only where human sacrifice or dangerous extremes in behavior were encouraged. In fact, they could even deal with Judaism which was every bit as adamant on the issue of reserving its worship only its own god. Yet, Christianity presented a problem which unsettled most Romans and, at particular times, encouraged persecutions- first merely local, but later empire-wide. What was it about Christianity which made it so hard for the Romans to live and let live?

This is, of course, an old problem. I'm sure the Christians at the time were wondering why they were such an issue. And, of course, there were plenty of explanations (i.e. the apologists) for why Christians weren't a problem. There are also many, many modern explanations for this unusual Roman policy to the Christians; many of which turn on the problem of how such a 'religiously tolerant' Rome could persecute Christianity in the way it did.

So, these thoughts have been in my head since I started reading Paula Frederiksen's Augustine and the Jews a few weeks back. I'm really only half way through this excellent book and, of course, intend to review it when I finish (perhaps in April). However, in her first two chapters, Dr. Frederiksen deals with this issue with exceptional clarity. In her first chapter, she embarks on an elegant discussion of how pagan religion worked. This is a source of considerable problem for a historian of antiquity because it is all too easy to import our own understanding of (primarily) monotheistic religions and either assume that this worked similarly for pagans for many gods or dismiss the experience of the Romans because it doesn't live up to ours. Twisting our heads around how polytheism works is a major challenge and one that continually needs to be revised as we realize more and as we realize more ways in which we have distorted the evidence by our own religious (or anti-religious) assumptions.

However, I think Frederiksen is right on target when she notes four characteristics of paganism in the Roman period. First, she notes that, in the Roman political system, people encountered a wide diversity of gods because of the sheer size of the area ruled by Rome. Further, this was not because the Romans were religiously 'tolerant' as we would understand it, but rather the fact that Rome ruled many people meant that they also incorporated many gods (p.10). Second, the ancient assumption about the various gods was that they did exist and they needed to be dealt with somehow (p. 10-13)-. This has interesting implications especially because it looks like the relevant question for pagans wasn't whether such and such god existed, but rather how powerful were they and did they need to be brought on one's own side. Third, Frederiksen suggests that piety in the Graeco-Roman world was about honouring one's ancestral gods (p.13) Fourth, the multiplicty of ethnic gods was also balanced by the civic cults and the imperial cults which focused some religious energy towards the wider community and empire (p.13-15.). Given that failure to perform one's religious duties could bring down the wrath of the gods or god on the whole community or empire, it did matter if someone slighted a god. The stakes of renouncing a god or gods didn't just affect one's own life, but the lives of one's neighbours and fellow-citizens.

The implications here, I think, are important for our problem. This is particularly important when we consider points three and four. . Certainly, it explains why Judaism could be tolerated, even after the three major Jewish revolts of the late first and early second centuries AD. While Judaism formally refused to worship the civic and imperial cults (Frederiksen notes that some Jews, at least, disregarded this refusal and did worship the civic and imperial gods), it had the virtue of being an ancestral cult. That is, the Jews could still be described as being pious and doing their bit for the city and empire because they were interceding with their god for the wider community's benefit. Mind you, pagan converts to Judaism weren't off the hook because they were abandoning their ancestral cult and, thus, their civic responsibilities for a foreign cult.

This also explains why the mystery cults weren't an issue either. The mystery cults were always an add-on, so it was understood that one should continue to both one's ancestral gods and the civic/imperial ones. The assumption here continues to be religious pluralism, so nobody (mortal or divine) should be offended by it.

Further, this interpretation explains why Gentile Christians were such a problem. By insisting that a Gentile Christian should stop worshipping their ancestral gods and worship God (in anticipation of an eschatological promise made to the Jews that the nations would worship the God of Israel- p.37), Christianity also opened itself to charges of encouraging atheism, not in the sense of not believing in the gods (early Christians and Jews did believe that the gods existed and had power. It was only that God had more power and right to be worshipped), but in the sense of failing to perform one's ancestral religious duties. This failure meant that, potentially, one's city and empire was at greater risk because of Christian impiety. So, when something did go wrong, Christians were naturally blamed because of their blatant irreligion. This explains both the localized persecutions of the second century and the empire-wide persecutions of both Decius and Diocletian. The persecutors were primarily interested in getting the gods back on their side by encouraging worship of the gods and by punishing those were derelict in their duties, but who were also very aware that the Christians were the main culprits in the dereliction which annoyed the gods. So, in a paradoxical fashion, the persecutions weren't about hurting Christians (it was about getting the gods back on side) and were about punishing Christians (because of their dereliction of duty).

All this makes sense, I think, and I think it an enormous advance over previous interpretations. I suspect that our own post-modern assumptions about foundational belief and pluralism may be distorting some of our understanding here (for instance, did it matter what a pagan believed about their god or gods? what did it mean to decide on a patron god, either individually or in the civic arena?). Yet, its virtue is that this interpretation takes seriously the experienced reality of the Graeco-Romans and explains why that reality had as a result the marginalization and persecution of Christians.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Call for Submission- Patristic Carnival XXII

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XXII. This month, we're back here at hyperekperissou.

The guidelines remain the same as the Modest Proposal entry back in November, 2006 and my additions in August, 2007.

The last day of submission will be March 31st and the postings will be up by the week of April 6th. .

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (


Monday, March 23, 2009

On Pears, Sin and St. Augustine

I remember back many moons ago (well, eighteen years ago, anyways), when I was in my first year of my first MA (they are habit forming), I was taking a course called Topics in Mediaeval History. That was a bit of a misnomer. It really was Beginners Intensive Augustine. In one term, we read (at breakneck speed) the Confessions and the City of God. That is a lot of theological meat in a short time, to say the least, even in the washed out and anemic secularized reading of Augustine that this particular history course privileged. When you add that I was in the middle of a major spiritual upheaval which would eventually lead to my coming to faith and joining the Anglican Church of Canada, the impact of Augustine was transformative in a deep way. My wife often jokes that I was the only person she knew who had been converted by Augustine and, if she means in the same way that the example of Victorinus caused Augustine to turn (back) to the Christian God (Confessions, 8,2), she probably is right. There is no doubt that the example of St. Augustine informed my conversion and continues to affect the way that I think about my faith. I am, at the end of the day, an Augustinian (albeit in a Protestant mode) and proud of it.

The memory of this class came back to me a few weeks ago, as I was reading the famous passage from the second book of the Confessions which deals with Augustine's gratuitous and sophmoric theft of pears. I remember my colleagues were inclined to either trivialize this passage or reflect on Augustine's clearly neurotic psyche. I always thought they had the wrong end of the stick and my re-reading of this passage confirms me in that opinion.

Here is the passage in question (my translation)
Certainly, your law and your law, which is written on the hearts of people and which iniquity itself does not destroy, punishes theft. For what thief endures another thief calmly? Not even a rich thief endures another one compelled by want. I wanted to steal and I did it, compelled by no need unless an impoverishment and aversion to justice and the baggage of iniquity. I stole that which was available in abundance for me and much better than what I was seeking in theft. Nor did I wish to enjoy the thing, but rather I wanted to enjoy the theft and sin itself. There was, near our vines, a pear tree, laden with fruits, but which did not have an enticing shape or taste. In the dead of night, we, the most good-for-nothing youths, hurried to shake the pears down and carry them off. We had prolonged our game in a pestilential manner in the open space. We carried off from there a huge load (of pears) not for our own meal, but for feeding to pigs, although we ate some of them, as long as what was pleasing was done by us not what was permitted. Behold, my heart. Behold, my heart, which you pitied in deepest pit. Behold my heart tells you what it was seeking there, that I should be gratuitously evil. There was no cause of my evil except evil. It was foul, and I loved it. I love to destroy. I loved my fault, not that for which I was faulty, but I loved my fault. Foul soul, leaping from your firmament into destruction, not seeking anything through shame, but shame itself.

Powerful stuff and, perhaps, it is safer to domesticate it by dismissing the occasion for this passion as something trivial and unimportant. What a to-do about adolescent stupidity? Sure, it was theft, but who really cares about a few dozen inedible pears thrown to a bunch of pigs, who probably would end up with them anyway? Isn't Augustine just being morbid post facto?

This attitude, however, entirely misses Augustine's point. Augustine really isn't this concerned with the pears per se, but, rather, he is more concerned about the state of his soul. That is, the theft was less worrying than the sheer willfulness and desire to do wrong which served as the motivation for his sinful actions. As elsewhere in the Confessions, Augustine highlights what looks like a trivial episode in his life, not because he is morbid or neurotic, but because these episodes demonstrate something about his own character and his predilection to sin. This revelation of character through seemingly trivial incidents is ancient biography at its best, so it is harsh to criticize Augustine's choice of self-revealing episodes, when any biographer worth his name in the ancient period would choose similar incidents to demonstrate the lives of their subjects.

What is more, I think the common reaction of my classmates also implied a serious misunderstanding of what the sin on which Augustine focuses on throughout the Confessions actually was. In contemporary North America, we tend to view sin as being a discreet, evil action for which we repent or not depending on whether we think it wrong or not. Augustine, while concerned about discreet action, is more interested in sin as a disturbance in human nature and a disturbed will. What moves Augustine to his passionate repentance in this passage is a recognition of the disposition of sin working its way into his youthful heart in such a way that it caused him to prefer evil (theft) over good. This can be demonstrated by the sheer gratuitousness of his theft and his revelling in the sin that he reveals in this passage.

Ultimately, what this passage tells me is that we all can get to the point where we prefer evil to good, especially when we begin to move away from God. Sin can be very enticing- so much so that we may well pursue it to our own destruction. What Augustine provides in this seemingly trivial theft of a few pears isn't his neurosis, but the anatomy of a human heart turning towards sin. Yet, what Augustine also knew when he wrote the Confessions, and what I, ultimately, discovered those many years ago, God is even more powerful than the power of sin and the weakness of our will. Nothing separates us from God and not even, if we are willing, ourselves.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Patristics Carnival XXI- February, 2009

Finally, here is the new patristics carnival, delayed through busyness and a bad stomach flu. Enjoy the offerings for this month.

New Under the Tent: New Patristic Blogs And Announcements.

Ben Blackwell on the Dunelm Road blog announces the Patristics Seminar at the University of Durham for Epiphany term. (If anyone has anymore of these, send them along and I'll post them).

The administrator of the Research News in Late Antiquity publishes a job posting for editor-in-chief of the Patristics Monograph series.

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

DP Cassidy on the In hoc Signo blog begins a list of the Fathers for beginners.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog gives us news updates in patristics land.

Roger Pearse on his self-named blog considers the curse of too much reading, updated us on the progress of his Eusebius project, published more excerpts from the letters of Isidore of Pelusium, discusses the recipient name of Isidore of Pelusium, confronted his lust for the Clavis patrum Graecorum, especially in light of Armenian translation of Eusebius, made suggestions of which patristic translations he would like to see, discussed more letters of Isidore of Pelusium, one more letter of Isidore, still more letters of Isidore.

Kevin Edgecomb on the biblicalia blog discusses St. Ephrem on the Scriptures.

Jennifer on the Historical Continuity blog considers the connections between the Calvinist/Puritan stream of Protestantism and the Church Fathers.

Mike Aubrey on the ev epheso blog discusses a parallel between Ephesians 5 and 1 Clement 38 and the parallel between St. John Chrysosthom on Ephesians 5 and 1 Clement 38.

Polycarp on The Church of Jesus Christ blog discusses the clash between Dyohypostatic and Miahypostatic theology especially in context of the teachings of Marcellus of Ancyra. He continues his discussion with a consideration of the theological position that Marcellus opposed and details on his theology. He also completes his series on Ignatius of Antioch view of the economy of God.

RE Aguirre on the regula fidei blog is intoxicated with Augustine.

aaronandbrigid on the Logismoi blog discusses the Homilies of St. Macarius. They continue to discuss mystical silence and St. Maximus the Confessor.

Brian Small on the Polumeros kai Polutropos blog considers the scriptural and patristic case that Barnabas was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Douglas Dobbins on the En Christo blog considers St. Athanasius's views on the fidelity of Jesus.

Demion Farnsworth on the Fallen and Flawed blog considers the Early Church Fathers, Girl Talk and the Seamless Doctrine of the Trinity. If nothing else, you have to read on to see how all those things fit together.

Theocoid on the Is my Phylactery Showing? blog considers St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Eucharist and prayers for the dead. He also discusses the doctrine of the two wills, giving an overview of the ecumenical councils on the issue.

Weekend Fisher on the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength blog discusses Dionysius of Alexandria's scholarly consideration against the Johanine authorship of Revelation.

The Areopagite on his self-named blog features a Christ and Culture patristic slapdown between St. Augustine and Tertullian.

Kevin on the Courting the Mystery blog seeks out and publishes the abbreviations for St. Athanasius' authentic and spurious works.

Ian on the Exploring Orthodoxy blog discusses Aphaphrat the Persian Sage and Narsai of Nisibis in light of the tradition of the Syrian Church Fathers.

Chipi Buenafe on the Catholic Metanarrative blog features a fascinating article on the revival of interest in the Fathers in Europe.

Eastern Anglican muses on patristics among Anglicans, especially the parallels of St. Polycarp's vision on entering the amphitheatre and Latimer's encouragement of Ridley on their martyrdom.

Patrick Malone on the Preaching Christ blog recommends reading the Fathers during Lent.

lylemook on the ruminations blog reflects on the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem.

Mark on the Joe and the Volcano blog refelcts on St. Polycarp, St. Irenaeus and the Hermeneutic of continuity.

polymathis on the Aspiring PolyMathis blog discusses Christian education in the New Testament and patristic era.

Philip Sumpter on the Narrative and Ontology blog considers the issue of historicity at the core of the Gospel and deals with what canonical theology is.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews

lukeprog on the Common Sense Atheist blog posts a surprisingly critical review of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. Well, perhaps not surprising. Clearly, lukeprog knows something about textual criticism and, particularly, textual criticism of the Bible.

Greg Boyd on the Christus Victor blog offers a book list for egg-heads based on his reading for his forth-coming book, The Myth of the Blueprint. This is an excellent review of the recent scholarly literature on the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on the Church Fathers. I've barely skimmed the list and it looks fascinating.

Dave Spots on the Cap'n Salty's Long Voyage blog reviews Journal of Early Christian Studies 16,1.

Well, not precisely, a book review, but I think a CD review counts. The Administrator of the Pontifical Society of St. John Chyrsosthom blog reviews Capella Romana's performance of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysosthom in English.

Pastor Bob Cornwall on the Ponderings on a Faith Journey reviews Philip Jenkin's book, The Lost History of Christianity. Okay, this isn't quite a patristics book, but it does deal with the patristic era outside the Graeco-Roman world, so fair enough.

Brendon on the Christian Book: Orthodoxy reviews Rodney Goodacre's A Patristic Greek Reader.

Ben Blackwell on the Dunelm Road blog calls attention to an important patristic resource, Biblia Patristica which is now available online.

Turretinfan on the Thoughts of Francis Turretin blog accuses several Roman Catholic apologists of misrepresenting St. Athanasius using pseudo-epigraphic works attributed to St. Athanasius.

Rick Brannon on ricoblog discusses Peter Lampe's book on Early Christians in Rome.

Tim Trautman on The Army of the Martyrs blog reviews the first volume of Johannes Quasten's Patrology.

RE Aguirre on the regula fidei blog gives a very favourable review of Craig Allert's High View of Scripture.

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

KJC 32 on the Ohio Anglican blog gives a short life of St. Ignatius of Antioch. He follows up with a life of St. Polycarp.

John C. Myers on the One Man discusses the life of Origen in light of his intellect, passion and dedication.

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

prazm on the Half the Kingdom blog offers a short patristics catena on Purgatory.

hanxster on the blog posts a catena from the Early Church Fathers on free will.

The NT Administrator on Nicene Truth posts a patristics catena on the apostolic succession and authority.

Patrick Madrid on his self-named blog publishes a patristic catena on the Mass.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations and Summaries

Michael Aubrey on the ev epheso blog has started a translation of St. John Chrysosthom on Ephesians, 5,22ff.

On this blog, I completed the Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin with sections 26 and 27 and published the links to the rest of the series.

The Talmudic Tabernacle: Christianity and Judaism in the Ancient World

Nothing new this month.

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Nothing new this month.