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Greco-Roman Religions

What the Earliest *Christians* Thought About Wealth

So far I have been discussing why “wealth” was sometimes seen as a problem by moral philosophers in the Greek and Roman worlds.  People who either have or want to have huge amounts of money are neglecting what they really need for ultimate happiness.  And money can corrupt morals, making one greedy, rapacious, and inclined to general nastiness.  These pagan ethical discourses are written by elites, for elites, concerned for the personal welfare of the elites. Christians had different views, at least so far as we can tell from their writings.  Whereas the “problem of wealth” was occasionally discussed among pagan moral philosophers, it became a central focus of interest in parts of the Christian tradition, starting with Jesus himself.   For the historian of religions that comes as no surprise.  Jesus himself was thoroughly Jewish and there are few aspects of Jewish ethical discourse more distinctive than the repeated emphasis both that the God of Israel was the God of the poor and that his people were to care for those who were in need.  [...]

Shouldn’t the Upper Classes Help the … Upper Classes?

In my previous post I talked about the widespread sense in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds that the affluent should give away some of their money.   But to whom/what did they give it and for what reasons? The basic answer involves an entire system of giving that is now widely known as “euergetism.”  The term was coined by an early twentieth-century French scholar of antiquity, André Boulanger; it literally means (financial) “good work.”  It is probably best translated into English as “benefaction.” Euergetism widely involved two kinds of giving by those with wealth: This post describes aspects of giving completely different from what we think of as "charity" today.  Join the blog and you can see what it's all about! Click here for membership options   Obligatory giving, usually called giving ob honorem (meaning something like “for the honor of). These were “gifts” that were required to be given by those who had been elected to a public office.  As part of that “honor” they were required to give of their private resources [...]

2022-05-24T11:38:58-04:00May 25th, 2022|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Does Wealth Make You More … Virtuous?

I have been explaining that among those few people who thought having substantial wealth was a “problem” in the Greek and Romans worlds – that is, the few philosophers who thought about the issue (since for most people getting lots of money was precisely not a problem!) – the issue was never that it just wasn’t fair for some people to be barely able to get by, or worse to be starving to death, when others were blissfully rolling in the dough.  The issue was that having lots of money almost always corrupted someone’s character, and having a bad personal character was a problem for the person personally (and for broader society) (but not because others were poor as dirt).  The greedy, manipulative, self-centered, tyrannical personality was not someone you wanted to be or be around. And so the problem with wealth was that it could hurt the person who had it.  Those poor people:  burdened with wealth!  But what was the solution for them?  We have seen: there were two well-attested options.  At one [...]

2022-05-16T13:29:15-04:00May 24th, 2022|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Fabulously Rich But Not Attached to the Lucre (?)

In the previous post I talked about how and why ancient Cynics condemned wealth – as in fact they condemned anything that a person had and considered important to their happiness and wellbeing.  If wellbeing resides in things you possess, they can be taken away from you, leading to misery.  And so, the key to happiness is not to be attached to anything.  And the only way to assure that you’re *not* attached to something is not to have it at all.  So Cynics maintained you should give it all away – for the sake of your happiness. This was considered an extreme view, but it reveals an underlying sentiment among many ancient philosophers, that happiness cannot reside in your possessions.   Most of these philosophers, though, maintained that the problem was not wealth per se, but a personal attachment it.  For these thinkers, it was perfectly fine, even good, to be abundantly affluent.  The (potential) problem was being obsessively attached to possessions and allowing wealth to control the course of life.  That is: you could [...]

2022-05-19T11:55:44-04:00May 19th, 2022|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Public Forum|

The Ancient Argument for Getting Rid of All Your Wealth

I now begin a series of posts on the “problem of wealth” in the ancient world -- that is, the problems posed by wealth, as identified by a number of elite authors, both pagan (Greek and Roman) and Christian.  The particular *problem* was understood differently between these two camps, but both camps had extremists, who said the rich should give it all away, every penny, and the moderates, who said that the problem was not wealth itself but a rich person’s “attitude” toward wealth.  The latter group, which, as you might expect, was far more numerous, claimed it was fine to have TONS of money so long as you weren’t much attached to it. But what was the actual problem?   Wealth is a problem?  With problems like that…. To explain the problem from the perspective of traditional Greek and Roman moral philosophy, I will first describe it in in its barest form, as found in the teachings of philosophers who argued for complete divestiture (get rid of every penny!).  These were known as “Cynic” philosophers, [...]

Revelation and Ancient Views of Dominance

In my previous post I discussed whether the fact that Revelation is filled with symbolism and not to be taken literally should affect our evaluation of its presentation of violence and domination.  Now I move on to ask whether its views reflect those of Jesus himself.   I resume where I left off: ****************************** To say that this is all “just a story” is to miss the point rather spectacularly.  The story conveys a message, an understanding of right and wrong and of what really matters before the Almighty.  The book celebrates judgment, bloody vengeance, and divine wrath – not love, mercy, forgiveness, or reconciliation.  In the end, the Lamb who was once bloodied avenges his blood a thousand-fold.  For John, Christ came the first time in meekness, but he is coming back in power.  History will be guided by the vengeance and wrath of God and his Lamb. Is this what Jesus thought?  I obviously cannot provide an analysis of the historical Jesus’ teachings in the time I have left.  But I will stress that [...]

Why Cynics Thought Being Poor Was Ironically Better

Isn’t it better to have no possessions at all than to have millions of them and then lose them?  According to ancient Cynic philosophy: Absolutely Yes! I’ve been discussing how this view comes to be embodied in Lucian’ of Samosata’s humorous dialogue Downward Journey, about a rich tyrant who abused his power and wealth and then ended up completely miserable in the afterlife.  I begin here with the paragraph that ended the last post, to provide a bit of context for the humorous passage that follows.  (All this is taken from my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell, with Yale University Press, due out in April) ****************************** The dialogue shifts then to another of the deceased, an impoverished cobbler, Micyllus.  He too is upset, but not for being removed from the world of the living but for being delayed from crossing the Styx.  He cannot get to the underworld fast enough, and is perturbed that Charon’s boat has filled up without him and he has to wait on shore.  Clotho is surprised that Micyllus does [...]

A Humorous Take on Wealth From a Great Satire of Antiquity

In my previous post I discussed the radical views of Cynic philosophy – to be happy you must give up everything that can be lost, including all your possessions and your attachments to them.  That was a set-up for what I really wanted to discuss, a “Journey to the Afterlife” (technical term: Katabasis) found in the writings of Lucian of Samosata, one of the great writers of Satire in the Roman world, writing in the second century CE. Here I introduce Lucian and begin to talk about his very funny dialogue, The Downward Journey.  (Again, this is taken from a draft of my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell, to come out from Yale University Press in April) ****************************** Born in Samosata on the Euphrates, outside the centers of intellectual power and not known for its cultural icons, Lucian originally would have spoken Aramaic but he came to be trained in Greek rhetoric.  He eventually abandoned law for a literary career. Some eighty of his prose pieces survive, many of them attacks on charlatans and [...]

Should You Give Up All Your Possessions to Be Happy? The Ancient Cynic View

In my forthcoming book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press; due out in April) I will be devoting a chapter to discussing how tours of the afterlife functioned sometimes in order to promote certain ethical views.  If you know what life after death is really like, it can be incentive for how you live now. One of the sections of this chapter deals with ancient “Cynic” philosophy – a radical stand on the importance of giving up everything, all one’s possessions, in order to attain to true happiness.  That is not easy to do, as Jesus’ followers discovered later, even though they stood in an entirely different ideological tradition (apocalyptic Judaism). The Cynic view is embodied in a very humorous fictional “Journey” to Hades by one of my favorite writers from antiquity, Lucian of Samosata.  Here is how I will be describing Cynicism in my book – to be followed in the next two posts with a discussion of Lucian’s account. ****************************** It is not a simple task to summarize ancient Cynicism: the [...]

Was Jesus Like One of the Pagan Fertility Gods?

Lots of people (esp. on the Internet!) say that the stories of Jesus' death and resurrection were modeled on widespread beliefs in the pagan world of "fertility" gods, whose life-cycle dictates the fertility of the earth.  They are born (spring); they become productive as the earth becomes fertile (summer); they become ripe for harvest (autumn); and then they die (winter).  But they "rise again" (spring) and the pattern then repeats itself.  Wasn't Jesus like that? That is the question I was asked in this final segment in my interview with Ben Witherington, a prominent evangelical biblical scholar.  Ben and I don't agree about a lot when it comes to religion, and have crossed academic swords in public contexts.  But we have an amicable relationship and agree on some very basic things.  For example: Jesus existed!   Hey, it's a start. And we agree a lot on the relationship of Jesus to Judaism and the need to situate him in his own Jewish context (rather than some mythical pagan context).  And so, here is the final question [...]

The Divine Realm in Antiquity (Appropriately: A Pyramid!)

In my previous posts I have been insisting that if one wants to say that “Jesus is God” according to an early Christian text, one has to ask “in what *sense* is he God?  Now is a good time for me to lay out how I understand ancient people understood the divine realm.  It was very different from the way most people today – at least the people I run across – imagine the divine realm. As I pointed out earlier, people today think of God as completely Other than us humans.  We are mortal and limited in every respect; he is immortal and unlimited.  He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere-present.  We are by comparison weak, ignorant, and in one place at a time.  He is infinite and eternal; we are finite and temporal.  There is an unbridgeable gap between us and God. (Although in Christian theology, it is Jesus who bridges that gap by being a divine being who becomes human; in traditional theology, he did that so that we humans could then become [...]

2021-03-01T08:38:37-05:00March 3rd, 2021|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

What Did Ancient People Think It Meant To Call Someone God?

In the current threat I am building up to the question of where the Trinity came from.  It was not the original Christian teaching.  How then did it emerge as the "orthodox" view? I have started with the key issue, which is complicated enough on its own terms.  How, why, and when did the followers begin to call Jesus God?  That has been the posts up till now.  The reason it matters for the thread is that calling Jesus God made Christians try to figure out how he could be God and God could be God yet there be only one God.  The Spirit later got thrown into the mix as well, as we will see. But first I want to continue talking about the development of the view of Christ as God -- a very important development (THE most important development, one could argue) in early "Christology" (= the understanding of Christ).  That is the entire topic of my fuller treatment in my book How Jesus Became God (on which also I made a Great [...]

Still Other Humans Who Became Gods: In Jesus’ Time!

Here I continue my account about how some human beings became gods according to ancient Greek and Roman traditions.  Last time I discussed the “founder of Rome,” Romulus.  Now I shift to a time period more relevant for Jesus – in fact his own period – and to figures who are not legendary (Romulus), but actual historical figures we know about from a large range of sources. Again, this will be taken from my book How Jesus Became God.   ************************   Julius Caesar The traditional date for the founding of Rome [under Romulus]  is 753 BCE.  If we move the calendar forward about seven centuries, we still find men who are declared to have become gods.  Few are better known than Julius Caesar, the self-declared dictator of Rome who was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, by political enemies who preferred not having a dictator when all was said and done.  A life of Julius Caesar is provided for us by the Roman biographer Suetonius, in his Lives of the Caesars, published [...]

Could a Human Become a God in the Ancient World?

If early Christians were monotheists, how could  they claim that someone other than the One God was also God and yet still say there was in fact only one God?  That will be the first issue to figure out if we want to understand how the doctrine of the trinity developed.  With respect to Christ, if he was a human, how was he divine?  In other words, how could ancient people get their minds around that?  Not just whether he was divinely handsome or divinely wise – but actually Divine?  In some sense a God?  (I will, over this thread, emphasize the terms “in some sense,” as you will see). A couple of weeks ago I talked on the blog about some special individuals in the Greco-Roman world who were understood to be both human and divine because they had one of each kind as a parent.  Typically this involved a mortal woman who was attractive to one of the gods (Zeus / Jupiter wasn’t the only one, but he was the most notorious), who [...]

2021-01-05T10:20:48-05:00January 14th, 2021|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

Were Ancient Pagans Sometimes Monotheists?

In my last couple of posts I’ve been talking about Jewish monotheism and henotheism as a backdrop to early Christianity.  And now *here* is a something almost no one in the civilized universe knows any more: even among traditional pagan religions there were sometimes movements toward monotheism, or at least evidence of serious henotheism.  Here is how I discuss it in my book Triumph of Christianity, in the context of why the Christian claims about their God would not have seemed completely unprecedented. ****************************** Scholars have long known of henotheistic tendencies among ancient  (pagan) philosophers, who had come to think that behind all the diversity of the world, above all the manifestations of what we know and experience, there must be one ultimate reality that makes sense of it all.  This principle of unity could be understood to be the ultimate divinity, and so some philosophers stressed the “oneness” at the heart, or at the beginning, of all things. The sense of one ultimate divinity could also be found outside the ranks of the professional [...]

2021-01-05T00:56:21-05:00January 13th, 2021|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

The God Jesus, In Competition

I have started what will almost certainly be a long thread on where the idea of the Trinity came from within the Christian tradition.   In plotting out the thread I saw right away that the very BIG issue is not really about the “three” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) but about the “two”:   God and Christ.   This was the matter Christians debated for centuries, with the Spirit being (by far) a less central figure.  The very major problem early Christians confronted was that they were monotheists who believed in only one God but they also thought Jesus was God.  And they did not think that he was the same being as his Father.  So God was God and Christ was God but there was only one God.  How can that be?  Answering that question will eventually get you to the doctrine of the Trinity. To explain it I will need to go into some length on the issue of Jewish monotheism, and what it meant (especially in a world where everyone else was a polytheist), [...]

No Virgin Births? Then How Were Demi-gods Born In Antiquity?

In my previous post I pointed out that there do not appear to be any instances in the other religions of antiquity of a virgin birth – where a woman gives birth without having sex.  In this post I’ll lay out the more typical view of how a “son of God” came into the world.  It very much does involve sex.  Most of the post will deal with one (very funny) story in particular which is emblematic of the rest.  For this post I will quote a section from my recent book, How Jesus Became God.  ******************************  Even though Apollonius of Tyana was understood to be a pre-existent god come in the flesh, that is not the normal Greek or Roman way of understanding how a divine human could be born of a mortal.  By far the more common view was that a divine being comes into the world – not having existed prior to birth – because a god has had sex with a human, and the offspring then is in some sense divine.  [...]

2020-12-26T00:16:10-05:00January 5th, 2021|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

What About All Those *Other* Virgin Births in Antiquity?

I have devoted several posts to the issue of Jesus’ virgin birth, as recounted in Matthew and Luke.  As I pointed out, there is no account of Jesus’ virgin birth in the Gospel of John, and it appears that the idea is actually argued *against* (implicitly) in the Gospel of Mark. As happened last time I did a thread like this, several readers have asked me (or told me) about the similarities to the virgin birth stories in pagan texts, where a son of God, or demi-god, or, well, some other rather amazing human being, is said to have been born of a virgin.  Aren’t the Christians simply borrowing a widely held view found among the pagans, that if someone is the son of God (e.g., Hercules, or Dionysus, or Asclepius, etc.), his mother is always thought to have been a virgin? As it turns out, that’s not the case at all. I don’t know of any parallel to ... Want to be well informed?  Keep reading.  Not a member of the blog?  Join!  Costs [...]

Paul’s Ascent to Paradise. Guest Post by James Tabor

A couple of weeks ago I learned that James Tabor had republished his book Paul’s Ascent to Heaven, his first scholarly monograph, which, alas, had gone out of print.  But it’s back in!  I wrote him to ask if he’d be willing to write a couple of guest posts about it, and here is the first.  This one explains how and where the book originated (published 1986); his next post will discuss how his mind has changed on some issues in the intervening years. Many of you know James from his other writings.  He publishes for both scholarly and popular audiences.  James has long been a professor of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte.  Here is his story of how his book first came to be.  He will be happy to respond to comments and questions. James Tabor’s most popular books are Paul and Jesus and The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity, among others.    ************************************************************ James D. Tabor, Dept. of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte Paul’s Ascent to Paradise [...]

What Did Ancient People Think (a) God Was?

A number of people have asked me how anyone could imagine a human being or becoming God in the ancient world, based on my claims that for Paul and other early Christian writers Jesus was a divine human.  But if he was human, how could he be God?   To answer that I have to stress a point I made repeatedly in my book How Jesus Became God.   Anyone who wants to say that “Jesus is God” according to an early Christian text, has to explain “in what *sense*” is he God? Now is a good time for me to lay out how again how ancient people understood the divine realm. It was very different from the way most people today do – at least the people I run across. People today think of God as completely Other than us humans. We are mortal and limited in every respect; he is immortal and unlimited. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere-present. We are by comparison weak, ignorant, and in one place at a time. He is infinite [...]

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