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Greco-Roman Religions

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 [...]

How Were People Crucified?

I have always said that people were crucified by being nailed through their *wrists* instead of their hands.  I had heard that in college when I was maybe 18, and I’ve been saying it ever since.  And I still say it because it’s apparently true.  But I never knew how we knew.  Was it simply common sense that a nail/stake through the hand would rip out, and needed to go between two strong bones?  Or did we have some evidence?  And if it’s true that the nail/stake went through the wrist, why do virtually *all* the artistic representations show the holes in the hands? There are entire books on crucifixion in antiquity – I don't mean books about the significant of Jesus’ death, but on what crucifixion actually involved.   When I was in grad school I read Martin Hengel’s brief study; in more recent days John Granger Cook has written a massive tome, which I’ve looked at but haven’t read cover-to-cover (it’s amazing what I haven’t read….).   I’m sure it is the drop -dead authoritative [...]

2020-01-15T08:51:32-05:00January 15th, 2020|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell

This post is free for anyone who wants to look.  Every week on the blog I post five times, dealing with all sorts of issues connected with the New Testament and early Christianity.  Interested?  Why not join?  It doesn't cost much, you get tons for your money, and every nickel you pay goes to deserving charities.   I’m excited about my next book, being published on March 31, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.   It’s already getting good reviews in the trade journals, the publications that announce which books are soon to come out and have experts review them in advance, so that book sellers, book stores, libraries, and so on know whether they want to buy them, and for book sellers and stores, in what quantities.  So that’s all good. A while back I decided to try to encapsulate the essence of the book in a short essay, a kind of 2000 word summary of what it’s all about and why it matters.   I will give it here, over the course of [...]

Why Are Their Differences in the Gospels? Does it Affect Their Inspiration? Guest Post by Mike Licona

This is Mike's third and final guest post.  In the earlier post he explained his views about whether the Bible is inspired by God and is inerrant.  He thinks the answers to both are "yes," though his actual views are not what most people would probably expect.   Here now is the third, and critical post, based on the research he did for his 2017 Oxford University Press book, with the same title:  Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?    I agree with a lot of what Mike writes here.  In reading it, I'd suggest you bear in mind his earlier two posts, that he sees the Gospels as inspired and inerrant. Mike has graciously agreed to answer questions you have for him, but only for the next four days!  Otherwise this would go on forever.  And please, in your questions, do your best to keep them concise and direct, without asking multiple questions at once.  Pick the most pressing.  And I scarcely need to remind you of that verse in the Ehrman Revised Standard Version: "The [...]

2021-02-13T01:11:39-05:00December 10th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Sex and Gender in the Ancient World

Most people agree that there are parts of the Bible that are not applicable today.  We don't normally execute people for being witches or for disobeying parents anymore (at least in the U.S.).  But what about same-sex relations?  Are the Bible's injunctions still applicable about *that*?  It turns out the issues that are involved are different from those surrounding witches and rowdy kids, and n ways most people wouldn't suspect. It's not as easy to explain why, and so I've been laying the background generally by talking about the Bible's understanding of sex and gender broadly.  So far I've talked about the creation of Adam and Eve and what it says about gender and the relationships of male and female (the only gender categories available to the authors), and about how that basic story underlies the insistence by some early Christian authors (1 Timothy 5:11-15, e.g.) that women should be completely submissive to men, and therefore not exercise authority over them or even speak in church (or does it mean generally, unless spoken to?). Now [...]

Is It Ever Right to Lie? Or Was It? Even in Early Christianity? The Relevance for Forgery.

Is it ever morally acceptable – even desirable – to tell a bald-faced lie?  That was probably a topic covered in your Philosophy 101 course.  At a historian, I’m interested in the question from an ancient perspective.  What did people in antiquity think about it?  In particular Christians.  Did they think – based on the Ten Commandments, say, or the teachings of Jesus, that a person should never lie?  Or were they quite lax on the matter?  Or something in between? I was actually a bit surprised to learn the answer to the question.  And as you might expect, the answer is complicated.  My original interest in the issue had to do with forgery.  A forger claims to be someone famous, knowing full well he is someone else.  That’s a lie, that is, it is a falsehood told intentionally.   How did forgers justify that?  It turns out, there appear to be answers. This is how I dealt with the matter in my lecture on forgery given at the conference in Quebec a couple of weeks [...]

A Recent Argument that Ancient Pseudepigraphy Was NOT Deceptive (or Meant to Be)

I continue now with the lecture I gave on "forgery" in the ancient world, delivered at a conference in Quebec a couple of weeks ago.  I had planned for this to be the last post, but I will have one more after this, the conclusion of my lecture where I deal with the ancient ethics of lying.  In this one I talk about a brilliant recent attempt to argue that it was not (always) a deceitful practice to claim to be a famous person when writing a work in antiquity.   ************************************************************** One of the most recent erudite and impressive attempts to defend at least one group of ancient pseudepigraphers comes in the study I mentioned earlier by Irene Peirano, a classicist at Yale, in her published Harvard dissertation, The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigrapha in Context.   Most of this important book provides detailed analyses of highly literary Roman pseudepigrapha, including pseudo-Virgil.  But she begins with a defense of her view that such works do not involve intentional deceptions but self-conscious “imitations” of [...]

2020-04-11T17:22:48-04:00September 24th, 2019|Forgery in Antiquity, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|
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