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Greco-Roman Religions

The Other Virgin Births in Antiquity

On December 14 I will be giving a one-off remote lecture, with Q&A, called "The Other Virgin Births in Antiquity."  This will not be connected with the blog per se, but with my other venture in which I produce online courses and lectures (BEPS: Bart Ehrman Professional Services).  You can learn about the lecture here: Jesus is decidedly conceived by a virgin in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  This is better called a "virginal conception" -- and in my course I'll explain the difference between the ideas of virginal conception; virgin birth; perpetual virginity; and immaculate conception.  All very different ideas! BUT, for the sake of convenience, I'll simply refer to Jesus'  conception and birth as "the virgin birth." Since, oh, I don't know, the 19th century I guess, there have been people who have claimed that virgin births were common in the ancient world.  You find that claim widely today still among those who call themselves "mythicists" -- those who think Jesus didn't exist but was just a myth.  One of the most common [...]

2022-11-27T16:58:03-05:00December 7th, 2022|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

Jesus’ Teachings on Love and Salvation

In my previous posts I have been explaining in brief terms how people thought about “ethics” in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, that is, how they decided what kinds of human activities were best for themselves and for their society, how they were to interact with one another, what values and virtues they should hold and what values and vices they should reject. Part of my thesis – which I hope to spell out in my next book – is that Christianity changed how people understood virtuous activity and the good life, how they urged people to behave, and why they did so.  My argument will be the what we think of as the driving force of most ethics today is not at all what people in the world at large in antiquity thought.  At all. So far in these posts I’ve tried to show how pagans were particularly concerned with “well-being” or “happiness” as a guide for how to live.  Jesus, however, rigorously adopted a Jewish view that the main criterion for behavior [...]

2022-09-16T21:11:20-04:00September 15th, 2022|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

Is There Anything “Religious” about “Ethics”?

It is true that ancient ethics did enjoin beneficent acts on family, friends, and acquaintances of one’s own status when they were in need.  But normally such benefices were expected to produce gratitude and respect (elevating one’s status and social capital) and to bring a return; just as important, they were expected to be reciprocated if misfortune should strike the giver.  That is, they were not acts of pure altruism, or arguably altruistic at all.  Moreover, when social ethics entered into the picture – as they often did – they centered on matters of justice and piety (meaning something like “doing one’s duty” to family, city, and empire) so as to promote the welfare of the collective.  But the collective did not mean “all” the collective. For the elites who wrote and read this ethical discourse, it meant the ruling elite and/or the social class to which they themselves belonged.  That would, of course, make life better for themselves as well.  But there was virtually no concern to help those in lower social classes -- [...]

Love. How I’ve Shifted the Focus of My Book on Charity.

As I've indicated, my plan is, or rather was, to write a book that argued that Christians radically changed the understandings of wealth and the practices of "giving" once they took over the empire.  They, in effect, invented what we think of as "charity." As I have talked it over with my literary agent and the editors at Simon & Schuster,  I have decided that my study needs to be placed in a broader cultural context.  Rather than focusing exclusively on the transformation of ancient understandings of wealth and the concomitant social practices of giving in isolation from their larger ideological contexts, the book will address an even more transformative Christian innovation in ancient ethical discourse, one that provided the impetus for these understandings and use of wealth. It will take several posts to explain the shift in my thinking.  Here's the starting point: Ethics were just as important to inhabitants of the Greek and Roman worlds as they are to people today.  But the criteria for evaluating “proper” behavior were very different, focusing almost [...]

2022-09-16T14:53:28-04:00September 10th, 2022|Book Discussions, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Did the Apostles Use Secretaries to Write their Books?

Here is the third (and last) post on the use of secretaries in the ancient world, in which I discuss the issue of whether illiterate people (like Simon Peter, or John the son of Zebedee) could have had someone else write their books for them – so that 1 Peter *could* in some sense actually be by Peter even if he couldn’t write, or the Revelation of John be by John. In it I continue to consider ways ancient authors used secretaries.  Was it actually to have them compose writings for them?  (To make best sense of this it would help to read the previous post, where I talk about two of the main ways ancient writers used secretaries.  But hey, you don't *have* to read it.  It ain't required!) Again, the discussion is taken from my book Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford University Press). ****************************** It is Richards‘ third and fourth categories that are particularly germane to the questions of early Christian forgery. What is the evidence that secretaries were widely used, or used at all, [...]

2022-08-22T12:21:09-04:00September 4th, 2022|Forgery in Antiquity, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

The Invention of Charity: My Prospectus for the Book

I have started drafting a prospectus for my next book on Christian charity, as I have discussed recently on the blog.  At this early stage, I am giving it (at least in my head) the tentative title: The Invention of Charity: How Christianity Transformed the Western World.  In this post I’ll show how I’m *thinking* about starting the prospectus (which will have no bearing on how I, later, start the book). Before I do so, I should explain how the process works.  My last three trade books have been with Simon & Schuster, and as a (standard) part of my contract with them, I’m obliged (and willing and eager) to to discuss with them what I’d like to do for the next book, to give them the opportunity to sign a contract with me for it, before, say, I propose the book to other publishers. The first part of process is that I draft a prospectus that explains what the book is, why it is needed, and how I will approach the task . For [...]

An Even More Unusual Story of What Happens to the Rich…

In my last post I began to discuss Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16) and I mentioned there is a very similar tale in ancient Egyptian lore, about a man named Setne and his adult son Si-Osire. In the story the two of them are looking out the window of their house and see the coffin of a rich man being carried out to the cemetery with great honors.  They then see the corpse of a poor beggar carried out on a mat, with no one attending his funeral.   Setne says to his son: “By Ptah, the great god, how much happier is the rich man who is honored with the sound of wailing than the poor man who is carried to the cemetery.”  Si-Osire surprises his father by telling him that the poor man will be much better off in the afterlife than the rich one.  He surprises him even more by proving it. He takes Setne down to the underworld, where they see how the unrighteous are punished, [...]

2022-05-31T10:52:29-04:00June 7th, 2022|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

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 [...]

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