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Roman Religion as the Context for Christianity

I have started to indicate how I laid out my prospectus for my next book The Triumph of Christianity, as I developed the idea this past summer.  Remember: the prospectus was designed to get a publisher (or hopefully more than one) interested in publishing the book, and was based on, and presupposed, already a good bit of research.   The prospectus was to show what the book was to be about, why it is both interesting and important, and how it would be, tentatively, be laid out.

The qualifier, “tentatively,” is very important.  The book has to cohere from the outset.  But the reality is that as an author does more and more and more research, certain areas of interest emerge more clearly, and the final framing of the book is often quite different from the tentative sketch of the prospectus.  Still, it is important to give a publisher a good sense of what the book will look like – what it will argue and how it will argue it.

In my previous posts I have discussed basically what the book is *about* (how Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman world in less than four centuries, from remarkably inauspicious beginnings) and about how lots of previous scholarship had inadequately dealt with the matter.   In my prospectus I proposed a book comprising five major sections.   Here is what I said about the first section:

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  1. The Religious Context of the Ancient World (two chapters)

To make sense of the rise of Christianity…

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From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church
Bart Ehrman vs Richard Bauckham – Round 1

40

Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  April 25, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, one question that always nags me is this: when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, did it make it easier or harder to spread Christianity? Because I can think of an argument that can go both ways. Namely, I can imagine a pagan saying something to the effect of: “How powerful can the god of Israel possibly be if cannot even prevent his own temple from being destroyed?” And I can imagine a Christian missionary responding with something like: “The god of Israel is the true God, creator of the universe, and He allowed his Temple to be destroyed, because He has no need of a temple like those man-made idols in your temples.” What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2016

      My sense is that it was the latter.

      • TWood
        TWood  May 19, 2016

        The latter for sure, but probably even more than that… something like “Jesus claimed to be the true temple, and the destruction of Herod’s Temple after Jesus’ ascension is proof that God agrees! Not only that, Jesus knew this ahead of time, which is why he predicted his generation would see Herod’s Temple destroyed.” Both of these would “preach” quite well…

        I wonder what you think about the latter actually… I don’t see any historical reason to assume that Jesus didn’t really predict the destruction of Herod’s Temple… it seems fairly established… although it seems Luke fills in some details about the armies to highlight its fulfillment… but Mark and Matthew don’t do that… It seems Mark could have been written before 70 CE… which would basically assure Jesus really predicted it… I don’t know the best evidence on when Matthew was written… other than after Mark… if you have time I’d be very interested to hear your take on the historicity of Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction and on the dates of Mark and Matthew… (and Luke!)… I know John seems to be in the 90s…

        • VaulDogWarrior
          VaulDogWarrior  September 8, 2016

          I would love Bart to respond to that one too.

          • TWood
            TWood  September 9, 2016

            He has responded elsewhere (I think I asked him again)… in short, he said he does think Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction (although I’m sure he’d rightly say the Olivet Discourse isn’t a verbatim record of it)… from what I remember he thinks Mark was written c. 70 CE (perhaps before, perhaps after) and then Matthew, Luke and John were written after 70 CE (I don’t think he veers off the common dates for these ones). The main takeaway (for me at least) was that he thinks the historicity of Jesus’ temple prediction is valid, regardless of when Mark was written. I’m sure you could search the blog and find his exact answer if you have the time and patience.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  April 26, 2016

    Bart, I’m not sure I buy that the pagan view of the afterlife was that simple. Yes, they had the idea that bad people would have it worse than good ones, but mythology seems to tell us that the afterlife was not something anybody looked forward to. Why is Orpheus so determined to get Eurydice out of Hades? She didn’t do anyone any harm.

    Pagans had (and have) so many differing beliefs–even within a specific set of pagan beliefs, the rules seem very flexible.

    My Celtic ancestors believed in the Otherworld, not the Underworld, and also had an idea of reincarnation. Sumerians believed we all just lie there in a dark cavern, unable to move, even though we’ve got wings.

    And Christians did come up with ways not to punish virtuous pagans, like Socrates (who became so important to Christian thought later on, when Plato’s work was rediscovered). The idea of gradations of punishment, some much milder than others (with very few actually achieving a blissful afterlife) is actually quite similar to ideas of the Greek and Roman pagans, seems to me.

    I see what you’re saying–in its purest form, Christianity came to preach that you had to believe in Jesus and his sacrifice to be saved, and everybody else would be damned–it’s a pass/fail system. God doesn’t grade on a curve. But I’m not so sure all Christians believed that, even in the beginning. Jesus, of course, wasn’t talking about the afterlife when he talked about the Kingdom.

    Anyway, I hope the book gets published, and there’ll be a thorough discussion of these points in it.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2016

      The problem is that ancient “mythology” is not the best way to see what ancient people “believed,” since for most ancient folk, the myths were just good stories, not actual descriptions of reality.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 26, 2016

        Understood, but I often think it’s hard to know what people really believe about the afterlife today. If the myths actively contradicted what people believed and felt about death and what follows, I don’t think they’d have survived very long, and we wouldn’t have them now.

        There’s always a certain elitist tone to the afterlife. The people who agree with you, the people you know, are going to be better off than the people you don’t know, don’t agree with, don’t like.

        Christianity didn’t invent that.

        And in fact, given that Jews in many cases believed in no afterlife at all, and Jesus provided very few clues as to his beliefs in this regard, wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that some ‘Christian’ ideas about what follows death were freely adapted from pagan beliefs?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 28, 2016

          I certainly think that pagan ideas made their way into Christian beliefs.

      • Avatar
        cjeanne  April 28, 2016

        What is the best way to see what ancient peoples believed?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 28, 2016

          The best way to start is by reading books about it. I’d suggest, for example, James Rives book on Religion in the Roman Empire.

      • Avatar
        Craig  August 17, 2016

        I’m not so sure about that point of view. Norse mythology and the absolute contemporary beiief would suggest otherwise.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 26, 2016

    “The reason for worshiping these gods was not in order to assure a good afterlife – which for most people was not an issue (it wasn’t complicated: people who were good would be rewarded, people who were wicked would be punished; specifically religious practice had little to do with it).”

    But…you’ve said elsewhere that most people in that era and region believed either that there was *no* afterlife, or that it consisted of existing in a shadowy netherworld where it made no difference whether they’d been good or wicked! Have you changed your opinion, on something that important?

    A separate question: Were Jews tolerated more because their religion was “ancient,” or because they didn’t proselytize?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2016

      Nobody really proselytized, so this wouldn’t have made Jews stand out. They were respected for their antiquity.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 28, 2016

        But they did proselytize, although not as vigorously as some.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 29, 2016

        You didn’t answer my *main* question:

        “The reason for worshiping these gods was not in order to assure a good afterlife – which for most people was not an issue (it wasn’t complicated: people who were good would be rewarded, people who were wicked would be punished; specifically religious practice had little to do with it).”

        But…you’ve said elsewhere that most people in that era and region believed either that there was *no* afterlife, or that it consisted of existing in a shadowy netherworld where it made no difference whether they’d been good or wicked! Have you changed your opinion, on something that important?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 29, 2016

          For most people it wasn’t an issue either because there was no afterlife or because if there was, it was based on “being good.” Inscriptional evidence (i.e., on tombstones) suggests most people thought death was the end of the story.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  May 1, 2016

            I’m curious…what sort of “inscriptional evidence” on ancient tombstones would seem to rule out belief in an afterlife?

            Among my own kin, nothing is put on tombstones except the person’s name, and the years of birth and death. No *reference* to an afterlife…but these people do in fact expect it (the Christian “Heaven”).

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2016

            Ha! There’s a great piece of information about that. I’ll add it to the mailbag and say something about it there.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 29, 2016

        Even about the proselytizing…

        Pre-Christianity, Jews – throughout the Empire – were presumably unique in refusing to, as we’d think, “pay lip service” to the major gods of Rome along with worshipping their own deity. They were allowed to get away with it.

        When Christians came on the scene, they tried to claim “antiquity” by stressing that they were worshipping the same God Jews had worshipped all along. Their sect was clearly an offshoot of Judaism; the most obvious difference was that they were proselytizing. So…was that the reason there was more hostility toward them?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 29, 2016

          Most hostility was rooted in the problem that Christians were a secret society that refused to accept the religio-political customs of everyone else, and unlike the Jews they didn’t have an ancient set of traditions to support their refusal. Their claim to have the traditions of the Jews was not very credible, since they didn’t follow precisely the ancient customs that made Jews Jewish.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 29, 2016

        Here’s what you said on page 17 of your textbook on the Bible:

        “Many people today are religious out of a concern for the afterlife. They want to experience ecstasy in heaven rather than torment forever in hell, if given the choice. … [T]his may seem strange, but most ancient people did not think that your religion had any bearing on what would happen to you after you died. It appears that the majority of people in antiquity did not believe there would even be an afterlife. Those who did rarely thought that being highly religious would make a diffence to what kind of life it would be.”

        Note the key setence: “It appears that the majority of people in antiquity did not believe there would even be an afterlife.”

        And for those who did believe in it, on page 204:

        “The few passages that refer to an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible assume that after death, a person goes to ‘Sheol.’ That is not the Hebrew equivalent of ‘hell’ – a place of punishment for the wicked. It is the place where everyone goes, good or evil. … [A]s a rule it is not thought of as a pleasant place … It is a shadowy kind of netherworld that everyone goes to when they die, like it or not.”

        And it’s been my impression that most other peoples in the Greco-Roman world, if they did believe in “a place everyone goes to,” saw it the same way.

  4. Avatar
    Eric  April 26, 2016

    You don’t say this explicitly (you hint at it in the penultimate paragraph above), but wasn’t Judaism (even Temple Judaism) unusual in its focus on ethics as a component of being right with God? For instance, while some of the Law seems to simply be ritualistic-set-us-apart (as you imply), a good deal of it seems to hinge on what we would call ethical behavior.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2016

      Yes, ethics was not much of a part of Roman religion generally (though people thought just as much about doing what is right as they do today probably)

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 26, 2016

    It’s very helpful to contrast the ancient view of a God or gods requiring ritual sacrifices with our view of a God requiring “correct” beliefs.

    It is also amazing to contemplate how a religion of millions started from a handful of uneducated people. Thanks

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  April 26, 2016

    Please explain that it was the triumph of Christianity that removed butchery from Western Civilization religious practices. Was Christianity the first to stop Temple butchery in the Middle East and Western Europe?
    We all know the statue of the Mithras religion with the bull being slaughtered. How do we know that it was not lack of desire to rebuild a Jewish Temple for butchery sacrifice as opposed to Jesus being the last stand-in for sacrifice that persuaded people to stop sacrificing to other gods?

    Second, Christianity did not stop sacrifices for 40 years until Civil War and the Romans brought down the Jewish Temple. Do we include or not include end of animal killing as part of Christianity’s triumph over non-Christian religions?

    Did people gradually lose appetite and a mind for religions of human sacrifice then religions of animals sacrifice?

    Entertainment AND Religion loss interest/found senseless sacrificial killings (although Central America continued with it)? (But then, Inquisitions and French Revolution, blah, blah, blah)
    Decline of the Colosseum – Christianity and the end of the Gladiators
    The Decline of the Colosseum started when the Gladiatorial games were stopped. The last known gladiatorial fight took place during the reign of the Emperor Honorius (reigned 393 – 423AD). The catalyst for this change was was an Egyptian monk named Telemachus who had newly come to Rome and visited the Colosseum in 404AD. He objected to the savage bloodshed and slaughter in the arena and the midst of the bloodshed shouted for it to cease in the name of Christ. He was stoned by the outraged ‘mob’ and killed. Three days later the Emperor issued a decree that the gladiatorial games were to stop. Less violent events such as hunting events continued to be shown until 523AD.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2016

      After 70 CE, lof course, Jews did not sacrifice. And Christians never did. That was a big debate in the third and fourth centuries, about the legitimacy of animal sacrifice (Xn emperors despised it)

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  April 26, 2016

    If the ancient myths in Rome were viewed as good stories and were not treated as a religion in the modern and conventional definition of religion, does that follow or conclude that there were many in Roman that were atheistic or agnostic as far as beliefs in a God or gods were concerned?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2016

      No, it just means they didn’t take the myths as literal descriptions of the gods’ activities.

    • Avatar
      GregAnderson  May 28, 2016

      Tim Whitmarsh (University of Cambridge) has an interesting book on that question, “Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World.” He argues for the existence of atheistic thought in Greek and Roman texts.

  8. Avatar
    hopefrees  April 28, 2016

    This would be a great book! I have pondered why Christianity became the dominant religion and I think it was as you have stated in one of your lectures, not quoting, that it was to unify the empire (Roman). I have wondered too why the ancient Celts, Germanic/Norse, and others would give up their own beliefs for a religion founded in the middle eastern desert, especially after the fall of the Roman Empire? Maybe it coincided with the establishing of the European monarchies? Same scenario, we can’t have a bunch of people out there with their own beliefs,thoughts, and ideas or else we can’t rule over them. I love your work Bart and have watched all of your debates, keep up the good work. You have put out some really helpful information. I used to be one of those fundamentalists! John MacArthur, RC Sproul, Hank Hanegraff, devotee. Then I moved to Messianic Judaism because I couldn’t mesh the Christian NT (and how the mainline Christian church teaches it, in my mind = Marcionism) with the Tanakh, so I got into listening and reading Michael Brown’s (and others along this theme) stuff (I have seen your debate vs. Mike Brown, on suffering). I read some stuff by James Tabor. Finally, I was like, “What the heck am I doing here?!” and I find myself most likely identifying with the Agnostic. Too much thinking for a stay-at-home mom of 4?! The universe is way too complicated. Is there a ‘God’, the “Uncaused first cause”? But then, if the universe came out of nothing, where did that nothing come from? I digress, way off topic. Looking forward to the new book.

  9. Avatar
    llamensdor  April 28, 2016

    I have a problem with your description of the exclusivity of Judaism. Their scripture taught them they were to be a nation of priests and a holy nation, and they were obligated to bring the gentiles (actually the nations) into the covenant. I’m not claiming they were always faithful to this instruction, but it was part of their scripture. My modern Jewish friends believe Judaism doesn’t ever proselytize. This was not true in biblical times, and they only stopped proselytizing when so doing was illegal. do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2016

      No, I don’t think Judaism was ever much of an evangelistic religion. The best book on this is Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 16, 2016

      I don’t think that being a light unto all the nations implies bringing them into the covenant. Are there other passages you have in mind that speak explicitly about bringing others into the covenant? I read once that, if ancient Jews had hopes of others converting, it would come about by others becoming inspired by observing the Jewish way of life. And they were right: some hung around the communities without converting and others did.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 17, 2016

        The entire “conversion” process for gentiles was about joining the people of the covenant.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  May 17, 2016

          I understand that from the Jew Paul’s point of view and that of the others who set out to convert gentiles, that h\that’s what it was about. But what I meant was that from a Jewish point of view more generally, in the way the Jews understood their being a light unto the nations, I didn’t think it was explicit or clear that that meant to them that Jews would, in time, bring others into the covenant through conversion. I thought it could mean bringing them to believe in the one God and at least following something like the Noahide Laws that were formulated later (?).

  10. UilliAnderson
    UilliAnderson  April 29, 2016

    Hey Prof. Bart, I’m hoping your research includes some of the period surrounding Theodosius I’s ( the ‘Great’) reign. in 380 he and Gratian issued an edict that reversed Constantine I’s Edict of Toleration and criminalized all religions outside Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church became an official institution and demonized other types of Christians (‘ but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen’). This is when christianity was officially institutionalized and immediately grew fangs and it was then through coercion (the sword ) that it ‘triumphed’.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2016

      Yes, my original plan was to go to Constantine, but I”ve decided that I really need to go up through Theodosius I, for just the reasons you’re mentioning.

  11. Avatar
    jrhislb  April 30, 2016

    Was this Roman concept of just deserts in the afterlife based on the judgement of the gods, or was it based on the operation of an impersonal law, like (I think) karma?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2016

      There were divine judges who were specially set up for the purpose in some thinking; other times it was simply that the good were rewarded and the bad punished; but most Romans appear to have thought that death was the end of the story….

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