I am pleased to publish this guest post by Platinum blog member Dan Kohanski, on an intriguing and important topic for understanding both the life (and writings) of Paul and the earliest history of the Christian movement.
As you know, Platinum level members get a several perks — I do a quarterly webinar with any of them who want to come (and provide a link to the recording afterward for those who can’t make it) and they are allowed to publish posts for other Platinums. Every month or so, the members vote on one of the platinum posts to appear on the blog for everyone to see. This one is the current winner! If you are interested in participating at the Platinum level, check it out: Register – The Bart Ehrman Blog
And for now, check out Dan’s post. He will be happy to respond to your comments.
(This article is based on research I’ve been doing for my new book, A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World, to be published in early 2023 by Apocryphile Press.)
The claim that opposition is persecution is one that occurs throughout the history of Christianity. The last of Matthew’s beatitudes promises that those “who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:10) will be rewarded in heaven. The First Letter of Peter reassures its readers that “if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed.” (1 Pet. 4:14) The oldest of these claims (in terms of when it was written down) is also the oldest known Christian document: Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul writes that the Jews “displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.” (1 Thess. 2:15-16) In a later letter, Paul complains (or boasts) about the natural disasters and official disciplines he has endured in his efforts to speak to the Gentiles. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked.” (2 Cor. 11:24-25)
We have only Paul’s version of what happened to him and why. There are no known writings about Jesus or his followers from the first decades after the crucifixion other than Paul’s letters. However, we do know enough about Roman and Jewish attitudes toward religion that we can construct an explanation of why, from their perspective, they felt it necessary to “hinder” Paul.
To start with, we need to understand how the Romans related to the gods. Their gods were not the source of laws and moral dictates, as they are in Judaism and Christianity. For that, Rome relied on philosophers, senators, and eventually emperors. In the Roman understanding of the world, the gods provided protection: they guaranteed Rome’s security, prosperity, and victory in war. In return for this, the gods expected to be honored and worshiped. This arrangement was known as the pax deorum, the peace of the gods. Disturbing the pax deorum might anger the gods into withdrawing their favor from Rome, and was therefore treason against the state.
Rome ruled a vast empire populated by many disparate peoples, each of whom had their own set of gods. It would have been impractical to force them all to the exclusive worship of the Roman gods, and in any case the Romans didn’t try. But they did expect everyone to add the gods of the Roman state to their pantheon and give them honor. This was not a problem for polytheists, but it was a problem for the Jews, who had a strict code against worshiping any god other than their own, Yahweh.
But Rome also honored antiquity in religion. On this basis, Rome granted the Jews—and only the Jews—an exemption from the requirement to honor the Roman gods. Josephus quotes several such orders given by Julius Caesar (Antiquities of the Jews 14.190–216), and also the decree of the Emperor Claudius:
It will therefore be fit to permit the Jews, who are in all the world under us, to keep their ancient customs without being hindered so to do. And I do charge them also to use this my kindness to them with moderation, and not to show a contempt of the superstitious observances of other nations, but to keep their own laws only. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 19.290)
While the Jews were permitted this exemption, no one else was. Nor could someone escape the pax deorum by becoming a Jew. Rome associated a person’s religion with their ethnicity; you were a worshiper of Isis, or Serapis, or Jupiter, or Yahweh, because your ancestors were. From this perspective, changing one’s religion was as impossible as changing one’s parents. A refusal to worship the gods of the state and one’s city was “conduct unbefitting a Roman” because it dishonored one’s family, in addition to being a “species of treason” against the state. The historian Cassius Dio describes how, in 95 CE, the Emperor Domitian executed his cousin, a high official (consul), for “atheism, under which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned.” (Dio, Roman History 67.14)
This was not in any way a prohibition against Jews mingling with non-Jews. Jews, especially those who held official posts, would attend ceremonies to honor the city and state gods, not as worshippers but out of courtesy (and probably self-protection). Gentiles attracted to various aspects of Jewish life frequented synagogues and dined with Jews in their homes. They were called “Godfearers” (theosebeis in Greek), and while they sometimes participated in aspects of Jewish worship, they almost never became full Jews—they probably even offered a libation to a statue of a local god on their way home from the local synagogue.
Clearly Jews had no problem with what Gentiles believed. But Paul did. Paul and the other missionaries to the Greco–Roman world were on a mission to persuade their Gentile listeners to believe in Jesus and follow him, and to give up the worship of all other gods as the Jews had done. Paul instructed his readers that “what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons [i.e., lesser divine beings] and not to God. . . . You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” (1 Cor. 10:20–21)
In doing this, Paul broke with Roman law and custom that expected everyone to worship the gods of their ancestors. He also threatened the pax deorum, the agreement that the gods would protect the cities and the empire in return for homage and sacrifice. He was, to put it plainly, encouraging imperial subjects to become atheists (in the Roman definition) and to commit treason. Gentiles were aware of this. According to Acts, two merchants whom Paul had discomfited accused him and Silas of “disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (Acts 16:20–21)
From the Jewish perspective, Paul was preaching this treason while proclaiming himself a Jew, and, more importantly, using the synagogues to do so. The local authorities might not have cared if Paul spoke only to the Jews, who were already exempt from the pax deorum. But there were Gentiles in his synagogue audience—the Godfearers—and Paul knew it. “So Paul stood up [in the Antioch synagogue] and with a gesture began to speak. ‘You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen.’” (Acts 13:15–16) This violated Claudius’s decree and put the Jews at risk of persecution from Rome. Paula Fredriksen sums up the situation succinctly: “Alienating the gods put the city at risk. Alienating the city put the synagogue at risk.”
Both Romans and Jews took action to keep this from happening. When Paul says he was beaten three times with the rod, he was describing a Roman discipline. The “forty lashes minus one” is specifically Jewish—with the interesting caveat that it can only be administered if the person being disciplined agrees to accept it. On the other hand, if he refuses, he is cast out of the community. Paul agreed to accept his lashes five times, which means he knew very well that his preaching to the Gentiles was getting the Jews in trouble with the authorities. Yet he kept on preaching anyway, and then claimed persecution when the Jews tried to protect themselves from his actions.
 This essay relies on the research and writing of a number of scholars, in particular Paula Fredriksen, and others named in the notes. Any errors or misrepresentations are, as always, mine alone.
 Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Judaism. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2010 (27).
 This may be the only documented execution in the first century for this type of treason; see Fredriksen, Paula, Augustine and the Jews 27, but see Goodman, Martin, Rome and Jerusalem. New York: Vintage Books, 2007 (445-46) for a different interpretation of Domitian’s action.
 Shaye Cohen goes into some detail about the “venerators of God” (his preferred translation of theosebeis), dividing them into seven categories. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000 (140-74).
 Fredriksen, Paula. When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2018 (151). Heemstra suggests the Jews probably realized the danger before the Romans did. Heemstra, Marius, The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 2010 (46).
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