Why did the number of Christians go from zero in the year zero to become the numerical majority of persons in the Roman world by about the year 350? How does one account for its dramatic success?
Many Christians themselves like to answer that question by appealing to the way Christian martyrdoms inspired the admiration of others, or to the power of witnesses who persuaded many that Jesus really had been raised from the dead. It was the miraculous work of God against all human odds that brought Christianity to the top.
A more plausible reason?
But would it make more sense if the reason was that Christianity itself encapsulated all the highest values of the Roman world as we find them expressed in their pagan traditional literature and stories. What if it was a religion that was increasingly seen as the epitome of what most people came to recognize as all that was good and noble in their pagan traditions?
The opening question is posed by Professor of Religion Gregory J. Riley and the answer he submits to it is:
It was the appeal of the early Church to the wider Greco-Roman society that fueled its rise, and that appeal was very much a result of its success in modeling the ideals of the culture as a whole. The early Christians imitated and copied the fundamental values found in the literature and stories of its wider culture as it formed its self-image and presented itself to the world. . . .
Christianity took hold in the empire as no foreign cult could (for example, Judaism, the Isis cult, and Mithraism) precisely because it was not foreign, but an expression and imitation of the best the empire had to offer.
(Riley, G. J. (2001) Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Christian Century. In MacDonald, D. R. (Ed.) Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity (pp. 91-103). Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International.)
But isn’t Christianity Jewish?
New Testament scholarship has largely stressed the Jewish origins of Christianity. The form of Christianity that eventually won out over the many competing varieties in its earliest days claimed that its beliefs were all based on the Old Testament, even if this required an allegorical reading of the OT to justify.
But there have been others NT scholars who have turned their attention to the fact that “Christians spoke and wrote in Greek and were fundamentally influenced by Greco-Roman literature and culture.” Their efforts have unfortunately not been enthusiastically welcomed by many scholars who have stressed the Jewish heritage of Christianity.
The assumption that has biased some scholars against those who have explored the relationships between early Christian writings (including the Gospels and NT epistles) and pagan literature has been that the Greco-Roman world was pagan, and therefore “bad” and naturally opposed to Christianity, while the Jewish world was “good” and from God and stood opposed to all things pagan. A few exceptions have been allowed, such as the noble thoughts of Socrates and some nice aphorisms in Homer, but these have not been enough to break the general rule that Christianity and paganism could have nothing in common.
Or is it more Greek than Jewish?
Riley challenges the above rhetoric of the gulf between pagan culture and Christianity:
Yet the rhetoric has led us away from what many Christian writers knew well, that very many good ideas found among Christians came from Greek tradition. Greek-speaking Christians defended the use of classical literature as foundational for good character, ethical behavior, and a proper education, well into the fourth century and beyond. Christians in antiquity never developed their own school texts to replace the classics until forced to do so by Emperor Julian in the mid-fourth century. Christians raided the classical tradition for its good ideas and then condemned pagan authors for their immoral myths; Julian finally took offense and made the Christians face their own hypocrisy. (p.93, my emphasis in all cases)
Evidence of this includes the way Christians and Jews toiled to “prove” that Plato and others had stolen their ideas from Moses! These efforts prove that they knew their best ideas were really those of the Greeks.
Certainly Christians wrote of Jewish and biblical heroes as their exemplars, but note how they did this. They did not tell the stories of Moses, for example, in the way they are told in the Bible. They wrapped such heroes up in the ideals of the pagan philosophers and classic literature.
The substance and basic stance of Christianity cannot, in fact, be derived from the Old Testament. We might do better to attach the collected works of Plato to the front of the New Testament than to do as we do now. Christianity cannot be derived from Plato alone either, of course, but we would go much farther in understanding its basic message using Plato than we do using Moses and the Deuteronomists.
Comparing Jesus with David and Socrates
Jesus was said to be the Son of David. Yet Riley observes that his lifestyle, message, career and death were far more like those of Socrates than of David.
Consider some details:
- Jesus said “What does it profit if you gain the world and lose your soul?“ This sounds like a Socrates. Such as statement was meaningless to the forever conquering King David!
- The cross of Christ is central to Christianity. Contrast the Old Testament that curses those who hang on a tree, praises long life, peace and worldly prosperity. Christians did not preach long life, peace and a prosperity gospel in the name of a crucified Christ.
- “Yet tragic deaths and martyrdoms are the very substance of Greek literature, and the examination of a soul facing such a fate is its driving spirit.” (p.95) — Riley does not give examples, but one has only to think of Hector and others in the Iliad, Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues, and Greek tragedies about the fates of King Agamemnon, Antigone, Prometheus, Pentheus . . . .
The power (or winning appeal) of the cross
Though Paul said the cross was a stumblingblock to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, the fact was that the cross contained enough meaning to win over the empire. It did this by investing the cross with one of the noblest messages of paganism:
a righteous and powerful Son of God is persecuted by unjust authorities, divine and human, faces his own horrible death with courage, and overcomes.
This is not an Israelite story, but it is the oldest and most inspiring plot-line in Greco-Roman literature. (p.95)
Christians earned the grudging respect of even the Roman elite by living like heroes. Their “Christ crucified” message was told through the model of pagan ideals.
The importance of the Old Testament
Riley does not deny the role of the Old Testament or “Jewish backgrounds” to Christianity. The Christian Bible was initially the Greek Septuagint Old Testament. It necessarily presented the figures of Christianity like Son of David and Messiah to a non-Jewish audience. Christians quote the OT often enough, particularly to reinforce moral judgments.
Allegorically interpreted, the OT gave them a venerable and authoritative “holy scripture”.
On the other hand, Christians rarely quote approvingly directly from classical literature. They could hardly appear to be sanctioning Homer as holy scripture.
[Y]et the substance of what they believed and taught came not in the main from the Old Testament, but from Greek literature, science, theology and philosophy. This they gained not only through the Hellenistic synagogue, but also directly, through their own upbringing and Greek education.
Why this view is not more widely addressed
Riley lists 6 reasons for the failure to appreciate the above explanation for Christianity’s appeal to the pagan world:
- Christian writers seem to quote directly only from the OT and largely ignore Greek literature.
- Few NT readers would recognize allusions to classical literature in the NT, since few know Greek literature very well.
- “Biblical studies” has largely been confined to, well, the Bible — and Greek literature is often ignored.
- Our Bible defines only the OT and NT as “holy” and all else as “profane”.
- This reinforces the idea that Christianity is Jewish and not Greek, and that Jewish is good and godly, while Greek is pagan and devilish.
- We need not look at Greek and Roman causes for Christianity’s rise, since Christianity was a Jewish off-shoot and by God’s will overthrew paganism.
All this leads to a kind of inability to see that there ever was Christian mimesis of classical ideals, even when it is before our eyes, in our own New Testament and subsequent Christian literature. (p.96)
My next post
. . . . will flesh out the above with some specific examples of the ways in which the Gospels and Paul can be shown to have addressed pagan ideals and applied them to Jewish characters.