Not so great courses
Several months ago, I purchased a course on ancient Christianity through audible.com. You might find the title intriguing (I know I did) — From Jesus to Christianity: A History of the Early Church — which reminded me of Paula Fredriksen’s book, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. In no other respect do these works resemble each other, not in clarity, accuracy, or depth.
Thomas Madden may be an expert in medieval and renaissance studies, but his understanding of the Ancient Near East and early Christianity is superficial and slanted toward a confessional, orthodox, if not specifically Roman Catholic, viewpoint. As we’ve said many times here, bias does not inherently make somebody wrong. We all have particular points of view; however, we should acknowledge other points of view and strive to present them fairly. Madden, unfortunately, seems completely unaware of other perspectives.
When I buy courses and books, in the back of my mind I hope to find something new and interesting that I can blog about. However, as I alluded to above, Madden’s course is so superficial as to be devoid of blog-fodder — except for a few outright mistakes that made me shake my head and grumble. (I wonder how crazy I look, walking through airports, earbuds in place, muttering softly to myself in disgust — like Popeye in a Max Fleischer cartoon.)
As a brief aside, we should note that Madden’s wretched course is emblematic of a trend in publishing. The latest history and religion courses released by The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) and The Modern Scholar (part of Recorded Books, LLC) are more conservative than ever — a comfort to a public that prefers confirmation of its beliefs over learning. Listeners to these courses will learn, to their relief, that Paul certainly wrote all of the epistles attributed to him and that the Documentary Hypothesis is false. Madden, a frequent contributor to such publications as The National Review and Crisis Magazine, as well as an apologist for the Crusades and the Inquisition, fits right in.
Comforting the comfortable
Given the underlying purpose of Madden’s course on the history of the church — namely, to comfort the faithful laity by regurgitating the party line — nothing should have surprised me. I thought I’d heard nearly all of the pious lies proffered by Christian apologists, but I wasn’t prepared for this one.
Unlike other religions, Christianity held that all people, men or women, free or slaves, were the same in God’s eyes. And so, as a result of that, all were worthy of respect and love and charity. Someone who was a Christian who was a very powerful noble was the brother of someone who was a Christian who was a day laborer.
Unlike any other ideologies at the time, Christianity also considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong. And it’s important to remember that although today we think of slavery as self-evidently wrong, no ideologies, no civilizations believed that in the ancient world. Slavery was thought to be a self-evidently right institutions. And so Christianity broke with that by its insistence that it was wrong. Christians themselves were enjoined to free their slaves — although Christians did not actually work to end the institution of slavery, partially because the did not have the authority to do that in the first place, and also partly because although they considered it to be immoral, slavery was still legal and it had been ordained by the state, and Christ and St. Paul had commanded their followers to be respectful for state leaders and to pray for them. (From Jesus to Christianity, Lecture 4, emphasis mine)
Not even the Catholic Encyclopedia goes so far as to invent an imaginary past in which Christians taught that slavery is “inherently wrong” and that Church Fathers urged Christian slaveholders to free their slaves. Instead it offers a facile argument for maintenance of the status quo:
To reproach the Church of the first ages with not having condemned slavery in principle, and with having tolerated it in fact, is to blame it for not having let loose a frightful revolution, in which, perhaps, all civilization would have perished with Roman society.
Well, goodness me. We wouldn’t want all civilization to perish, would we? No apologist argument would be complete without a well-crafted false dilemma.
Bodies in bondage
Whether Madden knows he’s peddling false information or he doesn’t, and is in fact just another incompetent academic, makes little difference in the long run. People under his tutelage will learn that early Christians believed that slavery was inherently wrong, and that owners were encouraged to free their slaves. And because this happy story reinforces what people want to believe about Christianity, they’ll continue to believe it, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.
Still, I have to thank Madden for prodding me to search for recent works on the subject of slavery in early Christianity. That search led me to two extraordinary books by Jennifer A. Glancy. The first, Slavery in Early Christianity (2006, Fortress Press), examines the attitudes and beliefs of early Christians with respect to slavery. The second, Slavery As Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today (2011, Fortress Press), takes on the thorny issue of how to make sense of the fact that early Christians owned slaves when today we see the practice as morally wrong.
In the next few posts, I’ll be covering the problem of slavery and Christianity. In many ways, the practice was more terrible than we can imagine. But since it was a vital part of ancient Mediterranean cultures, not understanding it or, worse, white-washing it, will distort our understanding of early Christians and the world in which they lived.