Christianity as a counter-cultural myth to delegitimize Rome

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by Neil Godfrey

In some texts written by authors who had lost their state and been conquered by others, as may have been the case with the Yahwist, one can also see evidence of culture myths being used to delegitimize the conquering state.

McCants, William F.. Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam (p. 12). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

I have posted about some of William McCants’ research into modern terrorism (he is also the author of ISIS Apocalypse and numerous related articles) and have only recently caught up with a work based on his doctoral thesis, Founding Gods, Inventing Nations (FGIN). FGIN places the Islamic myths in the context of earlier myths of the ancient world and late antiquity and explores the cultural functions of those myths.

The above quotation is taken from a section addressing the way mythical narratives of an indigenous people changed in the wake of being conquered — whether by the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans. What McCants has to say about the Jewish (biblical) myths vis a vis the Greek (Hellenistic) ones is of special interest to anyone following Russell Gmirkin’s hypotheses (see posts on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible). Not that McCants places the Bible so late, but I will post about the interesting insights anon.

For now I am merely drawing attention to the message in the opening line. One cannot avoid thinking of Christian origins. Rome’s founding myths concluded with Aeneas and then Romulus slaying their enemies. McCants’ thesis might suggest to us that Christianity was a Jewish response to Roman conquest. The victim of Roman executioners was the true king of a higher kingdom above Rome’s. The followers of that king or anointed one (Christ) were aliens under Rome’s power but citizens of a higher power.

That’s not an original insight. Crossan certainly pushed it strongly enough in his work depicting Jesus as an anti-imperialist, and similar ideas have been published about Paul’s views.

Nonetheless, it does raise some interesting questions. It would certainly render mute any suggestion that the crucifixion of Jesus was at any time an embarrassing concept that needed justification among his followers. On the simple idea quoted above the crucifixion was potentially a concept bestowing pride and power in the identities of the earliest Christians.

(Such a view is also the opposite of those theories that would claim Christianity was a Roman invention to pacify the Jews.)


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Christianity as a counter-cultural myth to delegitimize Rome”

    1. It mostly depends on what the person who wrote the Passion narrative intended. The earliest versions put the onus on Pilate; later versions shift the blame from Pilate to “the Jews”.

      This does, of course, make belief in the “criterion of embarrassment” a bit of an embarrassment.

  1. Matt 22:21 . . . Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
    John 18:36 Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
    Romans 13: 1-7 . . . Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

    Delegitimization occurs only in the most spiritual and unconnected religious sense ~ unconnected from any temporal politics. As long as legal institutional obligations and order was being fulfilled, Romans did not care what pipe dreams were harbored by the provincials.

  2. I would equally add the Jewish temple authorities to the Romans as being delegitimized. The sacrifice of Christ did away with the need for an earthly high priest; the promised kingdom of God would do away with the Romans. These ideas are both part of the earliest Christian beliefs.

  3. Nice book. I was little bit perplexed with the absent of laws as “Gifts of the Gods” when I was reading it. This way he never bothered with the claims of superior laws found in the Hebrew Bible, and by doing this he haven’t treated the Hebrew Bible in the chapter “Inventing Nations: Postconquest Native Histories of Civilization’s Origins” But overall you are right, that this is a good book for anyone who is studying Gmirkin’s thesis.

    1. Not sure if I follow, sorry. I thought McCants did indicate that the laws and revelation were indeed the major gifts of the Hebrew God. I got waylaid with other life matters for a while there and must return to the second part of this post asap.

      1. Yes he mention laws as a passing reference and in chapter four he mentions that Manetho and Berossos talked about the laws to impress the Greeks but when it come to the Jews he just talks about Artapanus and by doing this he overlooks the fact that the Hebrew Bible qualifies to the criteria for “Inventing Nations: Postconquest Native Histories of Civilization’s Origins”.

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