Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Yes, it really is something new!

[T]he consistent line taken in the various texts that make up the New Testament and that came to be affirmed with growing force as representative of emergent “proto-orthodox” Christianity was a rather exclusive one: believers were to abstain from the worship of any of the deities of the Roman world except the one God of biblical tradition and God’s Son, Jesus. To judge from the frequent complaints about the matter by pagan observers and critics noted in an earlier chapter, it does seem that at least most Christian believers did so. In the dominant sort of early Christian teaching, believers were to base their religious life entirely on their relationship with this one deity and their participation in Christian conventicles. Matching their exclusive worship practice was what we can term an exclusive religious identity. In this, I submit, we have a new kind of religious identity that is very different from what was typical of the Roman period.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 89

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One and one only

To be sure, participation in Isis worship, for example, comprised a noteworthy exercise in voluntary religiousness. So, to reiterate the point, in that feature it was partially analogous to the sort of voluntary religiousness involved in becoming a participant in Christian circles. But the analogy breaks down precisely in the demand placed upon all Christians that they must make their Christian commitment the exclusive basis of their religious identity. In short, early Christianity was the only new religious movement of the Roman era that demanded this exclusive loyalty to one deity, thereby defining all other cults of the time as rivals.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 86

<idle musing>
Modern christians could learn from that example; far too many worship and the shrines of nationalism and materialism as well as the altar of YHWH : (
</idle musing>

Monday, April 24, 2017

The emperor cult

But it is also very important to emphasize that the cults of the emperor were not in competition with, nor did they displace, the traditional gods and their worship in the various lands of the empire. Throughout the Roman period, even in the eastern areas, for example, where emperor cults emerged with particular enthusiasm, people in the various cities of the East also continued their traditional rites focused on their ancestral deities. That is, both in Rome and in other areas of strong Roman influence as well, traditional gods and their worship continued to be prominent. So, participation in emperor cults was simply one facet or layer of what we might regard as the religious identity of devotees. It certainly did not replace the ethnic/religious identity of people, and also it did not become typically the primary religious identity of most people who took part in emperor cults.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 82

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Worship the emperor!

[W]e should not write off emperor cults as simply political and not genuinely religious. To do so would be to impose distinctions that simply were not appropriate for that ancient setting. For a least some of those who took part in emperor cults, there probably was a genuinely religious sentiment, at least in a sense that they would recognize, even if it was not distinguishable from their admiration of Roman power. Granted, however, it was also not at all bad for your career prospects or social status to be seen to be participating in and, even more so, to be involved in promoting emperor cult.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 81–82

<idle musing>
Indeed. There are two main problems in studying the ancient world: (1) We import our anti-supernatural, mechanistic materialism, closed box, cause and effect viewpoint—explaining away anything that doesn't fit; and (2) expecting things to be nice and neat, cut and dried. Real life isn't that way today, why should we expect it to be that way then?!
</idle musing>

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Radical God

So, the difference between early Christianity and the larger religious environment went beyond simply preferring one particular deity among the others, and beyond an exclusivist worship practice. There were also different notions about what the term “god” (Greek: theos) meant, or at least for Christians there was a distinction between “gods” and the one God (ho theos = literally, “the god”). The early Christian notion posited one utterly transcendent deity who could not be compared with the many traditional gods at all and could not even be comprehended fully, so great was this God. And yet, and with equal emphasis, Christians maintained that this one deity, not some subordinate being, was the sole creator of all things and also sought to relate to the world and humanity in redemptive love, such that even the humblest of individuals could be recipients of this love and could be adopted into a filial relationship with this God.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 65–66

<idle musing>
I'm not sure we can fully comprehend how radical an idea that was.
</idle musing>

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tell me again about that deity's feelings toward you

The notion that there is one true and transcendent God, and that this God loves the world/humanity, may have become subsequently so much a familiar notion, whether or not it is actively affirmed, that we cannot easily realize how utterly strange, even ridiculous, it was in the Roman era. When ancient pagan thinkers spoke of human “love” for a god or gods, they typically referred to an eros, not an erotic love in our sense, but a desire for association with the divine or the sublimely beautiful qualities represented by the deity. When they referred to the attitude of the gods toward humans, they sometimes posited deities of particular cities or peoples as kindly disposed toward them in these cases using the Greek term philia, depicting a kindness and friendly quality. The Greek term early Christians preferred, however, to depict their God’s love, and the love that they were to show as well for God and others, even their enemies, was agapē and its cognate verb agapaō. These words appear very infrequently in pagan texts of the time but copiously in early Christian texts. For example, in the New Testament, agapē appears some 143 times, and the verb agapaō 116 times.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 64

Monday, April 17, 2017

No mere philosophical construct

In philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly. For example, you did not usually sacrifice to this deity or implore it directly. Instead, the same philosophers who posited the lofty views of a transcendent deity were content for the worship of the traditional, lesser deities to continue and, indeed, typically took part in this themselves. But the early Christian stance was that the one, true, and radically transcendent God was, nevertheless, also available to a direct relationship with people. Christians believed that you could pray directly to this God and hope to be heard. You could worship this God directly and know that it was welcome. Indeed, prayer and worship directly to this one God was typically urged as the only proper and legitimate worship in Christian circles. In contrast to the practice and views of the pagan world, including specifically philosophical traditions, Christians were to treat the many other deities of the time as unworthy beings, and the worship of them as idolatry.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 63

<idle musing>
Personally, I find that very liberating! All the lesser divine beings are subservient to and must obey the one God—and we are allowed direct access to this same deity. That's Good News.
</idle musing>

Friday, April 14, 2017

Don't be so sure!

In a recent survey of religions of the Roman world, however, the authors opine that early Christian exhortations to religious exclusivity likely reflect many or even most Christians of the time taking a more relaxed attitude toward sacrifices to the pagan gods. Maybe. But, again, I find this sort of confident assertion puzzling. For I think that there is scant evidence for the assertion that the majority of Christians were quite so indifferent to the demands of their faith. Otherwise, how would we explain that it was the “orthodox” vision of Christian exclusivity that proved successful numerically against other version of Christianity that may have tolerated a less exclusive stance?— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 57–58

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Graduation of a mentor

I found out yesterday that one of the most formative mentors in my life as a thinking Christian had died—Dennis Kinlaw. He was 94. While I was at Asbury College, he was the president there; he "retired" for the first time in the fall of 1982 and taught for two semesters at Asbury Seminary immediately following that. I took every class he taught. A few of us even managed to cajole him into teaching a semester of Biblical Aramaic and a semester of Syriac.

Sitting at his feet and learning was a joy. His lectures were full of rich bibliography; my notes are sprinkled with books to read—many of which I have read and others I should read. His knowledge was huge and not just limited to Semitics, either. He had studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and University of Edinburgh, Scotland before getting his PhD in Semitics from Brandeis.

One of the classes he taught was a theology class. While other classes were reading popular introductions to theology, he had us reading Brunner, Calvin, and Wesley. I like to tell my Calvinist friends that I've probably read more Calvin than most Calvinists have. (As an aside, one told me last November at AAR/SBL that if I'd read any Calvin, I probably had most of them beat!) He also taught an Old Testament Theology course, which was especially fun. He taught it one other time after that, 10 years later. That version was recorded and then turned into a book, Lectures in Old Testament Theology, which, while a bit dated now, is still great.

One of his favorite phrases about a book was, "You owe it to yourself to read this." I love that phrase and have used it many times to describe a good book.

I could go on for a long while about all I learned from him—and from his students who were also among my professors at both Asbury College and Seminary, but I have other things to do, as do you. I'll close this short musing with a link to the official Asbury University blurb.

The real atheists revealed

I repeat again that converted pagans had no precedent or established justification for withdrawing from the worship of the gods of their families, cities, and peoples. Furthermore, when we add in the sort of rhetoric that is reflected in texts such as Paul’s letters, in which the various gods are all collectively referred to as “idols” (that is, illusory and deceptive beings) and their worship is designated “idolatry” (that is, pointless and even sinful), we can readily imagine the tensions, offense, and outrage that seems often to have resulted.

Indeed, the exclusivist stance of early Christianity was so odd, unjustified, and even impious in the eyes of ancient pagan observers and critics that they often accused Christians of being atheists, just as Jews had been labeled previously!— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 56

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Keeping chaos at bay

[P]articipation in the reverencing of household gods (the Lares dometici) was expected of all members of the Roman household. It was considered an important expression of solidarity with the others of the household in securing its continuing safety and welfare. Likewise, participation in the honoring of the tutelary deities of one’s city in sacrifice, processions, and other rituals was an important expression of solidarity at that level. For at least many in the general populace, these city gods were guardians against such risks as plague, fire, or other disasters. So, refusal to participate in the reverence due these deities could be taken as a disloyalty to your city and as a disregard for the welfare of its inhabitants. Further, there were gods believed to uphold and legitimate the larger Roman imperial order. Indeed, in the case of the goddess Roma, there was a deity that embodied the Roman order. So, to refuse to worship these deities could be taken as a deeply subversive action or at least a disregard for the political order. To repeat the point for emphasis, when pagan converts withdrew from the worship of the gods that they had formerly worshipped, this was a particularly acute matter, much more objectionable than Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own. The latter was an ethnic peculiarity, but that gave no justification for non-Jews to shirk their inherited responsibilities to their own gods.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 54–55

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What are they thinking?!

Having adopted the new stance demanded by their conversion to Christian faith, they were to withdraw particularly from making sacrificial offerings to the gods of their household, their city, and the empire, and now were to practice the exclusivity in matters of worship that was expected of members of the ekklēsia. These newly converted Gentile Christians would have seemed to fellow pagans, however, to be making an abrupt, arbitrary, bizarre, and unjustified shift in religious behavior. This total withdrawal from the worship of the many deities was a move without precedent, and it would have seemed inexplicable and deeply worrying to many of the general populace. In their eyes, people other than Jews simply had no right to do this, and, no doubt, it would have drawn a lot of objection and even harassment, perhaps especially from the families and closest acquaintances of Christian converts. It would have seemed to the general public a kind of religious and social apostasy, an antisocial stance.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 53–54

<idle musing>
What in the world could they possibly be thinking?! Why, the social fabric will be rent asunder by their neglect of the gods! The empire is sure to suffer setbacks because of them! Feed them to the lion!

Think about that for a minute. What would your family do if you suddenly refused to offer sacrifice to the lares and penates who keep your family and household safe? It would be like you were spitting on your ancestors and parents, saying they don't exist anymore!

Needless to say, that isn't the best way to ingratiate yourself to those in power... In fact, it's almost like they don't care about impressing and influencing those in power! Maybe we could learn something from them?
</idle musing>

Monday, April 10, 2017

They have an excuse. What about you?

The difference and distinguishing feature of the early Christian stance agains “idolatry” is this: In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities. Whether residents of Roman Judaea or in their many diaspora locations, Jews were commonly thought of, and thought of themselves, as a distinct people, an ethnos, a “nations” in that sense. The wider Roman-era public was well aware of, and generally accommodated, the ethnic diversity that made up the empire.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 52–53

Friday, April 07, 2017

Not a compliment!

As noted, our word “idol” comes from the Greek term eidōlon, a term that in ordinary Greek usage could connote something that is a mere phantom. Obviously, this was not a term used to refer to the gods by those who worshipped them!— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 50

Thursday, April 06, 2017

A mere phantom—or even less

Christians were expected to avoid taking part in the worship of any deity other than the one God of biblical tradition. I discuss the inclusion of Jesus as effectively corecipient of early Christian reverence later in this chapter. Given the ubiquitous place of the gods and their rituals in Roman-era life, however, it would have been difficult for Christians simply to avoid all such rituals without being noticed. Christians likely often also had to refuse to join in the worship of the various divinities and so had to negotiate their relationships carefully, especially, no doubt, those involving family and close acquaintances.

This refusal to reverence the many gods that was demanded of early Christians would have included refusing to offer worship to household divinities, to the tutelary deities of cities, to the traditional gods of the various cities and peoples of the Roman world, and even to the deities that represented the empire itself, such as the goddess Roma, and who conferred legitimacy to Roman rule. Indeed, Christians were expected to treat all the many deities of the Roman world as “idols,” from the Greek term eidōlon, meaning “image” or “phantom.” That is, Christians were to treat all the various traditional gods as beings unworthy of worship, as false and deceptive entities, or, even worse, as demonic beings masquerading as deities.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 49–50 (emphasis original)

<idle musing>
And you thought you had problems with your in-laws or parents! That's nothing compared to walking into the house and not acknowledging the shrine of the lares, and then announcing that they were less than gods, in fact were evil semi-divine beings! I'm sure that went over well . . . NOT!
</idle musing>

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Worthy? Of course!

It is also important to underscore the point that all deities were deemed worthy of reverence. To deny a deity worship, and that typically meant sacrificed, was effectively, to deny the god’s reality. Individual pagans of that time did not feel it obligatory to reverence each and every deity, but, in principle, all gods were entitled to be reverenced. So, the people of the Roman period generally found no problem in participating in the worship of various and multiple deities.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 47

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Gods, gods, and still more gods!

In addition to such “high” deities, there were also lesser and other divine beings that, nevertheless, figured regularly in religious practices. In Rome, for example, these included beings called Lares that functioned as guardians over various settings. The most common were domestic Lares of each household (Latin: Lares domestici), which represented spirits of family dead who had been elevated to a special kind of spiritual existence on account of their goodness and/or importance. These spirits protected the family, and all members of the household were expected to reverence them daily in offerings and prayers at the Lararium, a small altar typically placed in the Roman house. But there were also protective Lares of bridges, crossroads, and other sites, and even Lares Augusti, seen as guardians of the Roman state. In comparison with the more well-known gods, the Lares typically had more restricted spheres of power, but they likely figured much more frequently in the day-to-day ritual life of people.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 46

<idle musing>
And the Christians refused to worship them! Can you imagine?! Why, that would be just as bad as if a person refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance! Seditious! Rebellious! A threat to the social order! Away with them! They are a treasonous bunch! Feed them to the lion!
</idle musing>