Okay, so sorry yet again for being so busy! As usual, here’s the post of the month!
I’ve been studying recently about the history of Early Christianity in the Roman Empire. As always, I love studying syncretism with the older pagan traditions, and all the really fascinating parallels between them! To remind you, in ancient cultures, cultural exchange was very very common place. Certain well known motifs, symbols, cultural concepts, basic mythological plot lines etc… could be and were shared among the various peoples nearby each other! Also, unlike Christianity, which is a more exclusivist religion who demands the worship/belief of only one god, pagan religions of the time allowed worship of different gods from different places. It wasn’t just you have to only worship these gods to the exclusion of others! One could adopt a local god from another place, and many did such as Roman soldiers stationed in the near east adopting Mithraism for instance. Certain god and goddesses too could also be recognized as the same deity with the same function, only we call them one name, and they call them another name. Mithraism had many parallels with Christianity, and was around the same time, so reasonably, they most likely evolved alongside each other! Take this hilarious observation:
Manfred Clauss, a scholar of the Mithraic cult, speculates that the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism may have made it easier for members of the Mithraic cult to convert to Christianity without having to give up their ritual meal, sun-imagery, candles, incense, or bells, a trend which might explain why, as late as the sixth century, the Christian Church was still trying to stamp out the stulti homines who still paid obeisance to the sun every morning on the steps of the church itself. (Wikipedia)
Much of the anti-Christian sentiments the Romans are often accused of today come from Christian writers… ;) In the Roman world, religions were a dime a dozen and there were plenty of mystery cults and all sorts of different beliefs! Christianity was not that “special” in that regard. However, there were some suspicions about that growing new religion:
For one thing, their exclusivist ways did clash a bit with the more flexible pagans. Their demands to only worship God alone and not participate in Roman customs and public sacrifices did leave a sour taste in some Romans’ mouths. Thing is, unlike in our society, the very concept of a divide between religion and public life/politics was unheard of! The gods mind you, were very real, as real as anything science has proven real in the physical world today, such as our belief in gravity! And like natural phenomena, the gods did have a very real influence on your life and the world at large. Displease them, and your entire society can crumble and be stricken with misfortune. Those pesky Christians who didn’t want to participate in the societal religious practices were one, displeasing said gods, and two, also sending a message of alienation from Rome’s values. This sense of unease with a group of people still can be felt today somewhat, for those who many people think aren’t fully integrating and embracing our own societal values in the West! Religion does play a part in it, albeit not as strong as for the Romans, but never the less, the unease remains…. Our own cultural framework of the separation of church and state, and the wider secularization of the West since the scientific revolution makes us take for granted the unease the Romans felt justified in having about this new budding sect.
Oh, and the other aspect of this was some issues with Christian doctrine as well… The Crucifixion for starters! Crucifixion was the most brutal, gory morbid punishment the Romans could mete out to someone and for the worst crimes! The Romans even decreed no Roman citizen would be subject to it! The crosses Christians today wear around their necks and display to a Roman, and many early Christians far more familiar with real crucifixions would be incredibly creepy and morbid! Sort of like wearing electric chairs instead ;) Don’t take for granted either, that punishment was a very real part of their existence and public at that! Many would have personally SEEN the bodies and the condemned up on a cross, so no wonder the Early Christians kept the whole crucifixion scene on the down low in iconography for a while ;) And what about drinking the blood of God and eating human flesh??? Yep! That idea was also… Gross! It wasn’t necessarily heard of as purely symbolic for outsiders hearing gossip, and for Christians who literally did and still do, think it turns into the flesh and blood of Christ didn’t help that image!!!
The Christians had a lot to prove in the way of not being subversive and creepy! However, the Rome vs. Christ rivalry happened even earlier before true “Christians” were possibly around! Christianity evolved out of a sect of Judaism, so the backstory to much of the trouble started with the occupied Jews/Earliest Christians in Roman Palestine and Judea! Like many occupied peoples, they weren’t a fan of imperialists ruling their lands, so they came up with a very clever way to fight back: insert subtle anti-Roman sentiments in their stories, and not just any stories, but ones billions of people read and adhere to today! ;)
The New Testament (NT) has many instances of Anti-Roman propaganda if one only looks! Many aspects of the character of Jesus Christ recent scholars argue, parallel Roman themes to show that Christ was the “true king” over the Romans! For example, his crucifixion paralleling aspects of the Roman triumphal parades such as the route taken, and the pagan temple being where a skull was found, and “Golgotha” (relating to skulls, like “skull hill”) also where skulls were found! The mocking of Christ also could be argued to be like a mock honoring of the emperor, with the imperial purple robe and the crown, albeit less comfy! The subversive idea, however was not to justify the Romans, but to secretly imply Jesus is indeed the true emperor in his “triumph” through the crucifixion narrative. He, like a Roman triumphator, had his procession, was crowned and given a purple robe as an emperor would be. In addition, he was also the sacrifice in the ceremony as well, him being crucified! Like an animal was sacrificed to please the gods, and therefore help the people prosper, so was Christ to help save humanity. Other instances before the big climax of the story include his welcome into Jerusalem parallels how an emperor would be welcomed into a city.
Then of course, are his titles, which bear resemblance to many titles shared by other pagan gods, such as “savior of the world” which he share with Augustus, “The Light”, “The Good Shepard” and others. As mentioned, it was very common for cultures to borrow each other’s ideas, imagery, and themes! Even symbols such as the star in the nativity story at the time were associated with Julius and Augustus Caesar being sons of a god! Jesus held similar titles, was given a quasi-triumph, greeted like an emperor, and was the “savior of the world” just like the current Roman emperor. (And let’s not forget that whole “King of the Jews” thing…) All this was meant to convey legitimacy that yes, Christ was the true king, NOT the Romans!!! ;) This only scratches the surface though of these new theories! Interestingly, aside from Romans of that time period picking up on these parallels, they went largely unnoticed until after movements to get rid of contemporary imperialism! After that, scholars started to look at the NT with a “post-colonial” lens of how conquered peoples can fight back in subtle ways.
The scholar arguing about Jesus’ path to his crucifixion as reminiscent of a Roman triumph is T. E. Schmidt, and he wrote a very interesting article on it, from which I got my examples, titled “The Crucifixion Narrative and The Roman Triumphal Procession” . Please read it, as it is a fascinating read! Also, another scholar, Micheal Peppard, compares Jesus being the son of God with Roman cultural conceptions of being a son of a god in this also great article “The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context” . If you want more detail, please check these two out :)
Overall though, my final thoughts are these: Would a Roman of the time pick up on the subtle anti-Roman stuff in the NT? I think so considering how strong many of the parallels are. I like to imagine, and the title alludes to this, Romans in a modern church hearing about Jesus, but saying “Hail Caesar!” at the end of the sermon because they think they’re talking about Augustus!!! We don’t see them, not being in their culture, but those who were immersed in these symbols would pick up right away! Imagine some of our most well known stories, symbols and such, and imagine if a company ripped them off and made their own ad campaign using say, another major company’s logo! I think we’d notice! For a Roman of the time, I’d argue, would pick up on these titles, customs and iconography being ripped off for Jesus as easily as we would A new budding fast food joint stealing the McDonald’s logo! I guess copyright wasn’t around yet ;) But this raises another question I will leave you with: Why then did the Romans end up embracing Christianity when it has such heavy anti-Roman overtones???
(“Jesus, can you quit ripping off our cultural imagery, themes and customs??? Please and Thank you…”)