BEN: Early on in your book, you have some important things to say about how apologetics can get in the way of careful accurate interpretation of historical data, including the kind of data you are focusing on in The Crosses of Pompeii. Say some more about this.
Well, I share one particular concern with those who advocate the consensus view regarding Christianity and Pompeii – that is, archaeology should not be used as a vehicle to bolster religious agendas. This has happened far too often in the past, with archaeology being the slave to theological apologetics in one fashion or another.
The odd thing is that, as I show in the book, the consensus view itself was driven by dogmatic certainties about the kinds of things Christians must always have done and not done, what they must always have believed and not believed. (And ironically, in this way, the consensus view fit the apologetic interests of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries “hand in glove.”) But those certainties are, in fact, things that historians have pretty much abandoned, but the conclusions derived from those illegitimate certainties have been allowed to persist nonetheless.
To give just one example, the consensus view says that artifact X in Pompeii could not be a Christian artifact because (1) we know that Christians deplored idolatry in their exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ, and (2) a pagan painting appears on another wall in the same house in which artifact X was found; therefore (the argument goes), Christians could not have resided in this house. Well, that assumption skews the data enormously, for reasons we have already discussed regarding “the second church” of the first century.
And by the way, MacMullen’s case about the existence of “the second church” has found further support in Eric Rebillard’s important book Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity (2012). Rebillard recounts the evidence from 200-450 showing that many Christians adopted a pragmatic approach to their “Christianness,” allowing other aspects of their identity to take the fore in certain contexts. This would not have met with the approval of the apostle Paul and other apostolic figures, but it seems to have been a common enough during that period. So perhaps the first century too, with “the apostolic voice” seeking to make itself heard, but not always successfully.
BEN: One of the myths you seek to dispel is the notion that everywhere and throughout the first century Christians had to operative sotto voce, so speak, or in private meetings only, due to fear of persecution and occasional actual persecution. The thing I wondered about in this discussion is that while: 1) it is true that there was a considerable fascination with eastern religions in cosmopolitan Greco-Roman cities like Pompeii that had much traffic with the eastern end of the Empire, for example the fascination with Isis, at the same time, 2) Christianity was the new kid on the block, whereas the battle over Isis had been fought by Augustus (and lost) long before the mid-first century a.d. so…. 3) what was preventing angry polytheists from arguing that Christian belief was a pernicious ‘superstitio’ and in various places illegal— for example in Athens? 4) and the other side of this coin is of course the horror Christians like Paul had for syncretism and religion mixing, associating it with idolatry (see Acts 17, and Rom. 1). Some of your argument seems to downplay the very Jewish character of the leadership of the early Christian movement, and how they felt about syncretism. Say more about your views on these things.
My argument has very little interface with the Jewish character of the leadership of the early Christian movement, so I’m really not intending to downplay that at all. What Pompeii may give us is a kind of Jesus-devotion that is not very informed by the leadership of the early Christian movement. But if so, we’re back to the point about the “second church” and the need for the “apostolic voice” to circulate beyond the orbits of their individual spheres of influence.