I was on the last leg of my last lecture tour of Australia in the summer of 2019, flying cross country from Perth to Sydney to give some lectures at MacQuarrie University in the ancient history department. My friend Prof. Alanna Nobbs, just retired from MacQuarrie had informed me that I would be collected at the Sydney airport by ‘Edwin’. Now Edwin at the time was over 90 years of age. In fact, he was born in 1928, and is only two years younger than my mother! And I’m no spring chicken, as we say in N.C. This was a great honor, but also a surprise to be chauffeured by perhaps the greatest Christian ancient historian of the last one hundred years. Of course if you know Edwin at all, you will know that kudos like that embarrass the man, who did his training at Cambridge before I was even born (and I’m 69)! But Edwin is still as keen in his intellect and study of ancient Roman and Christian history as a man one third his age should be. And he is still producing seminal essays of various sorts. As we were riding to MacQuarrie, Edwin proceeded to tell me about a forthcoming book ‘that may have some considerable bearing on how we evaluate St. Paul and earliest Christianity’. I am pleased to tell you not only that he was absolutely right, but that the volume has now emerged in print thanks to our friends at Wipf and Stock/Cascade. It is entitled On This Rock: When Culture Disrupted the Roman Community, (ed. A.D. MacDonald; Cascade, 2020, 280 pages). This volume is the successor to the volume which emerged last year entitled Paul and the Conflict of Cultures, and in truth both volumes are essential reading if one wishes to understand the impact of early Christianity, and particularly Gentile Christianity of the Pauline sort, on the Roman Empire. There are now some seven or so volumes in Judge’s series of collected essays, and all of them are invaluable.
I want to just emphasis some of the major points that Judge makes here and elsewhere, and/or some of the implications of his points: 1) outsiders in general did not know exactly what to make of early Christianity. On the one hand it did not appear to be what we would call a ‘religion’, as it did not involve priests, temples, and sacrifices at all. It was not about ritual performances to appease the gods and keep society in good standing with the gods. Indeed, it appeared to Greco-Roman people to be the opposite of religion not only because it didn’t do what ancient religions did, but also because it refused to participate in public festivals, sacrifices and the like which were the religious glue thought to hold society together and keep it stable. Christians were labelled ‘atheists’ for refusing to recognize or honor the traditional gods; 2) whereas Judaism at least before A.D. 70 did have a temple, priests, and sacrifices and did appear to be a ‘religion’ with good claims to antiquity and as a result were allowed to not worship the traditional gods or the emperor, but rather to pray for the emperor, this ‘exceptionalism’ could not apply to Christianity which did not have any of the trademarks of an ancient religion. To the contrary, it appeared to be some kind of philosophy or theosophy, because it was all about beliefs and behaviors, dogmas and doctrines and these latter are what drove the movement and explained its distinctive attempts to evangelize the world. When it became clear that the vast majority of the adherents of this movement were gentiles who should indeed be doing their civic duty and not undermining the religious underpinnings of the state and society, that’s when troubles and persecution, prosecution, and even some executions began to happen. Christians were heretics, atheists, and the gods could not have been pleased with them. They were seditious, and their leader Christ had been executed by a Roman governor for high treason. Had this movement simply been, or been seen as, a sect of Judaism these developments would have been unlikely to have happened. Even after 70 A.D. Jews still maintained their ‘exceptional’ status by paying a tax to the government instead a temple tax to the Temple in Jerusalem. The money went to maintain the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome (and perhaps elsewhere); 3) The language used to describe this new community of followers of Jesus was in some regards like the language used to describe the Empire (the Empire is the ‘body’ of the Emperor— cf. 1 Cor. 12 on the Christian community), but there was also odd language, using the metaphor of a building, or an assembly of people whose only sacrifices were those of prayers and praises, or of themselves as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12). 4) While not knowing exactly what to make of Christians, enough alarm bells went off for the more astute pagans, especially the philosophers, to realize that they were a threat to the very fabric of Roman society. How so? There was not secular/sacred divide in ancient society. ‘Religion’ was an essential part of what made society what it was. It was a corporate thing, not a matter of private opinions or personal beliefs. While the earliest Christians were pacifists and believed in paying taxes, nevertheless, in other ways they were seen as compromising some of the very things at the heart of the ancient society, not least the notion that nature, and human authorities are ‘divine’ in themselves, or suffused with the divine, rather than creations of an independent Deity. Religion was not a matter of ‘individual conscience’ and furthermore the ancients didn’t believe in the concept of dramatic change or conversion. They found that notion upsetting. They believed persons were born into a specific ethnic group etc. and their identity was determined from birth by where they came from, who their father was, and what gender they were. Furthermore, a religion had claims to authority and allegiance based on its antiquity. The Christian movement, unless they co-opted the antiquity of Judaism, had no such claims. In the Greco-Roman world they were not looking for something new in religion, by and large. Indeed, if it was new and had no claims to antiquity it could hardly be ‘true’ or worth pledging allegiance to. There was a reason Josephus wrote massive volumes about ‘the Antiquities of the Jews’, even claiming folk like Plato owed something to Moses! In light of all this, it is right to ask how in the world a ‘new’ theology and movement could possibly have changed the Greco-Roman world within four centuries without an army, or a violent transition of some sort. Especially how could this happen when the essential proclamation of this new group was about a crucified Jewish manual worker who was thereafter raised from the dead? Crucified messiah was an oxymoron to Jews (God would never let that happen to his anointed one) and an absurdity to Gentiles (crucifixion being the most shameful way to die, and actual bodily resurrection was a ridiculous idea– one unlike the immortality of the soul). How did this proclamation turn the Empire upside down and lead to Christian emperors? You will need to read Judge’s careful analysis all the way up to Constantine and beyond to see how that actually happened.
While I agree with Edwin on about 98% of all he says in these matters, a few of his comments I must disagree with: 1) various of the NT writers, including Paul, Luke, and the author of Hebrews do indeed use the ancient art of persuasion, rhetoric, in their compositions. I have demonstrated this at length in my NT commentaries. And it is the lack of recognizing this that has led to misreadings of important texts like Rom. 7.7-25, which is not a description of the Christian’s struggles with sin. It is a Christian evaluation of pre-Christian states, as Rom. 7.5-6, and Rom. 8.1-5 makes abundantly clear. Being a new creature in Christ affects one’s holiness and capacity to deal with sin. 2) It is simply not true that women did not play important roles of teaching, prophecy, preaching etc. in the Pauline communities (see e.g. Acts 18.24-26, 1 Cor. 11). Texts like 1 Cor. 14.33b-36 and 1 Tim. 2.8-15 are problem solving texts, and do not reflect a general prohibition of women teaching men or women. This continued to be true right up to and beyond the time of Constantine, as Judge himself chronicles on pp. 110-11.
This last paragraph does not in any way take away from the enormous contributions Judge has made and continues to make to our understanding of the social history of earliest Christianity. Indeed, his work has made it clear that while there is much value in using modern social scientific theories like social identity theory to better understand the NT, the latter is not as important as straightforward study of ancient social history and the original social contexts in which the Christian movement came and came to change the ancient world.