The Myth of Tolerant Paganism

The Myth of Tolerant Paganism December 21, 2011

My former post December 25th Means the Triumph of Christianity over Paganism caused a bit of an uproar in pagan circles. Just read the comments. My wife reads my blog so I won’t repeat the content of some of those comments. Across the street at the Patheos Portal, Star Foster responds in a post When Interfaith Gets Ugly, with me obviously being the “ugly”. Now I’m not exactly a chip off a chippendale, my teeth are more crooked than the Governor if Illinois, and women tend to treat me with a mixture of contempt and disdain (and that’s just my mother).  But I did find Star’s own response to me a bit ugly when she wrote this:

When I see you attempt to rewrite history, to paint your anarchic, martyr-hungry ancestors as victims, I don’t get angry anymore.

Let me get this right. Christians were anarchic and were deliberately looking to get themselves martyred? Okay, I’ll admit that there were a few (esp. in North Africa) who set out to become martyrs, but they were a very small number, and their quest for martyrdom was criticized by church leaders. But it was hardly typical of the majority of men, women, and children who were butchered for their Christian faith. Now if that is not bad enough, in the comments she claims that (1)  the early Christians pretty much got what they deserved for failing to do their “civic duty,” (2) The early Christians were “disturbers of the peace” and drew “hostility” on themselves; (3) “Rome’s thriving Jewish population had no problem with performing their civic duty or living with their non-Jewish neighbors”; and (4) “The ancient world was a religiously tolerant place”. Now the professional historians and grad students among you know that is just patently false. This young lady does not know what the smurf she’s talking about. Though I am also left wondering if Miss Foster would regard Amnesty International’s reports of brutality towards Christian minorities in Africa and Asia as a desperate effort to paint this “martyr-hungry” group as “victims” when they clearly not? A contemporary application of her thesis to the present time would be morally disturbing.

I’m a historian, so I’m well aware of the good and the bad, the gravy and the grit of Christian history. My good friend Rev. Dr. John Dickson has a book due out called Why Christianity is Better and Worse than you Knew (or a title to that effect). Christianity triumphed over the Roman Empire, but in another sense – with both blessing and bane – Christianity became the Empire. So I’ve got no misconceptions about Christian history, it gave us the Mother Theresa and the Crusades!

But it seems to me that these pagan folks just don’t have the foggiest clue about the Roman Empire and its socio-religious propaganda and apparatus. They are utterly ignorant of the persecution of Christians, especially under the Emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian, and what brutal reprisals took place against Christianity. So listen up my pagan friends for a quick historical lesson on the violence and intolerance of pagan Romans towards Jews and Christians. You can perpetuate the myth of a tolerant and inclusive paganism all you like, but this “myth” will flounder up the bedrock of history as I’m about to show you.

1. As Duke Uni Professor Kavin Rowe (World Upside Down, 162) writes: “[T]he notion that polytheistic religions issue in political tolerance and cultural understanding is at best a serious distortion of the realities of the Graeco-Roman world.” Roman authorities distinguished between religio licita (legal) and religio illicita (illegal). They treated foreign or new religions with violent contempt. For instance, Maecenas gave a speech to Octavian (i.e., Augustus) that: “You should not only worship the divine everywhere and in every way in accordance with our ancestral traditions, but also force all others to honor it. Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should hate and punish, not only for the sake of the gods … but also because such people, by bringing in new divinities, persuade many folks to adopt foreign practices, which lead to conspiracies, revolts, and factions, which are entirely unsuitable for monarch” (Dio Cassius, Hist. Rom. 52.36.1-2). Force people to obey your religion and hate those who refuse to.  In fact, Roman pagans brutalized other pagans like the Bacchic cult in the second century BC and the Druids in the first century AD. Do you feeeeel the tolerance!

2. Pagan cultural, political, and intellectual elites in Rome were notoriously xenophobic and routinely anti-semitic.  In order to protect the purity of its own religious traditions, the Romans routinely expelled foreigners from Egypt, Judea, and the East. The Jews were expelled from Rome in 139 BC, 19 AD, and 49 AD. Harry Leon’s old book The Jews of Ancient Rome, is still worth reading, in that it details the tumultuous and complex relationships that Roman Jews had in Rome, and it wasn’t all rosy. Things were fairly positive under Julius Caesar (Roman Jews formed a large segment of his funeral), while things were horrid under Tiberius (mainly due to his lieutenant Sejanus), and Caligula attempted to have a statue of himself erected in the Holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem, and was willing to cause a civil war over it. For a standard example, consider Tacitus’ attitude towards the Jews:

This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful. Circumcision was adopted by them as a mark of difference from other men. Those who come over to their religion adopt the practice, and have this lesson first instilled into them, to despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at nought parents, children, and brethren. Still they provide for the increase of their numbers. It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant. (Tacitus, Hist. 5.5)

If this is not bad enough listen to what the Emperor Domitian did to one of his relatives who converted to Judaism (or Christianity according to Eusebius):

And the same year Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property, Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria. (Dio Cassius, Hist. 67.14.1-2)

If you read the rhetoric voiced against Jews in Greek and Latin literature, you’ll notice that being a Jew in ancient Rome was not always easy.

3. Christians were persecuted by Romans authorities because they were “other,” because they refused to honor the local gods and so dishonored both the gods and their worshippers, they refused to worship the Emperor and were thus disloyal to the state. Persecution of Christians happened in a variety of ways including social ostracization, confiscation of property, loss of public office, anti-Christian riots, and spasmodically in capital punishment. Perhaps the most well-known account is that of Nero’s cruel pogrom against Christians in Rome in the mid-60s AD. Tacitus noted how Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome. He picked on the Christians because by they were hated by the masses and they were tortured for public amusement! Tacitus reports:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Annals 15.44).

Consider too Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan (ca. 112-13 AD) when he seeks advice on how to deal with the prevalence of people being denounced as Christians in Bithynia:

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished. Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome. Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition. I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.  (Pliny the Elder, Ep.10.96-96).

In this context, merely claiming to be a Christian and failing to renounce Christ was an act of treason and sacrilege, punishable by death. People were denounced as Christians and dragged before the governor for trial. In some cases tortured too. Doesn’t sound like people who are “martyr-hungry”.

A further dramatic story of martyrdom is found in Eusebius who provides an account of the Gallic martyrs who were murdered for their faith in Gaul in the 180s AD. Eusebius reproduces a letter from the Gallic Church:

The severity of our trials here, the unbridled fury of the pagans against God’s people, the untold sufferings of the blessed martyrs, we are incapable of describing in detail; indeed no pen could do them justice. The adversary swooped on us with all his might, giving us now a foretaste of his advent, which undoubtedly is imminent . He left no stone unturned in his efforts to train his adherents and equip them to attack the servants of God, so that not only were we debarred from houses, baths, and the forum; they actually forbade any of us to be seen in any place whatever. But against them the grace of God put itself at our head, rescuing the weak and deploying against our enemies unshakable pillars, able by their endurance to draw upon themselves the whole onslaught of the evil one. These charged into the fight, standing up to every kind of abuse and punishment, and made light of their heavy load as they hastened to Christ, proving beyond a doubt that the sufferings of the present time are not to be compared with the glory that is in store for us. To begin with, they heroically endured whatever the surging crowd heaped on them, noisy abuse, blows, dragging along the ground, plundering, stoning, imprisonment, and everything that an infuriated mob normally does to hated enemies. Then they were marched into the forum and interrogated by the tribune and the city authorities before the whole population. When they confessed Christ, they were locked up in jail to await the governor’s arrival. Later, when they were taken before him and he treated them with all the cruelty he reserves for Christians, Vettius Epagathus, one of our number, full of love towards God and towards his neighbor, came forward. His life conformed so closely to the Christian ideal that, young as he was, the same tribute might be paid to him as to old Zacharias; he had scrupulously observed all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, and was untiring in service to his neighbor, utterly devoted to God, and fervent in spirit. As such he found the judgment so unreasonably given against us more than he could bear; boiling with indignation, he applied for permission to speak in defense of the Christians, and to prove that there was nothing godless or irreligious in our society. The crowd round the tribunal howled him down, as he was a man of influence, and the governor dismissed his perfectly reasonable application with the curt question, ‘Are you a Christian?’ In the clearest possible tones Vettius replied, ‘I am.’

Now I could go on and mention the martyrdoms of Bishop Ignatius (ca. 110 AD), Bishop Polycarp (ca. 150 AD), Justin Martyr  (ca. 165 AD), and the Perpetua and Felicity (ca. 203 AD) to name a few. But the post is long enough and you get the point. Pagans killed Christians because they hated them!

For a deeper reflection on Christian understanding of martyrdom, see Michael Jensen’s volume Martyrdom and Identity: The Self on Trial (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Ancient paganism was hardly a tolerant, inclusive, pluralistic, and gentle religious option. It was an instrument, even a chaplain, to the most violent and oppressive political power of its day. Note, I’m describing Roman paganism, not a bunch of new age Wiccans in Wisconsin. I have no interest in the contemporary expressions of paganism which I imagine to be radically different from ancient paganism. But you pagans out there need to face up to the fact that pagan religion was an instrument of oppression and violence against Jews and Christians in antiquity! It’s part of your heritage, you don’t have to like it (there’s plenty of parts of my Christian heritage that I don’t like). But please, please stop telling the world that Christians (young, old, male, female,  even children) deserved to be ripped apart by wild beasts for refusing to worship the pagan gods. Stop telling the story that all Christians went looking for martyrdom.  I have to ask, did the Christians who suffered these fates deserve them for, well, refusing to be pagans? I earnestly wait for the answers, especially from the historically informed Miss Star Foster whose knowledge of Jews, Christians, and Pagans in ancient Rome evidently rivals that of most Roman historians I know given that her assertions on the subject contradict the received historical narratives of the past!

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