A Voice in the Wind: Early Christian Fiction

A Voice in the Wind: Early Christian Fiction February 24, 2017

A Voice in the Wind, pp. 56-59

Today we turn to chapter 4, which covers Marcus’ visit to his friend Antigonus’ home. As you may remember, Marcus’ father has just decided to give Antigonus a significant amount of money, to support his political career. This gives Marcus’ father a voice in the senate, and Antigonus’ a way to pursue politics without going broke. When Marcus breaks the news, Antigonus is released, and the atmosphere in his home (which seems to be full of both friends and hangers on) changes from dirge-like to lively and upbeat.

Last week, by way of aside, a reader pointed out that while slaves were certainly brought in from areas where war was ongoing, many slaves in Rome (perhaps even most) would have been born into slavery. This makes Rivers’ constant description of slaves by nationality or region (which he continues to do here, referring to a “Numidian slave girl” and a “lovely Parthian”) read strangely.

Talk turns to what should be the theme of the next games Antigonus hosts. Marcus suggests “a reenactment of one of the emperor’s more successful Judean battles.”

“Word was received that Jerusalem is destroyed,” Antigonus said. “Five months of besieging that forsaken city and thousands of our soldiers killed. Ah, but it is well worth it knowing that foul race is almost obliterated.” …

“So Judea is finally at peace,” Marcus remarked.

“At peace? Ha! As long as there is one Jew alive, there will be insurrection, never peace!”

“Rome’s strength lies in her tolerance, Antigonus. We allow our people to worship whatever gods they choose.”

“Providing they worship the emperor as well. But these Jews? Part of this trouble began because they refused to accept offerings for our emperor in their temple.” …

Marcus accepted wine offered by a  lovely Parthian. “Perhaps now they will give up their futile faith.”

“Some will, perhaps, but those who call themselves righteous will never relent. The fools prostrate themselves before a god they cannot see and refuse to their deaths to bend their necks a fraction to the only true deity, the emperor.”

I do not feel I know enough about Roman perspectives on the Jews during this time (or on Jewish beliefs or practices, or Judea) to adequately address the accuracy of the above discussion. I do know that I’ve read some things that suggest that the Romans were content to tolerate the Jews, and even to admire the antiquity of their particular religion, until the First Jewish-Roman War, after which point Roman views of the Jews hardened. This would suggest that Antigonus is a bit ahead of his time in his words and phrasing here. But it’s possible that there were outliers and that Antigonus fits well into a specific strand of thought at his time. I’d be interested to hear from readers with more familiarity with this area of history.

I do know a bit more about what comes next, though.

Patrons shifted his bulk on a couch nearby. “At least they are more interesting than those cowardly Christians. Pit a Jew against anyone and you will see how fiercely he fights, but put a Christian in the arena and he’ll kneel and sing to his unseen god, dying without raising a finger to defend himself.” He took another delicacy from the silver platter. “They sicken me.”

Marcus remembered only too well the hundreds of Christians Nero had ordered put to death. He had even doused some in pitch and bitumen and set them aflame to serve as torches for the games. The mob had been hungry for Christian blood following the emperor’s claims that the cult had set fire to Rome, ostensibly to fulfill their prophesy that the world would end in fire. But the mob hadn’t known of Nero’s own dreams of a new city named after himself.

The phrasing there suggests for a moment that Marcus himself doused Christians in pitch and set them on fire, though of course that is surely not what Rivers meant to suggest. It did make me giggle.

But let’s talk about the rest of this, because Rivers is engaging in an origins myth rather than a historical reality. Check out this abstract of a 2015 article by Princeton historian Brent D. Shaw, titled “The Myth of Neronian Persecution“:

A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 c.e. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s.

It seems we have no contemporary sources that say anything about Nero blaming the Christians for the fire in 64. There are contemporary sources on the fire, yes, but none of them mention Nero blaming the Christians. Tacitus is the first source to do so, and he wrote his Annals around 116, over fifty years later. Historians writing after him appear to have gotten the claim from Tacitus, but we do not have any information on where Tacitus might have gotten the claim himself. Even biographies of Nero written contemporaneously with Tacitus do not mention Nero blaming the fire on the Christians.

But the problem is actually deeper than this. Tacitus calls those persecuted by Nero after the fire “Chrestianos.” In his article, however, Shaw notes that the term almost certainly would not have been either known or used at the time of the 64 fire (or for decades afterwards). Tacitus used the term because it had become well-known by the time he was writing, around 116, but it was not a term used at the time, and indeed, it is likely that Christians as a group would not have been recognized or well-known in Rome at the time, whether among the common people or among the aristocracy:

It is difficult to know when the Christians were rst called Christians, when they began calling themselves Christians or, much more important for our purposes, when Roman gures of authority like governors and emperors identied them as such. The claim by the historian of Luke-Acts that the Roman governor of Judaea, Antonius Felix, ‘happened to be well informed about the way’ is manifestly a later assertion that is difficult to decipher, but in no way does even this statement have him recognizing anything like ‘the Christians’. We do know that up to the end of the apostle Paul’s life, approximately to the mid-60s, the term was not used. When Paul was accused before the Roman authorities, he was called a Nazorean not a Christian. About the year 60, the High Priest Ananias appeared with his advocate Tertullus before Felix the Roman governor of Judaea to make the case against Paul. Paul is charged with raising riots in Jerusalem and ‘being a ringleader of the sect of the Nazoreans’.

The first use of the name Christianos as a mode of self-identication is claimed by the historian of Luke-Acts to have occurred in the community in Antioch. But writing, perhaps, as late as the 90s, it is difficult to control the precise mise-en-scène. Even if the students of Jesus began to call themselves Christianoi at some point in the 40s and 50s in an eastern city of the Empire, it is difficult to know what sort of general purchase this naming had in the high social and political ranks with which we are concerned. And even if the contemporaneity of the reference could be guaranteed, which it cannot, the use of the term still appears to be highly localized and internal to the community itself.

The only other explicit case is found in a letter attributed to the apostle Peter in which the name ‘Christian’ is specifically attached to a concatenated sequence of accusation, conviction, and punishment: ‘Yet if anyone suffers as a Christianos, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is the time for judgement to begin in the household of God.’ As the introduction to these words indicates, they are explicitly connected with judicial attacks on members of this community… But when was this happening? The critical dating of the letter is taken to belong to some time between the late 90s and the 110s. The manifest context of persecution and martyrdom behind the words points directly to years when these had become real threats.

Among Christian writers, Ignatius of Antioch is the rst person who consistently and repeatedly uses the appellation Christian as a probative type of self-identification in a context where a large alien public and gures of authority such as governors recognized and used the term. The letters, in the form that we have them, probably date to the 150s to 160s, or even later.

I hope you’re finding this as fascinating as I am!

Shaw makes it clear that no one in Rome in 64 (or in 70, when this book is set) would have been using the term “Christian” to describe this particular sect. Such a term was simply not in use until many decades later.

Shaw concludes that:

It, therefore, seems improbable that the persons who were executed by Nero were a specic social group whom the mass of the common people of Rome knew well enough to call Christians or Chrestianoi, persons who were hated or despised because of their disgraceful or shameful deeds [in Tacitus’ writing]. The most detailed analysis of the available data is not able to proffer any substantial proof or preponderance of evidence that would lead one to believe that there was a sizeable community of persons publicly known as Christians in Rome and Ostia, or, indeed, more widely in Latium, as early as the 50s and 60s. Christians, who were probably not called or even known by this name at the time, were hardly a sufficiently distinctive group within the Jewish communities at Rome in the 60s to be noted for their own peculiar identity, much less a well-known group under this name and recognized as such by the ordinary inhabitants of the city.

The problem here isn’t just in Tacitus’ use of the term (which could have been applied retroactively) but also in the lack of popular identification of Christians as a group (by any name) at this time. Josephus makes the very first reference to Christians made in any source outside of the New Testament—and he wrote in 93-94. By that time, then, the sect was well-known enough to Josephus, a historian of the Jews, to include (extremely briefly) in his history. But outside of that—and before then? There were many small sects and religious cults at the time. This particular one does not appear to have attracted especial attention before the end of the first century (according to Shaw).

As a case in point, Shaw writes that Tacitus shared the same basic field of knowledge as Pliny, a contemporaneous figure whose writings have also survived. He then notes that “the one thing that we know about Pliny’s knowledge of Christians is that when, as governor of Bithynia-Pontus [around 110], he interrogated some of the accused he knew rather little about them”:

Pliny was unsure of what to do when certain locals filed accusations before his tribunal against Christians. He had to make detailed inquiries of the persons themselves, with the use of torture in some cases, to nd out who they were, what they believed, and what they actually did. He freely admits that he had never been party to any judicial hearings in which such persons had been involved, that he knew nothing about any existing governmental decisions concerning them, and, a fact important to our argument, that he knew nothing about how they had been punished. Even if some of this lack of knowledge was rhetorically fashioned, it is still a remarkable level of professed ignorance. Pliny was about as highly educated a member of the Roman élite of the time as one could be. He certainly knew about his Roman past. If persons known as Christians had been responsible for setting the fire that almost destroyed the metropolis of the Empire — or who, at the very least, were rmly believed to have been the culprits — and had been punished for this act of monumental criminality, that Pliny knew nothing about these matters or about Christians is simply not credible.

It would seem highly unlikely, then, that an individual like Marcus, living in 70 AD, would have known anything at all about the Christians. And yet, Marcus, Antigonus, and Patronus speak about the group as though its existence is common knowledge.

And if Shaw is correct, Nero did not blame any such group for the burning of Rome.

A terrible fire did in fact destroy large parts of Rome. And most probably there were rumours oating about that Nero was responsible for it. Emperors were conventionally held liable for keeping the people of Rome safe and fed. Dereliction in these duties was a serious, even a dangerous matter, especially in circumstances in which a majority of the city’s people were traumatized by losing the lives of persons close to them and their own lifetime’s possessions. Nor is it unbelievable that large numbers of people were arrested and found guilty of having caused the re. Fires often provoked responses of conspiratorial accusations in which subaltern persons were held to be responsible for creating a dangerous and uncontrollable public danger. … But it is most unlikely that Christians were specifically targeted as such. 

Shaw quotes from a later Christian writer, Lactantius, to further support his case. Lactantius did argue that Christians were persecuted under Nero, but did not connect any such persecution to the 64 fire, despite likely having access to and being familiar with Tacitus’ writings. Shaw suggests that by the time Tacitus wrote, there had been some connection made between Nero and the Christians, and that Tacitus mistakenly subbed them in for the individuals blamed for the fire.

What of Lactantius’ claims of Christian persecution under Nero? What of later (and ongoing) Christians’ claims that Paul and Peter were both martyred in Rome at around that time? Shaw writes that there is no evidence whatsoever that Peter ever left Judea. Shaw notes that Paul was indeed killed in Rome at around this time—but not because he was a Christian.

Paul was likely executed at Rome, probably at some time in the early 60s. But his execution had nothing to do with any anti-Christian moves by the emperor Nero. The emperor’s officials were simply hearing and deciding, on appeal, the original charge against Paul that had been sustained by the governors of Judaea in the mid- to late 50s. That initial charge manifestly had nothing to do with his being a Christian. It was based, rather, on accusations that Paul was provoking violent disturbances or was dangerously threatening the public order: in sum, that he was engaged in seditious behaviour of some sort. Decisions regarding such matters normally fell under the coercive powers of a governor. Paul’s arrest and subsequent execution had nothing to do with the Great Fire at Rome or with a persecution of Christians. Both had proceeded correctly according to proper legal form in a matter that was of concern to the Roman governors of Judaea at the time.

What of the larger-scale issue of Christian persecution itself? When did it begin, and why, and how? Shaw writes as follows:

The larger longer-term consequences that follow, I suggest, are very important. If the fictitious Neronian persecution is removed from the record, as surely it must be, then what follows about confrontations between the Roman state and the Christians as Christians? The plain answer seems to be almost nothing until the years focused on the coterie of texts that include Ignatius, the writers of the Prophecies of Isaiah and the Book of the Apocalypse, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and others: that is to say, in the decades following the early 100s. Everything points to this temporal synapse when there emerged an official consciousness in the Roman ruling élite of a distinctive group of people named Christians.

I’m going to do some more reading so that I can put what Rivers is writing here in context effectively. But suffice it to say, it is highly unlikely that that three Roman aristocrats would know about or care about the Christian sect in 70 AD, and it is even more unlikely that they would use the term “Christians.”

There are other things that are off here, too. In this section, Patronus describes the Christians as cowards. However, when the sect was more widely known, in the second century A.D., the main charge against them was not cowardice, but that they were incestuous cannibals who engaged in orgies. Yes, really. It is speculated that these rumors arose because of a misunderstanding of the Eucharist and because Christians addressed each other as “brother” and “sister.” Early Christian fathers had quite the time putting these rumors out. So I guess my point is—if we’re going to stretch the timeline and have Marcus, Antigonus, and Patronus discussing their distaste for the Christians, could we at least have them doing it accurately?

Let’s at least be clear about this—when it comes to Rivers’ treatment of early Christianity, we are entering a mythical world, not historical reality.

One more thing that’s important to remember—and something I suspect Rivers may be completely unaware of—is that Christians themselves were not uniform in their beliefs and practices at this time, or indeed for several hundred years. They did not even agree on who (or what) Jesus was. Early Christianity was a kaleidoscope of sects and ideas that make modern Christianity seem like a monolith despite divisions between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians.

Let’s end on this one final note, from Rivers’ text:

Watching men and women die without a fight had left Marcus with a vague feeling of unrest, a disquiet that gnawed at him. Patronus called them cowards; Marcus wasn’t sure he agreed with that assessment. A coward would run before a charging lion, not stand firm facing it.

In addition to the fact that Marcus could not have seen this, at this point in time, I want to point out that Rivers is setting the scene for a man whom God is already working on. He’s not like Antigonus or Patronus, who care only about pleasure and power and openly mock and despise those who are different from them. Marcus is different. Marcus is open. Or perhaps this simply points to the one-dimensional nature of Rivers’ side characters.

I was going to finish chapter 4 today, but that’s not going to happen. Next week we meet Arria, Marcus’ lover, and discuss purity teachings and intimate partner violence.

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