(Fake!) Epitaph to Jesus

For my Historical Jesus class this semester, we were asked to create an obituary for Jesus through the lens of someone from the period.  We were given some examples which I felt were a little anachronistic (Osama bin Laden’s obit from the New York Times was one of them).  So instead of doing a modern obituary, I chose to produce an epitaph like those commonly found in the ANE around Jewish settlements in what was Judaea and also the Diaspora (in Egypt, for example).  I drew heavily upon the translations by Hurbory and Noy and lengthened it considerably; I also added a little academic analysis (though not comprehensive, obviously–I didn’t want to bore the professor).  It was tons of fun to produce and I had fun ‘analyzing’ the ‘inscription’.  Here is the “translation” and analysis (lengthened slightly from the original assignment)–it presumes that no New Testament writing survives:

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Necropolis near Nazareth: 1st Century CE. Epitaph on tomb; Bilingual (Greek text with Hebrew names).  Unknown scribe, commissioned inscription.

Inscription translation:

Hold! Passers-by!  Weep and mourn for the man in this tomb.  This is the tomb of the good man Jesus, only son of Joseph, of Nazareth.  He was taken down to the underworld in the 19th Year of Caesar Augustus.[1]  Look on this tomb, passersby, and beat with your hands thirty times for the thirty year old that has was snatched by Hades.[2]  For his mother, Mary, grieves for the loss of her son that pleased her, and had caused pain to none.  Grieving also are his companions, with whom he traveled, Peter, Mary, Judas, and John.[3]

For though he spread the news of the Lord, a path of righteousness and salvation, he was harassed by Death and woes![4]  Beset upon by the wicked, he was tempted, yet prevailed only to be met with a senseless end, to be hung on a tree![5]

[…] three days […] he will be raised […] unto the Lord![6]

O! All-subdoer, great Hades, why have you forsaken this man to his fate?  Hear me, wayfarers! Glory be given to the soul of the body with which they have placed in this tomb.  Though he was borne into a humble home, loved by all, and raised by his family to love the Lord, he found strength in the path of righteousness.  Majestically he traveled, never set to one place, teaching about the law as though a prophet.  To the tomb he went, as a man unmarried and chaste unto the Lord.

Weep for the dead Jesus, taken from his elder years by the wickedness of betrayal.  Set to earthly destruction for crimes he did not commit.[7]

Passers-by, speak softly when you go by of this tomb!  Do not disturb the stone walls or the sleeping dead within.  Rest now, Jesus, child of the Lord, untimely dead.  Grieve for those who are left behind. Farewell.

On behalf of Joseph the Arimathean, follower and friend of Jesus, lover of the Lord, who has commissioned this inscription, with those names of the community listed below.  Fortunate was the man, Jesus, who had companions such as these, though unfortunate in his demise.[8]


[1] “19th year of Caesar Augustus”, that likely is the 19th year of his reign, about 33 CE.  Information on 1st Century CE Nazareth is limited; not much archaeological evidence for the type of settlement in this period.  Likely a small village and scarcely populated.

[2] “Hades” (άδης); unlikely to have been incorporated at the behest of the commissioner of the inscription (see below), probably added by the scribe in place of Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). If incorporated by the original commission, it may imply that the group that associated with this figure Jesus wereat least slightly Hellenized, and that their sectarian views were developed, in part, through syncretism (see note 3 below).

[3] Given the rarity with which one includes so many individuals on funerary inscriptions (outside of the family names), it is likely these individuals were part of a sectarian group who held up Jesus as their sect leader.

[4] Death is here personified, similar to the Testament of Abraham in the Pseudepigrapha.

[5] “Hung on a tree”, perhaps indicative of Deut. 21.23, “…his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” This probably implies that he died by crucifixion, which might explain why the inscription bares the statement that his demise was ‘unfortunate’.

[6] This section is very badly damaged.  Unsure what the implications are of the phrase ‘he will be raised’ (ἐγερθήσεται).  Too many words obscured from the original inscription to make any clear indication of its actual meaning, though perhaps the translation is similar to the Hazon Gabriel, if one were to accept Israel Knohl’s translation: ‘to rise from the dead within three days.’

[7] “Crimes…” Possibly indicating that he was falsely accused of something that warranted ‘hanging from a tree”, i.e., crucifixion.  If this was indeed a sectarian leader, possibly associated with his teachings (maybe radical?) or with something he may have done or said against the Romans who occupied Judaea at this time.

[8] The list of names has been destroyed by time.  Likely Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus or a member of his sect; he must have been wealthy in order to commission such a large inscription.

Fall Approacheth!

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In just a few weeks, my summer will end and the Fall Semester will have kicked off officially.  When that happens, I will be blogging more regularly again on this site.  It should prove to be an interesting semester indeed!  Two courses which I am greatly looking forward to are ‘Jesus’ and ‘Classic Mythology: Then and Now’; the first is of course about the figure of you-know-who and his portrayal in antiquity; the second is a special analysis of literary figures and how they shift through time *in literature*.  Very interesting and both courses are related to one another to a large degree and I think that will make the semester that much more exciting.  I will, as always, be blogging through my semester.

In the mean time, I am doing a lot of blogging on my secondary site and packing up my stuff for a big move!  So ‘Musings’ will be silent for a few more weeks yet.

Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God rains fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.

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“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?

Related:

See this (Joel Watts).

Your Guide to Crazy Claims

You might have noticed a new page on this site.  If not, well, here is your friendly nudge to go check it out.

Guide to Pseudo-Scholarship

This new page presents the most crazy, unfounded, and bizarre claims I’ve come across over the years and includes a multitude of useful links to blog posts and papers which debunk them.   Check them out, enjoy them, use them, and share the page with all your friends.

History’s ‘The Bible’ in Broader Contexts

In lieu of writing a much longer piece for an online journal, I have thought it useful to open up some to a conversation concerning the History Channel’s ‘The Bible’.  Recently lots has been made about the inaccuracies of the miniseries, as well as Glenn Beck’s (racist?) comments about how similar is their Satan character to “that guy”.  But not much has been said in its defense.

This is problematic; while there are inaccuracies, I am not sure that it diminishes from the quality or historical contexts that are present.  Before Jim West gets flustered (don’t hate me Jim), let me explain my meaning.

As students of the past, there is one constant fact to all of our ancient literature that I’m sure many of my readers will already know: they contain elements of what some would call ‘truth’ (in a philosophical or theological sense), elements of cultural memory/social memory (historical or otherwise), and lots more mythological constructs–fictions, to be blunt about it.  In the Gospels, this is probably the most clear-cut.  We have four canonical Gospels and dozens of noncanonical Gospels, some contain similar elements between each other (Matthew and Luke contain something like 90% of Mark’s Gospel with their own additional, unique content).

I often wonder how early receivers of these Gospels understood them.  As a literary critic at heart, reception history is an important function of any text; yet somehow I don’t think that Luke’s first readers grumbled on about how little it matched up with Matthew’s accounts.  I mean, you don’t generally find early Christian apologists complaining about how much Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives contradict each other. (critics of Christianity certainly did, but not generally the believers–which is telling)  Somehow four Gospels were, for the most part, accepted into a canon and appreciated as they were–with all of their complexities and nuance, with their competing theological narratives, with their chronological disparities.

Kind of like these discrepancies.

Now not everyone appreciated this, and we have examples of some later scribes attempting to unify the four versions (i.e., they attempted to ‘correct’ the disparities). But these attempts were widely unsuccessful (so far as we know); we still have four Gospels in the canon, contradictions and competitive elements included.  So at some point, along the line, these were still appreciated for what they were: rewritten narratives, tradition ‘history’.  Most of my readers who are academics themselves will undoubtedly be aware of all of this.  And in many respects, probably still accept the Gospels–begrudgingly or otherwise–with their many challenges and puzzling alterations.

But isn’t it interesting that when a miniseries does the same thing as the Gospel authors, many of us just cannot deal with it?  So the producers have a square script in the wrong period.  So what?  Matthew includes a scene where Herod goes about ordering the killing of a bunch of infants (which never happened).  Luke feels it is completely acceptable to add a census at the wrong time.  And lest we forget, Josephus and Philo were quite capable of rewriting the Bible in bizarre and inaccurate ways; Josephus has Alexander the Great reading the book of Daniel for goodness sake; a book which at that time would not be inked for another 160 years or more!  Philo has Heraclitus stealing philosophical ideas from Moses; if you want to talk about inaccuracies and historical improbabilities, look no further than the first century CE.

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“Look at this book which conveniently fits right into the theme of my narrative (that hasn’t been written yet)!”

Many have had a (understandable) problem with how white Jesus is portrayed in the film.  But Jesus has been portrayed as white for generations–not that this is an acceptable argument, because it isn’t–but he has not only ever been portrayed this way.  Some of the very first depictions of Jesus are him as a Greek (as Orpheus) or as a Roman (on a Roman sarcophagus where he is portrayed with no beard, a tunic of high quality, and thick, curly hair).

Certainly some early depictions of him appear closer to what one might imagine; painted on a catacomb wall, there stands Jesus–unbearded, olive-skinned though still clearly Caucasian, and in the desert near a tomb–with a magic wand conjuring up a dead Lazarus, for example.  But isn’t that just another example of an artist taking a personal liberty in their own portrayals of Jesus?

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Expecto patronum!” or something.

Let’s be plainly honest: There is no way to know what ethnicity Jesus had been; one might like to imagine him as an approximation of what the popular concept of ‘Jewish’ was like in antiquity, but as Thomas L. Thompson has aptly pointed out, “Jewish” is not an ethnicity.  He may have been a black man, he may have had a Greek ancestry, he may have been an Egyptian, he may have been something else entirely–he just shows up out of nowhere in Mark with no birth narrative or discussion of ancestry (and Luke and Matthew included ancestry for theological reasons–not historical reasons).  Paul may or may not suggest that he was from the line of David (I tend to think not), but even so that does not ipso facto mean every descendent of his was ethnically tied to the region.  Some scholars would like to think so; but this is really sort of a moot point in some ways, isn’t it?  The earliest Christian communities didn’t care about Jesus’ racial background and portrayed him as whatever they saw fit for their communities.  After all, God does not have an ethnicity (nor a gender, for that matter).

Does History’s ‘The Bible’ contain errors, contradictions, inaccuracies, etc…?  Yes, absolutely.  But look at the material from which it is drawing inspiration.  When your actual source material is conflicting, inaccurate, vague, or diversely interpreted, any retelling or rewriting of that narrative will contain those elements.   It is patently unfair to criticize the miniseries for being ‘untrue to the source material’ when even our earliest interpreters were unconcerned with such anachronistic notions.  ‘The Bible’ is a modern day retelling, in the same vein as Josephus or Philo, of any of the Gospel authors, any of the apologists and scribes of antiquity.  Do you understand what it is you are watching?

If you truly do not like what the program offers, don’t watch it.  Or, better yet, watch it and use it in your classrooms.  Use it in your presentations and lectures to show, through example, how a text can be reinterpreted to fit a modern, synchronized world–but also how it was reinterpreted in the past.  Use it, don’t just thump your chest and brow-beat it.  We get it; you went to Seminary or a research institution and you want to prove you know what you’re talking about.  We know you’re smart.  So use that intellect and turn ‘The Bible’ into a learning tool, rather than shunning it.

The tools have changed, but the process is essentially the same; it just takes less time to achieve the same result.

Just my two-cents.  More to come.

Beware the Ides of March!

Caesar:
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer:
Beware the ides of March.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15–19

And here we are, the Ides of March!  Made famous by the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar (15 Mar). So I have provided here a little collection of useful links and images and articles for your own use.  Enjoy.

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Area where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

  And here is a re-imagining of the event:

Though it probably didn’t happen like this. Just sayin’.

Here is Plutarch’s description of the event:

Now when the senate was gone in before to the chamber where they were to sit, the rest of the company placed themselves close about Caesars chair, as if they had some suit to make to him, and Cassius, turning his face to Pompeys statue, is said to have invoked it, as if it had been sensible of his prayers. Trebonius, in the meanwhile, engaged Antonys attention at the door, and kept him in talk outside. When Caesar entered, the whole senate rose up to him. As soon as he was sat down, the men all crowded round about him, and set Tillius Cimber, one of their own number, to intercede in behalf of his brother that was banished; they all joined their prayers with his, and took Caesar by the hand, and kissed his head and his breast. But he putting aside at first their supplications, and afterwards, when he saw they would not desist, violently rising up, Tillius with both hands caught hold of his robe and pulled it off from his shoulders, and Casca, that stood behind him, drawing his dagger, gave him the first, but a slight wound, about the shoulder. Caesar snatching hold of the handle of the dagger, and crying out aloud in Latin, “Villain Casca, what do you?” he, calling in Greek to his brother, bade him come and help. And by this time, finding himself struck by a great many hands, and looking around about him to see if he could force his way out, when he saw Brutus with his dagger drawn against him, he let go Cascas hand, that he had hold of and covering his head with his robe, gave up his body to their blows. And they so eagerly pressed towards the body, and so many daggers were hacking together, that they cut one another; Brutus, particularly, received a wound in his hand, and all of them were besmeared with the blood.

A coin commemorating the event:

One of the most famous coins of all time is the EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he threw Rome into more than three years of civil war, eliminating his opponents along the way. In 49 BC, many leading citizens, including some sixty Roman Senators, had come to see Caesar as a power-grabber who wanted to make himself king. This was an unacceptable situation for men like Brutus, who wished to retain their beloved Republic.

Book Review: Candida Moss – ‘The Myth of Persecution’

15a97f0a723e11e29a6422000a9e06c4_7I had very little knowledge of this book prior to receiving my copy, though I did have high expectations based upon what little I did know.  A professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, Dr. Candida Moss has focused quite a bit on the subject of martyrdom and judging from her earlier work she tends to treat the evidence objectively (while remaining realistic about it), making her a superb scholar.   From the blurb on the book, it looked to be a subject with which I have a lot of interest; it appeared to have that edge, that revisionist quality, of which I felt I would enjoy reading.

There were a lot of ways this book could have failed.  It is not an easy task to challenge a foundational doctrine.  Often books of this magnitude will fall short somewhere, either in interpretation, or in attempts to find bizarre explanations that side-step critical issues.   So it is, in fact, a testament–a μάρτυς, if you will–to Dr. Moss’s abilities that this book finds its footing and takes off running from the very first page.   It does not disappoint.

In the introduction of The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Moss spends a good amount of time laying out the framework for the rest of the book.  She engages, first and foremost, the modern mindset of martyrdom within Christianity–a temperament that she treats carefully and respectfully–and how this contemporary mentality feeds off of a tradition of an ancient persecuted Christian church.  In certain cases throughout the history of the world, persecuted Christians (i.e., those who often face inexplicable hardships, including death) have likened their struggle with the ancient martyr traditions, often dualistically (as in a battle between good and evil).  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she writes, as “Sometimes this idea inspires great courage and heroism and provides comfort to the sick or dying” (p. 9).  She then goes on to aptly point out the distinction between actual persecutions and the invoked kind.  That is to say, those who would relate disagreements (often minor) between themselves and other political- or social-opposing groups (like those relating to how religious issues should be handled in a secular society which makes allowances for minority rights, for example) to persecution.

QuitSquirming1We all know about this tactic, don’t we?  How often do we hear someone talking about how they are ‘religiously persecuted’ because they can’t force prayer in school?  Or how about those who feel oppressed because they can’t get judicial officials to follow the law of the Bible instead of modern, secular laws?  Dr. Moss highlights this important issue with a good blend of criticism while recognizing the social factors that push this mentality onward.  For that she gets bonus points, in my book.  It is far too easy to get lost in the polemics and vitriol, and yet she somehow manages to avoid all that by cutting right to the social factors and implications, while remaining honest and forthright about the ‘wrongness’ (if I can use it that way) of such blatant word misuse.  But while this is not persecution in the true sense, she argues, this is how modern western societies–particularly in America–interpret the word:

In this polarized view of the world, disagreement and conflict–even entirely nonviolent conflict–is not just a difference of opinion; it is [in the mind of this social entity-Ed.] religious persecution. (ibid.)

Dr. Moss is tactful, never making any accusations or calling into question anyone’s integrity or honesty; she treats these feelings are genuine (though when it comes to politicians, she may be too generous).  Still, her underlying premise is that there are individuals, whether they are religious or political figures, who evoke the language of persecution and–when this occurs–there are real and unfortunate consequences.

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

These mythical constructs that a person might conjure–specifically those constructs empowered emotionally by persecution language–are far from beneficial.  Rather than drumming up strong convictions, bolstering courage in face of opposition, or seeking out peaceful solutions, those groups within our society who feel persecuted are charged-up by this language, encouraged to become reactionary, and cause tremendous trouble–even to the point of committing acts of violence.  In other words, one who is under the impression that they are being persecuted–rather than simply acknowledging a disagreement in opinion–are likely to find justification in retaliation; that is to say, those who feel persecuted become the persecutors.

Then Dr. Moss throws in the wrench: What if the age of persecution is (mostly) a myth?  What if this deep-seated social memory recall, that many Christians learn from a young age, is not rooted in the verisimilitude of history?  This raises all sorts of questions, and Dr. Moss does a fine job dealing with them all.  As a minimalist, I am always more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what’; ‘what is this story saying’ is important, but not as important–in my opinion–as ‘why is this story being told?’.  So I was delighted to see Dr. Moss express this very concept:

When asked to describe the experiences of Christians under Roman Rule,…others might refer to those martyrs burned alive or beheaded or to the extreme tortures and grisly forms of execution that only the most sadistic minds could conjure up. …  This is the picture of the early church that we get from nearly two thousand years of literature, art, and–now–film. .. When it comes to why Christians were persecuted, people are hard-pressed to supply an answer.  (pp. 127, 128)

To be clear, she does not outright deny that Christians are persecuted (or that they were persecuted in antiquity); she is particular in what she says:

There’s no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted;… Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences.  There is no doubt that Christians did die, that they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today,….  At the same time, the statements of apologists like Justin martyr, Tertullian, and Eusebius do not fit the evidence.  We need to be wary of the claims of Christians that they were everywhere and always persecuted, when, in fact, they were not.  (pp. 160, 161)

That said, I have to find something about which to be critical lest I be considered a bias reviewer; to be fair to Dr. Moss, these criticisms don’t have any impact on the value and usefulness of this book, and most of what I have to criticize is superficial at best.

Let me preface this by saying I really enjoyed Dr. Moss’s discussion of the early martyrdom traditions and how, like most ancient literature, there are clear designs at work, where the authors of these traditions show literary indebtedness to other,more ancient narratives (both Greco-Roman and Jewish).  Still, I would have liked to see a discussion of some of the earlier persecution stories dealing with Paul and Ignatius.  While Paul is talked about a bit (especially on his rhetoric of persecution), I don’t recall reading anything about his supposed imprisonment (as this is, itself, a form of persecution.  Both of these narratives have similar (unbelievable) elements (Colossians 4:18, where Paul is supposedly writing from prison, vs. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans):  Here they are, captured by Romans for, apparently, just practicing Christianity, and yet these same captors are supplying both Paul and Ignatius with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about the very same religion for which they were arrested.  And just who sent the letters?  It seems rather bizarre to imagine the Romans, who are presented as hostile towards Ignatius, would just do his bidding by sending out mail.  Likewise it seems just as silly to presume that other Christians would smuggle them out.  In the church tradition, Paul is supposedly martyred, but Ignatius reminds us in his epistles that he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!

Additionally, a discussion of the Abraham/Isaac traditions would have fit nicely into Chapter 1, which deals with the concept of martyrdom prior to Christianity.  While not necessarily a ‘martyr tradition’ in the official sense (read the book to find out why the language is important), in some versions of the story, Isaac is killed by Abraham.  This story also has certain motifs, like with that of Socrates, of a death narrative that was deemed both necessary and pious in certain Jewish and Christian traditions.  In my opinion, the father having to sacrifice his son to embolden a covenant has some interesting (albeit, generic) correlations with the passion narrative itself.

Of course, these minor critiques are nothing to worry about.  Their absence does not detract from the book in any way.  To the contrary, and to Dr. Moss’s credit, what she didn’t include couldn’t hurt her case, but only make it stronger.  The best example? The rather small size of the Christian movement in the first few centuries.  As a barely noticeable religion, a historian would be hard-pressed to find a solid reason why the Romans would even take notice of Christianity, make any sort of distinction between it and Judaism, or find just cause (or any cause) to launch a campaign of persecution against them.  Quite to the point, Pliny, a provincial governor of Bithynia (see his Epistulae) in the early second century, doesn’t even seem to notice them through most of his political career (which is extensive, and he surely would have come into contact with them at some point were there persecutions prior to the period!), and only when someone brings them before him, he acts–but he is utterly confused by them, and has to write the emperor in order to find out what to do with them (besides what he has already done)!  He isn’t even sure if holding the name ‘Christian’ itself or if the actions done under the name are considered an offense.  Had the Christian movement been larger, had there been an edict or discussion or law concerning the persecution of Christians prior to or during his governorship, Pliny would have known about it.  So not only is Dr. Moss right, arguments could be made which greatly support her conclusions in this very important volume.

This is a book about which I could go on and on, but I don’t want to drag this review out any longer (and continue to bore the pants off my readers when they could be enjoying the book I’m reviewing instead).  The Myth of Persecution espouses many truths about modern society and ancient society, both religious and secular.  But it also exposes a truth about humanity as a whole, though quite indirectly: we are satiated by myth.  Humans are simply more inclined to accept a traditional perspective than a factual one.  Man is intrigued more by legends of heroism than by real courage and heroism (and many of us wouldn’t even know where to look for it).  And whether a story is historical or not will never be as important as whether it is good or not.  For that reason, as well, some may not like what Dr. Moss has to say.  Her presentation–sound and verifiable as it is–will not win support from certain social groups and individuals who find the age of martyrs a useful tool in directing the masses to fulfill their agendas.

This guy probably won't buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read it.

This guy probably won’t buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read this book.

For those who are interested in the early church–that is, the best approximation we can find of what that ‘early church’ might have looked like–this book is a dream come true.  It analyzes long-ignored subjects in a tenacious–yet fruitful–manner that will grab your attention and keep you turning pages.  It is an enjoyable read and Dr. Moss has much to say–all of it is engaging, thoughtful, and brilliant.  These are traits that are hard to come by in even the most popular academic books.

69237_10100195428741034_1733929245_nFinally, I would add–in light of today being International Women’s Day–that The Myth of Persecution is defining in others ways not directly relevant to the subject of martyrdom.  There is something really exhilarating and refreshing about a book like this, which defies centuries of church tradition dominated by a testosterone-run hierarchy, written by an intelligent and (dare I say) attractive woman, in a profession (academia) also dominated by men (though, finally, the dynamics are shifting–yet not fast enough).  Scholarship (and society, more broadly) needs more of just this sort of thing; it needs more books that shake the foundations of long-held presuppositions by bright female scholars like Dr. Moss.  I hope she helps keep studies like this coming (and I also hope she lets me keep reviewing them).

I hope readers will check out the other reviews along this review tour:

Wednesday, March 6th: RMP

Wednesday, March 6th: A Philosopher’s Blog

Thursday, March 7th: A Book Geek

Saturday, March 9th: The Musings of Thomas Verenna

Monday, March 11th: Aspire2

Tuesday, March 12th: Earliest Christianity

Wednesday, March 13th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, March 14th: Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About?

Monday, March 18th: The Way Foreward

Tuesday, March 19th: The Dubious Disciple

Wednesday, March 20th: Exploring Our Matrix

Thursday, March 21st: The Gods Are Bored

Monday, March 25th: Broken Teepee

Also check out her interview at the Huffington Post and check out her book trailer here:

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