Development and Diversity in Early Christianity

By Bingham, D. Jeffrey | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Development and Diversity in Early Christianity


Bingham, D. Jeffrey, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


I. ROMAN HELLENISM AND CHRISTIANITY

According to Tiberius, divine justice had little to do with human religious administration. Pagan leadership had only a minor role to play in managing any disrespect shown to the gods. In the emperor's mind the maxim was clear: deorum iniurias dis curae, "wrongs done to the gods were the concern of the gods" (Tacitus, Annals 1.73.5).1 Humans were to concern themselves with other things. Or so it has been argued.2 Pagan religious syncretism was such that concepts of heresy and orthodoxy were not central to the pagan religious culture. Doctrinal formulations, such as metaphysical constructs, were not essential to true religion. Instead, religious concerns centered on much more social interests.3

Doctrinal preoccupation, then, may have been typical of early Christianity, but not of the pagan syncretism contemporary with it.4 The argument that Phillips makes regarding the uniqueness of the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy within early Christianity finds agreement in the position of Richard Lim.5 He notes the philosophers' disapproval of "authoritative 'givens,'" "dogmatic beliefs," or "blind trust in the dictates of an authority," emphasizing instead that neither Greco-Roman religion nor philosophy functioned with categories of heresy or orthodoxy. Instead, the Romans engaged in polemic, rivalry, disputation, debate, "philosophical demonstration," and "a dialectic of inquiry." Prior to a change beginning in the third century, Roman culture had been satisfied with eclecticism, disagreement, rather than consensus, concord, and uniformity.6

This thesis regarding the toleration of Roman paganism in sharp contrast to the unique, social intolerance of Christianity finds its roots, at least in modern discussion, in David Hume's The Natural History of Religion (1757).7 "So sociable is polytheism," he says, "that the utmost fierceness and antipathy, which it meets within an opposite religion, is scarcely able to disgust it, and keep it at a distance."8 It is not difficult to find contemporary advocates, some more nuanced than others.9 J. H. W. G. liebeschuetz absolves the Roman gods of jealousy: "The gods of Rome insisted that they must be offered punctiliously all honours due to them but they did not worry about what honours were paid to other gods or to men."10 Ramsay MacMullen speaks of Rome as "completely tolerant," yet "not quite completely."11 Romans were expected to honor the gods, to preserve and perpetuate the cult while certain groups were occasionally persecuted and certain practices forbidden.12 On the other hand, the study of John Ferguson emphasizes Roman religious accommodation, but the exclusivity of the Jews and Christians, and ultimately the "unloving intolerance" of the Christians.13

Peter Garnsey, however, has argued strongly against a culture of religious toleration among pagans in antiquity.14 A plurality of gods, even those from other national religions, was incorporated in Greco-Roman paganism, but such incorporation should be understood as relatively rare. Usually it occurred as a response to crisis or the result of expansion by warfare through which other gods were made subject to the pantheon of the victor. Gods "were simply annexed," and by virtue of its power, Rome exhibited a religion "in many 'foreign' forms."15 Each state religion was exclusive, but not in the sense of being "truer" or more privileged than the religions of other communities. "Exclusiveness" had more to do with maintaining the social order which was itself linked to a web of relationships involving the emperor, the gods, and civic elites.16

Romans perceived, in measure, their own superiority to other cults.17 Since religion contributed to Roman unity and identity in significant measure, the public context expected religio, or behavior that honored the gods of the state. Such devotion, however, was not to involve superstitio. That is, it was not to be excessive, particularly by moving toward magic or unacceptable foreign cults.

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