Friday, 16 October 2015

Pagans and Christians - First contact

First posted on my classics blog, Memento, on 20 September 2014.

"First contact" in the Star Trek sense, that is....  In this post, I want to look at the encounters between early Christianity and the ancient pagan world.  I take as my basis the experiences of the Christian apostle St Paul, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible.

Paul travelled around various parts of the eastern Roman Empire during the three decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, preaching the new Christian faith wherever he went.  He eventually ended up in Rome, where tradition has it he was executed.  At this time, Christianity - literally, "Messiah-ism", from the Greek Christos, "Messiah" - was a small Jewish sect centred on Judaea.  No-one yet knew that it was going to become a major world religion.  Its adherents saw themselves as a chosen few who were awaiting the coming end of the world.

The paganism of the Roman Empire was not particularly intolerant, but it had no conceptual space for the new religion.  Perhaps more importantly, the Roman authorities did not take kindly to religious activists wandering around stirring up trouble.  The Romans were not cultural imperialists: they generally let their subject peoples keep their own religions, languages and customs if they wanted to do so.  The Empire was genuinely multicultural.  But the other side of the coin was that the Romans took a dim view of upstart prophets and preachers who threatened to upset the delicate balance of community relations.  That, after all, is why Jesus had been crucified in the first place.

So, what happened when Paul and his friends came into contact with traditional paganism?  The first and simplest response was incomprehension.  To the eyes of the educated pagan philosophers of Athens, Paul was little more than a curiosity:
He debated in the synagogue with the Jews and their gentile sympathisers, and he debated in the marketplace daily with everyone he met.  Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers came across him.  Some of them said: "What is this ignoramus talking about?"  Others said: "He seems to be preaching foreign gods of some sort."  (Acts 17.17-19)
Paul tries to curry favour with them by quoting from pagan writers (Epimenides and either Aratus or Cleanthes).  But the response of the Athenians is not enthusiastic, and Paul fails to make many converts.  This, incidentally, is why there is no Epistle to the Athenians in the New Testament.

Next, let's look at what happened when Paul and another Christian missionary, Silas, turned up in Philippi, a Roman military colony in eastern Macedonia. The response here was more brutal.  The author of Acts tells us that Paul's enemies were inspired by financial motives; but the sheer fact that a pair of strange Jews had appeared in town telling them that they had to renounce their ancestral religion was probably enough to rub the locals up the wrong way.  The following scene must have played out innumerable times as the Christian faith made its way through the Roman Empire:
....They seized Paul and Silas, and dragged them to the authorities in the marketplace.  They brought them before the generals and said: "These men are Jews, and they are causing great disorder in the city.  They are teaching customs which we, as Romans, cannot accept or perform."  The crowd rose up against them, and the generals stripped them of their clothes and ordered them to be beaten....  (16.19-22)
The lines of conflict here are fairly clear - Jews versus Romans.  The Roman officers don't think twice about ordering a couple of rabble-rousing Jews to be beaten (they later discover, to their dismay, that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens - but that's another story).  All that matters is that the newcomers have some sort of chip on their shoulder about religion and are stirring up trouble.  Of course, we the readers know that Paul and Silas are not ordinary Jews, but the Romans are unconcerned with the theological distinctions between orthodox Jews and the new sect of Messiah-ist Jews.  The same unconcern is apparent in the way in which Junius Gallio, the Roman Proconsul of Achaea in southern Greece, responds to the complaints of his Jewish subjects against Paul:
....Gallio said to the Jews: "Jews, if this man had committed some crime or act of villainous wrongdoing, I would hear your case according to the rules - but if this is a quarrel about philosophy and doctrine and your religious law, deal with it yourselves.  I am not prepared to act as a judge of such things."  And he drove them away from his judgment seat.  (18.14-16)
Hostility was not the only response that Paul received, however.  He received a rather different reception when he visited Lystra in southern Turkey with his companion Barnabas.  At this point, he has just performed a faith healing:
Seeing what Paul had done, the crowds lifted up their voice and said, in the Lycaonian language: "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!"  They called Barnabas, Zeus and Paul, Hermes, since he was the chief speaker.  The priest of Zeus, whose temple stood in front of the city, brought bulls and garlands to the gates and began to offer sacrifice with the crowds.  When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothing and launched into the crowd, crying out and saying:
"Men, why are you doing this?  We too are human beings of the same nature as you.  We bring you good news, that you should turn from this worthless religion to the living God, 'who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them' [cf. Exodus 20.11, Psalm 146.6].  In former times, he let all peoples walk on their own paths...."
Saying this, he barely restrained the crowds from sacrificing to them.
Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came in pursuit of them, won over the crowds and stoned Paul....  (14.11-19)
The people of Lystra interpret the arrival of Paul and Barnabas through the prism of their traditional religious beliefs.  They call them by the names of their traditional gods and attempt to do them honour by carrying out the quintessential ceremony of classical pagan religion - sacrifice.  The idea of the gods visiting mankind in disguise was a familiar one in ancient paganism.  Interestingly, Zeus and Hermes figured in a legend along these lines which, we know from other sources, was associated with the general region where Lystra was located (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.618-621).

Paul and Barnabas respond by expressing their dismay in a traditionally Jewish way - tearing their clothes - and by quoting the Jewish scriptures in support of monotheism.  Yet at the end of the passage we are reminded that the orthodox Jews are their enemies, who want to execute them for blasphemy.  What they are preaching is a radical new doctrine: up until now, God has let all peoples "walk on their own paths", but now he is insisting that they abandon them for the new Christian faith.  Paul also calls the townspeople's traditional religion mataia, "vain" or "worthless", which must have made it easy for the orthodox Jews to persuade them that Paul and Barnabas were bad news.

The passage also highlights something else.  The author of Acts, St Luke, is a gentile convert to a Jewish movement from Palestine; he is writing in Greek about Paul, a Roman citizen from modern-day Turkey, and Barnabas, who was a Cypriot; and he is describing how these men preached among Lycaonian-speaking peoples in Lystra, having journeyed there from the towns of Antioch and Iconium near the Syrian border.  Paul can apparently speak several languages, and, as we have noted, he will eventually end up in Rome.  The really striking thing in all this is what a cosmopolitan place the ancient Mediterranean was.