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Bewildering Stories

James J. O’Donnell, Pagans

The End of Traditional Religion
and the Rise of Christianity

review article by Don Webb

Author: James J. O’Donnell
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2015
Length: 273 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-06-184535-2

Why this review, and why here?

Initially, I was inclined to delay reviewing Professor O’Donnell’s Pagans for two reasons. First, it’s a cultural-history addendum to his much lengthier Ruin of the Roman Empire. Second, unlike “Ruin,” it complements the series Cassandra’s Voices: Warnings to the Modern Age.

The first reason warrants reconsideration, if only because issue 613 is “seasonal,” although we have no official “holiday” issues. But there’s an even better reason: what “Ruin” does in breadth, Pagans does more briefly, but in depth.

The topic of ancient religion was addressed from a very different perspective in my review of “Ruin,” The eminent scholarship deployed in Pagans appears to bear it out to some extent. If so, I’m glad to think I’m on the right track.

Pagans is not a compendium — let alone an encyclopedia — of religions or cults in the ancient world. Professor O’Donnell explicitly leaves to specialists the enormous task of exploring the seemingly endless labyrinths of what is now mythology or merely some curiosities of ancient history.

Rather, he explains what the traditional cults meant to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the process, he depicts many colorful personalities and counters some popular misconceptions about conditions prevailing in the empire during the first four centuries of our era. The result is a new perspective on The Ruin of the Roman Empire, one that is equally important to today’s world.

What does “pagan” mean?

It depends on who’s talking. Today, the word might be used patronizingly to refer to benighted people practicing weird cults in places that “civilization” has not yet reached. That is unhelpful, to say the least.

The word becomes practically meaningless; a religious person in one culture is a pagan in another. It isn’t the same as “infidel,” which expresses a combination of alienation and hostility; rather, it’s merely a way of saying “foreign” or “other.” And it’s an open invitation to the question “What on earth are you talking about?”

The original word, pagani, meant “country folk.” The expression pagani et montani distinguished between lowlanders and highlanders, and that was all. But sociology has a way of sticking its nose under the tent: city folk could use the terms to mean “rubes” or “hicks” or “hillbillies.” Such has always been the disdainful habit of the snooty in any culture.

The consequences of redefinition

The word changed meaning at the end of the fourth century, and it signaled a disaster. Emperor Theodosius (r. 379-395), a Spanish general, came out of retirement to share power with Gratian and Valentinian II. Theodosius brooked no ambiguity. He immediately convoked a church council, in 381. It settled old quarrels and established a “catholic” — universal, orthodox — brand of Christianity defined as separate from Judaism. All other contemporary sects were henceforth “pagan” in the modern, colloquial meaning of the word and worse.

To be fair, Theodosius was confronting a big problem. If the old, traditional deities were considered “fallen angels” or even “demons,” they had some kind of divine quality. Granted, it was bad quality, but it raised the specter of polytheism, and that was unacceptable.

Christianity had long been wrestling with the conundrum of the relationship between the human and the divine. The traditional gods of Greece and Rome were all alike: they had taken human forms, as though they were real people or “superheroes” in modern parlance.

In Christianity, opinion was badly split. Some saw Jesus as an old god, one who had taken human form or even as one who was only pretending to be human. Others saw him as an ordinary human being — not an emperor — who had become literally or symbolically divine. The question had to be settled somehow.

But that’s as far as fairness goes. Theodosius, as a former army general, chose the strong-arm solution. He condoned terrorism against traditional places of worship throughout the empire and sent a high-ranking hatchet man, Cynegius, to pillage “pagan” temples in the eastern provinces. The last decade of the fourth century was a very ugly time. (pp. 194-195)

Scholars debate just how much violence there was and how much credit it deserves for turning practice and sentiment permanently away from the old ways; MacMullen’s Christianizing the Roman Empire made it impossible to think any longer of a mainly benign and voluntary “triumph” of Christianity. (p. 255)

Nothing exceeds like success.

Lay readers — including students such as myself — suffer from a “flat” perspective of history. For us, the past is like a two-dimensional map on which everything coexists at the same time. We need scholars to add the dimension of time, the sequence of events. As far as I can make out, it went like this:

Jesus’ followers were forming communities at the time of Jesus himself. Over the next three centuries, similar communities formed in Rome and across the empire. Professor O’Donnell concludes that they encountered resistance about as much as any other new sect did: the usual suspicion from the established order. Persecutions and violence did occur, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

Those early communities were in no position to cause trouble; they had no weight to throw around. They were relatively small and, while not exactly poor, they weren’t wealthy, either. The early church met in households. Important positions were often held by women, who might even be called bishops today. By and large, these groups were peaceable; any sporadic hostilities that occurred can be chalked up to hotheads and troublemakers on one side or another.

The only real problem for the Romans was that the Christians were new. They weren’t on the books, so to speak, as a well-known religion, like Judaism, or like the familiar traditional cults. Basically, the problem was a legal, even bureaucratic one.

What did that mean in practice? It can be hard to understand. We may think like the ancients in some ways but, on the whole, they did not think like us; the cultural gap is wide and hard to bridge. For example, why would early Christians balk at the routine requirement to toss some incense on an altar as a kind of pledge of allegiance to the emperor and the Roman state? Were they implicitly acknowledging the reality of a pagan god? No, they were avoiding the trap of literalism. They couldn’t bring themselves even to appear to be worshipping an idol.

By the fourth century, times had changed. Christianity was so widespread that Constantine found it politically expedient to recognize it as an official religion, and it henceforth flourished in influence and wealth. As in all human endeavors, success was a mixed blessing.

The door was open to violence between Christian factions as well as with the traditional cults. We can ascribe it to political opportunism, but it was also a struggle between incompatible ways of thinking. Unfortunately, the formal concept of conflict resolution lay many centuries in the future, and the models provided by Jesus himself were not universally understood.

What is a god?

There is, emphatically, no simple, coherent or straightforward answer to the question What is a god? This may be the most important thing I say in this book. (p. 55)

Since the concept of “gods” is so elusive, how can we talk about them? As I see it, Professor O’Donnell takes the most practical approach. Treat the gods — Zeus, Jupiter and the rest — as what they are today: characters in literature. That allows us to answer the general question “What are you talking about?” and to see how the people of the time — the “audience,” so to speak — wrote themselves into the stories.

Professor O”Donnell lists seven questions that will begin to give us a handle on the topic. However, he cautions that the answers may not always tell us all we need to know. Further, he also shows how they set a trap for the unwary.

  1. Where is the god found?
  2. When does the god appear?
  3. Who pays attention to the god?
  4. What does the god do?
  1. What does the god look like?
  2. What is the god’s story?
  3. What is the god’s name, and who told you?

Here’s an example. My summary of the discussion sketches out answers to most of the seven questions:

Jupiter Dolichenus originated in the town of Doliche, strategically located between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. The god traveled to many places in the second century, probably carried by military men as they were relocated. Jupiter Dolichenus also seems to have been favored by influential political authorities. In the third century, the god seems to have fallen on hard times; in any event, it disappeared.

It doesn’t really matter how complete the answers are; we’ve fallen into a trap. It consists in...

Speaking of the god of Doliche as though he existed, as though there really were a being with a definable name and traits, who [...] moved around the Mediterranean world [...] and was consistently himself [in every place]. Nothing is so common in the way we all speak of these things, and nothing is so misleading. (p. 62)

My interpretation: we had better mind our language, lest we confuse fiction with reality. As one of our mottoes says, “Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.”

A few ancients knew what a metaphor was, but most didn’t. Even Paul speaks of understanding the concept of Christ “spiritually.” As we know, he means “metaphorically.” And you need to know what a metaphor is in order to be able to understand everything ranging from humor and comedy to theology.

The traditional gods represented figuratively the awe that the ancients felt in the face of powers beyond their control. This feeling of awe — and, perhaps, helplessness — was universal. As a result, gods were often similar enough from one culture to another to be borrowed with little more than a change of name, e.g. Zeus and Jupiter. (pp. 59-60) But in the end, the “pagan” gods had feet of clay.

Suppose they were Egyptian gods, which were usually local totems that had gradually been assimilated into the larger religious structure of the kingdom. Many of them were part animal, part human. Were they real? Hardly. They might be cyborgs in modern science fiction. In practice, they symbolized the unity of nature as well as transcendental power, and they were invoked to confer authority. The members of the Egyptian pantheon were transparently figurative images — unless one took them literally.

Suppose you did take one or more gods literally. You could tell stories about them and throw parties in their honor, such as the sumptuous festivals staged by Augustus. Today’s term “photo-op” understates ludicrously the economic and political significance of Roman show business. But is that the only purpose the gods served?

Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods (45 BCE) wrestles with that very question. To sum up:

Two major conclusions about Cicero’s interpretation:

The great issue in The Nature of the Gods has little to do with the gods themselves and more to do with their relations with humankind. As often, when we speak about the divine, it’s really all about us. (p. 49)

In the end, Cicero “invented” Roman religion by giving it a coherence it had never had before. He “carefully singled it out of the swamp of beliefs in which it quite naturally dwelled. [...] His skepticism was the most traditional thing about him. His positive attachment to the old ways of Rome was the novelty. (p. 53)

Talking to the gods

One could even attempt to communicate with the gods, perhaps through oracles and augury. But what good did that do? Oracular pronouncements and the divinations of augury were notoriously equivocal.

One example: The history of the Sybilline prophecies and their interpretations would be the stuff of comedy or even farce in today’s theatre. Maybe a few of the interpreters had their tongue firmly planted in their cheek or, one is free to imagine, fresh money in their pockets; but most took the exercise in obscurity literally.

The ancients understood quite well the political, cultural and even economic significance of ceremony, namely rites, observances and festivals. But anyone who took a dose of logic realized that divination was a joke. That was easier said than done: logic could be hard to come by in a world that had no concept of coincidence. (p. 50)

In modern terms, then, paganism was a very large collection of ad hoc conspiracy theories. Everything was of a piece, and any event you chose could be a sign affecting whatever might be of concern at the moment. Do a pair of yoked cows urinate at the same time? Bad luck. Or not. If you guess wrong, forget it. If you guess right, your divination will go down in history. Did Cicero believe in divination or not? He seems to have had it both ways: he was skeptical about divination, but he did believe in signs. If signs were misunderstood, that wasn’t the gods’ fault. (p. 52)

And yet, logic can be stubborn. Augury and even blood sacrifice gradually dwindled and were eventually abandoned precisely because they were ineffective. Today, we know why: there was no god to bargain with, and no real transaction took place. (p. 64)

Empty bargains have consequences. Rituals and offerings, like signs, could mean anything. And from there it was only a short step to realizing that something that can mean anything means nothing. The traditional gods were glorified good-luck charms, and the concept of superstition would be their downfall.

Walking with the divine: the world turned upside down

Chance always plays a huge role in history. To cite a now classic image, rewind the tape of history and replay it; it will be different every time. But just as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, sustained success requires more than mere luck as an explanation.

There’s always politics. Christianity formally emerged not with Jesus himself but when his followers began to draw the logical conclusion from his work and example: they could be Jews, as Jesus was, but they didn’t have to be. Ethnicity was henceforth irrelevant.

In the first three centuries, Christianity was moving into an intellectual vacuum in the Roman empire; it gave the people something the old gods could not. To see what it was, let’s reprise Professor O’Donnell’s seven questions. But a caution: we’ll have to check our cultural and theological preconceptions at the door.

  1. Where is the god found? — In churches, of course, but, according to Scripture, in any meeting place, wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name.
  2. When does the god appear? — Same answer.
  3. Who pays attention to the god? — Priests, eventually, but actually and always any of the faithful.
  4. What does the god do? — Promise eternal life in exchange for accepting the god’s concept of good and evil. And, by the way, this god is not into “holiness” rituals; he’s an equal-opportunity savior.
  5. What does the god look like? — Anyone. Make any image you want, but don’t think it’s anything more than an image.
  6. What is the god’s story? — You can try to kill him, but it won’t work.
  7. What is the god’s name, and who told you? — Jesus called him “father” or, colloquially, “dad.” You can use any name you like as long as we know what you’re talking about. But get one thing clear: whatever cultural baggage you’re carrying attaches to your name only.

In the modern vernacular, a sales pitch could have boiled down to this:

We have festivals, too. And if you want blood sacrifice, nobody can top ours. We don’t do fortune-telling but, if you have local heroes, they may qualify as saints as long as they get with the program. What is it? Do what the god wants. And that means everything the Roman empire is not doing. Care for everyone, especially those who have no privileges in the aristocratic warrior culture: women, children, the aged, infirm, workers — including slaves. Do we make offerings? One favor is requested: do not ask for good fortune; bring it to others. That is the way, the truth, and the life.

If the “sales pitch” seems ad hoc, that is precisely the point: everything had become new. That’s what revolutions do. Unfortunately, by the fourth century, complacency had set in.

What’s striking is the absence of missionary activity. Certainly there was recruitment and adoption of new Christians at a local level, but the rise of Christianity to near-universal adoption in the Roman world of the fourth and fifth centuries occurred without great missionary efforts, or what we might call “outreach.” (p. 196)

Relying on imperial support was a bad move, especially when the empire had begun to fragment into a patchwork of military dictatorships. With friends like Theodosius and, ultimately, Justinian, who needs enemies?

People create the divinity they claim to serve. And for what purpose? Early Christianity practically invented the modern concept “power to the people.” But that phrase is meaningless as long as it refers to power alone. What is that power supposed to accomplish? There is where the choice lies. And that choice defines faith, no matter what flag it flies.

Copyright © 2015 by Don Webb

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