Robert Conner, Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus, Part 5

Robert Conner studied Greek, Hebrew, some Aramaic and even Coptic back in the mid-70's at Western Kentucky University. He's written nine books, including Jesus the Sorcerer, The Secret Gospel of Mark and Magic in Christianity, as well as a number of articles and essays. If you want a primer on what the earliest critics of Christianity had to say about this new cult then I'm publishing an essay he wrote in several parts, with approval. This is Part 5. To get up to speed follow this tag.

Christianity’s Critics:
The Romans Meet Jesus

Extended and Revised, 04/2016

Robert Conner


Christianity appeals to the ignorant and foolish.

The ancient world was a world in submission, the masses to the ruling class, youths to adults, women to men, soldiers to their commanders, slaves to their masters, and households to the whims and caprice of the paterfamilias. Jesus’ own preaching assumes as much—Jesus often refers to the “master of the house,” the oikodespothj (oikodespotēs)[1] or “house despot,” a title “redolent with hegemonic assumptions about masculine identity.”[2] The lord and master of the house can do as he pleases with what belongs to him[3] just as the rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over” their subjects and the great among them “exercise dominion.”[4] We can scarcely imagine the festering resentment among the immiserated Jewish peasantry in Roman occupied Palestine, a fury so intense that it contributed to no less than three wars between the Jews and Romans.[5]

Roman law and governance discouraged arrivistes who sought to advance to positions of control—“It was out of the question for a poor man to serve. For a start, he could not have afforded the entry fee.”[6] Rome was effectively a slave society in which sons followed the trade of their fathers as in the case of Jesus himself. The villagers of Nazareth ask, “Isn’t this the laborer, the son of Mary (Ouc outoj estin o tektwn, o uioj thj Mariaj) and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren’t his sisters here among us?”[7] Matthew rephrases the question to avoid making Jesus out to be a mere laborer: “Isn’t this the son of the laborer…? (Ouc outoj estin o tou tektonoj uioj).”[8] The gospel writers were clearly anxious to buff Jesus’ thin résumé with fabricated, incompatible infancy narratives as well as to deemphasize his humble beginnings.

That Jesus cast his teachings—that so far as we know were strictly oral, never written—in the form of parables points to a lack of formal education: “For centuries, the Jews had no schools or higher education: significantly, proverbs had flourished, the symptom of societies where limited education imposes the traditional and conventional expression of opinion, wisdom and sentiment ...By most people the words of the holy law were still heard but not seen ...Among the rabbis, we find that parables tend to begin from a biblical text: in the Gospels Jesus never begins a parable from quoted scripture.”[9]

The Jewish religious leadership, headquartered in Jerusalem, represented the outlook of the elite; “Jesus’ teaching, however, like that of John [the Baptist], was directed to the Palestinian countryside and his main support came from the ‘crowds,’ that is, unlettered country folk.”[10] “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the lawthere is a curse on them.”[11]

As Christianity progressed, Roman society regressed, becoming increasingly calcified with the result that a mass of the permanently poor lived far below the upper crust of the immensely rich. Though the ruling class dismissed the new cult and its membership as yet another bizarre oriental import beneath contempt, the stratification of Roman society and the hopelessness that resulted provided the perfect environment for Christianity to flourish and spread its dominion. The poverty of the masses proved an environment in which religion generally flourished—as Marx said, “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people...The demand to give up the illusions about [the people’s] condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions.”[12] However, given the florid blood-and-guts apocalypticism of American fundamentalists, we might consider revising Marx’s statement to read, “Religion is the peyote trip of the particularly dim.”

It has been estimated that about 90% of the population in the first century was completely illiterate[13] and the New Testament specifically states of Peter and John that they were agrammatoj (agrammatos), “without letters,”[14] unable to read or write—Peter even betrays himself to the Judean authorities by his rustic Galilean accent.[15] Since Jesus’ closest disciples were predominantly men who worked with their hands, an inability to read and write would have been completely in keeping with their circumstances, a point conceded by the Christian apologist Origen who admitted, “…they had not received even the rudiments of learning (mhde ta prwta grammata memaqhkotaj) even as the gospel records about them.”[16] Origen also reports Celsus’ charge that Christians were known their “utter lack of education” (amaqestatouj) and “abysmal ignorance” (apaideutotatouj), and that they gained converts by misdirection: “they set traps for complete yokels” (paleuomen de touj agroikoterouj).[17]

Both Celsus and Galen observed “that Christians relied on faith without proof. This was indeed the case. The uneducated were attracted in great numbers to the church, and they were assured that ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men.’”[18] It has been posited that there were as few as 420 literate Christians at the beginning of the 2nd century, and as few as 42 “fluent and skilled literates” in Christian communities empire-wide,[19] which would go some way toward explaining why Christian apologetic works appear so late. It is also likely that the majority of Christians in the early church were illiterate as evidenced by the custom of reading texts aloud.[20] Even in cities, literacy could not be assumed: “It was possible to be a town councillor, a curialis, in a major city and yet to be illiterate.”[21]

Early Christian converts were mostly laborers, slaves and women, members of groups with very low rates of literacy. Making a virtue of necessity, Paul openly acknowledged that proclaiming “Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,”[22] opened Christians to charges that they were dullards and dupes, an uncultured nullity.

Consider your own calling, brothers, that not many are wise in accordance with the flesh, or many powerful, or many well-born, but God chose the world’s fools to shame the wise, and God chose the world’s weak to shame the strong, and God chose the world’s low-born and contemptible, the nobodies (ta mh onta), so that he might overthrow the somebodies (ta onta).[23]

“Not many” in this case evidently meant “precious few.” Early Roman critics such as Celsus clearly considered gullibility and ignorance to be notable Christian attributes, “to believe without reason.”[24] In his biography of the religious huckster Peregrinus, the satirist Lucian described the Christians as  idiwtaij anqrwpoij (idiōtais anthrōpois), “ill-informed men,”[25] impressionable rubes eager to believe and easily misled—“He does not scruple…to call the Christians idiōtai, a word which was then applied by the philosophers to those whom they regarded as incapable of elevated thought.”[26] Lucian mocked the “half-baked philosophers drawn from cobblers and carpenters” (autoscedioi filosofoi ek skutotomwn h tektonwn)[27] possibly a gibe aimed at Jesus himself. Gathered in private homes, often supported by women, “wool carders and cobblers and fullers (skutotomouj kai knafeij) and the most uneducated and biggest gaggle of yokels”[28] constituted the Christian mob. In essence, Christianity redefined truth. Or in the words of Charles Pierce, discussing the fundamentalist fascination with creationism, “Fact is merely what enough people believe, and truth lies only in how fervently they believe it.”[29]

The house churches established by Paul “can be characterized as a spirit-possession cult. Paul establishes communities of those possessed by the spirit of Jesus.”[30] “The worshippers and the attending spirits form a double assembly …”[31] Paul, addressing the Corinthians, declares, “because you are zealous devotees of spirits... (umeij epei zhlwtai este pneumatwn).”[32] Regarding Paul’s version of Christianity, Lüdemann observed, “Its orientation is supernatural; it calls for unquestionable subjection to authority and surrender to divine guidance; its ultimate appeal is not to the intellect, but to the emotions; and its final goal is to be seized by the Spirit. For this reason, spiritual enthusiasts (‘pneumatics’) are elevated high above people of a more everyday mind (‘psychics’), because to them alone is disclosed the vision of the mysterious truth which can never be grasped by reason…religious enthusiasm had taken precedence over reason.”[33]

It should be pointed out that Lüdemann is using “enthusiasm” in its technical sense, not merely as a synonym for eagerness. The Greek enqousiasmoj (enthousiasmos) referred to possession by a god, particularly by Dionysos, and basically meant frenzy. The enqousiasthj (enthousiastēs) was accordingly a worshipper in the throes of religious possession. “Christianity, especially when under Pauline influence, was, after all, deeply anti-intellectual and passionately concerned to establish the rights of irrationality in controllable form.”[34] As Driver notes in his discussion of the role of ritual, “Jesus said that the wind (spirit) blows where it will.[35] So also the spirits summoned by shamanism arrive when, where, and how they will...In the New Testament, especially in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is portrayed more like a shaman than a priest. Probably the earliest Christian rituals were of the shamanic type, occasions invoked the spirit of the crucified Jesus and became ecstatically possessed by him.”[36] The word pneuma (pneuma), wind or spirit, is a double entendre: to pneuma opou qelei pnei could be understood to mean “the wind blows where it wants” or personified, mean, “the Spirit blows where he wants...”

Less attention has been paid to the passage in John 20:22 that describes another magical technique by which the resurrected Jesus passes power to his disciples: “And saying this, he blew and said to them, ‘Receive holy spirit.’” The magical papyri contain very similar wording to that found in John: enpneumatwson auton qeiou pneumatoj, “infuse it with spirit, divine spirit...”[37] Celsus compared Christian miracles, described as “the work of sorcerers”ta erga twn gohtwn—the street magicians “who drive demons out of men and blow away diseases...”[38]

It is clear that the Pauline Christians conflated the spirit of God with the spirit of the risen JesusPaul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.  When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.”[39]and the author of 1 Peter even attributes the predictions of the Old Testament prophets to “the spirit of Christ in them.”[40] A pagan entering a house church would encounter a pandemonium of the spirit possessed—“if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues and strangers or unbelievers enter, will they not say you are possessed (mainesqe)?”[41]

Paul’s Gentile converts would have been quite familiar with mania (mania), frenzy, as a religious phenomenon—“that religious trances and ecstasy were the manifestations of possession by a god was one of wide currency in Greek and Eastern religions.”[42] “Then the frenzy arrives (hdh h mania apikneetai),”[43] Lucian observed, and the transported male devotees of the Syrian goddess Atargatis took up knives and castrated themselves.

The early Christian cult of possession had many points in common with other ecstatic religions. Dionysus, the Son of Zeus, was born from a mortal woman Semele as Jesus, Son of God, was born from the mortal woman Mary. Dionysus is borne to Earth in a “fiery bolt of lightening”[44] much as Mary conceives because, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”[45]“the Holy Spirit will come upon you” (epeleusetai epi se). The verb epercomai, (eperchomai) is a ‘power verb’ used in the papyri for magical attacks: “defend me from all troubles coming upon me (epercomenou mou)...[46]

Dionysus “exchanged [his] divine form for a mortal one” (morfhn d ameiyaj ek qeou brothsian)[47] just as Jesus, “who existed in the form of God” (oj en morfh qeou uparcwn), “assumed human likeness and was found in the appearance of a man”[48]“Euripedes’ “Dionysus assumes human form, a grim predecessor of Christ.”[49] It is worth pointing out that the double nature of Jesus celebrated in Philippians almost certainly derives verbatim from an early Christian doxology, a hymn that, with no theological modification, could have been addressed to Dionysus or any one of several other Greco-Roman deities.

Paul clearly attempted to rein in the cacophony of the jabbering Christians—“The one speaking in tongues speaks not to men, but to God. No one understands for he is speaking mysteries by the spirit…if anyone speaks in a tongue, do so two at a time, or three at most, and in turns…”[50] Ancient authors noted the correlation between mindlessness and spirit possession:

Whenever [the light of the mind] dims, ecstasy and possession naturally assail us, divine seizure and madness (katokwch te kai mania). For whenever the light of God shines upon us, human light is extinguished and when the divine sun sets, the human dawns and rises. This is what is apt to happen to the guild of the prophets. At the arrival of the divine spirit, our mind is evicted. When the spirit departs, the wandering mind returns home, for it is well established that that which is subject to death may not share a home with that which is deathless. Therefore the eclipse of the power of reason and the darkness that envelops it begets ecstasy and inspired madness (ekstasin kai qeoforhton manian egennhse).[51]

Though generally beneath the notice of the Roman social élite, “the three Roman writers who mention Christianity at the beginning of the second century agree in calling the new movement a superstitio…The superstitious person engaged in religious practices that neither honored the gods nor benefitted men and women.”[52] Christians, on the other hand, saw their revelation in a different light: “It was a commonplace of Christian polemic that the church had brought to the Roman world a wisdom and a moral code that had previously been the fragile acquisition of, at best, a few great minds. In the words of Augustine, in his City of God, any old woman, as a baptized Christian, now knew more about the true nature of the invisible world of angels and demons than did Porphyry, the most learned of near-contemporary philosophers.”[53]

Wherever available, the data from the New Testament tend to support the assessments of Roman critics. For example, Peter stays at the home of Simon the tanner in his house by the sea.[54] The shore was a nearly inevitable location for Simon’s enterprise given the need for water and the stench that accompanied the processing of hides. The Christian fullers (knafeuj) ridiculed by Celsus were typically slaves employed in fulleries who rhythmically stomped woolen clothing as it soaked in tubs of human and animal urine that bleached the cloth and removed soil—bacterial action on the nitrates in urine produces ammonia. The reek of such ancient laundries obliged that they be located outside upmarket residential areas; the disastrous health effects on the workers can easily be imagined.

Paul worked as a tentmaker as did his companions Aquila and Priscilla.[55] Re-flecting on early Christianity’s “ethic of poverty,” Gager remarks, “…early believers came from disadvantaged groups and…in return they were rewarded with the promise that poverty, not wealth, was the key to the kingdom…wealth…is rejected as a measure of human worth.”[56] Paul attests to the relative destitution of the Corinthian Christians, to “their utter poverty” (h kata baqouj ptwceia autwn)[57]ptwcoj (ptōchos) means beggar. Jewish Christians who continued to observe the Mosaic law were known as Ebionites[58] from the Hebrew ~ynyba (ebyonim), poor or destitute. Given their belief that they were living at the end of history,[59] the Christians of the mother church in Jerusalem sold their belongings and lived communally[60] a factor that likely contributed to their destitution. During the career of Paul, the Gentile house churches were collecting money “for the poor among the holy ones in Jerusalem.”[61] Paul implies that “the pillars” of the Jerusalem church required “only that we [Gentiles] remember the poor.”[62] “Remembering the poor” meant that Paul spent as much of his time between 52-57 C.E. collecting funds from his churches in Asia for “the saints” back in the Jerusalem mother church as he did preaching.[63] Indeed, he shamelessly used the generosity of some to spur others to make ever-larger contributions.[64]

The low social status of the early Christians reflected a bitter reality of the ancient world. “The social pyramid tapered much more steeply than we might now imagine when first surveying the monuments and extent of the major surviving cities.” As pointed out by Lane Fox, “specialized ability in a craft was not a source of upward mobility” since craftsmen were either slaves or free men in competition with slave labor.[65] Given the plight of the lower class and of women whose ranks were thinned by exposure of female infants and by death in childbirth, the empowerment promised by Christian preaching must have been intoxicating. Christian converts are “God’s beloved,”[66] “God’s children,”[67] “beloved children,”[68] “God’s chosen,”[69] “a chosen race.”[70]

There can be little doubt that elevation from society’s dregs to God’s elect encouraged a certain religious megalomania among believers, an attitude the Roman authorities interpreted as obstinacy. Celsus ridiculed the Christians’ egocentrism: “God shows and proclaims everything to us beforehand, and He has even deserted the whole world and the motion of the heavens, and disregarded the vast earth to give attention to us alone; and He sends messengers to us alone and never stops sending them and seeking that we may be with Him forever.”[71] Plotinus remarked on the conceit of Christians: “A common man (idiwthj anhr), if he hears, You are a child of God (Su ei qeou paij) but the others you once admired are not [his] children, nor are the objects of their veneration according to the tradition of their fathers; you are even better than heaven despite having done nothing...”[72] Or as a much later critic phrased it, “Life itself is a poor thing: an interval in which to prepare for the hereafter or the coming—or second coming—of the Messiah. On the other hand, as if by compensation, religion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited. It assures them that god cares for them individually, and it claims that the cosmos was created with them specifically in mind.”[73]

Although Christianity made significant inroads among the poor and uneducated, it was not until the 4th century that the Church gained the economic traction that would propel it into its position as the leading social institution of the Middle Ages. This transition occurred when the sons of notable Roman families began to find positions within the Church considered suitable to their elevated station. By that time, a revolving door between official service in the Roman state and positions of authority in the Church developed. By the late 4th century, the lateral career movement of members of the senatorial class such as Ambrose and Nectarius, “who...traded his career within the imperial system for a position of honor in the church,”[74] began to blur the distinction between Church and State, a distinction that, for all practical purposes, would disappear for over a thousand years. Ambrose was appointed bishop before he was even baptized:

Administrative expertise was essential. For this reason bishops were normally chosen from the traditional ruling classes and in some cases were appointed even before they were baptized. One such was Ambrose, bishop of Milan fro  m 374 to 397, and perhaps the most influential bishop and preacher of his age. He had been an effective governor of north Italy...Once baptized, he quickly mastered his new role...He first worked on the young Gratian, inducing him to surrender the post of pontifex maximus.[75]

      The role of women.

Women featured prominently in the Gentile churches established by Paul, although probably much less so in the Jerusalem church. “Our sister Phoebe” is described as “being a minister of the church (ousan diakonon thj ekklhsiaj) in Cenchreae,”[76]—the participial construction should probably be taken to mean “serving [continuously] as a minister.” The term diakonoj (diakonos), from whence the English deacon, means servant or minister, a term Paul uses to describe himself.[77] Phoebe is also called a prostatij (prostatis),[78] the feminine form of prostathj (prostatēs), a leader, presiding officer or guardian, patron. Her recognition by Paul almost certainly indicates that she served in some official capacity. As Charles Freeman notes, the cult of Jesus likely attracted women for several reasons, not the least of which was its “ascetic streak” that attracted widows and virgins: “It was precisely women of this status who were most marginal in traditional Greco-Roman society with its focus on marriage and child-bearing.”[79] In any case, then as now, women, particularly if unmarried, were most likely to be poor and Christianity’s appeal to the poor is well established.

Paul mentions Andronicus and Junia, “notable among the apostles” (epishmoi en toij apostoloij). It is not entirely clear in what sense Junia, a woman, was notable or prominent among the apostles—the precise connotation of epishmoj (episēmos) is disputed and the term apostoloj (apostolos), messenger or emissary, could be applied to people not numbered among the traditional twelve apostles. Apollos was considered an “apostle”[80] and Paul refers to Epaphroditus specifically as “as your apostle and minister (umwn de apostolon kai leitourgon) to my needs.”[81] In any case, Epp (among others) makes a strongly argued case that Junia was, in fact, considered an apostle by the early church and that her status was subsequently suppressed.[82]

One of the first non-Christian mentions of Christianity, the letter of Pliny the Younger,[83] the governor of Pontus (111-113 C.E.), to the emperor Trajan, describes two female slaves (ancilla) as “deacons” or “ministers” (ministra). Commenting on how these “deacons” came to attention of the Roman authorities, MacDonald notes, “The fact that these women had a prominent ministerial role in the Christian community—a ministry apparently not hampered by their status as slaves—was in all likelihood a significant factor in their visibility and subsequent arrest.”[84] Christianity, like the cult of Dionysus, proved attractive to sequestered women, but female participation in both raised the suspicions of Roman authorities. Julian identified a second role of women in the early Church in Antioch: “every one of you allows his wife to carry everything out of the house to the Galilaeans, and when your wives feed the poor at your expense they inspire a great admiration for godlessness in those who are in need.”[85] The women dispensed charity, basically bribing the needy into accepting the Christian faith.

Jesus’ radical apocalypticism reversed social boundaries—the tax collectors and whores would enter the kingdom ahead of the conventionally religious.[86] However, the initial egalitarianism was contingent on the imminence of the End, and when the Final Judgment failed to materialize, the Christians quickly reverted to the Greco-Roman status quo. By the end of the 1st century the new liberty—“where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,”[87] and “Christ has set us free,”[88]—has been replaced by the traditional strictures—“I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”[89] and “the women must keep silent in the churches.”[90] Jane Schaberg, a feminist New Testament scholar, has suggested that men in the early church were discomfited by women in authority, particularly if that authority had been passed down from woman to woman.[91]

The suppression of female participation likely served an apologetic purpose as well. “Female believers were expressly targeted as unreliable witnesses, possessed, fanatical, sexual libertines, domineering of or rebellious toward their husbands, and, in the familiar rhetoric of Celsus, ‘hysterical.’”[92] Evidence from the extra-canonical gospels suggests “that there were some Christians who were following the [Gospel of Mary] and took their apostolic authority from Mary…Mary is portrayed in many of these newly discovered texts as an important disciple of Jesus, and even as an apostle…”[93]

Classical scholar Catherine Kroeger addresses the issue from the vantage point of “the socio-religious world of [Greco-Roman] women.”[94] It is particularly relevant to note that Paul’s congregations in Asia Minor, particularly in Antioch, “lay in the very heart of Anatolia, where religious expression—particularly that of women—took on an extremely noisy, wild and orgiastic aspect…Ancient women, as disadvantaged, neglected and repressed members of society, often turned to religion as a release and escape. In it they vented violent emotions that were not able to be expressed through any other channel…Neither is it surprising that women who lacked any sort of formal education flocked to cults that were despised by the intellectuals.”[95] In Greek sacrificial rites animals “were killed to the piercing cry of female spectators.”[96]

It is almost treacherous that when in 1 Corinthians Paul repeats the baptismal tradition of Gal. 3:28 he omits the pair “male-female.” Now it simply runs: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).[97]

The prominence of women in the ecstatic cult of Dionysus is well known, but the similarities between spirit possession during Bacchic and Christian ritual are worth pointing out—those similarities extended beyond the mere mechanics of ecstatic ritual to the theology of both religions. Euripedes’ Bacchae is “our earliest substantial witness”[98] to the mania that accompanied Dionysian ritual; 1 Corinthians is the earliest witness to Christian spirit possession. Just as Christians gathered for worship in an ekklhsia, (ekklēsia), assembly or congregation, worshippers of Bacchus gathered in a qiasoj, (thiasos), a guild or company.

As previously mentioned, it was said of Dionysus, “I have exchanged my divine form (morfhn...ek qeou) for a mortal one…and changed my appearance to that of a man (eij androj fusin).”[99] Of Jesus it was said, “Who existing in the form of God (en morfh qeou)…emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, born in the likeness of men (en omoiwmati anqrwpwn).”[100] As noted by Julian, the healing god Asclepius also appeared “in the form of a man” (en anqrwpou morfh).[101] Dionysus is the son of god (paidaqeou).[102] Jesus is the son of God.[103] The maenads of Dionysus take up snakes.[104] Early Christians were promised they would pick up serpents without harm.[105] Bacchus causes the ground to “run with wine” (rei d oinw).[106] Jesus turns water into wine as the first of his miracles.[107] Dionysus’ enemies berate him, claiming, “some stranger has come in, a sorcerer, a spell caster” (tij eiselhluqe xenoj, gohj epwdoj).[108] “Jesus’ opponents accused him of black magic, an accusation which stands as one of the most firmly established facts of the Gospel Tradition.”[109] Dionysus’ opponents consider him “a new divinity.”[110] Jesus introduces “a new teaching, with authority.”[111] Of Dionysus it is said, “The god is a prophet (mantij d o daimwn)…he makes those possessed foretell the future.”[112] Jesus is also a god[113] as well as a prophet;[114] Phillip the evangelist had no less than four virgin daughters who prophesied.[115] Without endlessly prolonging this list of comparisons, it might fairly be asked why women with little education, once “enslaved to those who by nature are not gods,”[116] women who regarded an “altered state of consciousness as a gift from Dionysos,”[117] would not naturally bring their understanding of religious ecstasy to their new faith, particularly given the many similarities between Christ and Bacchus.

After noting the likelihood “that woman were a clear majority in the churches of the third century,” Lane Fox goes on to observe, “It was a well-established theme in [the writings of pagan moralists] that strange teachings appealed to leisured women who had just enough culture to admire it and not enough education to exclude it.”[118] “Ardent credulity was presented as a weakness characteristic of the [female] sex, pagan or Christian.”[119]

Paul’s encounter with debaters in Athens[120] didn’t go well. His interlocutors dismissed him as a spermologoj (spermologos),[121] a intellectual bricoleur who gathers up scraps of information, like a bird randomly gathering seeds, and fudges the results together without much regard for coherence. “In Paul’s letters we are reading an author who is capable of alluding at second hand to themes of the pagan schools but who remains essentially an outsider with no grasp of their literary style or content…he has no great acquaintance with literary style, and when he tries to give a speech to a trained pagan orator, he falls away into clumsiness after a few good phrases.”[122] Aware of the shallowness of Christian erudition, Julian shot back, “If the reading of your own scriptures is sufficient for you, why do you nibble at the learning of the Hellenes?”[123]

Christianity’s lowly origins, lack of successful engagement with the learned culture of its day, and its appeal to emotion and blind faith—“I do not know in what rank to place [a Christian believer] who has need of arguments written in books”[124]—set Christianity on an anti-intellectual trajectory. The absurdity of Christian beliefs became an object of derision to their Roman critics. Porphyry ridiculed the teaching of the resurrection of the body:

Or let us take an example to test this little doctrine [“the resurrection of the dead”], so innocently put forward [by the Christians]: A certain man was shipwrecked. The hungry fish had his body for a feast. But the fish were caught and cooked and eaten by some fishermen, who had the misfortune to run afoul of some ravenous dogs, who killed and ate them. When the dogs died, the vultures came and made a feast of them. How will the body of the shipwrecked man be reassembled, considering it has been absorbed by other bodies of various kinds?[125]

Regarding the connection between 18th century revivalist jabberwocky and contempt for education, Hofstadter remarked of backcountry American Protestantism:

…it became more primitive, more emotional, more given to “ecstatic” manifestations. The preachers were less educated, less inclined to restrain physical responses to an instrument of conversion; and the groveling, jerkings, howlings, and barkings increased…Of the revivalist or New Light faction among the Baptists [Woodmason] reported a few years later that they were altogether opposed to authority and, having made successful assaults upon the established church, were trying to destroy the state.[126]

Modern fundamentalist Christianity continues the ancient legacy of hostility to intellectual culture and personal freedom, “a blind obedience to a male hierarchy that often claims to speak for God, intolerance toward nonbelievers, and a disdain for rational, intellectual inquiry.”[127]

Celsus too zeroed in on the irrational, emotionally driven nature of Christian belief:

While [Jesus] was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female (gunh paroistroj), as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery (thj authj gohteiaj), who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination (fantasiwqeij) due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress the others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a chance for other beggars.[128]

Celsus raises several points that deserve some comment. By describing the woman who was the primary witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection as hysterical (paroistroj, paroistros), Celsus at least implies a sexual component to her attraction. A related verb, oistraw (oistraō), is used by Lucian to describe a man turned to a donkey by magic as acting, “like a man mad with lust (oistroumenoj) for women and boys.”[129] “The hysterical female, Mary Magdalene, fits the image of the woman susceptible to bizarre religious impulses that emerges from ancient literature. Yet, she is by no means a silent victim of Jesus’ magic. Although she is deluded by sorcery, Mary Magdalene also becomes one of the main perpetrators. She is an active witness, a creator of the Christian belief in the resurrection.”[130]

The susceptibility of women to transports of religious delusion would be familiar to any educated person of the era“I have seen the wild bacchant women, who ran from this city in madness (oistroisi)...”[131] “It may be that Celsus said more about Mary Magdalene and women followers of Jesus than Origen discloses. For example, one wonders if Celsus had discussed Mary as on ‘from whom seven demons had gone out’ (Luke 8.2)...It is easy to imagine that such possessed women became obvious targets for Celsus’ criticism, and that he portrayed them as willing compatriots for a sorcerer who cast out demons by the prince of demons.”[132]

It may be pointed out, with no small degree of amusement, that Celsus’ charges that women were congenitally prone to foolishness simply repeated the church’s own estimation of its female membership: “For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions...”[133]No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.[134] “...pagan opinion concerning the vulnerability of women to conversion to Christianity is reworked within a church context into the vulnerability of women to allegedly heretical teaching.”[135]

      The “universal” church.

In addition to its appeal to the credulous, other elements of Christian preaching struck its critics as counterintuitive, in particular the claim to be a universal, “catholic,” religion, a claim that provoked this pungent rebuttal:

But that from the beginning God cared only for the Jews and that he chose them out as his portion has been clearly asserted not only by Moses and Jesus but by Paul as well...Therefore it is fair to ask of Paul why God, if he was not the God of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles, sent the blessed gift of prophecy to the Jews in abundance and gave them Moses and the oil of anointing, and the prophets and the law...and finally God sent unto them Jesus also, but unto us no prophet, no oil of anointing, no teacher, no herald to announce his love for man which should one day, though late, reach even unto us also. Nay he even looked on for myriads, or if you prefer, for thousands of years, while men in extreme ignorance served idols, as you call only that little tribe which less than two thousand years before had settled in one part of Palestine. For if he is the God of all of us alike, and the creator of all, why did he neglect us?[136]

As a much later skeptic pointed out, “A further difficulty is the apparent tendency of the Almighty to reveal himself only to unlettered and quasi-historical individuals, in regions of Middle Eastern wasteland that were long the home of idol worship and superstition, and in many instances already littered with existing prophecies.”[137] Indeed, one might question why the “Prince of Peace”[138] delayed his Return while tens of millions perished in two world wars and innumerable lesser conflicts, epidemics ravaged entire populations, the Soviet Union crushed Eastern Europe, and atomic weapons were invented and used to vaporize thousands as well as threaten humanity generally with annihilation. 

Porphyry, ever alert to the incongruous and the bizarre in Christian preaching, asked why Jesus had not appeared post mortem to Pilate, to Herod, or to the Jewish authorities who condemned him, given that he had promised the High Priest that he would see the Son of Man coming with glory.[139] “Instead he appeared to Mary Magdalene, a prostitute who came from some horrible little village and has been possessed by seven demons, and another Mary, equally unknown, probably a peasant woman, and others who were of no account...Had he shown himself to people who could be believed, then others would have believed through them...”[140]

As both Jews and pagans observed, it was the historical circumstances of Christianity’s emergence that most clearly refuted its grandiose central claim: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”[141] To effect this ‘plan of salvation,’ aimed at saving the world, God sent Jesus off, not to a populous center of culture, but to Galilee, a remote armpit of the Roman empire repudiated by Romans and Jews alike“Are you from Galilee, too? Search the Scriptures and see for yourselfno prophet ever comes from Galilee!”[142] Moreover, according to Christianity’s own scriptures, the Jewish rejection of Jesus had been long foreknown: “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”[143] God was obviously content to let humanity fester for untold millennia in religious error, to live without hope[144] in spiritual darkness, reserving his boundless love for a tiny portion of humanity, revealing his divine will selectively to the inhabitants of a provincial boondocks, people who rejected God’s Messiah just as foretold.

But now, once for all time, [Jesus] has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice.[145] Christianity’s claim to universality was, by any rational reckoning, clearly, tangibly, absurd.

The new spiritual regime and its revelation of transcendent morality did little to address evil in practice either. The emerging Church commanded believers, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”[146] In fact, “Christians continued to own slaves (a slave collar found in Sardinia, and dated to about 400, is stamped Felix the Archdeacon) and as late as 580 the emperor Tiberius [II], launching a persecution of pagans, used the traditional Roman punishment of crucifixion.”[147] That slaves might very well be prostituted or even murdered by their masters appears to have been of little concern to the first Christians and it would seem, based on the clear teaching of the New Testament, that the American South prior to the Civil War represented a culture completely in step with the values of the early church. That is, at least, what the Southern Baptist slaveholders vigorously argued.

The claim that Christians are ‘people of the book’ would have provoked a round of contemptuous laughter from Roman intellectuals, laughter that would have turned to outrage had they lived long enough to witness the centuries-long rampage of book burning that followed the ascendency of Christianity. Indeed, the centuries to come confirmed that Christians who were mortally offended by words and phrases were quite at ease with torture and murder.

[1] The term occurs at Matthew 13:52; 20:1; 21:33; Mark 14:14; Luke 12:39;
13:25; 14:21; 22:11, for example.
[2] Anderson, New Testament Masculinities, 79, 102.
[3] Matthew 20:15.
[4] Mark 10:42, Matthew 20:25.
[5] The First Jewish War (66-73 C.E.) resulted in the destruction of the  Second
   Temple (70 C.E.), ending with the siege of the stronghold at Masada. The Kitos
   War (“Kitos” is a corruption of Quietus, the name of a Roman general) was a
   widespread ethnic and religious conflict (115-117 C.E.), followed by the
   catastrophic Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 C.E.) that resulted in the expulsion of
   Jews from Jerusalem and the founding of a Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, on
   the ruins of the former Jewish city.
[6] Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 50.
[7] Mark 6:3.
[8] Matthew 13:55.
[9] Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version, 106, 119.
[10] Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 26.
[11] John 7:48, 49 (NIV).
[12] Hitchens, God is Not Great, 9. The quote comes from Marx’s Contribution to the
    Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
[13] Harris, Ancient Literacy, 147-175.
[14]  Acts 4:13.
[15] Matthew 27:73.
[16] Origen, Contra Celsum I, 62.
[17] Ibid, VI, 14.
[18] Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, 157.
[19] McKechnie, The First Christian Centuries, 56.
[20]  Compare Revelation 1:3; Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27.
[21] Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity, 37.
[22] 1 Corinthians 1:23.
[23] 1 Corinthians 1:26-28. Ta mh onta, literally, “the things that are not,” versus  ta
onta, literally, “the things that are.”
[24] Origen, Contra Celsum I, 9.
[25] Lucian, On the Death of Peregrinus, 13.
[26] Edwards, Christians, Gnostics and Philosophers in Late Antiquity, 95.
[27] Lucian, The Double Indictment, 6 (my translation).
[28] Origen, quoting Celsus, Contra Celsum III, 55.
[29] Pierce, Idiot America, 49.
[30] Mount, Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005), 316.
[31] Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 382.
[32] 1 Corinthians 12:3.
[33] Lüdemann, Paul: The Founder of Christianity, 128, 130.
[34] Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, 50.
[35] John 3:8.
[36] Driver, Liberating Rites, 74.
[37] Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae IV, 967.
[38] Conner, Magic in Christianity, 218.
       The reference to Celsus is found in Origen’s Contra Celsum I, 68.
[39] Acts 16:6-7, NIV. Compare Romans 8:9.
[40] 1 Peter 1:11.
[41] 1 Corinthians 14:23.
    The verbal form of mania (mania), frenzy or possession.
[42] Esler, The First Christians in Their Social Worlds, 46.
[43] Lucian, De Dea Syria, 51.
[44] Euripedes, Bacchae, 3.
[45] Luke 1:35, NIV.
[46] Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae, XXXVI, 176.
[47] Euripedes, Bacchae, 4.
[48] Philippians 2:6-8.
[49] Rutherford, Classical Literature: A Concise History, 61.
[50] 1 Corinthians 14:2, 27.
[51] Philo, Quis rerum divinarum heres, Philo, IV (Loeb), 264-265.
[52] Rutherford, 50, 60.
[53] Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity, 73-74.
[54] Acts 9:43; 10:6, 32.
[55] Acts 9:43. Compare 1 Corinthians 4:12: “…we work hard with our own hands.”
[56]  Gager, Kingdom and Community, 24, 34.
         A number of “ethical maxims” justifying poverty, possibly interpolated ex post
facto and “attributed to Jesus” (Gager, 9) can be cited: Mark 10:25, Matthew 5:3 (“Blessed are you poor…”), James 5:1-3, etc.
[57] 2 Corinthians 8:2.
[58] “…Jews who have accepted Jesus as the Christ are called Ebionites.” Origen, Contra Celsum II, 1.
[59] Acts 1:6, 2:17-21.
[60] Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-34.
[61] Romans 15:26.
[62] Galatians 2:10.
[63] 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.
[64] 2 Corinthians 8-9.
[65] Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 59.
[66] Romans 1:7, Jude 1:3.
[67] Ephesians 1:5, Philippians 2:14-15, 1 John 3:2.
[68] Ephesians 5:1.
[69] Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:4, Colossians 3:12.
[70] 1 Peter 2:9.
[71] Chadwick, Contra Celsum, 199.
[72] Plotinus, “Against the Gnostics,” Ennead II, 9.55.
[73] Hitchens, God is Not Great, 74.
[74] Watts, The Final Pagan Generation, 181.
[75] Freeman, Egypt, Greece and Rome, 508.
[76] Romans 16:1.
[77] 1 Corinthians 3:5, 2 Corinthians 3:6, 6:4, 11:23.
[78] Romans 16:2.
[79] Freeman, 491.
[80] 1 Corinthians 4:6, 9.
[81] Philippians 2:25.
[82] Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle.
[83] Pliny, Letters, 10.96-97.
[84] MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion, 52.
    These references hardly exhaust the evidence for the prominence of women in the
early churches. See, for example, Acts 16:1, 12-15, 40; 17:4, 12; 18:2-3; 24:24; 25:13; 26:30; Philippians 4:2-3; Colossians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 1:11; 16:19; 2 John.
[85] Wright, The Works of the Emperor Julian, II, 491 (Misopogon, 363, A).
[86] Matthew 21:31.
[87] 2 Corinthians 3:17, Romans 8:1-4, John 8:36.
[88] Galatians 5:1.
[89] 1 Timothy 2:12.
[90] 1 Corinthians 14:34.
[91] Schaberg, Voices of Gnosticism, 170.
[92] Kannaday, Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition, 141.
[93] King, Voices of Gnosticism, 157.
[94] Kroeger, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 30/1, 25.
[95] Ibid, 26, 28.
[96] Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 70.
[97] Lüdeman, Paul, 146.
[98] Kovacs, Euripides, 2.
[99] Bacchae, 4, 54.
[100] Philippians 2:6-7.
[101] Julian, Against the Galileans, 200A.
[102] Bacchae, 84.
[103] John 3:16.
[104] Bacchae, 103-104.
[105] Mark 16:18.
[106] Bacchae, 142.
   Compare “the fountains of milk and wine” that were supposedly produced during bacchic rites. (Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius VI, 11).
[107] John 2:9-11.
[108] Bacchae, 233-234.
[109] Plumer, Biblica 78 (1997), 357.
    Compare Mark 3:22, for example: “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
[110] Bacchae, 273.
[111] Mark 1:27.
[112] Bacchae, 300-301.
[113] John 1:1, 20:28.
[114] Matthew 21:11.
[115] Acts 21:9.
[116] Galatians 4:8.
[117] Kroeger, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 33.
[118] Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 310.
[119] MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (AD 100-400), 39.
[120] Acts 17:16-34.
[121] Acts 17:18.
[122] Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 305.
[123] Wright, “Against the Galileans,” The Works of the Emperor Julian, III, 385.
[124] Origen, Contra Celsum I, 4.
[125] Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians, 91.
[126] Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, 74-75.
[127] Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, 13.
[128] Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum, 109 (II, 55).
[129] Lucian, The Ass, 33.
[130] MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion, 124.
[131] Euripides, The Bacchae, 665.
[132] MacDonald, 109.
  The reference is to Matthew 12:24 (NIV): But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
[133] 2 Timothy 3:6, ESV.
[134] 1 Timothy 5:9-15, NIV.
[135] MacDonald, 63.
[136] Wright, The Works of the Emperor Julian, III, 343-345 (Against the Galileans, 
[137] Hitchens, God is Not Great, 98.
[138] Isaiah 9:6-7.
[139] Mark 14:62; Matthew 26:64.
[140] Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians, 34-35.
[141] John 3:16, New American Standard Bible.
[142] John 7:52, New Living Translation.
[143] Matthew 21:42, ESV.
[144] 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
[145] Hebrews 9:26.
[146] Ephesians 6:5. Compare Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18.
[147] Freeman, Egypt, Greece and Rome, 510.