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Richard Carrier Improbable Crisis

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


10. Would Groupthinkers Never Switch Groups?

10.1 Getting it Backwards

10.2 What Do Malina & Neyrey Really Say?

10.3 How Christianity Fits the Malina-Neyrey Model

10.4 Malina & Neyrey on the Role of Revelation

10.5 Lack of Evidence for Holding’s View

10.6 Conclusion


10.1. Getting it Backwards

At this point James Holding argues that the very anti-establishment message Christianity preached would have prevented its successwhen in actual fact, that was probably the primary reason it did succeed (to the extent it actually did). As I have shown in several chapters already, the society of the Roman Empire was producing such a scale of injustice and discontent that a message of equality, of doing away with all those things people saw as the cause of their plight, would have been very popular among those whom Christianity actually won overquite the opposite of Holding’s conclusion. Nor was this message new: the Essenes already preached it, winning the praise of even elite Jews like Josephus, Philo, and Herod, and even some Gentiles like Pliny the Elder, thus proving the message was already attractive to some Jews and Gentiles. And there had been several pagan precedents as well in the centuries running up to Christianity, dreams of “equalizing” the social playing field to produce a moral utopia.[1]

Of the Essenes in particular, Pliny the Elder writes that even though they are celibate and thus do not restore their numbers by having children, still:

Day after day their numbers are fully recruited by multitudes of strangers that resort to them, driven thither to adopt their usages by the tempests of fortune, and wearied with the miseries of life. Thus it is, that through thousands of ages, incredible to relate, this people eternally prolongs its existence, without a single birth taking place there; so fruitful a source of population to it is that weariness of life which is felt by others.[2]

This proves exactly the opposite of what Holding claims: far from being unpopular, the communist message of Christianity could find recruits even before Christianity began. And as we observed in Chapter 2, the Christians made entry into such a life far easier and more attractive, by doing away with circumcision and all the arduous rules and separatism of Essene life. Thus, Christianity would have found many more converts than the Essenes did. And unlike most (though not all) Essenes, the Christians recruited women and allowed marriage, thus doubling its pool of recruits as well as benefiting from the inevitable growth produced by raising children into the faith. All the improvements made by Christianity on the Essene social structure would have especially increased its attractiveness to Gentiles.

It is also noteworthy that Pliny the Elder was apparently a better sociologist than Holding, for he was keen enough to observe the motive for joining such a movement: people were getting sick and tired of the present state of society, and the miseries and difficulties it entailed. I have already addressed this fact in adequate detail in Chapter 5 and Chapter 8, so I won’t repeat that analysis here. The conclusion is clear: the idea of eliminating social distinctions was clearly attractive to a significant segment of the population at the time, especially when it could be achieved without doing violence to the entrenched social system. James Holding certainly presents no evidence to the contrary.

That may be why Holding’s only “evidence” consists not of any actual ancient witness or source (or any real evidence at all), but a purely speculative theoretical argument supposedly based on the sound sociological work of Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey.[3] But Malina and Neyrey do not make anything like the argument Holding doesthey never argue the social context of early Christianity made recruitment too difficult. Rather, Holding merely uses what they do argue (that the ancient social context was different from ours) in an attempt to keep his own argument afloat. Yet what Malina and Neyrey argue does not support Holding. To the contrary, it provides a sound case against him. And that point will occupy the rest of this chapter.


10.2. What Do Malina & Neyrey Really Say?

Holding correctly describes the thesis of Malina and Neyrey, that “in the ancient world, people took their major identity from the various groups to which they belonged” rather than from the self-actualized individualism of many modern societies. “There can be little doubt,” they say, “that our New Testament witnesses were collectivist persons living in collectivist cultures” (p. 11). Accordingly, Malina and Neyrey demonstrate that (1) “group goals naturally precede individual goals” (p. 11), so that (quoting Josephus, then Plutarch) “the welfare of the community must take precedence” over the individual’s interests, and “no one is his own master” but everyone is “subject to some authority figure” (p. 3). As a consequence, (2) individuals primarily defined themselves by their “group of origin” and their “place of origin” (p. 3), and “were attuned to the values, attitudes, and beliefs of their in-group, with which they shared a common fate” (p. 16) such that kinship and citizenship were the first and foremost elements of self-description (pp. 17-18). And this, in turn, meant that (3) these two in-groups (one’s household and political affiliation) “served as conscience and guide” to moral action (p. 18). All that is true. And as a movement, Christianity conformed to all these expectations (as we shall show).

However, Malina and Neyrey do not say that individuals have no individual thoughts, desires, or aspirations, only that they tend to suppress them for the sake of social harmony (pp. 212-18). Yet this entails that there be social harmony. As soon as conforming to the group fails to produce what is expectedsocial harmony and communal goodall bets are off. The collectivist mindset is then motivated to reject the failing group as-it-is and seek reform or attachment to another, successful groupor create one, if no working group was already available, or internal reform was blocked (as Bruce Malina explains in The Social Gospel of Jesus, pp. 141-61). This is how collectivist societies evolve and change. Many examples fill history, from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the post-war industrialization of Japan. The successful introduction of Buddhism (a foreign Indian religion) into both Japan and China also provides a good model. So Holding cannot claim this kind of thing was improbable (and Bruce Malina agrees: he confirmed to me personally, in an e-mail of 15 April 2005, that everything I wrote in this paragraph is correct).

Malina and Neyrey also point out that in collectivist cultures an individual will still harbor individualistic desires, but merely lie to his in-group, telling them what they want to hear, while actually seeking his own self-interest (pp. 212-18). In fact, they argue, this practice of acceptable deception would be a common behavior (as we shall see regarding their discussion of prophets below), which creates a serious problem for Holding. For this means many could convert to Christianity for purely personal, individualistic reasons, and only tell others that their reasons were collectivist and harmony-seekingor anything else that the group, given its values and presuppositions, would accept as a valid reasonsuch as that God told them it was the right thing to do. This also means the entire Christian religion could have been a morally acceptable deception, taking perfectly practical and rational plans to fix a broken social system and framing them within the very structure of religious miracle and revelation that would be acceptable to the general collectivist culture of the time. I am not here arguing that either is the case, only that if anyone agrees with Malina and Neyrey’s analysisas Holding must in order to rest his argument on itboth of these conclusions must also be accepted as real and credible possibilities. Malina and Neyrey are careful to explain that collectivist societies have a different idea of “truth” than individualist societies like ours (as well as a different idea of proper behavior regarding the truth), and this is crucial to understanding Christianity’s origin and early development. We shall examine this issue below.

Another conclusion reached by Malina and Neyrey that spells trouble for Holding is that “out-group persons have no right to in-group truth” (p. 215), which explains why the Gospel was hidden behind parables, not only by Jesus (Mark 4:11-12 & 4:33-34), but plausibly by later Christians, too. The Gospel of Mark, for example, may well hide the truth behind an extended parable, whose real meaning would be told only to mature initiates (e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:4-8, 3:1-2; 2 Corinthians 12:4), and concealed from everyone else.[4] Since Mark was the first Gospel to be written down, such a motive would be available, because access to oral tradition could be controlled, but access to a written document could not. Therefore, it would be necessary to conceal the true meaning of a tradition when it was written down, lest it fall into the wrong hands. Indeed, the “true meaning” might not even be explained to most Christians, butas Paul saysonly to the most “mature” in the Church.

Thus, when it comes to explaining the consequences of the Malina-Neyrey theory, Holding only tells half the storyleaving out the other half that undermines his case. In a similar fashion, Holding correctly describes Malina and Neyrey’s point that “in a group-oriented society, you took your identity from your group leader, and people needed the support and endorsement of others to support their identity.” But then he immediately departs from anything Malina and Neyrey actually say by claiming “Christianity forced a severing of social and religious ties,” which is not true:

(1) First, there was never any command to sever social ties in Christianity, but often the contrary: to obey and maintain the exterior social order, even while creating and entering a superior social order within the Church. Christians were to obey pagan and Jewish community leaders (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:12-17), remain slaves even to pagan or Jewish masters (Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1-2), keep their marriages (even to pagans: 1 Corinthians 7:12-16) and their jobs (complete with pagan bosses and colleagues), and meet their civic duties (such as serving in the army or government and paying taxes, e.g. Romans 13:6-7). Unlike many (though not all) Essenes, the Christians did not isolate themselves from the society they held to be corrupt, but lived openly within it and actively engaged it. Though there were some teachings that justified breaking ties when those ties held you back from following God, this was never said to be a requirement, and we have little evidence of it being commonly done. Holding can present no evidence from the first century that becoming Christian entailed leaving one’s social or civic in-groupsinsofar as a convert had any, which many may not have.

Many widows, for example, without families or citizenship, had no social identity-group, which was a prominent reason Christianity was so successful in recruiting them; and there must surely have been quite a large number of men in a similar situation of social drift, migrants with no surviving family ties and no citizenship, for whom Christianity would offer exactly what a collectivist would most want: a strong social in-group to establish their identity.[5] Likewise, even among those who had such ties, there would inevitably be many who did not benefit from them: citizens with no vote, children neglected in favor of their elder siblings, migrant laborers, and so on. Since belonging to such groups would not meet their collectivist expectations, the prospect of entering an in-group that did meet those expectations would be attractive. Both situations (loss of social identity or discontent with that identity) no doubt explain recruitment into the Essene sect, for example. Malina himself appeals to both in his explanation of the origin and growth of the Church, in all his books on that subject.

(2) Second, few converts would see themselves as severing religious ties, but quite the contrary: Jewish converts would see Christianity as a perfected fulfillment of Judaism, not a new religious commitment. They were not “abandoning” their faith, but realizing it. Becoming Christian was no different for a Jew than becoming a Baptist or an Essene or a Pharisee. Consider, for example, how Josephus sampled them all (as well as the Sadducees) before choosing which “in-group” to join.[6] And there were numerous other sects besides these, all with different ideas of how to follow God’s law, and all competing for “converts” from among the general population of Jews. In fact, many (if not most) Christian Jews in Palestine remained obedient to the Torah law. But those who accepted the Pauline doctrine of liberty were not doing anything unprecedentedmost Jewish sects already rejected Mishnah law, and some even rejected Torah as well.[7]

On Holding’s view, how could the Jews have fragmented into so many competing sects? By his argument, that should have been impossible. Yet it happened. As for Gentiles, most would not have anything like strong religious tiespaganism was never exclusive or obligatory in the way Judaism was for Jews. Not even the mystery cults were like that. And like those mystery cults, Christianity simply re-explained all the phenomena of paganism. All the gods still existedthey were now merely identified as agents of Satan, an argument already made by the Zoroastrians and repeated by Manichaeans, and generally shared by the Jews. And we know the Jews already won over Gentiles on a regular basis; Christianity would only have done better (as demonstrated in Chapter 2 and Chapter 4).

Of course, Holding also admits that Christianity “did provide its own community support in return” for severing other connections, though as already noted there is no evidence such severing was common in the first century, beyond the switching of group affiliations that was already going on in the ancient world all the timein religion, politics, geography, the army. Indeed, Holding asks how the Christian offer of a superior in-group “explains why people join in the first place,” which is a good question: What explains why anyone joined any new social group in antiquity? Why did so many become Essenes or Baptists? Why did Gentiles become Jews? Why did so many sons of freedmen seek to achieve a higher social class? Why did men in the army seek promotion to higher social and military status? Why did so many migrate to join new geographical communities? Why did so many migrants then seek to become citizens of their new cities? Or seek Roman citizenship for that matter? Why did so many slaves seek to become freedmen? Why did so many “barbarians” seek to Romanize or Hellenize themselves? Why did so many pagans join the religious societies of foreign cults like that of Isis, Cybele, or Mithras? Why join the Epicurean Garden and thus “become an Epicurean”? Or a Stoic? Or a Cynic for that matter, which truly did entail severing social ties? Why did Lucian regard changing his status, from a stoneworker to an educated gentleman, to be the most excellent thing that could happen to anyone?[8] Holding’s erroneous account of Malina and Neyrey’s thesis is incapable of explaining any of thisyet this stuff was routine in the Roman Empire. Unlike India, for example, social status and position was highly fluid within the Roman imperial system. What Malina and Neyrey actually argue explains this perfectlyand thus explains conversion to Christianity perfectly, for the motives and causes were the same as in all other cases of voluntary social relocation (as we shall see below).

Holding likewise gets Malina and Neyrey right when he says “a person like Jesus could not have kept a ministry going unless those around him supported him,” but then completely departs from anything Malina and Neyrey argue when he says “a merely human Jesus could not have met this demand.” That is a non sequitur. Indeed, Jesus “must have provided convincing proofs of his power and authority to maintain a following, and for a movement to have started and survived well beyond him” as Holding saysbut nothing supernatural would be necessary for that, any more than it was necessary to win converts to any other cult, school, or social group of the day. Were superhuman powers required for Epicurus, Zeno, Aristotle, or Diogenes to found lasting philosophical communities? Did Essenes and promoters of the cults of Isis, Mithras, and Cybele all require superhuman powers to win converts? Were the Gentiles who entered or connected themselves with Judaism only persuaded by supernatural powers? Did Buddhists actually prove their supernatural might in order to win over large segments of the much-more-collectivist Chinese and Japanese populations? Quite simply: No.

We will discuss the actual Christian tactics of persuasion in Chapter 13. But Holding’s reasoning (which is found nowhere in Malina and Neyrey) is that “a merely human Jesus would have had to live up to the expectations of others and would have been abandoned … at the first sign of failure.” But Holding never explains how that conclusion follows from Malina and Neyrey’s thesis. Instead, his argument actually ignores their sociological model in two crucial respects:

(1) First, there is no evidence Christ’s followers ultimately perceived anything he did as a failure. As far as they saw it, he was a complete successeven his execution received group approbation as a success.[9] Since the group defines success and failureand that is exactly what Malina and Neyrey argueonce Jesus had a following, whether anything that happened would be regarded as a “failure” would depend entirely on the perceptions of the in-group. Perceptions of everyone outside the group would not matter. As long as the in-group called his execution a success, it would be a success. Period. That is how groupthink works. And this follows even when there may be temporary wavering or doubtthough the Gospels portray the disciples as abandoning Jesus (while there is no support for this in Paul and it may well be a dramatic invention), they also portray the disciples soon having visions of Jesus reaffirming that his execution was a success. Since Jesus was their leader, this would define his execution as a success. And all other members of the in-group would believe what the disciples, as appointed representatives of their leader, told them about this. We can debate whether these visions of Jesus were real and physical, or only imagined or fabricated (see below), but neither would make the success of Christianity any more successful, or any less. Because it made no difference.

(2) Thus, Malina and Neyrey’s thesis can (and does) explain Christianity’s success without requiring any appeal to anything supernatural. In fact, Holding entangles himself a Catch-22 here (his second mistake). His own argument entails accepting that people would leave one group for another “at the first sign of failure,” yet that is exactly how Christianity won converts: the social groups to which future converts belonged at the time, or that were available for them to join, were failing. They were failing by the standards of the groups themselves, at least for some individuals. For them, these in-groups were failing to live up to their own professed ideals, and failing to achieve or realize those things each group itself deemed right and good. Christians then offered them a social group that wasn’t failing (as explained in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6). Thus, by Holding’s own reasoning, conversion to Christianity, at least for as many as actually did convert, would be entirely expected. It was not improbable at all. No supernatural evidence was required. The mere fact that their social in-groups were failing, and Christianity’s social in-group was succeedingat meeting the needs and expectations of the communitywould be sufficient on Malina and Neyrey’s thesis to account for the entirety of Christianity’s success in its first hundred years, and beyond.

As Malina himself explains:

Why did a small group emerge around Jesus? Small groups emerge because some person becomes aware of a need for change, a desire for social satisfaction. That person shares this vision with others who mutually nurture a hope of success in implementing the change in a cultural context in which group formation is expected…[and after that] Post-Jesus associations…existed primarily to serve the needs of members: social, informational, support.

And though “they were not concerned at all to reform society,” they were concerned to maintain a satisfactory society “within” society, which strove to be accepted by the out-society, while realizing ideal social values within the in-group, which would prefigure the perfect society of the cosmic future. “Compelling evidence” never comes up in Malina’s explanation here, much less evidence of the supernatural, and even less that of the Resurrection.[10]

And this is how Bruce Malina himself accounts for that success. He has never appealed to Jesus actually being God. He has never said the evidence of Christ’s divinity or resurrection had to be compelling, or anything like that. To the contrary, Malina has consistently argued through numerous books (see Note 3) that Christianity’s success was due to the rhetorical skills of its missionaries, who properly contextualized the faith in terms both acceptable and attractive to their collectivist culture. The only reference he ever makes to the evidence Christians appealed to, besides missionary healing and exorcism, was the role of divine revelationappeals to religious experiencewhich he connects to the Jewish prophetic tradition.[11] Never do the miracles of Christ’s ministry or resurrection play any role in Malina’s theory of Christianity’s success. All he argues as necessary were a properly constructed (and properly presented) theology and appeals to private communications from God affirming that system (which we, today, can neither verify nor falsify as such).

Malina doesn’t even appeal to miracles performed by Christian missionaries as important to their success, apart from healing and exorcism, since he generally treats miracle reports as symbolic rather than historical. Some miracle narratives were indeed purely or largely symbolic. But the Christian mission did require some genuine displays of “supernatural” power to prove its divine backing. Holding is right about that, since the appearance of “divine backing” was essential to the Christian solution to popular social problems. However, when we look at what miracles were actually used by the Church (as seen in Paul and Acts), none required any supernatural power at allonly the perception of it (as discussed in Chapter 6, and we shall explore the same point again in Chapter 13). In fact, Malina argues, Christianity was no different in this regard than any other shamanic tradition throughout human history (see again Note 11).

Even so, contrary to Holding’s reasoning, merely performing supernatural feats (even the resurrection of Jesus himself) would be incapable of winning converts. In a groupthink culture, those feats had to be acknowledged by the group as divinerather than, for example, demonic, or the product of trickery. If the group appealed to was already hostile to the Christian message, it would not define any miracle, even a genuine one from God himself, as divine, but as demonic or fake. That’s how groupthink works. As shown in Chapter 3, resurrecting the dead was an expected power of demons and sorcerers, and therefore could be attributed to demonic agency or explained away as a human trick. For instance, crediting trickery is exemplified in Matthew 27:62-66, 28:11-15. Another available explanation was misdiagnosis, i.e. some sources “explain away” resurrections by claiming the beneficiary was never really dead but just sleeping (even though there is no way they could know that).

Therefore, even on Holding’s assumption that Christians performed real miraclesincluding a real, thoroughly proven resurrection of their leaderaccording to Malina and Neyrey’s analysis that would still be insufficient to account for Christianity’s success. Christianity had to demonstrate its miracles were divine, rather than demonic or human, by appealing to values the out-group already acceptedhence the visible social success of the Christian brotherhood was a necessary cause of its further expansion. But as it happens, that was also a sufficient cause. By proving that Christianity was a successful social groupfulfilling the core values of various out-groupsit followed necessarily that Christianity had divine backing. For in the ancient view, the divine backing of a community and its success in fulfilling social values were synonymous. To be a success was to be of God. But it follows necessarily that any seemingly miraculous feat would then be interpreted by an appropriate out-group as coming from God rather than demonic or human agency. And so nothing that Christians did had to be genuinely supernaturalit only had to seem so. And this is what Malina himself argues.


10.3. How Christianity Fits the Malina-Neyrey Model

We have already seen how Christianity exploited its social context perfectly. Furthermore, in Malina and Neyrey’s sociological model, we identified three peculiarities of ancient culture that must be taken into account by any correct explanation of Christianity’s early success. The Christian message had to conform to the expectations of those social groups it successfully recruited from, but it did not have to conform to the expectations of other social groups it did not successfully recruit from (such as elite scholars). And to succeed, Christianity had to be perceived as successfully meeting the needs of those groups it successfully recruited from, and those groups had to perceive their current social system as failing to meet those needs. In other words, society had to be perceived as “sick” and in need of fixing, and then Christianity had to offer a “cure” that would fit the expectations of enough people to draw converts and grow.

Within that context: (1) Christianity’s message had to place community welfare before individual desire, both in principle and in practice (the first defining feature of a successful social group), and it had to place every member of the group under a master who would consistently serve the welfare of the whole (the second defining characteristic of a successful social group); (2) its members had to be able to define themselves by “group of origin” and “place of origin,” in other words by kinship and citizenship, and see themselves as sharing “a common fate”; and (3) this familial and political affiliation had to serve “as conscience and guide” to moral action, in a way that succeeded in meeting universal human needs (food, shelter, love, etc.).

There is no doubt early Christianity satisfied all of these conditions. Therefore, on Malina and Neyrey’s thesis, Christianity would have had no trouble succeeding, at least in the manner and degree it did, without what we would consider “irrefutable” evidence of anything except its success in meeting social needs. And that is exactly what Christians appealed to: popular moral values were realized more truly in their brotherhood than in the wider social system as-it-was (see Chapter 5 and Chapter 6). Everyone’s needs were cared for, and there was justice, harmony, and brotherly love. Those were ends that most social groups at the time professed to serve, but that none actually succeeded in achieving. Christianity won allegiance by appealing to that disconnect between concept and practice, and offering a solution. That solution did involve a change in certain subordinate social values and perceptions, but those changes were presented as essential in order to fulfill the core goals of society (justice and harmony), which everyone agreed were supposed to take priority over all other concerns.

We already discussed in Chapter 5 and Chapter 8 how the social system of the time was failing: though various social groups asserted certain values, those same groups, and especially their leaders, were failing to live up to those values. As a result, those groups would be compelled by their own groupthink to seek a solution to this problem, and that solution had to be either a cultural movement (bottom-up reform) or commitment to a leader who would restore the proper social harmony (top-down reform), or both. Philosophers attempted the former tactic, but did not succeedprecisely because they did not correctly frame their ideas in a way acceptable to the collectivist groups they appealed to. Pretenders to the throne (and various leaders of rebel military movements) attempted the latter tactic, but did not succeedbecause the Roman military machine was at the time in perfect working order and thus unbeatable, or (in the case of pretenders who succeeded by using that military machinee.g. Caesar, Vespasian, Severus) the ideas of the new leader were not sufficient to cure the disease, and in some cases even made it worse.

In contrast, everyone agrees that Christianity preached brotherhood and justice and the meeting of everyone’s needs, and it is clear (from Paul and Acts) that it actually succeeded at practicing what it preached, at least enough to demonstrate (to anyone who cared to sincerely inquire) that the Christian group was succeeding where all other groups were failing. In fact, the small size of the Church in its first hundred years was probably responsible for its ability to practice so successfully what it preachedby following the successful “small town” model of social reinforcement (which is widely known to succeed where urban models fail, due to the problems of mobility and anonymity), and yet settling these small self-regulating communities within larger urban centers all around the Empire, where they could attract maximum attention. This allowed the Church to grow (in a way the Essene sect never could), due to its access to a greater number of fluid population centers, and by keeping the size of individual communities small, while still linking them together into a larger complex through authoritarian leaders like Paul (a system that was eventually structured into a formal Church hierarchy).

Once the Church became as large as other social institutions of the time, however, it succumbed to the same vanity, conflict, and corruption that they didthus demonstrating it was not in fact up to the task of solving society’s problems (in much the same way that Marxism once looked so promising, yet its inevitable outcome proved to be worse than the disease). But in its first few centuries Christianity did look like it was working, in a way the wider social system was notespecially since the major social institutions of the time were increasingly failing, getting worse and worse, in exactly those same centuries. This made Christianity look increasingly better, even supernaturally prescient, by comparison (which is an example of the role luck played in securing the ultimate success of Christianity, as we shall examine in Chapter 18). A comparable analogy is how Islam arose at precisely the point when the military capabilities of surrounding empires were in sharp decline, a mere coincidence that nevertheless made sweeping Islamic victories “appear” supernatural, which further secured its ideological success.

In many ways Christianity fit the Malina-Neyrey model perfectly in its first centurythat crucial period where a movement will either fail and collapse into obscurity, or gain a stronghold that succeeding generations can then exploit. For example, Holding is quite right that “in the ancient world, it would have been foreign to the mind to not stand in some sort of dependent relationship,” which is precisely why subservience to Christ as Lord was so central to the Christian solution to its society’s problems. “Let’s work together to fix what’s wrong” would never have worked in the social context of antiquity, because appeals to individual self-mastery (“An Army of One”) could not motivate collective action. It was necessary to follow a strong leader, who embodies, serves, and thus realizes the group’s ideals. In actual practice, most leaders of the time fell into selfish corruption or aloof insolence, and utterly failed to embody or serve, much less realize, the most important values of their society. The behavior of emperors had already demonstrated by the time of Christ the inevitable decline that was seen to pervade the nature of the entire world: they would start out good, but grow corrupt or unresponsive with time. The history of Jewish kings, as well as the successors of Alexander, set the same example. Human leaders could never be trusted.

Therefore, since only God can be trusted, God must be our leader, and we must make ourselves totally subservient to Him. “Lord Jesus Christ” is “the only dynast, king of kings, and lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:14-15). The only one. And in Jewish terms, to say “God is our Lord” meant “God” in his role as Anointed Kinga “Christ” (which means “Anointed”)and in his role as a “Jesus” (which means “Savior”). Jesus Christ is the eternal Anointed Savior and therefore the Perfect Leader, to whom all Christians pledged subservience, and whose Spirit inhabits all the baptized. Hence for society to work, the Christians taught, authority must go directly from God, to Christ, to the head of every household (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 4:15, 5:23). And that makes Christ our King, until “he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:23-25). This is why Jesus is described with every leadership title there was at the time, all the way from Shepherd to God. He was the ultimate leader, who would never fail in his appointed role. To follow him, to let him govern your life, was the only way to fix society.

Christians probably proposed this solution because it solved the evident problem not only of failing leaders, but of human middlemen (like the Priesthood, and the Pharisees and Scribes, as well as the administrators of local and imperial power), which were increasingly seen as failing in their duty to uphold the values of their society, and thus were perceived as the very problem in need of solution. By cutting out all human middlemen and serving God’s Anointed directly, each individual would be placed under the leadership of the only incorruptible leader there was, and therefore such individuals would collectively constitute a properly functioning social group. That was probably one reason why dependence on Torah law could be done away with. The entire basis of that law was a dependence on the Temple cult and the human middlemen who ran it (not only the priests, but the merchants, for example, who sold the animals that Torah law required individuals to buy for atonement sacrifices, etc.). To cut out those middlemen and directly serve under God negated any rationale for the Torah system. It became socially obsolete.

Thus, the need for a subservient social relationship was met by Christianity, and met in a way that would be obviously superior in the eyes of those social groups the Christians evangelizedthose who could or did understand, and accept, the existence and social role of God as King (hence Jews and sympathetic or otherwise sincerely religious Gentiles). Likewise, when Holding points out that Christianity sought to erase all social distinctions, he misses the fact that they sought this only within the community of the Church itselfChristians never argued for erasing those distinctions outside the Church, but in fact argued they should be maintained as much as possibleto ensure peace and harmony (Romans 13:1-7; Colossians 3:22; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Timothy 2:1-2 & 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:12-17).

On the other hand, Holding rightly adds that Christianity also sought to erase all individual distinctions, even of “appearance and charisma.” This conforms perfectly with Malina and Neyrey’s thesis: Christianity was a thoroughly collectivist movement. The individual was being completely subsumed and replaced by the group. The Church becomes the new group, the new social unit, in which there are no true individuals, only limbs joined to one purpose, acting as one body (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 3:6 & 5:30). Malina and Neyrey note that this is the case for many collectivist societies even today (quoting Triandis): “the self is coterminous with … a group the way a hand is related to the person whose hand it is” (p. 10), which is exactly the way Christians described themselves. This was the very social ideal they sold to potential converts. There was nothing radical about that. It was exactly what the society of the time could understand and embrace.

Likewise, Holding rightly says that “in a group-oriented society, you took your identity from your group leader, and people needed the support and endorsement of others to support their identity,” but he misses the fact that Christianity fulfilled this requirement, too. Christians did take their identity from their group leaderChristhence they took the name christiani[12]literally as his adopted children (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:14-15 & 8:23; Galatians 3:26-27 & 4:5-6; Ephesians 1:5; 1 John 5:1). And Christians did seek and enjoy the “support and endorsement of others” to ensure their identity: the Church community itself reaffirmed and maintained their group identity as the Children of Christ, the members of One Body in Christ.[13] As long as the groups to which you already belonged, and their leaders, were failing to practice what they preached, failing to realize social harmony and justice, the attraction of entering a group that wasn’t failing would be strong. And this is why people sought to enter into new social groups in the Roman period, whether military, political, social, geographic, economic, or religiousin a quest to gain those things all human beings want: love, admiration, justice, economic security. That very same quest could lead them to Christianity just as easily, and for all the same reasonsespecially if their desperation or deprivation were great.

Finally, Christianity conformed to the social expectations of its day not only by offering converts an improvement in their most essential source of identitya new and better family (just as many Romans longed for adoption into families of higher rank)but also an improvement in their “place of origin,” for they became not only “brothers” but also “citizens of Heaven” (Philemon 3:20), which was the best citizenship you could have. Every other city and kingdom was corrupt and dysfunctional, yet countless people sought to acquire one or another citizenship and thus to enter into a new social group that would give them a sense of identity, as well as (many hoped) meet their most basic human needs. The exact same motivation would serve Christianity, too: for not only was its citizenship a better deal (since it lasted forever and was open to anyone and completely free), but in the living Christian brotherhood such a citizenship more obviously met those basic human needs that many were not finding satisfied by any of the worldly alternatives. And then the Christian “citizenship in Heaven” promised to meet those needs to perfection in the coming afterlife. This was not a novel idea. Philo says those who joined one particular Jewish sect (very similar to Christianity) became “citizens of Heaven and the cosmos,” while for all Jews the true “home and country” of the saved is “the most pure substance of Heaven,” as we are mere tourists on Earth.[14]

And as expected, this superior kinship and political in-group affiliation that Christianity offered not only supplied the necessary moral guidance, but tied everyone to a common fate: a future life, when any remaining imperfections in Christianity’s present realization of the Kingdom of God would be removed and the society purified and perfected by divine justice. In that sense, Heaven or Hell, eternal life or destruction, were not fates faced individually, but collectively. Those who were unjust or rejected the message of perfect justice, and were therefore “outside” the group or unfaithful to it, collectively met their deserved end: destruction. But those who entered and remained faithful to the group would inherit the true Kingdom of God when it finally arrived. This added a dire element of urgency to the Christian message: your decision to enter the group or not would decide your fate once and for all, and in the most spectacular way, by determining which group you would belong to in the end, and hence which group’s fate you would share. The idea certainly appealed to individual interests (as Malina and Neyrey point out, those in a collectivist society still have such intereststhey just don’t express them to the group), and thus it retained the same motivating power it has today. But the Christian gospel framed this appeal in collectivist terms as well: as what was fated and appropriate for each entire group, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the chaff. Hence to threaten someone with ultimate divine destruction was literally to accuse them of membership in a dysfunctional group.


10.4. Malina and Neyrey on the Role of Revelation

After Malina and Neyrey establish the point Holding wants to emphasize (though misuses), namely that groupthink limits what people would consider acceptable, they go on to observe that “deviations from such general orientations readily stand out” and “this is especially notable in the case of the prophet in collectivist cultures” (p. 216), a point Holding fails to mention. In fact, Malina and Neyrey say, all the “prophets” of both the Jewish and Christian tradition “seem to be speaking their individual minds regardless of consequences to their groups or to themselves,” thus going against the collectivist expectation of saying only what maintains harmony. Instead, they upset the social order by criticizing it. Though this may be why they were often persecuted, it remains a fact that such prophets were nevertheless widely reveredindeed they were often granted the highest status in any scale of reverence. Malina and Neyrey explain this by pointing out that the prophet is driven to this extreme by failures in the social system which can no longer be tolerated. He then succeeds in being heard, they argue, by placing his individual opinion within the collectivist expectation by attributing it to divine inspiration.

This is why they have to claim to be prophets, supernatural transmitters of the Word of Godwho rules over, embodies, and represents the communityrather than individual men with their own good ideas arguing from objective evidence and reason. Because they can’t do the latter and get away with it. No one would listen. According to Malina and Neyrey’s analysis, to assert that your ideas come direct from God is the only successful way within a Western collectivist society to object openly to failures in the social system, and thus effect change. That is why we do not see individual visionaries arguing for change, everin Jewish history or even pagan historyexcept in the unusual, and thus much-distrusted (and therefore ultimately unsuccessful) context of the elite rationalist subculture of the philosophical schools. Instead, in Western collectivist societies, all popular movements for change or reform are attributed to revelations from God.

In other words, according to Malina and Neyrey: (1) To claim a revelation from God was the only way to have any impact on society, since it was the only way to contextualize your ideas that your fellow collectivists would be attuned to accept, and (2) it is typical in collectivist cultures to see no wrong in lying to the group in order to tell them what they want and need to hear (in fact, according to Malina and Neyrey, this kind of “deception” was practically obligatory). From those two facts comes the conclusion that most (if not all) “revelations” or “visions” from God could be pious fabrications, a culturally necessary expedient in order to reform collectivist-minded societies that are experiencing structural failures in their social system.[15]

Of course, this can manifest as a deliberate or an accidental causal relationship: the need to couch reformative ideas in prophetic context (and the acceptability of saying what the group wants to hear even if it isn’t the truth) can cause the prophet to claim to have had a communication from God; but it could also cause him to experience a communication from God, through dreams, hallucinations, or an ecstatic or other altered state of consciousness. In the one case there is a conscious rationale, a conscious lie for the greater good (which, according to Malina and Neyrey, a collectivist community might not even consider a lie). In the other case, cultural presuppositions subconsciously guide the prophet’s mind to experience exactly what he needs to in order to achieve his goals. Such “experiences are found among 90 percent of the world’s population today, where they are considered normal and natural, even if not available to all individuals,” whereas “modern Euro-American cultures offer strong cultural resistance” to such “experiences, considering them pathological or infantile while considering their mode of consciousness as normal and ordinary.” So moderns like Holding stubbornly reject such a possibility only by ignoring the difference between modern and ancient culturesfor contrary to modern hostility to the idea, “to meet and converse with a god or some other celestial being is a phenomenon which was simply not very surprising or unheard of in the Greco-Roman period,” and the biology and sociology of altered states of consciousness is sufficient to explain this.[16]

It is certainly impossible to rule out pious fabrication in the case of visions resolving internal disputes, driving doctrinal developments and schisms within the Church. But wouldn’t visions responsible for conversion be another story? Not necessarily. Just as the early Russian Marxists endured incredible suffering and gave their lives by the hundreds of thousands, knowing full well their only personal reward was eternal oblivion, all for the sole benefit of advancing history toward a utopian state in the distant future of mankind that they would never experience, a Christian missionary could have been willing to bear all and give all for the chance to advance society toward the same result, and (like the Marxists) for no greater reward than that. In other words, anyone who believed the moral and social vision of Christianity was in itself worthwhile would probably be willing to suffer and die for that alone, and therefore might be willing to fabricate any pious deception they thought would succeed, if it would help organize people toward that desired future state.[17] In fact, groupthink makes this highly probable, since to sacrifice yourself, and your own interests, for the communal good is then expected.

Of course, we can’t prove this in any given case. But we can’t refute it either. The terrible problem Holding faces is that, if he really wants to follow the Malina & Neyrey thesis, then we have no reason to expect Paul or any other Christian witness to tell us the truth about this: for in a collectivist culture like his, “people are expected to tell others in the in-group what they believe those others want to hear, rather than what they really think” (p. 213) and “individuals are enculturated not to express what they personally think but to say what their … audience needs or wants to hear from their in-group.” So “saying the right thing to maintain harmony is far more important than telling what seems to be the truth to the private self” (p. 214). Only “individualists value being objective in speech,” whereas collectivists hold that the communal good is “far more important than ‘telling the truth'” (p. 215). In other words, when Paul says he saw Jesus, we can’t necessarily take him at his wordbecause he may merely be speaking in the language his audience expects of him, telling them what they want and need to hear.


10.5. Lack of Evidence for Holding’s View

In this and many other respects, Holding goes against what Bruce Malina actually argues. Holding claims “changes in persons (such as Paul’s conversion) were abnormal,” but Malina and Neyrey never quite say this, and Holding presents no evidence in support of it. Maybe Holding can quibble about what “abnormal” meanscertainly, stand-out people who move social changes are rare even in individualistic societies. Most people follow. Only a few lead. That is a universal truth of human nature. But changing social position or group affiliation, and thus (by Malina and Neyrey’s thesis) changing identity, was relatively common in antiquity. It was especially visible in the act of joining a philosophical school or mystery cult or burial club, in a Gentile becoming a nominal or practicing Jew, in a Jew aligning himself with one particular sect over all others, and in numerous examples of social mobility within the Roman political and military system, including adoption or manumission, and the acquisition of citizenship itself. Even by marrying, a woman entered a new social group, and by migrating (from one region to another, or from country to city), a man entered a new social group. The widely visible process of Hellenization and Romanization itself exemplifies switching from one cultural group to another, which entailed changing language, dress, customs, and values. And affiliating with a new group, in all these cases, entailed changing or altering one’s identity according to Malina and Neyrey. So “changes in persons” were normal, not abnormal. Even the specific idea of religious “conversion” was a known phenomenon of the time, and though not typical, neither was it rare.[18]

Likewise, when Holding claims that “the erasure or blurring of these various distinctions … would have made Christianity seem radical and offensive,” where is the evidence of such an objection being voiced by any critic of the movement? If the “the erasure or blurring” of social distinctions was so offensive, why does no one mention it among their objections to Christianity? Why do Christians never defend themselves against such a charge? This makes no sense. Unless there was no such chargeand therefore, no such offense (not least because Christians didn’t in fact call for the erasure or blurring of social distinctions outside their own group).

There were certainly snobs who looked down on the pretensions of lower class, poorly educated Christians, or those who took great offense at Christians accusing them of vanity, immorality, and ignorance, and attacking their elite culture as corrupt. And critics did find a lot about the Christian message that seemed ridiculous to them. But by and large, the known objections fell into two categories: those based on incorrect beliefs about what the Christians actually did or taught, and those based on the insufficiency of the evidence. “You’re actual social values will destroy society” never comes up as an argument. So Holding’s claim that it must have is unfounded.[19] Critics did argue that what they mistook as Christian values would destroy society, but that evinces ignorance, not hostility to the actual Christian messageand obviously only those who correctly understood that message, and liked it, converted. As far as our evidence can show, those who rejected Christianity did so either because they didn’t really understand it, or there wasn’t enough evidence to convince them (which certainly refutes any notion of the evidence being “irrefutable”).

In fact, Bruce Malina argues the exact opposite of Holding here. Malina’s entire case for the origin and success of the Christian movement rests on his well-proven conclusion that the Christian message was not offensive but attractiveto those who converted.[20] Once again, that it was offensive to its enemies tells us nothing about how it was perceived by those who eventually did convert. And again, consider the Essenes: according to Holding’s argument, the Christian message of social equality would have been too offensive to win converts, yet the Essene sect continually found converts by preaching that very same message. How could that be? Malina provides the answer in his many books. In fact, my analysis throughout all the chapters of this critique is based on Malinawhich only goes to show that Holding has not made an adequate effort to understand him.

Speaking of slaves and paupers (and we can infer this should include all others who were experiencing some disquieting state of deprivation, regardless of wealth or status), Holding claimsagain directly contrary to Malinathat “even from a Western perspective, joining the group did not do anything to alleviate their condition in practical terms.” It is hard to fathom how Holding can say this. For it gave them exactly what they wanted: brotherhood, equality, and salvationin other words: happiness. True, Christianity did not free slaves, but it gave them love, companionship, support, and hope, as well as a place where they could belong and be treated as equals, thus alleviating the misery they otherwise had to still endurewhich, of course, became all the easier to endure because it was only temporary, for soon they would enjoy paradise. And so, too, for everyone else whose particular miseries could not be eliminated: for those miseries were nevertheless compensated by benefits they could find nowhere elseimperfectly in the present, but completely in a promised future. And still for many, their miseries were alleviated by the Christian community: paupers could eat, and bury their dead at no charge, and never wanted for shelter or good company; the sick and disturbed found a hope that healed or soothed them; even some of the rich could find escape from a system that had turned against them, or flee the otherwise inescapable miseries of the rat race by retreating into a quiet and simple life of contemplationas had many a philosopher before them (on all this, see again Chapter 5).

Thus, when Holding argues that “shattering these social distinctions would have been a faux pas of the greatest orderunless you had some powerful cards to play,” the fact is: granting real-world and future-world happiness, and an escape from present miseries and future doom, was a powerful card. It was powerful enough to persuade thousands among the downtrodden and weary (who far outnumbered the successful and content), thus accounting for the actual rate of Christian expansion. And Holding is incorrect when he argues “it would also not have occurred to such persons as a whole that their situation could be changed, since all that happened was attributed to fate, fortune, or providence.” That is entirely the opposite of what Malina and Neyrey argue. For changing one’s situation for the better was exactly what fate, fortune, and providence were expected to do. Indeed, if Holding’s claim here were true, why did people seek to improve their social status at all? Once again, why did slaves seek to become freedmen, and their sons to become magistrates? Why did people move to new territories or towns, much less seek the citizenship? Why did soldiers seek to become centurions, or even join the army in the first place? Why did merchants seek to prosper or win greater honors? Why did Celts Romanize themselves? Or Jews Hellenize themselves? Why did anyone join any philosophical school? Why the flow of converts to the Essenes? Or to the Cynics? Or from paganism to Judaism? Why the interest in salvation cults, whereby converts changed their situation for the better in the afterlife?

Holding’s argument simply makes no sense at all of any of this behavioryet this behavior was ubiquitous. Malina explains this perfectly. If only Holding would pay attentionor simply think things through himself. For how could someone deny that their misery in the present life would be alleviated by joining a Christian brotherhood, when the evidence of miserable people improving the quality of their lives by joining that brotherhood was plain to see? Holding’s entire case depends on the assumption that even collectivists could be persuaded by irrefutable evidence, yet here was irrefutable evidence, right before their very eyes. Therefore, Holding’s own assumptions refute him. And while thousands upon thousands were continually joining salvation cults, creating new social group identities through rebirthing and initiation ceremoniesall for the security of the mere assurance that their present miseries were but temporary and would eventually be alleviated for all eternitywhy would Christianity be any less popular or successful for offering exactly the same thing? Indeed, even more: for unlike most other such cults, Christianity offered “a sample of the goods,” a glimpse of the good life they would receive in the future world, by realizing that vision in Christian practice.

Holding also attempts to argue that “it is an anachronism of Western individualism to suppose that a slave or the poor would have found Christianity’s message appealing” on the basis of its “erasure” of social distinctions. But once again, this is exactly the opposite of what Malina and Neyrey say. As already explained earlier, their argument is that a slave or pauper would not claim to find Christianity’s message appealing for this reason, but would instead claim (regardless of their actual motives) that their alignment with the Christian group was good for the society as a whole, and that it was necessary to escape a failing social system in which harmony and communal good were forgotten or poorly realized, and to enter instead into a group that was setting things right. The Christian would not see himself (or at least would never portray himself) as rebelling against existing social values (though we can understand him in that way), but as reasserting those very social values, truly realizing them, which the wider society was failing to do. In other words, the Christian would not claim he was abandoning one set of values for another, but that the wider society had already abandoned its own values, by succumbing to individualistic greeds and lusts, and therefore it was necessary to join the Christian community in order to reestablish those core values.

That is why Christianity was never really sold as “new” (see again Chapter 4), but as a restoration of what were the original and proper social values intended by God. And that was key: Holding is correct that there would not have been any successful mass movement based on an argument from reason that certain values were proper and should be realizedwhich is why philosophy was unsuccessful as a social movement for the reform of society. A mass movement for social reform could only appeal to a collectivist mindset by attributing the idea to a universal God, who by that status alone was the supreme master over all, and therefore the supreme representative of the group. In such a way the Christian avoided making any sort of individualistic, idealistic claim to progress, and instead contextualized his movement as coming from a universal lord, and therefore collectivistically appropriate for all to obey. This is exactly what Malina and Neyrey argue. Holding apparently skipped that part.

Finally, Holding tries to claim there would be a double-whammy for Jewish converts, in that “strict observance of the Torah became Judaism’s own ‘defense mechanism’ against Roman prejudices, their way of staying pure of outside influences,” yet Holding admits that in “the era of Antiochus … Jews often capitulated to Hellenism,” as in fact did Hellenized Diaspora Jews even in the time of Christ. How can Holding account for that when his theory renders it impossible? And how can the abandonment of Torah relate to the ministry or resurrection of Jesus, when it came after both, and from private revelations, not from any flesh-and-blood Jesus? The fact is, Christ did nothing in life, or by rising from the dead, that gave support to the abandonment of Torah law. Therefore, Holding cannot bootstrap a case for the former by appealing to the latter. For the only evidence supporting that innovation was a subjective vision or dream, long after the Resurrection, which no one can confirm or refute as coming from God, and which few today would regard as reliable evidence at all, much less “irrefutable” evidence.


10.6. Conclusion

In The Social Gospel of Jesus Bruce Malina argues with persuasive force that the Christian message made perfect sense in its time, to a great many people, and was not only inherently attractiveeven to a collectivist society bound by groupthinkbut was so skillfully presented as to be certain of success in that context regardless of the evidence. For its popularity was due to its social message far more than anything we would call “evidence” that Jesus rose from the dead. The only evidence Malina ever even considers relevant to Christianity’s success is the experiences certain missionaries had through altered states of consciousness. Apart from healing and exorcism, nary a miracle ever enters his analysis, much less the miracle of the Resurrection itself, beyond its being spiritually “witnessed” by prophets, both ancient and contemporary. It’s unacceptable for Holding to use only those points of Malina’s analysis that suit him, and ignore the others that count against him.

Instead, Holding’s distorted version of the Malina-Neyrey thesis makes a useless caricature of their theory, one that utterly fails to explain the actual behavior of ancient Jews, Romans, and Greeks, and completely ignores what Malina and Neyrey themselves say about the causes of Christianity’s development and success. In actual fact, they argue that Christianity conformed perfectly to the collectivist expectations of its time and society and was successful for that very reason. The need to manipulate groupthink was precisely why Christianity came to be presented as it was: as a revealed command from God Almighty, rather than a rational or empirical argument for practical action. Whether consciously or subconsciously motivated, appealing to visions and communications from God (which included scripture, as his revealed word) was the only way Christianity could succeed in its environment.

Ultimately, Holding has presented no evidence confirming his conclusion over what Malina actually argues himself. And what evidence we do have certainly appears to contradict Holding and support Malina. Therefore, groupthink would have presented no barrier to Christian growth. To the contrary, it would have enhanced that growth, in exactly the same degree, and for exactly the same reason, that it impeded the growth of rational philosophy among the wider population of the time. Supporting this argument is the fact that early Christians repudiated the core values of rational philosophy (including its dependency on objective evidence and reason) and lauded quite a different path to discovering truth (as we shall demonstrate in Chapter 17). Even Origen admitted that most among the people do not respond to rational argument, but follow instead those prophets who claim revelations from God.[21]


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[1] See the evidence and sources cited in Chapter 2 and Chapter 5 (especially Note 6).

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.73 (or 5.15 or 5.17 in some modern editions). The Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Paul, says there were people like this all over the known world in his day, who were sick of wealth and society and were abandoning property and family to follow lives of philosophy and piety within Essene-like societies, and he praises them for it (Philo, On the Contemplative Life 18-21).

[3] Bruce Malina & Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (1996). Page numbers in parentheses in the body of this chapter refer to this book. Though I do find much of what he says persuasive, my primary aim here is to point out what Malina has actually argued, whether he is correct or not. Malina’s theories of the origin and development of Christianity can be further pursued in: Bruce Malina, The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (2000) [on which see Note 20 below], The New Jerusalem in the Revelation of John: The City As Symbol of Life with God (2000), and Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology: Practical Models for Biblical Interpretation (1986); and Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (2003) and Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John (1998). See also Bruce Malina & John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (2000).

[4] This was a common device in ancient religion. For example, see Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 58, 78 (Moralia 374e, 382e-f). Similar evidence of secret doctrines concealed behind public stories can be found in Herodotus, Dionysius, Apuleius, and others.

[5] For example, Magnus Zetterholm presents a good case on demographic, epidemiological, and sociological evidence that ancient cities were major centers of disconnected and displaced people in search of a group to belong to, which accords well with the evidence that Christianity was always most successful in cities. See Magnus Zetterholm, The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity (2003), pp. 28-31.

[6] Josephus, Life 2(7-12).

[7] Rejecting Torah were the Nasaraeans and Ossaeans (cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 18-19; the Nasaraeans are not to be confused with the Nazoreans, which appears to have been the original name for the Christians: Epiphanius, Panarion 29; Jerome, Epistles 112.13; Acts 24:5). We know the names of over thirty Jewish sects in the time of Jesus, which I survey in Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232 (cf. pp. 107-10, 198-201).

[8] As Lucian explains in glorious, autobiographical detail in The Dream (aka Lucian’s Career).

[9] As explained in Chapter 1, and by Holding’s own favorite scholar: David DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (2000): pp. 51-55.

[10] Quotations from the conclusion of Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (2001): pp. 217, 216. So, also, his conclusion to The Social Gospel of Jesus, pp. 141-61. Of later Christian missionary work he references healing, exorcism, and revelation as elements employed to win converts, which we have addressed already in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7, and shall address further in Chapter 13.

[11] See his excellent summaries in Bruce Malina & John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (2000): pp. 1-13, 19-24, 41-44. I cannot emphasize more: these three sections are required reading for anyone who intends to engage in biblical interpretation. See also Portraits of Paul (Note 3): pp. 212-18. Note also his priceless introduction to The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (2000): pp. 1-13.

[12] The word christianus is formed from a person’s name (Christus) and a terminator (-ianus) in a construction typical in antiquity of political or kin affiliation (e.g. the Flaviani are members of the Flavius family, and the Pompeiani were those who supported Pompey against Caesar in the Roman Civil War).

[13] DeSilva (Honor, Patronage, Kinship) agrees with Malina here (emphasis added): “intense in-group reinforcement and mutual commitment makes the verdict of the group, not the verdict of society, the one of ultimate importance for the individual” (p. 60), which is why the kinship structure of the Christian Church was “such that perseverance with the group remains an attractive option even when the pressure to defect is high” (p. 200). And “affirming one another’s worth as God’s children” served to counter “the power of society’s resistance with mutual support, encouragement, and affirmation” (p. 211). In fact, DeSilva documents all the ways Christians coped with the external pressures Holding refers to (though exaggerates), yet none involve appeals to the strength of their evidence. According to DeSilva, they appealed to evidence of their group’s moral superiority, not evidence of empirical or historical facts (p. 71): Christians were more just, more compassionate, more selfless, more loyal, more brotherly, and therefore more godly, which entailed that whatever they heard from God must indeed have come from God (pp. 199-239). DeSilva never mentions any empirical evidence for the resurrection or miracles of Jesus as playing any role in Christianity’s success.

       On the role of adoption, see Chapter 9. This social function of adoption is also why Christianity, like many other cults of the day (see sources in Note 3 in Chapter 2), incorporated a ceremony and ideology of “rebirth” (through ritual baptism). Just as you are born into a clan, race, geography, culture, or social rank, so you could be reborn into a new social group, a new “family” (hence all Christians are “adopted” by God and thence called “brothers”). This ceremony and ideology was so crucial to Christianity’s success precisely because it was the only way to make the transition into a new social group acceptable to a collectivist society. That is why other cults employed similar ideas (see Chapter 16).

[14] Philo, On the Contemplative Life 90, Questions and Answers on Genesis 4.74.

[15] A really excellent case for the exact same conclusion has been made by Evan Fales, who suggests ecstatic states could have neurophysiological causes, which Malina would equate with subconscious motivators (e.g. Note 11 above and The Social Gospel of Jesus, pp. 129-31), although Fales is agnostic about whether mystics actually have such ecstatic states (as opposed to merely claiming to have had them). See: Evan Fales, “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experiences, Part I: the Case of St. Teresa,” Religious Studies 32 (1996): pp. 143-163; “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experiences, Part II: The Challenge to Theism,” Religious Studies 32 (1996): pp. 297-313; and “Can Science Explain Mysticism?” Religious Studies 35 (1999): pp. 213-227. See also Alan Segal, “Religiously-Interpreted States of Consciousness: Prophecy, Self-Consciousness, and Life After Death,” Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (2004): pp. 322-50, and I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (1989).

[16] Bruce Malina & John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (2000): pp. 5, 43. Malina explains all the appearances of Jesus in terms of altered states of consciousness, i.e. visions (besides material in Note 11, see: Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (2003): pp. 140, 369, 398-99; and Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John (1998): pp. 282-85). Malina confirmed to me personally, in an e-mail of 15 April 2005, that he does not believe there was any other “evidence” of the Resurrection other than such visions, and he referred me to John Pilch, “Altered States of Consciousness in the Synoptics,” The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels, Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce Malina and Gerd Theissen, eds. (2002): pp. 103-116.

       As it happens, schizotypal personalities would be the most prone to hallucinations guided by such a subconscious mechanism, and therefore the most likely to gravitate into the role of “prophet” in their society (as Malina himself argues: see Note 11 above). Paul, for example, so often refers to hearing voices in his letters (often quoting God’s voice verbatim) it is quite possible he was just such a person. Indeed, the “Angel of Satan” that Paul calls a “thorn in his flesh” may have been an evil voice he often heard and had to suppress (2 Corinthians 12:6-10), though Holding is right to point out that other interpretations are possible. But there are many opportunities even for normal people to enter the same kind of hallucinatory state, especially in religious and vision-oriented cultures: from fasting, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and other ascetic behaviors (such as extended periods of mantric prayer), to ordinary dreaming and hypnagogia (a hallucinatory state experienced by normal people between waking and sleep).

       On schizotypal personality (a relatively common form of nondebilitating schizophrenia) and the other factors above, see sources cited in Note 7 in Chapter 8.

[17] I have discussed such motives before (as a subconscious cause of actual visionary experiences) in: Richard Carrier, “I. Paul’s Vision: Causes and Motives,” in Chapter 3 of “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (5th ed., 2004). I elaborate the social situation Christianity responded to in more formal detail in: Richard Carrier, “Whence Christianity? A Meta-Theory for the Origins of Christianity,” Journal of Higher Criticism 11.1 (Spring 2004).

[18] This was well-documented long ago in the still-masterful study by A. D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (1933). On social mobility in general, the relevant facts can be gleaned from Ramsay MacMullen, Roman Social Relations: 50 B.C. to A.D. 284, and Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, 2nd ed. (1998).

[19] See the concise yet thorough summary of anti-Christian polemic before and during the time of Celsus provided in R. J. Hoffmann, Celsus on the True Doctrine: A Discourse against the Christians (1987): pp. 5-49. And see, for example, Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians 3 (note, also, how Athenagoras assumes the Emperor would approve of actual Christian values, ibid. 11-12 & 31-32, and does not think it necessary to defend them; so, too, Justin Martyr, Apology 1.4-7 & 1.16-17). Only once does Celsus use an argument that Christianity would be bad for society if universally adopted, but not because of social equality, but only because their pacifism would prevent them from winning wars! (Origen, Against Celsus 8.69-70). Even then, Origen responds that Celsus has misunderstood Christian teaching.

[20] The case is excellently made in Bruce Malina, The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (2000). I cannot recommend this book more. It is essential reading on the subject of Christianity’s origin and success (even if Malina occasionally exaggerates, oversimplifies, or errs on various points, warranting some caution–like the example I discuss in Chapter 11.2).

[21] Origen, Against Celsus 6.2. Similarly, Origen says most people have no time for analyzing arguments and evidence but need to believe on simple faith instead, as discussed in my Spiritual Body FAQ.

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.