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Richard Carrier Improbable New

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


4. Was the New Always Bad?

James Holding argues next that for the Romans, “Old was good. Innovation was bad,” and “this was a big sticking point for Christianity, because it could only trace its roots back to a recent founder.” But that isn’t really true. From the very beginning in the letters of Paul, every Christian text aimed at persuasion connects Christianity intimately and profoundly with the Jewish scriptures, regarded even by pagans as among the most ancient oracles of man. Christianity never claimed to have been “founded” by Jesusit always claimed that Jesus was merely the culmination of a divine plan that had been written down for millennia (e.g. Romans 16:25-26), by an ancient God whose worship many Romans respected precisely because the Jewish religion could claim such great antiquity. As Fox observes:

Of the world’s major religions, only Buddhism made a complete break with tradition at its birth: Christianity made no such claim. It could meet the traditionalist culture of pagan contemporaries on equal terms.[1]

Hence Christianity was potentially respectableso long as the Christian was given enough time to explain himself, and his audience was open to such supernatural wonders as the Christian story contained, and was sympathetic to its anti-elitist ideals.

Holding is right, however, that as long as Christianity appeared to be a complete innovation, too few would have accepted it, and as a result it was often derided as “novel” by those who knew little about it. But as soon as anyone gave a Christian missionary the time of day, the appearance of novelty evaporated, and the cult then, and quite plausibly, claimed one of the most ancient and venerable origins of any known religion. As a result, Christianity was no more “new” to the Greeks and Romans than other apparently novel foreign cults. These included Mithraism from Phrygia and Manichaeism from Parthia, and the worship of Isis the Egyptian, Attis the Syrian, Antinoös the Deified Lover of Hadrian, and Glaucon of Abonuteichos, as well as any of the many Emperor Cults, particularly the most prevalent of them, the worship of the Divine Augustus, which had priests and temples throughout the Empire.[2] The Romans so frequently found ways to paint the new as old that an endless stream of novel cults and philosophies came to permeate every inch of the Empire, even despite resistance from some among the elitefrom Cato to Seneca to Juvenalwho found the unstoppable popularity of these novelties appalling.[3]

But unstoppable they were. So no appeal to a Roman resistance to the “new” can argue against the success of Christianity. If dozens of other new cults and philosophies could succeed in spite of this resistance, then so could Christianity. In fact, the most conspicuous elements of innovation in Christianity were its most popular features: it took the religion of Judaism, which was already winning converts from among the pagans, and made it even more attractive, by making it far less onerous (as explained in Chapter 2); and it promised to subvert the most despised of elite values and produce an egalitarian utopia of justice for the common man (though for now only within the Church). Of course, this would make it a loathsome superstition to most among the elite, and to many Jews. But among the disgruntled masses, Jew and Gentile alike, it could be exciting and attractive. The Christians even eliminated some of the worst complaints against Judaism that opponents like Tacitus leveled at it. For example, they abandoned the very laws Tacitus regarded as “sinister and abominable,” especially circumcision, and they abandoned the racism and insular “group loyalty” that Tacitus singled out for derision.[4] So Christianity could only have been an improvement in his view.

In contrast, Holding is quite wrong to claim that Christian eschatology was new. Of course, it was entirely in accord with what most Jews had believed and taught for centuries, so Holding can only mean it appeared novel to pagans inexperienced with Jewish teachings. But this Jewish eschatology was clearly no barrier to winning over pagan sympathizers and even converts, so it could not have been a problem for the Christian mission, either. Moreover, the whole “idea of sanctification, of an ultimate cleansing and perfecting of the world and each person,” derives entirely from pagan Zoroastrianism: it had been a staple of Persian religious life and society for centuries, and had infiltrated Greco-Roman thought well before Christianity came along. For instance, the doctrine of a cleansing cataclysm of fire that would renew the entire universe and purify human souls was a common belief among Stoics (and Romans were more attracted to Stoic philosophy than any other), and some Middle Platonists advocated the idea as well.[5] So there was nothing new about this.

Anyone acquainted with Christian literature (especially on the Garden of Eden) knows even the Christians believed “the past was the best of times, and things have gotten worse since then.” They merely expected a cataclysmic improvementbut so did the Zoroastrians, many Stoics, and some Middle Platonists. The popular Greco-Roman concept was that everything would start over again perfect, and play out again the same way (though perhaps with small variations). The Jews, following the original Persian scheme, merely tweaked this idea into a vision of a final material or heavenly paradise ruled by God, and the Christians simply borrowed that idea. Considering their target audience, this helped Christianity more than hurt it: the common man would have preferred this hopeful vision of the future to the obscure and depressing metaphysics of the despised elite (whose views could not claim anywhere near the same antiquity as those of the Jews and Magi). Holding presents no evidence of hostility to Christian eschatology anyway, not even from the elite.

In the end, Holding’s argument that the Christian claim to antiquity still faced “a hurdle that Christianity could never overcome outside a limited circle … without some substantial offering of proof” is far too strong. Christianity’s difficulty here was no greater than that faced by any other novel cult or philosophy, and yet dozens of those saw success well beyond “a limited circle.” And Christianity often overcame this hurdle without any empirical proof, simply by applying the art of persuasion through learned scriptural exegesis (as we shall see in Chapter 13), arguing that they were the true Jews, faithful to the original and enduring vision of Jehovah. In this respect, Christianity actually had an advantage over other cults and philosophies, which could not claim so ancient an oracular foundation (per Chapter 1.4).


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[1] Robin Lane Fox, Pagans & Christians (1986), p. 331. On Judaism, even Tacitus, notable for his loathing of Jews, admits their religion is ultimately “sanctioned by its antiquity” (Histories 5.5), and the Roman state passed laws respecting the “ancestral traditions” of the Jews, which included protecting their scriptures from sacrilegious theft or vandalism (Josephus, AJ 16.160-175). For more on how the Jews and their scriptures were perceived, even by their enemies, see Menahem Stern, Greek & Latin Authors on Jews & Judaism: With Introductions, Translations & Commentary (1981).

[2] On the unstoppable introduction and success of novel cults throughout Roman society as far as Britain, see Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire (2nd ed., 1992; tr. Antonia Nevill, 1996) and Mary Beard, et al., Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History (1998).

       Manichaeism was such a successful innovation it had to be violently oppressed by both pagan and Christian governments alike: cf. S. N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China, 2nd ed. (1992).

       Antinoös was Emperor Hadrian’s lover who drowned in the Nile, and out of grief Hadrian founded a religion around the worship of his deified boy-toy. Though probably the least successful of the religions here named, it is notable for the fact that it was completely novel, yet officially sanctioned by the Imperial government, and embraced by many Romans and others. See Origen, Against Celsus 3.36 and Royston Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous (1984).

       The worship of Glaucon of Abonuteichos was invented wholesale by Alexander in the 2nd century A.D., yet commanded a significant and respectable following for centuries. See: Lucian, Alexander the Quack Prophet; the relevant material in C.P. Jones, Culture and Society in Lucian (1986); Robin Lane Fox, Pagans & Christians (1986).

       In addition, all the Greek schools of philosophy (Platonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and so on) were not only novel when they were contrived, and yet phenomenally successful in the East, but both novel and foreign when introduced to Rome, and yet won her over as well. Note even Acts 17:21 says “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”

[3] Like Seneca, whose own remark we quoted in Chapter 1, Tacitus only reveals the impotence of his disdain when he says that Christianity gained purchase in Rome, “where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular” (Annals 15.44). For all his protestation, Tacitus reveals the hard truth: that the “hideous and shameful” was nevertheless populareven in the very capital of the Roman Empire.

[4] Tacitus, Histories 5.4-5.

[5] This Stoic eschatology is described or analyzed in Virgil, Aeneid 6.720-60; Alexander of Aphrodisias, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Prior Analytics’, 180.33-6 & 181.25-31; Tatian, Address to the Greeks 6; Origen, Contra Celsum 5.20-21; John Philopon, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘On Generation and Decay’, 314.9-12. Even before the time of Christ the idea is attacked by the Epicurean Lucretius in De Rerum Natura 3.843-64. For sources on Zoroastrian eschatology, see Note 1 in Chapter 3.

       As I mention in other chapters, the common people adopted some ideas from elite philosophy (whatever was easy to grasp and agreed with popular desires), even as they rejected others. Whether the Stoic eschatology was widely popular is unknownwe have no evidence of favor or hostility to the ideabut Holding’s argument requires evidence of hostility, without which his premise is an unsupported assertion, and therefore so is his conclusion.

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.

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