religion


FIRST REFORMED, Ethan Hawke, 2017. ©A24/ Everett Collection.

I recently saw the movie First Reformed on DVD (having missed the theatrical run last year). The film is writer-director Paul Schrader’s most significant work in years, and Ethan Hawke has been widely praised for his portrayal of Reverend Ernst Toller, the troubled pastor at a historic church in upstate New York. The church has only a handful of members and is being kept alive through the efforts of Abundant Life, a local megachurch whose theology and approach to ministry are far removed from First Reformed’s Calvinism (Schrader does know Calvinism, having grown up in the Christian Reformed Church, a North American bastion of Calvinist beliefs. I’m from the same tradition, and in fact attended the same church-related high school and college as Schrader did).

Most of the plot has to do with Toller’s efforts to help Mary, a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried), and her husband Michael, a radical environmentalist who despairs for the planet and is opposed to bringing a child into it. Toller tries to foster hope in Michael, using arguments like the following:

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

If you don’t find that a stirring call to a meaningful life, well, I don’t either. The problem may be that Toller is himself forlorn. He is a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to enlist. When his son was subsequently killed, his wife left him. He tells Michael,

“I can promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.”

Much of what we learn about Toller’s interior life comes in the form of voice-overs from the journal he resolves to keep for a year. His intent is:

“To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy.”

He quickly displays such mercilessness towards himself:

“I look at the last lines I wrote with disdain.”

A few days afterwards, he’s again faulting his efforts:

“When I read these words I see not truth but pride.”

He’s even critical of his criticism:

“I wish I had not used the word ‘pride’ but I cannot cross it out.”

Give it a rest, dude! Your self-loathing is getting in your way.

Toller describes his journal as a means of communication, “a form of prayer,” though he later laments that he is unable to pray. Apparently, talking to himself in his journal is an attempt to obliquely talk to God. It isn’t quite true that he can’t pray–when Mary asks him to pray for her, he does so without hesitation. He just can’t take himself before God. This is despair of the Kierkegaardian sort, not over God or the state of the world but over having to be oneself.

Toller is what the 19th century philosopher and psychologist William James called a “sick soul,” a person whose view of everything is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence.” Even if the sick soul believes that evil will eventually be overcome by a greater good (as Toller apparently does, since he leads the congregation in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which points to Christ as savior), evil is not easily dismissed. By contrast, Reverend Jeffries, the pastor of Abundant Life, exemplifies James’ contrasting “healthy-minded” religious type, the optimist who is taken by the goodness of life and dismisses the seriousness of evil. Jeffries tries to be pastoral towards Toller, but there’s no crossing the gulf between them.

A while later, there’s another revealing voice-over from the journal:

“Some are called for their gregariousness. Some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness. They are called by God because through the vessel of communication, they can reach out and hold beating hearts in their hands. They are called because of their all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of all things that can only be filled by the presence of our Savior.”

Toller is such a lonely, desolate disciple, responding to the call but in travail. Though he states that Christ’s presence can fill his emptiness, that’s not what he’s experiencing. In his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola describes the contrasting states of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation as follows:

“I call it consolation when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord…. I call consolation every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Savior and Lord.” From the Third Rule

“I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.” From the Fourth Rule

Per Ignatius, believers typically alternate between consolation and desolation. Except possibly at the very end of the movie, Toller receives no consolation, only desolation. Perhaps his compunction and self-reproach dam the flow of God’s mercy. I am, like Toller, more inclined to be sick-souled than healthy-minded. I am grateful that, unlike him, my spirit receives much more consolation than desolation.

When true consolation is absent, it’s tempting to seek ersatz consolations. Perhaps Toller’s growing fanaticism over environmental activism serves that purpose. He spends considerable time on Michael’s computer viewing sites that document  environmental degradation. He eventually has to choose between committing a violent act that would garner attention for the environmentalist cause and protecting the well-being of someone he cares for–you’ll have to see the movie to find out what he does. In the end, he may be heading toward recovery, but he’s still an ailing soul. It’s an unflinching portrayal of what might happen to any of us if we go too long without God’s consolations.

I recently read As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon by historian Daniel T. Rodgers. The book is a history of John Winthrop’s address (it doesn’t actually fit the conventions of a sermon) to the Puritans who immigrated to New England in 1630, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Winthrop’s manuscript is titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and he worked on it not just on the boat to America but for some time before that. It is often cited as one of the founding texts of the American national enterprise. However, as Rodgers explains in some detail, Winthrop’s document was not consulted by the nation’s founders or anyone else, since it quickly sank into obscurity. It only gained some recognition in 1930, with the 300th anniversary of the Winthrop expedition’s arrival in Boston, and subsequently in the work of historian Perry Miller. Even then, it would have remained unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans had not a politician who was later to become president found a passage from the “Model” and incorporated it in many of his speeches.

The politician, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and the two sentences he fixed on read as follows:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

It’s interesting that Reagan used this passage in two distinctly different ways. From the late 1960s through the 70s, governor and then presidential candidate Reagan used the second sentence to warn that the country could fall into barbarism and anarchy if current cultural trends weren’t reversed. As president in the 1980s, he emphasized instead the first sentence, talking reassuringly of the city on the hill as something already accomplished, a reality that offers hope to the world. I was struck by his vision of the city on a hill, offered in his farewell address to the nation:

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.” Quoted in AACOAH, p. 245

The contrast with more recent political discourse about walls is notable.

Neither of Reagan’s readings of the city on the hill was all that close to Winthrop’s original meaning. Winthrop was writing not of America but of a specifically Christian settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It wasn’t the eyes of the whole world that the Puritans were concerned with; the eyes that mattered were those of England, and the hope was that the colony would provide their home country an example of how a Christian society should operate. Being on a hill was not an occasion for pride but for anxiety, since visibility would expose the colonists’ failures to their critics and to God, whom they feared they would disappoint.

Similarly, the other modern political appropriations of Winthrop’s city on a hill haven’t used that image in a way similar to what it would have meant to the Puritans. Rodgers suggests that the closest usage has been that of American evangelicals, who like the Puritans believe that they have a special place in God’s providence and who, also like the Puritans, see themselves as misfits in a culture that is going astray. Though I don’t identify as an evangelical, their take on Winthrop’s message resonates more with me than do either of Reagan’s uses or subsequent appropriations of the image to support American Exceptionalism.

Rodgers points out that the city on the hill comes only in the last section of Winthrop’s manuscript. The previous three sections have been neglected by modern audiences, but they were Winthrop’s main concern. Those sections detail what he hoped the colony would be an exemplar of, namely charity as it ought to be practiced by Christians. He began by noting that there would always be inequality between rich and poor. Rather than lamenting such imbalances, he pointed out several advantages, especially that through charity both rich and poor “might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” He distinguished between two divinely established laws–laws of justice and of mercy. Mercy–and, with it, charity–is not optional, but is an obligation that Winthrop traced through both the Old and the New Testament. It is founded in love, which is the primary obligation of all followers of Christ. And Winthrop carried this emphasis on love and charity over to his conception of how business should be done and markets operate. Rodgers notes:

“To the extent that the Model stands at one of the foundation points of the American story, Winthrop’s concern to establish the proper place of markets within the moral imperatives of charity must be recognized to stand there, just as prominently, too.” AACOAH p. 97-8

Would that America embrace Winthrop’s concern for mercy as integral not just to religious settings but to the world of commerce as well! Then, in the place of capitalism little influenced by moral constraints, we would have markets in which the flourishing of all members of society are as much a goal as is earning a profit. Modern-day Americans can most profitably look to “A Model of Christian Charity” not as a foundational text for the nation but as encouragement to display love and charity in every realm of life.

“Flight of a Thousand Birds” by Anila Quayyum Agha. Should life be this balanced?

I was intrigued when I ran across an article on the New York Times website titled The Unbalanced Life. It’s widely accepted that we should strive for balance between the various areas of our lives, but Brad Stulberg, the author of the article, tells us that he has been happiest and most alive when his life has been unbalanced:

“Falling in Love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon. During these bouts of full-on living I was completely consumed by my activity. Trying to be balanced–devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of my life–would have detracted from the formative experiences.”

Though he advocates sacrificing balance to pursue a passion, Stulberg acknowledges that there is a cost to this approach to life. Not only do we miss out on other facets of life, the intensity of our passion may prevent us from being aware of what we are lacking:

“When you are wholly immersed in anything, it’s all too easy to let the inertia of the experience carry you forward without every really evaluating what you’re sacrificing along the way; for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episodes of ‘Game of Thrones.'”

When it comes time to stop performing the activity–when the event you trained for is over, the money runs out, or the book/play/painting is finished; when you can’t compete successfully anymore, or you’re injured or muddleheaded or exhausted–you’re not only likely to miss what you had been doing but also to realize everything else you have neglected. You also might discover that your sense of self became so completely entangled with your passion that you don’t know who you are anymore. As Stulberg notes, “It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out.”

Despite these problems, Stulberg doesn’t think striving for balance is the answer. Instead he advocates for internal self-awareness, or “the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring, and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors, and impact on others.” Then, presumably, you’ll not let the thing you’re passionate about control your life. You’ll be deeply involved in something that excites or entrances you, but still will keep up with work, family responsibilities, or the like.

Self-awareness is certainly a good thing; it might help prevent the sort of disaster fueled by passion that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the account of an Everest expedition that went disastrously awry. Still, I’m not sure that self-awareness is enough. I’ve known at least a few people who, while pursuing some passion, clearly knew that they were missing out on important things or were negatively impacting themselves or others. At the time, they just didn’t care. They loved what they were doing so much that the consequences didn’t matter.

Stulberg is a proponent of the “Do what you love” approach to life. Many who follow this  path don’t think that it matters what you love, as long as it stirs your passions or emotions sufficiently. Unfortunately, some of us are stirred by things that are really harmful to ourselves or others–substance abuse, gambling, rape, torture, child molestation, and on and on. Other loves do harm in more subtle ways–television, shopping, and overeating come to mind. Some people who do these things lack self-awareness regarding the harm they’re doing, but many are aware.

St. Augustine wrote about the loves that guide our lives. We go astray, he thinks, if we love the wrong things, fail to love the right things, or excessively love things that are only worthy of limited love. In his view, we are fully happy only if we love God first, then order the rest of our loves in accordance with their  ultimate importance. (David Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness is an excellent guide to Augustine’s approach.) It’s great to devote ourselves to things that we are passionate about. Writing and running have long been two such things in my life, and they both give me joy. But some passions can harm us and others, and we need more than self-awareness to keep that from happening. We also need to know what things are worth loving, both as to our highest devotion and as to lesser allegiances. That sort of analysis can present us with a dilemma if our passions don’t match what we know is worthy of our devotion. That is an issue for another post, though.

Entrance to auditorium, Ephesus. Cross on lintel shows it was converted into a church.

Following a trip earlier this year to archaeological sites in Turkey, I’ve been writing about the cultural setting in which the apostle Paul and other evangelists preached the good news of Christianity. I’ve looked at Roman architecture, religion, and politics, noting the forces arrayed in defense of the existing order. So why did what started out as a marginal movement located far from centers of power succeed at upending that order? Why, a little over three centuries after the first missionaries set out, was a majority of the populace Christian, while paganism was in decline?

We Christians are likely to respond that God was in it. Sure, but what means did he use? In The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996: Princeton University Press), Rodney Stark tries to answer that question. Trevor Wax has provided a helpful summary of Stark’s main points here.

The numerical growth of Christianity of course depended on a lot of people converting, and Stark offers some interesting observations on what prompts conversions. In particular, he notes the following:

  • Converts are typically those who have strong relationships with members of the movement to which they convert–“conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.” (p. 18)
  • Converts typically don’t have pre-existing religious commitments that would interfere; they tend to be “the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)
  • Converts to new religions are similar to early adopters of other sorts of cultural innovations. They tend to be “well among average in terms of income and education.” p. 38
  • It is only when such more privileged members of society are discontented with the conventional religious options available to them that there is an opening for a new religion to flourish.

In line with these general principles, Stark suggests the following about Christian conversion:

  • Paul’s missionary efforts were most successful among the middle and upper classes, so the early church was largely a movement of the more privileged members of society.
  • The Christian message was particularly appealing to the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora. They were socially marginal, and thus were not likely to obtain the rewards available to those more integrated in the culture. At the same time, corresponding to the second point above, they were “relatively worldly, accommodated, and secular.” (p. 60) They were also likely to have interpersonal attachments to Jews who were already Christians.
  • The social and religious structures were periodically overwhelmed by epidemics. “The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenistic philosophies.” (p. 74) Whereas pagans tended to abandon those of their number that were ill, Christians cared for their sick and also for some of the non-Christians who were ill. Thus, a higher percentage of Christians survived. Non-Christians who survived often lost many of the attachments that kept them from converting and were attracted by the Christian ethic of caring for those in need.
  • Women enjoyed much higher status in the Christian subculture than they did in the society at large. Infanticide of girl babies led to a shortage of females in the broader society but not in the church, where girls were raised to maturity. There was a low fertility rate in the society as a whole, but not among Christians. Women converts often brought their husbands with them into the church (secondary conversion); intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men probably also led to conversions.
  • The cities of the Roman empire were places of intense human misery. They were extremely overcrowded, much more so than even the densest cities today. Most people lived in tiny tenements lacking furnaces, fireplaces, clean water, or efficient sewers. Besides the periodic epidemics, “illness and physical affliction were probably the dominant features of daily life in this era.” (p. 154) Mortality rates were high, necessitating a constant stream of newcomers, resulting in deficient attachments and clashes among diverse ethnic groups. The typical city was vulnerable to “attacks, fires, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and devastating riots.” (p. 159) All of this misery may have led residents to desire something better.

The desire for an improved lot may be most acute when a society is in chaos, but it is something common to humans of every era and social situation. What did Christians offer that was better? Stark makes a couple observations about Christian belief that probably were radically new. Christians maintain that God loves humankind and shows mercy to us even when we don’t deserve it. In contrast, Greek and Roman gods were mostly capricious or selfish, not loving. In fact, the ancient world thought mercy and pity were weaknesses, qualities to be avoided. Christians also linked a social ethical code with religion–believers were to love others and act out that love in their social interactions. Pagans did have their own ethical obligations; for example they were to worship the gods by offering sacrifices. This was mainly a form of social exchange, though, and one’s faith didn’t create much obligation to treat others well. Christianity introduced ethical obligations to everyone, ethical obligations that were to be followed whether or not there was an expectation of immediate earthly rewards.

Of course such ethical standards were a matter of imitating God himself, who sent his son to care even for those in rebellion against Him. God is love. Love him and each other. That’s still the core of the Christian faith. The world needed that message in the first century. The world needs that message today.

Christian symbol etched into pavement of a synagogue in Sardis, Turkey

 

 

I have been writing about a trip I took in February to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The first-century religious structures that we visited were not Christian churches but pagan temples, since Christianity had not yet achieved the societal status that would make dedicated Christian worship spaces feasible. I wrote earlier about pagan temples, where the gods of Greece, Rome, and Egypt were worshiped. Worshiping the Roman gods was considered a civic duty and necessary to maintaining good order. It was also a way to try to get the blessing of the god being worshiped. Many gods specialized in a particular type of blessing, and thus were sought out for that purpose. Most notably, one god was thought to provide insight into the future, and a related one was associated with healing.

Apollo was who you consulted if you wanted guidance concerning future plans–should you marry, take a journey, make an investment, or whatever. Our tour guide said that, besides the oracle at Delphi, there were three other main oracles in the ancient world, including the one we visited at Didyma. Here’s an article on the history of that site. The final temple to Apollo there (the Didymaion) was begun soon after a visit by Alexander the Great in 313 BC and was never completed, though work continued for hundreds of years.

The Didymaion

A Sacred Road led from Miletus, about ten miles away, to Apollo’s temple. Pilgrims coming to the Didymaion would offer a sacrifice at the altar at the foot of the temple steps. Then they waited until an opportunity was provided to ask a question to the oracle–or rather, ask a priest, since pilgrims weren’t allowed access to the adyton, or inner sanctuary. The Didymaion was unique among ancient temples in that the adyton was open to the sky and contained a sacred spring that was thought to be the source of the oracle’s power.

The Adyton

The pilgrim’s question was written down and carried to the oracle–one of several women who gave answers. It’s believed that the oracle would inhale fumes or chew some substance, inducing a trance that would facilitate communication from the spiritual realm. Whatever answer was given was then taken back to the pilgrim. The answers were sometimes subject to multiple interpretations and thus did not always provide clear guidance. I don’t know of any list of pronouncements by the oracle at Didyma, but here is a compilation from Delphi.

Healing was also associated with Apollo, but was even more associated with one of his children, Asclepius. Asclepius was said to be a demigod, having a divine father and a human mother. While he was in utero, an unfortunate love triangle developed, which Apollo resolved by killing his human lover and removing the baby from her womb, the first Caesarian section. As the myth goes, baby Asclepius was then raised by the centaur Chiron, who taught him the healing arts. He became a great physician–too good, in fact, for his ability to raise humans from the dead (with the aid of Medusa’s blood) evoked Zeus’ ire. Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt, but he subsequently became a god. Asclepions–places of healing–were established in several cities, and pilgrims came to these to be cured. The most prominent Asclepion was at Epidaurus in Greece, but there was also a major center in Pergamum, in Asia Minor. It was begun in the 4th century BC and reached its height in the 2nd century AD, when Galen was the chief physician there.

The Sacred Way to the Asclepion at Pergamum, looking back towards the Acropolis.

Pilgrims came to the Asclepion in Pergamum along the Sacred Way, a colonnaded street leading from the acropolis to the healing complex. They arrived at a courtyard containing an altar to Asclepius, where they made offerings to the god. They would stay for weeks or months awaiting healing. A library and theater were located in the complex.

From the top of the theater at the Asclepion, looking over the healing complex.

Our guide indicated that the books in the library and the performances at the theater were all designed to create an attitude conducive to healing. There were pools for bathing and for mud bath treatments. There was also a sacred spring, whose water was thought to have curative effects. Nearby there were sleeping rooms, where the pilgrims slept in expectation that Asclepius would appear in their dreams. Such a nocturnal visit would sometimes result in immediate healing, but in other cases the dreamed-about healer would prescribe some sort of treatment–baths, exercises, mud baths, massages, ointments, and the like. In the treatment center, there were tubes through the ceiling down to where the pilgrims sat or slept. Speaking into these, the priests offered words of encouragement, such as “Asclepius has heard your prayers.”

In the treatment center.

Ancient pagans believed that, by means of the oracles of Apollo and the priests of Asclepius, prominent gods concerned themselves with the affairs of humans. They did so in a way that wasn’t malicious or cruel, unlike the purported behavior of many other Olympian deities. (Not that Apollo always treated humans well; just ask Cassandra). This is not the same as having deities that actually care about the welfare of humans, though. Apollo and Asclepius both got something for their beneficent acts–the sacrifices made by those who came to them. Thus, it was an exchange relationship, not one based on affection or compassion. That’s one of the ways in which the Christian God and the pagan deities differed. And, as I’ll suggest in my next post, such differences in the nature of divine favor may have been a major advantage for Christianity.

In February I traveled to Turkey to visit the sites of several early Christian churches. I’ve been posting since then about those churches and their cultural context. Most recently, I wrote about the ways in which the churches to whom the book of Revelation is addressed were pressured to compromise with the surrounding culture. This post will look at how other first century churches responded to societal pressures. In Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce W. Winter reviews the challenges and the church’s response in several local situations, as revealed in the New Testament and in contemporaneous historical sources. I’ll briefly describe three such situations.

When the apostle Paul first visited Corinth, the Jewish leaders opposed him and tried to bring a criminal case against him before Galio, the procounsul of the province of Achaea. However, as described in Acts 18:12-17, Galio indicated that this was an internal Jewish matter. That response meant that the Christian assembly in Corinth was considered a Jewish gathering. That matters because those who lived in the area were expected to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Jews were exempted from participation in veneration of the emperor, and Galio’s ruling extended that exemption to Christians. Still, some Corinthian Christians apparently participated in feasts at the imperial temple; this seems to be what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 8. They were tempted both to enhance their social standing and to eat well:

“It is understandable, given the prestige and the sheer extravagance of such celebrations, that some Christians whose social status entitled them to participate rationalized their participation…” Winter, p.225

Compromise isn’t always due to persecution; carrots as well as sticks can motivate it.

Winter also describes the situation in Galatia, a region of Asia Minor visited by Paul during his first missionary journey. He later wrote a letter to the Galatians to challenge a group within the church–the Judaizers–who were trying to convince Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow ceremonial aspects of the Torah. The dispute between legalism and faith was a theological one but also had practical implications for living in the local setting. Whereas in Achaea Christians were considered to be Jews and thereby were granted an exemption from the requirement that they perform ritual sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor, the status of Christians was more ambiguous in other provinces, and thus there was more risk of persecution. This seems to be what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Gal. 6:12 about the motivation of the Judaizers:

” As many as are wanting to make a good showing in the flesh, these are attempting to compel* you to be circumcised, only so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (LEB)

Winter suggests that circumcision would make a “good showing in the flesh” in that those circumcised would be seen by society as having become Jewish–after all, they had acquired the fleshly mark that distinguished Jewish males. And if all the male Gentile converts underwent circumcision, the church as a whole would be insulated from legal sanctions:

“The results of this masterful solution proposed and so strongly promoted by some Galatian Christians, if accepted, meant that all Christians in Galatia had a legal status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. They would be considered Jewish either by birth or by proselytisation. They would be exempt from having to give divine honours to the Caesars and participation in other events that Rome had so skilfully linked into cultural events.” . Winter, p. 248

The problem was that this strategy for avoiding persecution was in effect a denial of a core component of the gospel message–that salvation doesn’t come through obedience to the law but by God’s grace extended to those who put their trust in Christ. It must have taken considerable courage to reject the false teaching of the Judiazers when doing so made one vulnerable to being prosecuted by the Roman authorities.

Agora in Perga, a city Paul visited after founding churches in Galatia

The book of Hebrews also alludes to ways that the surrounding culture created hardship for Christians. Again, the issue is that, by not expressing veneration for the gods and the emperor, the Christians aroused suspicion that they were subversive. David deSilva explains the public’s view as follows:

“Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and subversive elements within the empire.” (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews,” p. 12)

In the past, this attitude toward Christian converts had resulted in harsh measures being directed against them. The sufferings they had endured are catalogued in Heb. 10:32-34:

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”

Winter indicates that the public insult the author refers to typically occurred at the local theatre. The person or persons to be so exposed would be put on stage and subjected to degrading comments from the audience. The purpose would be to shame the victims into complying with societal expectations. Such episodes also provided entertainment for the crowd. The “persecution” here could well have been public floggings. For some, humiliation was followed by imprisonment. Roman prisons didn’t provide the inmates with any sort of provision, so the situation of an incarcerated Christian was dire unless their faith community came to their aid. Finally, their property could be seized by the authorities. Roman law stated that “the property of those who ought to be accused, or have been caught committing a crime, or who have killed themselves should be confiscated.” (quote from Winter, p. 274)

Christians could be charged with the crime of not participating in ritual worship of the emperor. They could also be charged with meeting together regularly. Legislation under Augustus had forbidden all associations from meeting more than weekly. Jews were granted exemptions from both these laws, but it was under the discretion of the local governor as to whether Christians were considered Jews. The prohibition against frequent meetings puts the author’s admonition that they not neglect to meet together (10:24) in a rather ominous light!

So the consequences that the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced as a result of their faith were worse than those faced by the Corinthian Christians, and probably also than those faced by the Galatians. Still, there hadn’t been any martyrs yet in among the recipients (12:4). They endured their initial persecution. Would they continue to endure the hardships that come with being members of a reviled minority, though? Winter thinks that another, even more shameful and disruptive threat may have awaited some of them–exile. That might be the meaning of the suggestion that the hearers go to Jesus “outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (13:13) Persevere, says the writer of the letter, and you will receive your reward. That is a message that heartened the followers of Christ throughout the ages. It’s by God’s grace that enough managed to persevere despite the terrible cost they bore.

 

This is one in a series of posts about a recent trip to visit Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). I’m well along in the series; I’ve already written about Roman architecture, Roman religion, the exercise of imperial power, and the apostle Paul’s message to Jews and Gentiles. There are a few more topics I want to reflect on, including why Christianity appealed to the populace and how early Christians responded to oppression. This post will be about the second of those topics.

I’ve previously discussed the expectation throughout the Roman Empire that everyone offer sacrifices to or in other ways venerate the Roman gods, among them the emperors, who were typically awarded divine status posthumously, and sometimes when still alive. Adherents of Roman and Greek religious cults had no difficulty with this requirement; the person who worshiped Zeus on Monday could worship Aphrodite on Tuesday and the emperor on Wednesday without dissonance. Monotheists worship only one God, though. If they are being faithful to that one deity, they will refuse honoring all others. This was an issue for Jews before there were any Christians. After Palestine had come under Roman rule, in the days of Augustus, they were granted an accommodation. They didn’t have to make sacrifices to the emperor. Instead, it was considered sufficient that sacrifices were made for the safety of the emperor in the Jerusalem temple. Throughout most of the empire, first-century Christians were considered Jews, and so they benefited from this exemption.

There was some persecution of Christians by Romans even when they ostensibly had the benefit of the Jewish loophole. In particular, Christians were persecuted by Nero in Rome in the 60s. Both Peter and Paul were martyred there. Rome’s understanding with Judaism was strained when temple sacrifices for the emperor were suspended in 66 A.D., shortly before the Jewish revolt. Jews also became more concerned about losing some from among their number to Christian conversion and became determined to not allow those converts to continue to identify with synagogues. “The Curse of the Minim,” found in a Jewish document written around 90 A.D., was intended to end the practice of Christian converts associating with Judaism.

Thus, toward the end of the first century, Christians became less able to depend on the Jewish exemption to the expectation that they worship the emperor. That was also when emperor Domitian intensified efforts to get the entire populace to participate in emperor worship. In his commentary on Revelation, Paige Patterson, after summarizing the above history, indicated that “Christians, especially Jewish Christians, found themselves facing the unhappy alternatives of either denying Christ and embracing Judaism entirely or else preparing themselves for serious persecution at the hands of both the Romans and the Jews.” (Revelation)

The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s, and the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 address the increasing likelihood of persecution or at least hardship because of their faith. Thus, the church at Smyrna referred to “the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Lexham English Bible) This may sound like anti-Jewish sentiment, but, as N.T. Wright notes, “this was essentially a struggle within Judaism, not against Judaism.” (Revelation for Everyone, p. 16) The church had Gentiles in it, but also had a fair number of Jews who believed they were the ones who were properly worshiping the God of the Hebrews. Those in the synagogue disagreed, and were probably telling the Romans that followers of Christ were not true Jews. John, the writer of Revelation, warned that the outcome would be persecution:

“Do not be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will experience affliction ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

The last phase seems to suggest that some in Smyrna would be martyred. We don’t know whether the believers there remained unswerving in their faith, but it’s fairly clear that in some of the churches there were believers who compromised when faced with hardship. This seems to have been the case in Pergamum, which had major temples to Zeus, Asclepius, and Athena and was becoming an important center for the imperial cult.

Base of altar for sacrifices to Asclepius, Pergamum.

Remains of temple to the emperor Trajan, Pergamum.

A believer named Antipas had been martyred in Pergamum. John commends those who remained steadfast despite the danger: “you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me….” Yet there were others who weren’t to be commended:

 “But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold fast to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14)

John is referring here to an episode during Israel’s exodus from Egypt in which Balaam, a prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, instructed Balak to send Moabite women to entice Israelite men to sin. Those in the church who hold fast to Balaam’s teaching have apparently decided that it is acceptable for Christians to compromise with the surrounding culture in a manner similar to how the Israelite men acted in response to Moabite seductresses. G. K. Beale gives the following explanation of the temptations that were present in Pergamum:

“In particular, what may be included are trade guild festivals involving celebration of patron deities through feasts and sometimes immoral activities. Refusal to participate in such activities could result in economic and social ostracism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:11–21). Therefore, there was much pressure to compromise. And just as Israel was influenced to fornicate both sexually and spiritually, the same was true of Christians in Pergamum.” (The Book of Revelation, p. 249)

We tend to think that early Christians were regularly being thrown to wild beasts or being told to recant or die. Though such things did happen, what was probably more common was the kind of social and economic pressures found in Pergamum. Membership in one’s trade guild, and with it one’s livelihood, depended on participating in an occasional festival honoring a pagan deity. It would be easy to rationalize such compromise. Yet John makes it clear that Christ wouldn’t tolerate such betrayal of the faith among his followers. All this makes me wonder whether there are compromises I’m making that Christ finds equally distasteful. We Westerners are in a culture that doesn’t erect statues to Zeus or Athena, Still, there are abundant idols for us to worship–fame, money, power, pleasure, self. It takes considerable discernment to recognize whether we’ve been bowing the knee to any of these. Reflecting on the situation in Pergamum has made me more attuned to this issue in my own life.

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