Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Digression - the Christians and the Romans

The issue of the relations between the first Muslims and the pagans of Mecca quickly morphed into a discussion of the Romans and the Christians.

Below is an excerpt from Prof. Balagangadhara's book - The Heathen in His Blindness.  A very rough summary is that the Romans saw religion as tradition, practices handed down by the forefathers; and in that framework they honored all traditions.   The Jews and Christians posed a challenge to the Roman conception.  The Jews however claimed a long history, and so the Romans could "understand" them.  The Roman pagans, however, never really understood the Christians (part of the reason Balu invokes the blindness of the Heathen).

2.1.1. Romans and Their ‘Religio’

Our facts, then, tell us that the Roman culture appears to have allowed for two distinct ‘things’: theoretical disquisitions about gods and religio on the one hand, and religious practices on the other. If the former were not the reasons for the latter, how was the participation of the people ensured? What was, or could have been, religion in the Roman world? Again, the participants in Cicero’s dialogue give us the best answer. Here’s Cotta, the sceptic:

I am considerably the plea...when you exhorted me to remember that I am both a Cotta and a pontiff. This is no doubt meant that I ought to uphold beliefs about the immortal gods which have come down to us from our ancestors, and the rites and ceremonies and duties of religion. For my part, I shall always uphold them and have always done so,  and no eloquence of anybody, learned or unlearned shall ever dislodge me from the belief...which I have inherited from our are a philosopher, and I ought to receive from you a proof of your religion, whereas I must believe the word of our ancestors even without proof (De Natura Deorum, III, ii: 290-291; my italics).

Though the citation speaks for itself, two points are worth emphasising: first, some things are retained because they have been transmitted over generations and they require no other legitimation; second, philo-sophical argumentation may establish or prove some opinion, but it is irrelevant to traditional practice. Later in the dialogue, the last point is made even more strongly:
Although I for my part cannot be persuaded to surrender my belief that the gods exist, nevertheless you teach me no reason why this belief, of which I am convinced on the authority of our forefathers, should be true (ibid, III, iii: 293; my italics).
It is important to note how Cotta argues. Quintus Lucillus Balbus, the stoic opponent of Gaius Cotta, the Academic sceptic, feels a need to prove the existence of gods. Our sceptic uses this fact to show that his opponent is looking for wrong things in the wrong place.

You did not really feel confident that the doctrine of the divine existence was as self-evident as you could wish, and for that reason you attempted to prove it with a number of arguments. For my part a simple argument would have sufficed, namely that it has been handed down to us by our forefathers. But you despise authority, and fight your battles with the weapon of reason. Give permission therefore for my reason to join issue with yours (ibid, III, iv: 295; my italics).
The permission is given and the battle joined, but Balbus is truly lost. Cotta is a formidable mind (incidentally, so are his opponents). His central thesis is that one’s beliefs about the existence or non-existence of gods are irrelevant to religion because religion is handed down over generations. It is not that religion is transmitted along with other things, but that which is transmitted is religion. As Plutarch puts it:

Our father then, addressing Pemptides by name, said, “You seem to me, Pemptides, to be handling a very big matter and a risky one – or rather, you are discussing what should not be discussed at all, when you question the opinion we hold about the gods, and ask reason and demonstration about everything. For the ancient and ancestral faith is enough, and no clearer proof could be found than is a common home and an established foundation for all piety; and if in one point its stable and traditional character be shaken and disturbed, it will be undermined and no one will trust it...If you demand proof about each of the ancient gods, laying hands on everything sacred and bring your sophistry to play on every altar, you will leave nothing free from quibble and cross-examination...Do you see, then, the abyss of atheism at our feet, if we resolve each of the gods into a passion or a force or a virtue?” (Cited in Glover 1909: 76; my italics.)

In The Octavius, Caecilius the pagan argues his case thus:

[It is better] as high priest of truth, to receive the teaching of your ancestors, to cultivate the religion handed down to you, to adore the gods whom you were first trained by your parents to fear...not to assert an opinion concerning the deities, but to believe your forefathers, who, while the age was still untrained in the birth-times of the world itself, deserved to have gods either propitious to them, or as their kings. (Roberts and Donaldson, Eds., n.d., Vol. IV: 176; my italics.)

Religion, then, appears to fall together with tradition – religio is what traditio is all about. Continuing a tradition does not require any reason other than itself: what is being continued is tradition itself. That is to say, no theoretical justification was needed to practise and uphold ances- tral customs. (See also 11.2.3.)
The primary test of truth in religious matters was custom and tradition, the practices of the ancients...In philosophical matters one might turn to intellectuals and philosophers, but in religious questions one looked to the past, to the accepted practices handed down by tradition, and to the guarantors of this tradition, the priests (Wilken 1984: 62).
Ramsay MacMullen (1981: 2) makes an analogous remark:
(T)here was very little doubt in people’s minds that the religious practices of one generation should be cherished without change by the next, wheth-er within one’s own community or another’s. To be pious in any sense, to be respectable and decent, required the perpetuation of cult, even if one’s judges themselves worshipped quite other gods.
Graeco-Roman intellectuals are not dogmatic traditionalists defending this or that particular practice by appealing to the fact that their fathers and ancestors performed them too. After all, as our history books never tire of mentioning, the Ancients pioneered the spirit of scientific enquiry – the spirit of ruthlessly questioning every belief.The Romans and the Greeks questioned practices too – the very existence of juridical institutions would have been impossible otherwise.Yet there was a sphere, the religio, not affected by critical questioning, practised because it was traditio.

The late republic was an age of rationalism, certainly as far as the Roman nobility was concerned. But this tendency was never taken to its logical conclusion, rejection of traditional religious practice...Such respect for ancestral authority would assure the continuity of traditional ritual, just as the childhood associations, family tradition, and the peculiar nature of pagan beliefs would tend to preserve traditional mental attitudes. (Liebeschuetz 1979: 31-32.)
As Cicero puts it in De Divinatione (II, 77)
It is wise and reasonable for us to preserve the institutions of our fore-
fathers by retaining their rites and ceremonies. (Cited in Gay 1973: 155.)

Whose tradition is it? Obviously of a people. Which people? Why, those that belonged to a city, of course. Consequently, an identifiable people – identified by their relation to a city, with a language and a history – had tradition. Different groups would have different traditions: besides practising their own traditions, however, they had to respect the traditions of the peoples among whom they lived. Of course, this did not mean that the populace was ‘tolerant’ in religious matters, as we understand the term today.
Again, because of people’s narrowness of curiosity and loyalty the beliefs of some neighbouring region or city might have no reality; and such indifference could be simply accepted: ‘all men do not worship all gods, but each, a certain one that he acknowledges.’ (MacMullen, 1984: 12.)
There is the following famous passage of Plutarch (67.377) in On Isis and Osiris, which, in the words of Molly Whittaker, “would have been acceptable to any religious and educated Pagan, especially to a stoic”:
We do not conceive of the gods as different among different peoples, nor as barbarians and Greek, nor as southern and northern; but just as sun and moon and sky and earth and sea are common to all men, but have different names among different people, so for that one Reason which sets all things in order and for that one Providence which has oversight over them and for the attendant powers, which are set over all, different honours and names have come into being among different peoples according to their customs (Whittaker 1984: 268).
Similar thoughts are expressed by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a pagan prefect of Rome. In a justly famous letter to the Emperor, pleading the cause of the pagan cults within the framework of a bellicose and aggressive Christian march to power, Symmachus says:
Grant, I beg you, that what in our youth we took over from our fathers, we may in our old age hand on to posterity.The love of established practice is a powerful sentiment...
Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians. Each man is given at birth a separate soul; in the same way each people is given its own special genius to take care of its destiny...If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing...

And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret. (Barrow,Trans., 1973: 37-41; my italics.)

{footnote: When St. Ambrose heard of this petition, he wrote a letter (Epistle XVII) to Valentinian II threatening to excommunicate him if he even thought of giving in, and requesting a copy of the petition. His Epistle XVIII is the reply to the ‘Memorial of Symmachus,’ all three of which are in Schaff and Wace, Eds., Vol. 10, 1896: 411-422. Ambrose’s vulgar polemic hardly touches the issue; neither does the full-length poem of Prudentius (Trans. Eagan) Against Symmachus written a few centuries later. }

When you look at religion as tradition, that is, as a set of practices transmitted over generations, then the term appears as a minor variant of our intuitive notion of culture: to have religion is to have culture. Wherever there are people with a history, identifying themselves as a people, there traditions exist too. In other words, they have religio too.This is how the pagans seem to have seen the issue. As Balbus the Stoic, comments:

...(I)f we care to compare our national characteristics with those of foreign peoples, we shall find that, while in all other respects we are only the equals or even the inferior of others, yet in the sense of religion, that is, in reverence for the gods, we are far superior. (De Natura Deorum, II, iii:
131; my italics.)

Which ‘national characteristic’ is Balbus referring to? Perhaps the feature that each people has its local gods and national rites, whereas the Romans worship all divinities. According to Caecilius, it even accounted for the supremacy of the Roman empire:

[The Romans adore all divinities] the city of an enemy, when taken while still in the fury of victory, they venerate the conquered all directions they seek for the gods of the strangers, and make them their own...they build altars even to unknown deities...Thus, in that they ac- knowledge the sacred institutions of all nations, they have also deserved their dominion. (The Octavius, in Roberts and Donaldson, Eds., n.d.,Vol. IV: 177.)
Thus the tolerance of different traditions and ‘respect’ for tradition, actually demonstrated by practising the tradition of the other, where and when necessary, appear to characterise the Roman religio.

2.1.2. From Demonstratio Evangelica...

How could one place the persecution of the Jews, and later the Christians, within such a context of tolerance? An answer to this question would involve many aspects I will not touch upon. However, one thing should be obvious: the fundamental objection that the Romans had against the Jews and the Christians would have been that Judaism and Christianity are not religiones; that is, they are not traditions. Consequently, they refuse to recognise that the traditions of other peoples and places are valid (see Wardy 1979).

The Jews appear to have met this charge in two ways: first, by show- ing that the Jews were a people with history; second, by laying claims to great antiquity. The many apologetic texts written by the Hellenic and Alexandrian Jews, including the famous one by Philo of Alexandria, at- tempted to argue that Judaism and Israel were more ancient than the Ancients were. Greek legislators, claimed Philo, actually plagiarised the Mosaic Law, and Heraclitus stole his theory of opposites from Moses
“like a thief ” (Wolfson 1947). This need to establish the antiquity of Judaism, I would like to suggest, is aimed at showing that Judaism was a ‘traditio’. When it comes to traditions, especially where a group claims exemption from practising the traditions of others, the most important ‘property’ is their antiquity. The Jews could argue that theirs was the most ancient of all traditions, therefore a ‘religio’ a fortiori, allowing them not to follow the traditions of others in matters of conflicting injunctions.

It is important to recognise the novelty of the Jewish apologetics: with varying degrees of success, they tried to provide theoretical justifications why their traditional practice did not allow them to “seek the gods of the strangers.” It was not sufficient to show that the Jews fol- lowed an ancient custom given to them by Moses. They had to justify that their ancestral practice forbade them from worshipping the various deities that littered the Roman landscape. That is to say, they had to provide a ‘philosophical’ underpinning to their ancient custom. That is what the Jewish apologetic texts attempted: explain why, if the Jews had traditio, they would not venerate the ancestral customs of other peoples. Their explanation, of course, centred around their scripture – more precisely, around its truth.

The uneasy recognition that the Judaic tradition had obtained in the Roman Empire can be observed in the way Celsus, one of the first Roman critics of Christianity, speaks about the Jews. Even though he is supposed to have despised many of the Jewish customs, he nevertheless notes (Origen, 5.25: 283):
The Jews became an individual nation, and made laws according to the custom of their country; and they maintain these laws among themselves at the present day, and observe a worship which may be very peculiar but is at least traditional. In this respect they behave like the rest of mankind, because each nation follows its traditional customs, whatever kind may hap- pen to be established.This situation seems to have come to pass not only because it came into the head of different people to think differently and because it is necessary to preserve the established social conventions, but also because it is probable that from the beginning the different parts of the earth were allotted to different overseers...In fact, the practices done by each nation are right when they are done in the way that pleases the overseers; and it is impious to abandon the customs which have existed in the locality from the beginning (my italics).
Cornelius Tacitus, the Roman historian, is not known for his sympathies toward the Judaic tradition either. Speaking of the Jews – to whom “all things are profane that we hold sacred”, and who “regard as permissible what seems to us immoral” – he nonetheless acknowledges:
Whatever their origin, these observances are sanctioned by their antiquity. (The Histories, 5.5, Wellesley, Trans., 273, my italics.)
The Christian Quandary

The Christians could not follow the route taken by the Jews, although they had to lay claim to the Judaic tradition. As Christians, they had to reject the Mosaic Law, but they had to show that they too had traditio.

It is likely that in the very early phases, it did not seem important to the Christians. Anticipating the end of the world any moment (Fredriksen 1988) and projecting the second coming of Christ onto the immediate future as they did (see Hill 1992 for a very good analysis of early Christian chiliasm), the zeal of the Christians tended to ignore the cultural matrix within which they were functioning. When it became clear, however, that the world would not end so soon, their problem became obvious: they were ‘a people’ without tradition.

Porphyry (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, 4.1.) for example, is said to have alleged that the Christians are guilty of
the greatest impiety in taking no account of powers so manifest and so beneficent, but directly breaking the laws, which require every one to reverence ancestral customs, and not disturb what should be inviolable, but to walk orderly in following the religion of his forefathers and not to be meddlesome through love of innovation. (Gifford, Trans., 141-142; my italics.)
In the light of what I have said, it is evident that those who had no tradition would have been accused of atheism. Such indeed was the criticism levelled against the Christians by the pagans. That is, as the pagans of that period saw it, the early Christians were ‘atheists’ lacking religion (Grant 1973; Benko 1980, 1985; Meredith 1980). In a long passage, which is supposed to derive from Porphyry (as Wilken 1984:156 surmises), Eusebius summarises the charges thus:

(H)ow can men fail to be in every way impious and atheistical, who have apostatized from those ancestral gods by whom every nation and every state is sustained? Or what good can they reasonably hope for, who have set themselves at enmity and at war against their preservers, and have thrust away their benefactors? For what else are they doing than fighting against the gods?

And what forgiveness shall they be thought to deserve, who have turned away from those who from the earliest time, among all Greeks and Barbarians, both in cities and in the country, are recognized as gods with all kinds of sacrifices, and initiations, and mysteries by all alike, kings, law- givers and philosophers, and have chosen all that is impious and atheistical among the doctrines of men?.
(They have not adhered) to the God who is honoured among the Jews according to their customary rites, but (have) cut out for themselves a new kind of track...that keeps neither the ways of the Greeks nor those of the Jews (ibid, 1.3, Gifford, Trans., 5-6; my italics).
Tatian, in his Oratio ad Graecos, tells his pagan public not to think that he
aspiring to be above the Greeks, above the infinite number of philosophic inquirers, has struck out a new path, and embraced the doctrine of Barbarians. (Roberts and Donaldson, Eds., n.d.,Vol. II: 80; my italics.)
We can now see the challenge the Christians faced: they were not Jews; nor were they Romans. The Christians could not see themselves as a people with a history, a tradition, a language – that is, they could not trace themselves back to any particular people. The Jews could; the Romans could; even the Egyptians who worshipped “cats, crocodiles, serpents, asps and dogs” could. However, the Christians alone could not. They had to show that Christianity was a religio even though their enemies accused them of not being a traditio. That they set out to do.


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