Abusing Tacitus

Lots of people throw around quotations attributed to ancient authors.  Last year I read the Annals and Histories by Tacitus.  Since then I’ve found writers who seem to have reason to beat up on him.  But not everyone who refers to ancient authors actually reads the works they use and abuse.  The early Christian writer Tertullian may be a case in point.

Alexamenos Graffito
Wikimedia Commons

In Apology 16 and Ad Nationes 1.11 he attacks a pagan derision against Christians having to do with the worship of a donkey’s head.  He takes Tacitus to task as the originator of the insult, a possible example of which is visible in an ancient scrawl known as the Alexamenos Graffito. This was found inside the excavation of a former Roman boarding school for imperial page boys. It appears to depict a victim of crucifixion with a donkey’s head, as well as an inscription that could be read as “Alexamenos worships his god.”  According to Tertullian, Tacitus was the first to convey the insult.

Modern writers have been attacking Tacitus as well, particularly the veracity of a  section in Annals 15 having to do the Great Fire of Rome in the summer of 64 CE.  Tacitus describes the fire and an unconfirmed rumor that the emperor Nero was responsible, and also describes Nero’s brutal scapegoating of Christians in an attempt to dispel the rumor.  Tacitus also had uncomplimentary things to say about the scapegoats themselves, describing them as “…hated for their abominations…(Annals 15.44).”

An example of an attack on this section may be found in an academic paper by Raphael Lataster, published in the Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.  It is incorporated into a broader attack on the historicity of Jesus Christ.  He writes:

“It is the phrase referring to Christus and his death under Pontius Pilate that is of great interest. It could be that this phrase (or even the whole passage and its context) could also be a later Christian interpolation. While some scholars could argue that this passage must be genuine because it does not portray Christians and Christ in a totally positive manner, there are reasons to have doubts over the authenticity or legitimacy of this passage. It is interesting that the name Jesus is never used, and that this is Tacitus’ only reference to Jesus. It is questionable if a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as Christ rather than the more secular Jesus of Nazareth. A Christian scribe, however, would have no issue in calling him Christ. Given that Jesus is not specified, there may also be a small possibility that this could refer to another Christ or messiah-figure. Though Annals covers the period of Rome’s history from around 14 CE to 66 CE, no other mention is made of Jesus Christ.(78) This passage is also ignored by early Christian apologists such as Origen and Tertullian, who actually quote Tacitus in the 3rd century.(79)”[1]

This is speculation entangled in arguments from silence.

It is hardly surprising that there is no mention of Jesus or his execution in the extant portions of the Annals.  Why would the execution of yet another obscure Jew in Palestine be noticed in Rome?  Roman governors recorded what they did and sent reports home.  But as Pliny’s letters to Trajan suggest, the reporting was likely to contain a fair bit of self-promotion and flattery.  If Pilate’s messaging to Rome said anything at all about Jesus it would have been a very brief bit that cast any relevant events in the best possible light.  And it would vanish into a hand-curated archive along with all the other provincial reporting.

Rome is the center of the universe for Tacitus.  Jesus wouldn’t even be a blip on the first century Roman radar except for Nero’s pogrom. Which means information about Jesus possibly filtered into Roman thinking via the Christians themselves, including whatever names they used.  But Tacitus did not appear to view the report of the execution by Pilate as controversial as it is not accompanied by qualifiers that appear elsewhere in his writings.

And what other “messiah-figure” could the passage possibly be talking about?  One of the Vestal Virgins?  This claim makes no sense in the context of Roman history.  And the flow of the passage referencing the fire appears consistent with the rest of Tacitus’ writing.  The bar for tagging this section as a forgery seems quite high.

But I digress.  The asserted quotations by Origen and Tertullian are the focus of my interest.  It would have been helpful to have references.  I am unable to locate anything in Origen’s writing naming Tacitus which likely reflects my ignorance of his work. But Tertullian does specifically name him, and refers to the Histories.  Time to read what Tacitus actually wrote.

In Histories 5 he includes an ethnographic survey of the Jews in the context of the their revolt from Roman rule starting in 66 CE.  Tacitus notes his reference to other writers and relates variant accounts of the origins of the Jews. In referencing what is presumably the Exodus, Tacitus states that the Jews followed a herd of wild asses to water and later, “…in their holy place…consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance…(Histories 5.3).”   This is presumably the focus of Tertullian’s ire.  But later in the section Tacitus relates the following:

“…the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.”

In this context a characterization of the Jews as worshiping an animal might be more than what Tacitus intended to say (this would need to be confirmed by someone with a command of Latin).  But what is extremely odd is that Tertullian did not cite this additional bit. In both Apology and Ad Nationes Tacitus is accused of self-contradictory falsehood, by elsewhere describing Pompeii’s failure to find an image when he entered the temple after capturing Jerusalem.  Tertullian also does not mention Tacitus’ explicit dependence on other writers.  Contrary to what Tertullian states, Tacitus is not the origin of the story about the donkeys.

Tertullian’s actual references are of more significance. Ad Nationes incorrectly attributes Tacitus’ comment to Book 4 of the Histories and contradicts the correct reference to Book 5 in Apology. The obvious question is how does Tertullian make a mistake like this if he is working directly from source material? It’s not like ancient writers could be overwhelmed with the results of too many citations.  Contrary to what Lastaster presents, it appears that in this instance Tertullian does not appear to “…actually quote Tacitus…”

There is a very good possibility that Tertullian was not working directly from a primary source.  It is possible he may have been working from fragmentary copies, or possibly his memory of having read the texts at some point.  But given the high  divergence from the actual writings, it is far more likely he is using material transmitted by way of an intermediary — someone else’s oral or written references to to Tacitus’ works.  Tertullian demonstrates at least some familiarity. Tertullian refers to Tacitus in Ad Nationes 2.12, in what appears to be a sweeping but somewhat offhand reference in the context of an argument about the human origins of pagan divinities.  But that is not the same as actually reading from complete copies of the Histories and Annals.  One could just as easily argue that a social media posting referencing Sun Tzu demonstrates a direct reading of The Art of War.

Any argument that depends on the direct access of one ancient writer to another is potentially problematic in the media context of the ancient world. It encapsulates gratuitous assumptions about the diffusion of documents over time and distance.  This was an era of manuscripts laboriously copied by hand[2], as well as arduous travel powered by animals, sail, and human feet.  Diffusion over time is possibly not at issue, as Tertullian was born roughly a century later than Tacitus, but he lived across the Mediterranean in North Africa.  It’s not like he could walk into a local bookseller and order a scroll.

Absent actual evidence of quotation there would seem to be a need to demonstrate a reasonable availability of the primary source material.  Without this any errors or omissions by Tertullian become no more than probable artifacts of manuscript transmission in the ancient world.

Ancient writers are not wholly silent on the events treated by Tacitus. Paulus Orosius refers to the fire and a Neronian persecution. The History against the Pagans 7.7 on Nero summarizes the events but does not link them.  Sulpitius Severus, however, is explicit about Nero’s attempt to scapegoat Christians for the fire in Sacred History 2.29.  The material is unattributed, and backstopped with an interpretation of The Apocalypse of John. It is possible that Severus is using an independent source, but the language appears very similar to that of Tacitus, minus the pejorative characterization of Christians.  Unlike Tertullian, Severus appears to have been working directly from what Tacitus wrote, and not been forced to rely on memory or someone else’s references.

Tertullian could be excused for working with what he had.  Modern writers have no such out.

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[1]Raphael Lataster, “Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories—A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources.” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 6, no. 1 (2015) PP 84-85.
http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/imwjournal/vol6/iss1/5

The footnotes in the quotation refer to the following works:
(78) Bart D Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. p. 54.
(79) Earl Doherty. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2009. pp. 596-600.  The proprietor of the publisher appears to be the author.  Self-publication is common (like this blog) however the book is not identified as such in the paper’s bibliography.  This seems rather odd for a peer-reviewed journal.

[2] Update April 11, 2014: the bar to manuscript diffusion was even a bit higher than I thought.  There is the matter of the very high cost of the physical media which would definitely slow transmission over time and distance.  See a very interesting discussion of the cost here:  https://sarahemilybond.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/sacrificial-lambs-livestock-book-costs-and-the-premodern-parchment-trade/

 

Shredding The Lists

There is this difficult story in Matthew’s Gospel about a slave who owed a staggering sum of money – something probably in the neighborhood of sixteen years wages for a worker of the time. The king to whom the debt was owed put the ledger into the shredder and forgave the account. But the slave then promptly imprisoned a fellow who owed him about three month’s pay – a much shorter ledger. The king’s reaction to this was to turn the slave over to torturers to (literally) take the forgiven debt out of the man’s hide.

This notion of trapping myself with the debts I insist on collecting turns up elsewhere. It’s in the Lord’s prayer and is not some aberration in Jesus’ teaching. I am unable to avail myself of the grace of God because I cannot extend grace to others. The death and resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be good enough to reconcile God and man. But for some reason it’s not good enough for reconciliation between me and other brothers and sisters.

There is no way for that fellow slave to ever pay back the three months wages. And the fact that I had to hunt him down is what was really galling. He did not come to me. My suspicion is that the debt would never have even been acknowledged until the debtor was cornered and begging. But now that I’ve somehow gotten the upper hand I am not inclined to show mercy until all the debt on the list is accounted for.

Shredding a list does not mean that there are no boundaries set to fence off someone else’s dangerous or destructive behavior. Spouses are not obligated to live with abusers and addicts.

Rather, destroying a list is about forgoing the desire that the other person to “pay up” in some fashion. If not to make it right, to at least acknowledge the debt, particularly the real injury that may have been done. Letting go of the record of debt is essential to reconciliation. But keeping such records is lethally poisonous to personal relationships.

Except that the list is only toxic enough to mostly kill them. There are people we know and may have once been friends with that we would rather never see again. Unfortunately the relationships are still twitching and mobile because the memories and chance encounters still hurt. Those personal connections have become animated corpses and it doesn’t matter how many times we hit the zombies with the shovel. They just keep coming. Such walking dead things cannot be “healed.” We’ve successfully trapped them on the wrong side of the resurrection.

Jesus gave outsiders the right to judge the credibility of Christian witness by how we treat each other. Unfortunately the broader culture doesn’t find anything particularly attractive about some of our rotting relationships. The resurrection is about transformation. Those decayed things need transformation into something new.

But this won’t happen until we let go of what’s owed us, and the lists we keep go into the shredder.

(Mis)reading the New Testament (and other ancient texts)

Protestants have been dividing from one another pretty much continuously since Luther’s excommunication.  Before your next disagreement with another Christian I would like to suggest trying an experiment:

  1. Pick an issue over which Christians divide. It doesn’t matter which one.
  2. Pick a book of the New Testament that contains verses addressing your view of the controversy.
  3. Find a public domain version of the Bible online and copy the book into a word processor, or better yet a plain text editor.
  4. Use “find and replace” to remove all the punctuation, numbers (chapter and verse marks), and all the spaces between the words.
  5. For good measure remove the paragraphs.
  6. Now try to read it.
Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9
Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9

This is an approximation of scriptio continua, the normal mode of writing used in classical Greek and late classical Roman texts[1]. It is also found in early manuscripts of the New Testament.

The original form of these texts may have implication for how we read them today.  Some time ago I was introduced to the idea that our communications media affects the physical structure of how our brains work.  There is a very good chance that our brains function a bit differently from the writers and readers of ancient texts.

We are awash in print. Books emails, text messages, tweets, news pages, magazines, captions – we see it everywhere but we really don’t see it. Reading happens below our level of conscious thought.   This flood of text that started with the printing press has completely saturated us with the advent of electronic media.

It wasn’t always so.  The mechanics and logistics of reading and writing in the ancient world presented a far different environment.  There was far less of it.  The composition format in the ancient world would make writing laborious and persistent media (parchment and papyrus) was labor-intensive and costly[6] to produce.

And the process reading/writing was hard work. If you doubt that just try the experiment I described above. Or follow this link.

If you were literate, which wasn’t likely, you probably didn’t do that much reading and writing unless your occupation demanded it.  And you probably read aloud.  Silent reading is extremely difficult without spaces between words.  And if you had sufficient means, there is a good chance that a literate slave did a fair bit of your reading for you. After all, slaves did most of your other menial stuff.

Occupational literacy did demand some personal reading and writing and utilitarian texts appear predominate in archeological finds.  Literary texts comprise only about 10% of the papyri excavated from the ancient garbage dumps at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, following their discovery at the end of the 19th century.  The rest are government and private records and correspondence. They include “…codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, and private letters.[2]”

Reading and writing seems to have been tools of practical communication in a primarily oral culture, rather than mechanisms of the information saturation we experience in the present day.  What was spoken seems dominate what was what was written.

This orality appears also to extend to those who would be considered literate in a modern sense. Pliny the Younger described (his uncle) Pliny the Elder’s study habits as including the use of a reader.  His uncle would listen while taking notes (Letters 3.5).  The passage describes the reading as out loud, so presumably some silent reading was known.  But that was clearly not his uncle’s preferred way of interacting with the text.

Some years ago in an attempt to step outside of my own thinking on the matter of origins I read (most of) The Literal Meaning of Genesis, by Augustine of Hippo. It took weeks to read – the struggle was something of a surprise, having read much longer books by 19th century authors. I also started but never finished City of God – I mostly just nibbled around the edges and never really digested the book.

Now I may know why.  In the seventh century Irish scribes started inserting spaces between words and also started adding punctuation. Latin was a foreign language and this made it easier to read[3].  Our ability to speak is innate. Reading and writing, however, are learned.  The idea I was introduced to last fall is that the learning process creates new neural pathways in the brain.  Which means that a brain that does not read will have not have the same pathways as one that has learned the skill.  It is different.  And spaces between words make that skill easier to master.

By making reading easier, spaces and punctuation made reading more efficient and possible to do far more of.  More reading, more neural pathways.  Spaces between words facilitated the development of a brain that is saturated in text, the way mine is.  It has different neural pathways from one that is not.

To be clear I am not equating this difference with intelligence.  I doubt very many of us could master extemporaneous oral composition in the way that was expected in ancient Greece and Rome.  Ancient orators did not have teleprompters.  What I am suggesting is that maybe the thinking processes of those ancient orators was a bit different from ours.

There is a frequently cited passage in Confessions where Augustine describes silent reading by Ambrose of Milan in ways that make it clear it was highly unusual (Confessions 6.3). Augustine probably read out loud – which means there is a good chance his primary mode of thinking and composition was oral, and his writing  consequently anchored in an oral mode of thought.  This orality might help to explain why I struggled to track with his writing. If this is true it also ought to affect the conclusions I draw from what he was communicating.

I have been working my way through quite a number of ancient texts since that point – some have been easier to read than others. I thoroughly enjoyed Xenophon’s Anabasis – his account of a mercenary army’s misadventures in Persia and subsequent escape. It was probably more readable because it is very linear, something which is imposed by the sequence of events. But other ancient writing seems somehow disjointed compared to writing of later millennia. It seems far less linear.

Which brings me back to the subjects of our disagreements.

Ancient writing is just different enough that we ought to have some caution about the conclusions we draw from what we read. If strong and incompatible arguments can be made for several very different interpretations of the same ancient text, it is entirely possible that none of them were ever in the mind of the author. In ignoring the inherent orality of the original writing risk reading our own ways of thinking back into an ancient text.  First-century Palestine was an oral culture. Nobody had a leather-bound Torah resting on a coffee table in their house.

Modern  scholarship is  beginning to engage this inherent orality.  Richard Bauckham notes that the way Mark structures “…his narrative are mostly characteristic of oral composition.[4]”  Other books of the New Testament have identifiable oral underpinnings as well. Transmission of Paul’s letters may have involved more of an oral performance[5] than the sterile textual “reading” to which we are accustomed.

I’m not suggesting we return to the reading aloud of continuous text with no punctuation. But given the oral underpinnings of ancient writing, in order to engage with biblical texts on a personal level (and on their own terms) we might be better off hearing more of it than just simply reading it.

I have been attempting to do exactly that. I am currently playing the New Testament on CD in my truck on the way to work in the mornings. It’s not a perfect approach. The particular version to which I am listening has soothing music in the background – this does nothing to contribute to my engagement with the performance. But I am hearing (and engaging) things I used to gloss over while simply reading.

—————-

[1] Scriptio continua. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scriptio_continua

[2] Oxyrhynchus. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxyrhynchus

[3] Modern English, Punctuation, and Word Separation. (2010, October 30). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from http://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept10/2010/10/30/modern-english-punctuation-and-word-separation/

[4] Bauckham, R. (2006). Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony (p. 232). Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[5] For an example see: McKnight, S. (2015, June 11). Performing a Pauline Letter. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/06/11/performing-a-pauline-letter

[6] Update April 11, 2016: writing media was more costly than I had any idea, especially parchment.  It appears that the cost of a complete book could be one hundred times (or more) the daily wage of an unskilled laborer.  https://sarahemilybond.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/sacrificial-lambs-livestock-book-costs-and-the-premodern-parchment-trade/  In view of this books seem unlikely to have been plentiful.  At least not in the way we experience them.  Casual reading would be a pastime for the literate wealthy (or perhaps for the literate with wealthy patrons).

 

 

Calling in the Romans

In the middle third century a Church council assembled at Antioch and deposed the local bishop, Paul of Samosata. Paul appears to have taught that Christ was a mere man infused with the divine, a view at odds with the dominant consensus about Jesus’ pre-existence. Unfortunately for the council Paul held a government position and also had the backing of the queen of Palmyra. The other bishops were consequently unable to actually dislodge him until after the Roman emperor Aurelian defeated the queen and reasserted control over the eastern empire. The bishops applied to Aurelian to pry Paul loose and the emperor deferred to the bishops of Italy and Rome.

“Vexilloid of the Roman Empire” by Ssolbergj

Discussion of this incident seems to focus on the theology as well as accusations of abuse of position and self-enrichment recorded by Eusebius [1]. But the ties to civil government clearly made the problem more difficult for the early church to address — they provided Paul with resources to resist the other bishops. An underlying issue is summed up in a comment in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. The behavior of Paul “offers significant evidence that urban churches were seeking men of power and culture for their bishops.”[2]  This points to a similarity in functional usage between the activity of civil government and the office of bishop.  The latter had become compatible with the exercise of autocratic authority.

The office of bishop seems to have originally been anchored in a plurality of leadership and by this time it was clearly losing that character. One cause put forth as an impetus was a need for strong leadership in the second-century theological controversies. Other contributors have been suggested. I recently found an argument by Joanna Dewey that posits writing and literacy as a mechanism of control which facilitated “…the shift to manuscript-based authority and to the hegemony and control of Christian churches by a small, educated male elite.”[3]

I am fairly new to academic writings on the early church but so far most of what I’ve read seems to look right past issues of process and structure.  For example Dewey has some very interesting things to say about orality in the first-century church but also appears to overstate the usefulness of writing in the exercise of control. In the context of ancient Rome she writes that the “…administrative letter was the essential tool for regulating the empire’s business…”[4]

Which appears to simply ignore practical realities of time and distance  communications in the ancient world.[5]  I would suggest instead that the essential tool for regulating the business of empire was loyal and reasonably competent local administration. Given this there is a better candidate driving the development of monoepiscopacy and its subsequent dysfunctional compatibility with autocratic Roman power. These are rooted in general observations on organization that seems to apply to the church as well.

Once any group of people expands beyond a certain point in numbers and scope of activity some degree of organization becomes necessary. It allows for specialization and cooperation, increasing the reach of the group beyond what individuals are capable of.  This can grow up organically at small scales as individuals are found to have aptitudes for particular roles.  Such organic development seems to characterize the apostles’ call to recruit people to administrate the distribution of support to widows. But in the centuries following this nascent bit of organizing something clearly went off the rails.

The activities of large numbers of people are not well administrated by informal methods. Whatever the actual initial impetus for monoepiscopacy, the efficiency of the expedient would rapidly lead to consolidation of function as an organizational form. It’s not difficult to see where this would come from. Monarchy was a familiar form in the ancient world. And administration of Roman provinces was carried out by governors who combined supreme civil and military authority.

In all fairness the early church didn’t have much in the way of alternative examples. But an inherent conflict exists between the tendencies of autocratic forms and what Jesus had in mind when he called leaders to be servants. Autocratic leadership forms (and styles) work best when the leader is both highly directive and able to cultivate initiative on the part of subordinates who are both loyal and competent. This is an organizational thought process which does not seem inherently conducive to either pastoral ministry or the cultivation of community. With the right leaders it might be theoretically possible to navigate.

But salt in the inevitable bits of sloth, hubris, and avarice, along with assorted other vices and things come apart. Sloth is perhaps the most insidious as it is common, easy to camouflage, and locks other problems in place. As all organizations grow and roles differentiate, individuals and groups with specialized tasks rapidly become used to doing things in particular ways. There are a limited number of things anyone can attend to and sloth provides a powerful incentive to attend to as few things as possible. Which means most people and groups will cease to look beyond their specialized roles and become highly resistant to changing those roles.

When change inevitably becomes necessary this puts specialized roles in the larger group out of sync with each other, spawning conflict.  This in turn, creates an incentive for competition within an organization as individuals and groups seek to reinforce their specialized roles. In hierarchical structures some will seek to improve their position within the hierarchy at the expense of others — the more energetic and adaptable among them will be the most successful at this. This competition puts individuals and groups at cross-purposes with each other, and with whatever the original goals of the larger group may have been.

Autocratic structures are inherently dependent on capable and energetic top leadership to counter sloth and reign in competition in order to stay on mission. This dependency increases as the structure grows in size and in the scope of activity. The dependency also builds in a high vulnerability to the avarice of such leadership, as well as a high vulnerability to the avarice of energetic subordinates, if such a leader is lacking.  The vulnerability can be mitigated by reliance on rigid codes of behavior, such as in military organizations, but this brings problems of its own.  Autocratic systems can rapidly come to be all about giving and following directives, and competition over who is giving directives to whom.

The only remedy for the misbehavior of an entrenched autocrat such as Paul of Samosata is the application of raw power. The bishops were obliged to find a more powerful autocrat and they called in the Romans.

The foregoing ought to be a cautionary tale for modern churches and para-church ministries, particularly large ones. We have had a couple of millennia to come up with better ways to do administration but we’re really no different. All modern administrative structures have at least some autocratic aspects. And all have the tendency noted above to reinforce specialized roles at the expense of the overall group. This causes an organization to drift toward stagnation and this drift increases with size.

Large organizations are likely impossible to run any other way. And attempts to counter this in modern corporations, such as by using oversight by an independent board, bring additional baggage. Most churches in the US likely borrow such corporate forms from the culture without giving them a second thought.

Churches call their governance various things (such as elder or deacon boards) but most of them are likely a functional and legal board of directors of a state-charted non-profit corporation. This governing board is bound to legal and ethical obligations that are independent of the organization’s defined structure. And some of these obligations encompass further imperatives that can potentially operate at cross purposes with a church’s ministry.

One example (among others) might illustrate this. Board members have ethical obligations to donors which drives a duty to investigate allegations of mishandling of the funds and assets of the corporation. Board members consequently have an obligation to hear the allegations of good faith whistle-blowers and protect them. It is not difficult to imagine scenarios where this might conflict with what Paul the apostle says about handling accusations against elders.

Most churches probably just muddle on through issues of organization and do just fine at small scales. But a failure to engage the inherent characteristics of organizational forms at larger scales is apt to result in one of two dysfunctional outcomes.

In the first, the church (or para-church ministry) becomes “an institution” and solidifies in harmful ways. Modern practices have mitigated the nastier effects of competition for control and position once characteristic of autocratic administration. But individual and group tendencies to settle into the familiar can freeze specialized roles in place like a glacier in an alpine valley.  Those roles might still be in motion.  But don’t wait around for them to produce anything.

In the second, actual requirements of the forms are ignored and chaos ensues. In the US this might involve blurring of the obligations inherent in a non-profit entity. Corners get cut, particularly when conflicts of interests are involved. Sometimes liberties are taken. If enough of this happens some injured party files a lawsuit, which is a modern US version of calling in the Romans. After all, the government created the tax-exempt entity in the first place, along with the obligations that go with it.

These outcomes are not mutually exclusive and a crisis precipitated by the first can initiate the second. Neither of them are conducive to building community.

I am not suggesting we can dispense with organization.  But unfortunately organization aggregates human frailty, and different organizational forms aggregate frailty in different ways. What I am suggesting is caution about the baggage that comes with organizational forms, and asking questions about the limitations in our approaches to issues of numerical growth and growth in the scale of our activities.

So someone doesn’t have to call in the Romans.

—————-

[1] The Church History of Eusebius.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers).  Editor Philip Schaff. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2009 Kindle Edition.
(Kindle Locations 21771-21790).

[2] Frederick W. Norris. Paul of Samosata.  Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Editor Everett Ferguson.  New York: Taylor & Francis, 1999. Print. Kindle Edition 2013 (Kindle Locations 34343-34344).

[3] Joanna Dewey. Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Eugene: Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2013. Kindle Edition, p. 4.

[4] Dewey, (p. 6.).

[5 ] Round-trip messaging durations in ancient Rome were measured in weeks and months.  This  constrains the practical utility of letters to narrow uses such as broad policy guidance, or to address specific and non-urgent problems raised about the scope or authority of specific local officials.   The broader use of an administrative letter, particularly in the case of the emperor and a distant governor, is as an a not too subtle reminder of who is actually in control.  The obsequious tone in some of Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan is highly suggestive.

Granted, written material is more reliable than oral messages and probably did facilitate  the sprawl of the Roman power. But writing itself is not inherently necessary to run an empire. The Inca may have got on just fine without it. They used knotted and colored string Quipus for administrative recording. These may have also served as a form of writing media but the mechanical nature would be very limiting, and probably not that useful beyond administrative record-keeping.

Jewish Names in the Gospel Accounts, and Roman Historical Context

Anyone thrashing about over the origins of New Testament texts and how we read them ought to pick up a copy of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. The book provides an analysis of oral tradition, first century personal names, and literary evidence relevant to the Gospel accounts. The analysis is used to support an argument that the accounts are directly anchored in the eyewitness testimony of close associates of Jesus.

The argument is a counter to the view that they are wholly the product of oral community traditions, and as such, changing over time to conform to how the community views itself. Proponents of this seem to want to decouple early Christianity from any connection to actual participants in historical events. I am part way through the book and am finding it very helpful in framing how I think about the Gospel texts.

Early in the book Bauckham cites a study of Palestinian Jewish names to support his thesis. The study is based on the work of Israeli scholar Tal Ilan. Ilan compiled Jewish names used in Palestine between 330 BCE and 200 CE. A large amount of the data comes from the first century and the beginning of the second century CE (to 135) reflecting the relative abundance of sources in this period compared to the full span of five centuries. The sources include the New Testament, as well as others such as ossuaries, inscriptions, the works of Josephus, and other Judean texts.

Bauckham describes a correspondence in the study between the relative frequencies of personal names in the Gospels and the relative frequencies of these names in the total study. For example, Simon and Joseph are identified as the two most popular male names and comprise similar percentages of the names counted in the Gospels and Acts, as compared to the rest of the data.

Bauckham argues that this is unlikely to have arisen from the later addition of names in oral traditions. Bauckham observes that, “… that the pattern of Jewish names in the Diaspora was not at all the same as in Palestine…the fact that the practices of naming were very different…”[1] He further comments that the name correspondence, “…would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine.”[2]

But what Bauckham says would seem to rest within a broader point. The name correspondence provides an independent anchor in time for possible dates of authorship of the written Gospel accounts, as well as an anchor in geography for possible sources.

Bauckham notes, “…that a large proportion of the data actually comes from the first century CE and early second century (to 135 CE), just because the sources for this shorter period are much more plentiful than for other parts of the whole period.”[3] But he doesn’t flesh out the significance of the identified date.

135 CE was the year Roman legions suppressed the Bar Kokhba revolt. After the revolt the Romans depopulated Judean Jewish communities and Jews became a minority in Palestine. The Romans also suppressed Jewish religious expression; this eased only with the death of the emperor Hadrian in 138. The center of the religion subsequently shifted east to the Babylonian Jewish community.

The incidence of Palestinian Jewish names is lower after 135 because the Romans had removed (most of) the Palestinian Jews. What this means is that the writers of the Gospel accounts either 1) lived in Jewish Palestine before the revolt or 2) were relaying material directly from pre-revolt residents.  The combination of Roman military activity and the subsequent deportations likely eliminated any further avenue for oral transmission from Palestinian Jewish communities.

Which means the name correspondence firmly anchors the Gospel accounts within the living memories of pre-revolt residents of Jewish Palestine.  This does not definitively say when, where, and by whom the Gospel accounts were written — but the Bar Kokhba revolt imposes absolute bounds on the range of possible answers. These bounds backstop existing scholarship answering those questions, and apply whether or not Bauckham’s thesis is correct.

—————-

[1] Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapid, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, ISBN: 0802863906. 2013 Kindle Edition p. 73.
[2] Baukham, p. 84.
[3] Bauckham, p. 68.

Loss of Context

Exploring the world in comfort. That’s the theme of a recent commercial for the European travel company, Viking River Cruises. Scenes of Europe flow by to violin strains and a poetic cadence:

“Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes with Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll get closer to iconic landmarks, to local life and cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only Viking can give you.”

The commercial told me next to nothing about the company but the imagery they presented was intriguing. There might be something to be said for touring Europe that way. These seems like a far better use of a trip than some cruise with an inane cartoon theme.  But hold on a minute. Let’s wind the Earth back around the Sun to Paris in 845 AD.

Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes as a Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll sack more iconic landmarks, and loot more cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only being a marauding, pillaging, burning, murdering, and thieving barbarian can give you.

Context is everything.

Replica Longship

My home town used to be heavily Scandinavian and Nordic motifs decorate some of the businesses. There is a strip mall named “Viking Village” where the anchor store has a replica of a longship’s dragon prow on the peak of the roof. It’s truly amazing what a millennium does to the meaning of the names and symbols.

As Christians, we are not immune to losing the context of our symbols.  There are artistic crucifixes in various places in my house. It is a valid symbol of remembrance. Crucifixion only became a widespread object of art after Constantine outlawed it as a method of execution in the Roman empire and its image of brutality faded. As a symbol of commemoration an artistic cross can be a good thing.

But in the Middle Ages it was used to adorn crusader shields. Now it graces everything from napkins to photo frames. It might be fair to say we’ve lost our sense of what the symbol is about.  We do not think of the context of the cross.

It used to take hundreds of years to completely lose a sense of the context of an event.  The meaning of symbols related to an event is shaped by the surrounding culture.  This changes over time but that process used to be much slower.  It’s easy to forget that before mechanization few people traveled very far from where they were born.  There always have been small subsets of a community that traveled, such as merchants and soldiers, and occasionally entire groups would migrate to escape something bad in hopes of finding something better.  For good or for ill, context was created and reinforced by where you lived and whom you lived with.

This is no longer the case.  We move.  We routinely travel distances that used to take days and lifetimes.  Very few of us live with the people we grew up knowing.  We are disconnected from what used to surround our sense of what a symbol meant, and vulnerable to the reframing of symbols by the technology that pervades the modern world.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described the effect of 20th century media in the decontextualization of information and serious discourse, and their repackaging as primarily visual entertainment. It is a dated polemic, having been written three decades ago during the dominance of broadcast television. We have vastly greater access to information than when the book was written. But the notion of decontextualization appears dead-on, making the book a must-read*. Our access to information is now mediated by portable devices that bounce us from one bit of disjointed content to the next.

Is it even possible to communicate context on a 5-inch electronic screen?

*I recommend reading this in tandem with The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Carr’s emphasis is different — specifically how the Internet is changing the way we think.  But the book provides a necessary update for the idea of decontextualization.

Making Peace with Church

I recently watched an online panel discussion, Making Peace with Church – Finding Grace and Authenticity in an Age of Skepticism . The event was sponsored by Regent College, in Vancouver, BC, and Christianity Today Magazine. It is well worth the time.

The participants discussed what “church” actually means and why Christians need to be engaged with it. Much of the discussion was anchored around millennials, a perspective represented by panelist Erin Lane who discussed what making peace might mean for them. The back-and-forth included an insightful exchange between Lane and panelist Darrell Johnson, which laid out what is necessary to build trust with church leaders. Issues of alienation and betrayal were also discussed.

Burrow Mump, Somerset, England
Burrow Mump ruin.

Contained in this is the implicit question of why peace might need to be made in the first place. The need for peace assumes the presence of conflict — conflict without genuine reconciliation.

An an observation by panelist Scot McKnight grabbed my attention and seems relevant to this question. He described modern church culture as “fellowships of the sames,” where we meet “with people who are like us” and have the same preferences for music and preaching styles, and share similar cultural outlooks and similar economic standings. McKnight contrasted this with the early church. He characterized it as “a fellowship of differents,” who “did not naturally belong together” but rather were brought together into a “transformative community.”

I have long wondered if what passes for diversity within modern Christianity is merely balkanization. We have enormous diversity of thought, culture and practice between churches, but not much within them. We can choose to go where we like, so that’s pretty much what we do.

Panelist Hans Boersma nudged an aspect of this when he commented on denominational choices. Boersma observed that “…there’s sin behind the origin of our many denominations, our divisions.” He went on to advise “…not to strike out on our own with certain consumer choices too quickly but to be faithful to where we’ve been placed.”

The operative concept packed inside Boersma’s admonishment is consumer choice. The marketing and entertainment culture that subsumed modern society following the development of imaged-based media has become the air which we breathe but do not see. It may not be the origin of the balkanization of Christianity in the modern world but it is a significant accelerant.

Those of us who sit in judgment of others’ exercise of consumer choice tend to be unaware that we may have merely inherited someone else’s consumer choice, either those of a parent, or of a friend/significant other who introduced us to a particular church. Social preference has turned “neither Jew nor Greek” into choosing to be around only Greeks. McKnight’s “fellowship of sames” is the fellowship of an affinity group.

The problem with doing church as an affinity group is that it plays straight into our ancient history. Before we were citizens of nations, we were ethnicities and people groups. Before that we were kinship-based tribes and clans. And before the domestication of animals and mastery of agriculture, we were small kinship bands, a state which probably accounts for most of our history as a species. Affinity groups can easily slip into very tribal behaviors. Boundaries form to protect “us” and exclude “them.” Common perceptions and habits of interaction get reinforced and social pressure gets applied to conform to accepted norms.

But modern tribalization as affinity groups may be a step down from this. For good or ill, we are often attracted to people who behave in ways we got used to while growing up. Which unfortunately includes attraction to people with shared similarities in dysfunctional family histories and social habits. Their misbehavior feels normal. This dysfunction is apt to include overlapping blind spots — as participants in an affinity group we can lose an appreciation of our personal frailty. We forget what we have been forgiven and cease to forgive.

This is not a recipe for healthy navigation of inevitable personal and group conflict. The “fellowship of sames” deprives us of any real experience of God’s help in navigating real differences.

Without exposure to real difference we also lack experience in navigating real reconciliation. And the reconciliation of God and man becomes somehow insufficient for man and man. The end result is not peace. It is only armistice, with the participants avoiding notice of each other across the minefields and barbed wire.

Perhaps in addition to talking about how to make peace with church we ought to be talking about what it takes to make peace in church. We need to regain the “fellowship of differents.”

Personal Relationships (below the surface of “church”)

Lots of people are critiquing church and lots of people are leaving.  The critiques run the gamut from worship to doctrine to cultural relevancy.  In of itself this is nothing new. But something seems to be crystallizing in a growing number of formerly committed but still believing Christians described in an article by Thom Schultz on developing research as “done with church.”

It has occurred to me I might be missing something far more basic.  Thinking about how Christianity spread underground in a frequently hostile ancient world could provide some clarity.  Historical accounts are generally focused on specific events behind these events are often hints of something else.  The writing of Eusebius of Caesarea are no exception.  Eusebius documented the imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom of his teacher Pamphilus, along with members of his household.  These included the slave Porphyrius who spoke out after the condemnation of Pamphilus asking for the burial of the bodies.  There was more connecting Porphyrius and Pamphilus than their relative social positions would suggest.

Over a period of roughly 300 years Christianity grew from a local splinter sect within Judaism to become a very large minority within the Roman empire at the accession of Constantine. But in the interim treatment of Christians varied from times of toleration to periods of targeted persecution. Christians weren’t always direct objects of persecution. Sometimes they were swept up in general campaigns to restore traditional Roman values which included worship of traditional gods. Judaism was tolerated because it was backed by the history and traditions of the Jewish people. But once Christianity became distinct from Judaism it was viewed as novel superstition and inherently impious*. A refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods carried at least a possibility of impoverishment, imprisonment, torture, and death.

An aspect of Roman judicial process heightened this risk. Rome frequently relied on informants who might benefit from their involvement. These included accused criminals, delatores (paid a fee or a portion of asset confiscation), and slaves, who could benefit by emancipation. The testimony of slaves would be verified by torture which would serve to dampen but not remove the incentive.

The incentive to inform provided by the judicial system meant that persecution need not be driven by direct edict by an official. Trajan advised a governor not to hunt for Christians, but to punish them if they were denounced and convicted. If a local official was known to be hostile the prospect of personal benefit could drive the process of denunciation, particularly as Christianity penetrated the households of the well-to-do. In this context, involvement in Christianity would take on aspects of a criminal conspiracy, albeit one which placed a suicidal premium on telling the truth when caught. It would necessarily spread through networks of personal relationships between people who knew and trusted each other.

And spread it did, across class, racial, and economic boundaries, driven by belief in the resurrection and aided by a bit of corrosive equality unique in the ancient world:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

As Porphyrius and Pamphilus appeared to be. The question about why people are leaving church might hinge on answering questions about the state of our personal relationships.

Would those relationships survive contact with a hostile government?  Do I know people in my local church well enough to trust them with my personal safety?

And would they trust me with theirs?

*For an overview of see Christian Persecution at UNRV History and Anti-Christian policies in the Roman Empire.

Awe (and arrogance)

In a post at Biologos Daniel Stork Banks sketches out a personal journey.  It starts with the sense of awe at the natural world he felt as a child growing up in a non-religious home, continues with encountering with young-earth creationism at university, and then onto engagement with theistic evolution. He notes sharing that sense of awe with Richard Dawkins, as expressed in the book The Greatest Show on Earth (2009).  Banks further comments that “…we cannot afford to surrender our awe of the universe to atheists like Richard Dawkins who want to explain it by leaving God out.”

I completely agree, particularly since my engagement with Dawkins’ writings was rather different.  Several years ago, I read (most of) Dawkins’ earlier book, The God Delusion (2006), in an attempt at engagement with a different point of view.

For the most part the book appears to be an ideological assault on religious theism. Granted, superstition, evil and stupidity packaged in religious trappings provides an enormous amount of ammunition for the assault.  But this approach conflates thinking about the existence of God with religious belief and obscures honest discussion of either one.

In looking past the ad hominem aspects of the approach the core of Dawkins’ argument appears to be what he labels the “God Hypothesis” and its alternative:

  • …there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it…
  • …any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.1

This packages an assumption that creative intelligence is necessarily complex.  The clearest statement of Dawkins’ thinking on the matter appears to be this:

A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right.2

The assertion ignores historical Christian thinking on the nature of God and far smarter minds have composed volumes to address the issue.3   Dawkins closes the argument by appearing to simply dismiss God’s existence with the question: “who designed the designer?”4

I would like to offer a cosmological observation in response to this question in light of what has been learned about the universe during the past century.  What is now known about the cosmos neither proves nor disproves God’s existence but it does settle at least a few of the speculations which have rattled about in philosophy and religion during the past 2500 years.

We exist inside of a spacetime box with a defined absolute boundary slightly less than 14 billion years in the past at the Big Bang.  The box also has a likely functional boundary some billions of years in the future when all the energy stored everywhere in the universe is expended.  Other boundaries may exist as well.

We may be able infer limited aspects of realities outside our box but all that does is push those boundaries out a bit. The who or what which gave rise to what we live in is necessarily outside those boundaries.

Complexity and causality are features of the inside of our spacetime box.  We have no reason to believe they would have any meaning at all when applied to God.  As Dawkins surely must understand this, The God Delusion appears to be little more than a blunt tool to bludgeon the reader into accepting an arrogant and militant point of view.

Genuine awe requires humility. I may attempt to read the later book in hopes of finding some.

Notes:

  1. Dawkins, Richard (2008-01-16). The God Delusion (p. 52). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  2. Dawkins. (p. 178).
  3. For an example see Alvin Plantinga’s review in the The Dawkins Confusion at Christianity Today. This unfortunately requires a subscription to read but probably be found elsewhere.
  4. Dawkins. (p. 146-147, 188).

 

Enough for Troubled Guests

My problem has never been believing that God is. It's been believing that he gives a flying chimpanzee turd about humanity in general and me in particular.

Last night I went to a local church to see "We Are Not Troubled Guests." This is a one-man play by artist Scott Erickson in which he describes an eclectic personal stew of doubt, despair and faith. Anyone who knows me will tell you it's not the way I normally interact with the world. But the relational (and often raw) way in which he presents got me engaged with the play.

Erickson sets up his doubt with in-your-face video clips of prominent atheists who view faith as believing in God without good evidence. The clips caricature faith as wishful thinking. Unfortunately much of the Church is guilty as charged with our simplistic attempts to explain "…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1)." In my opinion there IS good evidence. Poke around the hard, rocky strata of first and second century documents in their cultural and historical context in the classical world and you will find it. The problem is not the evidence. It's the stuff with which the evidence is entangled.

Erickson cites his "least favorite story" in the New Testament in which Jesus is sleeping the stern of a storm-tossed boat which he shares with experienced but terrified fishermen (Mark 4:35ff). Scott weaves this into his very personal navigation of doubt.

I will call Erickson's story and raise him one. Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus is sick (John 11:1-44). From my point of view, he fiddle farts around for two days before going to Bethany to see his friend who dies during the delay. The disciples by this time have seen a bit of the people who want to kill their teacher. Thomas, in particular, has gotten a little fatalistic about the whole thing. I completely get Mary and Martha's distress on his arrival. Where have you been?

Most of us don't like to engage at an honest level with this question. We smear God's sovereignty and Romans 8:28 around on hurting people like some topical anesthetic. Let me provide clarity by scaling the problem up for you. Lord, if you had been here, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin would not have killed all those people.

Jesus' response to Martha and Mary was not to intervene in the inevitable progression of what was going on with their brother. He was clearly capable of intervening and everyone knew it. His response was rather to do something entirely different, something that was to be recast and scaled up to answer infinitely greater evil and suffering.

As a Christian I really do believe something quite foolish. That Jesus entered space and time, lived among us, allowed us to torture and kill him, and then cast aside death. He didn't do this to fix our bad stuff, but to meet us in the midst of that bad stuff with a promise to ultimately transform us.

The question of faith is really the question of is this enough?