A Faith of Trust, Allegiance, and Loyalty

Skeptics ridicule the truth of the Christian message because of the discontinuity they see between Christian belief and behavior. They may have a point. Modern Christianity seems grounded in cognitive experience, more or less anchored by formal theologies expressing ethics governing what we think and how we behave. The problem is that what we think often gets compartmentalized from how we behave.

We claim a transformative power but we seem to end up with a faith that seems to be mostly a matter of rules and propositional truth. It might help to step back a bit from our arguments with skeptics and think about what faith actually is. A book review by Kate Cooper recently caught my attention, in which she profiled Roman Faith and Christian Faith, by Teresa Morgan.

The review describes our primarily cognitive and ethical treatment of faith as anachronistic. In contrast, “…ancient moral writers tended to think of faith in the relational sense of trust, allegiance, and loyalty.” Cooper quotes from Morgan’s book, anchoring faith in an ancient context of “‘an exercise of trust which involves heart, mind, and action’”.[1]

I am looking forward reading the book to engage the historical context the book promises for the New Testament. It seems to square with my recent reading of Roman history and Roman authors.  But what Cooper calls modern faith might also have some quite ancient roots, courtesy of the Hellenic culture diffused across the Mediteranean and eastward following Alexander’s conquests.

Hellenism was under-girded by a world of ideas incubated in the life of the polis, or the Greek city-state. The clearest biblical connection with this was Paul’s encounter with Athenian aristocracy at Mars Hill,[2] when they brought Paul from the marketplace where he was preaching. They wanted to hear his unfamiliar ideas and proclamations of a foreign god, and to consider them within the business of the polis.

But the problem with this Greek world of ideas was its functional isolation. The city-states which gestated Hellenism were stratified into fairly rigid divisions between the activities of citizens (men), women, immigrants and their descendants, freedmen, and slaves. In the classical period citizens were the only ones who could own houses or land, or participate in public life and in the governance of the city. What this participation actually looked like might vary with the city but most of the actual work to support it was performed by someone other than citizens.

The result was that the Greek world of ideas was structurally disconnected from the practical and everyday. The intellectual heritage of the Western World owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks. But we may also owe them a tendency toward cooking down truth as a matter of bare cognition, separated from the activities of everyday life.

This does not mean faith operates in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Something must be true, and over the centuries Christians have done a fair bit of philosophy to engage this. But we used to also recognize that the truth statements within Christian creeds were never wholly reducible to propositions.

Unfortunately, some of our fine-grained modern theologies seem to do just that, resulting in a theoretical faith where the ethical content never reaches very far. It is a faith that has become very much like the philosophy of the ancient Greeks: positions to think about but that are mostly sectioned off from the ordinary day-to-day. And on those occasions we actually do drag them out of their boxes they are so wholly odds with that day-to-day as to discredit any message about Jesus.

It is a modern variant of something James was addressing in his letter to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the ancient world.  He nails this in his discussion of faith and works (James 2:14-19).

What I have been told by someone who actually reads Greek is that the words translated as “faith” and “believe”[3] in English are really noun and verb forms of the same expansive word, encompassing a both a belief in the truth of something, as well as a far broader sense of trust and dependence concerning the fidelity of someone. The way the Greek word is heard depends on the context. James 2:19 is commonly translated in English as “believe,” and the context suggests a paraphrase:

You accept the truth that God is one. You do well. The demons also accept this and shudder.

A faith restricted to the cognitive and ethical can easily become a faith of bare facts — the faith of the demons.

In the preceding text, 2:14-18, the Greek word is commonly translated as “faith.” The context suggests something very different from 2:19.

And this difference would have been understood quite clearly by any Roman hearing the reading of James’ letter. The Romans who spread with their empire had some critical cultural differences from the Greeks of the city-states. Immigrants to Rome often became citizens, and sometimes this included freed slaves and their descendants. As Mary Beard has unpacked in SPQR, this making of immigrants and thousands of slaves into citizens is a major part of what enabled Rome to dominate the ancient world. And in their founding myths “…however far back you go, the inhabitants of Rome were always already from somewhere else.”[4]

As a matter of clarification I don’t want to convey any impression that this meant empire and the associated making of slaves was a good thing. It was not. A slave in a Roman mine was unlikely to live very long. And Romans were probably as exploitative, xenophobic and ethnocentric as anyone else.

But the point is that the Roman social stratification was somewhat less rigid than in a Greek city-state. It was more interconnected, with citizens bound together in patron-client relationships of mutual obligation. Roman citizenship did not inherently insulate everyday citizens from activities with outsiders, or from otherwise doing the everyday business of Rome. Ordinary Romans proudly put their ordinary occupations on their tombstones. And landless Roman wage laborers might find themselves working on the same project alongside of Roman slaves.

Commodus denarius – Wikimedia Commons

For the Romans hearing a reading of James’ letter, truth did not stand in a vacuum devoid of the business of everyday life. The context of James 2:14-18 would have been understood in the sense of fides, what Cooper’s review identifies as encompassing “trust, allegiance, and loyalty.”  Romans were accustomed to the sense of fides as found inscribed on coins and worshiped as a minor deity.[5]  It conveyed as sense of reliability, such as in the trust between two parties.

It is what a Roman would have heard when the Greek pistis was translated in Latin. In the ancient world these words appear to have been mutually intelligible. What we commonly translate as “faith” might possibly be heard like this by an ancient Roman:

Show me your trust, allegiance and loyalty, without works, and I will show you my trust, allegiance, and loyalty, by my works.

Our most common response to skeptics is to reach for some form of apologetic. Perhaps the proper response would be to recover a more ancient sense of faith.


[1]  Kate Cooper.  Review: Teresa Morgan, ROMAN FAITH, CHRISTIAN FAITH.  I’ve added the book to my list to acquire and read.  It’s quite expensive which suggests it is directed at an academic audience.
https://kateantiquity.com/2016/05/12/review-teresa-morgan-roman-faith-christian-faith/.  Also at: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/by-faith-alone-3/

[2] Acts 17:16 ff.

[3] James 2:14-18, faith: πιστιν – pistin, πιστις – pistis, Strong’s G4102.  James 2:19, believe: πιστευεις – pisteueis, πιστευουσιν – pisteuousin, Strong’s G4100.

[4] Mary Beard. SPQR: A history of ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015. p78

[5]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fides_(deity)

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.


[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.

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/


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.

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.