April 23, 2013 7:44:37 AM
How did it happen that Christianity so infuses the culture of the West? Christians, of course, will say that it is due simply to their religion being right, and so naturally it is the world's most popular religion (although no religion can claim a majority of the world's population as believers). Historians, however, will trace contingencies way back, and will try to figure out how a minor religion in first-century Rome took over, so that a few centuries later Rome would pick it as the official religion. After all, there were other choices at the time, some of them quite popular. How do empires use religion and vice versa? This is the huge subject of And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus (St. Martin's Press) by Selina O'Grady. O'Grady has written before on religious themes, and has produced a "moral documentary series" for the BBC. Her understanding of this period seems encyclopedic; she has details not only of Roman and Christian belief, but of Judaism, and of Confucianism in China, and more. Her book has surprising depth and comprehensiveness, along with clarity and good humor, making it a pleasure to read.
At the center of O'Grady's story is Augustus Caesar. Having assumed supreme political power as emperor, he also assumed godship. (He did not wait as did the Emperor Vespasian, whose last words were, "I think I'm becoming a god!") The Roman emperors had left the lesson that an individual might be deified, a lesson taken up by the Christians, but as O'Grady explains, this was happening all over the place. There was a long tradition of god-pharaohs in Egypt, for instance. Far less well known than Augustus was the goddess-queen Amanirenas of Meroe who defeated the Romans within Egypt in 21 BCE. Well, she technically was defeated, but up against a fellow ruler god, she behaved just as a goddess ought to. In negotiations after the battle, she sent Augustus a bundle of golden arrows, and a message: "If you want peace, they are a token of her friendship and warmth. If you want war, you are going to need them." Way over in China, around the same time, the usurper Wang Mang seized the Han dynasty's throne and bolstered his power by distorting the Confucian creed and announcing that as emperor he was the "Son of Heaven." Human gods were not so much a feature of Buddhism, Stoicism, Zoroastrianism, or the other many beliefs described here.
Rome was ready to expand and take over the world, and in doing so, to take under its umbrella religion the gods of new territories; there was a good degree of tolerance. This could not be reciprocated by the Jews, whose god admitted that he was a jealous god. O'Grady explains that there had been differences in the thinking of Jewish sects. The Sadducees concentrated on their priestly officials, and thought that their far-off supreme being had set rules for their hereditary class of priests, and only that one, to follow. The Pharisees, on the other hand, brought responsibility for proper worship to all, including that no emperor could be acknowledged as a god. The Pharisees were responsible for a terrorist attack on the golden imperial eagle that Herod had installed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish people, went the lesson, would have to shun Roman rule in order to continue serving Yaweh.
And then a young Galilean started performing miracles, promoting kindness, preaching to peasants and fishermen, exorcising demons, healing children, and living a life of poverty among his disciples. This was Hanina ben Dosa, whom O'Grady says was probably the most famous holy men in all of Galilee. Oh, yes, there was Jesus, too, and a real jumble of other righteous workers. A few changes in personnel or in emphasis, and perhaps we'd all know Hanina as the Son of God now. Perhaps also the devotion to Isis might have carried over. Roman gods, after all, were naughty from time to time and were not all that interested in what the humans were doing, even if the humans made all the right sacrifices. Isis loved her children and cared about them; she was a personal god with a community of worshippers and a teaching that included an afterlife. The cult of Isis was very popular. Perhaps devotion to Atargatis, a fishtailed goddess, was doomed to die out, as devotees castrated themselves to prove how sincere they were, but there were plenty of different religions that could have lasted. The worship of the Persian god Mithras was to offer real competition to the growing cult of Christianity, but it was developed a couple of centuries later, and is barely mentioned here.
Dealing with the historical Jesus is difficult, because of thin evidence other that that written for the purpose of convincing others. According to O'Grady, Jesus was one among many Jewish preachers of the time. He emphasized good behavior and kindness more than he emphasized any particular divinity or any claim to be a son of a higher deity. What Jesus had that those other preachers did not have was a good PR man. Paul had never met Jesus, and knew him only from revelation, but shaped the writings and the memories about him so that he was not just an executed Jewish criminal but a savior to whom all could turn. Paul built upon the loyalties and commitment inherent in Jewish monotheism, but made them universal rather than ethnic. In so doing, the great conflict of Judaism with the secular emperor was avoided. Paul had his identity problems; he was a devout Jew with a Greek education and a Roman citizenship. Paul made Jesus's religion into one that was universalist, accepting of all levels and both sexes, emphasizing passivity and quietism. It was a religion good for fitting in; of course eventually Rome saw this and took advantage of making it official.
This secular and historical look at the early development of Christianity will challenge believers. It is important to note that although O'Grady climaxes And Man Created God with a final chapter "And Paul Created Christ," this is a history of plenty of religions of the time, not just the one that has proved to be more long-lasting than many of the others mentioned here. Christianity may have won out because it had better stories, or a better moral code, or better fostering of community ties, or even a deeper and more direct channel to a supreme being, and maybe that supreme being pulled strings to give Christianity the win. Or maybe, more than any of the other religions on display in this wide-ranging book, Christianity simply proved to be, in the author's words, "a far better glue for an empire than an imperial cult," and thus got its initial governmental imprimatur which has continued it to its current popularity. Either way, the dazzling erudition on every page here makes for compelling history.