We have been seeing a lot lately of the fundamentalist Christian self-identity of being a persecuted minority despite their own religion’s long history of persecuting every alternative to itself. Tied in with this persecution complex is an inflated sense of self-importance, which we also see manifested in their demand to have their own beliefs privileged over all others. In Pope Benedict XVI’s words, Truth triumphs over tolerance.
How could it not?
Think of the Moral Majority, which was neither moral nor a majority. Think about Rand Paul’s speech this past week at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to the Majority Conference.
Demographics will tell any discerning observer that there is no road for fundamentalist Christianity that will lead to a majority in this country.
Think of the Ten Commandments posted everywhere. Their law code. Not, if you want a really early law code, the Code of Urukagina (c. 2380 BCE), or the Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2050 BCE), or the well known Code of Hammurabi (c. 1790 BCE) but the Ten Commandments and only the Ten Commandments.
Just as only their creation myth must be taught in schools. Not any of the older myths concerning the creation of the world. Just as only the Bible must be taught in schools, not the Quran, not the Avesta. Not the sacred writings of any other religion. Science, where it contradicts the Bible, must be denigrated; the Bible privileged.
Even over the Constitution.
You get how this works: only their views matter. If we disagree, we are persecuting them.
In the ancient world, of course, this arrogant sense of self-importance meant that everybody had to be persecuting the Christians because of their paradigm-shattering arrival on the scene in first century Judaea. But just as with the claims of persecution, nothing could be further from the truth.
Christianity would have us believe that their religion exploded like a racehorse out of the gate onto the pages of history. This is not just fundamentalist history talking: this is the traditional tale we are all brought up to believe as Christians. It’s the Good News.
How could anyone have ignored it?
It is a comfortable myth. After all, another myth, that of the moral superiority of Christianity, depends upon but also justifies this belief. It is a circular argument but it’s the argument the Church has run with since the fourth century and they have gotten a lot of mileage out of it.
They continue to do so.
The more science proves religion unnecessary to morality and ethics, the more strident the claims that without Christianity society collapses.
Fundamentalist Christians are quite unable to imagine that not only Jesus, but Peter and James and especially Paul, all failed to make an immediate and tremendous impact on their world. Surely even Caesar in far away Rome was aware of the monumental changes taking place half a continent away. Surely the foundations of the very empire were shaken by the events taking place half a continent away?
Not so much.
But Christians wanted to believe this in the centuries to follow because if their religion was what they claimed it was, it had to be true: thus they invented such nonsense as the Paul-Seneca correspondence and the absurd fable of the emperor Tiberius’ conversion, in order to prove it; As Helmut Koester said, this was “history conforming to system.”
Which, of course, is David Barton’s game today.
The truth is, nobody in the ancient world seems even to have noticed. Philo, writing in nearby Alexandria noticed neither Jesus’ ministry nor death, nor the activities of his followers. Pliny the Elder, writing from Rome about Palestine, wrote about the Essenes but does not seem to have been aware at all that Jesus had lived or that his followers were spilling out of Jerusalem like a kicked-over ant hill.
Apologists always turn to the Acts of the Apostles. But one of the problems with accepting Acts with its wildly inflated conversion rates is that any cult growing so rapidly would certainly have attracted the notice of – someone, anyone; and as modern historian of the Church W.H.C. Frend admited, nobody did.
Fortuitously, the first century of our era was full of Roman historians and biographers, not to mention Jewish authors like Josephus. A Roman, Pliny, in his Natural History, written just a generation after Jesus died, devotes a section of his book to Palestine without so much as a mention of either Jesus or Christianity.
But he does make mention of the small sect of Essenes, who were not at all numerous in comparison to the claims made by Christianity for itself in Acts (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 5:70 and for mention of Essenes, 5:73).
If it was Christianity and not the Essenes who were attracting the thousands of converts Luke claims, why is it that the one attracts the notice of a Roman scholar and the other does not?
Neither is there an account of Jesus to be found in either Suetonius (c. 75-c.130) or Tacitus (c. 56-c.117). The Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BCE-65 CE), tutor to Nero, also failed to mention Jesus or the movement begun after his death by his disciples.
But we can also look closer to home, to Judaea’s near neighbor, Egypt. Philo, the great Jewish scholar of Alexandria – which must have had an early Christian community since the Apollos of Paul’s letters came from there – knows nothing about the Christians.
Yet Philo lived until c. 50 CE, beyond the point at which Paul had begun his missionary travels and long after the point at which any Christian community in Alexandria would have been established.
Had half or more of Jerusalem converted Philo would certainly have taken notice!
Instead, like Pliny, he discusses the Essenes and an obscure group called the Therapeutae, and even Pontius Pilate, but makes no mention of Jesus – an astounding oversight if we are to believe Christian propaganda about its own impact. This impact includes thousands of conversions in Jerusalem – Acts 2:41 gives us three thousand converts, and 21:20 ups the ante to “myriads” of converts among the Jews.
As German scholar Gerd Ludemann has helpfully pointed out, that is one baptism every 15 seconds over a 12-hour day!
Even closer to home, Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias, who lived in the second half of the first century, in surviving fragments of his works, make no mention of Jesus at all, or his followers, even though Justus himself, like Jesus, hailed from Galilee. Surely ifJustus had mentioned Jesus, the early Church, so hard pressed to justify its belief in its savior, would have preserved his writings, or at least quoted the relevant sections.
It did not, and the silence is deafening.
Finally we come to Flavius Josephus (37-100), the famous Jewish historian who was a contemporary of Justus (and his enemy). Josephus is often referred to by Christians as providing proof of Jesus’ existence, since in his famous Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities 18.3.3, he mentions Jesus. But this passage is much disputed and scholars generally feel that at least part of it, if not the whole thing, is un-genuine.
One of the many (excellent) arguments against the validity of the Testimonium is that no single Christian author before Eusebius in the fourth century makes mention of it, no matter how valuable such a resource would have been in making their case before the emperor and Pagan intellectuals like Celsus (who observed, by the way, that “at the start of their movement, they were very few in number”).
This list of silent apologists includes Justin Martyr (d. 165), Irenaeus (d. 202), Clement of Alexandria (d. circa 211-216), Tertullian (d. 230), Origen (d. 251), Cyprian (a well educated former pagan who died in 258), and Arnobius (d. 330). Jerome (d.420) who preserved for us what we have of Arnobius fails to mention him making any use of a Testimonium of Josephus, despite his writing an apology in seven books c. 303.
It is the notoriously unreliable and noted forger Eusebius alone to whom we owe our first reference to the Testimonium. Unsurprisingly, it has been suggested by some scholars that it was Eusebius himself who wrote the Testimonium.
But even if it is assumed to be genuine, Josephus, who otherwise closely examines the various Jewish sects, including the Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees, presents us with no such study of Christianity, which to judge from Acts must have dwarfed both the Sadducees and Essenes in sheer numbers of adherents.
Having grown up in Palestine in this period, one would expect him to have some familiarity with Christianity but we get in the Testimonium only a mention of the “tribe of Christians.”
Fortunately, scholars tend to deal more with facts that with wishful thinking. The wild claims in Acts (2:14-41 and 3) of conversions of three thousand and five thousand Jews respectively (and 21:20 ups the ante to “myriads” of converts among the Jews) cause Ehrman to quip, “At this rate, there won’t be any non-Christians left in town.”
Gerd Ludemann also questions these outrageous claims, citing not only the improbability of 10% of Jerusalem’s population converting in a single day but also the logistics of baptizing so large a number. As Ludemann points out, that is one baptism every 15 seconds over a 12-hour day (Gerd Ludemann, Acts of the Apostles, 56).
Fundamentalist Christians need to understand that the world did not begin with them and it will not end with them. In the absence of Mosaic law, the world got along just fine. It will get along just fine without Mosaic law because morality has scientific, not religious, origins. They see themselves as that essential ingredient that not only makes society possible but holds it together and they cannot grasp the possibility of a world without them.
But just as nobody noticed their arrival on the scene, nobody would notice their leaving. Except that it would be a lot quieter. And how nice would that be?