e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

>A Scholarly Assessment of Early Christianity, Part Three


“God and his Logos on one side and evil demons on the other.”

[Here is another excerpt from J.B. Rives’ essay Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology. For the full citation see Part One of this series. The image at the top of this post is from illustrator Christian Kaeppke, who was inspired by Stanislav Lem’s The Star Diaries.]

C. Totalization

…. In most early Christian texts we can see a single totalizing view of the cosmos, a sort of master narrative that ordered all the different modes of interaction with the divine, rapidly taking shape. This totalizing world-view left no room for myth, philosophy, and cult as separate theologies, since anything that concerned the relationship of humans to the divine had, in order to be true, to flow from and reflect that basic understanding of the cosmos. A crucial element in this world view, I would suggest, was the dualism of cosmic good and evil: everything either came from God or was set in opposition to him. As I have already argued, it was this cosmic dualism that gave the Christian ideologies of exclusivity and homogeneity their peculiar force: in both contexts, the alternative views appeared not simply as erroneous or unsatisfactory, but as expressions of cosmic evil. Moreover, the ultimate fate of individuals was likewise correlated with this cosmic dualism, since those who sided with evil would be condemned to eternal death and destruction, whereas those who sided with good would be saved ….

In the earliest texts this insistence is more a practical expression of authority assumed by Christian leaders than a formulated ideal. In 1Corinthians, for example, Paul deals with a quite astonishing array of moral, cultic, philosophical, and community issues: divisions within the community (1:10-17 and 3:1-9), social and sexual morality (5), lawsuits among Christians (6:1-11), marriage and celibacy (7), the eating of food from traditional sacrifices (8 and 10:14-29), the dress of women during worship (11:2-16) …. Paul claims the right to pronounce on this range of issues because of his authority over the community, an authority based not on an ideology but on personal and charismatic factors …. But if Paul’s pronouncements in this letter are based on his claim to personal authority, we can nevertheless discern in it a nascent form of a totalizing ideal that was soon to become discrete. On the one hand, the very fact that Paul pronounces on so wide a range of issues illustrates the totalizing ambitions that an early Christian leader would have. On the other hand, he also refers in passing to the anchoring dualism of good an evil, salvation and condemnation: for example, ‘the doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God’ (1:18) …. While the letter as a whole is grounded in his claims to personal authority, it can in a sense be seen as setting the stage for later developments.

We encounter a more developed form of Christian totalization in the Didache, whose author was composing a handbook of general instruction rather than asserting his personal authority over a particular community. The first part of the work presents a version of the ‘Two Ways’, a concise and explicit formulation of cosmic dualism and its implications for human existence: ‘there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and a great difference between the two ways’ (Did. 1.1). The author elaborates on this theme through a series of exhortations that are mostly moral but partly cultic: augury, for example, is forbidden because it leads to idolatry (3.4). After the initial presentation of this fundamental dualism, the author then proceeds to discuss the proper forms of rituals (7-10), the ways that a community can distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ itinerant prophets (11-13), and the observance of the Lord’s Day and the regulation of the community (14-15), before closing with a short apocalyptic section that returns to the dualistic theme in the form of salvation and condemnation (16) ….

As Christian leaders began to engage more closely with the Graeco-Roman tradition, they began to articulate their totalizing ideology in more precise and explicit terms. A crucial figure in this development is Justin, who insistently depicts Christianity as an alternative to both traditional cult and traditional philosophy; indeed, for Justin the two are effectively identical, since they are both grounded in the same cosmic reality. A particularly instructive passage occurs near the opening of his First Apology. Roman officials, he argues, persecute Christians because they yield to unreasoning passions and to the instigation of demons, the same demons who terrorized people into treating them as gods. When Socrates attempted by means of true reason to deliver people from their sway, the demons roused their followers to condemn him to death. But the same reason that operated among the Greeks through Socrates, and among the barbarians as well, actually took human form as Jesus Christ, and taught his followers to reject the sway of demons (1 Apol. 5). Justin thus presents a system in which philosophy and cult have merged completely: the divine savior of the Christians is the embodiment of the same divine reason that the great philosophers had honored. Consequently, issues of right and wrong, good and bad, are not simply matters for philosophical debate but are grounded in the nature of the cosmos, with God and his Logos on one side and evil demons on the other. It is within this framework that all questions of cultic practice and philosophical belief must be ordered.

An increasing self-awareness of their distinctive totalizing view of the world on the part of Christian leaders resulted in increasingly sophisticated critiques of the Graeco-Roman tradition to which they set themselves in opposition. Lactantius, in his Divine Institutes, provides a particularly striking example. Having devoted the first two books to a critique of traditional philosophy, he opens the fourth book by arguing that their failure resulted ultimately from their lack of connection with one another: ‘since, as I have said, philosophy and the cult of the gods have been dissociated and kept far apart, inasmuch as some are teachers of wisdom, through whom there can of course be no approach to the gods, and others are leaders of cult, through whom wisdom is not taught, it is clear that the former is not true wisdom and the latter not true cult. Consequently, neither can philosophy attain the truth nor the cult of the gods render an account of itself, which it lacks (Div. inst. 4.3.4-5). To be true, worship must be grounded in a correct understanding of the cosmos, and philosophy must be fulfilled in worship: ‘but where wisdom is conjoined with cult in an inseparable bond, each must necessarily be true, because we cought both in worship to be wise, that is to know what and how we should worship, and in wisdom to worship, that is to fulfill in actual deed what we know’ (4.3.6). This situation, according to Lactantius, is found only in Christianity, where ‘the teachers of wisdom are the same as the priests of God.’ (4.3.7) The multiplicity of approaches to the divine that was simply a given of the Graeco-Roman tradition has thus become for Lactantius a proof of its falseness and, conversely, of the truth of Christianity ….

The totalizing claims of Christian leaders were … not completely alien to the Graeco-Roman tradition, as indeed they could not have been if they were to have any effect.

Christian leaders, however, made these claims into the fundamental basis of a new ideology in a way that no previous group had. In the Graeco-Roman tradition, differences in practice and belief were normally neutral, the reflections of different theologies or different ethnic traditions or different philosophies. Some groups might have disdained the traditions of other groups …. But the lack of a rigorous and widely accepted totalizing framework precluded the sort of absolutism that characterized the thought of early Christian leaders ….

Totalization was thus a precondition for Christian homogeneity, just as homogeneity was a precondition for exclusivity …. Totalization was also a precondition of the distinctive type of religious leadership that played so important a role in the definition and expansion of Christianity …. In the Graeco-Roman tradition, the absence of a single discrete and unified approach to the divine meant that there could be no ‘religious leaders’ per se [Rives here means ‘religious leaders’ in a narrow sense that only applies to the leaders of Christianity, so what he has just said is blatantly tautological]. There was instead a wide range of figures who in different ways functioned as authorities on the divine world: poets, philosophers, civic priests and magistrates, antiquarians, diviners, oracle-mongers, and free-lance ritual experts of all sorts. [Rives is just plain wrong about this tidy compartmentalization of traditional Paganism, which I will discuss in future posts.] Because of their diversity, no one of these groups could claim unique access to the divine: context was always crucial. Yet because Christianity was at once a philosophy, a cult, and a community, Christian leaders could take the place of the entire range of traditional authorities, and so monopolize access to the divine among adherents of the Christian god: they alone possessed a true knowledge of the divine world, they alone could distinguish the right path from the wrong, they alone could mediate the power of the god. It was this monopoly over access to the divine that gave Christian leaders the authority needed to transform simple adherence to the Christian god into participation in this new ideology.

[I feel that Rives’ analysis goes off the tracks, and in more ways than one, when he introduces all this pomo blather about “totalization” in this section of his paper. There is a point to be made here, but Rives mostly fails to make it, and to the limited extent that he succeeds in making the point, he fails to make it well. Totalizing, schmotalizing. Stick to English and leave the jargonizing obfuscations to other. I will soon post some of my own analysis of this paper, and, more generally, my thoughts on the severe limitations of all modern professional scholarship with respect to the study of Pagan history and the closely related subject of Christianization.]

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