Christianity and the Roman Empire, a Book Review

As I do background research for my longer term writing project, I decided it would be a useful side exercise to provide snapshot reviews of various resources that I digest along the way.

I picked up a paperback copy of “Christianity and the Roman Empire”, by  Ralph Martin Novak, at Half Price Books a week ago. It offers a substantial volume of well-chosen textual excerpts from historians and writers taken from the period of the Roman Empire, such as Tacitus, Josephus, Seutonius, Justin Martyr, and so on. Novak provides excellent commentary and discussion throughout as a scholar of Roman History with an education from University of Chicago. His presentation is objective and presents material critical of both the Roman and Christian players involved. The chronological arrangement allows the reader to see how views and policies shifted over time. [Read more…]

On Martyrs and the Religious Impulse

Stoning of StephenThe great mistake is to assume that the early followers of Jesus had a reasonable basis for their faith, and that they would not have put themselves at hazard over a mistaken or dubious belief. We reflexively take too flattering a view of our shared human nature.

The broader history of religion offers manifold instances of martyrs sipping the bitter cup over complete falsehoods. One might even conclude that the presence of a martyrdom tradition was actually a mark against the validity of Christianity, placing it squarely in the company of myriad cults, equally bereft of truth but ever eager to slaughter animals, to self-castrate, to sacrifice children, and to die in the service of the non-existent and the false. Fervent religious zeal and false beliefs make strange but steady bedfellows in the history of faith.

One might even conclude that the presence of a martyrdom tradition was actually a mark against the validity of Christianity…

We resist admitting the fact that we are but semi-rational creatures where religion is concerned, and that people invent the oddest beliefs imaginable for themselves and for one another without recognizing that they have done so. Our wishing minds have proven reliably willing to perish over a rumor believed. In this lies an answer to all the riddles, for there stands a yawning gap between the miraculous events contained within the gospel accounts – resurrections and earthquakes and darkness and the dead emptying their tombs – and the complete silence of the pagan and Jewish records of the time. So it is for the miraculous events in Islam or Mormonism. These gulfs mirror the chasm between our reasoning faculties and our religious impulses. Reconciling the disparity requires a humbler view of our own nature, but it is an explanation which leaves no remainder.

Martyrdom is evidence only of belief, and belief is not an evidence of anything.

As a Matter of Fact

The entire discussion of Christian apologetics would be greatly served if there was a clearer appreciation of a critical distinction: that of (1) facts and (2) contentions.

  1. Fact: A fact is something that has really occurred or is actually the case. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is whether it can be proven to correspond to experience. (ref)
  2. Contention: a point contended for or affirmed in controversy. (ref)

The subtle trick of apologetics is get that rubber stamp out: labelling contentions as facts is job one. We do not like doubt. When in doubt, stamp it!

A Recent Comment

One of my commenters recently posted the following:

The foundation of the Christian religion is not in fuzzy emotions or the logical coherence of its theology, but in a historical event: the resurrection; that it occurred, that there were many eyewitnesses to it, and that many of those eyewitnesses died attesting to it.

I formerly believe and said exactly the same thing. But is the resurrection a fact, or a contention? [Read more…]

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My freedom from spiritual abuse happened when I walked away from the abusers. My healing and recovery from the complex trauma of spiritual abusers, spiritually abusive faith and toxic religion happened while I was still a Christian and continues to this day. My deconversion came later after many many years of studying the Bible, Christian apologetics, cults and spiritual abuse. When I realized that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God, the only honest thing I could do was to stop calling myself a Christian. What I write here, may be very different from what I’ve written in the past. It might also be repeats of the past themes. ~ Zoe

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