Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus (Part Five)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Diego Velázquez WikiMedia CCO

Christianity appeals to the ignorant and foolish.

The ancient world was a world in submission, the masses to the ruling class, youths to adults, women to men, soldiers to their commanders, slaves to their masters, and households to the whims and caprice of the paterfamilias. Jesus’ own preaching assumes as much—Jesus often refers to the “master of the house,” the oikodespothj (oikodespotēs)(1) or “house despot,” a title “redolent with hegemonic assumptions about masculine identity.”(2) The lord and master of the house can do as he pleases with what belongs to him(3) just as the rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over” their subjects and the great among them “exercise dominion.”(4) We can scarcely imagine the festering resentment among the immiserated Jewish peasantry in Roman occupied Palestine, a fury so intense that it contributed to no less than three wars between the Jews and Romans.(5)

Roman law and governance discouraged arrivistes who sought to advance to positions of control—“It was out of the question for a poor man to serve. For a start, he could not have afforded the entry fee.”(6) Rome was effectively a slave society in which sons followed the trade of their fathers as in the case of Jesus himself. The villagers of Nazareth ask, “Isn’t this the laborer, the son of Mary (Ouc outoj estin o tektwn, o uioj thj Mariaj) and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren’t his sisters here among us?”(7) Matthew rephrases the question to avoid making Jesus out to be a mere laborer: “Isn’t this the son of the laborer…? (Ouc outoj estin o tou tektonoj uioj).”(8) The gospel writers were clearly anxious to buff Jesus’ thin résumé with fabricated, incompatible infancy narratives as well as to deemphasize his humble beginnings.

That Jesus cast his teachings—that so far as we know were strictly oral, never written—in the form of parables points to a lack of formal education: “For centuries, the Jews had no schools or higher education: significantly, proverbs had flourished, the symptom of societies where limited education imposes the traditional and conventional expression of opinion, wisdom and sentiment …By most people the words of the holy law were still heard but not seen …Among the rabbis, we find that parables tend to begin from a biblical text: in the Gospels Jesus never begins a parable from quoted scripture.”(9)

The Jewish religious leadership, headquartered in Jerusalem, represented the outlook of the elite; “Jesus’ teaching, however, like that of John [the Baptist], was directed to the Palestinian countryside and his main support came from the ‘crowds,’ that is, unlettered country folk.”(10) “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the lawthere is a curse on them.”(11)

As Christianity progressed, Roman society regressed, becoming increasingly calcified with the result that a mass of the permanently poor lived far below the upper crust of the immensely rich. Though the ruling class dismissed the new cult and its membership as yet another bizarre oriental import beneath contempt, the stratification of Roman society and the hopelessness that resulted provided the perfect environment for Christianity to flourish and spread its dominion. The poverty of the masses proved an environment in which religion generally flourished—as Marx said, “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people…The demand to give up the illusions about [the people’s] condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions.”(12) However, given the florid blood-and-guts apocalypticism of American fundamentalists, we might consider revising Marx’s statement to read, “Religion is the peyote trip of the particularly dim.”

It has been estimated that about 90% of the population in the first century was completely illiterate(13) and the New Testament specifically states of Peter and John that they were agrammatoj (agrammatos), “without letters,”(14) unable to read or write—Peter even betrays himself to the Judean authorities by his rustic Galilean accent.(15) Since Jesus’ closest disciples were predominantly men who worked with their hands, an inability to read and write would have been completely in keeping with their circumstances, a point conceded by the Christian apologist Origen who admitted, “…they had not received even the rudiments of learning (mhde ta prwta grammata memaqhkotaj) even as the gospel records about them.”(16) Origen also reports Celsus’ charge that Christians were known their “utter lack of education” (amaqestatouj) and “abysmal ignorance” (apaideutotatouj), and that they gained converts by misdirection: “they set traps for complete yokels” (paleuomen de touj agroikoterouj).(17)

Both Celsus and Galen observed “that Christians relied on faith without proof. This was indeed the case. The uneducated were attracted in great numbers to the church, and they were assured that ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men.’”(18) It has been posited that there were as few as 420 literate Christians at the beginning of the 2nd century, and as few as 42 “fluent and skilled literates” in Christian communities empire-wide,(19) which would go some way toward explaining why Christian apologetic works appear so late. It is also likely that the majority of Christians in the early church were illiterate as evidenced by the custom of reading texts aloud.(20) Even in cities, literacy could not be assumed: “It was possible to be a town councillor, a curialis, in a major city and yet to be illiterate.”(21)

Early Christian converts were mostly laborers, slaves and women, members of groups with very low rates of literacy. Making a virtue of necessity, Paul openly acknowledged that proclaiming “Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,”(22) opened Christians to charges that they were dullards and dupes, an uncultured nullity.

Consider your own calling, brothers, that not many are wise in accordance with the flesh, or many powerful, or many well-born, but God chose the world’s fools to shame the wise, and God chose the world’s weak to shame the strong, and God chose the world’s low-born and contemptible, the nobodies (ta mh onta), so that he might overthrow the somebodies (ta onta).(23)

“Not many” in this case evidently meant “precious few.” Early Roman critics such as Celsus clearly considered gullibility and ignorance to be notable Christian attributes, “to believe without reason.”(24) In his biography of the religious huckster Peregrinus, the satirist Lucian described the Christians as  idiwtaij anqrwpoij (idiōtais anthrōpois), “ill-informed men,”(25) impressionable rubes eager to believe and easily misled—“He does not scruple…to call the Christians idiōtai, a word which was then applied by the philosophers to those whom they regarded as incapable of elevated thought.”(26) Lucian mocked the “half-baked philosophers drawn from cobblers and carpenters” (autoscedioi filosofoi ek skutotomwn h tektonwn)(27) possibly a gibe aimed at Jesus himself. Gathered in private homes, often supported by women, “wool carders and cobblers and fullers (skutotomouj kai knafeij) and the most uneducated and biggest gaggle of yokels”(28) constituted the Christian mob. In essence, Christianity redefined truth. Or in the words of Charles Pierce, discussing the fundamentalist fascination with creationism, “Fact is merely what enough people believe, and truth lies only in how fervently they believe it.”(29)