Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should properly be orgnanised, and the principles that it should uphold – were not bred of antiquity, still less of ‘human nature,’ but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
Tom Holland was raised in a Christian family, and attended Christian Sunday School – until he asked the teacher about a picture of Adam and Eve with dinosaurs. The lack of an answer – not even a bad answer, but any answer – convinced him that Christianity offered little value.
Ancient Rome and Greece – these grabbed his attention, and his heart. Yet, the more he studied antiquity, the more he came to feel alien to it. Eugenics, young trained in the art of murder, Caesar, celebrated for killing a million Gauls and enslaving a million more. None of this offered a modern liberal anything to cheer.
He has told the story often: having written a less-than-flattering history of the birth of Islam, he was challenged by a Muslim to do the same regarding his own religion. What do you mean, my religion? In any case, he dove into the history of Christianity, and found it told his story far more than he ever thought.
How was it that a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire came to exercise such a transformative and enduring influence on the world?
How did we in the West become as we are? Even as the West has disposed of Christianity, it is Christianity that is seen throughout – Holland has described the culture wars of the West as a Christian civil war. Many arguments made by those clamoring for social justice (in today’s bastardized sense of the term) are based on not-quite-complete Christian arguments. Try making those same arguments in ancient Rome….
Yet, many in the West are reluctant to contemplate this foundation. We see it even in the new atheists – arguing for Christian ethics while pretending that Christianity had (or has) nothing to do with these.
He begins with a look at ancient Athens – to set some sort of foundation. The many gods, the many sacrifices and offerings; would something sacrifice be overlooked? Further, what kind of gods were these?
The gods, inscrutable and whimsical as they were, rarely deigned to explain themselves. They certainly never thought to regulate morals. The oracle at Delphi might offer advice, but not ethical instruction.
An examination of democracy at the time: ‘Such a mob should never rank as citizens,’ quoting Aristotle. The most accomplished kings, or Caesars would be celebrated a lord and savior. A Graeco-Egyptian god invented to merge Greek and Egyptian in Alexandria.
There was something called natural law – but nothing like that which has come to be identified post-Christianity. While recognizing the spark of the divine in each individual, they nevertheless found that the spark in some was more valuable in the eyes of the gods than the spark in others.
The siege of Jerusalem, 63 B.C. The locals knew they were doomed, at the wrong end of Pompey’s battering rams. Twelve thousand lay dead; Roman casualties were light. Not like Jerusalem was a great prize: distant from the sea; a “backwater.” Besides, the locals had some strange customs: circumcision, the refusal to eat pork, they rested every seventh day – a reality that Pompey took full advantage of when preparing for the siege.
Worst of all, they paid no respect to any god other than their God. Throughout the siege, the priests continued their work in the Temple. Until they were also slaughtered. Deep within, a chamber – even the high priest could only enter once a year. Pompey wanted to see it.
The Temple, on the site where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac. What was in the hidden chamber? Nothing. No statue, no image. Only a bare block of stone – meant for the Ark that was lost centuries earlier. Pompey did not strip the Temple of its resources. He ordered the remaining custodians to cleanse it, and permitted them to resume their daily sacrifices.
Of course, most Jews lived elsewhere – outside of the Promised Land; many remained in Babylon after the captivity. But they remained Jews. Far from the Temple, the five scrolls would be translated into Greek – the Pentateuch. This would aid in remembering and training.
Babylon was a great empire, and a great city. Far grander than the backwater of Jerusalem. Why return? But their god, Marduk: he did not create the heavens and earth from nothing – he needed to split a dragon in two, creating all from her corpse.
The Jews, as was the case throughout their history, turned to their God for answers. They often strayed, and they often reaped the bitter harvest. Assyrians, Babylonians, now Romans. A Jewish sage, Jesus Ben Sirah had the answer: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.”
They had strayed often, and were punished often. Abandon the worship of God, and this was the return. In any case, Job received no answer as to why he was punished so cruelly. Why would the Jews expect better? What they would not entertain was the idea that God was author of both chaos and order. All His works serve order.
In any case, Pompey would soon enough receive divine punishment. Roman civil war, Julius Caesar his replacement. From the Psalms of Solomon: “He had failed to recognise that God alone is great.” This God made a covenant with Israel – Israel’s God did not merely witness treaties; He obligated Himself to one.
In the meantime, Judea was under the Roman yoke. Perhaps necessary…
Perhaps, far from speaking of God’s anger, the absorption of the Jews into the universal empire ruled by Augustus signaled something very different: the immanent fulfillment of his plan for all humankind.
Well, it seems to have worked out that way.
It is a very large book, over 540 pages not counting endnotes and such. Twenty-one chapters; I have covered two thus far. This will be a long-term project.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.