Sunday, March 06, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 4

51YyKVMJh L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We are continuing to read through Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. I am making a post on each chapter as I read them. Previous posts are here, here, here and here. Each chapter is long so what you are getting here is a very brief summary of this very important book. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Chapter 4 is entitled A Cock For Asclepius: ‘Religion’ and ‘Culture’ in Paul’s World. The subject here is the pagan religious background of Paul’s world. It was a world in which philosophy and religion were closely tied together. Though the gods were quite diverse, practice was regulated for the good of society. Their mythology defined who they were as a people and the practices bound them together.


Older attempts to describe ancient religion in such a way as to lead the eye up naturally to Christianity (whether in sharp contrast or as the pinnacle of a progressive revelation) are matched, in their propensity to distort the subject-matter, by newer attempts to paint Christianity as the repressive, dogmatic, ideological force which squelched the fascinating, free-floating cultural phenomena of the ancient world into a monochrome, rigidly policed but hollow uniformity. Despite what is sometimes claimed, however, ancient religion—even if we ignore its darker sides—was scarcely an ‘open’ or ‘tolerant’ system. Such a suggestion seems to be itself be a further projection, this time of a modern pluralist protest against Christian (or other) dogmatism. 247–248

What we can call, loosely and heuristically, the ‘religion’ of Paul’s world was not set apart from the rest of ancient culture. On the contrary: it was its beating heart, with every part of the body politic related to that heart by active and throbbing blood vessels. If the world was full of gods, the world was also therefore full of religion, full of cult; full of a god-soaked culture. 254

The Roman world of Paul’s day was “rooted in” and “shaped by” Greek culture and religion. There were multiple deities who provided prosperity and protection in the various spheres of life. Images resided in the local temples as places of worship and home for the god or goddess. This would result in benefits for the city. The gods would provide guidance through prophets, oracles, omens and signs. Mystery religions, like Mithraism, with secret meetings and ecstatic experiences, were also an option to Romans.

The absence of ‘sacred texts’ in the latter sense within ancient paganism is one of many fascinating differences between the common life of the ancient world and the message and worldview which Paul the apostle was commending. 263

The world of Paul was thus, already, a world full of ‘religious’ options. 265

The Roman gods were the focal point of Roman culture. But the gods of the conquered nations were also brought into and included in the pantheon and changed into Roman gods that reflected Roman cultural values. Rome itself, was considered sacred space and the religious leaders were very influential.

And with Rome—not least with her soldiers—went the Roman divinities. ‘Rome’s success was the gods’ success.’ As Hegel already suggested, some kind of syncretism might well be part of the imperial package: the Romans did their best to ‘assemble all gods and spirits in the pantheon of world domination in order to transform them into an abstract and shared entity. 269

‘Religion’ may not be ultimately the best category for describing or analyzing what Paul was doing, or what he thought he was doing. But it is certainly a key and basic element in what his contemporaries will have seen him doing and heard him saying. And with ‘religion’, in all of these complex senses, we are dealing with what today we might call ‘the fabric of society’, the things which held people together and gave shape and meaning to their personal and corporate life. 274

For the Roman, religious belief and practice was part of everything they did. Certain parts of their “religion” were very regulated, but there was room for all kinds of other beliefs and practices as long as they did not threaten the Roman way.

But it is important to stress at that very point that whereas indeed for Christians, starting with Paul, ‘belief’, and in particular belief about who ‘God’ really was, took centre stage, this had never been the case for the Greeks and the Romans. For them, religio was something you did: ‘even the idea of personal “belief” (to us, a self-evident part of religious experience) provides a strikingly inappropriate model for understanding the religious experience of early Rome.’ 276

The Christians, from the start, behaved not as a new variety of pagan religion but as a new and strange variety of Judaism, though with the added puzzle (for the watching world) that while the Jews (like everybody else) offered animal sacrifices the Christians did not. 278

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