Religious historian Selina O’Grady discusses her new book And Man Created God, about Christianity’s unlikely rise from small sect to spiritual superpower.
Zola: What led you to write such a thorough history of the world in the decades surrounding Christ’s life and death?
Selina O’Grady: I think religion has a fundamental place in our society—it always has and always will. My book tries to explain why by looking at the needs religion fulfills for both rulers and ruled. What better period to study this than at the time of the birth of the religion we in the West know best, Christianity?
I look at why Christianity developed from a tiny cult—which at the time of Jesus’s death had only about 100 followers, and which was competing against far more popular religions—into a religion adopted by the Roman Empire. Although I concentrate on the development of the “Jesus cult,” I also look at the role religion played in the other major empires of the time and why religion and empire made the particular pairings they did—Confucianism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent—and why this didn’t happen in the Parthian (Persian) Empire, the most chaotic empire of them all.
Zola: You write that Apollonius of Tyana was a contemporary of Jesus Christ, and that his cult was much, much more popular than Christ’s during their lifetimes. Why do you think Christ’s religion, as developed through Paul, became the biggest religion on earth while Appollonius’s disappeared completely?
SO: Why Jesus “won” is one of the fundamental questions of my book. Apollonius performed miracles and was said to have appeared after his death to a doubting disciple. But Apollonius was not the only one. Jesus had many other competitors—lots of self-proclaimed Messiahs in Galilee, as well as probably the most popular of all the cults at the time, the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis.
I think Christianity’s success had a lot to do with the way it fulfilled the needs of rulers and ruled at a time of particular disruption—what I would see as the first phase of globalisation. The pax Romana, just like the pax Americana today, allowed trade to flourish, which meant vast new trading cities. Thousands of people were flocking into these cities every day from all over the Empire and beyond—Egyptian men in their pigtails, bandy-legged Britons (who weren’t considered very attractive), Syrians, and so on. All these people were leaving their tribes, village and customs behind—they desperately needed a new community and a new set of rules to live by. In the Roman Empire, Christianity provided these better than any other religious rival.
But I don’t think it would ever have succeeded had it not been for Paul. I think Paul was the greatest marketer a religion has ever had. He turned a small cult that was only intended for Jews into a universal religion that was open to Gentiles as well as Jews—and, by the way, Paul got into a lot of trouble with the apostles, especially Jesus’s brother James, for doing so.
Paul told all those strangers with their different languages, clothes and traditions that what they all had in common was their uniqueness as individuals; that god loved them precisely because of that uniqueness. That idea potentially allayed the mistrust and loathing that all the differing peoples drawn to the cities from around the empire felt for each other. And the message that all men were equal in the sight of god had a particular appeal for the new “class” of merchants that was springing up thanks to the boom in trade, who found themselves with wealth but no status, despised by the landed aristocracy.
Paul was a brilliant theologian and a superb missionary. Jesus had confined his preaching to villages and small fishing towns. Paul preached exclusively in the cities—to the people who really needed his message. The small house churches he set up in Greece and around the Near East created new tightly-knit communities modelled on the family. Paul called his converts “brothers” and “sisters”: he created a new family for those who had lost their old ones when they migrated to the cities.
Paul kept an eye on all his house churches through his passionate—loving as well as critical—letters. This method allowed each church to be autonomous while also observing Paul’s guidelines; it meant that Christianity spread virally—it spread because it appealed to people, rather than being something that was imposed from above and for that reason commanded more loyalty and commitment.
Zola: And Man Created God opens with the premise that none of the five “world religions” would ever have come to be without the creation of massive, ancient cities with their diverse populations and trade routes. Later, it proposes that Jesus would never have been executed had he not eventually preached in some of these cities. What is the connection between these two ideas?
SO: I think the massive disruption of traditions and communities caused by trade and the cities they created had a major impact on the development of religions. Jesus had confined his preaching to villages and small fishing towns. One of the keys to the eventual success of Paul’s Christianity was precisely that Paul preached exclusively in the cities. That was where people needed his universalized version of the Jesus cult most.
Paul’s Christianity engendered a strong sense of commitment from its followers. But a religion which does that, especially a religion whose God is monotheistic and therefore prohibits the worship of any other god, poses a threat to secular power. Followers of such religions worship a power which they believe is superior to that of the emperor and this applied as much to religious Jews as later to Christians.
Amongst religious Jews the most threatening to the Roman state were those who claimed to be the Messiah, because at the time of Jesus the Messiah was increasingly seen to be not just a religious but also a political figure who would overthrow Roman rule in Palestine. Jesus was always ambivalent or ambiguous about whether he was the Messiah, but his followers certainly claimed he was. That made him a political agitator in the eyes of the Roman authorities; as a result he was charged with sedition and crucified—the usual form of execution for the common criminal.
Zola: How did the invention of Imperial Roman Emperor-worship started by Augustus and carried on by his family influence the development of Christianity?
SO: Like every state, Rome needed a religion—it was the best way of creating loyal, obedient subjects. Augustus, with the help of his brilliant spin doctors—his wife Livia, the aristocratic Maecenas, and the man of the people, Agrippa—manufactured their own religion, the cult of the divine emperor, but it was too political, too tied to the person of the emperor, to be really successful.
Though it was initially distrusted by Rome, Christianity worked far better as an imperial religion than the imperial cult. Christianity made good Roman subjects. Jesus’s “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” was music to an emperor’s ears. In the temporal world you obeyed temporal authority; in the spiritual world you obeyed God’s. Paul went even further: obey temporal authority because it is God-given. In Paul’s day the mistreated slave could go to the temple or synagogue to seek redress; the mistreated slave who went to Paul was told to return to his master: he would get his redress in the next world but in this one he must obey his master. Furthermore, Christianity told the poor and lowly that their status was noble and that they would be recompensed in the afterlife. It was a wonderful recipe for creating a non-rebellious, obedient Roman subject.
But, of course, Pauline Christianity also had within it the seeds of a revolutionary creed. The Christian separation of the spiritual from the temporal world seemed to be a way to create subjects who would obey both the state and the dictates of god. But since the authority of god was considered obviously superior to that of the state, the way was open for the church to criticize the state, as indeed it would do. Furthermore, by giving such emphasis to the preciousness of every individual, by asserting the equality of every human in having that unique individuality, Pauline Christianity can be seen as paving the way not just for the struggles for egalitarianism and human rights, but also for the me-generation and its successors who are happy to assert the primacy of the individual’s need for satisfaction over any obedience to authority—spiritual or temporal.
Zola: Outside of the New Testament, the Jewish historian Josephus is one of the very few near-contemporaries of Jesus who ever so much as wrote down his name, and you write that many scholars believe those mentions were later added by Christian editors to bolster the evidence that Jesus was an actual person. What historical evidence is there that the man called Jesus Christ was an individual who had a ministry and was crucified, rather than being an amalgamation of the many would-be Jewish saviors preaching in Judea in the first century A.D.?
SO: Almost all modern scholars agree that Jesus existed, that he was baptised by John the Baptist, and that he was crucified. That agreement is based on the evidence from non-Christian sources, not just Josephus but the Roman historian Tacitus; their evidence supports both the accounts in Paul’s letters and in the gospels. Josephus’s references to Jesus are considered to be authentic although it is not clear how much they were subject to later Christian amendment.
Scholars, however, do disagree over most other details of Jesus’s life, including the actual date of his birth—but then so do the gospel writers: Matthew and Luke disagree over not just the date but the place where Jesus’s family were living before his birth, Luke going for Nazareth, Matthew for Bethlehem.
Zola: If Christ was a real person, how do you think he would feel about his church in Rome today?
SO: I think he might feel that, like so many institutions, the Vatican has become more concerned to preserve itself than to further the ideals for which it was originally created.
But also he might feel that history was repeating itself. We tend to think that the current civil war between Catholic conservatives and liberals is a relatively new phenomenon that began in the sixties with Vatican II and the me-generation. Actually, it has been at the heart of Christianity since its beginnings under Paul. Thanks to him, the Jesus cult split into two factions—the traditionalist faction, led by Jesus’ brother James, and the liberal faction, led by Paul. The traditionalists saw themselves as good Jews wanting to purify the Jewish religion rather than break away from it. Paul believed Jesus’ message should be open to Gentiles as well as Jews; obedience to Jewish law, which for religious Jews was the very heart of their religion, was therefore no longer essential: the only important thing was love.
Paul is vilified by so many of today’s liberals as an anti-woman traditionalist, but he is in fact the inspiration for many of the alternative Catholic churches which are springing up in America, like the American National Catholic Church. It explicitly states that, in accepting homosexuality, in ordaining women, including lesbians, gay men, and married people, it is simply carrying through the full meaning of Paul’s ringing statement of inclusion: “There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Just as Catholic liberals do today, Paul believed that he was carrying out what Jesus had truly intended. He was interpreting Jesus’ message, admittedly, but faithfully interpreting it. Peter—Jesus’ appointed successor—was a traditionalist who tried and failed to conciliate the two factions. The two split irrevocably and Peter went with the radicals to form the Christian church. I think that today’s Pope Francis might preside over a similar split though this time, unlike Peter, he may side with the traditionalists.
Zola: So much research went into this book, so many works cited. What are some essential must-reads for anyone who wants to dig further into the history of religion and the Roman Empire?
SO: That is so hard, because there is such a wealth of fascinating reading, modern and ancient.
As far as modern works are concerned, I would recommend Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price’s Religions of Rome, Vol. 1; Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries; Wayne Meeks’ The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul.
As for the ancient historians, for wonderfully gossipy accounts of the Roman emperors, I would recommend Suetonius; for more thought-provoking historical analysis, I would go for Tacitus.
But what I personally found the most exciting and the most revealing of the change in religious sensibility from Roman to Christian was Virgil’s Aeneid.