Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Primitive Was Rome?

It is claimed that Christianity was believed because it originated in a primitive age. Now the Roman Empire did not have our technological advances. But it seems unlikely that one's level of technology protects from credulity. Looking at what is found in supermarket tabloids and certain emails, I doubt we are immune from false information. Technology seems to mean that both bad and good information is carried at a faster speed. But otherwise were the Romans more primitive than we are?

They had philosophies that claimed to explain how the world worked. One of the earliest criticisms of Christianity was by Galen, who said that miracles were contrary to natural law. Granted, their understanding of the laws was different from ours, but they had the concept. The idea that people believed in miracles because they did not know the laws of nature does not stand up to examination. The very idea of a miracle presupposes that nature is governed by orderly laws. Otherwise you cannot tell a miracle from a normal event. The real question is whether there is Someone beyond nature who can intervene to produce miracles. This issue has not changed at all since Galen. Now they had some opinions we would regard as fantastic. It is difficult to be sure now how seriously Apuleius took his stories about witches or Philostratus his about vampires, unicorns, and dragons. But today we have beliefs in ghosts, space aliens, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. Whether there is any factual basis for any of these claims may be argued, but times have not changed much.

The Romans were cynical of their religious beliefs. Many simply went through the motions without taking them seriously. They also resorted to allegorism to reinterpret their traditional stories . Lucian and Juvenal even wrote satires making fun of the Roman deities. Another early criticism of Christians, voiced by Pliny the Younger, was that they were obstinate and would not simply go along with the established observances. There were those (for example Lucretius) who held that the gods were totally indifferent to human affairs and that everything in the world came into existence by chance. Further, the Romans were known for their moral decadence and carried it to a point even beyond ours. While there were those who opposed it, they were fighting a losing battle. There were at that time certain extreme religious cults (called mystery religions). We have the same today. One suspects there is something about the naturalistic view of the world that causes people to revolt and embrace the opposite extreme.

This brings us back to the reason for the spread of Christianity. I am convinced the best explanation is that the tomb was empty. Also, the Christian message that God Himself had invaded history and paid the penalty for sin was unique, even among the religious options of the time. But whatever the explanation is, the idea that Christianity originated in a primitive time does not fit the facts.

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