The Mind of the Apostle
By A.N. Wilson
Chapter One: The Emperor Nero's Legacy to the Christian Church
On 19 July in the year AD 64, a fire broke out among the squalid, timber-built little shops which clustered around the Circus Maximus, the great sports stadium in Rome. It raged for six days, spreading across the base of the Palatine and the Caelian Hills, and by the end of a week it had destroyed many of the best-loved buildings and landmarks of the Imperial capital -- Luna's temple on the Aventine, Numa's palace, the shrine of Vesta near the Forum (though the great Forum itself remained unscathed). After six days, the fire-fighters seemed to have brought the conflagration under control but it was reignited, either by accident or design, on the Capitoline Hill and by the end of the month three of the fourteen quartiers into which the Emperor Nero had divided the city were in ruins. Nero's own magnificent apartments on the Palatine and Oppian Hills were gutted, though the flames did not touch his stupendous Golden House (Domus Aurea), which was still being embellished and redesigned at the time of his death four years later.
Nero himself was thirty-five miles away from Rome, at his favourite seaside resort of Antium, at the time of the fire's outbreak, but he was a sufficiently shrewd politician to hasten back in order to be with his people. It was the plebs, housed in ramshackle houses of wooden construction, who would be most sorely affected by the fire. Having wooed them with "bread and circuses" -- and what circuses! -- he was to do his best to stand beside them in what was the worst calamity of the city's history. He personally took part in the fire-fighting and he threw open all the public buildings on the Campus Martius, along the riverside, to house the homeless. He sent to Ostia for food supplies, fixing the price of grain at half the going market rate.
But Nero, who at twenty-six had already been emperor for a decade, had had time to accumulate many enemies. The first five years of his reign, the quinquennium which all Romans were inclined to view as a Golden Age, had gone sour. Nero's capricious cruelty and his effete philhellenism had won him some powerful rivals for power in the Senate and in the army. His sincere devotion to the arts and his wish to beautify the city made some people suppose that he had deliberately started the fire himself so as to clear the space for more grandiose building projects. His wish to be taken seriously as a poet was an allowable fancy in a soft-faced double-chinned lad, but the aristocrats of the Senate had viewed with dismay his willingness to show off in public by performing as a charioteer, an actor, a singer.
It was typical that the flames of his beloved city should remind the Homer-loving young man of the fires which destroyed the sacred city of Troy. The rumour went about that while the flames were at their height, Nero had been seen on the Maecenas Tower on the Equiline, dressed in the stage costume with which he had sung his public arias, gazing at the Inferno beneath and declaiming or singing. That this is probably a fiction has not prevented this image of Nero, fiddling while Rome burns, fixing itself for ever in the human consciousness as an emblem of irresponsible government.
In fact, there were many aspects of Nero's government which explained and justified his popularity with the Roman people. He was not popular just because he arranged lurid spectacles in the circuses and theatres, nor only because he took delight in judicious and selective murder of members of the upper class -- including his first wife, his two childhood tutors and his own highly dislikeable mother, Agrippina. He was popular because he brought stability, and it did not much matter whether it was his own wisdom or that of his mentor Seneca which brought such comparative peace to the first five years of his reign. Ever since the death of Augustus in 14, the Romans had waited to see whether the Imperial experiment could outlast the lifetime of the first great dictator, or whether it had been Augustus's own personal strength and ruthlessness which had held the peace. There were many who hankered after a return to the Republic, which had still (technically at least) been in existence at the beginning of Augustus's reign as Princeps. The reigns of Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius were not obvious object lessons in the desirability of personal despotism. But with the arrival of young Nero, under the guidance of his Stoic tutor Seneca and assisted by Afranius Burrus, there had been a genuine hope that the Empire was at last in the hands of a philosopher-king. Throughout his reign, Nero managed to avoid the horror of a civil war. There was no unemployment in Nero's Rome, and, though there was inflation, it was most marked in the price of real estate. Governments are always popular at times of inflationary real-estate prices.
He was particularly wise in the field of foreign policy. There was no inherent virtue, in Nero's eyes, in expanding the territory for its own sake, and he had adopted a cautious approach to the wilder borders of the Empire. The Germanic tribes in present-day Belgium and Germany made perpetual trouble for the legions throughout the reign. A smouldering Balkan war was in continuous progress. Nero had negotiated a rocky, but just about durable, peace with the Scythians. He had been highly sceptical about his uncle Claudius's wish to conquer the barbaric British -- a scepticism in some ways justified by the terrible losses of the legions in the British wars of 60 -- and he had been canny in his dealing with that hotbed of trouble for the Romans, Palestine.
By 64, however, even without the fire, Nero was in a vulnerable position as emperor. Rome was a vastly over-crowded city of two million inhabitants, a million of whom were slaves. There was no logical reason for supposing that the great fire was the result of arson, though criminals and gangsters frequently did set fire to the dwellings of their enemies. Juvenal speaks of "treacherous hired assassins starting fire with sulphur", and, in another of his satires, he speaks of the Roman citizen's constant dread of being burnt to death. ("Is there a solitude so hopeless that it would not be preferable to the fires and to the constant falling in of houses to the thousand perils of dangerous Rome?" From the moment night fell, rich and poor trembled with fear.) One of Nero's first political acts, aged fourteen, was to petition the Senate -- in an eloquent speech written for him by Seneca -- for ten million sesterces to rebuild the city of Bononia (Bologna) which had been accidentally razed by fire.
The public alarm at the time of the Great Fire of Rome created the greater danger of political anarchy, and, with the development of rumours that Nero himself had been responsible for the conflagration, it was expedient to find scapegoats which would satisfy the mob. With his customary combination of political shrewdness and theatrical panache, Nero announced that the disaster was the responsibility of an almost unheard-of Jewish sect known as the Christians.
Tacitus, who exonerates the Christians of all blame, does not seem to have known much about them, nor to have held them in very high esteem. ("All degraded and shameful practices eventually collect and flourish in Rome," he says in a languid aside.) The historian, who was nine years old when the fire happened, wrote his Annales of Imperial Rome from the political viewpoint of a republican who regarded the emperors as a succession of semi-criminal thugs. His hatred of Nero would not allow him to suppose that there was the smallest ground for believing that the Christians had, in fact, been responsible for the burning of Rome.
While it would be ridiculous to believe Nero's own propaganda, and difficult to find any Christian motive for destroying the houses of thousands of poor people, it would seem equally rash to dismiss the idea that the Christians were innocently responsible. We do not know the whereabouts of the first generation of Roman Christians, but we can discern from the pages of early Christian writings that the earliest converts, arriving in Rome from Asia Minor and the Levant, would have been just the class of people who might have tried to earn a living as small shopkeepers. While the chariot races and gladiatorial combats on view in the Circus Maximus might not have been to their austere taste, there is no reason to suppose that, with a living to earn, they would not have opened small wooden shops in such regions, where crowds congregated regularly. Who knows? An accidental fire might well have started in the hutment of some early Christian zealot baking bread or sizzling kebabs. The rumour passes from mouth to mouth. "It was in that Greek's shop, the fire started -- or that Cilician's -- or that Jew's."
Nero would not be the last demagogue to see the political value of blaming a group of foreigners for a public disaster. Why not have done with it and simply blame the Jews? If Horace and Juvenal are to be believed, the Jews were detested by the majority of Romans. Nero's uncle Claudius had expelled them briefly from the city; and one might have supposed that Nero would lose no popularity with the plebs if he had fixed the blame for the fire on the numerous Jewish population of Rome.
But the truth is that Horace and Juvenal are not, completely, to be believed. The Jews had their enemies in Rome, but they were also enormously popular. Nero's beautiful wife Poppaea -- Tacitus says she had every asset except goodness -- was said to belong to that large group of Gentiles known as the "god-fearers," who, while not being Jews themselves, were attracted to the simplicities of monotheism. There was a "craze" for Judaism in Nero's Rome and it would have been politically insane to upset possibly thousands of Roman citizens by attributing the fire to a Jewish plot. Besides -- and this is the most important political fact underlying all the pages which follow -- there was a desperately dangerous situation developing in Palestine: the possibility of a war between the Jews and the Romans. Having lost two legions in Britain, Nero did not wish to risk inflaming the situation in Judaea.
The territories which today comprise Israel, the "occupied" Palestinian regions, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria were no more stable in the year 64 than they have been in the second half of the twentieth century. In the three centuries before Christ, the region had been ruled first as part of the Persian Empire and then, when that collapsed, not so much by the Greeks who conquered it, as by the Hellenised Seleucid dynasty of the Syrians. (It was against this Hellenising rule that the Maccabees fought so jealously to guard the purity of the Jewish faith.) As the power of Rome grew, both the Seleucids and the families of Jewish high priests in Jerusalem had endeavoured to get on good terms with the Republic. It was Pompey, in 63 BC, who had actually besieged Jerusalem and divided up the area, redefining the borders of its various kingdoms and principalities as they had grown up during the previous century of conflict. Guided by a policy of "divide and rule" he allowed each of the various principalities and kingdoms some autonomy, but kept them under the over-all control of Rome. It was a system in many ways comparable to the British government of India in the nineteenth century. It was Pompey, for example, who deprived the puppet king John Hyrcanus of any but religious powers, dividing up his kingdom into five circumscriptions, run by five councils centred upon Jericho in Judaea, Sepphoris in Galilee, Gadara and Amathus in the Piraea and Jerusalem.
This arrangement continued, causing more or less disgruntlement among the local population, until the civil war in the Roman Empire and the murder of Caesar in the spring of 44 BC. The Jews of Alexandria and North Africa had sided with Caesar, winning for themselves many privileges to which they would cling for the next hundred years among them, exemption from military service. In exchange for the support of the dynamic Idumaean king Herod, Cassius, the Roman general fighting Caesar, made this brilliant Arab Herod king of the Jews. When Cassius fell to the victorious Mark Antony in 42 BC at Philippi, Herod was clever enough to hold on to his position, though with some modifications, rather than allowing the region to fall under the dominion of Antony's lover and ally Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. It was the Herodian dynasty who continued to dominate the region for the next 110 years until the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem in AD 70 and levelled it to the ground; though after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, the territory was again divided into quarter-kingdoms or tetrarchies, each with differing degrees of autonomy, but all answerable to a Roman governor.
The Jews resident in Palestine were themselves divided about the Roman question. The vast majority of them resented the Roman presence in their country. Few actually belonged for any length of time (though they might dabble with them in their youth) to any of the semi-formalized sects or groups within Judaism, such as the Zealots or the Essenes, who were violently opposed to the blasphemous Roman presence in the holy city of Jerusalem. But there were other Jews, particularly those of the Dispersion or Diaspora, who accepted the Roman Empire as a fact of life, prepared, many of them, to absorb the Roman realpolitik as they were prepared to adapt their religious views to the prevailing Panhellenism. There was no single monolithic entity at this period which one could label "Judaism"; but there were millions of Jews. While all subscribed to the notion that the God of Israel and the First Cause were one and the same being and that His laws had been dispensed to Moses on Mount Sinai and were inscribed in the Scriptures, there were many variations of practice and belief among those who followed the Jewish faith. Perhaps one tenth of the entire population of the Empire were Jewish. In today's world, the proportion of Jews to the rest of the population is tiny. In Nero's world it was considerable, and no political leader who wished to keep the peace would have gone out of his way to antagonise the Jewish race.
There was, however, this tiny sect which had begun to be known as the Christians. Nero might well have heard about them from Poppaea. ("Unable to distinguish between husbands and adulterers," according to Tacitus, Poppaea did not long outlast the Christians who died in the fire. Nero kicked her to death while pregnant in the following year. She was not cremated after the Roman fashion but stuffed with spices and her funeral took place in clouds of incense. She was then publicly proclaimed to be divine.)
Tacitus tells us that the originator of the Christians, Christ, had been executed during the reign of Tiberius by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. Probably this event had occurred in AD 30. The fact that "Christ" had been killed by the Roman governor -- that he had, as the Jewish historian Josephus relates, suffered the standard Roman execution, crucifixion -- tells us that the Romans had viewed him as a political danger. As soon as we translate the Greek word "Christ" back into Hebrew we know why.
Christ is not a name, it is a title. It means Messiah, "the anointed one". In the incendiary political climate of AD 33-64, there were many Messiahs and messianic movements within Judaism. Many of the more politico-religious Jews, who sought the deliverance of Jerusalem from Roman occupation, believed that the Lord's Anointed would bring this deliverance to pass. If the prophetic books of the Scriptures are to be believed, he will not necessarily do it peacefully. Such a belief was incompatible, really, with acceptance of the Roman Empire as an idea; it would certainly have been incompatible with Roman citizenship, the willingness to swear allegiance to the Divine Emperor. There were Jews of the Diaspora who were Roman citizens, and, for various historical reasons, they had been granted a dispensation on religious grounds from doing anything which would compromise their faith. But for the extremists, who looked for a Messiah to lead a Jewish war against the legions, such compromise would have stuck in the throat.
Searching the prophetic books of their Scriptures, these Jews would find plenty of material on which to nourish and feed their messianic hopes. The Messiah would come down from the clouds in the likeness of the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel; he would establish a kingdom which was an everlasting kingdom, having first crushed his enemies under his feet; the old temple of Solomon would be restored in Jerusalem; the Gentiles would worship the God of Israel. Many, such as the Pharisees, must have felt that the widespread growth of "god-fearers" among the Gentile population of the Empire, pointed to the imminent advent of such a day.
The "Christians" were not, as it happens, a unified group, any more than any of the other quarrelsome sects of Judaism were unified. We know from their surviving writings (which must be only a proportion of what was written at the time) that there were a variety of "Christianities" in existence. Violent outbursts had already taken place within the sect, requiring the arrest and execution of some of their number. One of the "Christians", himself a Roman citizen by the name of Paul, had needed the protection of an entire regiment to escort him from Jerusalem to Caesarea, where he had appealed for trial in Rome itself.
The deftness, from a political point of view, of blaming the Roman fire on the Christians, lay in the fact that this sect -- presumably unknown to most Gentiles -- was detested by the generality of Jews, so that there would be no danger of offending any but the tenderhearted (not many of them in Nero's Rome) by arresting them as arsonists and making them into a public display. There was a death penalty for arson in Roman law. Even those who had started fires accidentally in Italian cities were bastinadoed. But for the band of scapegoats whom the theatrically-minded princeps had decided to stigmatise, only the most spectacular of punishments would suffice.
Variety, for the sadist, is the spice of a public spectacle. Some of the Christians were crucified, as their Master had been thirty years before in Palestine. Others were dressed in the skins of wild beasts and put into an arena with wild, hungry dogs, who tore their human prey to pieces with their teeth. Others were forced into leather jerkins, liberally daubed with pitch, set alight, and used as illuminations in Nero's gardens in the Vatican.
It is worth emphasising the obvious point that, in making this grotesquely vicious public example, Nero had no religious interest whatsoever. He did not care, any more than did any Roman magistrate, what strange spiritual fancies passed through the brains of his subjects. The Roman Empire, like the Ottoman Empire after it, survived in large measure because of its cynical and tolerant attitude towards the different religious persuasions of its inhabitants. It was the first totalitarian state in history and its imposition of state-sponsored emperor worship was an innovation; but if local religions did nothing to upset the harmony of the state then the emperors and their legions did nothing to interfere with them. Widespread persecution of Christianity belongs to a period long after the lifetime of Nero's victims. It did not really happen on any appreciable scale until the middle of the third century, ending in Diocletian's persecutions of 303, when, as Gibbon reminds us, "fraud, envy and malice, prevailed in every congregation". Even these, in terms of numbers, were modest atrocities compared with the persecution of heretics by the Christian Church once it had become the official religion of the Empire in the reign of Constantine (who died in 337). The anathematising of religious opponents, the punishments, for religious heresy, of exile, imprisonment, torture and death were unknown to the polytheistic mind-set of the "pagans"; no Roman emperor, however brutal, was to launch a Crusade to match that of Innocent III against the Albigenses when, in the massacres of Bezier (1209) and the battle of Muret (1213), thousands of innocent cranks were put to the sword.
Nero's cruelty to the Christians in the gardens of the Vatican at the dawn of the gentle age of Christendom has been seen ever afterwards in Christian tradition as the beginning of a religious persecution. It was nothing of the kind. The advantage of singling out the Christians for special blame after the fire consisted in their tiny numbers, in the fact that, as a sect, they were quite obscure. Few would feel aggrieved at their demise. Christian folk-legend has not been slow, in the intervening centuries, to build up Nero as a religious persecutor; nor is it any accident that the Bishops of Rome should have chosen to take up their residence on the supposed site of this hideous torture. But if a martyr is someone who dies for their faith then the victims of the Neronian persecution were not martyrs. Jesus was in all likelihood a martyr -- a man who died for his own particular vision of what it meant to be Jewish, and who was arraigned by the Roman governor as a troublemaker: "the King of the Jews". The human torches screaming in Nero's gardens were not martyrs in this sense.
But Nero had given the Christian movement two vitally important privileges: a public name and a number of dead, who could be seen instantaneously as martyrs. Any obscure group poised to play an important part on the world stage must thank, in retrospect, the ruling power that first bans, or drives into exile, or murders, some member of the sect. The magistrate who decreed that Lenin's brother should be hanged can have had no more idea that he was going to have an influence over world history. Similarly, Nero, with a theatricality of which only he would be capable, provided the Christians with a "send-off" into the history books. Tacitus, ever eager for florid examples of cruelty in Nero's character, immortalised the scene for us, but this was caviar to the general; and it is only by the merest of accidents that Tacitus survives in the world at all. The Christian literature, by contrast, flourished from the beginning, and this is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the story. The fact, for example, that Nero had no religious motive whatsoever in wishing to make human torches out of the Christians in his garden pyrotechnics did not prevent their instant canonisation in the eyes of their coreligionists.
One of their number, a Jew named John, who fled the city of Rome just in time, took this terrible calamity as a token or sign that the end of days was at hand. For thirty years, since his death, Jesus the Messiah had mysteriously failed to return to earth, though he was expected to come imminently on the clouds.
Every eye will see him even those who pierced him [i.e. the Romans and not, as in Christian hymns, the Jews -- for it was the Romans who killed Jesus]; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.Seer John's people, Jesus's people, the Jews, remained unvindicated. But now that the Beast, the dreaded Whore of Babylon, Rome, had begun to persecute the Holy Ones of God, it was surely a sign that they would be swiftly avenged. Taking refuge on the Greek island of Patmos, this visionary was granted a series of revelations of the Almighty's purpose in History. The meanings of these unforgettable and potent images -- the Four Apocalyptic Horsemen, the Lamb Triumphant on his Throne, the chorus of praise uplifted by the Redeemed, the torment of those, Jewish and Roman, who have not recognised Jesus as Lord -- are matters which have provided a rich source of study, for theologians, literary historians and psychiatrists. The historian who tries to date and place John's Revelation is guided by the author to a quite specific time span. The words of the revelation are written down four years after the Roman fire, and shortly after Nero's own death. We know that they were written before the ultimate calamity of the Sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, since the worst fate our seer can imagine befalling the Jewish capital is that a tenth of the sacred city will be destroyed. He writes of the earthly temple as still in existence. No one who knew of the total devastation and ruin of Jerusalem could have prophesied so comparatively mild a fate for it. Moreover, we are told that the great whore, who is "Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth's abominations", represents Rome. She is seen in the vision rutting with a beast which has seven heads, and these heads our author explains, are the seven kings (or emperors, basileus in Greek). "Five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes he must remain only a little while." All this as a piece of historical writing, places Revelation firmly in the short-lived reign of Galba. Five emperors have fallen -- Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero. The sixth, Galba, will be replaced by Otho, who also will not last long. Accurate as far as it goes. What makes the Revelation of John painful reading for the Jewish historian is the wild inaccuracy of its prophecies in general. John foretells the establishment of an everlasting earthly Jerusalem, while Babylon, that is Rome, is completely destroyed. Within two years of the Revelation being written down and sent to his fellow believers in seven towns of Asia Minor (western Turkey) Jerusalem had been devastated. As Jesus may or may not have predicted, not one stone of it remained upon the other.
The fate of the Jews, their temple and their city is of absolutely vital relevance to everything which we have to consider in the pages which follow. If the Christians really entertained thoughts about Rome and its divine emperors of the kind which are reproduced in John's Revelation, it is small wonder that they should have been persecuted. Tacitus tells us that the Christians arrested in Rome after the fire were condemned, not so much for incendiarism as for their obvious hatred of the human race. John the Seer -- whoever he was -- exudes a powerful hatred of the human race and an exultant hope that the greater number of human beings will imminently perish in a lake of fire.
While it might have seemed true that Christianity, the religion which invented the idea of Hell and Eternal Torment, was founded on a set of anti-humanist principles, was it true that it was inherently anti-Roman?
Just as within Judaism -- as we read in the pages of Josephus -- there was a debate raging about the allowability, or otherwise, of compromise between being a Jew and being a part of the Roman Empire, so within that small Jewish sect or heresy called Christianity there was a discernible rift on this central question.
Evidently, the Christianity of the Revelation, with its powerfully anti-Roman bias, was not the only sort of Christianity in existence during the period when the New Testament books were being compiled. Only a decade or so previous, a very different sort of Christian had written in these terms to his fellow-believers in Rome:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.
When we read the words just quoted (but taken out of context)--their assertion that the power of the emperor Nero was divinely-given; that what should be, was, what was, should be; that any rebellion against the Roman authority deserved his punishment -- we should not immediately guess that their author "gloried" in the name of one who had been executed by a Roman procurator in Judaea in the early 30s. The author is Paul, a figure who dominates the pages of the New Testament and who made an indelible effect on the future of the Christian religion. As such, he could be described as one of the most important and influential figures who ever lived. The tensions within the Christian movement -- Jewish or non-Jewish? Roman or anti-Roman? Apocalyptic or practical? -- are tensions which we can reasonably find within the writings, and perhaps within the personality, of Paul himself. We cannot write a biography of Paul in the way that Tacitus or Suetonius has supplied us with colourful, not to say sensational, lives of Nero. But we can rediscover Paul's world -- and Nero's world -- and hope, in so doing, to understand something about the origins of Christianity and hence the origins of our own world.
At the time of the fire in AD 64, very few people had heard of Christianity, and there would have been even fewer who could have defined what it was. Nero was the divine emperor, the strongest and most powerful person in the world. Christianity was destined, hundreds of years later, to become the dominant influence in Western civilisation, prefiguring a time when, as was whimsically observed by an early twentieth-century scholar, people called their dogs Nero and their sons Paul.
The fact that the Gentile world adopted Christianity is owing almost solely to one man: Paul of Tarsus. Without Paul, it is highly unlikely that Christianity would ever have broken away from Judaism. Only a moment's reflexion tells us what a different world it would have been. The whole Jewish inheritance, which is woven inseparably into the Christian religion, would never have been available to the Gentile imagination. The stories which, until our generation, were told to almost every child in the Western world, would have been the exclusive preserve of the Jews: Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, Daniel in the Lions' Den. The concept of moral law as a divinely-given set of precepts, spoken by the Almighty to Moses on Sinai, underpinned, at least until the eighteenth century, the ethical, political and social fabric of Western statecraft. God himself is, for Western Man, the God of Israel. If metaphysicians for the first two millennia after Christ have drawn on non-Jewish traditions -- above all on those of Plato and Aristotle -- for talking about God, it is nonetheless to the Hebraic tradition, of a God who created the world of matter and who is involved with his creation, that Western philosophers have always returned. And this is the inheritance which Paul opened up to the Gentile world.
This is something so extraordinary that many people do not notice it. It is one of those huge facts which is so obvious, like the fact that most people in America speak English, that we do not often pause to ask how it happened. This is to some extent because of the misconceptions which exist about Paul in the popular mind; misconceptions which come about partly because Paul is widely regarded as someone who distorted the original message of Christianity. Jesus, it is thought, preached a simple message of love. Paul came along in a later generation and complicated it with a lot of difficult "theology". Paul, it is supposed, was a bigoted Jew who, as a result of his conversion on the road to Damascus, became a bigoted Christian. He is widely regarded as a misogynist, the father of that strand in Christianity which sees the female sex as inferior to the male. Notoriously, he condemned homosexuality.
Those who read further in this book will perhaps change their preconceived view of Paul as a stiff-necked reactionary who wanted the free-and-easy Jesus-religion to become a church with a set of restrictive rules and regulations. They will perhaps come to see him as a prophet of liberty, whose visionary sense of the importance of the inner life anticipates the Romantic poets more than the rule-books of the Inquisition. But such a view is only possible if Christianity itself is understood as an institutionalised distortion of Paul's thought, the inevitable consequence of the world having lasted (at the time of writing) more than nineteen hundred years longer than he predicted. Paul did not imagine that there would be such a thing as Christianity, or Christian civilisation, any more then Jesus did.
Part of the confusion stems from what Christians have traditionally told themselves about Paul's life. In the Acts of the Apostles, a book which reached its final form in perhaps the year 80, fifteen or twenty years after Paul's death, there are several accounts of Paul's "conversion". Already the author writes as if it is perfectly clear that Jesus had started a new movement (called by the author the Way) which was destined by divine providence to become available to Gentiles. As we shall see, this idea of things betrays the bias on the part of the author rather than giving an accurate account of the historical facts. The truth of what happened in the very early days -- in the lifetime of Jesus and in the days following his death -- is historically irrecoverable.
The author of Acts does not conceal from us the fact that the Way was a Jewish movement, whose followers regularly worshipped in the temple at Jerusalem. They believed that the Jewish prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus and that, as a token of divine approval, God had raised up Jesus from death. We are told that one of their number, a man named Stephen, was particularly eloquent in his denunciation of the Jewish authorities -- the high priest and his entourage who were responsible for handing Jesus over to the Romans for execution. His claim to see a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God enrages them, and a mob drag Stephen outside the city walls and stone him.
The rabble who attack Stephen in this episode could have been a mere lynch mob, or it could be a garbled account of the death-penalty for blasphemy -- for Jews who blasphemed could, according to their law, be killed by stoning. If Stephen committed a blasphemy, it is difficult to know what it was, since he did not appear to believe -- what was later to become a Christian doctrine -- that Jesus was Divine, or the Son of God, or the Second Person of the Trinity. Such concepts were not in currency in the early Jerusalem church described in the book of Acts.
The author of the book was probably working from several sources. It is perhaps at this point that, having relied on sources which remembered Stephen's eloquent speech, he suddenly turns to a completely different story; for, without warning, he introduces into his narrative a "young man named Saul". So far in the story nothing has been said about this Saul, though in later passages of Acts we learn that he was a Roman citizen, born in what is today eastern Turkey, but educated in the Jewish Law in Jerusalem. It is not explained why this Saul should feel such murderous anger against the followers of the Way, but, armed with letters from the high priest, he sets out to Damascus "so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem". We can deduce from other evidence that this event took place, if it took place at all, in or around the year AD 32.
It was on the Damascus road, according to this account, that a light from heaven suddenly flashed around Saul and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And when Saul asks who it is who addresses him, the reply comes, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting". The men who were with Saul heard the voice, but they did not see the vision. When the heavenly light has faded, Saul is found to be blind and he is led into the city. For three days he neither ate nor drank.
One of Jesus's followers in Damascus, a certain Ananias, is told in a vision to go to the street called Straight and to lay his hands on Saul. When Ananias remonstrates and says that Saul has been a persecutor of the Way, the Lord replies, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name to the Gentiles and kings". So Ananias did as he was told, and he went and laid hands on Saul, and the blindness departed -- "something like scales fell from his eyes". By this account, Saul immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God". After a few days, "the Jews" were plotting to kill him, and he was obliged to slip away from the city by being lowered from the wall in a basket.
That is how the story of Saul, subsequently known as Paul, was first written down in the Acts of the Apostles. Already, we have the picture of Christianity as a religion that is separate, or destined to be separate, from Judaism; and what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus is read by later generations of Christians as the story of how Saul the Jew was "converted to Christianity". What makes us think that there was such a thing as Christianity to which Saul/Paul could be converted? Merely to say that Paul was converted to Christianity begs more questions than it answers.
Nero's great achievement as an unconscious propagandist for Christianity was to make it seem as though this chaotic collection of Jewish heresies had an "originator", or that the various small groups of Christians scattered, by 64, throughout the Empire, from Jerusalem to Rome itself, all represented the same point of view. Once again, in retrospect, it must have seemed obvious to anyone that this was so. The "early Christians" were our spiritual ancestors. They might not have shared all the customs and practices of a modern Lutheran or Roman Catholic but basically they all believed in -- well, in Christianity. And surely it is obvious what Christianity is?
As the second millennium of Christian history comes to an end we might consider this a foolish question which barely requires an answer. Surely, Christianity is the system of beliefs which most of the main Christian denominations hold in common: it is the belief that God fulfilled the promises first made to the Jewish race in the person of Jesus Christ; that the birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus brought redemption to the human race; that through him, all people, Jews and Gentiles, could be restored to that relationship which had obtained between humanity and the Godhead before the Fall. That, surely, is Christianity? And the belief that Jesus, before he died, established an everlasting covenant with his people, the token of which was the Eucharist, the sacrificial meal by which, offering bread and wine to God, Christians receive the Body and Blood of Christ? In other words, Christianity is one of the world religions, founded by Jesus, in a manner comparable to the establishment of Islam by the Holy Prophet or Buddhism by the Lord Gautama.
The historian has to interrupt this series of assumptions. Deeply ingrained as they may be in the Gentile consciousness, they can not be substantiated. When we have looked at the evidence, it will seem at the very least highly unlikely that Jesus, a Galilean exorcist executed in circa the year 30, probably for sedition, had any ambitions to found a world religion. All the indications are that this charismatic healer and preacher limited his sphere of activities to rural and exclusively Jewish regions. For example, though he was probably born, and certainly operated, near the great Hellenistic city of Sepphoris in Galilee, we hear no mention of this city in the Gospels. We read only of a Jesus who chose to move about among the fishing-towns and agricultural communities of Galilee -- hotbeds of political dissent against Rome, according to Josephus. The Gospels were written to make us suppose that Jesus did indeed reach out to all mankind as some Saviour-figure who would embrace Gentiles as well as Jews, so it is all the more remarkable that these books should clumsily have recorded sayings, which on balance would seem to be authentic, in which Jesus is quoted as saying that his mission is to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel"; that he has no desire to throw the pearls of his wisdom before the Gentile pigs. In another place he is quoted as saying that the Gentiles were dogs.
Jesus would seem to have shared the views of many Jewish contemporaries that the world was about to come to an end and that God would redeem Israel and bring to pass a new era in which the rule of the Gentiles would be smitten and driven away. Since the end of ages was at hand, and the Gospels record Jesus as predicting as much, it is hard to imagine why Jesus would have entertained the quite incompatible belief that several thousand years of human history stretched ahead in which a new "religion" would be necessary. As far as the historical Jesus was concerned, it seems overwhelmingly likely that he did not think there was any future for the human race at all; that is, in so far as we can deduce any interest in the "human race", as opposed to the fate of the Jews or more narrowly of his own followers, in the recorded sayings of Jesus.
Some little while after the death of Jesus, his followers in Jerusalem grouped themselves around his brother James. We are told that they continued to observe the Jewish law, and to worship in the temple. These testimonies from the New Testament reveal to us the rather puzzling information that Jesus's closest friends and followers, and indeed his family seemed to know nothing about the "fact" -- taken for granted by so many of us -- that Jesus, or "Christ", was the "originator" of a religion called Christianity.
We assume that this fact is so obvious that merely to question it sounds cranky -- as if a pet theory is going to be advanced. The simple truth, however, is that the New Testament documents themselves do not bear out Tacitus's notion that "Christ", if we take him to be the same figure as Jesus, was the "originator" of Christianity, if we take that word to refer to the set of beliefs normally regarded as Christian -- belief in the Divine Saviour and his resurrection, belief in the Eucharist. If there is any single individual who can be labelled the "originator" of Christianity in this sense, it would be Paul.
Christianity is the product of Judaism -- that is a commonplace. It is also the product of the Roman world in which it came to be born. It achieved its cohesion because the Empire chose to persecute it, and it finally broke with its Jewish parent-stem in large measure for political reasons: less because church and synagogue could not agree and more because the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and made contact between "Jewish Christians" and their Gentile counterparts impossible. The Empire provided Christianity not just with the necessary boost of early martyrs, but with all the practical opportunities needed for a burgeoning movement: roads of a kind which the world had never known, an influx of Orientals into its capital, with its inevitable bundle of eastern wisdom and mystery religions. The Roman Empire also added to the huge and gullible slave class and allowed, by the trade routes opened up, for the commercial class to which Paul belonged to reach these masses of people.
It also provided, together with Judaism, a method of storytelling, a way of describing itself to itself without which no movement or political party or religion could survive. This is not the place to decide who wrote the Gospels, or when; who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, or where, or when. But whoever did so had already made Paul into a story, and in so doing he had used earlier stories, not necessarily Christian stories, to help him. He made Paul's conversion into a story of divine possession, which many of his contemporaries might have recognised from, say, going to the theatre; just as he makes Paul's journeyings seem like the recognisable Odyssey to which lovers of the Homeric tales would be able to respond.
But, before trying to explain the way in which Paul is important to history, a word about chronology. Readers of the New Testament, a collection of miscellaneous writings of questionable date, which were written in the first century but compiled as a single collection in the second century, over a hundred years after Paul's death, might be tempted to view the events of Christian history in a linear progression. First, the life of Jesus; then, his suffering and death; then (if you believe it) his resurrection and glorious ascension; then the founding of the church; then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; then the conversion of Paul; and so on.
In Paul's lifetime, and Nero's, there was no such thing as the New Testament -- even though some of its individual writings (perhaps all of them in some primitive form) could be dated to before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The "real" order of events, if we can speak in this way, could easily be reversed. It might make more sense to read the events, or at least the documents which relate to the events (and these, after all, are all that we have), in a notional rather than a linear pattern. In terms of their historical significance, this is certainly the most helpful way to read them. For our purpose, then, the most significant "event" is the conversion or apocalypse, as he calls it, of Paul, his discovery of the Living Christ. It coincides with a period when other Jews, among them those who knew Jesus, and those who did not, were also proclaiming a number of religious experiences relating to Jesus, or a number of Scripture-interpretations of the End of Time which relate to Jesus. The old prophecies have been fulfilled -- the Son of Man (from Daniel) is about to appear! The Lord's Anointed has come (or is about to come) to rescue and redeem Israel. The Gentiles will call upon God's name. The temple of Herod will be replaced with the old temple of Solomon. The Romans are to be driven out of Palestine.
Out of this set of experiences, which includes the old messianic belief that the dead have been raised, or shall be raised, there springs the teaching of this community of disparate believers -- some of them practicing Jews within the mainstream of Israel, Pharisees, temple priests and others, some of them Hellenistic Jews; some of them converts to Judaism; and some of them "god-fearers", Gentiles who were not converts to Judaism but who had an affiliation of sorts to it. For them, the story is not (as it would be for a modern reader of the New Testament) a story which starts with the birth of Jesus, or even a story which starts with the old prophets. It starts with their own anticipation of the End of Time. Human beings, with as yet unrealised aspirations and dreams, they reinterpreted events in the light of the unfinished, uncompleted End. The death of Jesus, for instance, itself becomes a fulfilment of those Prophecies which are their synagogue reading. They tell and retell it, in spoken and eventually in written form, through quotations from the Jewish Psalms and Prophetic Books. His teachings are told and retold not as a modern historian would want them told, with an attempt to remember them accurately, but in an attempt to make them increasingly applicable to the coming End, to the Judgement.
Out of this set of beliefs, and out of the disparate communities which start to spring up around the shores of the Mediterranean and in Rome itself, there begins to emerge what they called the Good News or the Gospel -- a word which both meant the spoken message of those who spoke it and, in time, the written book in which this message was contained. Once written, in whatever primitive form, the Gospel becomes a part of the history. Whatever the historical Jesus was like, and whether modern historians can ever hope to reconstruct the facts about him, the world now, at this stage in the history of the Christian idea, begins to have a much more durable figure than the historical Jesus: we have the Jesus of the Gospel, or Gospels. We do not know exactly how these books evolved and a purely textual account of their development, any account which has one "author" copying and collating the papyri of another, is making the "linear" anachronism and failing to see that the emergence of this written literature about Jesus is itself part of the story.
Even within the lifetime of this community itself, however, it does not make sense to view history as a purely linear progression. We see it all backwards -- from the perspective of the cataclysm occurring in the year 70. We see a group of enthusiasts, broadly within the community of Israel, looking for a consummation of their hopes which were not fulfilled. Then we see the Roman War, and the destruction of the temple, the greatest catastrophe to befall Judaism since the Babylonian exile and arguably the most "traumatic event in Israel's history before the Holocaust 1900 years later. We see the "inevitable" separation of Judaism and what has by now become "Christianity" and we see all the "events" in the New Testament leading up to that. The failure of the messianic hope (in the first generation, at least, the Christ did not return); the brutal Roman destruction of Jewry's most sacred shrine; the virtual elimination of the Sadducean, priestly sects of Judaism, and the inevitable triumph, out of disaster, of the Pharisaic or rabbinic school; the absolute separation which came to be drawn between this school and those other survivors of the first-century Holocaust, the Christians: this is an "end" to the story which we know but which no one who was depicted in the pages of the New Testament knew! They were not -- it is an obvious point but it is so easy to forget -- viewing their own experiences in this linear way. Their immediate imaginative and religious hopes, experiences and aspirations, were far more important to them.
When Oscar Wilde was an undergraduate at Oxford, he had to undergo, as all classical students did, a viva voce examination to test his knowledge of Greek. Sensing an effete and "difficult" young man, his examiners set him the most "difficult" passage, from the translator's viewpoint, in the whole New Testament, namely the 27th chapter of Acts, with its many nautical terms. It tells of the shipwreck of Paul on his way to Rome, and his rescue, together with the crew of a ship, off an island which turns out to be Malta. "That will be all, Mr Wilde," said his astonished examiners, hearing Oscar (who was brilliant at Greek) make his effortless translation. "Oh, please!" expostulated Wilde. "Do let me go on -- I am longing to know how the story finishes!"
Like many of Wilde's jokes (perhaps like all of them) it contains a great profundity. How the story finishes is the essential question, both for the characters within the Acts of the Apostles, and for its readers. It ends, in fact, in the most puzzling manner, with Paul having lived in Rome "in his own hired house" for two years without having succeeded in having his case heard before the emperor. In our end is our beginning. We might attempt to tell Paul's story, or Peter's, or that of the first believers in Jesus the Christ, in a purely linear progression, but we should be constantly interrupted if we did so by our ignorance of how the story ended (for them as individuals) as well as by our knowledge of what happened in 64, what happened in 66, and what happened finally in 70. We read the story with the knowledge that Nero -- seen by Paul as God's representative on earth -- would make human torches of the Christians to amuse the crowds in the Vatican gardens. We also know that the Romans -- seen by the Sadducees and the high priests as the only protectors of Herod's temple and city against anarchic insurgents -- would, in 70, level the Holy City to the ground, change its name and build a new Roman city on its ruins. The year 70 marked a new beginning of a kind, but it also defined an "end" of the variety which Wilde and all other intelligent readers of Luke have sought, and sought in vain. The present book is written for those, like Wilde, who long to know how the story ends. It is written by someone who shares that longing but who, after twenty years of thinking about it, can not really decide even the rather simple question of how it begins.
W.W. Norton & Company
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