Christianity killed paganism in antiquity; what will kill the new paganism?
Western civilization may be swiftly defaulting to functional paganism, and by default paganism I do not mean we shall see the gods and goddesses again dressed out in temples, hungry for sacrifice. Pan, Zeus, or Athena may find niche markets in contemporary neo-paganism, but I don’t think even they will fit into the unfocused spirituality trending today.
No, what I mean by default paganism are habits of thought and living that commonly governed life for ordinary Romans, the people. Until roughly the mid-twentieth century, there were three widespread practices in antiquity that Christians regarded as antithetical to their faith: abortion, homosexual acts, and leisured divorce.
They were present in first century pagan life and each was challenged by Christianity, long before the Emperor Constantine showered his favors upon the Church. Keep this in mind a bit further on.
It was the Jews, first, who refused to condone these and rejected all of them. Christianity, arising from explicitly Jewish roots, adopted the same opposition to much of Rome’s traditional religion and life. The difference was Christians made a big deal out of it; it was part of their preaching and catechesis. The Jews, by contrast, were a tolerated minority and did not issue public condemnations of their neighbors. Neither, really, did Christians, but after a while it was difficult to deny their hostility to practices in which pagans indulged.
Exposure of unwanted infants (Peter Singer, call your local classicist scholar) was common enough that early Christian theologians repeatedly explained their opposition to killing babies. Oddly, Christians seemed to want children, and this was in a time when, according to Tacitus, “childlessness prevailed” (Annals of Imperial Rome, iii, 25). Baby girls especially were at risk of exposure. A first century letter home from a husband gave instruction to his wife, “In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it” (Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, 1985).
Male-male sex was tolerated to an extent, but there is little in the record about female-female relations. In either case, though, the one in a superior social class held the upper hand. Sex was extorted, patron from supplicant. The sexual dichotomy wasn’t male/female. It was male/dominant and female/submissive. It was a mark of relative status as to which role was assumed by which partner. In Greek culture, same-sex relations amounted to pederasty, a pubescent or adolescent boy with an older male, a mentor with benefits. As in most of the ancient cultures, gender and desire had little to do with a sexual relationship. Gay wasn’t who you were; sex is what you did and if you were vulnerable, it was done to you.
Divorce was casual. All the law required to dissolve a marriage was a declaration by the couple to seven witnesses. Divorce moved among the upper classes and filtered down. Movie star tabloids today have nothing on first century Rome.
These three Christian distinctions from the culture of antiquity now represent the insufferable moralizing some Christians are accused of today. But there is one more to add: the exclusive worship of the God of Israel interpreted through Christ. Christians did suffer, some unto death, for their faith in Christ as Lord. This was something no sacrificer to Zeus with a home shrine tucked in the alcove could fathom.
Given exactly how out of step the Church was from society, how did Christianity become the dominant Roman faith? It was an oddball cult and even while living next door to pagan neighbors, Christians set themselves apart in distinct ways from everyone around them.
It was all thanks to the emperor, Constantine.
This, best I can figure it out, is the conclusion of James J. O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity. The book jacket calls it “an iconoclastic of history of religion that tells an exciting new story with deep relevance to the way we think about religion in our own time.”
Maybe, but I have my reservations. By the time of Constantine, Christianity was perhaps a quarter of the population. It did not need Constantine, but it got him anyway. With imperial favor, no one could stop the Church. That’s why paganism ultimately dried up and died out. That’s about the whole of it, from O’Donnell. But that is not all of it.
O’Donnell ignores the social challenge Christianity represented to the social traditions and traditional religions of the Roman world. Christians did not abandon children to death, they practiced sexual chastity (enough of them at any rate for it to be remarked on), and they were faithful in marriage (and likely more in deed than in ideal).
These three Christian practices by themselves merit better study for their impact on classical antiquity. The demise of paganism and the attractions of Christianity cannot be explained by exploring the first without reference to the second, and even less should we be told “the emperor did it.”
Christian social practice, combined with the genuinely unique qualities of the gospel, especially the resurrection, gained authority over the imagination. It was no defect in paganism but the distinctive features of Christianity that put Zeus to bed.
Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist for First Things magazine living in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.