Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Myth of Pagan Tolerance

Michael Bird posted on the triumph of Christ over paganism. While his language was a bit forceful, it really is nothing that is not reflected in the content of the New Testament. Christ has put all the principalities and powers under his feet. He will crush his enemies, that refuse to repent. Greco-Roman gods of paganism are shown to be failures by Christ's death, resurrection and ascension. In this respect, consider Isaiah 40-66 which shows Babylonian gods to be utterly defeated and humiliated by God's deity and actions on behalf of His people. In fact, God consistently shows that the gods are not gods. Bye-bye paganism.

This of course riled up the comments section on Bird's blog. So now he is responding to the myth of ancient pagan's tolerance. See his new post: The Myth of Tolerant Paganism.

Bird concludes with this:
Ancient paganism was hardly a tolerant, inclusive, pluralistic, and gentle religious option. It was an instrument, even a chaplain, to the most violent and oppressive political power of its day. Note, I’m describing Roman paganism, not a bunch of new age Wiccans in Wisconsin. I have no interest in the contemporary expressions of paganism which I imagine to be radically different from ancient paganism. But you pagans out there need to face up to the fact that pagan religion was an instrument of oppression and violence against Jews and Christians in antiquity! It’s part of your heritage, you don’t have to like it (there’s plenty of parts of my Christian heritage that I don’t like). But please, please stop telling the world that Christians (young, old, male, female,  even children) deserved to be ripped apart by wild beasts for refusing to worship the pagan gods. Stop telling the story that all Christians went looking for martyrdom.  I have to ask, did the Christians who suffered these fates deserve them for, well, refusing to be pagans?

I posted before on the myth of Roman tolerance here and a the myth of polytheism's tolerance here. Suffice it to say they were tolerant so long as no absolute statements were claimed, then they could be quite intolerant. It is not that much difference from our culture today.

Bird's post gives three lines of evidence against the myth of pagan tolerance:

1. As Duke Uni Professor Kavin Rowe (World Upside Down, 162) writes: “[T]he notion that polytheistic religions issue in political tolerance and cultural understanding is at best a serious distortion of the realities of the Graeco-Roman world.” Roman authorities distinguished between religio licita (legal) and religio illicita (illegal). They treated foreign or new religions with violent contempt...  
2. Pagan cultural, political, and intellectual elites in Rome were notoriously xenophobic and routinely anti-semitic.  In order to protect the purity of its own religious traditions, the Romans routinely expelled foreigners from Egypt, Judea, and the East... 
3. Christians were persecuted by Romans authorities because they were “other,” because they refused to honor the local gods and so dishonored both the gods and their worshippers, they refused to worship the Emperor and were thus disloyal to the state. Persecution of Christians happened in a variety of ways including social ostracization, confiscation of property, loss of public office, anti-Christian riots, and spasmodically in capital punishment. (emphasis mine)
Bird backs these points up with documentary citation of original sources--as any good historian must do. Check out his post for his important elaboration. Michael Bird has left another myth busted.

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