Survival of the Fittest Christianity
It didn’t take Christians long to start annoying people. As early as 64 CE, before all the books of the New Testament had been written, the emperor Nero was having followers of Jesus smeared with pitch, put on crosses, and set on fire. Ever the thrifty persecutor, Nero (according to the Roman historian Tacitus) used the flaming bodies “to serve as lights when daylight failed.” The emperor’s immediate aim was to make Christians scapegoats, to blame them for a devastating fire that some people were blaming on him. But there was a less ephemeral source of tension between Christians and Roman rulers. Like Jews, Christians didn’t fit the Roman model of religion.
The Roman government let people worship whatever gods they chose so long as they also paid homage to the official gods of the empire. Christians refused to worship state gods, and they couldn’t honestly grant legitimacy to the various other gods people worshipped, either. In fact, they actively challenged that legitimacy, because Christians weren’t just monotheists; they were monotheists prone to proselytizing.
The proselytizing outweighed the persecution, and Christianity grew until, in 312, it crossed its famous threshold: Emperor Constantine, inspired by a vision, decided to fight a crucial battle under the symbol of the cross. The ensuing victory elevated Jesus in his esteem and helped usher in an era of official tolerance for Christianity. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the empire, and pagan religions were banned.
Constantine’s conversion is a touchstone in the debate over the roles of chance and necessity in history. Some see it as a tribute to contingency: without Constantine’s change of heart, Christianity might never have displaced paganism as the religion of Europe, and all of history might have been different. Others say Christianity, though far from a majority religion, had already achieved critical mass and would have prevailed in any event.
Suppose Christianity’s triumph within the Roman Empire was indeed Constantine-dependent—as, for all we know, it was. And suppose Constantine had lost that battle, or hadn’t happened to fight it under the cross, and Christianity had fallen by the wayside. Then what would have become of the idea of interethnic brotherly love, an idea that by then had grown so closely associated with Christianity?
It’s a theologically important question. In chapter 9, while appraising Philo’s ancient yet in some ways modern theology, we came across the idea of the Logos—a divine driver of unfolding cosmic purpose that, in the process, serves as a kind of engine of moral growth. If Paul’s doctrine of interethnic amity might have perished but for a single military victory, then how powerful could that engine really be? If the Logos is real, shouldn’t moral enlightenment be driven by something ultimately stronger than the vagaries of history? But what evidence is there of such power? Why should we think that, regardless of Constantine’s fate, interethnic amity had a good chance of carrying the day in the Roman Empire’s battle among religious values?
An Open Platform
For one thing, because the creation of the Roman Empire had made interethnic amity a more valuable commodity than it was before. We saw glimpses of this in the previous chapter, in dissecting Paul’s strategy for building an international church. To get a clearer sense for the value added by empire, let’s take a look at the Greek island of Delos in the second century BCE, the century before the Roman Empire was born.
One god worshipped on that island was Heracles-Melkart (a fusion of the Tyrian god Melkart and the divine Greek figure Heracles, aka Hercules). Heracles-Melkart had a big following among merchants and shippers hailing from the city of Tyre. Indeed, the official name of the “religious” organization devoted to his worship was the Heraclesiastai of Tyre Merchants and Shippers.
Merchants and shippers who belonged to this cult made sacrifices to Heracles-Melkart in hopes of winning his favor. But it wasn’t really Heracles-Melkart who did the favors. Belonging to his cult meant picking up useful business information from other merchants and shippers, and building fruitful bonds with them; the cult was, from a vocational point of view, both a database and a network of useful contacts. If you were a merchant or shipper from Tyre on the island of Delos, you would naturally join the cult, because membership was valuable.
Crucially important, for purposes of this analysis, is that your joining would make membership even more valuable, because by joining you slightly enlarged the stock of data and the number of potentially useful contacts. In general, the more members of the cult, the more valuable membership was.…