Christian religious experience in a pagan world

I've been reading Robin Lane Fox's "Pagans and Christians". It's reputation as a classic in the history of religion in late antiquity is well deserved, a brilliant, impeccably researched monograph. And he definitely blows out of the water some of the common skeptical cliches about Christian 'borrowing' from pagan religion. For example:

"The cult of saints and worship at the graves of the dead have been seen as a pagan legacy, as have the Christian shrines of healing and smaller details of Christian practice, dancing, feasting and the use of spells and divination...However, almost all of this continuity is spurious. Many of its details were set in Christian contexts which changed their meaning entirely. Other details merely belonged in contexts which nobody wished to make Christian. They were part of a 'neutral technology of life'..." (p.22)

Specific comments are more interesting. Just to give two examples, Lane Fox refers to Epicrates, who lived around 100 A.D. and who believed that he saw his dead son frequently in "dreams, signs and other appearances." The conclusion Lane Fox draws from this and other evidence is that "Throughout antiquity, pagans believed that the spirit of a dead man might be visible beyond the grave: posthumous 'appearance' were no novelty." (pp.142-143)

This might at first sight count against the uniqueness of the Resurrection appearances, but actually it is an argument in favor of uniqueness, because of the phenomenology and language used to describe the above experiences. They are APPEARANCES of someone known to be dead. They happened reliably if not, perhaps, very frequently, but they did not give rise to the claim that somebody had been raised from the dead. More importantly, they did not produce radical transformations in worldview and political allegiance. Here a second comment is relevant, about 'visitations' from the gods in the pagan world:

"Art and the long centuries of literature had combined with myth and general setting of its stories to contain these visions in harmless traditional forms. Their beneficiaries took no stand against authority and did not claim to kow better than their civic leaders in the matter of pleasing the gods. The divine dreams of Artemidorus and his friends sounded no call for reform or orthodoxy and took no interest in history." (p.165)

The early Christian experiences of the risen Jesus certainly did not fit the category of 'harmless traditional forms'. They prompted the apostle Peter to insist that "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) and the apostle Paul and his converts to call Jesus 'Lord' instead of the emperor and describe His coming in terms reserved for an imperial visit. These features set the Christian resurrection appearances apart from pagan counterparts. Of course, it would not be wise to press these dissimilarities too much, as a social scientist or historian would undoubtedly want to account for the transforming nature of the resurrection experiences in similar, if not identical sociological terms, perhaps against the background of prophetic Judaism. But these differences are important just the same, and in fact the picture of vibrancy and vigor which Lane Fox paints of the pagan religion of late antiquity makes it all the more remarkable that a single, obscure religious option among others in an intensely pluralistic, 'live-and-let-live' religious world managed to become the dominant religion of the empire in just a few centuries.


Jason Pratt said…
I was with you, JD, down to the "few short months" at the end. I'm still trying to figure out what this is supposed to be referring to. It doesn't seem to make sense as a typo, either.

Good post otherwise. {g}

Anonymous said…
Uh, yeah, I really meant to write centuries. Don't know how that got away from me...
Jason Pratt said…
As a guess, you may have been originally composing or planning to compose the end of the paragraph, to be about the contrast of how a dejected band of gravely disillusioned (pun intended {g}) Jesus followers somehow transformed in just a few short months into a group who would spearhead what would eventually become the dominant religion of an intensely pluralistic 'live-and-let-live' religious world.

Same point, but your eventual formuation puts it more shortly--but the 'few months' may have been left over as either a physical or mental editing/composition typo. (I've done that myself a couple of times during composition and then wondered what in the heck I was thinking... {g})

Edwardtbabinski said…
I read the book. Did you get to the part where Fox explains how and why Christianity grew and overtook paganism? He made some interesting points.

Edward T. Babinski
Jason Pratt said…
Doubt he's gotten there yet, Ed. He had eye surgery recently.


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