Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Couple of Points About Judeo-Christian History and Some Reasons it's So Poorly Understood

It has been pointed out before that many New Atheists spend a lot of time talking and writing about the history of religion, most of all the early history of Judaism and Christianity, while at the same time betraying a remarkable ignorance about that history: referring to the authors of the Bible as "Bronze Age goat herders," talking about how Constantine and "the Vatican" supposedly wrote or re-wrote the Bible at Nicea in 325, insisting that a Christian doctrine of celibacy was unknown before around AD 1000, and so forth. Lately, in discussion centering around Karen L King's presentation of a piece of papyrus she refers to as the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," I've run into a meme which is very popular but was entirely new to me: the belief that "all" Jewish men in the 1st century AD were required to be married. An amazing number of people seem to take for granted that this is so. I asked many of them where they had gotten this notion, without getting a straight answer. Finally yesterday I found out that the "all Jewish men in Jesus' time were required to be married" meme is another mistake presented in that huge pile of mistakes, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

A few days ago I was talking with some people about the widespread, thoroughly unscientific belief that vaccinations cause autism. A psychotherapist, a specialist in autism, pointed out that the people asserting the vaccine-autism link and attempting to treat autistics with crystals and pyramids are extremely mistrustful of the medical establishment, thinking that doctors and pharmaceutical companies are primarily interested in maximizing their incomes, at the expense of the best possible medical care. I replied that they were partly right, that many people in health care are primarily motivated by greed -- but that those people were working side by side with the people capable of providing the best care, the people who were by far the most expert in the field of medicine. That in fact sometimes one and the same doctor or Big Pharma exec must have both of those motivations, fighting against each other. There's a similar situation with the established academic community in the study of religion: there's a cozy relationship with rich and corrupt religious institutions, with apologetics who are not always sincere, with people who abuse children and/or protect child abusers from prosecution, etc. But these corrupt individuals are working side by side with those who know the most about the history of religion, indeed they're sometimes the same individuals.

Just as the business of medicine and pharmacy must address corruption within its ranks if it wishes to reach people who, for example, die unnecessarily early from cancer because they don't trust doctors and don't take prescription medications, so we who grind our teeth and clutch or heads in agony at the widespread notions of history which have far more to do with authors like Dan Brown than with any sort of rigourous historical study must address the corruptions and crimes of Christianity if we wish to get through to people who think that Constantine and "the Vatican" re-wrote the Bible, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a Christian, and is lying if they say they're not a Christian. Let's face it, the great majority of the people who are taking the trouble to correct Brown's mistakes are Christians. The great majority of people who are familiar with a lot of the actual history of the early Church are Christians.

Just in case someone's reading along here who's familiar with Brown's take on things, but still willing to consider the possibility that I can present a more accurate depiction of events, and that I have no secret agenda here, let's just take the one Brownian mistake about Constantine and the Pope re-writing the Bible at Nicea in 325:

1) Pope Sylvester wasn't at Nicea, he sent two representatives in his place.

2) In 325 the Bishop of Rome wasn't generally referred to as the Pope, but simply as the Bishop of Rome, and wasn't thought of as a higher authority within Christendom than the Bishop of Alexandria or of Antioch. The Pope's position of power in the Western Empire only began to establish itself after the Western Empire disintegrated in the 5th century, and the Church stepped into the power vacuum left by the Empire.

3) The contents of the Bible weren't on the agenda of the Council of Nicea. Constantine's main reason for calling the Council was to address the constant bickering between the Bishops. The two biggest competing factions in Christendom were the factions which eventually defeated the others and became what we now know as Orthodox (including what we now call Catholics); and the Arians. The Orthodox Bishops far outnumbered the Arian Bishops at the Council, and the Council adopted the Nicene Creed, which was first and foremost a rejection of Arianism. It's not clear that Constantine cared which side won, as long as unity was achieved, and that he wouldn't have backed the Arians if there had been more of their Bishops at the Council than Orthodox Bishops.

4) Constantine created a second capital of the Empire at the city which became known as Constantinople. This of course greatly weakened the power and prestige of the city of Rome, and along with it the power and prestige of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. This does not sound to me like an Emperor who was conspiring with the Pope.

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