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And Man Created God:
Kings, Cults, and Conquests at the Time of Jesus.
By Selina O’Grady.
(NY Times Review)
THE rulers of ancient Rome were ruthlessly pragmatic in matters of religion. When a tribe was subdued and its lands added to the imperial realm, Rome would appropriate the subject-people’s gods and add them to an ever-growing pantheon of exotic divinities. When Augustus asserted supreme political power, he also claimed divine status; the cities of the empire were encouraged to compete with one another in the fervour of their emperor-worship.
In her sweeping account of relations between faith and power at the dawn of the Christian era, Selina O’Grady presents the political uses of pagan religion, set amid all the luxury and decadence of Roman life, with great relish and descriptive power. She goes on to examine the interplay of authority and faith in many other parts of the world, particularly in Persia, India and China. The result is an enjoyable, informative romp through the subject of comparative religion.
But Ms O’Grady, a British broadcaster and writer, has a more ambitious purpose. By looking at many different forms of theocracy and Caesaropapism, she hopes to create a context that renders comprehensible the emergence of Jesus of Nazareth as a preacher in villages in Galilee, the wildfire spread of Christianity, and its adoption as the official religion by the Roman empire. In other words, she is seeking a straightforward secular explanation for the historical phenomenon that Christianity itself ascribes to the work of the Holy Spirit.
She thus enters an arena into which biblical scholars began crowding half a century ago: how, if at all, does the “historical Jesus” relate to the Christ of faith and dogma? With accomplished journalistic flair, she posits answers with far greater confidence than any academic writer, choking on footnotes, could muster.
To the scholarly secular enquirer, certainty about the historical Jesus is elusive. The written evidence is thin to non-existent, and the import of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the few sources for the period that is mainly in a Semitic language, is hotly contested. But Ms O’Grady’s ideas are very clear. Jesus, for her, was one of many wandering preachers and miracle-workers who made no particular claim to be divine but did articulate a form of Jewish nationalism. (Why, one might object, did he urge followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s?”) The “Son of God”, in whose name Roman and Byzantine emperors ruled, was in Ms O’Grady’s view constructed by Paul, who fashioned Christianity into a religion that was both universalist (appealing, as Islam does, to the whole of humanity) and politically quietist, and therefore ideal for an empire.
The author makes some good points. Imperial peace, both in ancient Rome and in other eras, was in a paradoxical way a cause of social and cultural dislocation. It made commerce and travel possible, allowing intercourse between separate ethnic and religious groups. Her argument that universalist religion is useful to an empire is sound though not original; work by a British scholar, Garth Fowden, on monotheism in late antiquity should have been included in her bibliography.
Ms O’Grady observes that Paul was, in a sense, solving a private problem when he devised a religion for the whole of humanity—the identity problem of a devout and zealous Jew who had a Greek education and was a Roman citizen. Three centuries later, Rome’s masters found that Paul’s answer to his own dilemmas corresponded precisely to the empire’s ideological needs.
Her argument rises to a crescendo in a final chapter about how “Paul created Christ”; or how the apostle devised a serviceable form of world-religion based on his mystical intimations of a divine figure whom he had “met” only in visions. Both ends of her argument—that Paul responded creatively to his personal dilemmas, and that belief in one God held the late Roman empire together—are convincing enough; but in her attempts to trace what happened in the first 300 years of Christian history, many causal links are missing. Even were the reader persuaded to allow that enduring jail, whippings and shipwrecks was Paul’s own approach to identity politics, it is still hard to understand how he persuaded so many others to follow suit. Whatever the answer, it surely takes more than a 30-page chapter to set it out.
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When Jesus was preaching, he faced serious competition — and not just from the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Baptists and all the other Jewish cults. Across the Roman world and beyond, argues this madly ambitious mega-history, religions were proliferating. Syrian devotees of Atargatis were castrating themselves to prove their loyalty to their fishtailed goddess. Linen-robed followers of Egypt’s Isis cult were dancing themselves into frenzies. Gaulish Druids were burning sacrificial victims inside giant figures made of straw. The world, in short, was filled with thousands of gods who “jostled, competed and merged” in a “great churn” of religions, fuelled by unprecedented global trade and urbanisation.
Selina O’Grady is a former BBC producer who has evidently developed an obsession over six years of research. Her book describes the religions and cults of the time of Jesus, from Rome to China, via Palestine and India. It tries to explain why one succeeded and another fell, and why a jealous god who tolerated no rivals emerged as pre-eminent in the West.
O’Grady ties her grand project together by focusing on crucial moments. So a chapter on the Pharisees begins with their terrorist attack, in 4BC, on the golden imperial eagle that perched sacrilegiously over one of the temple gates. This leads to an analysis of how they radicalised the Jewish people, forcing them to choose between religion and Rome. An account of Chinese Confucianism centres on the notorious usurpation of the Han dynasty’s throne by Wang Mang in 1BC, and ponders his mismanagement of the imperial Mandate of Heaven. A description of the invasion of India by the Buddhist Kushan empire opens in AD65 — “about a year after Paul and a group of fellow Christians were probably put to death by Nero”; it concludes that austere Buddhism failed to insinuate itself into the lives of India’s people, in the way that the Brahmins so successfully did.
None of this is original, but the evocative detail is excellent. When Emperor Ai of China lay dying “in his vermilion chambers, under a bedspread of seeded pearls”, in 1BC, “black gibbons and peacocks howled in the imperial gardens”. When Pontius Pilate presided over Jerusalem, “the cries of the sentinels could be heard answering one another from the 100 feet-high towers that punctured the fortress”. When the Greek geographer Strabo arrived in boomtown Alexandria in about 24BC, he found temples to Jupiter, Atargatis, Cybele, Baal and Apollo — the latter housing “one of Helen of Troy’s sandals, the egg from which she was hatched and Orpheus’s lyre”. On the wharves, “Egyptian men in pigtails haggled, hustled and traded with Gauls… and even with Britons who, though they towered half a foot above the tallest people in Rome, were not very prepossessing”.
As a series of portrait miniatures, then, the book is entertaining, but minor mistakes make you worry what else might be amiss. Meroitic hieroglyphs have been deciphered; it’s the language behind them that remains mysterious. The Taklamakan desert almost certainly does not mean “the place where he who goes in does not come out”. Life expectancies cannot be “less than 30%”. Amoebas do not merge, they divide.
More troublingly, the overarching story is squashed, rather than underpinned, by what feels like an MA thesis in the sociology of religion. The story of the failed Roman invasion in 26BC of southern Arabia is awkwardly married to an argument about how the Augustan peace allowed trade to flourish. The extraordinary account of the pharaoh-like queen of Meroe, who invaded Roman Egypt in 21BC, runs into a debate about how social complexity gives rise to “philosophies of the self”.
O’Grady strains to knit everything together with arguments about how empires sponsor religions and vice versa, why trading peoples need universal, not tribal faiths, and why they yearn for individual salvation. But is it possible to compare the Confucianism underlying Chinese bureau‑ cracy with the cult fostered by Augustus, or the failure of Buddhism in India with the collapse of the Isis cult in Egypt? As for Christianity, O’Grady says it succeeded, in part, because Augustus had provided an example of how a man might be deified. She argues that Paul’s centralised Christianity schooled adherents “to love their dependency”, making them good subjects for the Roman empire. This is not new and it’s not the whole story. Christianity also won the race because its stories, communities and moral codes were appealing, and because it felt, to its believers, more true. In offering grand geopolitical explanations, O’Grady never gets close enough to what also drives religion: the longings of the individual human heart.
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