Interpreting Complexity and Contradiction in Christian Texts
The ancient world is often invoked to legitimize or lend credibility to nearly any position imaginable. Movements with diametrically-opposed views will leverage the same reference in service of their cause. Thus the revolt of enslaved people led by Spartacus in the late ’70s CE inspired both abolitionists and enslavers in the 19th century U.S. While it takes an astonishing amount of cognitive dissonance to believe that one is “enslaved” because other people think you shouldn’t be able to own humans, the abolitionists probably didn’t have it right either. Spartacus and his followers weren’t likely aiming for the abolition of the institution of slavery, but they understandably didn’t want to be slaves.
Individuals, institutions, and movements marshal Biblical literature in the same way. Many people believe that the Tanakh and the Christian scriptures carry profound moral weight. Like the Spartacus revolt, these scriptures can legitimize both horrific oppression and true liberation. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The aggressively polemical 2nd-3rd century CE Christian writer Tertullian leveraged Jewish scripture in one of the foundational texts of Christian antisemitism, Adversus Iudaeos (“Against the Jews”). He cites prophecy in the Book of Daniel to legitimize the Roman conquest of Judaea, the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the expulsion of Jews from the city. In the same work, he cites the so-called Blood curse from Matthew 27:25 Sanguis eius super nos et super filios nostros (“let his blood be on us and on our children”), which has been a justification for violence against Jews since the late first century CE. Tertullian was pretty sure of himself, but his certainty, and that of many others, about the meaning of scripture has cost many people their lives.
Biblical texts show cultural interaction and exchange that varies with the concerns and priorities of the authors and their communities over time. It’s often hard to understand them without some knowledge of their social, geographic, and historical context. The book of Ezra contributes to the reestablishment of continuity and coherence in Judaism after the Babylonian Exile. The book of Esther is about a Hebrew queen of Persia preventing a genocide and doesn’t mention God even once. The Song of Songs also never mentions God, and it’s just good, sexy poetry (or a very complicated metaphor for something that needs to be expressed through the imagery of breasts). And the inclusion of these texts in Jewish and Christian scriptures was a matter of debate and selection. Stuff was voted out. There is plenty of biblical literature that isn’t in the Bible.
Looking at the Christian scriptures (the “New Testament,” from a Christian perspective) really excited me in college and still does. I teach parts of them in my high school Latin curriculum as works of literature and cultural or historical sources. They show the development of a movement within Judaism that spread in a Greek-speaking world that was under the political domination of the Roman Empire. This world was created by the gradual Roman conquest of the kingdoms ruled by the descendants of Alexander III of Macedon’s generals.
You can’t escape these cultural layers, and I think we shouldn’t try to. They complicate our relationship to these sacred texts, which are put into the service of oppression as often as liberation and inspiration. One of my favorite books of the Christian scriptures is the Acts of the Apostles, believed to be written by the same author as the Gospel According to Luke. It reads in many ways like one of the ancient Greek novels: a prose narrative in which the followers of Jesus venture across the eastern Mediterranean encountering wonders and marvels, enduring imprisonment, and escaping danger. In the second chapter, the apostles are heard speaking by people from at least 15 places, and each person hears his own language. Two of the apostles are later mistaken for Greek gods because of their miracle-working.
Acts also shows how complicated Christianity’s relationship was to the Greek polytheism and Roman political hegemony surrounding it. One scene in particular never fails to amaze me. Paul and Silas have just converted Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, who lives at Phillippi in Macedonia. Purple cloth was a luxury item in the Roman world, one with political implications and restrictions on who could wear it. The story is set firmly in a historical Roman economy. Phillippi is the site of the battle in which Octavian and Mark Antony finally defeated the faction led by Julius Caesar’s assassins in a civil war sparked by his assassination. Roman imperial history is richly present in the setting as well.
Going to pray, Paul and Silas encounter a young enslaved woman who has a πνεῦμα πύθωνα, a “Pythian spirit” — that is to say, she is possessed by a demon that gives her the gift of prophecy. The Pythia was Apollo’s priestess in Delphi through whom the god’s oracles were (ambiguously) delivered. Her name derives from the monster — the Python — Apollo slew to gain control of the sanctuary of Delphi. Her enslavers use her to make money by telling people’s fortunes. She spends days going around proclaiming to everyone that Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (NSRV). You would think Paul and Silas might find this support in their evangelical work welcome. They don’t. They banish the spirit from her, and her enslavers are angry because their fortune-telling business just lost its moneymaker (a reminder of the brutal and exploitative aspects of the Roman economy).
The complexity and contradiction in this vignette are what make me love it. It implicitly affirms the validity of a prophetic aspect of Greek polytheism while explicitly arguing against it. The young woman’s power is not only recognizably prophetic, but recognizably Greekly prophetic as “Pythian.” It is also, from Paul and Silas’ perspective, valid. What she proclaims, even though it comes from a demonic or pagan source, is their own truth, the truth the author hopes to communicate. But because the Christian truth is being proclaimed in a Greekly, polytheistic way, the demon must be driven out.
Acts continually engages the thorny questions of how to be Christian and Roman at the same time, and the author seems to me to be a little unsure of how to treat the enslaved, possessed fortune teller. He was, we believe, culturally Greek. So was his audience and the references to Greek religion would be obvious and clear to them. Is the prophecy good because he agrees with it? Is it bad because it’s Pythian? It’s correct (from his perspective) and yet the demon must be banished. I love this, both because it ticks all my nerdy boxes, but also because it’s reassuring to know that the foundational books of my religion, like me and most everyone else on Earth, often can’t make a tidy coherence out of the messiness of life.