Tag Archives: Tim O’Neill

Pagans: A Review

Rome’s famous Colosseum, right before dusk (October 2018)

If you have a “bucket list,” of things do in this life, consider putting a trip to Rome on there. My wife and I spent two weeks last October, walking through Rome’s ancient side streets, following tour guides underground in the Catacombs, and savoring some delicious food above ground, all while uncovering layers and layers of buried history. I could have spent a whole month in Rome, and still hungered for more.

What stood out to me the most was how this once great center of pagan, classical culture, was overtaken by the story of Christianity. How did this marbled, sculptured story of the Greco-Roman world get superseded by the painted images of the Crucified and Risen Christ, found throughout so many of Rome’s churches?

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, by James J. O’Donnell, tells the fascinating story of how “pagan” Rome became Christian Rome.

My wife and I took another trip recently, a bit closer to home, down to Florida and back, which afforded me a lot of time driving and riding in a car … for many hours. It was the perfect opportunity to listen to some Audible audiobooks, so I downloaded James J. O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity , and I enjoyed it immensely. I felt like I was right back there in Rome, ascending the Palantine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum.

Pagans is one of the recommended books that you will find, while viewing Tim O’Neill’s excellent website, History for Atheists. Followers of Veracity will know that Tim O’Neill has done a great service by properly educating atheists regarding the accurate history of Christianity, and Christians can learn from him as well.  As an atheist himself, to accuse O’Neill of having a cognitive bias favoring Christianity simply falls flat.

Likewise, O’Donnell, a classical scholar at Arizona State University, and biographer of Saint Augustine of Hippo, manages to correct a lot of popular errors of pagan and early Christian historiography, despite having a somewhat contrarian bent of his own.

In O’Donnell’s retelling, “paganism” as a religious system, did not exist, prior to the rise of Christianity, in the latter days of ancient Rome. The religious traditions of the Greco-Roman world were an amalgamation of various local practices, shrines, and deities, all jumbled together, to be ultimately synthesized by Greek philosophy and Rome’s politics. Christianity essentially invented “paganism” as a concept, as a convenient way of describing what the Christian faith was not. Christianity was unique, as was Judaism, from which it came, in that it claimed that the God is Israel, who raised Jesus from the dead, was the one and only true divine being. The victory of Christianity therefore made the ad hoc assemblage of pagan gods and goddesses irrelevant.

In describing the transition of the pagan world to a Christian Rome, O’Donnell skewers many common misperceptions, that all too often get tossed together along with other “fake news” of our day, propagated by social media. Take the word, “pagan” itself. Historically, to be “pagan” had no religious connotation. The root word, pagani, simply meant “country folk.” This makes great sense considering that the early Christian movement took root in cities like Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, and not the countryside.

More “fake news” gets annihilated with O’Donnell’s prose. No, the emperor Constantine did not impose his imperial thumb on the Christian church, in order to “make” Jesus into a God, at the Council of Nicea. If anything, O’Donnell correctly shows that Constantine went along with the bishops’ decisions at Nicea, affirming the divinity of Jesus, largely as a matter of political expediency. But he  was actually more sympathetic to the Arian heresy, that situated Jesus as being something greater than merely human, but nevertheless, still not wholly divine. You can think of Constantine as a politicized promoter of Jehovah’s Witnesses-style theology, as opposed to someone who supposedly “made” Jesus into becoming God.

It was not until emperor Theodosius, several regimes later, that orthodox Christianity, as we know it today, got the full rubber stamp from the seat of political power in Rome, as affirmed by the church at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

This did not mean that Theodosius’ orthodox theology necessarily made him a nice guy. Theodosius was excommunicated from the church, by the influential bishop Ambrose, following a massacre that Theodosius ordered in Thessalonica. Only after months of penance was the emperor readmitted back into the church. Though Theodosius did crack down on pagan temples, much of the old ways of the Greco-Roman gods were already fading away.

Veracity blogger, on-site, overlooking the Roman Forum, in 2018, where the “pagan” culture of Rome reigned supreme, until the story of the Crucified and Resurrected One superseded it.

Furthermore, the greatest Christian thinkers of the 4th and 5th centuries, like Ambrose and Augustine, made use of the classical tradition, when it served the purposes of promoting the Gospel. They were not afraid of any inherently polluting influence of paganism, though such thinkers often disagreed with one another, as to what aspects of pagan culture could be redeemed, and what aspects of pagan culture should be rejected, when advancing the cause of the faith.

I appreciated O’Donnell’s frank retelling of this fascinating period, avoiding the over-romanticization of Christianity’s history, on the one side, while also correcting a lot of the misinformation, regularly propagated by atheists on the Internet, on the other. It was a relief to hear from a genuine scholar. Alas, O’Donnell’s contrarian tendency disturbed me at a few points, which I thought took away from his overall presentation.

For example, O’Donnell matter of factly describing Saint Augustine of Hippo to be entirely ambitious in using his rhetorical skills, to promote himself, as a defender of the faith. I can see this in Augustine as the young Christian, but I would certainly hope that as Augustine matured, so would his growth in sanctification. Plus, O’Donnell’s insistence that Augustine never actually “converted” to the Christian faith, came across as forced and unconvincing. Yes, Augustine had a Christian mother, and so he surely did have some basic Christian instruction as a child. But that did not mean that Augustine automatically embraced his mother’s faith. Augustine’s Confessions still tells that story of his conversion, as a young man, into the loving arms of Jesus, rather well.

But aside from a few prickly moments like these, I found O’Donnell to be generally an excellent, accurate tour guide of ancient Rome. O’Donnell does not reveal where his sympathies regarding the Christian faith really stand (based on his few, cynical digs, here and there, he probably is not), but for a work of history like this, he need not to. If you want to understand how the ancient world transitioned from “paganism” to Christianity, O’Donnell’s Pagans would be a good place to start.

 

See Don Webb’s excellent review of Pagans here, and Michael Bird’s brief review.

The Temple of Vesta, in the Roman Forum, was a site for “pagan” cultic activity, back to the 7th century before Christ. The temple was eventually closed during the late 4th century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of Rome.


Do the “New Atheists” Get Their History Right?

“The Course of Empire: The Destruction.” Thomas Cole, 1836, showing the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D., by the pagan Visigoths.  But was the destruction of classical Greco-Roman culture, really the fault of the Christians instead?

You might have heard some of these historical claims before: Jesus never existed. The emperor Constantine colluded with church leaders at Nicea to fix the New Testament canon. Medieval Christians believed the Bible to teach that the earth was flat, until Christopher Columbus proved them wrong. Christians persecuted leading early scientists, in order to defend their erroneous Bible. And on it goes.

I have addressed some of these topics before on Veracity (Jesus “mythicism”, Constantine and Nicea, the Giordano Bruno affair). But someone could easily dredge up the ad hominem claim, that as a Christian, my sympathies are biased, and can not be trusted by any rational, thinking person. For the sake of the argument, let me concede the criticism: Why take my word for anything?

In answering this, I would suggest that readers consult a fascinating website, History for Atheists. Tim O’Neill does a great job dismantling such pseudo-historical claims, that get uncritically passed on over the Internet, and through television media, advancing the agenda of so-called “New Atheists,” along the lines of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But what makes Tim O’Neill compelling is that he is an unapologetic atheist himself. He would not find much credible to my Christian faith.

Of course, I would beg to differ. But O’Neill is actually an ally for truth, when it comes to history. Tim O’Neill addresses some of the most egregious pseudo-historical claims made by some atheists, in a very substantive and mind-opening manner. For example, in early June, 2018, the New York Times reviewed a book by Catherine Nixey, THE DARKENING AGE: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, that attempts to revive the old, worn-out thesis that the rise of Christianity in the early medieval period led to the so-called “Dark Ages,” through the wholesale violent destruction of classical Greco-Roman culture. Nixey is regarded by some as an “Edward Gibbon” of the post-modern era. In his 18th century classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, Gibbon popularized the thesis that the rise of Christianity played a significant role in the decline of ancient Rome.

For example, Nixey builds on the worst claim of Candida Moss, Notre Dame professor and author of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom , discussed here on Veracity, that the Christians made up nearly all of the persecution stories of martyrs dying for their faith, under pagan Rome. Such propaganda was used as justification for committing appalling violence against their pagan neighbors.

Those “bad” and “evil” Christians!!

Sure enough, if you go to Tim O’Neill’s website, he has a highly critical review of Nixey’s work. Yes, there were cases of violence, statues being destroyed by some Christian enthusiasts, and various Christian martyrdom stories of the early church were exaggerated. However, in the early medieval period, there was clearly a conscious attempt by early medieval Christians to recover what they thought to be the best of classical, pagan culture, that was not in conflict with the Bible. Christianity superseded Roman paganism, but Nixey greatly overplays her “violent, ruthless and intolerant” story of the Christians.  In response, O’Neill is simply brilliant.

As British historian Dan jones says, “History is a vaccine against propaganda.” Even extreme atheist propaganda. How true that is!

The next time you hear about some startling historical claim that tries to throw Christianity into the dustbin of history, you might want to “fact check” those claims by consulting History for Atheists. O’Neill has his biases, but honestly and gladly, he admits them. If only every Christian would be as ruthlessly a seeker of historical truth as Tim O’Neill is, but that is a topic for some other blog post…

 

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