Bart Ehrman's Church History

Seneca the Younger
Trojan War
Suffering Servant
Fair Play for Cuba
Real and Ideal
The First Missionary

Seneca the Younger

People who follow atheism have heard a certain narrative about the history of relations between Christendom and the pagans. This revolves around the idea that the Christians invented religious intolerance, which the laid-back pagans had no reason to introduce. We discover, from the atheists, that the pagans did not really believe in their own religion. From the public they expected no more than lip service. Who has not heard Richard Dawkins quote "Seneca the Younger:" "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 313). Did Seneca ever actually say something like that? Of course not. It is, however, somewhat similar to a bon mot delivered by Gibbon the free-thinking historian whose history of the late empire drips with scorn for Christianity.

Is it historically verifiable either that the pagans were indifferent to the truth or falsity of religious claims, or that they considered all such claims equal? Certainly it is true that the philosophers were highly critical of the religion of the poets, complaining of the gross immorality of these stories. Given that these same philosophers projected ideal republics banning the myths, or indeed banning the poets, preferring that the populace should be force-fed 'Kwanzaa' style synthetic religions, it is not clear how this could have been a way-station on the road to the development of religious toleration. The atheists' intent, in inventing their 'Seneca the Younger' myth, is to invert the Christian narrative, which tells of how brave believers, faithful unto death, stood up to the vicious persecution by the pagan state. ". . .the Roman state was massively tolerant, but not infinitely so." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 89). If Rome, after all, was so wonderfully tolerant, why did they feed Christians to the lions for refusing to worship the emperor? Why did they wrap Rabbi Akiba in a scroll of the law and burn him to death?

The historical Seneca, not the re-imagined atheist one, was an interesting figure, who held comparatively enlightened ideas about, for example, even slavery:

"What we have to seek for, then, is that which does not each day pass more and more under the control of some power which cannot be withstood. And what is this? It is the soul,— but the soul that is upright, good, and great. What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? A soul like this may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman's son or a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedmen's son, or a slave? They are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong. One may leap to heaven from the very slums." (Seneca, Letter XXXI).

How wonderful it would be if the atheists could leave Seneca alone — he wasn't an atheist — and let Seneca just be Seneca. He wasn't a Christian either, true enough; his thought does not rise to the level of Christian charity. The narrative about wonderful tolerance, which might be accurate for little things, runs into a brick wall with the big things, where Roman paganism was without question a persecuting faith. People who are interested in discovering classical thought in its full-orbed complexity, not the impoverished, one-dimensional, reductionist version given us by modern 'scholarship,' might be interested in reading who is by no means a modern atheist, nor an atheist at all, nor yet a Christian, although he may have been aware of Christianity:


Lucius Annaeus Seneca


The atheists tell us that paganism was wonderfully tolerant. So they insist: "The [Roman] religions on the whole were massively inclusive and highly tolerant." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 94). And if a prevalence of skepticism and unbelief in the one case did not produce true religious toleration, and it did not, then why should it be imagined it would do so under more modern circumstances?

One must concede to Gibbon and his co-religionists that it wasn't long from the time of the Christian martyrs until the Christians themselves began enforcing religious conformity, against the very pagans who had formerly tormented them. This never should have happened; but pretending that the classical era when paganism dominated was the lost golden age for religious toleration is ahistorical. The latest entrant in this familiar field of atheist fiction is Bart Ehrman, who assures us that the pagans had no reason to dispute god-claims on behalf of any aspirant, real or imaginary, but instead happily added new gods to their pantheon whenever such appeared. He portrays the pagans as laid-back, tolerant folks who did not get worked up about religion.

He cannot altogether deny that Christians were persecuted, but lays this aside as an anomaly. He denies, not only that the pagan world knew nothing of forced conversion or observance, but that there was any such thing as 'conversion' prior to the rise of Christianity: "Because of the open nature of polytheism, there was virtually no such thing as 'conversion.'" (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 81),— though it is difficult to know how people like Philo Judaeus' nephew Tiberius Julius Alexander should be described, if not as a convert to paganism. Certainly the later apostate emperor Julian was a convert, to an aggressive, and self-confident, religion. Is Ehrman's happy-talk about the Roman empire entirely accurate?

Picking up the newspaper today, we learn that the Buddhist Sinhalese of Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, are rioting against the Muslim minority in that country. They can't do that, because they're pagans? We read of Hindu extremists persecuting Christians in India. They can't do that, because they're pagans? Of course they can do these things, which are by no means novel in the history of paganism. The history of pagan intolerance is long, brutal and and bloody. Like all other people, pagans tend to regard their own viewpoint, just as it is, as the correct one, and other folks' viewpoint as wrong. The idea that paganism is inherently tolerant is willed into existence by those who wish to promote atheism. The pagan gods weren't jealous gods? They could be. You didn't necessarily want to get on their bad side. Let's look at an actual example, of the rise of a major god, to compare the reality of paganism with the air-brushed, smiley-face version:

Homeric Hymn
To Dionysus
The Bacchae

Dionysus wasn't an out-of-the-way, parked in the corner type of god; the festival which produced the great Greek tragedies, monuments of the human imagination, was dedicated to him. How does the real-life information offered in these works, which show how the powers-that-be tried but failed to interdict his worship, line up with the pabulum Ehrman is feeding us? Do we discover there was nothing controversial about new gods, they were welcomed aboard on all sides? Was adopting a new form of worship no big deal?:

"Conversion was not a widely known phenomenon in antiquity. Pagan religions had almost nothing like it. They were polytheistic, and anyone who decided, as a pagan, to worship a new or different god was never required to relinquish any former gods or their previous patterns of worship. Pagan religions were additive, not restrictive. . .Among pagans—that is, among the 93 percent or so of the world that by custom, habit, and inclination worshiped multiple gods—worshiping a range of divine beings was not a religion that anyone chose. It was simply what people did. "

(Ehrman, Bart D. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (pp. 14-15). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)

As seen in the 'Bacchae' and the Homeric hymn to Dionysus, it was a big deal. Worshipping Dionysus was what one did, if one did not wish to be dismembered by one's own mother. Of course Dionysus, who brought along madness and murder in his train, was a tough case. The Bacchic movement resembled the hippies of the 1960's and 1970's. Just as Timothy Leary urged young people then to blow out their brains with drugs, so Dionysus' acolytes urged people to waste their lives in drunkenness. This cult was not "time-honored" upon first appearance, any more than any other new religious movement is. Can Ehrman seriously believe there were no new cults in antiquity?: "No pagan would have understood what it would mean to call themselves pagan. They were simply acting in time-honored ways of worshiping the gods." (Ehrman, Bart D., The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 15). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.) He fails to notice the dynamism of a still-living religion, vividly on display in the actual history, even while himself making the point that paganism did not die a natural death.

Pentheus torn by His Mother Agave, Roman, Pompeii

The early adopters of the Dionysian religion were not acting in "time-honored" ways, that is why it was controversial. What do you  know, it turns out that Ehrman is well aware that the Roman Senate suppressed the worship of Bacchus, but we are to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, as in his plodding way he explains that it is still nevertheless true that "the Roman state was massively tolerant" (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 89). So they were "massively tolerant," except when they suppressed new religions they did not like. Got it. And the new religions, even though they were new, had been practiced from "time immemorial". . .on another planet maybe? Got it.

The efforts made by various political jurisdictions to bar Dionysian worship ended in total failure. Ultimately this worship was practiced quite openly, even in Rome. Plutarch and his wife were initiates in the Dionysian mysteries. When was it actually ever totally suppressed? In the aftermath of the great mortality caused by the ravages of the black death in Europe, during the fourteenth century, dancing manias broke out. Large groups romped from town to town, dancing in the public square to the point of exhaustion. Why on earth? Some contemporary descriptions plainly describe neurological complications, choreas and dystonias, which might have been a consequence of survival from the plague.

Euripides A Mocker
The Historical Dionysus Other Gods
Mother Nature Religious Liberty
Mixing Bowl Dancing Manias


While these unfortunate sufferers may have formed the core of the problem, it plainly spread beyond that, and morphed into a mass movement. Was this phenomenon a recrudescence of the Dionysiac revels? That would explain why Roman Catholic priests who encountered these people resorted to exorcism. To this day there are practitioners of the Hellenic religion, who drive the Greek Orthodox Church into paroxysms. Nevertheless, to Bart Ehrman, paganism has to be state-sponsored, not to mention "time-honored." What state is driving these modern pagans into reviving these practices? Is their motivation actually different from the pagans of long ago? How would he know this?

Where does "time-honored" come from? In the present day, are cargo cults "time-honored"? These sprung up like mushrooms, overnight, upon the observation by native peoples that the white folks obtained their wealth through receipt of 'cargo.' Pentheus, along with other members of the governing class, not having got the memo that adopting new gods was simply what people did, tried to stop the new cult of Dionysus, fool that he was: "Anyone who chose to begin worshipping a new god was welcome to do so. . ." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 81). He disliked this particular novelty amongst the gods and tried to suppress the worship of Dionysus, and so as punishment he was ripped to shreds by his own mother. He understood there was no separation of church and state in antiquity, but his mother did not understand that. All is not sweetness and light, nor "time-honored," amongst the pagans. "Time-honored"? Do you want to know how the Roman system of augury was discovered? They borrowed it from the Etruscans, who learned it from a little boy. A man was plowing his field, and he plowed up this little boy, see:

"It seems useless to say more about soothsaying. However, let us examine its origin and thus we shall very readily determine its value. The tradition is that, once upon a time, in the district of Tarquinii, while a field was being plowed, the plowshare went deeper than usual and a certain Tages suddenly sprang forth and spoke to the plowman. Now this Tages, according to the Etruscan annals, is said to have had the appearance of a boy, but the wisdom of a seer. Astounded and much frightened at the sight, the rustic raised a great cry; a crowd gathered and, indeed, in a short time, the whole of Etruria assembled at the spot. Tages then spoke at length to his numerous hearers, who received with eagerness all that he had to say, and committed it to writing. His whole address was devoted to an exposition of the science of soothsaying." (Cicero, On Divination, Book II, Chapter 23).

The child explained the system to the man. Hey, if you can't rely on first-hand disclosure from a little boy you just plowed up, then where would you expect to find worthwhile, trustworthy and reliable information? Words like 'unimpeachable' spring to mind. "Time-honored," my hind foot. Later on it may have been time-honored, though no more reliable than when first expounded, but at the start, it was not time-honored. Ask, why did the first adopters adopt it, not what did people say about it when nobody believed in it any more. To this endeavor, Ehrman brings nothing to the table; he can't even imagine why, and simply denies the evident facts: "To start, we might reflect further on why pagans followed their religious customs in the first place. On one level, of course, most pagans practiced religion simply because that was what everyone had always done and what they themselves had been instructed to do since early childhood." (Ehrman, Bart D., The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 110). Simon & Schuster.)

The Minotaur, George Frederick Watts

At first the reader of this new book is refreshed to meet a 'new' Bart Ehrman, who comes across as deliberative, careful and reflective. He does not lead off by demanding, as in his other projects, that we believe ten impossible things before breakfast, like that the literacy rate in classical antiquity was only one percent. But he soon reverts to type, with his counter-factual insistence that paganism was wonderfully tolerant. His answers to questions about paganism are as simplistic and one-dimensional as his understanding of Christianity. Why did Christianity spread? Because of miracles. Certainly the Book of Acts does report the electrifying impact seeing a miracle before one's very eyes has on a crowd. But this answer does not 'scale up' well. While the early church era was a time of miracles, no one has ever suggested that the hundreds of thousands, even millions of early converts to Christianity can have personally witnessed a miracle, other than the recurring miracle of the Holy Spirit speaking to the human heart. No text suggests that hearing about a miracle at second or third hand has anything like the effect of the present and visible miracles of Acts.

There is no text that describes mass conversions occurring because people encountered "someone who knew someone else who knew someone else who observed [miracles]." (p. 143). He is substituting what he happens to believe, his 'word of mouth' routine, for what the texts say. As an atheist, Bart cannot believe there are miracles: "Let me be clear that I am not saying that Christian missionaries were actually performing the miraculous works. . ." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 70), though he does believe there are urban legends, stories heard at third or fourth hand. Thus, we run the texts through the filter of Bart's personal beliefs, and come up with the amended version, our familiar game of 'telephone.' This is Bart's personal reality, and it works for him. The texts say, people prefer sight to hearing, though they will rely on hearing if sight is withheld: "And said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world." (John 4:42). In Bart's world, there can be no sight, because there can be no miracles; hearing is all there is. So we must all agree, and adjust the texts accordingly.

Our author has the bad habit of combining what ancient texts say with what he happens to believe about the world, and as a result coming up with a past that never was. We know that ancient medicine was unavailing; in spite of repeated good intentions about relying on empiricism, ancient medicine was dogged by out-of-control theorizing, like the pagan Galen's theory of the four humors. Therapies based on this misconception of physiology, like blood-letting, probably helped usher a lot of people into an early grave. He knows this:

"Even today people feel nearly helpless against the ravages of one epidemic, disease, or illness or another; prior to the invention of modern medicine, everyone felt that way, against each and every one of them."
(Ehrman, Bart D.. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 87). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)

In other words, in spite of the large sums of money spent on medical fees in antiquity, people understood the discipline was worthless, because he knows that it was. They didn't know that. Why would they have wasted such large sums on the doctors if they did? Luke tells us about the women who had spent all her money on the doctors: "And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, which had spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any. . ." (Luke 8:43). Why did she do that if she knew they could not help her? In fact, going to the doctor in antiquity was pretty much a waste of time and money; there would be an epidemic sweeping through town, and he would tell you to change your diet. They lacked the germ theory of disease. The people knew epidemic disease was contagious; Thucydides tells heart-breaking tales of people abandoning their loved ones for fear of contagion; but the doctors groped for a way in which that would be possible. So why did people not realize that their doctors knew nothing? A good contemporary example would be the 'Jesus' Publishing Industry. People see a substantial social investment; they see universities granting degrees, and they assume, there must be something to it. The reality is that the emperor has no clothes, the doctors may well have shortened more lives than they ever prolonged, but people assume otherwise.

He constructs a world that never was, by combining his realization that ancient medicine was unavailing, with people's natural desire to be well. Similarly, the Book of Acts says that people converted in droves when they saw miracles with their own eyes. But Bart is an atheist, so there can be no miracles. Therefore, people must have converted (in small numbers) when they heard third and fourth-hand tales, distorted through the game of 'telephone,' of things that never actually happened. The 'evidence' for this are the texts that say people converted in large numbers when they saw miracles with their own eyes! But no text says that people converted either en masse or in trickles on the strength of third and fourth-hand rumors. One could simply deny that what the text says ever happened; but instead he mixes and matches with what he knows, or thinks he knows, about the world, thus producing a novel creation of his own, a past that never was.

It's true that the pagans liked the smell of antiquity, that's why they were always faking it. Orpheus was a truly ancient figure, who sung his hymns during the misty age of Hercules. Yet you could go to the store and buy a copy. How is such magic wrought? Very easily: "'Orpheus was contemporary with Hercules; moreover, the writings afterwards attributed to him are said to have been composed by Onomacritus of Athens, who lived during the government of the Pisistratidae about the fiftieth Olympiad." (Tatian, quoted in Eusebius of Caesarea. Praeparatio Evangelica (The Preparation of the Gospel) (Kindle Locations 7715-7717). Book X, Chapter XI.). 'Time immemorial' might mean, last week. Ehrman's account, of new gods adored from time immemorial, from habit, cannot even be reconciled with itself, much less with history. How could the decent folk know or predict what these new-fangled pagan gods wanted or expected? They were always turning up where you did not expect them, like when you were plowing the back forty. You don't even want to hear about Cybele, whose worship attracted the Bruce Jenner's of antiquity. Paganism was not for the faint of heart; this bowdlerized, sanitized, cleaned-up version is not the real thing. He repeatedly stresses that a pagan was "a person who accepted the existence of gods and worshipped them by following customs that had been followed since time immemorial." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 77). If that really is definitional, then what shall we call a follower of Alexander of Abonoteichus? This travelling charlatan promoted a new god named 'Glycon,'

"Little by little, Bithynia, Galatia, and Thrace came pouring in, for everyone who carried the news very likely said that he not only had seen the god born but had subsequently touched him, after he had grown very great in a short time and had a face that looked like a man’s. Next came paintings and statues and cult-images, some made of bronze, some of silver, and naturally a name was bestowed upon the god. He was called Glycon in consequence of a divine behest in metre; for Alexander proclaimed:

“Glycon am I, the grandson of Zeus, bright beacon to mortals!” (Lucian of Samosata, Alexander the False Prophet, Chapter 18).

Who were the people that were worshipping Glycon? They can't have been pagans, because Bart assures us that the pagans were people "who worshipped numerous divine beings by local customs that had been handed down over the centuries and that everyone simply took for granted." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 64). And yet Glycon does not seem to have lacked worshippers. Since Alexander invented Glycon, who had ever worshipped Glycon from infancy?: "The first, and undoubtedly most difficult, step in converting pagans to Christianity was to convince them to turn away from the gods they had worshiped from infancy—gods that not just their immediate families but also all their friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and, in fact, with the exception of Jews, everyone in their entire world worshiped." (Ehrman, Bart D., The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 65). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.) You need to be willing to look at the facts. Did it really take years to arrive at the ritual acts associated with Glycon-worship?: "There was instead an enormously varied set of ritual practices, each one formed by many years of custom and tradition." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 84). Since these statements are not strictly true, why make them at all, and why stress them so repetitively and insistently? When the emperor Hadrian's little boy-friend, Antinous, died, the whole world was expected, not only to join in the mourning, but to worship the young man as a god: "'Another new god the Roman Emperor has deified with great solemnity in Egypt, and almost in Greece; his favorite Antinous, who was extremely beautiful, was deified by him, as Ganymede was by Zeus.'" (quoted in Eusebius of Caesarea, Preparation for the Gospel, Kindle location 1431, Book II, Chapter VI). The suckers who paid money for this book are supposed to be numb enough to believe that Antinous-worship was "formed by many years of custom and tradition"? The traits he wants to make definitional for paganism, conservatism and communalism, are often simply not on display at all. Though you wouldn't know it from his sanitized version, paganism was an efficient way, starting from one person's nightmare, to make a whole city go mad. The city fathers tried their hardest to channel the energies liberated by paganism into constructive, pro-social conduits; the laws encouraged traditional, customary worship and discouraged novel sects. How well they succeeded may be judged by the reader of the Dionysus literature.

In the ancient world, religion was partly the business of the state, which erected magnificent and impressive temples. But it was also the profit-making concern of private enterprise, the hopeful occupation of a horde of self-starting entrepreneurs, like Alexander of Abonoteichus, whose glove-puppet snake god had not been around from "time immemorial," nor indeed before last Wednesday. If advancing a certain thesis requires endlessly repeating things which are no more than half-truths at best, then the thesis is devoid of positive value. It is difficult to make sense of Ehrman's thesis, or find his point, other than to promote the old atheist myth that Roman paganism just had to be wonderfully tolerant, even as they threw the Christians to the lions. This difficulty must be inverted, so as to blame the victims. It is true that the Roman empire was by no means as intolerant as the later Muslim empire would prove to be. The Romans did not stamp out native languages, replacing them with Latin as with Arabic, nor displace the native religions with their own, nor reduce practitioners of the autochthonic religions to second-class citizenship. People did however have to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor's genius, and therein hangs a tale. The Romans neither understood nor consistently practiced the principle of religious liberty; the state always reserved the right to inspect its citizens' religious activities, and restrict them if found to be socially undesirable. What do these people think the 'Censors' did? Your personal beliefs and life-style were the business of the state. The old Roman Republic enforced a high degree of social conformity, in religious matters as well as everything else.

It is certainly true that Christianity makes exclusive claims, and so converts must renounce any prior entanglements or attachments to the gods; who does not know that? Is it really necessary to make erroneous statements about the supposed immobility of pagan worship to make this point? Pagans, we are told repeatedly, worshipped as their forbears had worshipped "since time immemorial"; yet he also realizes "New gods could be added and worshipped at will." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 80). They sure could. But can someone explain to him that Alexander of Abonoteichus's sock-puppet cannot be a god worshipped "since time immemorial," precisely because he is new? Not even in Rome, much less in exotic, far-away places, did the twelve Capitoline gods exhaust the ranks of deity; but we really can't say anything about the pantheon as a result? This makes no sense. Augustine, in his City of God, laughed at the impossible task Roman pagan theologians like Varro faced in trying to make sense of their over-stocked pantheon, and to very good point, but at least Augustine realized, as Ehrman evidently does not, that Varro had produced a theology.

This propensity to make contradictory statements is a recurrent problem with this author. In his earlier works, he tells us, over and over, in his plodding way, that Jesus and His disciples were Jewish monotheists who had no intention of abandoning the worship of the one and only God. This is certainly true. He also tells us that gnosticism was very much an open option for the church; it wasn't till centuries later that this viewpoint was decisively rejected. Gnostics, by definition, have at least two gods, one the bad god who made the world, and the other the good god who sent Jesus Christ to save us from the bad god. If two is the minimum, infinity is the maximum; 360 seems to be a popular number. Gnostics are unapologetic polytheists. While there may have been people within the magnetic pull of the Christian church to whom this new teaching of polytheism, incorporating Jesus as a redeemer figure, made an appeal, it cannot have been an open option to those who understood there is only one God. Yet he keeps repeating both statements, just as if they were not contradictory and could both simultaneously be true:

Jesus the Jew

The reader will notice that in this latest project, he informs us that Christianity went into the fourth century having obtained millions of adherents, because it is exclusive and monotheistic. And there probably is something to that. However, he used to make money promoting the idea that Christianity did not make up its mind to become exclusive and monotheistic, until the fourth century! Thinking people cannot reconcile two contradictory ideas, but Bart Ehrman is no deep thinker; he is the lightest of light-weights, liable to float up to the ceiling if not tethered down. See for yourself; the gnostics were authentic Christians, even if they thought there were 365 gods:

"Just in the second and third centuries, for example, we know of powerful and influential Christian teaches like Marcion who maintained that there is not just one God, but two Gods. Some Gnostics said there were 30 divine beings, or 365. These Christians claimed that they were right, and that everyone else was wrong." (Bart D. Ehrman, Forged, p. 182).

And not only that, but Christianity 'triumphed' because it was monotheistic. This author is happy to contradict himself. Here, again, are two contradictory statements, both of which he eagerly wants to stress. The Romans just loved new gods, of whom they were prompt and eager adopters; and not only that, but the pagans worshipped what they had worshipped from "time immemorial." But you know something funny; Mithras was a new god: "Moreover, Mithraism was a relative newcomer on the religious scene, nor an ancestral tradition that had been in place for centuries." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 87). So why all the bleating about "time immemorial"? It does seem, if you read the Roman satirists, that the Romans were indeed a people delighted with new gods, who liked nothing better than to shave their heads and shake a rattle for Isis, or whoever the sensation of the moment was, even though their forbears had not worshipped Isis. But if they did that, as the satirists said they did, then they were not worshipping what they had been worshipping from "time immemorial." Evidently borrowing a meme from John Dominic Crossan, he wants it understood we are dealing with a static, immoveable— agrarian?— society whose customs date from hoary antiquity,— don't tell me, let me guess; is that because they used the iron plow?— and he also wants it understood that they were eager to latch on to every new god somebody dreamed up last week. But if a god is new, then he has not been worshipped since "time immemorial." It is like saying, 'I like my new shoes, they are so comfortable, because I have been wearing them forever.'



We learn from Bart Ehrman that the pagans thought all gods worthy of worship: "For all pagans there were lots of gods, and all deserved adoration for their greatness, whether absolute or relative." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 82). Let's test that theory, in the case of Cambyses, a fire-worshipper, and Apis, a bull worshipped as a god in Egypt. Herodotus, the father of history, reports that the Persian ruler Cambyses was guilty of deicide against the Egyptian god Apis:

"When the priests had brought Apis, Cambyses being somewhat affected with madness drew his dagger, and aiming at the belly of Apis, struck his thigh: then he laughed and said to the priests: "O ye wretched creatures, are gods born such as this, with blood and flesh, and sensible of the stroke of iron weapons? Worthy indeed of Egyptians is such a god as this. Ye however at least shall not escape without punishment for making a mock of me." Having thus spoken he ordered those whose duty it was to do such things, to scourge the priests without mercy, and to put to death any one of the other Egyptians whom they should find keeping the festival. Thus the festival of the Egyptians had been brought to an end, and the priests were being chastised, and Apis wounded by the stroke in his thigh lay dying in the temple."

(Herodotus. The history of Herodotus — Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 4273-4279). Book III, Chapter 29. Kindle Edition.)

Is there any form of religious intolerance more extreme than deicide? The fire-worshipping Persians, or Parsees, never lost their sense of superiority. Centuries later, before Persia became Muslim, we find the Persian emperor mocking his Byzantine counterpart: "'Chosroes, greatest of gods, and master of the whole earth, to Heraclius, his vile and insensate slave. . .Do not deceive yourself with vain hope in that Christ, who was not able even to save himself from the Jews, who killed him by nailing him to a cross.'" (quoted in Charles Oman, The Dark Ages, Book II, p. 164). Why go out of his way to offer a gratuitous insult to the Lord, if it's in the nature of things for pagans to be tolerant?

The unfortunate bull Apis wasn't the only pagan god who excited Cambyses' disgust and scorn. Although a pagan himself, he ridiculed the idols: 

"Likewise also he entered into the temple of Hephaistos and very much derided the image of the god: for the image of Hephaistos very nearly resembles the Phoenician Pataicoi, which the Phoenicians carry about on the prows of their triremes; and for him who has not seen these, I will indicate its nature,—it is the likeness of a dwarfish man. He entered also into the temple of the Cabeiroi, into which it is not lawful for any one to enter except the priest only, and the images there he even set on fire, after much mockery of them. Now these also are like the images of Hephaistos, and it is said that they are the children of that god."

(Herodotus. The history of Herodotus — Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 4347-4351). Book III, Chapter 37. Kindle Edition.)

The pagan idolater Herodotus thought him mad to mock the gods. He was not mocking his own gods; the Persians worshipped fire as the presence of deity, and their worship was not mediated through idols. To listen to certain atheists, you would think such a thing is not possible; but to read history, you discover it is not only possible but quite common. 'Seneca the Younger's' bon-mot does not really hold water in this realm. The Romans, it is true, early on hit upon the bright idea of enticing the gods defending their besieged enemies into changing sides, and as a result their already bloated pantheon kept getting stuffed with more and more gods, as victory led on to victory. This was a brilliant move, allowing newly-conquered people to feel they were not being culturally marginalized. No doubt this practice helped the Romans achieve hegemony over the Western world, but whether it "shows the remarkable openness of religious perspectives" (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 80) is open to question. Augustine, in his City of God, ridiculed the resulting incoherence in the Roman pagan pantheon, with duplication of function and proliferating gods whose names only antiquarians knew. Once does not have to be a pagan, to raise the cautionary note, that invoking the pagan gods, or demons or whatever they may have been, to come out and desert their former friends to enter a new alliance upon promises of faithful and diligent service, but then forgetting their very existence and leaving it to the antiquarians to research who they were and how they were to be cultivated, was not the course of prudence. As a general rule, if you make promises you do not intend to keep, there can be hell to pay. Although it may seem obvious, to Ehrman at least, that paganism would naturally and inherently welcome these formerly hostile gods on board, the pagans have not always done anything of the kind, upon encountering exotic doctrines and practices. Even the Romans themselves did not always do it; among others, the cults of Bacchus, Isis and Osiris, the astrologers, and Cybele, suffered banishment and discrimination at various times:

"He [Tiberius] suppressed all foreign religions, and the Egyptian and Jewish rites, obliging those who practised that kind of superstition, to burn their vestments, and all their sacred utensils. He distributed the Jewish youths, under the pretence of military service, among the provinces noted for an unhealthy climate; and dismissed from the city all the rest of that nation as well as those who were proselytes to that religion, under pain of slavery for life, unless they complied. He also expelled the astrologers; but upon their suing for pardon, and promising to renounce their profession, he revoked his decree."
(Suetonius. Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 5) (Kindle Locations 3787-3791). Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Tiberius Nero Caesar, Chapter XXXVI).

The expelled astrologers could do what, demand the emperor respect their First Amendment rights? They had no such rights, that the state felt bound to respect. The United States cannot expel its astrologers; we have a First Amendment. Not to mention the philosophers. Not to mention the Christians. So what meaning is there to his preposterous claim that, ". . .by modern standards Roman religion was incredibly diverse and tolerant. . ." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 91). By modern standards, you cannot expel the astrologers, or the Isis-worshippers, nor threaten to enslave Jewish proselytes, etc.! They did all this, quite routinely. It's true their reach exceeded their grasp, as if it's any credit to them that they were less efficient than modern autocracies. It is just asinine to say, "As a corollary, these religions were highly tolerant of differences. So too was the Roman government, both centrally in Rome and throughout the provinces." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 103). Kicking people out of town is not tolerant.

It is interesting to notice that the Romans too, like Cambyses, for the first few centuries of their existence as a state, thought that divine worship should be aniconic: "And in like manner Numa forbade the Romans to revere an image of God which had the form of man or beast. Nor was there among them in this earlier time any painted or graven likeness of Deity, but while for the first hundred and seventy years they were continually building temples and establishing sacred shrines, they made no statues in bodily form for them, convinced that it was impious to liken higher things to lower, and that it was impossible to apprehend Deity except by the intellect." (Plutarch. Complete Works of Plutarch (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 1969-1973). Parallel Lives, Numa, Chapter 8). As in the 'fire temples' of the Parsees, the divine presence in the temple of Vesta was manifested in a fire. Whether these practices would promote any tendency toward dualism much less monotheism is open to question, but becomes somewhat irrelevant once the Romans encounter Greek civilization and conform their pantheon to the better-defined Greek pattern, abandoning any objection to idolatry in the process. In any case, no inherent or natural tendency of paganism toward tolerance can here be discerned, contra the 'Seneca the Younger' thesis. If you want to encounter insightful argument in favor of religious toleration, then read the early Church fathers.

Looking to paganism as a whole, in its natural and organic integrity, we cannot avoid noticing that pagan societies generally expected conformity in religious confession and practice. Those who would not conform were in danger of facing the police power of the state, as happened to Socrates, who was accused of failing to worship the gods of the city:

  • “In this manner Socrates replied to Hermogenes and others; and his enemies having accused him of “not believing in the gods, whom the city held sacred; but, as designing to introduce other and new deities; and, likewise, of his having corrupted the youth,” Hermogenes farther told me that Socrates, advancing towards the Tribunal, thus spake:
  • “What I chiefly marvel at, O ye judges! is this: whence Melitus inferreth, that I esteem not those as gods whom the city hold sacred. For that I sacrificed at the appointed festivals, on our common altars, was evident to all others; and might have been to Melitus, had Melitus been so minded.”
  • (The Defense of Socrates, by Xenophon)
  • .

Ehrman tells us, "It was simply accepted that people would worship the gods they chose. . ." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 80). He seems to feel this easy-going attitude was characteristic of paganism as a whole. Socrates, however, drank the hemlock because he was convicted on a charge of introducing "other and new deities." Is this any more than the 'Let's pretend' history the Jesus Publishing Industry churns out, year after year? Since Rome was never as committed to religious toleration as his happy talk would suggest, the question of why they would persecute Christianity, with such cruelty and persistence, is not as pressing or urgent as presented, though it nevertheless requires an answer. His is not convincing. His efforts at amelioration of Rome's record are so feeble that you wonder why he bothers. It's true the Christians were burnt, for illumination, by Nero, for the crime of arson, not for being Christians. It's also true the Jews in the middle ages were burnt for poisoning the wells: it wasn't a crime to be Jewish. Is there any jurisdiction in which poisoning the wells is not a crime? Is there any record of successful prosecution for this crime, in which a reasonable standard of evidence was adhered to? The Christians were not arsonists and did not receive due process.

These pagan societies neither articulated freedom of religion as an ideal, nor achieved it in practice. Socrates suffered judicial murder for failing to honor the gods of the city, but anyone who imagines Socrates himself must have held the ideal of religious toleration should test their thesis by reading Plato's 'Republic,' as dreary a proposal for a totalitarian state as has ever been formulated. The 'Laws' is even worse. This 'ideal' state is expected to invest its energies in mind control, the people being, not the rulers as in benighted Athens, but a herd of cattle to be controlled by the knowing elite. Socrates understood that it was wrong for the state to compel him to believe what it believed, but that was only because the Athenian state was democratic and its views reflected those of the common herd. Why did his acolyte Alcibiades deface the Hermae and laugh at the Mysteries?:

"In the midst of these preparations all the stone Hermae in the city of Athens, that is to say the customary square figures, so common in the doorways of private houses and temples, had in one night most of them their faces mutilated. No one knew who had done it, but large public rewards were offered to find the authors; and it was further voted that any one who knew of any other act of impiety having been committed should come and give information without fear of consequences, whether he were citizen, alien, or slave. The matter was taken up the more seriously, as it was thought to be ominous for the expedition, and part of a conspiracy to bring about a revolution and to upset the democracy." (Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War (p. 251). Kindle Edition.)

Why was it understood that, if no reprisals were undertaken, this would mean a change in the form of government? Because the gods had not yet got over their bad habit of taking sides. He slipped the noose and got away, the best they could do was curse him. Alcibiades was execrated: ". . .it was also decreed that his name should be publicly cursed by all priests and priestesses. Theano, the daughter of Menon, of the deme Agraule, they say, was the only one who refused to obey this decree. She declared that she was a praying, not a cursing priestess." (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Alcibiades, Chapter 22).

This was not a case of a brave man seeking to carve out a space for freedom of conscience from an oppressive city, and failing to find it; Socrates understood that, to subvert the Athenian democracy, you had to subvert the gods who stood behind it. The death struggle between the pro-Spartan fifth column in Athens and the Athenian democracy was, in part, a holy war, as were so many other conflicts in antiquity. Socrates and his followers were not godless free-thinkers, indeed Plato was one of the philosophers Ehrman mentions who was tending toward monotheism. But nor did they worship the gods of the city, i.e., of the democracy. Nor did they believe in religious liberty: they believed the people should worship gods that the authorities, i.e. themselves, ordered them to worship. Socrates saw no problem in projecting an ideal state which would do just what was being done to him, coercing belief, even in 'myths' known to be false. His conception of religious liberty was compatible with banishing the poet mythologists from the state. Or is it unfair to hold the 'historical' Socrates' feet to the fire just because Plato was a totalitarian? It's true the man was not a sock puppet, but even in Xenophon's dialogues he is not pro-democracy. All indications are that the real Socrates was as virulently anti-democratic as the literary character of the same name. Democracy was precisely what he wanted to discredit. You know the "many" he is always deriding? Well, the edicts of the Athenian democracy used to be prefaced with, 'The many have decided. . .' This man hated democracy. He was no champion of religious liberty either; but then, what pagan was? It's funny, for a people who are supposed to have instinctively embraced religious toleration without even thinking about it, you can't find pagan voices raised in support. They didn't 'get' it, other than Solon, a voice in the wilderness:

New Testament Early Church
Albigensian Crusade Waldensians
Michael Servetus What Went Wrong?
Canaan Constantine
No True Scotsman Pagan Intolerance
Atheist Mass Murder Islam
The Crusades All or Nothing
Peter the Hermit Iraq

Mass Murder

It is shameful that Christianity went over from being a persecuted religion to a persecutor. They may have felt not letting them up was a necessity of the death-struggle in which they were locked with the pagans, but it was quite a fall from their earlier ideals. Certainly in the times of pagan persecution, Christian authors had very forcefully advocated for religious toleration. Unfortunately, given Bart Ehrman's definitions, Biblical Christianity is by definition intolerant, because to him, intolerance can be a thought crime: "Intolerance is a different matter. It is the principled rejection of other beliefs and practices as wrong, dangerous, or both. . .But there is no reason that intolerance needs to produce violence: it can just as well involve a purely mental state." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 256). He means that "or:" mere "principled rejection of other beliefs and practices as wrong" is to him, by definition, intolerance. Thus to him, the New Testament itself is intolerant: "We see Christian intolerance as early as the writings of the New Testament. . ." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 266). Since he and his fellow atheists also reject the "beliefs and practices" of others as "wrong," namely they consider that theism is wrong, one wonders whence comes their free pass. According to him, Christian intolerance started with Jesus, who believed that the Pharisees were "wrong," and was thus intolerant (p. 267). The crowning point of Christian "intolerance" comes in the book of Revelation, when it is revealed that "Pagans will spend eternity in a lake of fire for their failure to believe in Jesus, with no hope of redemption." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 268). If you do not believe in thought crimes, you can have no point of contact with this author.

Christian non-violence is premised on the idea that vengeance belongs to God: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19). In other words, since it belongs to God, it does not belong to us. But to Ehrman, if it belongs to God, then how much more does it belong to us: "They were enemies of God, and he would judge them. Since he would judge them at the end, it is the duty for Christians in power to judge them in the meantime." (Bart Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 270). In other words, preaching Hell as the Bible most emphatically does, is inescapably intolerant. You see how scary it is? When the atheists take away your civil rights, it will be because they have ascertained you are dangerous:


And what, then, is tolerance, by Ehrman's understanding?  A specific doctrine, namely the idea that all roads lead to the same destination. Funny thing, if you don't believe this particular doctrine, you are not entitled to toleration:

  • “One thing lost in this triumph was all the massive and glorious diversity of religious expression found everywhere throughout the pagan world. We can never lose sight of just how varied the thousands of pagan cults were. . .
  • “As a rule this enormous diversity brought with it a widespread tolerance of difference, a sense that varying paths to the divine were not only acceptable and allowed but also desirable. Tolerance was to be encouraged. Freedom of religion was to be embraced. One of the greatest aspects of ancient paganism, taken as a whole, was the widespread willingness to accommodate and even revel in diversity. That was lost with the triumph of Christianity.”
  • (Ehrman, Bart D., The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (pp. 285-286). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. )
  • .

Jacques Joseph Tissot, Golden Calf

All Paths Converge

It's true that the many gods of the pagan pantheon are not necessarily or inevitably in competition with one another, but this teaches us nothing whatever about tolerance. To him, the religion that threw the Christians to the lions becomes the very hallmark of toleration, because, although not prepared to tolerate Christians, Druids, or astrologers, they did believe there were many paths to the same destination. People who did not believe there were many paths to the same destination, they found themselves unable to tolerate.


Trojan War

At the time of the First World War, the great European powers, though they did not really want war, nevertheless got sucked into the conflict because of prior commitments and treaty obligations. In a similar vein, the gods got sucked into the Trojan War, willing or not. They had to, even if they had preferred to give peace a chance. Truth to tell, all wars back then were holy wars to some extent; a web of mutual obligation connected the gods with their devotees. So long as religion was a local affair, the gods of the city were as committed to the outcome of the siege as any inhabitant. Many mythologists, like Hesiod, tell stories about the wars of the gods. Is it really possible for the universe to undergo a hostile take-over, and a new layer of divine supervision to insert itself where there had previously been no vacancy? What really happened, it seems likely, is that the people who worshipped the old gods, like Saturn, were displaced by a new folk who worshipped the 'victors' of the 'war,' like Zeus and Hera. The Romans had come to the comparatively enlightened understanding that, in conquering the people, you were not necessarily conquering their gods, who flittered above all that. But the 'additive' scheme is neither inevitable, nor particularly logical; 'winner-take-all' is another, rival scheme: "And the oracle is as follows: 'Pallas with many words and counsel wise May pray, but ne'er appease Olympian Zeus. For he to the consuming fire will give The shrines of many gods, who now perchance Stand bathed in chilling sweat, and shake with fear,' and so forth." (Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparatio Evangelica (The Preparation for the Gospel), Book XIII, Chapter XIII, Kindle location 10750).

The Greeks preferred to identify the gods of other peoples with their own, realizing that there cannot be one 'moon' for me and another for you; it is what it is. Since many of the pagan gods were personifications of great forces of nature, 'Mother Earth' cannot really have been one personality in one locale, and somebody different somewhere else; there is only one earth. But this approach, seemingly 'tolerant,' could also facilitate imperial oppression, as when the Hellenistic overlords of Judaea insisted on reconsecrating the temple at Jerusalem to Zeus. Zeus was the likeliest candidate for identification with Jehovah, as Zeus was the god-in-chief, though not the only god, of the pagans. When the Maccabees liberated the temple, they evicted paganism and restored the true worship of the only living God. But if people suppose that monotheism is the only really indigestible thing for pagan polytheism to swallow, that's not really the case; the Druids and the astrologers were not monotheists; and if it were, how is it fair to monotheism, that those who believe in it have to abandon it in order to be 'tolerated'? The pagans in this resemble to the modern 'liberals,' who can tolerate anyone and anything, provided only that they agree with them on all points. The Greeks were far from the only imperialists who sought to establish their religion on foreign shores; the fire-worshipping Persians who conquered Egypt and euthanized its holy animals did the same. What was the basis of unity of the huge Assyrian Empire? The worship of Ashur: "Tiglath-Pileser wrote in an account of one of his victories, 'I imposed on them the heavy yoke of my empire. I attached them to the worship of Ashur, my Lord.'" (Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek, p. 242).

In eerie reprise of Antiochus Epiphanes' profanation of the temple, the Roman emperor Caligula in the first century attempted to install in the temple at Jerusalem a gigantic statue of himself. His assassination forestalled the event. This is tolerant?

  • “Now Caius Caesar did so grossly abuse the fortune he had arrived at, as to take himself to be a God, and to desire to be so called also, and to cut off those of the greatest nobility out of his country. He also extended his impiety as far as the Jews. Accordingly, he sent Petronius with an army to Jerusalem, to place his statues in the temple, and commanded him that, in case the Jews would not admit of them, he should slay those that opposed it, and carry all the rest of the nation into captivity: but God concerned himself with these his commands. However, Petronius marched out of Antioch into Judea, with three legions, and many Syrian auxiliaries. Now as to the Jews, some of them could not believe the stories that spake of a war; but those that did believe them were in the utmost distress how to defend themselves, and the terror diffused itself presently through them all; for the army was already come to Ptolemais.”
  • (Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 10, 1.)
  • .

Fyodor Bronnikov, Pythagoras Hymn to the Sun
Pythagoras Hymn to the Sun

Is it true there were no pagan missions? Pythagoras introduced the doctrine of transmigration of souls into Greece: "He taught that the soul is immortal, and that after death it transmigrates into other animated bodies. . .Pythagoras was the first one to introduce these teachings into Greece. His speech was so persuasive that, according to Nicomachus, in one address made on first landing in Italy, he made more and two thousand adherents. Out of desire to live with him, these built a large auditorium, to which both women and boys were admitted." (The Pythagorean Sourcebook, Kindle location 2781, Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, Chapter 20). When was Paul ever so successful as to make two thousand converts in one speech? To be sure, when it comes to the head count, it ain't necessarily so, but what do you call a travelling foreigner introducing novel religious ideas, even if they were accepted by no more than twenty? Was transmigration of souls believed in by Europeans from "[t]ime immemorial"? No, one man introduced these ideas, his name was Pythagoras; he wasn't from Italy, he travelled there in hopes of his outlandish views becoming naturalized. If transmigration of souls is not a religious doctrine, then what is it? Even the cliche of the missionary ending up in the stew pot dove-tails with this instance, because some of his followers, if not he himself, were burned to death in their temple by angry natives. It's possible the pagan inhabitants of Italy did not get the memo about the remarkable tolerance of paganism. The missionary Zalmoxis brought the Pythagorean system, with some modifications and adaptations to local custom, to the savage Goths.

  • “For it is said that one of the nation of the Getae, named Zamolxis, had served Pythagoras, and had acquired with this philosopher some astronomical knowledge, in addition to what he had learned from the Egyptians, amongst whom he had travelled. He returned to his own country, and was highly esteemed both by the chief rulers and the people, on account of his predictions of astronomical phenomena, and eventually persuaded the king to unite him in the government, as an organ of the will of the gods. At first he was chosen a priest of the divinity most revered by the Getae, but afterwards was esteemed as a god, and having retired into a district of caverns, inaccessible and unfrequented by other men, he there passed his life, rarely communicating with anybody except the king and his ministers.”

  • (Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter III, Section 5, pp. 456-457).

This same system is found amongst the Druids before the Roman conquest: "Posidonius expands on this belief: 'The Gauls follow the doctrine of Pythagoras.'" (The Philosopher and the Druids, Philip Freeman, p. 162). No doubt the resemblance is no more than coincidence; the Gauls after all were entirely insulated from other peoples, although for some inexplicable reasons they used the Greek alphabet: "'They are not allowed to write down any of these sacred teachings, even though they record all manner of other public and private business in Greek letters.'" (The Philosopher and the Druids, Philip Freeman, p. 166). Oddly enough, the Pythagoreans weren't supposed to write down sacred doctrine either, though I'm sure that's just coincidence. Nevertheless the ancient historians do think there were Pythagorean missionaries. Practicing Bart's variety of history, you can simply deny everything the historians said, turn around, then claim in the same breath to espouse uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism says, if we have missionaries today, and we do, there is no overwhelming reason they cannot have had them back then.

It is remarkable that there seems to have been a Pythagorean civilization stretching across Europe; the Druids were honored, not only in Great Britain, but across Gaul, and the people believed in his distinctive doctrine of reincarnation: "The view of Pythagoras prevails among them [the Gauls], namely that human souls are immortal and that, after the established time has passed, the soul enters into another body. For this reason, it is said that during funerals some throw letters written to their dead relatives into the pyre, believing that the dead will read them." (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 5.28, quoted p. 343, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World, Kennedy, Roy and Goldman). It is remarkable that a common religion could achieve this kind of spread without military or political cohesion. It is even more remarkable a religion could spread across new, foreign vistas of the world without anyone ever travelling for purposes of religious instruction; Bart's world is full of wonders.


The Druids are very interesting people, though certainly some of their practices, like sacrificing human beings to trees, if the Roman historians can be believed, are not characteristic of the Pythagorean system, but must have been native customs. Alas, the pagan Romans could in the end no more tolerate them than they could the Dionysiacs, or the pagan Italians could the Pythagoreans. The Romans found them on the island of Mona and killed them in large numbers:

  • “On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a duty to consult their deities by means of human entrails.”

  • (Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. Delphi Complete Works of Tacitus (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 24) (Kindle Locations 12834-12841). The Annals, Book VI, Chapter 30, Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.)

Suetonius explains how important this massacre of Druids was to the war effort:

"In this reign, the conquest of the Britons still continued to be the principal object of military enterprise, and Suetonius Paulinus was invested with the command of the Roman army employed in the reduction of that people. The island of Mona, (now Anglesey), being the chief seat of the Druids, he resolved to commence his operations with attacking a place which was the centre of superstition, and to which the vanquished Britons retreated as the last asylum of liberty. The inhabitants endeavoured, both by force of arms and the terrors of religion, to obstruct his landing on this sacred island. The women and Druids assembled promiscuously with the soldiers upon the shore, where running about in wild disorder, with flaming torches in their hands, and pouring forth the most hideous exclamations, they struck the Romans with consternation. But Suetonius animating his troops, they boldly attacked the inhabitants, routed them in the field, and burned the Druids in the same fires which had been prepared by those priests for the catastrophe of the invaders, destroying at the same time all the consecrated groves and altars in the island. Suetonius having thus triumphed over the religion of the Britons, flattered himself with the hopes of soon effecting the reduction of the people."

(Suetonius. Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius (Illustrated). The Twelve Caesars, Nero Claudius Caesar. 383-384. (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 5) (Kindle Locations 6379-6386).)

Why were the Druids on Mona not understood to be non-combatants whose lives should not have been forfeit? Haven't we been assured the Romans took a live-and-let-live approach to religious faith? Why was it necessary to burn them? Axis Sally was prosecuted after World War II, but she was not burnt alive. This looks like a holy war. Was this Roman slaughter tolerant? Not very. You could say, the Romans were tolerant of other religions, when they were not burning adherents to death. But really, couldn't you say that about all of us? What had become of Ehrman's "remarkable openness of religious perspectives"? Granted, when you're at war, things happen; but the Romans were at risk of war with almost everyone who did not already lay prostrate beneath their hob-nailed boots, and they quite conspicuously failed to show any "remarkable openness of religious perspectives" when dealing with native peoples who had their own religious conceptions. The Romans were a remarkable people; in their Republican phase at least, they were patriotic and hard-working, and like the modern Japanese, they could imitate and incorporate the best features of rival civilizations. We could all learn, from the Romans, to respond to reverses with redoubled determination rather than defeatism and despair. But religious toleration lay over their horizon. Why are they being credited with a virtue they lacked? Is any more proof needed than their murderous campaign to stamp out Christianity? Yes, really? OK, then how about, they did their level best to de-populate Jewish Palestine after the Bar Kochba revolt? Who ever talks about how wonderfully tolerant the Ottoman Turks were, realizing they killed all those Armenians? You do not have to deal with a disaffected religious and ethnic minority by killing them all. Ehrman cannot forgive the Christians for wreaking vengeance on inanimate objects, and indeed they should not have done that, but he is unmoved by living victims in genocidal quantities. We are talking after all about a state which, in their imperial phase, demanded that their rulers be acclaimed as gods walking the earth. Still not enough? OK, more:

A certain self-professed prophet amongst the Gauls, they threw to the wild beasts, who proved more humane than their human masters: "Amid the adventures of these illustrious men, one is ashamed to relate how a certain Mariccus a Boian of the lowest origin, pretending to divine inspiration, ventured to thrust himself into fortune's game, and to challenge the arms of Rome. Calling himself the champion of Gaul, and a God (for he had assumed his title), he had now collected 8,000 men, and was taking possession of the neighboring villages of the Aedui, when that most formidable state attacked him with a picked force of its native youth, to which Vitellius attached some cohorts, and dispersed the crowd of fanatics. Mariccus was captured in the engagement, and was soon after exposed to wild beasts, but not having been torn by them was believed by the senseless multitude to be invulnerable, till he was put to death in the presence of Vitellius." (Tacitus, The Histories, 2.61). I'm not surprised they saw this man, simultaneously a prophet and a god, as a threat, any more than that the U.S. saw the Ghost Dance as a threat; but the case being made, that pagans never slaughter other pagans on religious grounds (leaving aside a "handful" of exceptions) because they have no reason to object to other gods, is fiction. It didn't happen that way.

Father Divine

In antiquity successful and flourishing temples could send out itinerant priests: "Also by the third century, Perge's greatest tutelary deity, Artemis Pergaia (Diana Pergensis or Diana of Perge), was renowned throughout the Mediterranean. The famous temple of Artemis Pergaia attracted rich offerings and visitors from far away, sponsored prize-awarding games catering to a pan-Hellenic crowd, and seems to have sent out itinerant priests." (The City Gate of Plancia Magna in Perge, by Mary T. Boatwright, Roman Art in Context, An Anthology, Eve D'Ambra, p. 191). Itinerant priests, pursuing various pagan observances, are very well attested in the ancient world. How they differ conceptually from missionaries is difficult to quantify. If a curious inquirer were to ask the reason for their rites, would they have turned a cold shoulder? While there's nothing insulting or demeaning about the 'Jesus' Publishing Industry's latest discovery, that the Christians invented the missionary enterprise, like most of the rest of it, it just happens not to be true. There's no doubt that the Christians sent out preachers like Paul and Barnabas on missionary journeys, and even considered this enterprise indispensible: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). How much of an innovation this was remains to be seen.

Where is this purported "remarkable openness" in view in the genocidal reduction of the Palestinian Jewish population in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt? People should stop flogging this dead horse. This 'tolerant pagan' meme goes back before the French Revolution; incidentally, that revolution itself can serve to show us how tolerant the atheists themselves are when they get the chance. The pagan Romans were more tolerant than the later Muslims, but fell far short of true religious toleration. The widespread presence of skeptics and unbelievers in their population, and indeed of people like Gibbon and Ehrman in these latter days, does not in reality promote this ideal, though they might like to imagine it does. We all like to feel useful.


Strange Gods Gods of Wood and Stone
Is a 'fake rose' a rose? Worship Him!
John Milton Counterfeit Bills
Dark Matter None Like Thee
So-called Gods God of this World
Moses El
Stars Prince of Tyre
Psalm 82 Lower than the Angels
Let Us Make Man Before the gods
The Witch of Endor

Other Gods

Suffering Servant

First century sources report that Judaism was a proselytizing religion at that time:

"Grant it your prompt indulgence, or a throng
Of poets shall come up, some hundred strong,
And by mere numbers, in your own despite,
Force you, like Jews, to be our proselyte."
(Horace, Satire IV).

As the Bible says, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." (Matthew 23:15). Josephus is aware of many Greeks who adopted the Jewish laws: ". . .for as to the Grecians, we were rather remote from them in place, than different from them in our institutions, insomuch that we have no enmity with them, nor any jealousy of them. On the contrary, it hath so happened that many of them have come over to our laws, and some of them have continued in their observation, although others of them had not courage enough to persevere, and so departed from them again;. . ." (Josephus, Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 11).

Juvenal has seen the progression, from God-fearer to fully fledged member of the congregation: "Some children get a Sabbath-fearing father. . .Soon they even give up their foreskin. Moreover, they are accustomed to despise Roman laws. They learn the Jewish code, preserve, and reverence whatever the secret book of Moses hands down." (Juvenal, Satires 14.96-106 quoted p. 257, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World, Kennedy, Roy, and Goldman). The New Testament explicitly asserts that Judaism was a proselytizing religion, at the time, and pagan literature confirms this fact.

The Sibyl threatens the Greek pagans with judgment; yes, she is talking to them:

"O Greece, why hast thou trusted mortal men
As leaders, who cannot escape from death?
And wherefore bringest thou thy foolish gifts
Unto the dead and sacrifice to idols?
Who put the error in thy heart to do
These things and leave the face of God the mighty?
Honor the All-Father's name, and let it not
Escape thee. It is now a thousand years,
Yea, and five hundred more, since haughty kings
Ruled o'er the Greeks, who first to mortal men
Introduced evils, setting up for worship
Images many of gods that are dead,
Because of which ye were taught foolish thoughts." (Third Sibylline Oracle).

The Jews were expelled from Rome, under accusation of proselytism, several times, including in 139 B.C.:

In 139 B.C. the praetor peregrinus expelled all the astrologers from Rome and ordered them to leave Italy within ten days to prevent them from 'offering for sale their foreign science.' At the same time he banished the Jews from Rome, 'because they attempted to transmit their sacred rites to the Romans, and he cast down their private altars from public places.'" (Valerius Maximus 1.3.3, quoted pp. 236-237, Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity).

For some whimsical reason, Bart Ehrman denies that Judaism was a proselytizing religion. He offers no more in rebuttal than his standard argumentum ad verecundiam. The sources say it was, but participation in the Jesus Publishing Industry means you get to make it up as you go along. That's how it's done. The same goes for Christianity. Let's toss out the Book of Acts, making way for our personal fantasies. If it were retained, it would only inhibit our freedom. What great artist does not want the canvas blank?

Bart ignores his critics, particularly those who are not 'critical' scholars. You can always tell a 'critical' scholar, those are the ones who feel free to discard the information that runs counter to their assumptions about the world, like the Book of Acts. How else can you remake a world in your image? He dislikes the Book of Acts because Luke gives us 120 people in the upper room, and he must start with 20, with a miniscule rate of increase in the early years, because how else can his game of 'telephone' succeed in garbling the information? It's difficult to see the problem with one hundred twenty, especially realizing there are megachurches in America which pack in exponentially more every Sunday, delivering the same message. Jesus commissioned seventy. . .missionaries, one might almost call them: "After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He said to them, 'The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.'" (Luke 10:1-2). Add the seventy to his twenty and you have ninety; add a few spouses and children, and the 120 are no stretch.

What the sources actually give us is not a small and steady rate of increase, but explosive growth followed by a crash, whereupon slow growth picks up. Notice for example how Josephus phrases it: "And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 3, section 3). We do not say this, 'are not extinct at this day,' of a group that started small but is steadily growing, but rather of a group that had its day and is in decline. The false Messiah bar-Kochba persecuted Christians, for reasons which are self-evident: he said he was the Messiah, they said he was not. The various pretenders described by Josephus must have done the same thing. The evidence shows an explosion followed by a crash, a pattern seen all the time in population charts, of epidemic disease or whatever it may be. Although persecution ultimately did not work for the pagan Romans against the Christians, sometimes it does work: how many Cathars are there in Languedoc today? What the sources describe doesn't work for him: we must start with 20 persons, so we can maybe work our way up to forty in a couple of centuries. What about all the observers who said there were more?— and we are not talking about sources that smell bad, like the apocryphal Acts. Watch a 'scholar' at work: you simply toss their testimony out, as a 'critical scholar' you can do that.

According to Bart Ehrman, no Jew has ever believed the passage in Isaiah about the suffering servant refers to the Messiah: 

"Throughout history, when Christians have pointed to “predictions of Jesus” in the Old Testament, Jews have denied the passages involve messianic prophecies. Christians have long maintained, for example, that the ancient prophet Isaiah was looking ahead to Jesus when he declared, centuries before the crucifixion: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his wounds we were healed” (Isaiah 53:5–6). In response, Jewish readers have pointed out that Isaiah never indicates he is referring to a messiah figure." (Ehrman, Bart D. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 47). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)

Is this true?


Suffering Servant

Fair Play for Cuba

I did not start the Thriceholy web-site in order to defend the pagans against unfair attacks by the atheists. But one can only listen to 'bar-bar-bar-bar' for so long before something snaps. Is it true that paganism had "almost no ethical requirements" (p. 94)? It's true that the moral standards of the pagan gods were very low, as far as their own personal comportment was concerned. Zeus was a serial rapist. It is fortunate for him that the 'Me Too' movement would not get underway for millenia, or he would have been driven from heaven by his outraged victims. But is it true that the pagans had no ethical aspirations, because "ethics had little to do with religion" (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 84)? See for yourself: 

"There is a noise when Justice is being dragged in the way where those who devour bribes and give sentence with crooked judgments, take her.  And she, wrapped in mist, follows to the city and haunts of the people, weeping, and bringing mischief to men, even to such as have driven her forth in that they did not deal straightly with her.
"But they who give straight judgments to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just, their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it: Peace, the nurse of children, is abroad in their land, and all-seeing Zeus never decrees cruel war against them.  Neither famine nor disaster ever haunt men who do true justice; but light-heartedly they tend the fields which are all their care.  The earth bears them victual in plenty, and on the mountains the oak bears acorns upon the top and bees in the midst.  Their woolly sheep are laden with fleeces; their women bear children like their parents.  They flourish continually with good things, and do not travel on ships, for the grain-giving earth bears them fruit.
"But for those who practise violence and cruel deeds far-seeing Zeus, the son of Kronos, ordains a punishment.  Often even a whole city suffers for a bad man who sins and devises presumptuous deeds, and the son of Kronos lays great troubles upon the people, famine and plague together, so that the men perish away, and their women do not bear children, and their houses become few, through the contriving of Olympian Zeus.  And again, at another time, the son of Kronos either destroys their wide army, or their walls, or else makes an end of their ships on the sea.
"You princes, mark well this punishment you also; for the deathless gods are near among men and mark all those who oppress their fellows with crooked judgments, and reck not the anger of the gods.  For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep watch on judgments and the deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in mist, all over the earth.  And there is virgin Justice, the daughter of Zeus, who is honored and reverenced among the gods who dwell on Olympus, and whenever anyone hurts her with lying slander, she sits beside her father, Zeus the son of Kronos, and tells him of men's wicked heart, until the people pay for the mad folly of their princes who, evilly minded, pervert judgment and give sentence crookedly.  Keep watch against this, you princes, and make straight your judgments, you who devour bribes; put crooked judgments altogether from your thoughts.
"He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most."
(Hesiod, Works and Days.)

One area where the moralistic and judgemental pagan gods shone was in guaranteeing oaths and treaties. What human agency could hold Rome's feet to the fire, if she were faithless to an ally? No one, there was no international court in the Hague. There were angry gods; the Roman historian Florus blames Crassus' failure and death in the east on their superintendence of the world: "Crassus, who coveted the royal treasures, answered not a word that had any semblance of justice, but merely said that he would give his reply at Seleucia. The gods, therefore, who punish those who violate treaties, did not fail to support either the craft or the valour of our enemies." (Florus. Delphi Complete Works of Florus (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 90) (Kindle Locations 1444-1447). Epitome of Roman History, Book I, Chapter XLVI). Believe it, or don't; but why pretend that they didn't believe it?

Ehrman's eminently practical, if smug, self-serving and wrong, definition of religion goes back at least as far as H. L. Mencken; it is atheist boiler-plate:

"Whether it happens to show itself in the artless mumbo-jumbo of a Winnebago Indian or in the elaborately refined and metaphysical rites of a Christian archbishop, its single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him. That function and that purpose are common to all religions, ancient or modern, savage or civilized, and they are the only common characters that all of them show. Nothing else is essential." (H. L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods, Kindle location 105).

Mencken hoped that something simple like totemism could give us 'religion' in its pure form, from whence its essence could be distilled, freed from all the accretions one finds in a late development like Christianity. When this definition is used to winnow down the facts to a more manageable assortment, it is obviously misused; the least common denominator of totemism cannot explain Christianity. Paganism is a Protean thing; like the god who could assume any and all shapes, paganism can present as the religion which gives the second-story man a thief-god, a patron saint of burglars, to pray to, for success in his upcoming night's work. The Thugs had Kali to pray to.

But that is not the whole story. At times the pagans can muster enough humanity to articulate and espouse noble ideals. So the observers of this protean phenomena should, along with everybody else, follow the rubric, do not be unjust, lest you discover Nemesis is no fable. Have you never heard, the mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine? Or maybe this one,

"The Father's voice hath spoken,
Whose word is Destiny,
And the blest Gods have willed it,
The Gods who shall not die. . .
The Dread Sire's valiant Daughter [Athena]
Guards us with eye and hand.
The holy law of Justice
They guard not. Silent she,
Who knows what is and hath been,
Awaits the time to be.
Then cometh she to judgment,
With certain step, though slow;
Even now she smites the city,
And none may escape the blow."
(Solon's Lay, quoted in The Public Orations of Demosthenes, Volume 1, Against Aeschines, p. 112).

. . .because classical literature is filled with that type of information, as anyone knows who has read any of it. The hatchet job Ehrman does on paganism is reminiscent of the hatchet job he does on Christianity, and while it may make National Public Radio hostesses simper with delight, it leaves no one the wiser. Were the gods vindicating the innocent when they made the flames dance around Charikleia, falsely condemned to death, for poisoning, by burning at the stake. . .or was it the magical amulet?:

"The executioners built a gigantic bonfire and then lit it. As the flames took hold, Charikleia begged a moment's grace from the guards who held her, promising that she would mount the pyre without the use of force. She stretched her arms towards that quarter of the sky whence the sun was beaming, and prayed in a loud voice: 'O Sun and Earth and you spirits above and beneath the earth who watch and punish the sins of men, bear me witness that I am innocent of the charges laid against me and that I gladly suffer death because of the unendurable agonies that fate inflicts on me'. . .The flames flowed around her rather than licking against her; they caused her no harm but drew back wherever she moved towards them, serving merely to encircle her in splendor and present a vision of  her standing in radiant beauty in a frame of light, like a bride in a chamber of flame." (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, B. P. Reardon, p. 526).

The concept that the divine providential governance of the world engineers a balance, so that those who do wrong will in the end be sorry, is by no means alien to the Bible, which says, "Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and he who rolls a stone will have it roll back on him." (Proverbs 26:27). The quarrel between the pagans and the monotheists was not over whether the bad you scheme to do against others will recoil back on your own head, they agreed that it will, but rather whether the system is administered by a plurality of actors or only one. The pagans believed in avenging gods. The concept is, what goes around comes around:

“When the Veientes learned of this from a prisoner, they wished to send heralds to their besiegers to seek a termination of the war before the city should be taken by storm; and the oldest citizens were appointed envoys. When the Roman senate voted against making peace, the other envoys left the senate-chamber in silence, but the most prominent of their number and the one who enjoyed the greatest reputation for skill in divination stopped at the door, and looking round upon all who were present in the chamber, said: 'A fine and magnanimous decree you have passed, Romans. . .when you disdain to accept the submission of a city, neither small nor undistinguished, which offers to lay down its arms and surrender itself to you, but wish to destroy it root and branch, neither fearing the wrath of Heaven nor regarding the indignation of men! In return for this, avenging justice shall come upon you from the gods, punishing you in like manner. For after robbing the Veientes of their country you shall ere long lose your own.'”
(Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book XII, 13.1-3, (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 79)).

The illusion that pagans should receive credit as almost atheists is deeply rooted in the 'New Atheism' of the Four Horsemen. The reader will recall Richard Dawkins quoting 'Seneca the Younger' in defense of skepticism,—the quote is made up of course, Dawkins is an atheist after all,— but they want to see fellow travellers thronging their course. They are lonely people. The pagans do not generally return the compliment. The modern pagans of India, for example, do not feel much fondness or affinity for their own atheists. Unfortunately, they often are not willing even to respect the civil liberties of Indian atheists: "The success of that gathering spurred the Goswamis to call the first public conference of rationalists at their ashram, inviting speakers from across India to gather in October 2016. Before the conference could meet, Hindu nationalists, armed with sticks and stones, attackd the ashram and demanded that the Goswamis be arrested. . .'Atheists are deviants who need rehabilitation,' Neeraj Shastri, a chief priest at the Prem Hindu Temple in Vrindavan, said reently. 'Vrindavan only has place for believers of Radha and Krishna.'" (Atheist Ashram on Lord Krishna's Home Turf Roils India's Hindu Nationalists, June 19, 2019, by Priyadarshini Sen, Religion News Service). Why on earth should pagans like atheists? And why on earth should pagans be amoral, simply because atheists are amoral?

Though Ehrman is not being fair to pagan religion, he probably doesn't mean it for a hatchet job. When he describes paganism as fundamentally amoral, while it was not always or necessarily so, he is paying it a compliment in modern terms: it was not judgmental. Pagan civilization had its faults and its glories, but it was far more hospitable to homosexuality than any form of Christian civilization could possibly be, because the Bible is unambiguous in its condemnation of such activities. That, to these people, is the issue of all issues. Perhaps he feels he is making paganism look good by misrepresenting it as inherently amoral. And for the most part he is air-brushing paganism, trying to make it seem more respectable, certainly more tolerant, than it actually was. Recall, they've done this before. People were perplexed when Dan Brown wrote a best-seller in which he described the gnostic gospels as presenting a more human Jesus than the canonical gospels. Where could he have gotten such a strange misimpression? Certainly not from reading the gnostic gospels. No, but from reading the secondary literature, because these people were at that time trying to pretend that the gnostics were enlightened proto-feminists. No one who took the trouble to read gnostic literature could fathom what they were talking about, beyond simple wish-fulfillment, but any stick is good enough to beat Christianity with. If gnosticism is forced to be made palatable, then why not paganism? Is that what he's trying to do here? He doesn't really like paganism all that much, indeed he doesn't even know very much about it, but he hauls it out in hopes of doing a bit of biased product comparison, with Christianity coming out the worse. Truth to tell, paganism, so far as one can grab hold of such a multi-formed Proteus, is not as bad as he represents it; it wasn't entirely amoral, but then neither is it as good as he represents it, by their lights: it wasn't tolerant. Like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when it was good it was good, and when it was bad it was horrid.

This author has built a career on doing this 'Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not' routine on classical antiquity. Remember when he explained that people in antiquity did not know men and women belonged to the same species?: “People today usually think about male and female as two kinds of the same thing. There's one thing, the human being, and it comes in two types: male and female...basically this is how we see it. It is not, however, how people in antiquity saw it.” (Bart Ehrman, 'Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene,' p. 212). He makes one absurd statement or another about what "people in antiquity" supposedly thought. . .and evidently none of his students has enough of a classics background to say anything other than, 'My, that's amazing!'

Christian apologists have always found in the triumph of Christianity, not only an inspiring history, but a powerful argument in defense of Christianity. This goes back to the immediate aftermath of the resurrection. What transformed the apostles from a dispirited band of scattered sheep into world-changers?:

"What we have to account for is, in the first place, the Pentecostal 'giving of the Spirit,' the conversion of the little group of disciples from heart-broken men who had just witnessed the apparent ruin of all their dreams into a body of fervent missionaries with an unquenchable hope to proclaim and a mysterious communal life of a quality unknown in the world before." (A. E. Taylor, Does God Exist? p. 145-146)

As an atheist propagandist, Bart must try to disable this argument, which he does by pointing out that Christianity, to triumph, need only have been a slightly improved brand of snake oil, versus the snake oil being sold by the competition, which was really bad, and smelly. The giggly, fluff-headed teenage atheists to whom this material is pitched are delighted to hear, from the learned professor, that they need make no effort to understand the pagans, because there is nothing less congenial to them than mental effort. But they should know they have caused themselves loss by walling themselves off from the pagan intellectual tradition, as found for instance in the Greek tragedies. He works the same magic on paganism as he does on Christianity, pressing it down to a thin, one-dimensional cardboard layer. There is a Stupidity Generator whirring in the background, but it wasn't brought in by the Christians, nor even by the pagans, though they had their moments. It's him. Though not only him, of course; it's a trope in current thought: "The ancient Pagan religions were seen as tribal religions, based on custom and tradition rather than on dogma and belief, grounded in what one did rather than in what one believed." (Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler, p. 375). The pagans who believe paganism is not about what one believes are the modern ones, not the ancient.

We learn from Bart that animal sacrifice was a defining concern of pagan religion: "Roughly speaking, there were three kinds of activities in pagan religions: sacrificial offerings, prayer, and divination. . .Participating in pagan religions meant engaging in these activities, or— especially with animal sacrifice and divination— observing someone else do so." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 83). What about those 'observers' who were not only grossed out, but highly offended by animal sacrifice? Were they Christians? Not Porphyry, nor Apollonius of Tyana! Since animal sacrifice is supposed to be definitional for paganism, you wouldn't know, would you, that certain pagan theologians were vegetarians who disapproved of animal sacrifice:

"We, however, do not act after this manner; but being filled with animal diet, we have arrived at this manifold illegality in our life by slaughtering animals, and using them for food. For neither is it proper that the altars of the Gods should be defiled with murder, nor that food of this kind should be touched by men, as neither is it fit that men should eat one another; but the precept which is still preserved at Athens, should be obeyed through the whole of life." (Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food, Book 2, Chapter 28).

He's aware that Porphyry wrote a diatribe against the Christians, but not aware that he also wrote a diatribe, in equally vitriolic and indignant language, against animal sacrifice. In other contexts, our author quotes 'advanced' pagan theologians like Plutarch as if it were self-evident that they spoke for the pagan man in the street. It isn't very likely that Porphyry's vegetarianism ever caught on, but why make a practice definitional which would exclude the most advanced pagan thinkers from the fold? It's actually true that some of the oldest and holiest of the pagan sacrifices were grain offerings, and is noted by historians: "And as we Greeks regard barley as the most ancient grain, and for that reason begin our sacrifices with barley-corn which we call oulai, so the Romans, in the belief that spelt is both the most valuable and the most ancient of grains, in all burnt offerings begin the sacrifice with that." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book II, 25.2). In some cases these cereal offerings were the sole offering on that occasion. Why, if animal sacrifice is definitional?

The neo-Platonists recalled Pythagoras as also opposed to bloody sacrifices: "They [the women] should not worship divinities with blood and dead bodies, nor offer so many things at one time that it might seem they meant never to sacrifice again." (Iamblichus, The Life of Pythagoras, The Pythagorean Sourcebook, Kindle location 1478). The Latin poet Ovid depicts him delivering a diatribe against animal sacrifice:

"And first that animals should heap the board for food, he strict forbade; and first in words thus eloquent, but unbeliev’d he spoke.  'Cease, mortals, cease your bodies to pollute with food unhallow’d: plentiful is grain; the apples bend the branches with their load. . .Nor is this all, the savage deed perform’d, they implicate the heavenly gods themselves, pretend th’ almighty deities delight to see the slaughter of laborious steers. Spotless must be the victim; in his form perfection: (fatal thus too much to please!) with gold and fillets gay, the beast is led before the altar, hears the unknown prayers, and sees the meal, the product of his toil, betwixt his horns full in his forehead flung: then struck, he stains the weapon with his blood, the weapon in reflecting waves beneath haply beheld before. Next they inspect his torn-out living entrails, and from thence learn what the bosoms of the gods intend. Whence, man, such passion for forbidden food? How dar’st thou, mortal man! in flesh indulge? O! I conjure you, do it not; my words deep in your minds revolve, when to your mouth the mangled members of the ox you raise, know, and reflect, your laborer you devour.'"

(Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 15, Delphi Complete Works of Ovid (Kindle Locations 14401-14431).)

What the 'historical' Pythagoras actually believed is open to question, but the Pythagorean system does revolve around reincarnation, and there's this little problem with meat consumption under that view. . .that pig could be grandpa! Some deities at some temples never had been worshipped with bloody sacrifices. Perhaps Ehrman visualizes the Vestal Virgins wrestling a pig to the ground and then hog-tying him; but they never did that, not since "time immemorial," or more plausibly, since when Numa established that form of observance.

A minority, of pagans who prefer bloodless sacrifice, plus another minority, of Christians who despise pagan sacrifice of any form, might well equal a majority. Bart Ehrman ought to know this, because oftentimes it seems he is just reading out the atheist boiler-plate answers as one would find them in a book like H. L. Mencken's 'A Treatise on the Gods,' and Mencken does know this:

"In Greece itself, though Socrates could still call for the sacrifice of a cock in the age of Pericles, many of the priests boasted proudly that their altars were innocent of blood, whether human or animal. Among such clean altars were those of Apollo at Delos and Zeus at Athens." (H. L. Mencken, A Treatise on the Gods, Kindle location 1748).

The 'gymnosophists' of Helidorus' Ethiopian Tale equate animal sacrifice with human sacrifice, and fervently hope for a stop to the practice: "Now we shall withdraw into the temple, for neither can we ourselves approve of anything as barbaric as human sacrifice nor do we believe that is pleasing to the divinity. I only wish it were possible to put an end to all animal sacrifice as well and be satisfied with offerings of prayers and incense such as we make." (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, B. P. Reardon, pp. 564-564). In addition to the Neo-Platonists and Pythagoreans who objected to 'bloody sacrifice' in principle, other pagan authors deprecated sacrifice, in a way reminiscent to the prophets of Israel, in favor of ethical behavior, such as "So Menander, the Comic poet, writes what answers to this in these very words:

"'For whosoever brings a sacrifice
Of countless bulls or kids, O Pamphilus,
Or aught like these, who works of art designs,
Vestments of gold or purple, life-like forms
Graven in emerald or ivory,
And hopes thereby God's favor may be won
He strangely errs, and hath a dullard's mind.
Man's duty is to help his brother man,
Nor simple maid nor wedded wife betray."
(Eusebius of Caesaria, Praeparatio Evangelica, (Preparation for the Gospel), Book XIII, Chapter XIII, Kindle location 10658).

The fact that the best pagan theologians disliked or de-emphasized animal sacrifice probably made it easier to ban the practice, and so any real historian would have made a note of it. If Constantine did indeed ban animal slaughter at the temples, thus secularizing the meat market, then it cannot have been because the Christians disliked paganism, as there were not enough of them to work their will; it must have been in recognition that the best of the pagan theologians did not like it either. It isn't enough to give us an imaginary 'historical' Jesus, now they have to give us an imaginary paganism to go along with Him. Back to the Thrice-Holy Library, where you'll always find reality-based information:

On Abstinence from
Animal Food

The novelist Heliodorus introduces a priest of Isis, who seems to have subscribed to this point of view:

"While we were talking, the time came for the wine cups to be passed around the table. Theagenes drank a toast of friendship to each guest, though with rather bad grace, but when it came to my turn, I thanked him for his kind wishes but declined to take the cup. He glared at me angrily, supposing that my refusal of the cup was meant as a slight, but Charikles realized what was happening and said, 'He does not drink wine nor eat any creature that is endowed with a soul.'
"Theagenes asked the reason for this, and Charikles explained, 'He comes from Memphis, in Egypt, where he is a high priest of Isis.'" (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, p. 418, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, B.P. Reardon).

This was his normal diet: "So they ate a meal of nuts, figs, dates fresh from the tree, and other fruits of this kind, which formed the old man's customary diet, for he refused to take the life of any living thing for the sake of food; he washed his food down with water; Knemon, with wine." (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, p. 396, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, B.P. Reardon). Most of the same arguments against meat consumption you hear nowadays were heard also in antiquity, from pagan religionists as well as others in the society. Recounting the horrors of the abattoir is a common theme of vegetarians, including the modern Adolf Hitler: "'One day, when headquarters was stationed in Ukraine, my men were to be shown the biggest, most modern of the local abattoirs. . .All the same, the meat-eating men felt unwell, and many of them left without seeing everything. I run no such risks. I can happily watch carrots and potatoes being pulled up, eggs collected from the henhouse and cows milked.'" (Adolf Hitler, quoted in Hitler's Last Secretary, Traudl Junge, p. 66). When you add reincarnation into the mix, they actually had some pretty convincing arguments against the practice of meat-eating. It is no surprise some of the best minds in pagan theology were convinced vegetarians. Bart Ehrman knows nothing of any of this, yet he writes books sharing his wisdom with us.

Bart Ehrman has held these misunderstandings for a long time, without making any effort to acquire accurate information. David Barton did this type of thing, and got into a lot of trouble for it. This man isn't going to change, but he isn't going to get into trouble either; no doubt National Public Radio will continue its uncritically adoring coverage, as he piles error atop error:


  • “For modern people intimately familiar with any of the major contemporary Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), it may be hard to imagine, but books played virtually no role in the polytheistic religions of the ancient Western world. These religions were almost exclusively concerned with honoring the gods through ritual acts of sacrifice. There were no doctrines to be learned, as explained in books, and almost no ethical principles to be followed, as laid out in books.”
  • (Bart Ehrman, 'Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,' p. 19).

Real and Ideal

Bart Ehrman is very simplistically minded. He lacks any mental furniture or equipment to distinguish the real from the ideal. Plutarch, a pagan theologian, lays out the prospect that gods, to be gods, must be benign. Good for him. When Bart Ehrman puts on his thinking cap and tries to think of what wrathful, unfriendly gods people might have wished to appease, he comes up with, not infernal, subterranean deities propitiated by who knows what unholy sacrifices, but. . .Christianity. Yup: "There are also plenty of monotheists who are highly superstitious in Plutarch’s sense, stricken by dumb fear of what the divine ruler of the world will do to them either in this life or the world to come. At these points we are on familiar turf." (Ehrman, Bart D., The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 94). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.) OK, but you know what? You can't do 'history,'  you can't make any objective study of paganism as it actually was, without realizing pagan pantheons were stocked with some gods who were not really all that friendly to mankind. What about all the ones who kept demanding human sacrifice? That's not very nice:

Votive Punic Stele from Carthage Tophet

The Bible
Human Initiative
Ancient Historians
The Problem of Evil
Child Sacrifice Today
Last Stand
Binding of Isaac
Infidels' Indictment


We may fairly class human sacrifice under the heading of superstition, given that people who do that think the gods are inimical. Let's by all means reopen the question of what was lost when paganism became the road not taken; let's inquire into how many virgins need to be sacrificed before we can be sure that the bridge will stand up. The Romans did not overtly practice human sacrifice, though it was sometimes noticed that not everyone who went to their 'games,' which originated as funeral games, came back. Rome is located in a seismically active region, and we non-superstitious folk realize stuff happens, fissures open up, that kind of thing. But recall, when the young, idealistic Manlius Curtius, galloping on his horse, fully armored, precipitated himself into a fissure that had opened in the earth, he saved Rome! Perhaps we should class that under 'superstition.' One wonders what to make of the 'puppets,' though. They used to throw them off the bridge.

"Then, too, the Virgin [the Vestals] is wont to throw the rush-made effigies of ancient men from the oaken bridge. He who believes that after sixty years men were put to death, accuses our forefathers of a wicked crime. There is an old tradition, that when the land was called Saturnia those words were spoken by soothsaying Jove: “Do you cast into the water of the Tuscan river two of the people as a sacrifice to the Ancient who bears the sickle.” The gloomy rite was performed, so runs the tale, in the Leucadian manner  every year, until the Tirynthian hero [Hercules] came to these fields; he cast men of straw into the water, and now dummies are thrown after the example set by Hercules. Some think that the young men used to hurl the feeble old men from the bridges, in order that they themselves alone should have the vote." (Ovid, Fasti, Pr. Id. 14).

Words like 'superstition' spring to mind, and we know the Romans despised superstition; that's why they hated Christianity. The question is, was it always puppets, or were the puppets at some time, perhaps it was in "time immemorial," substituted for the feeble old men? Personally I think it was always puppets. It's interesting to reflect that some of Ovid's informants evidently thought the mythological character Hercules put an end to bridge-based human sacrifice in Rome. Dionysius of Halicarnassus had heard the story too:

"It is said also that the ancients sacrificed human victims to Saturn, as was done at Carthage while that city stood and as is done to this day among the Gauls and certain other western nations, and that Hercules, desiring to abolish the custom of the sacrifice, erected the altar upon the Saturnian hill and performed the initial rites of sacrifice with unblemished victims burning on a pure fire. And lest the people should feel any scruple at having neglected their traditional sacrifices, he taught them to appease the anger of the god by making effigies resembling the men they had been wont to bind hand and foot and throw into the stream of the Tiber, and dressing these in the same manner, to throw them into the river instead of the men, his purpose being that any superstitious dread remaining in the minds of all might be removed, since the semblance of the ancient rite would still be preserved." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book I, 38.2).

The stories portrayed Hercules as a travelling religious reformer, who went about suppressing human sacrifice and enacting bloody reprisals against inhospitality to strangers. Though Ehrman erroneously thinks paganism was altogether amoral, hospitality to strangers was a religious obligation, at least after Hercules' religious reform. We know there were no pagan missionaries: "In fact, we don't know of any missionary religions in the pagan world." (p. 116). So it's odd that the pagans would tell stories about a religious reformer travelling the world, almost like a missionary, when they had no conception of anything like that. But he's a 'scholar,' he can't be making it up as he goes along, right?

Plutarch can't bring himself to believe the high priest of the Romans, the Pontifex Maximus, is so named because he is the bridge superintendent: "But most writers give an absurd explanation of the name; Pontifices means, they say, nothing more nor less than bridge-builders, from the sacrifices which they performed at the bridge over the Tiber, sacrifices of the greatest antiquity and the most sacred character; for “pons” is the Latin word for bridge. They say, moreover, that the custody and maintenance of the bridge, like all the other inviolable and ancestral rites, attached to the priesthood, for the Romans held the demolition of the wooden bridge to be not only unlawful, but actually sacrilegious." (Plutarch. Complete Works of Plutarch (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 1987-1992). Parallel Lives, Life of Numa, Chapter 9). He tries to derive the word instead from 'potens,' meaning 'powerful.' That would be nice if it did mean that, but you know what, it actually does come from 'bridge.'

Even the Olympian gods were not entirely friendly to man. Recall that Prometheus, who was not Zeus' son but a member of an earlier, rival generation of gods, was not rewarded but endlessly punished, by having his liver eaten by an eagle while he was chained down, for what crime? Not for dying on a cross to save humanity, but for giving us fire. Where exactly would we be if we did not have fire? To hear some tell it, Asclepius the healer was a great physician, so good at his profession that Zeus. . .offed him with a thunderbolt: ". . .he [Asclepius] devoted himself to the science of healing and made many discoveries which contribute to the health of mankind. . .for, he said, the number of the dead was steadily diminishing, now that men were being healed by Asclepius. So Zeus, in indignation, slew Asclepius with his thunderbolt. . ." (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, Book III, Chapter 71, section 2-3).

So whistle past the grave-yard, call the Furies the 'Eumenides,' but the gods were not altogether benign. And don't say 'he died.' Cicero, when the issue came up whether the imprisoned conspirators in Cataline's Bolshevik plot to burn Rome had been executed (contrary to law, because they had the right to appeal to the people), would not say 'they are dead' but only, 'they have lived:' "And seeing that many members of the conspiracy were still assembled in the forum in ignorance of what had been done and waiting for night to come, with the idea that the men were still living and might be rescued, he cried to them with a loud voice and said: “They have lived.” For thus the Romans who wish to avoid words of ill omen indicate death." (Plutarch. Complete Works of Plutarch (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Location 25655). Parallel Lives, Life of Cicero, Chapter 22).  You don't say somebody died, it's ill-omened. I don't know if there was ever a more superstitious people on the face of the earth than the pagan Romans. Ehrman wants us Christians to be the superstitious ones, but we freely say, 'he died,' 'he kicked the bucket,' etc. I read a book that had a chapter sub-heading, for Chapter Two, of "you might not finish this chapter." The chapter begins with, "You could die before you finish reading this chapter." (Crazy Love, Francis Chan, p. 41). The author, as I immediately realized, was not a pagan Roman.

The prophets of the Old Testament described paganism as worthless and vain, and the pagan gods as non-entities. It is not that any pagan ever set out to worship a block of wood, but since there was 'nobody home,' no higher power for whom this device could serve as a conduit, that is what they were objectively doing. The grand project of paganism, was to try to get everybody to sit down at one conference table and hash out their mutual interests and obligations: the sun, the moon, the rain-cloud, the thunder, the crops, the earth, and the sky. These were the great forces of nature whose prompt performance of their duties impacted human prosperity. Though some of these founding gods, like the planets, do not in fact have much impact on human life, it was assumed to the contrary that they were 'rulers' of the world system. The trouble is, there is somewhat of a conceptual error behind this project. While we cannot help but care greatly how these agricultural and climatological actors do their jobs, we have nothing to bring to the bargaining table to offer the sun that the sun would want. Moreover these forces of nature are disqualified as negotiating partners by their lack of will and personality. Important as they are to human life, they unimaginatively run their rounds as laid down in the law established by their Creator.

But the result of this misconceived experiment in environmental control and planetary governance was not a profound silence in all the temples and groves, as might have been expected. The pagans had sought to establish communication, and they had: but with what? The malignant spirits with whom they had become familiar were no more able to control the sun and the moon than could their human hosts, but they were a demanding lot. Paganism was an organized effort to solicit demonic possession, and it did not always fail. Preaching the Old Testament line to the pagans, that the god were non-entities, was a non-starter, Mark realized. Preaching that they were not unreal, but they also were not benign, was what the pagans already realized. He recalled the Lord's exorcising the demon legion, evicting them into the pigs, who destroyed themselves, running off a cliff into the sea. This might have reminded a pagan audience of the Thesmophoria, where pigs were hurled down into caverns. What did the 'gods' want? To destroy their hosts. When did they want it? Now. Biological parasites have an interest in keeping their host alive, but not these spiritual parasites. Just think of Agave, Dionysus' devoted servant. What did he do for her? Caused her to rip her own son, Pentheus, limb from limb. If you know there are gods in the building, you should run for the exits. But, since this is the 'competition' to early Christianity, it must be cleaned up, scrubbed and made presentable.

This whole enterprise would have worked out better if, first, Ehrman knew anything about paganism, and, secondly, if he took an objective viewpoint. It's one thing to come up with generalizations which are true as a general rule, discounting the occasional exception; it's another thing to come up with generalizations to which any well-informed person can instantly produce dozens of counter-examples. Of what use are generalizations which are false, as a general rule? One might as well say, the Ottoman Turks were tolerant, with a handful of exceptions, such as their dealings with the Armenians and the Greeks. What does the body count need to be before we are out of 'exception' range? The reader is mistaken who thinks the point of this enterprise is to explain or understand. If you go back to John Dominic Crossan, you'll discover his great innovation comes in using words like 'peasant' and 'day laborer' incorrectly, according to their dictionary definitions,— a day laborer is, by definition, an unskilled worker; a carpenter cannot be a day laborer even if hired for the day, and a 'peasant' is by definition an agricultural worker, especially under a system of land tenure unlike that prevailing in America. Justification is claimed in Gerhard Lenski's scheme of social categories, but a travelling religious teacher like Jesus is under Lenski's system a member of the priestly class regardless of prior occupation. We're still in anti-dictionary territory: "They were also known to revere, as the savior of the world, a lowly day laborer who had been crucified for crimes against the state." (Ehrman, Bart D. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 104). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition), and no doubt an 'illiterate peasant' to boot. This is not a man likely to change his views owing to their collision with reality. They use these words, persistently and incorrectly, as John Dominic Crossan taught them. What can you do with a tribe of Humpty-Dumpties who make up their own language? They like these words because they sound vaguely insulting, although in their usage they are close to meaningless: a 'day laborer' might be a skilled craftsman, a travelling preacher, or anything else in the world; it's a put-down, nothing more:

John Dominic Crossan

Readers who have followed Bart in the past likely come away from this new project perplexed. He's assured us in the past that gnosticism was a perfectly valid form of Christianity, which was not even decisively rejected for centuries. But now we learn that Christianity is a monotheistic faith which makes exclusive demands. Lucius the Ass experienced a religious conversion, but it was not really like what the convert to Christianity experiences, because at some time after his initial conversion he realized, or was taught, that there was an even higher god than Isis:

"But there is a very real and tangible difference. Lucius never had to think or act as if Isis were in fact the only divine being. On the contrary, she was superior to all others. As it turned out, not even that was right. There was one greater: Osiris. Were there yet others even greater? The author never says. When Lucius turned to Isis, he did not stop being a pagan who recognized the divinity of other divine beings. Nor did he make any commitment to worship her alone. His was not an exclusive devotion." (Ehrman, Bart D., The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 125). Simon & Schuster.)

You know something funny? This is exactly the lesson the student in gnosticism learned from his preceptors; that the Old Testament God, who proclaimed that He was the one and only God, made himself a laughing-stock by this empty boast. Why, what about all the other gods!:

"For the Archon was a laughingstock because he said, 'I am God, and there is none greater than I. I alone am the Father, the Lord, and there is no other beside me. I am a jealous God, who brings the sins of the fathers upon the children for three and four generations.' As if he had become stronger than I and my brothers!" (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, pp. 368-369, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited James M. Robinson).

Doubting Thomas, Polish Salt Mine

Now that Bart Ehrman has come to realize that Christianity is quite different from this model, as indeed it is, can we expect him to pulp all his earlier publications that contain the erroneous misconception that Christianity is compatible with the revelation of a higher god? Certainly it would increase the sum total of knowledge in the world if he did. No? Gosh, what a surprise. All we're going to get is a round of incoherent tail-chasing? That 'proto-orthodoxy' is monotheistic no doubt is indeed one of the reasons for its eventual triumph, not to mention that it's the truth. Christianity in very truth is exclusive and monotheistic, and it's good that now we all agree. What he used to make money promoting as authentic Christianity isn't:

"When Christians spoke of this ultimate god, on the other hand, they insisted on two supremely important provisos. Unlike pagan henotheists, they maintained that this god was none other than the god of the Christians. And they insisted that anyone who chose to worship him was to do so to the complete exclusion of all other gods. One might think this exclusionary insistence would be off-putting and offensive in a world filled with gods, dooming the Christian mission to failure. On the contrary, it had just the opposite effect. It was this claim that led to the triumph of Christianity." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p.115).


Our author is upset with the idea that "right belief" or "correct doctrine" might be essential to salvation, finding this view equivalent to violent intolerance: "Because of the enormous significance of 'right belief' for eternal life, the intolerant potential of this exclusivist religion came to be fanned into white-hot passion early on, leading to widespread though certainly not universal intolerance." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 266). You wouldn't know, reading that, that this same author devoted his energies in his earlier projects into claiming that gnosticism, a belief system which recasts salvation as a form of knowledge, is a legitimate form of Christianity. You will find no author who contradicts himself in so free and unrestrained a manner. Christians point out to him that Christianity and gnosticism cannot possibly be two variant forms of the same one religion, because they are so different at such a fundamental level: gnosticism is polytheistic, Christianity monotheistic, gnosticism categorizes salvation as a kind of knowledge, Christianity does not. He explains that they are bigots. But it makes no sense that Christianity only became monotheistic in the fourth century, and that by the way its success in winning converts up to that point was owing to its monotheism. He tells us, "I am not using the term 'pagan' in a derogatory sense but simply to refer to the broad array of non-monotheistic religions embraced by virtually everyone except Jews (and then Christians) in antiquity." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 295). Fine. So does he refer to gnostics as 'pagans'? He ought to, they are non-monotheists. Why then did he write books pretending they were bona fide Christians? If he had said, 'the gnostics were pagans who competed with Christianity for adherents in the early centuries,' no one would have objected.



In the third century, A.D., a young man named Bassianus, called Elagabalus, was made emperor of Rome. He was a teenager when he was invested with the imperial purple, and still a teenager when he was ripped to pieces by the mob. We have heard that the pagans welcomed newcomers into the pantheon, and were never troubled when their neighbors wanted to worship some new and unheard of deity, because they were polytheists after all: ". . . anyone who decided, as a pagan, to worship a new or different god was never required to relinquish any former gods or their previous patterns of worship." (p. 14); the more, the merrier. The history of Elagabalus might serve as a good test case for this thesis. Solar monotheism was by no means new, it goes back to Ahkenaton's religious reform in ancient Egypt. Naturally enough, the sun was always a deity in the Graeco-Roman pantheon, though sometimes a walk-on like the Homeric Helios or Hyperion, a Titan. Apollo had a legitimate connection to the sun; but he was not the god-in-chief of the pantheon, that would be Zeus or Jupiter. Although the sun was an under-achiever in the old Greek and Roman pagan religions, compared to his status in Egyptian religion, there can be no question the genial sun has been worshipped as a god from "time immemorial." So what kind of welcome did Elagabalus get when he brought his pet rock to Rome?

"Since Maesa had lived for a long time under imperial protection, she had amassed a huge personal fortune. Thus the old woman now went off to live on her estates. Maesa had two daughters. The elder was called Soaemias; the younger, Mamaea. Each of the girls had an only son: Soaemias' son was named Bassianus; Mamaea's, Alexianus. These boys, who were reared by their mothers and their grandmother, were at that time about fourteen and ten, respectively. They were priests of the sun god, whom their countrymen worship under the Phoenician name Elagabalus. A huge temple was erected to this god, lavishly decorated with gold, silver, and costly gems. Not only is this god worshiped by the natives, but all the neighboring rulers and kings send generous and expensive gifts to him each year. No statue made by man in the likeness of the god stands in this temple, as in Greek and Roman temples. The temple does, however, contain a huge black stone with a pointed end and round base in the shape of a cone. The Phoenicians solemnly maintain that this stone came down from Zeus; pointing out certain small figures in relief, they assert that it is an unwrought image of the sun, for naturally this is what they wish to see.  Bassianus was the chief priest of this god. (Since he was the elder of the boys, the priesthood had been entrusted to him.) He went about in barbarian dress, wearing long-sleeved purple tunics embroidered with gold which hung to his feet; robes similarly decorated with gold and purple covered his legs from hip to toe, and he wore a crown of varicolored precious gems."

(Herodian. History of the Roman Empire (Kindle Locations 2550-2566). Book Five, Chapter III, Section 2-6. Kindle Edition.)

One often reads in pagan sources about images that fell from the heavens, and they really did, in those days. They still do. They are not remarkably life-like; perhaps the gods send us only those pieces that did not come out well. There is still, to this day, a meteorite embedded in the Kaabah, although it required repair after Muslim iconoclasts smashed it to be pieces. We might say, 'That meteorite looks a little like Mr. Potato-Head,' though most of them probably did not really look all that much like the gods and goddesses with whom they were identified.

How did it go? At first very well. Undoubtedly Elagabalus' status as priest of the sun-god was an attraction for those Roman soldiers already tending in the direction of solar monotheism, which was becoming increasingly popular. These people thought that the one and only sun was, either to be identified as, or a fit symbol for, the one and only god. Distressed by the irrationality of polytheism, they saw this as a positive direction, but they still had one foot in the pagan fold, because their god, no abstraction, was a god who could be seen, preferably through smoked glass. When it comes to issues of toleration, the solarists tended to subsume other deities into their own, and one can imagine that leading to trouble. The sun god, to them, was the hero with a thousand faces; and some of those faces were surprisingly leafy, for a god running a high surface temperature. One can imagine the conversations, 'My god is a sun god? No! My god is a leafy god! Haven't you read 'The Golden Bough'? All gods are leafy gods.' This was obviously a problem in this case; the solarists wanted, not toleration, but precedence: "He directed all Roman officials who perform public sacrifices to call upon the new god Elagabalus before all the other gods whom they invoke in their rites." (Herodian. History of the Roman Empire (Kindle Locations 2660-2661). Book Five, Chapter V, Section 7.) But since the benevolent sun has always been there for us, revving up the engine that makes photo-synthesis go, and thus feeding us all, surely it might have gone well.

So it started well, but, alas, it ended badly. From the start he found it necessary to execute those Romans who ridiculed him: "Even though the emperor seemed to be devoting all his attention to dancing and to his priestly duties, still he found time to execute many famous and wealthy men who were charged with ridiculing and censuring his way of life." (Herodian. History of the Roman Empire (Kindle Locations 2676-2678). Book Five, Chapter VI, Section 1.) Just taking care of business, for the ever-tolerant pagans. While there seem to be other, LGBTQ threads wrapped into the matter, his flamboyant manner of personal presentation does ultimately seem to follow from his priestly status. His official get-up must have been reminiscent of that which inspired Tallulah Bankhead to say, 'Darling, your dress is divine, but your purse is on fire.'

How did it turn out? He ended up getting assassinated and ripped to shreds by the mob, his remains thrown into the Tiber:

"Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Elagabalus and his mother Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil. They gave the bodies of Elagabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber."

(Herodian. History of the Roman Empire (Kindle Locations 2777-2783). Book Five, Chapter VIII. Section 8-9. Kindle Edition.)

Personally I would not call this a great day in the history of religious toleration. While it's remarkable that such a person could have been chosen as emperor, it was on the strength of the rumor that he was Caracalla's illegitimate son; and, as noted, the radiant sun was not in itself a particularly novel nor controversial deity. He nevertheless gets dragged through the streets and thrown in the Tiber. They did not like his religion. He should have put on the toga. He is neither, himself, a 'Profile in Courage' in the history of religious toleration, nor was the response he got particularly commendable. To this day, there are lots of people who think they are being clever to ridicule the appearance of, say, the Sikhs, or adherents of any other religion that recommends any unusual dress or hair-style. That's par for the course for paganism. If you don't look like them, and act like them, they'll kill you. Sometimes the effort to introduce new gods led to blood in the streets. That's a fact about paganism about which our author is unaware. We are not talking about a "handful of exceptions" (p. 89) in a marvellously tolerant and open world, as he preposterously claims, but about real life.


The First Missionary

Who was the first missionary? Jonah, who travelled far from his native land to preach to the Ninevites? Jezebel's 450 prophets of Baal, some of whom at least must have accompanied her from her native Sidon to Israel? Readers of the Talmud and the Koran know the answer: it was Abraham! People who think Bart Ehrman knows what he is talking about will be surprised to learn this is the answer, because he sys, "What may be far less expected is that ancient Judaism also lacked any genuine missionary impulse." (p. 116). If so, it is less than clear where the foreigners Solomon expects to come to the temple will have heard the Name:

"Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this temple, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name." (1 Kings 8:41-43).

But it started long before that. The Talmud and the Koran are very late sources, and this is not obviously the right answer, but consider the facts. Abraham caused strangers to be circumcised:

"Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very same day Abraham was circumcised, and his son Ishmael; and all the men of his house, born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him." (Genesis 17:24-27).

Family members are one thing, but why strangers? Were these people coerced? Philo says no, they were invited to join the fold: "Why did Abraham also circumcise strangers? The wise man is as useful as the humane man, who saves and invites to himself not only his relations and neighbors, but also strangers and men of another family, giving them a share of his own habit of patient and religious continence; for these are the foundations of constancy, which is the object of all virtue, and the point at which it rests." (Philo Judaeus, Questions and Answers in Genesis, Book 3, Question 62). In other words, the wise man, Abraham, "saves and invites to himself" proselytes. When I first encountered this idea, of Abraham as a missionary of monotheism, I thought it was a legendary expansion of the Genesis narrative. But if these people were not 'invitees,' then what were they? Can anyone accuse Abraham of forced conversion? Who were the 318 servants who fought for him? "And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan." (Genesis 14:14). Slaves, or adherents?:

"But all these gifts did not rejoice the heart of Abraham so much as the three hundred followers that joined him and became adherents of his religion."
(Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Volume 1, Kindle location 2257).

That seems actually to be more plausible than the alternative. It's easy to say the 318 are just slaves, but slaves are not commonly armed. America, it might surprise some people to know, has a long history of gun control, in one part of the country at least: in the ante-bellum South, in blatant disregard of the second amendment, it was illegal for African-Americans to own firearms. Incidentally, it was also illegal in ancient Rome for slaves to own weapons. John Brown raided the armory in Harper's Ferry in order to acquire weapons to distribute to the slaves. He was not planning to tell them what to do, just giving them options. The thought of armed slaves was so alarming to Robert E. Lee, then wearing the blue uniform, that he bottled Brown and his followers up in the armory and then had them executed. If the second amendment had been honored, perhaps there would have been no need for a Civil War. But Abraham's 318 fought for him. What exactly was their relationship to him? Did they see him as a religious teacher and mentor? And what is the likelihood that Abraham travelled about in Canaan, never once encountering any curious soul who inquired, 'You're not from these parts. Why did you come here?' Is it possible that, hearing the answer, no one at all ever said, 'You know, I always thought the idols were vain, and stars are no gods.' The odds that this never happened are round about nil. It really is not possible that, at a certain point, monotheism began to make sense to people, and it is plainly the case that at some point it did, when it never had before. Bart and people like him sometimes claim to be uniformitarians, but they never are, and not only because G.W.F. Hegel in the nineteenth century put historiography on an entirely different basis. Try selling polytheism in the present day, as they have with all their silly enthusiasm for gnosticism; did this really catch on? Like there are gnostic mega-churches in every county? Some people must have agreed with Abraham.

Abraham travelled with a company, who followed him, even from their pagan homelands: "Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan." (Genesis 12:5). According to Maimonides, these were people he had 'instructed:' "They guided their fellow-men by means of argument and instruction, as is implied, according to the interpretation generally received amongst us, in the words 'and the souls that they had gotten in Haran' (Gen. xii. 5)." (Moses Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 112). Abraham was called to come and found a people, but he himself was a convert to the faith in the one true and living God. If everything after all depends on descent, then Abraham, the son of the idolater Terah, is lost to the fire. And he certainly did make converts, and circumcise strangers. You might almost call him a missionary, albeit a bi-vocational one. The new people he founded always included converts; he himself was a convert, as well as those he instructed.


Ehrman denies, not only that there were Jewish missionaries, but that there were more than few Christian ones; but he seems to define the job description rather eccentrically, as if a missionary had to be a person who gave a public speech before pagans. (Which, according to him, Paul did not do, even though scripture reports him teaching in the lecture hall of Tyrannus: "But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus." (Acts 19:9). Remember, we have discarded Acts.) All right, a Christian who gave a public speech before a pagan audience. . .how about the Senate of Rome?:

"APOLLONIUS, a Roman senator under the emperor Commodus, having been denounced by a slave as a Christian, gained permission to give a reason for his faith and wrote a remarkable volume which he read in the senate, yet none the less, by the will of the senate, he was beheaded for Christ by virtue of an ancient law among them, that Christians who had once been brought before their judgment seat should not be dismissed unless they recanted." (Jerome, The Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 42).

As a 'critical' scholar, he is of course free to discard this, or any other reputable, source. In its place, he gives us a nice little folk tale about Hypatia, who, did you know?— was very, very beautiful. . .To give the devil his due, Ehrman's paradigm of evangelism through personal networks is not unknown to the Bible. One cannot visualize Naomi standing on a soap-box and preaching to a crowd in a foreign city, yet she was instrumental in bringing Ruth the Moabitess in to the people of God. Of course they do not thereupon play any game of 'telephone' and bungle up the message.

In the field of the history of science, we cannot do without the concepts of progress and regress. How to explain why the first adopters of Copernicus' heliocentric system liked it, other than that it was superior, in its simplicity, to Ptolemy's system? Embargoing the concepts of 'progress' and 'regress' would leave history of science a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Yet as an atheist, Bart is unwilling to point out that monotheism is superior to polytheism, as the philosophers were already realizing. Instead, he resorts, as ever, to the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, because these works feature talking dogs and that type of thing. One gets the impression, reading this body of literature, that these compositions were assigned projects in convents and monasteries, because the authors do not seem to have much sense of plausibility, nor even to get out much. None circulated widely nor resulted in mass conversions. Yet, to our author, they must hold the key; their contents, repeated at third and fourth hand, merely because they were stated repetitively, caused the triumph of Christianity: "Some, after hearing enough stories repeated time after time, began to consider them possible." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 143). We know this is true, because after all the people did convert. In my page on 'Jesus, Interrupted,' I call this the 'katagelogical method.' No doubt it appeals to atheists. But this man is a joke. The main-line church has gone from representing about thirty per cent of the American population, heading down to ten per cent, as a result of gullibility. In lieu of history, we are given one of the founding myths of modern atheism, and no one is supposed to notice the substitution.


Incidentally, is it true that "It is always to be remembered that throughout all of antiquity—in fact, until the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and still in most parts of our world today—the religious and sociopolitical realms were not kept distinct. The state not only promoted and encouraged religious cults, it staffed them." (Ehrman, Bart D., The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (pp. 94-95). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.) Um, no: "And they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the Lord God.” Then Uzziah became furious; and he had a censer in his hand to burn incense. And while he was angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, before the priests in the house of the Lord, beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and there, on his forehead, he was leprous; so they thrust him out of that place. Indeed he also hurried to get out, because the Lord had struck him." (2 Chronicles, 26:18-20). What the customer gets, when you spend money for a Bart Ehrman book, is a value proposition about like what you got with ancient medicine.


Jesus Interrupted

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