Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Nero, Burning Rome, and the Apostle Paul

Bands of itinerant priests, dancing as they travelled and playing flutes and kettle-drums, were a common sight on the Galatian roads.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland

Some would work themselves up in a lather of prophecy, indulging in “spectacular orgiastic rites.”  But copulation was not possible for the most celebrated of these:

The Galli, men dressed as women, were servants of Cybele, the Mother Goddess who sat enthroned amid the highest peaks of Galatia….

Next time someone claims to be transgendered, ask them if they take their belief this seriously:

…and the mark of their submission to this most powerful and venerable of all the region’s gods was the severing with a knife or a sharp stone of their testicles.

This is how Holland introduces the chapter entitled AD 19: Galatia.

The Jews, of course, fell under no such spells.  Alone among the population, they continued to hold true to the idea that there was only one God.  And it was one of these, the Apostle Paul, that would, decades later, come to Galatia to preach the Good News – to evangelize.

Yet what Paul had to say was no less subversive of Torah than it was of Caesar.  Although, perhaps only a decade before, what he was now preaching was certainly folly to him as well.  A crucified criminal was somehow part of the identity of the one true God.

The God that Paul preached recognized no divisions in male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free.  A phenomenally remarkable and radical concept in both the Roman and Jewish worlds.  He would continue this message in Ephesus, Thessalonica, Philippi, and elsewhere.  He would suffer beatings and imprisonments, shipwrecks and extortions. 

It is estimated that he travelled ten-thousand miles in his lifetime – a remarkable amount for the time and for one not a military conqueror.  But there were always new people to win for Christ.  He wrote many letters, well-versed in the art of rhetoric: “a brilliant, expressive, highly emotional correspondent.”

He was brought disturbing news from Galatia, resulting in his impassioned and frantic letter, asking who has put such a spell on the foolish Galatians.  Their history of sorcery was coming through in their expression of Christ – to accept the law of Moses in full. 

Circumcision or not, the value is the same.  But if you have bought into this, Paul offered…go all the way and castrate yourselves.  That was, after all the way of the Galatians not even a few years before. 

Corinth was a different type of city, international and cosmopolitan.  Two crowded harbors, and international reputation for glamor.  The church he would found there was populated by Jews and non-Jews, rich and poor, some with Roman names, some with Greek.  The church was a globalist church, not limited to tribe or sex.  Baptism washed away the old identity, giving a new.

The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  All you need is love.

Well, yes…and no.  First comes love the Lord your God with all your heart.  Second, introducing John Lennon only introduces confusion…and blasphemy.

Paul struggled with the integration of the idea of “all equal in Christ” with the reality of roles of husband and wife, slave and master, etc.  His was not an attempt to lay down some new law of Christ, but to get others to realize it within themselves.  All men, not only the Jews, had some sense of right and wrong written on their hearts, as spelled out in Romans 2.

Paul, at the heart of his gospel, was enshrining the Stoic concept of conscience.

The Greek word is syneidēsis: the capacity to apply general principles of moral judgment to particular cases.  Conscience.  It is used dozens of times in the New Testament, primarily, but not exclusively, by Paul. 

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Thus, for instance, the impartial spectator with which Adam Smith identified conscience, inspired by the Stoic’s notion of conscience as an imagined admired philosopher judging one’s conduct, is not a morally and emotionally neutral observer, but generates a sentiment of approval or disapproval of oneself (Smith 1759 and discussion in Raphael 2007: 34).

Returning to Holland: Paul’s teaching would draw on both the Pharisees and the Stoics, and yet would be considered foreign to both.  Paul’s letters, the work of a “bum, without position or reputation in the affairs of the world”  would become…

…the most influential, transformative, the most revolutionary ever written. …His was a conception of law that would come to suffuse an entire civilisation.

I think Holland here gives less than adequate treatment to the contribution of Jesus in all of this.  It was Jesus who summarized the law in love.  This fulfilled the law of the Pharisees, and it required the conscience of the Stoics.  Paul, obviously, greatly expanded our understanding, but it was Jesus who gave the foundation.

Then we come to Rome.  Paul did not found this church, but perhaps his most influential letter was written to it.  It was the Rome of Nero – who killed his mother, kicked his pregnant wife to death.  Dressed as a woman, he married a man.

In the summer of AD 64, a great street party was thrown to celebrate the new order of things.

A lake filled with sea monsters, brothels lined along the edge – staffed with a wide array of whores, ranging from the cheapest streetwalkers to the most blue-blooded of aristocrats.  For just one night, all were fair game – open to both the slave and the free man.  According to Dio, Roman statesman and historian:

‘Now a minion would take his mistress in the presence of his master; now a gladiator would take a girl of noble family before the gaze of her father.’

Why was this so?  How was this possible?  In the words of Holland, “…the potency of a Roman penis.”

Sex was nothing if not an exercise of power. …to be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior….

Demonstrating the clear distinction of Roman and Greek identity from that of the Christian (and from our sense of morality), Paul would offer, instead, that our bodies are members of Christ Himself.  This is taken from 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul writes:

15 Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.


In the summer of 64, a few weeks after Nero’s notorious street party, a deadly fire broke out in Rome.  For days it raged.

Perhaps a third of the city was reduced to rubble.  The Christians were blamed.  Some, dressed in animal skins, were torn apart by animals; others lashed to crosses and used as torches.

Among those put to death, so later tradition would record, were two famous names.  One was Peter.  The other – beheaded, as befitted a Roman citizen – was Paul.

Shortly thereafter, the second temple was destroyed. 



  1. A minor note:

    I think Holland here gives less than adequate treatment to the contribution of Jesus in all of this.

    I think Holland might argue... and I know I definitely would... that the Western Church "gives less than adequate treatment to the contribution of Jesus..." Which, IMHO, is the primary reason it, and Western Civilization as a whole, is collapsing in front of us.

    Not St Paul's error, of course.

  2. In a way Jesus is like Socrates in that Socrates was the founder of classical Greek philosophy but didn't write anything. What we know of Socrates was written by Plato.

    That makes Paul similar to Plato in a similar way, but also all the authors in the New Testament.

    Of course it is completely different too, because Jesus not only taught the men while on the earth but inspired their writing through the Holy Spirit. Also none of Paul's teaching was purely from Paul. They taught merely what they were taught by Jesus.