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The killing of History: why relativism is wrong

Accustom your children constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.—Boswell’s Life of Johnson

There are no facts, only interpretations.—Friedrich Nietzsche

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It is perhaps easy enough to discount some of the more florid examples of the assault on truth. I daresay that few sensible people take seriously the claims of Holocaust deniers. What is significant, however, is the way in which such extreme doctrines tend to be dismissed. Increasingly, they are repudiated not as pernicious falsehoods—the response that Dr. Johnson would have insisted upon—but as more or less unfortunate “perspectives” or “points of view,” the gospel being that everyone is “entitled” to his own such hobbyhorse, no matter how flagrantly at odds with the truth it might be. Never mind that such an attitude not only disparages truth, but also erodes the legitimacy of serious opinion.

Or take the recent movies directed by Oliver Stone. Anyone who looks into the matter knows that Mr. Stone’s portrayals of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon are exercises in (left-wing) political fantasy. Yet the popularity of such movies testifies not—or not only—to the political commitments of those who patronize his movies. It also testifies to the public’s capacious appetite for historical “reconstruction”: that is, its appetite for history glamorized and minus the burdensome requirement to tell the truth—history, to put it in a word, “lite.” Dr. Johnson would not have liked history lite.

There are no doubt many reasons for this development.

There are no doubt many reasons for this development. One important reason is the degree to which Western intellectual elites—in the media, the world of culture, and above all in the academy—have reneged on their commitment to truth. This abdication has a long and complex heritage. And it comes in many forms and degrees of finality, from various modes of trial separation to, in extreme cases, irrevocable divorce. As always in the world of ideas, what matters is not so much the existence but the influence and prevalence of such commitments. In the present case, the cavalier attitude toward truth has reached epidemic proportions. It has, indeed, become part of the intellectual furniture of our age, presupposed rather than argued for.

One depressing sign of this situation is the absolute horror with which the idea of “objective truth” is regarded in chic academic circles today. Another is the widespread tendency to downgrade facts to matters of opinion—a tendency that follows naturally from the rejection of objective truth. This shows itself in the amazingly prevalent assumption that truth is “relative,” i.e., that the truth of what is said depends crucially upon the interests, prejudices, even the sex or ethnic origin of the speaker rather than—well, than the truth or falsity of what the speaker says. The basic idea is that truth is somehow invented rather than discovered. Typical of this position is the feminist complaint about “male-centered” epistemologies that make false claims to universality (another word that inspires panic) or objectivity.

The Harvard historian Simon Schama provided a more genteel expression of this attitude toward truth in the Afterword to his best-selling harlequinade, Dead Certainties (1991). “The claims for historical knowledge,” Mr. Schama assured his readers, “must always be fatally circumscribed”—fatally circumscribed, mind you—“by the character and prejudices of its narrator.” In other words, the limitations of the historian make the achievement of historical truth impossible. How many college-educated people today would dare to dissent from this assertion? Mr. Schama was at pains to deny that his was a “naïvely relativist position”; yet at bottom, his claim is little more than a chummy periphrasis for Nietzsche’s famous declaration of nihilism: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” It is unfortunate that we lack a squadron of Dr. Johnsons: they might remedy the situation considerably by applying a series of refutations like that delivered against Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy. Except in the case of the Michel Foucault, who might have grown overly fond of Johnson’s method of refutation, the results would almost certainly be salutary.

The dizzy proliferation of “studies” programs is an important sign of this decay. Women’s studies, gay studies, Afro-American studies, Chicano studies, peace studies, textual studies: the metastasis of these and other such pseudo-subjects in the academy betokens not the extension but the breakdown of academic disciplines. It is worth stressing that such programs, though advertised as “cross-disciplinary,” are in reality anti-disciplinary; they require not the mastery of multiple disciplines but the abandonment of disciplinary rigor for the sake of fostering a prescribed ideology. The paradigm of all such efforts is “cultural studies,” an alarmingly popular intellectual solvent that is characterized not by its subject—which can be anything at all—but its attitude. The two mandatory ingredients for cultural studies are (1) political animus and (2) a hostility to factual truth; “content” is entirely discretionary.

Even history, whose raison d’être, one might have thought, was a commitment to factual truth, has suffered.

To date, the assault on truth in the academy seems to have been most damaging to the study of literature—partly because departures from factual truth are not always so readily detectable when the subject is literature, partly because departments of literature were among the first to capitulate to such trendy and destructive fads as deconstruction, structuralism, and cultural studies in all its unlovely allotropes. But few if any subjects have escaped unscathed. Philosophy, law, art history, psychology, anthropology, sociology: all have been playing an aggressive game of catch-up with literature departments in this regard. Even history, whose raison d’être, one might have thought, was a commitment to factual truth, has suffered. So, too, the natural sciences: the theory and philosophy of science—if not yet the actual practice of science—have increasingly become hostage to sundry forms of epistemological incontinence, as the logic and substance of science is deliberately confused with the sociology of science. According to some observers, such ideas have even begun making headway in schools of business management and accounting—though regrettably not, it seems, among those accountants employed by the Internal Revenue Service. A splendid chap called Nicholas Fox, who lectures in English medical schools, may have provided this week’s ne plus ultra of social constructivism. In his book Postmodernism, Sociology and Health (1993), Mr. Fox assures readers that such terms as “patient” and “illness” are “sociological fictions” that can be cleared up by “elements of feminist theory and Derridean concepts of différance and intertextuality.”

Many of these developments have been duly noted and criticized. Indeed, beginning in 1987, with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a small but steady stream of books and articles have appeared to take issue with one or another dimension of the academic assault on truth. My own book, Tenured Radicals (1990), belongs on this list, as do David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991) and Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s superlative anatomy of the so-called “science wars” in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994). The latest contribution to this genre of dissent is also among the most devastating, intellectually sophisticated, and wide-ranging in its indictment. Written by an Australian historian called Keith Windschuttle, the book is titled The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered By Literary Critics and Social Theorists. If the title seems a tad lurid, rest assured that the evidence that Mr. Windschuttle assembles to make his case amply justifies the strong rhetoric. Although published by an obscure house (a fact that tells us a great deal about the priorities of academic publishing today), this is the most important work of cultural criticism to have appeared all year—indeed, in many a year.

For all this, however, Mr. Windschuttle is right that The Killing of History is not “yet another boring book about theory.” His focus throughout is firmly on the discipline of history: on what it should be and how those who deny the claims of empirical truth undermine the core of historical analysis. “For most of the last 2400 years,” Mr. Windschuttle writes in his preface,

the essence of history has continued to be that it should try to tell the truth, to describe as best as possible what really happened. Over this time, of course, many historians have been exposed as mistaken, opinionated and often completely wrong, but their critics have usually felt obliged to show they were wrong about real things, that their claims about the past were different from the things that actually happened. In other words, the critics still operated on the assumption that the truth was in the historian’s grasp.

Today, these assumptions are widely rejected, even among some people employed as historians themselves. In the 1990s, the newly dominant theorists within the humanities and social sciences assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all. They claim that we can only see the past through the perspective of our own culture and, hence, what we see in history are our own interests and concerns reflected back at us. The central point upon which history was founded no longer holds: there is no fundamental distinction any more between history and myth.

The attack on factual knowledge is no longer confined to a handful of disgruntled metaphysicians: it is common coin among mainstream historians.

The attack on factual knowledge is no longer confined to a handful of disgruntled metaphysicians: it is common coin among mainstream historians. As is the case in literary studies, a common feint is to say that the whole controversy is merely evidence of “generational conflict,” that objections to “new methods” are just the bleatings of old fogies resisting the “innovations” of Young Turks. As Windschuttle points out, however, most of the so-called “new ideas” were put into circulation by scholars in their forties and fifties; “the movers and shakers of this movement,” he notes, “are the old New Left crowd from the 1960s . . . obviously not so new these days but just as addicted to the latest fashions as they were in the days of hippy beads and flared trousers.” The difference, of course, is that in the 1960s such figures occupied the periphery of academia. Now they dominate it: “Since 1985, the dissidents have expanded their territory enormously. Although they still like to portray themselves as embattled outsiders, they are today the ones making all the running—devising new courses, contracting the publishers, filling the new jobs, attracting the postgraduate students.” Those professors whose intellectual and moral convictions might lead them to fight against these developments are generally “too busy, too tired or too bemused” to object; their inaction has conferred unwonted legitimacy upon their opponents, allowing them to consolidate their authority and perquisites.

Mr. Windschuttle’s ambitious aim in The Killing of History is twofold: first, to describe the assault on factual truth in all its fuliginous variety; second, “to show that, despite all the present claims to the contrary, history can be studied in an objective way and that there are no philosophical obstacles to the pursuit of truth and knowledge about the human world.”

Regarding the former, Windschuttle provides an intelligent and well-informed trip through the major theories now contending for dominance in the humanities and social sciences; much of this material will be familiar to anyone who has been following recent debates about the fate of higher education. But even here Windschuttle has much to offer. For one thing, as his subtitle suggests, he shows, in more detail than has been attempted hitherto, how the attack on history has proceeded largely by the application to history of hermetic, French-inspired literary theories such as deconstruction and (via the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss) structuralism. Along the way, he shows how the barbarous jargon and obscure writing that characterize so much contemporary academic prose is often pursued not out of any intellectual scrupulousness or profundity but as a kind of stratagem. “Obscurity,” he notes, is “a clever way to generate a following”—not least because many people mistakenly assume that obscure writing is indicative of deep thinking. Then, too, there is something self-perpetuating about an addiction to obscurity: students who have labored to master a difficult argot will naturally be reluctant to acknowledge that the jargon they have expended so much effort to learn is intellectually bankrupt. Moreover, those who are seduced by obscurity often exhibit the correlative vice of assuming that what is clear is superficial—or worse. A follower of Derrida called Mas’d Zavarzadeh gave the show away when he dismissed a critic of the master because of his “unproblematic prose and the clarity of his presentation”—features, we read, that are “the conceptual tools of conservatism.” Horrors!

The really significant contribution that Windschuttle makes in this book, however, is his defense of objectivity and factual truth.

The really significant contribution that Windschuttle makes in this book, however, is his defense of objectivity and factual truth. He speaks, it should be said, primarily as a working historian, not as a philosopher. That is to say, although Windschuttle’s discussion is philosophically sophisticated (especially compared to the work of most of his opponents), his chief concern is not with the abstract possibility of objective truth, but rather with its achievement—or failure—in specific works of history. This, in fact, is the greatest strength of The Killing of History. Windschuttle makes his case concretely by using “the work of real historians to combat their theoretical opponents.”

Proceeding through a series of specific historical case studies, Windschuttle subjects the new historical theories to a kind of “road test” to see how they handle on “the rougher terrain of actual historical subject matter.” The events in question include the European discovery of America and Spanish conquest of Mexico; the British discovery and exploration of the Pacific islands; the foundation of the European settlement in Australia; the history of mental asylums, hospitals, and penal policy in Europe; and the fall of Communism in 1989. The events that Windschuttle adduces are appropriate because they have attracted the attention of many of the trendiest and most influential representatives of the theories he wishes to criticize. His procedure is to present the account of a given historical event from the perspective of “theory,” and then to show up the deficiencies of that account using the work of more traditional historians. Given Windschuttle’s aim of recuperating historical truth, it is hardly surprising that in every case the traditionalists come out on top. What is noteworthy, however, is the care and thoughtfulness with which he proceeds. He takes great pains to present the rival accounts fully and fairly; and the aim of his rebuttals is not to make debater’s points but to articulate common-sense objections to “theory” and cultural relativism that have application well beyond the specific cases he discusses.

Consider, for example, the way that Columbus’s discovery of the New World and the Spanish conquest of Mexico have been discussed by bien pensants academics over the course of the last decade. It has not only been inveterate, politically-correct historical romancers like Kirkpatrick Sale who have taken the opportunity to portray Columbus as an evil marauder and the Indians as pacific, environmentally sensitive creatures who lived in blissful harmony with each other and the earth. In 1992, Oxford University Press published American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World by the historian David Stannard in which, as Windschuttle reports, we read that “The road to Auschwitz led straight through the heart of the Americas”—a comparison that Mr. Windschuttle rightly dismisses as “not only wildly anachronistic but conceptually odious.” Occurring at a moment when political correctness and theory-inebriation were both at high tide, the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America called forth all manner of dubious pontification among literary critics, historians, anthropologists, and other academics eager to outdo each other disparaging the legacy of Europe (and, by extension, the United States) and celebrating the virtues of victimized indigenous peoples.

The eminent semiotician and literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov had already produced one of the most depressing foretastes of what was to come in The Conquest of America (1982). Todorov had a little of everything. Language-besotted academics could savor his assurance that it was “by his mastery of signs [that] Cortés ensure[d] his control over the ancient Mexican empire.” (Never mind that Spanish military technology was vastly superior to that of the Aztecs.) The politically correct were soothed by his condemnation of European imperialism and such assertions as “The sixteenth century perpetrated the greatest genocide in human history.” There was the added bonus of Todorov’s palaver about Columbus, and European culture generally, being unable to deal appropriately with “The Other”—i.e., with “the existence of a human substance truly other, something capable of being not merely an imperfect state of oneself.”

As Windschuttle notes, one of the many problems for Todorov and others who champion the indigenous peoples of the Americas against their European conquerors is “the widespread practice of human sacrifice which prevailed at the time of the Spanish conquest.” The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas, the Caytes, the natives of Guyana, and the Pawnees and Huron tribes of North America: all practiced human sacrifice, often on a huge scale (the Aztecs alone murdered several thousands a year), sometimes accompanied by cannibalism. The Caytes, for example, ate the crew of every wrecked Portuguese ship they found. “At one meal,” reports an anthropologist cited by Mr. Windschuttle, “they ate the first Bishop of Bahia, two Canons, the Procurator of the Royal Portuguese Treasury, two pregnant women and several children.” Todorov, Mr. Windschuttle concludes,

wants to impose a moral judgement on the Spanish conquest, and yet he also wishes to play down the issue of human sacrifice so that his readers will still see the Aztecs as victims who have the greater virtue and who deserve greater sympathy. To do this he is forced to argue that all human societies are guilty of systematic mass murder, only some are more guilty than others. But once the distinction between sacrifice/massacre societies evaporates, he is left with nothing but a common human nature to explain the murderous proclivity of the species. And the idea of a common human nature is something that his whole book was designed to deny.

Among many other things, Carter wants to recapture the experience of the British convicts who early on populated Australia and who, according to Carter, were model subversives in that they rejected Enlightenment empiricism and imperialism. His difficulty is that the world view of the convicts can only be viewed through the “distorting mirror” of those in authority because, Carter says, the narratives and journals recording firsthand the convicts’ experiences have been lost. His solution is to apply “spatial history” to the accounts of “ruling-class chroniclers” in order to “recover from the Enlightenment logic of cause and effect something of what that logic suppressed. In particular, we may be able to recover that dimension of the convict’s existence which imprisonment and transportation were specifically designed to exclude: his occupation of historical space.” There is, of course, a lot that might be said about this sort of hermeneutical legerdemain. But the fact is, Carter needn’t have been nearly so ingenious. He claims that an act of imaginative reconstruction is necessary to recover the convict’s experience. But, as Mr. Windschuttle points out,

the Australian convicts produced more documents recording, in their own words, their observations and activities, their dreams, hates and loves, than almost any other underclass in history. Moreover, there have been more history PhDs, lectureships and chairs in Australia earned from this source material than from almost any other single topic. The convicts have provided Australian academics with one of their major industries.

In other words, the “arrogance of Carter’s claim to rescue the convicts from oblivion is equalled only by his total ignorance of what Australian historians have been writing for the last forty years.”

Mr. Windschuttle performs similar services for many other academic stars, including one of the shiniest, Michel Foucault. Part of what made Foucault such an enormous academic hit was his posture of anti-bourgeois radicalism combined with his insistence that the truth is always and everywhere a coefficient of power. It is worth noting, however, that Foucault first made his reputation as an historian of such institutions as mental asylums, hospitals, and prisons. In every case, Foucault’s basic tack was to argue that Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment efforts to reform these institutions were really alibis for the extension of state power.

“Those who accept cultural relativism,” Mr. Windschuttle points out, “argue that Western ways of knowing do not deserve any privileged status.”

In his first book, Madness and Civilization (1961), for example, Foucault contrasts the happy time of the Middle Ages when the insane wandered freely from town to town or traveled on a literal Ship of Fools up and down the Rhine. The birth of the asylum, according to Foucault, was a dark day for the insane, for not only were they now incarcerated, but also they were denied the status of human beings. Foucault makes similar claims about hospitals and penal policy. As Mr. Windschuttle shows in devastating detail, in every case Foucault’s account is wildly inaccurate. For example, there was no Ship of Fools as Foucault describes; his dates are often wrong by a century or more; and as for the treatment of the insane, the historian Andrew Scull sets the record straight: “Where the mad proved troublesome, they could expect to be beaten or locked up; otherwise they might roam or rot. Either way, the facile contrast between psychiatric oppression and an earlier, almost anarchic toleration is surely illusory.” Mr. Windschuttle makes the more general case: “Madness became an issue of public policy with the rise of democratic, egalitarian societies, primarily because these societies accepted the madman not as the other, or as someone outside humanity, but as another human being, as an individual with the same basic status as everyone else.”

Although most of the examples that Mr. Windschuttle cites in The Killing of History come from the academic Left, it is worth noting that the Left has no monopoly on anti-empiricism. Consider, for example, the celebrated “end of history” thesis put forward by Francis Fukuyama in the late 1980s to explain the fall of Communism. Fukuyama’s major philosophical inspiration for his thesis about the end of history came from the German philosopher Georg Hegel. But Mr. Windschuttle shows how “end of . . . ” theories (art, philosophy, history, whatever) have been catnip to anti-empirical thinkers from Communists like Alexandre Kojève to Arnold Ghelen, a social psychologist for the Third Reich who, writing about art in 1961, assured his readers that “the process of development has been completed, and what comes now is already in existence: the confused syncretism of all styles and possibilities—posthistory.” Mr. Windschuttle demolishes the “end of history” thesis, noting that

One of the important consequences of an empirical approach . . . is that history cannot be determined. The historical process is not moving inexorably in one direction or towards any goal or end; it has no hidden pattern or itinerary waiting to be discovered. The job of the historian is not to search for some theory that will reveal all, nor some teleology that will explain the purpose of things. Rather, it is to reconstruct the events of the past in their own terms.

The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered By Literary Critics and Social Theorists, by Keith Windschuttle; Macleay Press, 298 pages, $24.95. This is the second edition, a corrected and expanded version of a book that was first published in Australia in 1994; only the current edition has been distributed in the United States.

Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. His latest books include The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press) and Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the Twenty-first Century (Encounter Books). 

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 1, on page 22Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |


Were Churchill, Mandela, Reagan too old to serve?

Was Winston Churchill too old when he saved the world from Nazism and served as British prime minister at age 81? Was Ronald Reagan too old when he led the fight to dismantle communism and served as president at the age of 78? Was Nelson Mandela hampered by the fact he was 81 when he won world renown and later became South Africa’s Prime Minister? The history books chant an emphatic “no”.

Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Nelson Mandela are three leaders who would grace an honorary roll of all leaders at any time. If Churchill had been dismissed as too old the likely prime minister would have been Lord Halifax, a  hardline appeaser of Adolf Hitler.

So then, why is Joe Biden so old in the eyes of many and what evidence does anyone really have that he will die in office?

Americans are rushing to judgment just as many did way back in 1864 when the conduct of the American Civil War was entrusted for a second term to  to a country hick  called Abraham Lincoln

America in 1864 was in severe danger of being irrevocably partitioned as the Civil War, with its massive death toll, seemed endless and hope was dying for prospects for peace.

So the cry went out in many political gatherings to replace the president, that obdurate man who refused to agree to discussions to accept disunion and leave the South to continue slavery.

They voted for a shiny new object, a general beloved by all his troops who had been made the scapegoat for many military setbacks before being relieved of his duty by Lincoln, the village idiot.

They flocked to General George McLellan, a man who had led the army of the Potomac in many glorious battles.

 Wasn’t he known as “the Little Napoleon”,  the French leader, who was the greatest general of all?

Except McLellan had, in fact, lost almost every battle he fought in even though he had superior manpower and gunpowder. He was, in fact, a coward of a commander and all boots, no battle.

 He was no leader.

America survived its greatest threat to its very existence because it turned again to Abraham Lincoln and there was never an attempt again to destroy the Republic.

Now centuries after that event the issue of democracy and the survival of the constitution is front and center.

And once again many are crying for a new leader to take charge and turn back the Trump tide. “Joe Biden must go” is the mutter.

They claim old men (or women) should not rule despite the fact that if ever there was a tie for the “old dog for the hard road”. By the way, only 37 percent of Americans wanted Ronald Reagan to run again, midway through his first term.

Frankly, Biden is a man of his age, a  skilled politician with over 50 years of experience to draw on. 

It cannot be just a coincidence that since coming to power he destroyed Donald J. Trump in the race for the presidency, led an extraordinary round of success in the midterms and is still delivering on tangibles such as the cost of healthcare and making it cheaper. But many in the media want a shiny new bauble or a narcissist who makes great copy.

I don’t believe Biden is in trouble.

Last time I looked, 90 percent of Democrats stated they would support the party nominee. There is no evidence whatsoever that he will drop dead during his 80s. Yet the media, liberal and right-wing keep accepting and spreading the myth as if it is gospel.

Sure he may have lost a few MPH off his fastball but last time I looked he could still pitch an excellent game. He will be nominated and will win again.

He is the old dog for the hard road, proven and tested, a safe choice in a dangerous world.

Joe Biden has proven he is fit to be president and can take us through these troubled times. His age is not the issue, it is competency and decency. He has lots of both.


The Great Appeal

What did Christianity offer its believers that made it worth social estrangement, hostility from neighbors, and possible persecution?

Helmut Koester:John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


Why was the Christian community something that people wanted to join? I think that only because at least certain parts of the early Christian mission were intent in creating new community, that only for that reason this movement was successful. Now what does it mean “new community?” Let me talk about this in two different levels. One was certainly that the message that was preached here promised gifts, spiritual gifts, to people that went beyond the everyday life experience and promised also immortality, a future life which would be liberation from sickness and from disease and from poverty, and individual isolation. There is a future for the individual. And the message of the possibility for a human being to be related to something that is beyond the powers of this world was certainly one great attraction. But that alone would not have been enough. I think it’s a very important spiritual-religious factor. But it would not have been enough, because, in spite of all the glories of the Roman Empire, people lived in the world in which there was inequality, there was great poverty on the one hand and immense wealth in the hands of a very few people. There were sickness and disease and there were no public health services, and doctors were expensive.

Now here’s also the question of the inequality which Rome really reinforced through the Augustan system. Rome is a very strict hierarchical system, in which the emperor is at the pinnacle, all the way up and then all the blessings in the world that come to people come down from above. The emperor is the conduit to the divine world. And if you’re at the bottom of that social pyramid, not a whole lot of things are coming down to you anymore. Slavery slowly diminished, but continued to exist.

Now the Christian community, as we have it particularly in the letters of Paul, begins with a formula that is a baptismal formula, which says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. This is a sociological formula that defines a new community. Here is a community that invites you, which makes you an equal with all other members of that community. Which does not give you any disadvantages. On the contrary, it gives even the lowliest slave personal dignity and status. Moreover, the commandment of love is decisive. That is, the care for each other becomes very important. People are taken out of an isolation. If they are hungry, they know where to go. If they are sick, there is an elder who will lay on hands to them to heal them.


Now we have increasingly in the Christian churches, in the time up to Constantine, the establishment of hospitals, of some kind of health service, we have a clear establishment of social service – everything from soup kitchens to money for the poor if they need it. We have the very important establishment of the institution of widows, because a widow in the Roman society who had lost her husband and did not have money of her own was at the very bottom of the social ladder. One of the first welfare institutions we find in the church was all the widows who were recognized as virgins of the church, considered particularly precious possessions of the church; they were paid by the church and therefore were rescued from utter poverty in most instances.

Christianity really established a realm of mutual social support for the members that joined the church. And I think that this was probably in the long run an enormously important factor for the success of the Christian mission. And it was for that very reason that Constantine saw that the only thing that would rescue the empire is to take over the institutions that the Christians had already built up, [including], by that time, institutions of education in reading and writing, because Christians wanted to have their members knowledgeable and capable of reading the Bible…. We find that in administration of the last pagan emperors, before Constantine, at the very end of the third century, a large number of the people in the imperial administration are Christians, because they could read and write. Which constituted a big problem with the persecution of the Christians because they were thrown out of their office first when the persecution began, and suddenly the government didn’t work anymore.

One should not see the success of Christianity simply on the level of a great religious message; one has to see it also in the consistent and very well thought out establishment of institutions to serve the needs of the community.

L. Michael White:Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

Given the intersection between religion and politics that we find so characteristically in the Hellenistic Roman world and especially within these major cities, it does seem incongruous that Christianity could have survived, much less have grown to be the prominent force that it would become by the early fourth century when the Emperor Constantine would make it one of his official religions of the empire. But I think we can see several factors that contribute to that growth and development.

For one thing the Roman world was not uniform in its religious beliefs. There were lots of new religions that had come in between the time of the conquest of the Alexander the Great down to the time of the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian, when the Christians become a prominent issue. Within this period we find new religions coming from all over the Eastern Mediterranean world. There are the cults of the Egyptian gods, Isis and Serapis. There is the great mother goddess… from Eastern Turkey….

All of these traditional forms of Mediterranean national religions also come in to the Roman world and have cultic followings. So from the Roman perspective, new cults aren’t necessarily a problem. The Romans begin to get concerned about these religious groups, however, precisely when it seems they become subversive or when they will not participate in the public religious life of the empire. Anything that looks like disloyalty to the state raises the concern of governors and magistrates like Pliny the Younger.

What is it that is making Christianity prominent in this time? Does it have anything to do with the kind of a sense of belonging?

From a historical perspective, the growth of Christianity in the second and third centuries really is a phenomenon to be reckoned with, both socially and religiously. What made it grow? What made it succeed in ways that even other new religious groups of the time did not is a very important question. Now traditionally at least the answer to that question of why did Christianity triumph in the Roman world was answered very simply. It was God’s will, of course, but I think we can probably find some other answers as well.

Sometimes it’s been suggested that Christianity appealed to a kind of higher moral plane. A better form of religiosity than their Roman neighbors, and that’s what made people convert to Christianity. I’m not really convinced of that. What we really see in the second and the third centuries is that Christianity is defining its identity precisely in terms of the values of Roman society at large. They say “We’re just as ethical as you, or better but in terms of what you Romans think are the ideal virtues of society. We Christians are practicing Roman family values just like you.”So there not really holding themselves apart from Roman society in quite the same way as we might have expected.


So why do they succeed? Why do people become Christians? I think there are some important historical observations to make here. One is that we have to realize that the Roman Empire itself was going through some massive demographic changes at this time. Now let’s think about it this way… cities are growing but the population itself, at least within cities, was probably not growing easily. There’s more people dying than are being born in most major cities. In other words, the old pagan aristocracy is shrinking, not growing. Where are they coming from, these new people in the cities? Probably they’re immigrating from the countryside or moving from other countries, but then again that’s exactly what we hear about the Christians. They’re on the move. They travel to the cities. They’re the new population along with a lot of other people, so I think from a kind of social perspective we have to see the growth of Christianity as a product of the changing face of the city life in the Roman world….

On top of all that there are plagues and famine, and it’s been suggested by demographers now that if you’ve got a survival rate of only one tenth more among one part of the population than another segment of population when you have a massive die off… the result will be that at the end of this process [there will be] far more members of that one group relative to the total population. In other words, in a very short period of time you can have a group that was at one point a very small minority seemingly become miraculously now the majority, and I think in part that’s what happens to the Christians. That through this period of very turbulent times in the second and third century, the Christians now become a significant proportion of the leading citizens of some of the major cities of the Roman world.


Now what are they offering? It’s very simple. With new immigrant groups, all of them trying to find their way into Roman society — to make it in the Roman world, to be a part of the mainstream, to march up the ladder of success — belonging is one of the key issues, and what I think the Christians offer probably as well or better than anybody else in the Roman world is a sense of belonging. To be part of the Christian community… to be part of the church, is to belong to a society of closely knit friends, brothers and sisters and Christ, and it may be something as simple as that that spells the [basis] of the success of Christianity in the Roman world….

Christianity was beginning to grow in substantial ways by the late second and early third century precisely because it was responding to some basic, deeply felt human needs. It really was probably beginning to answer the questions that people were asking, and we can see that growth in a variety of ways. For one thing, there really is no empire wide persecution of Christianity throughout the entire second century and into the first half of the third century. It was always sporadic; it was always local concerns. The first time the empire as a whole says “We have to eradicate Christianity,” is not until the year 249, 50, the persecution of Decius, … but by that time, the Christians are so numerous that they can’t possibly be eradicated; they’ve already grown that much.

So, in the sense, the persecution really doesn’t catch up until it’s already too late. We have some indication of the basic growth of Christianity at this time, especially in the cities, in terms of the records of the city of Rome. In the year 251, right at the time of the persecution of Decius, we have a register of the church at Rome, which says that they had 46 presbyters and 56 exorcists and doorkeepers and a number of other people that they catalogued; seven of this and seven of that; quite a lot of people are in this catalog. And at the end, it says over 1,500 widows [and needy persons] on the roster of the church at Rome; that is, people, women who are being taken care of by the church. The church becomes, in a lot of ways, a new kind of social welfare agency in the Roman Empire. The leaders of the church are the patrons of society. By the end of the third century, Christian bishops in many places will have taken over the role of the old civic patrons that had led the processions at Ephesus and Corinth and Rome. They’ve made it into society.

Wayne A. Meeks:Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University


In the final analysis, after we’ve answered all the questions that the historian has tools to answer, there still remain fundamental mysteries about religious change. Why among all of the movements following prophets in Rome and Palestine did this one survive? Why among all of the varieties of Judaism in the first century did only two survive as world religions? One, the religion of the Rabbis — the other, the religion of Christianity. And, hidden [in] this is something which we finally don’t have the tools, I think, to analyze, and that is that this new message, [this] rather improbable message that the Son of God has come to earth and been crucified, in human form, and risen from the dead … appealed to a lot of perfectly ordinary people, or so they appear to us, in such a way that they were willing to change their lives and to become initiated into a group which brought them only hostility, estrangement from their families and neighbors, and the possibility of persection to the point of death.

What was there about this movement which could make that kind of appeal to people? …In the final analysis, I think we don’t know. We can speculate, we can say it offers a kind of community, which is rare in any society and certainly rare in antiquity. It offers a closeness, it offers a powerful ideology which explains the evil in the world, or at least it provides powerful symbols for understanding that evil, it offers you a sense of the moral structure of the universe…. It has an ideology of justice, which will be guaranteed by God, finally. It offers a community which shapes the basic moral intuitions of its members, which brings that kind of moral admonition, which otherwise, in the Roman world, we find… only in the schools of philosophers, which after all, is an elite phenomenon, limited to a very small stratum of highly educated people. [Christianity] makes this [morality] available to perfectly ordinary folk.

So, we can talk about a lot of these factors, which we say must have entered into this, and yet finally there is hidden behind the difficulties of our sources, but hidden more behind, I think our final inability to penetrate the deepest structures of the human personality, there is the fact that countless individual decisions were made that added up to a profound cultural change in the whole Empire….


Was love a part of the message or the appeal?

One of the key words which we find in many varieties of the earliest literature of the Christians is the word “love” and, okay, people have always talked about love and that’s no surprise, but they talk about love in a very strange way. They talk about a God who loves, a God who loves enough that he would send his very son into the world — never mind how odd the notion of God having a son was to the Jews, who began this movement, but there it is — and who calls upon people to exercise a similar kind of love, a love which is manifested in this death, of the Son of God.

How did Christians write about , talk about, think about [love]? Is it strange?

One of the oddest things about Christianity, of course, is that it begins with having to explain a paradox. The one that they think of as Savior, the one whom they come quickly to speak of as the Son of God…, is also the one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. How do you put that together? One of the ways they do this, is by saying, “What a remarkable thing is this, that the Son of God comes not to conquer the Romans, not to establish a political state in Israel, but he comes to demonstrate the love that the Creator of the universe has for all people?” So that this shaming act that Pontius Pilate used to try to wipe out this little group, is turned about, in the Christian mentality… [into a] manifestation which demonstrates God’s approach to us, and therefore sets a kind of model, by which people ought to relate to one another.

One of the things that runs through the Pauline letters, is his conviction that what he calls the Word of the Cross, or the reasoning of the Cross, ought to pervade the whole lives of the congregations which he has founded. So, that… the way in which one exercises leadership or authority in the congregation… must somehow tally with the notion that the power of God is manifested in this reversal of things, in which the powerful one comes to be crucified in the most shameful form, that the one who is equal with God, gives that up to take on the form of a slave. This becomes the model of what love is. Or in the Johannine literature and the Johannine letters, you have similar kinds of language, “We love because he first loved us.” So that love is in some sense being re-defined as this other-regarding sacrificial act, [choosing] to put oneself on the line for the sake of the good of the other, and this is grounded in the claim about the way the ultimate power and structure of the universe manifests itself in in human society. I think this must have had a very powerful, emotional appeal to people.

Elizabeth Clark:John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University


What was the appeal of Christianity as opposed to [the appeal] of paganism?

Christianity probably appealed to people in several ways. First of all, it did have a very high moral standard that it set forth…. Of course some philosophical sects and groups would also put forth rather similar ways of life for their practitioners. Christianity had an institution that provided material benefits but also had a whole sacramental system that offered to its practitioners, supposedly, repentance from sins and overcoming sin and overcoming death… As the church developed, it allowed for different degrees of Christian devotion. So, that if you wanted to give yourself up to a highly ascetic life and renounce practically everything, you would be much glorified for doing that, but you could be married and have a position in worldly life and have a family, career and so on and that was all right, too. So, Christianity could adjust itself to different types of people, just as it could adjust itself to the highest class of intellectuals but also adjust itself to common people whom the church writers always remind the theologians that Christ died for the lowly, as well as, for the educated.

Paula Fredriksen:William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


If it weren’t for the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek, and if it weren’t for Diaspora Jewish communities living in synagogues, rimming the edge of the Mediterranean, Christianity could not have spread. But Christianity [is] an interpretation of the idea of Israel. And the way Christianity is able to spread as it does is through the lifelines of these Diaspora synagogues. The language of the movement, as soon as we have actual evidence from [it], is Greek. The Bible it refers to is the Greek Bible. The communities that serve as the matrix for the message are synagogue communities, and we get stories in Matthew or stories in John about this particular community being kicked out of the other synagogues. So what do they do? They form their own group. Business as usual, again.

But I think it’s really because there is an international population that resonates with these great religious ideas of God as the Creator, of righteousness pouring down like waters, of a Kingdom of God and what that would mean in terms of the way a community socially constitutes itself … it’s because of that, because of Diaspora Judaism, which is extremely well established, that Christianity itself, as a new and constantly improvising form of Judaism, is able to spread as it does throughout the Roman world.

But doesn’t belief have anything to do with it? Why are people attracted? There were so many religious options. I guess I want to know what Christianity offered… Why did people become Christians?

Why do people join the movement? Jews joined the movement because it is a particular articulation of Jewish religious hope seen through this one figure of a redeemer. But it’s certainly consistent within what we know as the different options of Judaism. The intriguing thing is why did gentiles join? And, here we have, again, the evidence of Paul’s letters in 50. He thought it was miracle. These are gentiles, who are going in and out voluntarily from the synagogue, who, on the basis of the message they’re getting about the Son of God being on the verge of coming back, are suddenly enabled — Paul says, through the Holy Spirit — [to] abandon idol worship. They make a commitment to this particular community.

If you look at the way the movement spreads sociologically, as opposed to theologically, if you look [at] what distinguishes Christianity from all the other religious options in the Mediterranean, it doesn’t distinguish it from Judaism. Both groups meet at least once a week. Both groups have very articulate ethical norms. Both groups have a tremendous ethic of community charity. Both groups have revealed ethical patterns of behavior…. No promiscuity. Don’t kill the kids. Don’t worship idols. Don’t go to whore houses. This whole thing that serves to build up community and create a kind of support system. Also, there’s this tremendous religious prestige, thanks to the antiquity of the Jewish Bible, which by entering into the church, these Christians enter into that history as well. That’s tremendously prestigious and important. Judaism itself is, for all its peculiarities, considered prestigious because of its antiquity. And so there are lots of reasons, sociologically and practically, why Christianity would appeal.

Elaine H. Pagels:The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University

Most people who study the origins of Christianity are curious about how this unlikely movement would have succeeded in such a powerful and dramatic way. And it’s not an easy question to answer, why this movement succeeded when others did not. One thing that I always think about is that the gods of the ancient world, if you look at them, their images, if you read about them in the Iliad, and the poetry of Sophocles…, the gods looked like no one more than the aristocrats, the emperor and his court. They looked like the courtiers. But here is a religion which claims that God is made manifest in a peasant, probably a man who didn’t write, a man who came from the people, a man who was completely unimpressive in worldly terms and much more like the vast majority of people. And in this astonishingly unexpected place, this movement said, God is revealed to be with us. I think that’s a powerful statement in itself….

The Gospel of Mark most people think is the earliest of the gospels of the New Testament. And that book is extraordinary and strange…. If you read it apart from the others, it’s a story of this country teacher coming from nowhere with incredible power descending upon him, healing people, exorcising people, speaking strange, bold astonishing things, and startling everyone. And then the end of the story, from Chapter 9 on, moves toward his agonizing and humiliating death. And there’s the suggestion of the end of the original book that he will rise from the dead, but the way Mark was originally written, the story of the resurrection isn’t told. So it’s a devastating story of human pain. And I think that must have deeply appealed to many people then, as it does now, for one thing.

When I was working on the book, “Adam, Eve and the Serpent,” I was thinking a great deal about why this movement succeeded, and I thought it may have had a lot to do, as well, with the story they told about the creation. Because they told the story about how human beings were made in the image of God…. Now if you think about the gods of the ancient world and you think about what they looked like they looked like the emperor and his court. So those gods looked very different. But this religion is saying that every person, man, woman, child, slave, barbarian, no matter who, is made in the image of God and is therefore of enormous value in the eyes of God…. That’s an extraordinary message. And it would have been enormous news to many people who never saw their lives having value. I think that is a powerful appeal of this religion…. The Christian movement seemed to convey a sense of human worth in two ways. Both by the story of Jesus and his simplicity and his humility in terms of social status, in terms of achievement, in terms of recognition during his lifetime. And also in the story of creation; it conveys royal status on every person….

When we think about the appeal of this movement to many people it’s certainly clear that some were drawn by the way that this community would take care of people. For example, like other elements of the Jewish community, the followers of Jesus tended to feed the destitute, take care of people who were widowed so that they wouldn’t become prostitutes and orphans and so forth. That was a primary obligation of Jewish piety. And Jesus’ followers certainly understood that. We know that when people joined the Christian communities in Rome, for example, they would be buried. This is not something anyone could take for granted in the ancient world. And this society was one in which people took care of one another. So that is an enormous element of the appeal of this movement.

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