Feel what it’s like

James Davidson

  • A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire by Keith Hopkins
    Weidenfeld, 402 pp, £25.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 297 81982 8

Are you a Christian? Do you believe? Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, thanks to a Roman census, on a day corresponding to 25 December, at the end of a year corresponding to 1 BC, that all those fireworks, a few weeks ago, were marking his 2000th birthday in a meaningful way, that his mother was a virgin, that he rode into Jerusalem on an ass? Well, I am afraid all of that is almost certainly not true. These are late inventions, designed to fit what Old Testament prophets said, prophets imperfectly translated from Hebrew into Greek. The Gospels are outrageously inconsistent about the nativity. Jesus was probably born in Nazareth. There was indeed a census, but in the year 6 of Our Lord, and in the province of Syria, not Galilee. Herod was already dead by then. He died ten years earlier, four years Before Christ. There was a Pontius Pilate. He was in office from 26-36. Jesus might have been only 20 when he died – you can hang on to the crucifixion – or turning 40. Take your pick. OK, there may have been a donkey, but that just means the story was not a fiction but a drama enacted according to the script the prophets had written; and his mother was a married woman not a parthenos – a married parthenos is a contradiction in terms. What’s more, she produced several sons. One of them presided over the Jesus movement for thirty years after his brother’s death. He was a pious Jew. So was Jesus. His teaching, whatever it was, wasn’t meant for you.

And what about all those miracles, jumpstarting dead bodies, casting out demons, curing people, just like that? Do you believe in demons? What do they look like? Like the ones in Poltergeist? Or don’t they exist any more? And how many miracles do you believe in? The thousands that are recorded in various Acts? Or just in one or two? What kind of criteria do you use to assess their credibility? Do you think only Jesus could perform them or apostles or especially pious Christians or any Christian condemned to death? What kind of economy of wonders are you counting on? Do you think miracles were only for special occasions, requiring effort, energy and concentration? Or do you think they were ten-a-penny, performed at the drop of a hat? When do you think they stopped? Or didn’t they? Do you believe in those miracles that are performed on television in the United States? Would you believe it if they showed a corpse revivified? Or do you think that would be stretching it? Where do you draw the line, when it comes to miracles? Yes to Jesus and his own Resurrection, no to televangelists and ‘water into wine’?

Or do you consider yourself a modern Christian, who is able to put all of that on one side? Myths are metaphorical, miracles are publicity, designed to launch a new religion, whose main point lay elsewhere. ‘Jesus is our Saviour,’ let’s leave it at that. Or are you finally one of the countless multitude who don’t consider themselves Christian, but not atheist either, one of those who vaguely sympathise? All that stuff about virgins and miracles is frankly hard to believe, something for poor ignorant people in ancient times, which we can now discard. The point is that Jesus from Nazareth was terribly nice; he said we should all be nice to one another, and turn the other cheek and things like that, and give to the poor, a veritable Mother Teresa.

A World Full of Gods is a book full of Christians and strange mental slides. Its author, Keith Hopkins, is a professor of ancient history at Cambridge. This is his first book written for a general readership and even without its fantastic materials and important subject its authorship would be enough to recommend it; the general readership will be introduced to one of the most interesting minds in classics.

Despite his central position in the subject Hopkins has rarely spoken from the centre; he is a disturber of truths, a questioner of orthodoxies, a critical surveyor of the most monumental scholarly edifices, especially those built in Oxford, often to be found offering instant but devastating precis of seminar papers that had, until then, impressed. In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before the Devil’s Arch Advocate took on Faith itself. The book he has produced is clever, subtle and well-written, in an economical summary style. This much I expected, but I also found it, despite the archness, curiously affecting, highly serious and strangely profound. You quickly realise, moreover, that it is also remarkably ambitious. It is not enough for him to tell you about the ancient world, while you sit back and listen. He wants you to be there.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in