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 title is misleading, yes. A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, implies an even-handed survey of religions, something rather like Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians, which divides more or less neatly in half. But although Hopkins includes chapters on the heathen and the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is the third group he is interested in: early Christianity takes up by far the largest portion of the book, and an even greater share of the analysis and argument. More important, it is the Christian question of the authenticity of scripture and script which is dramatised throughout by Hopkins’s narrative techniques. Some of these will be familiar to any reader of novels or indeed non-fiction, the story presented as fact, for example: ‘Once upon a time ... the great prophet Isaiah predicted his own tortured death at the hands of a wicked prince Manasseh, in whose heart Satan dwells.’ Others are more unusual and obtrusive. The two chapters which survey the pagan context, for instance, are written as memoirs of two time-travellers, Martha and James, discovered by means of an advert in Time Out and launched by the professor into Pompeii, Tebtunis, Hierapolis and Ephesus, at great personal risk. The chapter on Christian apologia is written as a fictional correspondence about a fictional dinner-party debate. The Dead Sea Scrolls are introduced in the form of a play about making a documentary in ancient Rome. The rest, more or less, is straight. The book is punctuated, however, by the responses of academics and/or believers to whom individual chapters were sent, Mary, Josh, Hartmut, Andrea and Avi, who take issue with Hopkins’s conclusions, techniques and lack of faith.

I don’t get the impression Hopkins has set out to confuse or deceive – the time-travellers’ memoirs are heavily annotated – and the letters are supposed to be real (if not, they are remarkably convincing ventriloquies) and offer thoughtful criticisms and substantial arguments in favour of alternative interpretations. In many cases, moreover, it does not seem too difficult to see who wrote them. On the other hand, a close examination of these letters alerts one to the possibility of complex layers of irony and allegory, which, it would be fair to assume, operate all the way through the book. One might imagine, for instance, that the Cambridge colleague ‘Mary’ to whom Hopkins sent his first chapter about time-travellers in Pompeii is the Mary Beard who is thanked in the acknowledgments (or castlist), a specialist in Roman religion. She concludes her letter, however, by recommending a couple of books. The titles are found in a footnote. The first is recommended in exactly the effusive tone one would expect from a colleague privately recommending bibliography, her comments deflected from the author towards us; the second, described as ‘ground-breaking’, is co-authored by Mary Beard herself. Is she being ironic or has Hopkins sua voce interrupted her flow? Who is recommending what? This book moreover wasn’t published until the year after the date of the letter. Did the letter in fact come with a package we are not told about, full of proofs? Or is the author of the letter not, in fact, Mary Beard herself, but some textual twin. The letter purports to have been sent from New Hall. Mary Beard, however, is at Newnham. Textual twins, avatars and the vicarious, are one of the book’s major themes. The medium is very definitely the message.

Or take hard-case Hartmut, and his partner Heidi, from Heidelberg, an expert in church history, apparently, who requested his identity to be withheld. His long letters contain the most devastating criticisms of the entire enterprise, comparing Hopkins’s submissions to ‘cream-buns’ – a nice idea quickly palling when the prospect is so generously realised. Hopkins has put his letter right in the middle of the chapter, and indeed the book, turning Hartmut himself, as it were, into a rich (vanilla) filling.

The point of the letters is four – at least – fold: to provide alternative viewpoints on evidence and interpretation, thus demonstrating the fallibility of any historian’s truth; to situate the author (referred to by correspondents as typically English in his whimsy, and an atheist); to alert readers, at any rate this reader, to the problems of reading; and finally to draw us back into the world of ideological disputations and strange doubles – the respondents switch easily between the roles of scholar and believer – of the first centuries BCE. The emphasis on single ‘Christian’ names, moreover, reminds us that we still live in a Christian world: Mary, Martha, James, Josh.

The reviewer of such an already well-reviewed book becomes something of an adjudicator, with the advantage that what one reads is a whole text, written up in light of the reviewers’ comments, letters and all. ‘Mary’ notes that the time-traveller device hinders a proper analysis and gives the impression of paganism as static and without depth. This is fair enough. The phenomenal pagan world of the time-travellers’ thin descriptions is not only unanalytical it is anti-analytical. Much more could be said about Roman religion in a regular non-fiction account. Hopkins might argue that it already has, not least by that other Mary, Mary Beard. On the other hand, such innovative techniques offer advantages. 1. There is a chance to see through others’ eyes (although since Martha’s comments on a Pompeian bathhouse are so close to Hopkins’s review of a book on the subject, it was clearly not a priority to feminise his perspective, whatever that might mean). 2. The weight of a distinguished academic’s casual suggestions is properly leavened; Martha’s observations that the frescoes in the bathhouse present women as less passive than you might expect will be cited with more difficulty than would the professor’s own. 3. It can make a point about the complicity of historians; in order to fulfil their contracts and find out about the ancient world, the time-travellers must participate in the slave trade and watch the bloody games, like journalists in a famine or a war-zone. 4. It can make a point about cultural actors and constructions of performance which might otherwise be difficult to express: the time-travellers soon show signs of going native. 5. It can present a vivid picture of antiquity as lived in and moved through without allowing the reader to forget that it is also narrated and mediated, an otherwise difficult trick to pull off. 6. Most important perhaps, it can present a culture as both natural to itself and alien to us, or even to its own outsiders, dramatising another important theme: the early Christian process of cultural and ideological speciation. Martha and James are, after all, as we are, viewing the pagan world from a Christian perspective and, in some ways, early Christians were indeed from another time.

Not that we would find much that is familiar among our co-religionists back then, apart from their names. Hopkins emphasises the diversity and the peculiarity of early Christian movements and makes no distinction between ‘spurious’ and canonical works. The Gospel of Thomas sits side by side with Matthew’s. Luke’s few miracles contend for attention with the many found in the Acts of Andrew and John. There is space for the snogging Christ, the vindictive Christ, even, in passing, the gay Christ, and Jesus the precocious magician. St Paul fights for space with Marcion and Mani and the early Christianity we think we know today emerges as a useful but messy compromise. Apart from diversity and general weirdness, the major theme is sexuality. The time-travellers discover a very raunchy pagan world and the Christian denial of sex appears correspondingly more perverse and strenuous.

One obvious strength of the book is the author’s capacity for pithy summation. The important points about the Gospels and the historicity of Jesus are given in a couple of pages. Even Gnosticism is treated to a precis. He is good also on paradoxes of belief and representation. Martyr Acts may be substitutes for, not incitements to, martyrisation. (Vicariousness again.) A snogging Christ reveals the desire always present in chastity, a test of faith, a provocation. Believing the unbelievable is the main point of belief. Belief is always an act and wonder has a very good grip on reality. A wonderer knows precisely where to draw the line beyond which rational thinking must stop. Hopkins concludes that perhaps what mattered most was identity, being a Christian, singing hymns and restraining oneself and gathering in hidden places, pretending to understand abstruse sermons and responding when everyone else did, being part of the believership. I still have a problem, however, understanding where Christians located this world of theirs in which rules could so easily be broken. If Christian miracles seem to belong to the world of witchcraft and demons, that was perhaps the section of the ancient world where belief was most easily suspended. Modern inventors of religions appeal to UFOs. Mary Baker Eddy in the 19th century hooked up with belief in animal magnetism.

But it is, perhaps, for its methods rather than its scholarship or conclusions that the book is so remarkable. It seems one of the most interesting and accessible attempts to resolve the Foucauldian dilemma of an ambitious history focused on experience which manages at the same time to be radically sceptical about the possibility of knowing anything at all, a properly ‘empirical’, but not a pseudo-scientific ‘empiricist’ history. Hopkins’s solution is to make getting to know the very experience he tries vividly to reconstruct. The groping blindness we feel when we read the academics’ letters and wonder who lurks behind the name, whom we should cite for that plausible point, whether the material has been modified or (mis)-translated from German; the strange feeling of frustration when we find that time-travellers can tell us only what is in front of them, mixing opinion with fact; the difficulty in working out the allegories and narrative layers of the Dead Sea Scrolls script, where parchment fragments become edited clips commented on in the cutting room, where Jeffrey Axeman seems to be both Jeremy Paxman and the Pharisaic Seeker after Smooth Things, the fundamentalist Christian is the Devil and the director is both God and the author’s son; all this can help readers share the experience of being a historian interpreting documents and fragments, and at another level they can participate in that novel Christian experience of struggling to read and to know through texts.

The objections, I suppose, are that, as Hartmut points out, although the case for a late formation of the canon is well argued, Hopkins gives the impression sometimes that the diversity of texts is a reflection of a diversity of discourses and movements, whereas texts are often the sign of a struggle, shouting when no one is listening. The pursuit of multiplicity in history is neither desirable nor necessary in itself. As a storyteller, moreover, Hopkins cannot avoid admiring the storytellers. The founders of Christianity and its sects are given marks for their mythical innovations, as if success depended on a particularly neat new fable: a virgin birth, a divine criminal, a dead god. The whole argument of the book is anti-teleological, but one still gets the impression of a powerful energy and a genius in early Christianity, as they forged all these fabulous new weapons. Sometimes they seem like belief mechanics, with a sure knowledge of just how far they could push things. The lack of a balancing emphasis on the creativity of pagan religion here becomes a problem. Christians were still very thin on the ground at the time of Constantine’s conversion: Lane Fox suggested only 5 per cent of the population. Hopkins doesn’t take the story that far, but he seems to find the Christians impressive. They aren’t quite inevitable, but they are so good at religion you would certainly hazard a punt.

He fudges over difficult arguments also, especially arguments about translation and language. A sudden unexplained intervention by one Professor Pelikan in the Dead Sea Scrolls documentary playscript seems designed solely to satirise academic or philological obscurity. This is unfair. The texts are difficult and close scrutiny of language and grammar may be important; if it is hard to explain to a modern reader that is another question entirely. But if it is important, it is surely not beyond Hopkins’s talents to explain what a nominative is. Sure, we are told the texts are obscure and difficult, but any kind of struggle with obscurity is one experience the author denies us. In fact, there are few signs in the book that ancient people spoke anything but English, as if Hopkins has been using the language chip with which his time-travellers are kitted out.

And while I enjoyed his techniques of narration, I felt they took something away from the reading experience. Time-travelling, making up speeches that should have been said, fantasising about technological devices in ancient contexts, coming to the rescue, is what readers do for themselves – at least, I do. Hopkins has done it all for us, a book that not only reviews itself, but comes ready-read. He is so busy having dialogues with himself and his avatars, he leaves little space for the most important dialogue, the dialogue with us. I am not sure that I completely trust his vaunted concern for readers either. His elaborate efforts to make sure we are not deluded by false faith in authorial infallibility looks to me like Christian charity, more to do with keeping the sophisticated giver untainted by the world than with the welfare of the credulous poor. General readers don’t need so much looking after. In my experience, given half a chance, they are quite capable of being sceptical all by themselves. There may be a danger of excessive belief in Hopkins when he sits in the Seventh Heaven of a Faculty library Shelf, but in Waterstone’s he will find himself next to The Bible Code.

And yet, finally, I think it was this struggle between Hopkins and his Post-Modern conscience which I found so affecting, the tug-of-war between the demands of the Subject and the Chair and a higher responsibility to ... properly honest history, and also to experiment, irresponsibility and fun. The twinning which runs throughout the book of faith in Jesus and faith in history is more than a joke or a literary device. Are you a historian? Do you believe? I don’t in fact think that history is a religion, I think it is a deeply dodgy equivalence, a gift to fundamentalists wanting to teach creationism in schools. But if Hopkins doesn’t believe that history is Truth he certainly believes in the business of history and never fudges the distinction between thinking and credence. For all the light-heartedness and gimmickry – and what innovation was not at one time a gimmick? – there is passionate sincerity here to be admired, a real concern in Hopkins and his interlocutors to engage with the past and its reading public, to put forward hypotheses and to defend them, to engage in debate. The speaker of the opening sentence – ‘I could see no other way’ – is not just the fictional professor attracting time-travellers through an advert in Time Out; it is his twin in the real world writing his book. Once we have understood the nature of that twinning, we come much closer to understanding the truth of Christian fictions and the nature of Christian belief.

A World Full of Gods is an achievement in a very real sense; there are signs of a struggle but the outcome is success, a book which is rich, readable and thought-provoking. As such it presents a greater challenge to conventional modes of historiography than some other attempts, such as Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties; it is more dangerously mixed up with ‘serious’ history, its relationship to alternative positions clearly arrayed, letters, footnotes and all, an important contribution to the field, more tempting to cite, more difficult to dismiss. Perhaps as an analysis of religions in the early years of our era, it is sometimes superficial. Perhaps its techniques of presentation will irritate some. Read as both medium and message, however, it is deep, with very interesting things to say about faith and the fabulous. It tries not only to show and tell, but to demonstrate vividly. It is experimental, to be sure, but I enjoyed being a guinea-pig. Feel what it is like to be in first-century Pompeii. Feel what it is like to be a historian today. Feel what it is like to be a Christian. Enjoy the millennial experience.