By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson more from Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Thursday, July, 9th, 2015, 7:57 am
Bart Barber, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, wrote in Canon and Culture yesterday that Obergfell v Hodges has presented “followers of Christ” with “a changed universe of possibilities.”
He claims that even a “if some modern-day triumvirate rivaling Whitefield, Edwards, and Wesley were to bring upon us a Third Great Awakening, it still would be too late to prevent this nation’s social experimentation by way of the removal of sexual taboos.”
Barber admits he is not a lawyer. He is also, despite his claims to the contrary, not a historian. Like most on the Religious Right, he insists on some monolithic and unchanging reality with regards gender roles that are not, in fact, present in the historical record, even among Christians (even King David says sleeping with his friend Nathan is “better than sleeping with a woman.”)
Like others arguing against Marriage Equality, he makes the Bible into one long anti-gay diatribe, when it is nothing of the sort, and was not recognized as such for most of Christian history.
Barber goes on to claim that “the advocates for the sexual revolution are taking us back to first-century Rome.” But here Barber is appealing to a past that exists only in the imagination:
Socially, the advocates for the sexual revolution are quickly taking us back to first-century Rome. There and then we knew we were a minority, which we’ve always been whether we recognized it or not. Our church rolls contain many unregenerate members. That situation is about to change. A red-hot commitment to Christ is about to become the only reason why anyone would join one of our churches. We are becoming the ultimate “alternative lifestyle,” and the aftermath of today’s decision could be freeing for us if we will allow it to be.
There are a couple of important things to understand about first-century Rome. Barber, the non-historian wants a dichotomy that is not there. Running on the fumes of what have become Hollywood stereotypes, he wants a decadent, moribund Paganism and absence of morality to stand in stark contrast to the vibrant and revolutionizing opposition to moral relativism represented by Christianity.
His message is clear: We have fallen back into the moral abyss from which Christianity emerged.
On the contrary, as Jonathan Hirsch has pointed out, “The ruling class of Rome was, contrary to twenty centuries of Christian moral censure, rather fussy and even puritanical on the subject of sex, especially in outward appearances.”
And Ray Laurence, writing of Roman sexuality, laments that “It is something of a disappointment to discover that the Romans did not have orgies.” As Laurence goes on to explain, “there is no evidence for them. They are yet another example of the fevered imagination of the modern world, which attempts to sexualize all other cultures past and present.”
“Sexuality,” says Lynn LiDonnici, “as we use the term does not appear to have concerned people in the ancient Mediterranean; specific acts drew more attention than choices about lifestyle or sexual identities in the modern sense of identification.” The problem, as she sees it, is our modern inability to think outside of our own context. She stresses the need to “understand symbols from antiquity on their own terms.”
If we separate our own tendency to eroticize all female categories from the categories of antiquity…this…may hinder the understanding of Greco-Roman people on their own terms. It is possible that the tendency to extend erotic category judgments to the art of antiquity makes it difficult for us to perceive a figure who is both unsexualized and at the same time fully gendered.
In fact, as Robert L. Wilken, who actually bothers to examine the social structures and contexts of the first century, points out, “A strong current of libertinism, offensive to the sensibilities of the middle- and upper-class Romans, runs through early Christianity. It is the Romans, not the Christians, who are the puritans.”
This is contrary to what modern-day Christians are brought up to believe, and Wayne Meeks echoes LiDonnici, arguing that, “we cannot claim to understand the morality of a group until we can describe the world of meaning and of relationships, special to that group in its own time and place, with which behavior is evaluated.”
Insisting that Christianity today is like Christianity in the first century, is to fail to make that effort. Christians today move in a different context entirely. When Meeks points out that, “it is Plato as read by Philo and Plutarch…whom we must understand” and not as read by some modern scholar, the same must necessarily be true of the New Testament.
The crux of the matter and this is something ignored by Barber and others is that in the first century, the New Testament did not exist. There were collections of writings and letters, different collections in different areas, giving rise to a multitude of Christianity’s and understandings. There was no monolithic Christianity any more than there was a monolithic Paganism for it to stand in opposition to.
In fact, Christian morality, supposedly so new and revolutionary, was informed by that of the Pagan world we are told it opposed.
The idea of philanthropia was well known by Pagan society – and long before Christianity appeared, and even the idea of loving one’s enemies is well attested in Pagan writings. Diogenes Laertius (8.23) mentions Pythagoras on this score and it is found in Seneca too (De vita beata 20.5). John Whittaker’s findings are impossible to argue with: “We have no choice but to conclude that the pertinent conception was deeply entrenched in the popular morality of the ancient world.”
Whittaker goes on to say, “We may conclude that pagan critics had not been slow to note that the Christian ideal of morality, lofty though it might be, was well anchored in the Hellenistic tradition.” Indeed, “in the Iambi ad Seleucum of Amphilochius of Iconium, friend of the Cappadocians and cousin of Gregory Nazianzen, the exhortation to follow the ethics of the pagans but not their theology.” This amounts to less than a damning condemnation of Pagan ethics and morality.
Pagan critic Celsus, writing at the turn of the second century, went so far as to accuse the Christians of a lack of originality in the area of morality. Origen, in his response, does not even try to contest the point, but settles for asserting that “basic moral principles are by divine disposition universally one and the same.”
Whittaker notes that Christian apologists of the second century “took pains to emphasize the similarities rather than the divergences between their beliefs and the pagan wisdom of the Roman Empire.” Even the bigoted Augustine insisted that philosophers converting to Christianity leave only their false doctrines behind, not their way of life.
Follow the ethics of the Pagans, Pastor Barber. Not their theology. At the time, this was the dividing line between your followers of Christ and Pagans: theology, not morality. You and the rest of the Religious Right conflate the two.
If there is something to be worried about, it is that, as Laurence writes, “a dominant culture of repression can only thrive if a transgressive subculture is seen as a threat.”
It is, in fact, Pastor Barber, as part of that culture of repression, who is the problem, not “the advocates for the sexual revolution” he condemns.
 Jonathan Hirsch. God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism (NY: Viking Compass, 2004), 121.
 See Ray Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome(London: Continuum, 2009).
 Lynn R. LiDonnici, “The Images of Artemis Ephesia and Greco-Roman Worship: A Reconstruction,” HTR 85 (1992), 393, 409 n. 81, 411.
 Robert L. Wilken, “Toward a Social Interpretation of Early Christian Apologetics” Church History 39 (1970), 442. As Wilken goes on to say, “If some Christians celebrated the liturgy without clothes, it would not take long for the word to get out that Christians as a group were depraved.”
 Wayne A. Meeks, “Understanding Early Christian Ethics” JBL 105 (1986), 4.
 Meeks (1986), 7.
 John Whittaker “Christianity and Morality in the Roman Empire”Vigiliae Christianae 33 (1979) 210.
 Origen, Contra Cels. 1.4 (PG 11.661).
 Whittaker (1979), 212-213
 Augustine, Civ. Dei 19.19.