CHAPTER 10.—CHRISTIANITY RUINS EVERYTHING.
“Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled.” So writes a first-century historian, and doubtless his first-century audience knew what he was talking about. But what was this “enrollment”? Modern historians believe it may have been a loyalty oath that every resident of the Empire was required to take, because if there was one thing Roman history had shown, it was that, if you make a man swear loyalty to you, he will never betray you as long as he lives. (This is a literary device known as “sarcasm.” How do you like it?) But whatever it was, it was carried out in typical bureaucratic fashion, with the maximum possible inconvenience to the ordinary citizen. You could not just report to the local district loyalty office, fill out the form, and pick up your loyalty card. No, you were required to report to the city of your birth and swear the oath there. Doubtless some sound administrative reason was alleged for this requirement, but one suspects that the innkeepers’ lobby may have had a good deal to do with it.
One of the many inconvenienced citizens frantically making travel plans was Joseph of Nazareth, a town in Galilee that was proverbially backward. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the favorite sitcom catchphrase throughout Palestine. Joseph had been born in Bethlehem, also a small town, but one with a more distinguished history. “Birthplace of King David” was written prominently on the city-limits sign donated by the Lions Club.
Joseph was even more inconvenienced than most of the other travelers because his young wife, Mary, was pregnant and really in no condition to travel. Since the child she was carrying was the long-prophesied Messiah, Joseph expected that he could at least get a discount on hotels; but instead the Holiday Inn Bethlehem lost his reservation, and every other hotel was booked up solid. It was late at night when Joseph finally found one innkeeper who was willing to let him and Mary sleep in the stable out back, billing his MasterCard at the regular room rate, plus the 20% convention surcharge.
The birth of this child, under such inauspicious circumstances, came very near to undoing everything that civilization had so carefully built up over more than three millennia; indeed, it would have done so, if civilization had not fought back vigorously and for the most part successfully. For this child would grow up to be the most dangerous revolutionary the world has ever known, and it would take all the wisdom, all the courage, and all the chutzpah of the forces of civilization to stand up to his revolution and destroy it before it could do irreparable damage.
Jesus Christ first came to the notice of the civilized powers when he began drawing big crowds of shiftless riffraff to hear his anarchic and superficially appealing ideas. “Love your enemies,” he told the crowds, planting a stick of dynamite at the very base of civilization. If we do not hate our enemies, how can there be war? And if there is no war, how can there be government? “Blessed are the merciful,” he said, threatening the entire basis of the criminal-justice system that keeps government in power; for if there is mercy, how can there be justice? “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” What does “rich” mean if not “materially rewarded in accordance with one’s virtue”?
For three years the wily street-preacher eluded the authorities, but at last he was captured and publicly executed by crucifixion. And that would have been the end of his revolutionary movement, except that he very inconsiderately refused to stay dead.
Now the followers of Christ began to multiply at a truly alarming rate, especially when a strange little man named Saul or Paul began holding revival meetings all over the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Paul took the implications of Christ’s revolution to even more absurd extremes, actually telling his followers that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free.” How were responsible citizens to keep Jews, women, and slaves in their place if Paul was running around spouting such dangerous gibberish?
Soon the “Christian” movement had infested the big cities in the east; then it spread to Rome itself, where it caught the attention of the wise and prudent emperor Nero. Casting about for a solution to the Christian problem, Nero discovered that, if you coat a Christian with pitch and set him on a pole, he makes an excellent torch for a refined garden party. Here was yet another full-employment program that was misunderstood and resented by its chief beneficiaries.
In spite of the best efforts of enlightened and artistic emperors like Nero, the Christians would not be discouraged; on the contrary, the strange and dangerous cult grew by leaps, and in some cases by bounds. Most of the new Christians were slaves and women and other worthless detritus, but an alarming number of citizens and intellectuals were seduced into the underground Christian movement as well. And once they were Christian, they seemed to lose all ability to reason. For example, they refused to worship the emperor Domitian as a god. One of the fundamental principles of imperial law was that, if the emperor says he is a god, you believe him. After all, who would know better than the emperor himself whether he was a god or not? Yet the Christians were stuck on this idea of a single deity that they had inherited from the theology of Abraham, which was already two thousand years out of date. Not even for emperors would they make an exception, even when the alternative was death. That was not just unreasonable: it was rude.
For a while the imperial government tried rooting out the Christians by means of paid informers, who would receive the property of the Christians they turned in. It soon became apparent, however, that the Christians, who were mostly poor, slipped through this net easily, whereas rich citizens of unimpeachable paganism were in constant danger of being denounced as Christians. Informing was a profitable business, and like any well-run business it had to put the interests of the stockholders above other considerations.
Thus the emperor Trajan instituted a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy to take the profit out of the informing business. It seemed eminently reasonable to any unbiased observer, but the problem was that the stubborn Christians could not keep themselves from telling. The government simply couldn’t win with these people: if it left the Christians alone, the cult grew exponentially; but if it went after the Christians with the full force of the law, the public executions only brought the disreputable cult the attention it craved, and it still grew exponentially. The Roman government was learning by experience the truth of that ancient maxim, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” What was worse was that some of the most public trials and executions involved women and slaves, whose examples encouraged others like them to think for themselves when they had no business thinking at all.
Meanwhile, the Christians, who had seemed so naive and ignorant, had actually been plotting a devilishly clever demographic conspiracy against the very basis of Roman society.
Pagan families naturally wanted sons. A son would carry on the family name and honor; a daughter, on the other hand, was worse than useless. You would have to feed a daughter until she was eleven years old or so; then you would have to pay an enormous dowry to some cretin just for taking her off your hands. Most girl children, therefore, were discarded like the rubbish they were. It was not necessary to resort to infanticide (not that there was anything wrong, in the very rational Roman view, with infanticide); one could simply “expose” the child, leaving it on the rubbish heap, where its fate was in the hands of the gods—who could, after all, send a she-wolf to take care of it if they wanted to. Most of the time, the gods did not send she-wolves, but theoretically it could happen.
The Christians, however, told their followers that it was murder to leave a child to die, so they refused to do the socially responsible thing and kill off their girl children. Worse than that, they would actually pick up the baby girls the decent pagan citizens had discarded and raise them as their own.
At first, this apparently irrational behavior of the Christians seemed like a harmless peccadillo, one that brought them all the inconvenience of raising multiple daughters without any compensating reward other than cultish smugness. But in a few generations, the peccadillo revealed itself as nothing less than a fiendish plot. Pagans had all the sons they wanted, but whom would those sons marry? The Christians had all the women! A young man looking for a wife would find he had two choices: he could marry a girl raised by Christians, or he could marry a girl raised by wolves. Either way, she would probably raise their children in the same way she herself had been raised.
As the Christian threat grew ever more dire, the beleaguered pagan government attacked the problem on a larger scale. The one thing you could count on with the Christians was that the truly fanatical ones would not offer sacrifice to any god but their own. The mandate went out, therefore, that every good Roman must demonstrate his loyalty by making an offering to the genius of the emperor. It was not a burdensome requirement: you could offer as little as you liked. You could offer a tiny pinch of incense, incense in homeopathic quantities, and the government would even provide it for you. Yet thousands of the fanatical Christians refused and were executed in entertaining and picturesque ways. Even so, the cult still grew, until it was very possible that the Christians were the single biggest religious group in the whole empire.
Meanwhile, the government was having a few minor troubles of its own, the sort of troubles that always lead to half a dozen emperors with enormous armies beating each other up all over the landscape. Under such conditions, each one of the rivals was naturally on the lookout for anything that would give him the slightest advantage over the others; and finally it occurred to one, who had been declared emperor by his soldiers in the mythical land of Britain, that everyone else was ignoring the Christian demographic. In the year 312, just before moving in to take the city of Rome, Constantine declared himself a Christian.
Was this the end of everything civilization had so laboriously built up over the past three or four millennia? Would the Christian revolution succeed in eliminating greed, hatred, violence, and all the other things that make civilization possible?
Well, fortunately, civilization proved to be a lot more resilient than that.
It should be noted that Dr. Boli is indebted to Mr. Rodney Stark for his very clever demographic analysis of the rise of Christianity. Mr. Stark, however, is not in any way responsible for what Dr. Boli has done with that analysis.