Hail to the Chief

'The Porphyry Tetrarchs'
‘The Porphyry Tetrarchs,’ Venice. Indie rock stars or band of rulers? (Author’s photo).

I’m packing my bags for Finland at the end of January. Lots of sweaters.

The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies is hosting a symposium on the topic of emperors and religion. I know, I know. By now I probably should have brushed up on all the wild fonts that are displayed around the 2012 World Design Capital, but truth be told, I can’t stop thinking about politics and religion. I’m thrilled to have been invited.

While I’m in Helsinki (the line-up of speakers is available here), I’ll be taking part in a conversation about religions in Rome. I’m particularly thrilled to be able to try out some new material at the Arctic Circle. I won’t be speaking about a “bipolar” world of “pagans and Christians,” and I certainly won’t be counting the number of times the ruler of the empire went to church, as if such a thing were really indicative of someone’s Christianity (Obama, 18 times in five years; Bush, 120 times in eight years).

My starting point is something the apostle Peter said.

Er, words that early Christians thought belonged to Peter, that is.

In a text written at the end of the first century C.E., perhaps around 80 or 90 C.E. (almost an entire generation after Peter is thought to have died) someone was circulating a text in his name. Today, it’s known as 1 Peter. It’s included in everyone’s Bibles along side a whole host of other forged documents, as Bart Ehrman has now made abundantly clear.

I’ve long been interested in the community that produced this text. It’s one of the first witnesses we have to the idea that followers of Jesus had begun to call themselves “Christians” and suggests something that we sometimes forget when we talk about “the Christians” in Rome.

Not only did some Christians not run to the mouths of the lions. They brainstormed strategies for living in the world around them. In a whole host of biblical texts–from Paul’s letter to a community in Rome to texts that were later ascribed to Paul himself (Ephesians)–we find traces of their social “code.”

Sure, scholars of biblical literature roll their eyes at the mention of these passages. “Old news to those of us who are experts in every word of Christian Scripture!” I hear my friends saying.

To me, though, this evidence is just too good to keep leaving out of Roman history, for it provides a different starting point for doing Roman history. To me, it sheds new light on how this one small movement in the Roman world threw off the stigma of being a social outcast so that, eventually, even the emperor “converted” to their side. Maybe, they went out of their way to fit in.

Many others had been finding ways to “honor the emperor” for centuries–including Jewish communities at Ostia, in Egypt, and in Asia Minor. Why should the Roman state care whether yet other small band of social outliers walked around town to the beat of its own drum, as long as they ultimately did the same? “Honor the emperor”? Many Christians did.

Even before the time of any persecuting porphyry tetrarch, some Christians must have looked at other Christians like complete and utter strangers.

That’s the little message I’m taking with me to Helsinki. I think it’s going to be a fun year!

Conferences, Memory