December 05, 2008

Julian and purity

Julian the Apostate (r. as Augustus 360-3) as an emperor attempted to take the Roman empire back from Christianity and return it to a neo-platonist form of paganism (for those who wish to read more about him, this is an encyclopedia article written by two academics which describes his career). He did this both in his policies as emperor- and also in publications. Julian thought of himself as a philosopher and mystic- a devotee of Hellenic values in the world usurped by the Galileans (as he called Christians). The focus of his arguments is what interests me here: in a fascinating article for the Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture, Gorgio Scrofani has attacked an issue which might seem perplexing. Julian's major treatise 'Against the Galileans' includes a paean of praise to Judaism- what Scrofani does is explicate where this defence of the Jews fits into Julian's attack on Christianity and his defence of paganism.

As a defender of Judaism, what Julian sought to do was to defend Jewish ritual and tradition. He wrote

Jews agree with the Gentiles, except that they believe in only one God. That is indeed peculiar to them and strange to us; since all the rest we have in a manner in common with them, temples, sanctuaries, altars, purifications and certain precepts. For as to these we differ from one another not at all or in trivial matters.

This passage is interesting- carefully read it demonstrates that Julian established in his reader's mind that the distinction between monotheism and polytheism was less important than the distinction between a religion of ritual and one that disdained those rituals. What Scrofani argues is that Julian's point here was an attempt to do two things. Firstly it was an attempt to show that Christianity was an innovation of inpurity: Christians, Julian commented at other points, needed to be purified before they could take part in pagan rites. Julian was preoccupied by purity- he wanted priests who were morally and physically pure- because he saw in the maintenance of ritual, the way towards the maintenance of imperial Rome. He saw purity as a guarentee of the stability of the state in the eyes of the gods and therefore of men.

This was also though an attack on an area of vulnerability in the faith. What Julian did by using the Jewish example was attempt to open a breach in the Christian world. His attempt was to take the fight, as it were, to the territory of the Christians, to the old and new Testaments. This attempt to divide the Jews from the Christians picked up on anxieties within the new faith- we know from John Chrysotom and others that there were many Christians who even as late as the third and fourth centuries kept rituals like the day of atonement going. By splitting religion on the basis of ritual- Julian's argument drew together the Hellenes and Jews as heirs of the religious innovations of Chaldea against the Christians.

What's interesting about Scrofani's article is that the nature of Julian's attack and the nature of the breach that he hoped to widen should tell us something about what was new and astonishing in Christian doctrine. Those who argued against Christianity at its inception can tell us a lot about what the new religion was and what was astonishing about it. They also inform us about the preoccupations of the time. For Julian what was new and controversial about Christianity was its failure to emphasize ritual and cultic purity: he saw this as a moral failing- and suggested that it marked a boundary between Judaism and paganism on one side and Christianity on the other. He also saw this as an opportunity- because so many of his contemporaries shared his anxiety. These words from the last pagan Emperor therefore tell us a lot, as Scrofani argues, about the context in which early Christianity developed and about the thing that developed in that context.


Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

Great post, I say, though I have to read it again in order to understand better.

Further, I have to understand what the Neo-Platonicians really wanted.

To consider Christians as atheists seems to be a strange idea. Same word but another meaning?


Georg said...

If you allow me to make a joke, this Julianus Augustus was a pagan zionist and thus a brother to the US American Mr. Hagee. But the difference between those two is that the first really believed in this.

In Peter Heather's book I was made to understand that this endless war against the Persians was one of the reasons for the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Thus Julianus was the unvoluntary architect of its destruction, what a sad story.

Poor old Julianus: had he lived longer - let's say 500 years - he would have seen plenty of ritual and purity bluster sponsored by the Christians. And they invented plenty of gods, too, but had the good idea to name them saints.


Crushed said...

I guess of course, it also perhaps emphasises, that Christianity, even in its early days, was as much an emodiment of classical greek thought as it was rooted in Judaic teachings.

What Christians were arguing for, was a religion based on reason, in a sense.
It always was a huge departure from Judaic thought.
Something that Protestant reformers never quite grasped, that the 'primitive purity' they idealised, had never existed, that Christianity was not and never had been a mere offshoot of Judaism.

Gracchi said...

Georg- I think atheism in this context meant for Julian non-ritualistic religion. Its similar say to the way that Christians might use atheist about unitarians- not that they strictly beleive they do not beleive in God- but that they hae stripped God of an attribute which is indispensible in the mind of the denominator to the nature of God. Ritual in Julian's case was indispensible to religion- hence anyone who had a non-ritualistic religion must be an atheist.

Crushed- ummm I'm not sure- you may have to expand on that. The central issue for Protestantism as I understand it is justification by faith or works- that is an issue that is not effected by the question of ritual. Indeed you could argue that Protestantism takes to an extreme the argument against ritual.

Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

Just one last question on behalf of the definition of atheism at the time of Julianus Augustus: were there some real atheists living at that time, late antiquity?

Did they run into trouble because of this? Do you have any idea about this??


Gracchi said...

Georg- that's a really interesting question. There were things that would approximate to our definition of atheism in antiquity- views of the world that regarded Gods as dispensible and irrelevant to any explanation of the things we see.

A great example of that would be Lucretius- he beleived in Gods, but saw them as irrelevant to human actions and uninterested in us. He denied the afterlife and his theory of matter and its workings was materialistic. What he did was popularise the views of Epicurus in Rome- and we know he was read and admired.

As to what happened later, I'm not sure and here my knowledge fades. My guess is that the late antique period into which Julian's reign falls is a more religious period- from my reading, there seems to have been an outburst of different faiths and Christianity for a variety of reasons, including luck, eventually became the religion of the empire. But that is a guess- and I would guess that atheism began to die out.

The other last thing to remember is that the focus of political power and patronage in the Roman empire switched from Rome to the periphery. Even if there were atheists- I'd guess they were weaker and thus more covert in the centuries when the army dominated than in those where the senate dominated- partly because I'd assume that atheism was an elite belief- again that's a guess.

Its a really interesting question though and I'm glad you've asked it- its one I must come back to and try and get some better evidence about.