Religious Superstition in the Age of Christianity

Religious superstition characterized the Greco-Roman culture of the first-century. Here is but one snapshot of home life:

In addition to statuary and household altars (which were fixed architectural features by the NT era), a Greek home tended to mirror the mythology of the culture in many other ways. Vases commonly depicted mythological characters and events (Zeus seated with Hera, Heracles battling the Hydra, etc.). Many household utensils and furnishings incorporated aspects of religion and superstition…into their design: a serving tray with the muses as the pedestal, a lamp in the shape of a phallus to ward of evil, a ladle etched with a magical symbol, a comb engraved with Aphrodite’s likeness—such items were commonplace. Muraled walls, frescoed courtyards, and tiled floors also frequently depicted popular religious motifs. (The World of the NT, 117)

Outside the home was a world of complex religious pluralism. Consider just one case study: festivals.

Each city had a festal calendar that specified the dates on which the various gods were celebrated, usually on an annual basis. Important gods warranted lengthier, more elaborate festivals, some lasting nearly a week. Athens had nearly sixty days allotted to festal veneration, though most of these would consist of a simple sacrifice in the temple of the deity. Major festivals began with a grand procession winding through the significant quadrants of the city and, depending on the deity and the precise nature of the cult, sometimes involved representatives of the local citizenry: children, young men and women, military figures, politicians, members of local guilds and businesses, and others. The procession would end at the temple of the god or goddess and climax with a sacrifice. (The World of the NT, 115)

This was a world of superstition, no doubt. There was a god or goddess for every layer of society—home, city, region, and for every part of creation (even door hinges). There was also a specific prayer, spell and incantation for any problem that might arise. If something bad happened, the first question in the minds of those in the Greco-Roman world was “which god did I offend?” and the second, “what can I do to make things right again?” This paranoia led to a plethora of creative solutions—of which some people specialized in performing (e.g., soothsayers, magicians, etc.; the cumulative effect that we commonly label “superstition”). In the end, hopefully it would just rain, the sickness would leave, or the relationship would be restored.

Combined with elaborate mythologies and genealogies of these deities, this primitive and (rather undisciplined) search for detailed patterns in life’s experience became a bit far-fetched. It is no wonder that Plato—long before Christ, Islam, Mormonism, etc.—considered most of it nonsense. In his third book of The Republic, Socrates has no trouble censoring certain tales—or changing them directly—to create a more just society. As such, the philosopher becomes a kind of deity herself, restructuring and muting the gods at will. Predating Enlightenment skepticism by over two thousand years, Socrates pulled back the curtain to suggest that it was people who created the deities, not the other way around. Where did this leave the Christ-followers of the first-century?

Were Christians Really “Different?” You Decide

It is a vast understatement to say that Christians lived in a “different world.” They didn’t worship a God that was imaged or carved at all. Erecting a temple or statue like the others would have been unthinkable—not to mention a waste of money that could have been better spent (recall Paul’s recycling of meat sacrificed to idols to use as food). The Christians also didn’t participate in ritual sacrifice, or saturate their homes and schedules with symbols and prayers to the pie-in-sky “gods.” Healings, rituals, and various spiritual experiences were part of the growing church’s life, yes. But the tone had a dose of skepticism, being able to identify solutions that didn’t really work (Mk 5:26), being critical of traditional sorcery (Acts 8; 13:6; 19:19), and recognizing the limits of human knowledge (Rom 11:33-36; 1 Cor 1).

Involvement in the state (especially in the military, the ultimate tool of force) was noticeably minimal. This may be surprising to American Christians today since the government was somewhat democratic (there were elections, a Senate, districts overseen by governors, client-kings overseen by the emperor, etc.) and because Christians had inside connections early on (e.g., Lk 8:3). If the use of force was a good thing, one might think the early church would have sought to secure the power of the state by all possible means.

Instead, Jesus’ Kingdom of Peace offered a different way. When Yahweh told Israel they didn’t need a king, Israel refused and insisted on getting its own way (1 Sam 8). It reaped the bitter fruits of that decision. But Jesus, the new Israel and Son of God, did what Israel should have and refused positions of earthly power when tempted in the desert (Lk 4; Mt 4) and during his entire earthly life. It is no surprise, then, that only a century later “soldier saints” came into the scene—Christians who were martyred for refusing to participate in the warfare state and its endless lust for power.

It would be a mistake, however, to say that state involvement was merely minimal. It was outright antagonistic. This is part of the larger context in which the Jews lived under Roman rule and regularly used violence to repossess land. (For a vivid summary, see Ferguson, “The Herodian Dynasty,” in The World of the NT). This general antagonism is embodied in some way in Jesus’ arrest and death at the hands of Roman soldiers. What was different was how Jesus died at the hands of the Jews (his own people) and how he challenged the rulers and systems of authority without any appeal to force and violence.

Here all the hopes of Israel come together—he is the king of the Jews, the greatest of the suffering prophets. Yet Jesus transformed those expectations. He did not lead Israel to victory over Rome. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the narratives of his last days is that his increasing isolation makes it impossible to identify him with any one “side” or cause. The Roman governor sentenced him as a Jewish rebel, but the leaders of Judaism also turned against him. He attacked the powerful on behalf of the poor, but in the end the mob, too, called for his blood. His own disciples ran away; Peter denied him. He did not go to his death agony as a representative of Jews, or of the poor, or of Christians, but alone, and thus, according to Christian faith, as a representative of all. (Placher, History of Christian Theology, 19)

Jesus questioned the authoritarian “status quo” to the point where we have two (recorded) confrontations about paying taxes (Mk 12:13-17; Mt 17:24-27)—and both of his answers were notoriously and uncomfortably ambiguous. “As often happens with powerless groups,” notes Warren Carter in the New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary (5:479-80), “[the Christians] mixed cooperation with disguised and self-protective protest…Paying the tax is an ambiguous act, an expression of hidden protest.” New tax law under Nero incited complains from nearly everyone (see Tacitus, Annals 13.50-51) and even may have prompted the Apostle Paul to directly advise Christians in Rome to pay up (Rom 13). Yet, it was a matter of “pragmatic survival,” as “Survival is one of the best forms of defiance” (Bird, Jesus is Lord). The infant church just couldn’t afford to get squashed now.

Nevertheless, following Jesus’ death the Christians forged and preached a well-known Creed that pitted Jesus against the head of the state: Κύριος Ἰησοῦς (“Jesus is Lord”), with the obvious implication being “Caesar is not Lord.” Today we have this phrase etched on jewelry and what not (like the steel ring on my left hand) as a declaration of Jesus’ divinity and a sign of our true allegiance—but we forget the immediate political implications, and forget that it was this declaration that for centuries caused heads to roll.

It should also be observed that the government during the Greco-Roman era regularly sponsored and supported pagan religion through various subsidies/sponsorships and laws. By refusing to participate in the pagan religious system of the day (festivals, rituals, symbols, sacrifices, prayers, etc.), the Christians once again posed the question about just what “power” and “authority” really means.

The new world we see being brought into being in the Gospels is one in which the whole grand cosmic architecture of prerogative, power, and eminence has been shaken and even superseded by a new, positively ‘anarchic’ order: an order, that is, in which we see the glory of God revealed in a crucified slave, and in which (consequently) we are enjoined to see the forsaken of the earth as the very children of heaven. In this shockingly, ludicrously disordered order (so to speak), even the mockery visited on Christ—the burlesque crown and robe—acquires a kind of ironic opulence: in the light cast backward upon the scene by the empty tomb, it becomes all at once clear that it is not Christ’s ‘ambitions’ that are laughable, but those emblems of earthly authority whose travesties have been draped over his shoulders and pressed into his scalp. We can now see with perfect poignancy the vanity of empires and kingdoms, and the absurdity of men who wrap themselves in rags and adorn themselves with glittering gauds and promote themselves with preposterous titles and thereby claim license to rule over others. (Hart, Atheist Delusions, 174)

In a word then, to disavow the religious establishment was to disavow the political system—regardless of who was currently “in office.” The Christians did both in countless ways—but, in contrast to Jewish contemporaries (“Zealots”), without the typical means of a violent uprising.

What about the home? Was the Christian household any different? One only has to page through Paul’s letters to the Colossians and Ephesians and observe how much was turned upside down and inside out. Consider his instructions for men to “love” their wives as they love themselves (Eph 5)—even dying for them—and wives having reciprocal authority over their husbands’ bodies (1 Cor 7:4-5). These ethical ideas were (are) unparalleled by any other writing of the period, whether Greek, Latin, or in any other text. Given that the home was (like religious establishments) the foundation for society and civil order, this, too, was rather “anarchic.” Thus writes one NT scholar in a recent book:

Subverting the authority of the household was tantamount to subverting authority of the empire…
By the middle of the first century, concepts of power and hierarchy were embedded within the imperial theology, and the culture’s ideology of gender was indivisibly linked to the power and authority of the entire hierarchy of the Roman Empire. Jesus explicitly rejected the Greco-Roman leadership models and the manner in which those in authority exercised power and authority over those under them (Matt. 20:25-28//Luke 22:24-27). Paul also confronted and rejected the Greco-Roman culture’s conventional human wisdom, the imperial theology of power, authority, and the ideology of status (1 Cor. 1:18-31). (Westfall, Paul and Gender, 162, 244)

Putting all of this together, then, it is no wonder why peaceful Jesus was crucified by the empire apparatus for insurrection.
It is also no wonder that the church was more than a little “socially excluded.” They were resident aliens—social outcasts whose selfless love shocked every class of society and yet whose rituals (e.g., Lord’s Table) were misunderstood in the most perverse ways (e.g., cannibalism). Unlike the resident Jews, Christians didn’t have the official “OK” from the state to not sacrifice to the deities; this expectation remained on their doorstep. Complicating matters further, the Jews themselves expected the early Christians to get circumcised and tempted them to give up their “Christ” and “gospel” altogether (see Galatians). So hated were some of them by the religious leaders that they stoned a fresh deacon before the Temple of Jerusalem fell (Acts 7).

This is “social awkwardness” at its best. And it leaves one asking: how can one really explain all of this if the early church wasn’t at all “different”?  And just what led to this radical nonconformity in the first place? What would be even be sufficient for it?

The traditional (and probably only rational explanation) was the testimony and teachings of seeing and hearing the real Jesus of Nazareth—a King unlike any other. No political maneuvers. No weapons, no armies, no war. The outcasts of society were given dignity, protected, and even healed of their shameful diseases—not given another tax burden and draft to fight someone else’s stupid war. In its culture there were no fantastic mythologies of competing gods and goddesses, no founding creation myth that portrayed humanity as a procreative accident, no social call to killing, no sorcery, and no room for racism, sexism, and fear of the uncivilized (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).

The distinctions run deeper, beyond the social into the abstract. As a mutation of Judaism, the Christian faith portrayed neither monism nor a zero-sum game dualist philosophy; neither deism (where God made the world and went out for coffee), Epicureanism or atomism, nor pantheism (all is God, collapsing fundamental distinctions). Rather, heaven and earth are all of God’s creation and (the big one)—they intersect and overlap. In former times in the “Old Covenant,” this intersection occurred by God’s walking in the Garden (Gen 2), indwelling in the tabernacle and later in the sanctuary of the Temple. In short, through Israel and the Israelite theocracy. But now, in the New Covenant, it was through the one tabernacling among us (Jn 1), the “true temple” (Jesus, and the “Body of Christ”), the new “Israel” (Rom 9-11; Gal 6) and the “Kingdom of God.” Carried to today, it is the “Spirit of Christ” in its wide and various manifestations that testify to the ongoing creation of this world, a divine project of matter and mind that has yet to fully consummate.

So if Christianity’s new culture, claims, narrative, philosophy, and ethic were distinctive, was it also reasonable? Could it withstand the scrutiny of the intellect? “Superstition,” after all, tends to be naturally understood as “the irrational”…


  • This article was originally published on the blog of John Witherspoon College as part of a larger series on Christianity and superstition.