So prompted by the fuss over Mel Gibson’s gruesome snuff movie (which itself features the usual anachronistically inaccurate White Jesus, and this during Black History Month!), I checked out some stills on IMDB.
All the rubbish about “accuracy” and I saw a few stills that clearly show a classical Germanic-derived White Jesus with flowing locks. No afro in sight. They seem to have “browned-up” James Caviezel with a slight tint of blackface so that he looks like a slightly tanned version of one of those mullet-headed Aryan heroes from the Lord of the Rings movie. Aragorn, Jesus, what’s the difference? Surely de-colourising the protagonist, stripping him of historical context and ethnic identity, is just the opening salvo in what is apparently an entire ideological edifice of cinematic anti-semitism!
I am still chuckling at the absurdity of this situation. Gibson’s God-Man looks about as authentically “semitic” as Peter Sellers looked authentically Indian in The Party.
Anyway, I was reading some of The Annals by Tacitus, brushing up on my recollections of the accounts of contemporaries concerning the unusual and often fanatical early Christians.
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
I was struck by the use of the term “Abominations”. Of course, 1st and early 2nd century Romans were quite morally conservative with respect to family structures and kinship arrangements, and looked on all the “Eastern” cults with suspicions because they tended to disarrange the traditional Roman household structure. They were seen as promiscuous, secretive, often anti-patriarchical, and inclined to cause people to withdraw from the public spiritual life of Roman cities. While the worship of small house gods and cults had always been condoned, the new trend for totalizing religious fervor within both public and private spheres upset the generally more secular-minded average Roman. Mithraism, Christianity, and even the Magna Mater cult were anathema to a populace who looked to the Pontifex Maximus for moral guidance. In fact, in a weird echo of today’s culture wars, the Pontifex was expected to resign his position as vehicle for the consumption of Rome’s Sacred Bread (“mola salsa“)were he to become divorced.
Anyway, because Christianity at that time was mostly a female religion practised in secret in kitchen enclaves, the same lurid stories about female sexuality and abandon were attached to Christians as had been attached to Bacchus/Liber cultists. Most of these stories were, of course, total fabrication, akin to the hysteria by Puritan Christians concerning the supposed carnal activities of Wiccans. What goes around comes around.
There’s more of this in the History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. The analysis of the transition of Western Rome from pagan to secular to Christian, mostly told through diaries, letters, and personal accounts, is remarkably enlightening. I especially liked the explanation of the differences between secular Roman processional and theatrical cemeteries and their replacement by mournful Christian boneyards.
What I find most remarkable is that because Euro-dominated culture descended from a hybrid of Germanic-Gallo/Roman culture, Western accounts tend to undermine or underplay the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium (Gibbons was a classic example of this pro-German bias).
Byzantine society managed its transition to Christianity without completely destroying its economic base, urban structures, or social institutions, and so we see in late Byzantium a fascinating hybrid of ancient Roman social customs and late-era Christianity that is more “authentically Mediterranean” than the Germanic-influenced privatized social development that occurred throughout Western Europe.