Missing Religious Ontologies in Ancient Polytheism

Below is a brief paper that I wrote for my “Greek Religion” seminar last quarter, where I address some of the ontologies of religion (e.g. sacred texts, church, dogma) that appear to be absent from ancient Greek polytheism. I discussed some of these religious ontologies in my earlier review of Zaidman and Pantel on this blog. In the paper I argue that the religious functions that these ontologies serve were not being unmet by polytheism, rather than that they are harder to identify, because of the fact that polytheism was often far more hermeneutically flexible than monotheism.

Monotheistic religions like Christianity often come with a prepackaged set of religious texts, doctrines, and denominations. Ancient polytheism, in contrast, was far more fluid. One could practice Greek religion, as well as Egyptian religion, while also being able to join a wide range of different philosophical schools, without breaching any particular religious boundaries. That does not mean, however, that polytheists did not have any sense of religious belief or community, even if such functions were often far more blurred than they are in monotheistic religions today. Here is the paper:

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Are All Norms Moral Norms?


I am starting up my blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” again on Civitas Humana. The first topic that I am writing on is the relation between ethics and naturalism. Ethics is a subject upon which even like-minded secularists and skeptics can disagree. I know that Staircaseghost has been a frequent skeptical commenter on this blog who has disagreed with some of my arguments pertaining to ethics. I hope to expand some of my previous writings on both moral realism and anti-realism as part of the new discussion.

This first post that I am sharing is about the meaning of normative statements, and whether words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” always involve underlying moral judgements. I argue that normativity is not exclusively an ethical concept, since value judgements can also pertain to hypothetical imperatives, as well as the norms of epistemology and aesthetics. In the next couple posts I will be discussing ethical norms, in particular, but I wanted to preface the discussion with examples of normativity outside of ethics, so that the boundaries of ethical norms can be more clearly defined.

Originally posted on Civitas Humana:

I have been away from my blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” for some time, owing to academic work, but now that I am moved into my new house and also on summer break, I have time to renew posting new content. I am going to start by discussing metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is…

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Tiberius Caesar the Christian?

When I first started this blog, I debunked an egregious piece of apologetic misinformation claiming that there is more ancient literary evidence for Jesus than the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar (see my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic). I was rather surprised when I saw apologist Cliffe Knechtle make this claim, because the reign of Tiberius is one of my areas of Classical research, and I was rather disturbed that Christian apologists were misrepresenting this period in order to create specious talking points for converting people to their religion. In doing some readings of the patristic Church Fathers last academic quarter, however, I realized that Christians spreading false information about the reign of Tiberius is apparently nothing new.

It started when I was reading the church father Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (a devilishly clever piece of Constantinian propaganda), in which the Christian “historian” makes the following claim about Tiberius allegedly voicing early support for Christianity:

“And when the wonderful resurrection and ascension of our Saviour were already noised abroad, in accordance with an ancient custom which prevailed among the rulers of the provinces, of reporting to the emperor the novel occurrences which took place in them, in order that nothing might escape him, Pontius Pilate informed Tiberius of the reports which were noised abroad through all Palestine concerning the resurrection of our Saviour Jesus from the dead.

He gave an account also of other wonders which he had learned of him, and how, after his death, having risen from the dead, he was now believed by many to be a God. They say that Tiberius referred the matter to the Senate, but that they rejected it, ostensibly because they had not first examined into the matter (for an ancient law prevailed that no one should be made a God by the Romans except by a vote and decree of the Senate), but in reality because the saving teaching of the divine Gospel did not need the confirmation and recommendation of men.

mt-22-tiberius-caesar-coinBut although the Senate of the Romans rejected the proposition made in regard to our Saviour, Tiberius still retained the opinion which he had held at first, and contrived no hostile measures against Christ.

Book II, Chapter 2.1-3

Now, to be sure, Eusebius’ history is packed full of misinformation, in which he relies on a vast array of pseudepigraphal literature to relate a number of dubious stories about early Christian communities. The fact that Eusebius had inherited so many false traditions by the 4th century CE quite vividly illustrates just how much misinformation Christians had circulated in the preceding centuries about their origins (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God).

Today, professional historians have used a number of philological and historical-critical techniques to root out these false stories, so that we actually have a much clearer picture of Christianity’s real origins in 1st-3rd centuries CE in modern times than even Eusebius had much closer to the event. A lot of these false stories are rejected even by orthodox Christians and apologists, despite credence from several Christians in antiquity. This story about Tiberius greatly interested me, however, and I want to say a bit more about Christian lies pertaining to the reign of the Tiberius, since this is hardly the only one.

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My New House in Pasadena, CA

I have been away from the blog lately due to a variety of end-of-the-year academic and life-changing business. However, after spending the last couple days moving boxes and furniture out of my old apartment, and then cleaning the place, I have finally moved into my new house in Pasadena, CA!

The months leading up to this move have been even crazier, with a bed bug infestation in my old apartment a couple weeks ago (I couldn’t deal with them quite as easily as the apostle John did in the Acts of John, chapter 60), weekly 4 AM commutes this last academic quarter to Santa Barbara for Religious Studies seminars, and my partner (Camille) finishing her master’s degree in Information Science at UCLA. Cam and I moved here because she just got a job working as an archive specialist for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We both love Pasadena so far, especially since we are both television fans of The Big Bang Theory, which takes place here. In fact, the characters in the show work for the California Institute of Technology, which is affiliated with NASA JPL.

We are just renting the place for a year, but here is a shot of the new house:


And here is an angle where you can see more of the front yard:


This change in life venue has been greatly welcomed, especially since the last several years have been a major transition period. We have both been commuting on a regular basis to no less than 7 universities in the SoCal area. I’ve been taking classes at 4 UC campuses (UCI, UCR, UCSD, and UCSB), and Cam has been getting her degree at UCLA, while also doing an internship at USC, as well as the internship that led to her new job at Cal Tech. As such, we have been spending a ton of time in traffic. But, we have now moved close to where Cam works, and likewise I will be on fellowship this next academic year (no teaching or seminars), meaning that we are going to have a whole year free from long commutes.

More than even that, however, this move has been the turn of a major chapter in my life. Earlier today I read an article on The Daily Dot titled “The real reason young people are the poorest generation in 25 years” about the financial troubles that are facing the Millennial Generation. Cam and I are both millennials, and I thought that I would comment on some of our experiences reaching this point in our life, and how they reflect on some of the issues people our age are facing in the economic landscape.

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Zaidman and Pantel, “Religion in the Ancient Greek City”

As I announced in a previous post, I am taking a seminar this quarter on ancient Mediterranean religions and their relation to Christian origins. In particular, we are looking at the Greek (and sometimes Roman and Egyptian) polytheistic religions that were predominant in the regions of the Mediterranean that Christianity first originated and spread within. Since polytheism is just as important to the time and region that I study (the Roman Empire c. 31 BCE – 192 CE), as Judaism and Christianity are, I think it will be worthwhile to discuss some of the history and theology of the polytheism that once thrived in the pre-Christian ancient world.

Zaidman and PantelI think that a good place to begin this discussion is by reviewing an influential monograph on this topic — Louise Zaidman and Pauline Pantel’s Religion in the Ancient Greek City (1992). Zaidman and Pantel’s study is highly foundational to modern approaches to Greek religion, since they were among the first to emphasize the importance of the polis (“city-state”) to ancient understandings of polytheism. The polis was the basic political, economic, and social unit that emerged in Greece during the Archaic period (c. 800-480 BCE). The Greeks did not have a united political center or capital, and this form of cultural organization deeply affected how they viewed their religion.

The fact is that for most of us living in Western cultures, we are something of a mystery to ourselves. Our modern concepts like democracy, philosophy, science, theatre, and even sports all grew out of Pagan, polytheistic societies. But these societies were taken over by a variant of Christian theism in the 4th century CE. After that event, polytheism moved from the foreground to the background in European society, until dwindling to the point that few of us in modern times really understand it. But polytheism was once pervasive in cultures that are historically linked to our own. To rediscover this polytheism is thus to rediscover a bit of ourselves, even for secularists.

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Co-Authoring a Critical Review of Geisler and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” with Jeff Lowder

I have a publication announcement about some of the recent work that I have been doing with Jeff Lowder, president emeritus of the Secular Web.

Geisler and TurekLowder is doing a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter critical review of Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Lowder has done similar critical reviews before of other popular apologetics books that attack atheists. For example, Lowder edited a comprehensive refutation of Josh McDowell’s atrocious and tragically bestselling apologetics book ETDAV, titled The Jury Is In: The Ruling on McDowell’s “Evidence”, which is a great resource for countering stock apologetic slogans and assertions. Lowder has also done a critical review of apologist Ravi Zacharias’ Can Man Live Without God, which is another polemical apologetics book attacking and ridiculing atheists, titled “An Emotional Tirade Against Atheists.” In addition to this, Lowder also edited The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, which is required reading for doing counter-apologetics on the resurrection. Lowder is one of the most knowledgeable and thorough counter-apologists that I have ever read. I consider Lowder, along with John Loftus, to be one of the top counter-apologists whom William Lane Craig should debate, and yet has been avoiding.

The index to Lowder’s review can be found here. Below is a summary of what I have contributed to his review of chapter 9:

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Why I Chose to Study Classics

This academic quarter I am commuting up to UC Santa Barbara to take two Religious Studies seminars with professor Christine Thomas, who does work in Biblical Studies, Classics, Turkish Archaeology, and a lot more! I am very grateful to have this opportunity, since Dr. Thomas is offering a first-ever seminar on ancient Mediterranean religions and their relation to Christian origins, as well as a course on the New Testament. Dr. Thomas is an outstanding expert in her various fields, and is on the executive committee of the Society of Biblical Literature, among many other things. A great part of being a graduate student in the University of California system is that you can take courses at any UC campus (as well as get inter-library loans from every UC campus, which has helped give me access to a very wide range of books).

For those who are familiar with the geography of Southern California, my “commute” may sound rather crazy! My home campus is UC Irvine, which is a good two and a half hours South of UCSB, without traffic, and traffic can easily double that time. Fortunately, I actually don’t live in Irvine, but further North in Long Beach, which shaves some time off the commute, but not much. To make things work, I am driving up on Tuesday to take one course, spending the night in Santa Barbara (I’m at a Motel 6 right now), taking the other course Wednesday morning, and then driving back down to Long Beach around noon (a good traffic window). Dr. Thomas was very generous in helping to make this arrangement feasible for my schedule, and I am even able to still TA a course at UCI this same quarter. But there is a catch: I had to get up at 4:30 AM this morning, and get out the door by 5:3o AM, in order to beat the LA traffic. It worked pretty well, since I was able to get up here by 8 AM and was even able to grab breakfast before class.

As readers might imagine, I am very, very interested in taking these seminars! But the truth is that I have had to do a lot of other crazy commutes in my graduate studies. If you can take advantage of the UC system inter-campus exchange, you can have access to a wide range of scholars to study under. I have taken courses on subjects such as Roman history and ancient education with Michelle Salzman at UC Riverside, Late Antiquity and numismatics with Edward Watts at UC San Diego, and have had the opportunity at my home campus, UCI, to take a seminar on inductive reasoning with Brian Skyrms (a leading expert in epistemology and philosophy of science, whose course was admittedly a bit over my head in some parts, but which also helped me learn a lot more about Bayes’ theorem; likewise, epistemologist and counter-apologist Robert Cavin also studied under Skyrms and also got his PhD at UCI in Philosophy). I am heavily invested in inter-disciplinary work, since I have used my time in the UC system to study not only Classics, but also Philosophy, History, Comparative Literature, and Religious Studies.

On the subject of inter-disciplinary work, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss why I chose Classics (or Classical Studies) specifically to pursue my PhD. Likewise, since I’ve been writing this blog for over two years now, I also think that now is a fitting time to talk about why I do what I do.

Classics Studies

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Posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, Musings, Religious Studies | 1 Comment