A curious gold ring in the British Museum bears witness to the cost of loyalty in the Roman Empire. Probably given by Constantine the Great (d. 337) to one of his generals – a reward for exemplary service, perhaps, or a souvenir of a major victory – the ring is engraved, in capital letters, with nothing less than a rallying-cry. FIDEM CONSTANTINO: Faith to Constantine.
The first Christian Emperor is remembered for his eve-of-battle conversion at the Milvian Bridge in Rome – one of history’s more spectacular religious reversals. Yet in museums across Europe his gift-rings survive to witness smaller but still essential acts of faith. To win and maintain an empire it helped to have God on your side, but divine favour was no substitute for the whole-hearted allegiance of an army.
From the dawn of recorded history, Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies have seen faith as the force binding a lord to his dependents. The same good faith was expected in a father’s relation to his children, a general’s to his army, or a god’s to his chosen people: the powerful must offer protection and justice in return for trust and obedience.
In a subsistence society where few were safe from acts of God or the whims of their rulers, the idea of being spared from destruction by a powerful protector had virtually unlimited appeal: the theme runs through the literatures of antiquity. Just as the God of Israel was revered in Genesis for sealing a covenant with Abraham, so Greek and Roman generals were praised for treating a vanquished enemy mercifully. Power and mercy ideally went hand in hand.
In the first century AD Jesus of Nazareth and his younger contemporary Paul of Tarsus harnessed these bronze-age notions to energize a vibrant new movement. Both men preached a message of faith and salvation. But what did they actually mean by faith?
Modern Christians tend to assume that when their ancient counterparts spoke of faith they meant it in a cognitive sense, as referencing belief. But this is anachronistic. Ancient moral writers tended to think of faith in the relational sense of trust, allegiance, and loyalty. Few doubted whether the God of Israel existed; what troubled them was whether he was more powerful than his rivals. Could he be entrusted with the safety of his people? Was he righteous enough to deserve their exclusive loyalty?
It is the great merit of Teresa Morgan’s Roman Faith and Christian Faith that it sets the early Christian debate on faith firmly into its ancient Mediterranean context. The early Christian texts each have a long interpretative history – this is particularly true for the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Painstaking and meticulous work is needed to unravel how anachronistic modern readings have come to seem self-evident.
Roman Faith and Christian Faith thus offers hard evidence to support an insight that has informed the study of early Christianity across the last half-century: that personal relationships, not theological propositions, tend to be the core driver of religious conversion. Since the 1960s, when Lofland and Stark transformed the scholarly understanding of new religious movements by showing how social networks fostered their growth, historians have looked for similar patterns in early Christianity. But a comprehensive study of the language early Christian writers used to describe relationships of trust and allegiance – both among human beings and with God – was sorely needed.
In her chapters on the Letters of Paul Morgan is particularly deft in shifting our reading of faith (pistis in Greek) from the cognitive to the ethical and affective. Paul’s preaching is not a call to ‘a leap of deliberately non-rational assent’ (260). Rather, it is an invitation to place trust in God – who has already given copious signs of his worthiness to be trusted – and to live accordingly, ‘an exercise of trust which involves heart, mind, and action’.
Morgan suggests that it was trust rather than belief that drove the Christian revolution, but this does not mean ideas played no role. One of the book’s great strengths is its appreciation for the ethical richness of ancient thought. From generals soothing the nerves of anxious soldiers on the eve of battle to wives and mothers putting their lives on the line for husbands and children, ancient moralists found examples of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and good faith in all walks of life. Early Christian preachers did the same. This is not to say that ancient people never worried about what or whom to believe; Morgan gives copious evidence for their anxieties about how to distinguish the true from the seemingly true. But again and again we find that the pivotal question was one of trust – and trustworthiness.
Roman Faith and Christian Faith leaves one suspecting that the modern adoption of ‘belief’ as a synonym for ‘faith’ has done as much as anything to obscure our reading of deceptively familiar New Testament passages. Enlightenment and later debates on conscience, reason, and credulity have left a deposit that needs to be accounted for, but to do so would have required a study in its own right. What Morgan has done here is to offer a hard-won glimpse of the early Christian picture in its original colours.
Theis essay originally published in the TLS 12 May 2016, reviewing
ROMAN FAITH AND CHRISTIAN FAITH
Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches
626 pp. Oxford University Press, £95