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A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground
by Bruce N. Fisk
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Anyone who doesn’t know how to fasten a seat belt is either an idiot or an alien. After sprinting for the gate and scrambling up the jetway, I was in no mood for the perky flight attendant. Even though Guilder had warned that El Al security would take me aside, I was still annoyed when they emptied my pack, swiped each item for explosives, and made me drop my pants.

“Wine, beer, and cocktails are complimentary in first class.”

The 32B on my boarding pass meant I was wedged into Economy with neither window nor aisle. In the window seat an underweight, olive-skinned kid in a yarmulke was nodding to his iPod. I decided he was returning home after year one at a boarding school. If he was returning to what he knew, I was venturing into what I didn’t. On the aisle a hefty, scented lady was letting her left elbow and carry-ons encroach into my space. A Christian, I surmised, on a ten-day packaged pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The fact that she and I shared the same faith made me uncomfortable. She retreated into a hardback—familiar author, new title—as the plane queued up for takeoff. Trapped. Sixteen hours between a rich pubescent introvert and someone’s suburban aunt.

I closed my eyes and replayed scenes from earlier in the day. There was my mother, teary, behind her Voyager on the departure ramp, compressing home baking into an already crammed pocket on my pack. Only a strong woman would release her only son to pursue his questions, armed only with a care package and curiosity. “Don’t settle for easy answers,” she would say, the downbeat on easy. Cuisine and cheerleading notwithstanding, she understood that my questions were not hers. She had never studied religion in a university. She had never waded into modern biblical scholarship. Her faith world had scarcely changed since youth group back in the seventies. For Mom it made no sense to distinguish between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history. Text and event were two words for the same thing. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were God’s impartial secretaries—inspired coauthors of a single, seamless, harmonious account of Jesus’s life. Part of me envied her pre-modern, pre-critical world. Part of me longed to live there—back where every Bible story was taken at face value and where God’s every word had me specifically in mind. But Mom had never read Rudolph Bultmann.

Bultmann’s Specter

The day I sat down with Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition was like the day Neo took the red pill. It yanked me out of my comfortable matrix and thrust me into the harsh world of biblical criticism from which, it seemed, there could be no return. Bultmann was thoroughly skeptical of much of what the New Testament had to say about the Jesus of history. He could take a straightforward episode in, say, the Gospel of Mark, pin it down, and dissect it into bits—shared memories and embellishments, shaped by the dominant mythical worldview. The Gospels are, Bultmann would say, products of a devout imagination. They catch Christian storytellers in the act of preaching.
They reveal little about Jesus but lots about Jesus’s followers and their faith.1

Unnerving stuff for a Sunday school graduate like me. Amazing thing is, Bultmann was more than an axe-wielding academic who thought Jesus’s corpse was still in the grave. He was also a devoted churchman who wanted to preserve the pure kernel of Christianity now that modernity had cast off the old husk of miracles, demons, and resurrections. If
Bultmann galloped in to slay the dragon of mythology, it was so he could liberate the Christ of faith.2

These days many of Bultmann’s radical ideas look quaint—antique, even. Pure Bultmannians are an endangered species. Even his own students, sporting names like Ernst Käsemann and Günther Bornkamm, couldn’t tolerate his straight-faced dismissal of so many of the Gospels’ historical claims.

By the sixties everyone saw (finally) that when you stop questing for the “historical” Jesus, any number of non-historical, malleable, Silly Putty Jesuses fill the void. That, according to my religion professor, Randall Guilder, was exactly what had happened in the years before World War II and why it was so easy for many Christians to tolerate Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Detach Jesus from his ancient Semitic roots, Guilder said, and you can bend him any way you like. Aryan. Marxist. Republican. Democrat. Hippy. CEO. So the historical quest continues. Scholars continue to study evidence—coins, scrolls, inscriptions, traditions—where it turns up. And they continue to debate whether the Gospels wove historical “facts” together with theology, myth, and imagination, and if so, how.

Should any of this matter for those who read the Bible as scripture? My freshman encounter with the German giant encouraged me to trade youth-group hype for something more sustaining, but it wasn’t clear my faith would survive the transition. What if the only honest alternatives to naïveté were agnosticism and lifeless intellectualism? Could I be rigorously honest with the evidence and thoughtfully faithful to the tradition?

Two things happened in sophomore year. First, I discovered I was going through “theological puberty.” The diagnosis comes from another German, Helmut Thielicke, whose quaintly titled book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians describes the “theological change of voice” that happens to people like me when they enter, for the first time, the world of biblical studies. Thielicke taught me that my theological anxieties were normal growing pains, that I should not presume to solve in a term paper problems that had baffled intellectual and spiritual giants for centuries, and that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously. He also taught me to keep still. As he put it, “during the period when the voice is changing we do not sing, and during this formative period in the life of the theological student he does not preach.”3 So now at least I had a name for what I was going through. And I knew I wasn’t alone.

The other thing that happened that year was that Bultmann’s ghost (lurking under my bed) was joined by a chorus of other phantoms, all German, all older, and all eager to discount the historical reliability of the Gospels. Particularly noisy was the quartet of Hermann Reimarus, David Strauss, Wilhelm Wrede, and Albert Schweitzer. Some questers saw themselves, like Bultmann, as rescue workers plucking authentic faith from the floodwaters of modernity. Others hoped to see Christianity drown. Reimarus’s answers were so radical they stayed secret until his body lay cold in its grave. Strauss’s got him fired. Was I foolish to follow in their steps? Was it safe to peer behind the curtain of tradition? The plane surged forward under full throttle. I felt myself getting heavier.

By junior year I began to realize that my historical quest had to include a literary one. I needed to know what kind of books the Gospels were. Did the evangelists fact-check their sources? Did they ever embellish the story to enhance the reputation of their hero? I worried that if I posed these questions in church I’d feel like a traitor, an irreverent smart-ass. Mom must have said something because my pastor loaned me The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright. Wright plants one foot in the academy and the other in the parish, and he is himself on a quest for Jesus. Like doesn’t like to work alone; he thinks everyone should mount a camel and join him.

If Wright is right, Jesus-questing isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t just for scholars. Wright says he conducts his quest out of loyalty to Scripture. The goal is not to substitute his own reconstructed Jesus for the Jesus of the Gospels. On the contrary, he quests in order to read the Gospels more carefully and to notice details obscured by the haze of repetition and familiarity. In other words, he does so to avoid creating Jesus in his own image. I didn’t know what sort of Jesus I would find, but I resolved to take up Wright’s challenge.

Mom sensed my restlessness but wisely did not belittle what she did not understand.
Instead, she offered to finance a graduation trip to the Holy Land. How can you be on a quest if you stay home? she asked. You’re like Thomas, she reasoned. You need to see things before you can believe.

That was months ago. Now, beside the van, she was crying and passing out zucchini bread. What I didn’t know at the time was that days before my departure she had received news that her cancer had returned after five years in remission. She knew I would have canceled my trip, so she kept the news to herself.

Beside Mom stood Jake, my roommate, shifting awkwardly and reminding me to track down his uncle Jesse in Israel. Behind both of them, hanging out the window, was Gimli, my border collie, listening eagerly for an invitation to come along.

Pliny’s Quest

Images of Gimli faded as the woman beside me shifted her weight. I drew from my pack one of the books that had made the final cut—a worn copy of The Letters of the Younger Pliny.4 I was drawn to the mail of this Roman aristocrat, perhaps because my prof said Pliny’s personal letters were our clearest window on the empire of his day. And because I admired a public figure who could thrive during turbulent times without becoming a tyrant. The back cover advertised his dates: 61 to 113 CE. A lad, I thought, when the apostle Paul met his death under Nero and when Titus’s troops stormed the Jerusalem temple. Seventeen the day Mount Vesuvius erupted to bury nearby towns under thirty feet of ash. A teenager, perhaps, or twenty-something, when the Gospels were published.

Images of Vesuvius took me back to my sixth-grade volcano project. Each of us had to research a real volcano and build a working model. My best friend picked Mount St.
Helens. I opted for Vesuvius, which was how I discovered Pliny the Elder, whose curiosity drew him toward the eruption and then killed him. I thumbed the index and turned to Pliny the Younger’s account of his uncle’s demise.

My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ash it carried with it.

I remembered my Vesuvius oozed baking soda. Less dramatic than the original blast, but a successful home brew nonetheless.

Volcano Recipe

1 cup vinegar
red or yellow food dye
2 drops of dish soap
2 tablespoons of baking soda

Build volcano using flour and water paste around a tall tin can or milk carton. Let dry. Combine vinegar, dye, and soap in the container.
Add baking soda to produce red lava.

The beverage cart was creeping toward me at lava pace. I resumed reading.

My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.

As he was leaving the house he was handed a letter from Rectina, wife of Tascus whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her, and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders from the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people beside Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated. He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them.

I pictured Pliny’s uncle, one hand on the tiller, taking notes with the other. How much of this story, I wondered, captured the “historical” Pliny and how much of it was poetic license, depicting how the author thought things “must have been” or how heroes “would have acted” under the circumstances? That prompted other questions: Were the Gospels any different? Could their stories boast an author as well connected to their champion as Pliny junior was to his? Pliny means to report what actually happened, and I was inclined to believe most of it, but his letter was also a eulogy—a narrative tribute to his fallen hero. His uncle’s eventual collapse, like Jesus’s crucifixion, was the story of one giving his life for many. Does admiration always lead to exaggeration? No beverage or mixed nuts yet, so I continued.

Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames; then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain. For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this, he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for Pomponianus at Stabiae.

Pliny boldly comes ashore, exuding calm in the midst of chaos. Remarkably, he insists on going to the bath and having dinner.

Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius, broad sheets of fired and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.

At which point Pliny, like Jonah in the storm, decides to take a nap. Panicked pedestrians are baffled to hear his loud snoring.

By this time, the courtyard giving access to this room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out. He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the household who had sat up all night.

Together they debated whether to stay or flee. Earthquakes were making it unsafe indoors, but outside you had to dodge falling pumice.

After comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle’s case one reason outweighed the other, bur for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against fallings objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

“Something to drink?” The flight attendant put Vesuvius on pause. The coffee was lukewarm. Across the aisle an older man matched the profile of Pliny’s uncle: stout, unconscious, and breathing heavily. Reading glasses askew, hair disheveled, his head was encased in a traveler’s pillow.

Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink. Then the flames and smell of sulfur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed.

As I watched the aging Pliny peering bravely into ominous darkness, I felt a sudden impulse toward self-protection. Wasn’t my voyage almost as dangerous? His was a quest to get close to the source of a volcano in order to rescue friends from certain death. Mine was to get close to the sources of a religion and perhaps to rescue my own faith from the ashes of modernity. The analogy was weak, but somehow old Pliny’s expedition seemed less foolish now than when I was twelve. I pressed on to the end of the letter.

Meanwhile, my mother and I were at Misenum, but this is not of any historic interest, and you only wanted to hear about my uncle’s death. I will say no more, except to add that I have described in detail every incident which I either witnessed myself or heard about immediately after the event, when reports were most likely to be accurate. It is for you to select what best suits your purpose, for there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.

The final words caught my eye: “there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.” How easy is it to draw a line between private opinion and public fact? Can history, even Gospel history, ever be more than somebody’s spin on the past? Neither my questions nor my seat offered much comfort.


“Whatcha readin’?” the hefty woman asked, her voice almost as perky as her hair.

“This?” I glanced up. “Some letters written by Pliny, a Roman aristocrat.” My tone was polite but maybe a bit intimidating. The line between serious student and naïve tourist ran down the middle of our armrest.

“Roman aristocrat? Hmmm. When was this?”

“Pliny wrote between . . . um, around the turn of the second century.”

“What does he write about?” she persisted. “Was he a Christian or a pagan?”

“Definitely not a Christian,” I said. My hunch about her religious loyalties was holding up. Her world divided neatly into insies and outsies. “Christians puzzled him,” I continued. “They made him nervous. There was no empire-wide policy against Christianity so Pliny wrote the emperor for advice.”5

“I thought emperors only gave orders.” For an overweight, middle-aged, middleclass matron, you had to award her points for perseverance. I flipped to book 10, letter 96, where last term’s pencil markings littered the page. She gladly accepted my offer to read to her.

It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you, Sir, for no one is better able to resolve my hesitation and to inform my ignorance.

I have never been present in an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature of the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the ground for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor an I at all sure whether any distinction should be made on the grounds of age, or if young people should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone rejecting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity he sall gain nothing by renouncing it: and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.

“Hasn’t Pliny heard of the separation of church and state?” she interrupted.

“I think that was an American invention,” I quipped. “Religion in the Roman Empire was always social and always political. People didn’t so much believe in gods; they just had gods. A good governor would welcome emperor-friendly religions and banish the rest. Pliny’s just doing his job.”

“Why was Pliny so hard on Christians?”

“Hard to say. Christians seemed antisocial when they refused to worship the emperor and revere the state’s gods. What could be more threatening to an empire and more certain to provoke hostility? Maybe the main problem with Christians (and Jews) was that they promoted foreign ideas and strange practices and stubbornly refused to give them up. Anything non-Roman was suspect.” I took her nod as permission to continue.

For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second time and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens. I have entered them on the list of person to be sent to Rome for trial.

“So the problem was not so much what they believed, but how?” she broke in again.

She was sharper than I thought.

“It was both, I think.” I repeated something Guilder often said about Rome’s obsession with public order and its preference for political stability over individual rights. “Trajan took stubbornness seriously.7 He didn’t even let Pliny train firemen because he thought their meetings might turn political and become divisive!”8

She told me her husband hated union busters.

Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Amongst these I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

Others whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and the denied it: they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even 20 years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.

“Pliny wants to sound organized and level-headed,” I remarked. “He doesn’t want anyone to think he would condemn on false charges. If someone tried to dispatch an annoying neighbor by labeling him Christian, Pliny would let the accused defend himself. So he gets points for that. And the guy could walk if he’d say a prayer to the gods, nod toward the emperor—and curse Christ.”

“Some of these folks had followed Jesus for quite a while.”

“And it seems like there were a few ex-Christians as well.”

“Interesting that they reviled the name of Christ to prove their loyalty to Roman gods. I guess it was one or the other.” Her mind was churning. “Reminds me of Saint Peter’s curse the night Jesus was arrested.”

“And interesting that they could prosecute someone who had stopped believing decades earlier,” I added.

“What made them lose their faith, I wonder?” Her voice was suddenly earnest.

“I don’t know. Peer pressure maybe. Or troubles at home. Or persecution. Or perhaps some other cult offered a better deal.”9

I couldn’t read her quizzical expression.

“Maybe a better question,” she offered slowly, “is why so many other people remained loyal to Jesus even when their lives were on the line.”

Why indeed? Why did Christians keep on believing, in far-flung places like northern Turkey, eighty-plus years after Jesus had come and gone? What was it about Jesus that they found so compelling? Gentiles in Bithynia had no roots in Jewish tradition. No cultural reason to harbor an unwelcome, foreign religion. Yet cling to Jesus they did, many of them in the face of death. I looked out the window upon a sea of clouds.

“Please continue,” she said.

She didn’t need an answer so I offered none.

“Here’s the part that everyone likes to quote.”

They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by an oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust, and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony, it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, given on your instructions, (which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult, carried to extravagant lengths.

“Is Pliny torturing Christians to find out what they believe?”

“Yup. That was Rome’s way of making slaves tell the truth.”

“But those slaves were women! Deaconesses in the church!”

“I agree—this is nasty.”

“What’s that part you underlined?”

So she was reading over my shoulder.

“My professor says this is the oldest outsider’s account of Christian worship, which makes this part important. They gathered early on Sunday mornings to sing and worship Jesus, and then later to share a meal and celebrate the Eucharist. He says it lines up nicely with what we find in the New Testament.”10

I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you. The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult. I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse, are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, through up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent.

My seatmate was disturbed that Pliny had managed to turn Christians into pagans. I thought of several high school friends who attended church for a few years and then gave it up. Mercifully, the woman left me with my thoughts. I pushed back and closed my eyes.

Matter of Faith

The smell of curried chicken brought me back to life. The kid beside me surfaced long enough to eat and pee. The woman, whose name was Dorothy, asked me how I knew so much about ancient Rome.

“I just finished my BA in Religion,” I said, peeling the lid off my juice. “I had to write a paper on Roman ideas about Christianity so I read Pliny junior and two other guys.”

“Why would you study Christianity in a university?” Dorothy asked.

“My mom wonders the same thing.”

“If you ask me,” she began.

I hadn’t.

“The Bible is a matter of faith. If we have the Spirit it makes sense. If we don’t, it won’t.”

My mouth was full so I had time to think. If the Bible belongs anywhere, it is in church, not the academy. But that can’t mean that it belongs only in the heart, not the head. That a wall separates belief and inquiry. Or is there no room at the inn for Christian scholars?

During one of my darker periods—the summer after sophomore year—I discovered the work of Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin contends that both fundamentalists and liberals have embraced the Enlightenment lie that we must hold out for certainty. It’s good to be confident about the things we’ve studied—the shape of the earth, say, or the facts of the past—but silly to hope for objectivity. Each of us views the world from somewhere, so all judgments are provisional. Newbigin said belief was foundational to doubt, not the other way round.

My reply to Dorothy was weak. Only time would tell, I said, whether my faith and studies would get along. I wanted to say more—that the unbelieving academy often asks great questions, and sometimes even provides the most persuasive answers. But I held back. Dorothy’s Bible soared above history in a rare atmosphere ideally suited for spirits and saints but too thin for earthbound academics. Professor Guilder’s Bible, on the contrary, belonged far below, where air hung thick and fields were dusty. Somehow I flew between the two—riding the hermeneutical equivalent of a le(a)d zeppelin, eager to inhabit both worlds, reluctant to choose between conviction and curiosity.

Notorious Depravity

“So who were the other two?”

“Excuse me?”

“Besides Pliny. You said you studied three Romans.” Even though all that mattered was faith, Dorothy wanted to talk about history.

“Tacitus and Josephus.”

“Who’re they?”

“Let’s see. Tacitus was a senator during the reign of Domitian. Then, under Trajan, he governed next door to Pliny. He’s mostly famous for writing up Roman history. Many would say he was the greatest Roman historian ever.”

More questions, now about whether Tacitus persecuted Christians like Pliny did. I didn’t know, but I told her that Tacitus despised nontraditional religions, including Christianity, for corrupting Roman morals.

“Have you heard of the Great Fire of Rome?” I asked.

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned?”

“Yeah, that fire. Nero didn’t fiddle—that’s a legend—but he was emperor when the fire broke out, in July of 64. As Tacitus tells the story, Nero pinned the blame on the Christians.” I dove into my pack and produced another ratty Penguin classic. The cover read Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome. I flipped open to book 15.37 and read aloud, this time from Tacitus’s description of Nero’s decline.

Disaster followed. Whether is was accidental or caused by a criminal act on the part of the emperor is uncertain – both versions have supporters. Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city’s narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.

Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighbouring quarter, the fire followed.

I paused and looked up. “You get the idea. The fire rages. Gangs start looting. Certain ones claim they’d been ordered to keep the fire going!”

“Ordered! By whom?”

“By Nero. He didn’t even return to Rome until the fire threatened his mansion! To his credit, he organized relief efforts, let fire victims camp on his land, and supplied the masses with cheap corn, but the word on the street was that he wanted to give the city a facelift.” I scanned the page. “Listen to this.”

Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumour had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had got on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.

“So he didn’t fiddle. He sang.”

The man across the aisle—Professor Pliny—adjusted his weight, screwed up his eyes in my direction, and promptly went back to sleep.

“Tacitus provides a damage report,” I continued. “Ten of Rome’s fourteen districts suffer in the blaze. Treasures go up in smoke along with shrines, temples, public buildings, shops, and countless ramshackle houses. When the smoke clears, Nero begins a massive building campaign: grander palace, wider streets, more stone, lower rooflines, better water supply. It’s an economic stimulus plan Roman style.”

“But why did he . . .”

“Blame Christians for the fire? Two words: survival politics.”

Next came attempts to appease heaven. After consultation of the Sibylline books, prayers were addressed to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was propitiated … But neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had been instigated. To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.

“Notoriously depraved Christians?” Dorothy was not impressed. “It’s amazing how Rome could be open to so much superstition yet be so suspicious of the truth.”

“Actually, you’ve got it backward. The Romans hated superstition. They saw their religion as traditional, old-fashioned, and good for the Empire. Like oatmeal for breakfast. Christians, on the other hand, along with Jews, Celts, Germans, and Egyptians, were superstitious, irrational, and dangerous to society.”

It occurred to me that the first and the twenty-first centuries were not so different. Several of my friends, including Jake, thought unchecked religion led to fanaticism and conflict. It was, they’d say, bad for society. They liked to point to Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli settlers, to Iraqi Sunni and Shiite militants, to the 9/11 hijackers. And they would point to Christian leaders like the religious broadcaster who publicly recommended the assassination of Venezuela’s president. Or the cult leader from Oregon who swore that God told him to kill people. Tacitus and Pliny saw then what many see now: that unrestrained religious zeal gets people to do scary things. And religion’s revolutionary potential went well beyond overt rebellion and physical violence. Even the weakest citizen who won’t pledge primary allegiance to flag and country can be dangerous. I was about to press the point when Dorothy spoke.

“What did Nero do to the Christians?” she asked.

“It isn’t pretty,” I said, and resumed reading.

Meet the author:
Bruce N. Fisk

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