Thursday, June 20, 2013

An Unlettered but Intelligent Ancient World

Middle-Age Advancements in Architecture
Western civilization owes a considerable debt of gratitude to early christianity in regards to its assent and development over the past two millennia. While Christian Europe rose to build cities, irrigate fields, store grain, erect cathedrals and ultimately expand to the Americas, a good portion of the world remained locked in barbarous, antediluvian chaos. Even Europe's kings would bow to the Church, obtaining sanctified anointment before ascending to their thrones.

Although literacy in Europe during the "Dark Ages" was less than 5%, the "Church" supported and even patronized development in the arts, architecture and some sciences. Indeed, the church saw knowledge as power. However, aside from select royals and aristocrats, few were permitted  studies beyond the catechism. Otherwise, education was limited to those of the cloth, usually male clergy. The realms of Europe proved relatively easy to manage with an uneducated, superstitious population.

The Roman Empire had begun to crumbled just three centuries after the death of Christ, due to the onslaught or religious insurgency and subsequent internal rioting, which occurred simultaneous to barbarian attacks on its western frontier.

Ancient Rome
The unprecedented rapid growth of Roman Christianity occurred mostly within the Empire's numerous lower social classes. The poor had the least to lose and subsequent mob rioting from those quarters had a high degree of danger and destruction. Additionally, unlike the barbarian attacks that were limited to western Rome, Christianity had taken hold in the East and swept rapidly westward to embrace the entire empire.

By the late third century, it was fervent Christians doing the stoning and burning. The tables being turned, the targets at first were those of Hellenistic, polytheistic believers along with their temples of learning, including the Library of Alexandria, the known world's largest repository of knowledge. Afterwards, the carnage would escalate between differing Christian sects, sometimes with completely dissimilar interpretations of Christ's life and works (i.e.: GnosticismArianism, etc.).

Intra-Christian turmoil would continue until the fourth century after Christ's death, when the Church would begin to develop singular canon and administer punishment sanctioned by Church and Emperor for heresy and other crimes of faith. Consequently, it would not be a stretch to say that Western Rome eventually fell to the barbarians because it was preoccupied with internal conflicts.

Christ and the Pharisees

Secret Weapon

Ironic to Rome's fall and the Church's eventual subjugation of medieval Europe, which followed centuries later, are the early Christian riots, which had their roots in the very illiteracy that fostered the rapid spread of faith centuries earlier. Roman citizens had a partial literacy rate of 10% to 20%. Partial meaning most could read and only some write.

These percentages were considerably lower, even non-existent, amongst native populations within most Roman colonies and provinces. In a province like Judea, literacy was limited to the ruling class and Jewish religious elders (Pharisees), with the latter class being restricted to Hebrew scribes and interpreters. Therefore, with Christ's band of immediate followers coming from the poor, sparsely populated fishing village of Nazareth, any chance of literacy would have been remote if not highly unlikely. Still, after all was said and done, Illiteracy would prove to be Christianity's secret weapon for rapid growth and empire-wide acceptance.

Ancient Internet

Imagine a world without word processors, printers, printing presses or copiers. Now go an extra step and imagine one without paper and pen. Literacy was rare but quill and papyrus were downright hard to come by, and not without cost for those with access. Oratory was the Internet of the day. If you wanted to find out if it was time to pack up and escape the barbarian hordes, you would go to the town square and listen to the latest barbarian update from the town crier. When Christ was greeted by cheering crowds in Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion, you can be certain most if not all had gotten his message orally. Without pamphlets, web sites or blogs, Christ had managed to spread his "word". How was this possible?

Ancient Roman Public Oration
The Roman government realized that news is knowledge and knowledge power. Subsequently, great achievements of their Caesar would be carved into the local Obelisk. However, since the vast majority could not read, a type of government-sanctioned town crier would regularly visit local plazas to shout the latest government updates. Like today's radio or television announcements, oral bulletins could be emphasized far more than the written word. Intonation could be employed to obtain support for a motion on the Senate floor. Passionate rationalizations would be provided for new taxes, heading off potential discord. In short, government sanctioned bulletins could be regularly orated to further govern the masses.

Sermon on the Mount
Illiteracy of the ancients didn't necessarily make them stupid. Clearly, Christ and his disciples were intelligent and resourceful individuals. Christ's Sermon on the Mount was an incredible manifesto of moral and social teachings. This particular oration was crafted towards the "poor", "meek", those that "thirst for righteousness", "the peacemakers", etc. In short, it was tailored for consumption by anyone who was not a government official. It was compelling, even revolutionary, when recited with just a little passion.

Leading up to his eventual crucifixion, the Sermon on the Mount would likely place Christ more at odds with local Roman government and Temple Pharisees than anything else. Even today, this single oration of the Beatitudes are the most quoted scripture of the New Testament and remain the cornerstone argument for distribution of wealth.

Sacred Oral Tradition
Oral Tradition is at the very heart of all scholarly debate over scriptural authenticity. However, long before Christianity, ancient religious practices in Greek and Roman temples were handed down via word-of-mouth with every new generation. So, why not Christianity? Even today, the Kurdish Yazidi of Sinjar, Iraq and Syria practice Oral Tradition, believing the word of God to be altogether too sacred to be placed upon something as base as paper by mortal hand.

Early Christian Gatherings
An advantage of Oral Tradition, is that content can be tailored in an instant to suit provincially unique audiences and new generations, thereby communicating the correct message while employing differing cultural devices to guarantee comprehension. Consequently, with every retelling there was bound to be changed words and phrases, leading to even more changes in the next reenactment. This in turn would often result in small alterations for each retelling which, in turn, would eventually accumulate to significant variations to a particular gospel passage over time.

All was done with the intentions of inspiring new converts. However, this path would eventually lead to new and different interpretations of Christ's message and works. Consequently, by the fourth Century following Christ's death, the Emperor Constantine would be forced to convene the Council of Nicaea to begin remedying often violent division within the new church.

Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle)
The Apostle Paul would try to bridle embellishments and subsequent misinterpretations with letters of his own (the Pauline Epistles), which were most likely penned by his traveling companion and personal physician Luke, the Evangelist. However, for the better part of the first 50 years following Christ's death, all evidence would point to apostolic retellings of the New Testament as being communicated by Oral Tradition.

Illitteratus Salvus

There were distinct advantages to this lack of literacy in the early Church. Unlike scrolls sitting on a shelf, people have legs. If the apostles had been literate, they would, like most executives today, have been buried in either paperwork or meetings and not been out in the field making it happen. Besides, if everything had been put to the quill, where would the audience be found to read it, certainly not the illeterate poor who comprised the largest portion of early conversion? Conversely, an avid readership would have discovered itself amongst the very Roman government officials intent on stamping out Christianity. Illiteracy assured the lack of a paper trail. When an unfamiliar, potential government spy joined a congregation, it would have been easy for an Apostle to simply turn to the subject of Roman government or some taxation issue with no convicting evidence to hide.

Fragment of Early Scripture
Scriptural scholars estimate church documentation began as early as 50 AD. However, the earliest fragments of those documents are dated to about 150 AD, with the Pauline Epistles being the earliest .

There are those today who would dissect the Bible and argue that every word was written exactly as it appears today, and only an atheist would call the disciples of Christ "illiterate". Conversely, an equally faithful person might also argue the Bible to be exactly what it was intended it to be, hiccups and all. I would simply add that Christianity would probably not have survived even one century if it hadn't been for the rapid spread of apostolic on-foot oral tradition. Just think, most of the civilized, illiterate world had converted or at least heard the word of Christ in less than three hundred years, and without an internet! It's an incredible accomplishment no matter what your views or beliefs.

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