For many Christians, the life of Jesus signifies the birth of a new kind of God, a God of universal love. The Hebrew Bible—the “Old Testament”—chronicled a God who was sometimes belligerent (espousing the slaughter of infidels), unabashedly nationalist (pro-Israel, you might say), and often harsh toward even his most favored nation. Then Jesus came along and set a different tone. As depicted in the Gospels, Jesus exhorted followers to extend charity across ethnic bounds, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, and even to love their enemies. He told them to turn the other cheek, said the meek would inherit the Earth, and warned against self-righteousness (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”). Even while on the cross, he found compassion for his persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But there’s a funny thing about these admirable utterances: none of them appears in the book of Mark, which was written before the other Gospels and which most New Testament scholars now consider the most reliable (or, as some would put it, the least unreliable) Gospel guide to Jesus’ life. The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.
The more familiar Jesus, the one who stresses tolerance and interethnic charity, shows up in the books of Matthew and Luke, which seem to have been written a decade or two after Mark—about half a century after the Crucifixion. This late arrival of the “good” Jesus is enough to make you wonder whether the real Jesus, the “historical Jesus,” was really so good. And in fact some scholars have wondered that. But they’ve been overshadowed by scholars who bring a message less threatening to modern Christians—that the historical Jesus indeed preached boundless love and that, if anything, it is the less liberal teachings that were put into his mouth post-mortem. This is the drift of the much-publicized Jesus Seminar, through which scores of scholars have voted on the various sayings of Jesus to yield a collective estimation of their authenticity.
Why would some scholars downplay the earliest description of Jesus in favor of accounts compiled after there had been more time for myth to accumulate? In part, maybe, because some of them are Christians, or at least lapsed Christians who still resonate to their native faith. But in part, also, because it’s not obvious why a whole mythology about a “good” Jesus would have taken shape decades after the Crucifixion. What, after all, would have inspired early followers of Jesus to invent the idea of a brotherhood that knows no ethnic or national bounds?
Clues have been emerging in recent years, but not clues of the usual kind—not long-lost scrolls or other ancient artifacts. The clues come from the modern world, and they’re all around us. It’s increasingly apparent how analogous a globalizing world is to the environment in which Christianity took shape after Jesus’ death. And in this light, it makes sense that early devotees of the crucified Jesus would develop the now-familiar Christian message, which could later be attributed to Jesus himself.
The chief author of this message seems to have been Paul, whose epistles—letters to congregations of Jesus followers—are the oldest writings in the New Testament. If you view Paul not just as a preacher but as an entrepreneur, as someone who is trying to build a religious organization that spans the Roman Empire, then his writings assume a new cast. For Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.
To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, as if to rub salt in the wound: those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces.
There’s no denying that this view threatens the claim that Christians, in worshipping Jesus, recognize God’s one physical appearance on Earth and thus have special insight into divine purpose. Still, as debunkings of scripture go, this one is fairly congenial to religious belief, for it does leave open the prospect of divine purpose generically. In fact, it underscores that prospect. The story of early Christianity highlights a kind of moral direction in human history, a current that, however fitfully, has repeatedly expanded the circle of tolerance, even amity. And if history naturally produces moral insight—however mundane the machinery that mediates its articulation—then maybe some overarching purpose is built into the human endeavor after all.
In any event, whether or not history has a purpose, its moral direction is hard to deny. Since the Stone Age, the scope of social organization has expanded, from hunter-gatherer society through city-state through empire and beyond. And often this expansion has entailed the extension of mutual understanding across bounds of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Indeed, it turns out that formative periods in both Islam and Judaism evince the same dynamic as early Christianity: an imperial, multiethnic milieu winds up fostering a tolerance of other ethnicities and faiths.
Now, as we approach the global level of social organization—and see the social order threatened by strife among these Abrahamic religions—another burst of moral progress is needed. Success is hardly guaranteed, but at least the early history of Christianity and indeed of all Abrahamic faiths gives cause for hope. However bleak a globalizing world may look at times, the story could still have a happy ending, an ending that brings out the best in religion as religion brings out the best in people.
The “Apostle Paul” wasn’t one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Quite the opposite: after the Crucifixion he seems to have persecuted followers of Jesus. According to the book of Acts, he was “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” But then, while on his way to treat Syrian followers of Jesus in this fashion, he underwent his “road to Damascus” conversion. He was blinded by the light and heard the voice of Jesus. This changed his perspective. He eventually decided that Jesus was the path to salvation. Paul devoted the rest of his life to spreading this message, and he was very good at it.
Paul, a well-educated Jew from the city of Tarsus, has long been recognized as a figure whose influence on Christianity rivals that of Jesus himself. And it’s long been clear—and hardly surprising—that he is a big champion of themes Christianity is famous for, such as love and brotherhood. The 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians includes an ode to love so powerful that it is a staple at modern weddings. (“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful…”) And it is Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, who gives us the New Testament’s familiar extension of brotherhood across bounds of ethnicity, class, even (notwithstanding the term brotherhood) gender: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Of course, since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it’s been natural to assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But when you realize that Jesus utters the word love only twice in the Gospel of Mark—compared with Paul’s using it more than 10 times in a single letter to the Romans—the reverse scenario suggests itself: maybe the Gospel of Mark, which was written not long after the end of Paul’s ministry, largely escaped Pauline influence, and thus left more of the real Jesus intact than Gospels written later, after Paul’s legacy had spread.
But one problem with this scenario has always been the difficulty of pinpointing the origin of Paul’s emphasis on a love that crosses ethnic bounds, for this emphasis doesn’t really follow from his core message. That message can be broken into four parts: Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ; the Messiah died as a kind of payment for the sins of humanity; humans who believed this—who acknowledged the redemption that Christ had realized on their behalf—could have eternal life; but they’d better evince this faith quickly, for Judgment Day was coming. This message may suggest a loving God, but it says nothing directly about the importance of people’s loving one another, much less about the importance of extending that love globally.
So why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no bounds of race or geography? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be “accursed”—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering. The scholar John Gager, in his book Reinventing Paul, described Paul as a “feisty preacher-organizer, bitterly attacked and hated by other apostles within the Jesus movement.”
No, the origins of Paul’s doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving-kindness, though for all we know he mustered much of that in the course of his life. The doctrine emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and his social environment.
In the Roman Empire, the century after the Crucifixion was a time of dislocation. People streamed into cities from farms and small towns, encountered alien cultures and peoples, and often faced this flux without the support of kin. The situation was somewhat like that at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, when industrialization drew Americans into turbulent cities, away from their extended families. Back then, as the social scientist Robert Putnam has observed, rootless urbanites found grounding in up-and-coming social organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and the Rotary Club. You might expect comparable conditions in the early Roman Empire to spawn comparable organizations. Indeed, Roman cities saw a growth in voluntary associations. Some were vocational guilds, some more like clubs, and some were religious cults (cults in the ancient sense of “groups devoted to the worship of one or more gods,” not in the modern sense of “wacky fringe groups”). But whatever their form, they often amounted to what one scholar has called “fictive families” for people whose real families were off in some distant village or town.
The familial services offered by these groups ranged from the material, like burying the dead, to the psychological, like giving people a sense that other people cared about them. On both counts, early Christian churches met the needs of the day. As for the material, the church, wrote the classicist E.R. Dodds, provided “the essentials of social security: it cared for widows and orphans, the old, the unemployed, and the disabled; it provided a burial fund for the poor and a nursing service in time of plague.” As for the psychological, in Paul’s writing, brothers is a synonym for followers of Jesus. A church was one big family.
To some extent, then, what Paul called “brotherly love” was just a product of his times. The Christian church was offering the spirit of kinship that people needed, the spirit of kinship that other organizations offered. A term commonly applied to such an organization was thiasos, or “confraternity”; the language of brotherhood wasn’t, by itself, an innovation.
Still, early Christian writings use “kinship vocabulary to a degree wholly unparalleled among contemporary social organizations,” Joseph Hellerman wrote in his book The Ancient Church as Family. In that letter to the Corinthians that is excerpted at so many weddings, Paul uses the appellation brothers more than 20 times.
Why all the kin talk? Because Paul wasn’t satisfied to just have a congregation in Corinth; he wanted to set up franchises—congregations of Jesus followers—in cities across the Roman Empire. These imperial aspirations, it turns out, infused Paul’s preaching with an emphasis on brotherly love that it might never have acquired had Paul been content to run a single mom-and-pop store.
Anyone who wanted to set up a far-flung organization in the ancient world faced two big challenges: transportation technology and information technology. In those days information couldn’t travel faster than the person carrying it, who in turn couldn’t travel faster than the animal carrying the person. Once Paul had founded a congregation and departed to found another one in a distant city, he was in another world; he couldn’t return often to check on the operation, and he couldn’t fire off e-mails to keep church leaders in line.
Faced with what strike us today as such glaring technological deficiencies, Paul made the most of what information technology there was: epistles. He sent letters to distant congregations in an attempt to keep them consonant with his overall mission. The results are with us today in the form of the New Testament’s Pauline epistles (or at least the seven, out of 13, that most scholars consider authentic), mainly written two to three decades after the Crucifixion. These letters aren’t just inspiring spiritual reflections, but tools for solving administrative problems.
Consider that famous ode to love in 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote this letter in response to a crisis. Since his departure from Corinth, the church had been split by factionalism, and he faced rivals for authority. Early in the letter, he laments the fact that some congregants say “I belong to Paul,” whereas others say “I belong to Cephas.” (Cephas is another name for Peter.)
There was another obstacle. Many in the church—“enthusiasts,” some scholars call them—believed themselves to have direct access to divine knowledge and to be near spiritual perfection. Some thought they needn’t accept the church’s guidance in moral matters. Some showed off their spiritual gifts by spontaneously speaking in tongues during worship services—something that might annoy the humbler worshippers and that, in large enough doses, could derail a service. As the German scholar Günther Bornkamm put it, “The mark of the ‘enthusiasts’ was that they disavowed responsible obligation toward the rest.”
In other words: they lacked brotherly love. Hence Paul’s harping on that theme in 1 Corinthians, and especially in chapter 13. It is in reference to members’ disrupting worship by speaking in tongues that Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And when he says, “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant,” he is chastising Corinthians who deploy their spiritual gifts—whether speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or even being generous—in a competitive, showy way.
The beauty of “brotherly love” wasn’t just that it produced cohesion in Christian congregations. Invoking familial feelings also allowed Paul to assert his authority at the expense of rivals. After all, wasn’t it he, not they, who had founded the family of Corinthian Christians? He tells the Corinthians that he is writing “to admonish you as my beloved children… Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.”
Had Paul stayed among the Corinthians, he might have kept the congregation united by the mere force of his presence, with less preaching about the need for unity—the need for all brothers to be one in “the body of Christ.” But because he felt compelled to move on, and to cultivate churches across the empire, he had to implant brotherly love as a governing value and nurture it assiduously. In the case of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the result was some of Western civilization’s most beautiful literature—if, perhaps, more beautiful out of context than in.
Thus, for the ambitious preacher of early Christianity, the doctrine of brotherly love had at least two virtues. First, fraternal bonding made churches attractive places to be, providing a familial warmth that was otherwise lacking, for many people, in a time of urbanization and flux. As Elaine Pagels wrote in Beyond Belief, “From the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians … was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.” (And there is no doubt that Paul wanted his churches to project an appealing image. In 1 Corinthians he asks: If “the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”) Second, the doctrine of brotherly love became a form of remote control, a tool Paul could use at a distance to induce congregational cohesion.
By itself, this emphasis on brotherhood might not have called for doctrinal innovation. Long before Paul’s time, the Hebrew Bible had told people, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—an injunction, scholars now agree, meaning that you should love fellow Israelites (and an injunction Jesus quotes in the book of Mark). And for all we know, some of Paul’s congregations weren’t ethnically diverse—in which case cohesion within them called for nothing more than this sort of intra-ethnic bonding. So what exactly in Paul’s experience fostered the distinctive connotation of Christian brotherly love—the “universal” part, the part that crosses ethnic and national boundaries?
Part of the answer is that transcending ethnicity was built into Paul’s conception of his divinely imparted mission. He was to be the apostle to the Gentiles; as a Jew, he was to carry the saving grace of the Jewish Messiah—Jesus Christ—beyond the Jewish world, to many nations. (And he probably didn’t get this idea from Jesus, whose encouragement of international proselytizing at the very end of Mark seems to have been added to the book well after its creation.) Here, at the origin of his aspirations, Paul is crossing the bridge he famously crossed in saying there is no longer “Jew or Greek,” for all are now eligible for God’s salvation.
In putting Jew and Greek on an equal basis, Paul was, in a sense, giving pragmatism priority over scriptural principle. By Paul’s own account, the scriptural basis for his mission to the Gentiles lay in prophetic texts—notably, apocalyptic writings in the book of Isaiah, which half a millennium earlier had envisioned a coming Messiah and a long-overdue burst of worldwide reverence for Yahweh. And this part of Isaiah isn’t exactly an ode to ethnic egalitarianism. The basic idea is that Gentile nations will abjectly submit to the rule of Israel’s God and hence to Israel. God promises the Israelites that after salvation arrives, Egyptians and Ethiopians alike “shall come over to you and be yours, they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you.” Indeed, “every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Thus, “in the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.”
Christians like to look back and see Jesus’ arrival foreshadowed in the less nationalistic passages of Isaiah—such as Yahweh’s promise to bring salvation “to the end of the earth,” with Israel ultimately serving a selfless role of illumination, as a “light unto the nations.” But this passage is ambiguous in context and, anyway, isn’t the passage Paul himself emphasized. In explaining his mission to the Gentiles in a letter to the Romans, he quotes the verse about every knee bowing and every tongue swearing, without mentioning anything about a light unto the nations. He declares that his job is to help “win obedience from the Gentiles.” In line with past apocalyptic prophets, he seems to think that the point of the exercise is for the world to submit to Israel’s Messiah; Jesus, Paul says in quoting 1 Isaiah, is “the one who rises to rule the Gentiles.”
But ultimately this Judeo-centric disposition mattered little compared with the facts on the ground. Any residual scriptural overtones of Jewish superiority to Gentiles that Paul may have carried into his work were diluted by a key strategic decision he made early on.
Some other Jewish followers of Jesus wanted, like Paul, to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. But many of them insisted that to qualify for Christ’s saving grace, Gentiles had to abide by Jewish law, the Torah, which enjoined strict dietary rules and, for males, circumcision. In the days before modern anesthesia, requiring men to have penis surgery before they could join a religion fell under the rubric of disincentive.
Paul grasped the importance of such barriers to entry. So far as Gentiles were concerned, he jettisoned most of the Jewish dietary code and, with special emphasis, the circumcision mandate. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Paul was so intent on dropping the circumcision barrier that when he argued with fellow Jesus followers over this issue, his sense of brotherly love sometimes deserted him. In his letter to the Galatians, he expressed the wish that those who preached mandatory circumcision would “castrate themselves!”
There is little doubt about Paul’s strategic wisdom. Many religions of the day, including some of the Greco-Roman “mystery religions,” were open to people of varied ethnicities. But these movements tended to have hurdles to membership, including financial ones, such as priests who charged initiation fees. Christian churches enjoyed a competitive edge by having no such financial barriers, and Paul kept the edge sharp by making sure these barriers weren’t replaced by others.
But even as Paul diluted the role of Jewish ritual in his variant of the Jesus movement, he had no desire to sever the movement from Judaism. According to the book of Acts, when he came to a city and set out to recruit people, he sometimes started his preaching at the local synagogue. Indeed, according to Acts, some of Paul’s most important early recruits were Jews. And, even as Paul chafed at the rejection of his doctrines by some Jews within the Jesus movement (to say nothing of Jews outside the Jesus movement), he continued to seek rapprochement, hoping to preserve a broad base. So an interethnic symbiosis persisted and colored Paul’s writing. Hence the phrase neither Greek nor Jew, with its enduring connotations of ethnic egalitarianism.
Other features of Paul’s business model pushed even more powerfully toward interethnic bonding. They revolve around the traits Paul sought in his most important recruits, whether Jews or Gentiles, and his strategy of recruitment. And they explain how he wound up preaching not just interethnic tolerance or even amity, but interethnic brotherhood, interethnic love.
In ancient times, as now, one prerequisite for setting up a franchising operation was finding people to run the franchises. Not just anyone would do. Christianity is famous for welcoming the poor and powerless into its congregations, but to run the congregations, Paul needed people of higher social position. For one thing, these people needed to provide a meeting place. Though historians speak of early “churches” in various cities, there seem to have been no buildings dedicated to Christian worship. Borrowed homes and meeting halls were the initial infrastructure. The book of Acts suggests that Paul’s founding of Christian congregations depended heavily on, as Wayne Meeks put it in The First Urban Christians, “the patronage of officials and well-to-do householders.”
There is a telling episode from Paul’s ministry in Philippi, a city in the Roman province of Macedonia. Paul and his companions start speaking with women gathered at a river outside the city’s gates. Acts reports: “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God [that is, a Jew], was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Lydia—the first known European convert to what would later be called Christianity—began her service to the church by recruiting her “household,” which almost certainly included not just her family, but servants and maybe slaves. And her service didn’t end there. The author of Acts writes, “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” Then, apparently, they prevailed upon her; Lydia’s home became the meeting place of the local Christian congregation.
To find people like Lydia, Paul had to move in relatively affluent circles. The “purple cloth” Lydia sold was a pricey fabric, made with a rare dye. Her clientele was wealthy, and she had the resources to have traveled to Macedonia from her home in Asia Minor. She was the ancient equivalent of someone who today makes a transatlantic or transpacific flight in business class.
From Paul’s point of view, the advantage of preaching to business class went beyond the fact that people who fly business class have resources. There’s also the fact that people who fly, fly—that is, they’re in motion. To judge by the book of Acts, many of Paul’s early Christian associates were, like him, travelers. As Meeks has noted, “much of the mission” of establishing and sustaining Christian congregations “was carried out by people who were traveling for other reasons.”
There were at least two ways that bodies in motion could be harnessed. First, in an age when there was no public postal service, they could carry letters to distant churches. Second, they might even be able to found distant congregations.
Consider Aquila and Priscilla, husband and wife. According to Acts, when Paul went from Athens to Corinth and first encountered them, they had just moved to Corinth from Rome. Among the things they had in common with Paul was their vocation. “Because he was of the same trade,” reports Acts, “he stayed with them, and they worked together.” Aquila and Priscilla then became key Pauline missionaries, moving to Ephesus and founding a church in their home.
The trade Paul shared with them, tentmaking, was an opportune profession for someone who wanted to mingle with the commercial class. In those days tents weren’t recreational. They were used by affluent travelers to avoid staying in inns, which were prone to vermin and vice. Tents were, in short, standard equipment for those who flew business class. Indeed, tents were, in a sense, business class. In making and selling tents, Paul would have been mingling with exactly the kind of people he needed to mingle with.
These people were cosmopolitan. They came from varying ethnicities, they dealt with people of varying ethnicities, and their financial interest thus dictated some tolerance of ethnic difference, some extension of amity across ethnic bounds. These cosmopolitan values were built into the logic of long-distance commerce in the multinational Roman Empire, just as they are built into the logic of long-distance commerce in an age of globalization. When economics draws people of different ethnicities and cultures into mutually beneficial relationships, interethnic and intercultural tolerance often ensue. (How many ethnic slurs are heard in transatlantic business class?) In that sense, a nontrivial part of Paul’s work had been done for him by the tenor of the times.
Still, finishing the job—fully exploiting the commercial and moral currents moving across Rome’s imperial platform—required meeting the needs of Paul’s most important recruits. When people open a local franchise—a McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut—they do so because they expect to get something in return. What did people get in return for making their homes Christian franchises? In some cases, no doubt, it was mainly the benefit of the gospel; Lydia presumably found Paul’s initial teachings gratifying, and what additional benefits she got—social, economic, whatever—from hosting a church, we’ll never know. But as the franchising continued, and the church expanded to more and more cities, it offered new benefits to church leaders.
In particular: reliable lodging. Tents were adequate for overnight stays on the road, but when you reached the big city, nicer accommodations were desirable—especially if you planned to stay awhile and do business. Paul’s letters to Christian congregations often include requests that they extend hospitality to traveling church leaders. Such privileges, as the scholar E.A. Judge put it, were increasingly “extended to the whole household of faith, who [were] accepted on trust, though complete strangers.” This extension was a revolution of sorts, since “security and hospitality when traveling had traditionally been the privilege of the powerful.” The Roman Empire had made distant travel easier than at any time in history, and Christianity exploited this fact. The young church was, among other things, the Holiday Inn of its day.
But there was at least one big difference. The proprietor of a Holiday Inn isn’t inviting lodgers into his or her home. Besides, the credit-card numbers of guests are on record in the event that they should turn out to be bad apples. Ancients who hosted travelers they didn’t know personally were being asked to take a bigger risk. And they were more likely to make the effort if they could believe that the lodger was no mere guest but rather a spiritual sibling, a “brother.”
Once travelers in the Roman Empire arrived in a city, they needed information and orientation. And in the days before the Internet, the net to plug into was other people. But where to find people willing to provide you with valuable information, show you around town, help you make contact with others in your profession or with possible clients? Well, how about a congregation full of “siblings”—all of whom are more likely to lend a hand if they indeed consider you as such. Paul wrote to the Romans, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you.”
Cenchreae was a seaport near Corinth. Paul was here asking Romans to extend familial love to a Greek, and he was doing so in the process of knitting his imperial organization together. As the scholar Wayne McCready has noted, the early Christian language of familial intimacy not only “underscored the internal cohesion that distinguished the assemblies of early Christians” but also “was applied as a universal principle which transcended local and geographic references and united numerous local communities into a collective whole.” Paul’s international church built on existing cosmopolitan values of interethnic tolerance and amity, but in offering its international networking services to congregants, the church went beyond those values; a kind of interethnic love was the core value that held the system together.
Even today, religious bonds can play a role in commerce. (The Mormon Church, whose growth rate has been compared to that of early Christianity, has proved to be a smooth conduit of commercial contact.) But in the ancient world, that role was pervasive. Greek and Roman associations that were essentially vocational—associations of shippers or of artisans or whatever—seem never to have been wholly secular. The transactional trust on which business depends—a trust that rests today largely on elaborate laws and their reliable enforcement—rested in ancient times partly on laws but largely on faith in the integrity of individual people. And religious fellowship was one of the great foundations of such faith.
It may sound implausible that a doctrine of true, pure, boundless love could emerge from the strategic imperatives of entrepreneurship, even when the enterprise is a religion. And, actually, it is implausible. What emerged with early Christianity isn’t really what many Christians like to believe: a God of “universal” love. The core appeal of the early church, remember, was that “brotherly love” was a form of familial love. And familial love is discerning—it is directed inwardly, not outwardly; toward kin, not toward everyone.
This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches—love directed first and foremost toward other Christians. “Love one another with mutual affection,” he tells the Romans. “Through love become slaves to one another,” he instructs members of the Galatian congregation.
This isn’t to say that his preachings offer no foundation for a more truly universal love. He often exhorts Christians to extend hospitality to the unconverted, and sometimes he goes further. He tells the Thessalonians, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” Still, he isn’t in the habit of putting Christians and non-Christians on quite the same plane. He tells the Galatians: “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
Paul is treading a fine line—occasionally urging a kind of “love” for non-Christians, yet suggesting that it be a less powerful motivator for generosity than the “brotherly love” he champions among Christians. Treading this line was a key to Christianity’s early success.
On the one hand, Christianity made a name for itself by extending generosity to non-Christians. Some of those it befriended joined the church, and others no doubt spoke highly of it thereafter. Yet Christianity couldn’t extend generosity to non-Christians infinitely. After all, it was an organization that wanted to grow, and central among its enticements was that membership brought the benefits of an extended family, including material assistance in times of need. If anyone could get these things forever without joining, how many people would join?
However far Paul’s Christian love may have been from truly universal, its indifference to ethnic and national bounds is admirable—and, from a modern perspective, encouraging. If an ancient religion adapted to conditions comparable to globalization by expanding people’s moral horizons, maybe modern religions can do the same thing. Certainly it would be nice if all Christians, Jews, and Muslims had moral horizons expansive enough to encompass one another.
Auspiciously, the early histories of both Islam and Judaism show them to possess the kind of pragmatic flexibility that ancient Christianity evinced. An imperial environment—a globalizing world, if on a smaller scale—brought out each religion’s benign side and subdued its belligerent side.
In the case of ancient Israel, the empire in question was the Persian Empire, which Israel became part of in the sixth century B.C. Previously, Israel’s brushes with empires had been largely unpleasant. The Israelites were tormented by the Assyrians and, more famously, by the Babylonians, who forced Israel’s elites into exile in 586 B.C. And the Hebrew Bible has the belligerent, xenophobic scriptures to show for these experiences (and for periodic conflicts with smaller states as well). But after the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the exiles to return home, Israel was on the inside, not the outside, of an empire, and a pretty congenial one—an empire that respected its subjects’ religious autonomy. Israel’s neighbors no longer threatened its security, and it could prosper by staying on good terms with them.
A number of scriptures thought to have been written after the exile seem to reflect the change, depicting a kinder, gentler, more internationalist God. In the book of Jonah, which most scholars consider post-exilic, God showers compassionate forgiveness on sinners in the faraway city of Nineveh. Jonah (after spending some time inside a giant fish) laments God’s compassion—not surprisingly, given that Nineveh is part of Assyria, Israel’s historical persecutor. But after the exile, Nineveh is part of the same empire as Israel, and the author of this narrative has God patiently explain to Jonah that the Ninevens had sinned out of moral confusion. That’s quite a change from God’s pre-imperial attitude. In the book of Ezekiel, apparently written during the exile, God was proud of having made Assyria suffer “as its wickedness deserves.”
Ruth, another book that is commonly, though less confidently, dated post-exilic, also features fresh international bonding. The book offers up a remarkable revelation: King David had not been ethnically pure. His great-grandmother, Ruth, was not only a foreigner, but a foreigner whose native country had given Israel much trouble: Moab. The book seems to carry something like the message of Paul’s Christianity—that God’s love knows no ethnic or national bounds, and is available to all who, like “Ruth the Moabite,” choose to worship him. In any event, the contrast with other biblical depictions of the Moabites is undeniable. In scripture written before the exile, their founder, Moab, was said to be a product of incest, born of a drunken sexual encounter between Lot and one of his daughters. Now, post-exile, the Moabites’ place in the family tree gets an upgrade: however ignoble their origins, they’ve gone on to become ancestors of King David himself. What a difference an empire makes!
Empire made a difference in early Islam, too. Of course, the creation of the Islamic Empire, like the creation of the Roman Empire, had hardly been a study in intercultural tolerance. Indeed, the now-infamous doctrine of jihad seems to have emerged as an Islamic legal concept in the mid-seventh century, after the death of Muhammad, as a way of smoothing the creation of an empire through conquest. In the strong version of the doctrine, which crystallized decades later, the world is divided between the “House of Islam” and the “House of War.” The House of War is the part of the world still laboring under unbelief even though Islamic doctrine has reached it. It is called the House of War because the duty of Islam’s leader is to fight there.
But once the fighting is done, a leader’s perspective can change. Though making all the world the “House of Islam” would seem to imply turning everyone you subjugate into a Muslim, that goal, if it was ever a part of jihad, didn’t stay one for long. The more unbelievers you rule, the clearer it becomes that their ongoing antagonism won’t be an asset, and the bleaker is the prospect of incurring their wrath by coercing them into conversion. Once you’ve got an empire to run, the less friction within it, the better.
The solution was simple. The empire’s rulers decided that it was okay for Christians and Jews to remain Christians and Jews, so long as they paid a special tax. (At one point conversion to Islam was banned, lest tax revenues fall.) There was nothing radical about this. Ancient empires typically demanded tribute from the conquered. Besides, the Koran’s description of Christians and Jews as “People of the Book”—adherents of Abrahamic scripture, like Muslims—seemed to provide a basis for tolerance.
But what about Zoroastrians, who came under Muslim rule with the conquest of Persia? Zoroastrians didn’t have scriptures devoted to the Abrahamic God—and so weren’t in any clear sense “People of the Book.” But, hey, the Zoroastrians did have a book of scripture—the Avesta—so they were in some sense People of the Book, or at least, People of a Book. So they could be tolerated, too! Later, as Muslim conquests spread deeply into Asia, the conquerors found a way to extend this basic idea—taxes in exchange for toleration—to Buddhists and Hindus. Muslim rulers in Africa decided that there, too, polytheists could be tolerated.
And, just as Christians asserted that Jesus had said things conducive to cohesion on an imperial platform, Muslims dug up some helpful utterances from Muhammad. For example: “There is no compulsion in religion.”
This saying may well be accurate. It comes from the Koran, which seems to be a more reliable guide to the real Muhammad than the Gospels are to the real Jesus, and it jibes with the fact that tolerance was often in Muhammad’s strategic interest. Thus do Koranic attitudes toward Christians and Jews swing from belligerent to friendly. Indeed, more than once, Muhammad says that Jews and Christians are eligible for salvation. (At one point—by some interpretations, at least—he even seems to leave open the prospect of salvation for polytheists.)
But the hadith—sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as recalled in the oral tradition—remained fluid long after the Koran had congealed, so some parts of the hadith that are invoked to support tolerance fall in the “suspiciously convenient” category. For example: “If they convert to Islam it is well; if not, they remain [in their previous religion]; indeed Islam is wide.”
The hadith also came to the aid of an Islamic scholar who, more than a millennium ago, de-emphasized holy war by calling it the “lesser jihad” and said, “The greater jihad is the struggle against the self.” These two different meanings of jihad are consistent with the diverse uses of the term in the Koran, but on what basis could anyone say which was greater? Reportedly, Muhammad had himself told Muslims returning from war, “You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” This account was late to surface, but better late than never.
For all three Abrahamic faiths, then, tolerance and even amity across ethnic and national bounds have a way of emerging as a product of utility; when you can do well by doing good, doing good can acquire a scriptural foundation. This flexibility is heartening for those who believe that, in a highly globalized and interdependent world, the vast majority of people in all three Abrahamic faiths have more to gain through peaceful coexistence and cooperation than through intolerance and violence. If ancient Abrahamics could pen laudable scriptures that were in their enlightened self-interest, then maybe modern Abrahamics can choose to emphasize those same scriptures when it’s in their interest.
And if some people find it dispiriting that moral good should emerge from self-interest, maybe they should think again. At least, the Abrahamics among them should think again. The Hebrew Bible, considered a holy text by all three Abrahamic faiths, sees the pragmatic value of virtue as itself part of divine design.
This theme emerges in various parts of the “wisdom literature” of the ancient Middle East, notably the biblical book of Proverbs. Proverbs announces at its outset that it aims to impart a sense of “integrity, justice, and honesty.” Yet the very next verse shifts into self-help, promising that the book will “teach shrewdness to the simple” and “prudence to the young.” In the logic of the wisdom literature, there is no great gap here. You learn virtue by learning the wisdom of virtue—learning that virtue is in your self-interest. And it’s part of God’s plan; the world is designed to translate self-interest into moral good via wisdom. In Proverbs the personification of wisdom, Lady Wisdom, says, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work.” When God “drew a circle on the face of the deep … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”
Of course, the fact that ancient scripture sees the link between prudence and virtue as a reflection of divine purpose doesn’t make it so. But if, as a matter of fact, the prudent pursuit of self-interest has over time led humanity closer to a moral truth—namely, that people of all ethnicities and faiths deserve respect—that lends at least some heft to the argument that there is a larger purpose in human affairs.
The scriptures do strengthen this argument—not by asserting it but by corroborating it. In all three Abrahamic religions, amity and tolerance cross national or ethnic bounds when people feel they can gain more through peaceful interaction than through conflict. And the fact is that history has relentlessly expanded the range across which these dynamics hold.
To put the point more technically: history expands the range of non-zero-sum relationships—relationships in which two parties can both win if they collaborate, or lose if they don’t. Technological evolution (wheels, roads, cuneiform, alphabets, trains, microchips) has placed more and more people in non-zero-sum relationship with more and more other people at greater and greater distances—and often across ethnic, national, and religious bounds.
This seems to be the reason we’ve made moral progress since the days when, according to Plutarch, Aristotle advised Alexander the Great to treat non-Greeks “as though they were plants or animals”—a position that itself was an advance over the days when citizens of a Greek city-state didn’t consider even other Greeks fully human. And even that degree of bigotry was an improvement over the days when the scope of non-zero-sumness, and of amity, didn’t go much beyond a hunter-gatherer village.
Globalization is the culmination of this trend, and it features so many non-zero-sum filaments that we lose sight of them. When you buy a car, you’re playing one of the most complex non-zero-sum games in history: you pay a tiny fraction of the wages of thousands of workers on various continents, and they, in turn, make you a car. Or, to take a more pertinent example: “the Muslim world” and “the West” are playing a non-zero-sum game; their fortunes are positively correlated. If Muslims get less happy with their place in the world, more resentful of their treatment by the West, support for radical Islam will grow, so things will get worse for the West. If, on the other hand, more and more Muslims feel respected by the West and feel they benefit from involvement with it, that will cut support for radical Islam, and Westerners will be more secure from terrorism.
None of this guarantees moral progress. People often fail to play non-zero-sum games wisely (and often fail to perceive the non-zero-sumness—their interdependence—in the first place). The world is full of conflicts that illustrate this fact. Indeed, the outcome of the global project is sufficiently in doubt as to suggest that, if there is some overarching purpose to history, it isn’t ultimately to ensure moral progress, but rather to give our species the choice of either making moral progress or paying the price; either people of different faiths, ethnicities, and nationalities get better at seeing the perspective of one another, and acknowledging the moral worth of one another, or chaos ensues.
If you trust the end-time scenarios laid out in any of the three Abrahamic scriptures, you can rest assured that there will eventually be, in one sense or another, a happy ending. But even for nonbelievers, the scriptures carry a modestly reassuring message, at least when read in light of the social and political circumstances that shaped them: people are capable of expanding tolerance and understanding in response to facts on the ground; and even mandates from heaven can change in response.