on 24 October 2009
Freeman describes his book as a "New" history of Early Christianity, but it is really very old hat indeed: the gospels are not reliable historically; Jesus never thought he was divine or the Messiah; his body was stolen after his crucifixion; the disciples hallucinated his resurrection appearances; Paul was an angry, pugnacious individual who invented "Christianity"; groups like the Gnostics were steam rolled by a burgeoning, authoritarian ekklesia which forbade independent thought; the phenomenon of the church can be explained in terms other than those used to comprehend its own nature and origins.
The problem with Freeman's oeuvre is that as well as rehashing passe theories of Christian origins, it is written from an avowedly agnostic and secular viewpoint, and is therefore spiritually tone deaf.
Thus Freeman rewrites early Christian history as he believes it "ought" to have happened, given that (in his opinion) the spiritual experiences of the first Christians were an epiphenomenon of sociological and cultural-religious factors rather than any genuine encounter with the divine.
However, to suggest that the gospels are unreliable historically (as Freeman does) is to beg the question: what would constitute an "historically reliable" narrative of Jesus' life? Freeman does not address this issue. But presumably it would be devoid of any records of miracles or resurrection or sayings of Jesus that might intimate his redemptive mission or divine sonship. In fact we may presume that it would read very much like Freeman's secular account of Christian origins.
The literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his review of The God Delusion (LRB, Vol.28 No.20, 19 October 2006) imagines Richard Dawkins reading Keat's line about the "still unravish'd bride of quietness" and remarking: "that's a mighty funny way to describe a Grecian urn".
Like Dawkins, Freeman lacks imagination when it comes to comprehending spiritual experience. The closest Freeman comes to defining it is to suggest that after Jesus' death some "intense emotional experience", which is "irrecoverable", caused Jesus' followers to start worshipping him as God (p324).
This is hardly an illuminating aetiology of Christian faith. It's rather along the lines of suggesting that something must have inspired Wordsworth to write poetry.
The same applies in the case of Freeman's banal (and inaccurate) summary of Christian belief about the atonement: "It came to be believed that God required his son to suffer so horribly so as to lift the weight of sinfulness that was perceived to be the predominant feature of humanity" (p324).
Yes, but why does Freeman think that Christians came to hold this view? We are not told.
For Freeman the fact that people experienced forgiveness through Christ's death requires no explanation - it just turned out that way.
Unsurprisingly, his survey of the New Testament writings is, for the most part, skimpy, if not superficial.
At times Freeman can be as painfully literalist as a Texan redneck.
He is genuinely horrified, for instance, that Jesus should demand of his disciples that they should "hate" their family if they want to be his followers (p85). He also registers a "contradiction" in the fact that Jesus should tell a parable about a servant who is rewarded for using his money wisely, while at the same time commanding his followers to sell everything they have and give it to the poor (p85). Eschewing the notion that Jesus' language might be hyperbolic, or that truth can be looked at from multiple perspectives, Freeman conjectures that Luke (the gospel writer in question) used "clearly contradictory" sources! (p85)
Freeman also exhibits breathtaking naivety with regard to his theory that the high priest, Caiaphas, stole Jesus' body. He did it, according to Freeman, in the hope that Jesus' disciples would think he had risen from the dead!
According to Freeman, Caiaphas' intentions were benevolent, if controversial: to get Jesus' followers to disperse to Galilee (where they might expect to meet the risen Jesus again) and so avoid getting a hiding at the hands of the Romans (hints of messianism or sedition would have been brutally crushed by the Prefect of Judaea, as Josephus attests).
The problem is that the followers of Jesus set up base in Jerusalem immediately after his execution.
It is remarkable therefore that the priestly authorities made no attempt to put an end to the Jesus movement by simply producing Christ's remains.
It is also curious that if Caiaphas had disposed of Jesus' body why this fact never features in Jewish polemics against Christianity.
One gets the sense, then, that while Freeman may have read the gospels and epistles he is not conversant or at home with them. Most of his critical analysis is derivative (see for e.g Ch 12). And he is not beyond reading crude, Medieval notions of "devils" and "demons" back into the New Testament (see, for example, his comments about the Epistle to the Ephesians on p99. The plural "devils", which Freeman uses, is never employed in the Greek New Testament to refer to dark forces or malevolent intelligences).
Other things stand out too.
Freeman lacks any real sense of what "fellowship" means in the context of the New Testament. This is important because the notion of "koinonia" is at the very heart of the Christian message. For Freeman the machinations of the the early church were essentially political. Thus Peter, Paul, and James vied with each other for power and control over the church, whether they were missionizing or pastoring the flock.
While the New Testament writers are not above highlighting factionalism and strife in the fledgling Jesus movement, they also witness to a profound love (agape) and oneness (koinonia) which bound men and women together in Christ, even to the point of laying down their lives for each other. Freeman fails to explore or tap into this rich spiritual vein and thus gives a warped view of Christian mission and leadership.
He is also ignorant of what "fellowship" with God meant for the early Church. What could it possibly mean for believers to claim that they are in union with God in Christ through the Spirit? And what did it mean, moreover, to "know" the risen Christ, or to be "filled" with, or prompted by, the Holy Spirit (the bread and butter of daily Christian experience in the early Church)? Freeman sheds little or no light on these matters. His history is of surfaces rather than depths.
Freeman's shallowness is further exhibited in his contention that Paul knew nothing of Christ's "physical" resurrection. The fact is Jews only knew of physical resurrection. Paul didn't have a lot of conceptual room to play with! Freeman's proposition is incredible however given that Paul's missionary colleague was Luke, the gospel writer who offers us the most material and physical description of the resurrected Christ in the New Testament (cf Luke chapter 24 verses 36-43 where Jesus invites his disciples to handle him and see that he is "not" a spirit!). Given that Luke was under Paul's apostolic leadership it would be odd if the latter's views on the resurrection weren't reflected in the third gospel. But even aside from this there is something specious about Freeman's line of reasoning. Because Paul did not belabour the "physical" nature of Christ's resurrection need not imply that he was ignorant of it, or didn't believe in it. The author of the First Epistle of John nowhere mentions or alludes to Jesus' resurrection in his letter. Yet we know from his gospel that he was au fait not just with Jesus' post mortem appearances, but also with their physical dimension (cf John Chapters 20-21). A New Testament author therefore may not allude or refer to key Christian beliefs if he assumes that his readers already know about them or if they are simply not on his pastoral agenda (cf Hebrews chapter 6:1-2). Freeman wilfully overlooks this fact however which is why his book is so deeply frustrating.
On another tack Freeman's idea that the fourth century Church plunged the West into the intellectual Dark Ages was kicked into touch long ago by E.R.Dodds (The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951). Dodds cogently argues that the pagan world out of which Christianity emerged was crassly superstitious and in a dark age of its own. Freeman, as others have noted, imagines that pagans in Late Antiquity walked around in Greek togas discussing philosophy and literature and other high brow topics. Most in fact were illiterate and were more concerned with finding food and keeping warm than discussing the latest neo-platonic theories about the One and the Many. More recently Freeman's views have been demolished in David Bentley Hart's critically acclaimed, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009). Referring to Freeman's book, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise and Fall of Reason (where Freeman first moots his ideas about the Christian Dark Ages) Hart remarks that it is "an almost perfect compendium of every trite caricature of early Christianity devised since Gibbon" (p56). He goes on to suggest that Freeman "attempts long discourses on theological disputes he simply does not understand, continually falls prey to vulgar misconstruals of the material he is attempting to interpret, makes large claims about early Christian belief that are simply false, offers vague assertions about philosophers he clearly has not studied, and delivers himself of opinions regarding Christian teaching that are worse than simply inaccurate" (p57). His pronouncements, moreover, on Platonism, Aristotelianism, and the Christian doctrine of the divine image in man "betray", in Hart's opinion, "an almost perfect ignorance of all three topics" (p245, n.1).
The reality is, pace Freeman, that without the formative intellectual endeavours of Christian thinkers between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries there would have been no Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, or Scientific Revolutions to speak of. Much of this may have come on the back of the rediscovery of Aristotle, to be sure. But it was the Christian appropriation and reworking of the Greek philosophical and scientific legacy which propelled us into the modern age.
Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages revived and breathed new life into the Graeco-Roman heritage. Metaphysics, epistemology, science, mythology, and philosophy were dynamically and creatively transformed by Christian theologians. In this sense they could be said to have saved Classical culture.
The fact that this led to a monolithic view of reality (something which Freeman hotly disparages) is no more or less iniquitous than the prevailing worldview which is imposed upon us by the scientific establishment. Christianity was never a universalist faith. The doctrine of the incarnation tied God to self disclosure and historical revelation in first century Palestine. Like the Second Law of Thermodynamics this truth was non negotiable.
If you are looking for a secular or fundamentalist liberal account of the Early Church, which presupposes that there is very little which needs to be understood about the person of Jesus, and his followers' convictions about him, then you could do no better than buy this book.