109 Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Beacon Press, Boston, 2008
We worked to understand the world of early Christianity not as the literate few knew it but as the visually literate many knew it when they worshipped in churches and recited memorized scriptures and creeds. For them visual art and poetic and narrative literature, found in prayers, stories, psalms, and hymns, shaped Christian life and sustained it.
Beauty and art, in all its forms, engage the more holistic, emotional, and sensory-laden dimensions of experience and memory. They capture multilayered experiences of imagination, feeling, perceiving, and thinking. Through art, the aesthetic, emotional, sensory and intellectual dimensions of life can come together and be mixed in fresh ways. . . . we have sought to communicate something of the aesthetic experience of paradise.
Chapter 1 In The Beginning . . . Paradise on the Earth
The Sumerians, a people of mysterious origins, migrated south from the mountains in Turkey in prehistoric times and settled in the hot, flat, fertile delta between the rivers (Tigris & Euphrates). Around the fifth millennium BCE they began to master flood control and irrigation and built walled settlements. Their stories, first passed on in oral traditions, came to us as texts pressed on clay tablets that date to around 2100 BCE, near the end of their history. They recorded their myths in a phonetic script they invented, called cuneiform (edge-shaped”). One of the oldest written languages on earth, Sumerian became the scientific, sacred, ceremonial, and literary language for the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and many other surrounding cultures for centuries, despite the fact that it was related to no other language in the region and that, to become fluent, one had to master its separate dialects for men and women.
For subsequent cultures, Sumerian, the language and the culture, was the equivalent of Greek in Roman society or Latin in medieval Europe: the much admired classical language and culture of antiquity. Sumerians encouraged this view with stories of the glories of their rulers and gods. Their conquerors borrowed Sumer'’ stories in creating their own myths and used its script to write their very different languages just as, today, English is written with Latin script. The Bible itself indicates the importance of Sumer; Abram and Sarai (renamed Abraham and Sarah) trace their lineage back to UR, the last capital of Sumer, from which they migrated westward to Canaan (Gen. 11:26-13:12).
The Babylonians conquered [the Sumerians] for the last time around 2050 BCE . . . [they]
Sumer became the lost primordial culture of West Asia. By the time Genesis was written, the Sumerians’ myths had been adapted and edited through more than a millennium of history in Canaan, where the legendary immigrants from Sumer, Abram and Sarai, had migrated. The kingdom of Israel emerged in Canaan under Saul (1029-1000 BCE) and David (1000-961 BCE). The Davidic dynasty collapsed with the death of David’s son Solomon (961-922 BCE). The one nation Israel, composed of twelve tribes, became two kingdoms in 921. The Assyrians conquered and annexed the northern nation of ten tribes, called Israel, in 722 (2 Kings 17:5-6). The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar defeated the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE and kidnapped its leaders, initiating five decades of exile for Judah’s people.
The Persians and Jews had a long period of contact beginning with King Cyrus the Great (ca. 576-529 BCE), who conquered Babylonia in 539, ending its domination of Mesopotamia. . . . Persian, a modern form of which is now called Farsi . . . remained a common language of the diverse peoples of India for many centuries. The word “paradise” comes into Persian through Median, paridaeza, pari (around), and daeza (wall), meaning a garden surrounded by a wall. Persian, an Indo-European language like Sanskrit and Greek, uses paridaida to refer to vineyards, orchards, forests, tree nurseries, and stables.
Cyrus was likely a Zoroastrian, practicing a Persian religion founded by the prophet Zorothustra (Zoraster in Greek), who lived around the beginning of the first millennium BCE. Scholars of this history of Zoroastrianism link its early roots to Hindu ideas, but it became more monotheistic. Zoroaster preached a form of monotheism with lesser spirits and demons. He also developed a postmortem dimension of paradise tied to a strong dualism of good and evil.
Zoroastrian apocalyptic ideas probably entered Jewish thinking in the post-exilic time of contact with Persia, since they do not appear in Jewish literature until after this time, for example, in the book of Daniel. The Hebrew Bible generally follows Sumerian traditions in imagining life after death as an underworld that is mysterious, cold and dark. It depicts the cosmos as a three-tiered universe: heavens, earth with paradise, and the underworld, united by the cosmic sacred mountain. Zoroastrian apocalypticism assuredly influenced Christianity, but a divide of the afterlife into heaven and hell is absent from Christianity’s visual world until the medieval.
In Genesis, humanity was instructed to be vegetarian, as were the animals, rather than rapacious or predatory.
In Genesis 2, we arrive in the beautiful garden of delight. Like Dilmun, this garden is hard to locate, but it is on the earth. It has one great river, which later tradition identified with the Jordan. Because great rivers originate in mountains, early biblical commentators often suggested a mountaintop as the location of the garden, perhaps the legendary mountain on which Noah docked his ark, the seventeen thousand-foot-high Mt. Ararat.
The Hebrew word, adam (earthling), is not a proper name for a male individual, but a generic noun that designates a being made of ha-dama (earth). As in Genesis 1, adam was a generic human being, encompassing male and female.
When God explained to the earthling that not all the trees were safe to eat, the story suggested that Creation had boundaries that should not be crossed and that acquiring knowledge carried risks.
Somewhere, paradise remained in the world, haunting every tale of folly, injustice, or greed.
The actual Hebrew word pardes rarely occurs in the Bible. One place it is used is in the Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs), which was compiled from earlier sources, probably in the fourth century BCE. It uses pardes to capture the eros of a beautiful garden.
Phyllis Trible suggests that these references to a paradise garden harken back to Genesis and recapture the delight in the earth and human life in paradise. This celebration of love and joy provides the antidote to the banishment of Adam and Eve. This return to the garden nullified the curse of male dominance, hard work, and shame about vulnerability and sexuality.
Alexander the Great conquered Persia in the late fourth century BCE, after which the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek, called the Septuagint. Wherever the Hebrew word for garden, gan or gan-Eden, appeared, the Septuagint substituted paradesos, including in Genesis 2. This importation of the word “paradise” heightened its importance for both Jewish and Christian interpreters, since many used the Septuagint. The intermingling of Persian, North African, and West Asian cultures and ideas with Greek culture and language began in this period of apocryphal literature from the third century BCE through the third century BCE made much greater use of paradeisos. Discussion and speculation about paradise increased, as apocryphal texts such as I Enoch described journeys to paradise and heaven.
Amos, the earliest written prophet, warned the northern kingdom of Israel in the middle of the eighth century BCE that its habits of violence and greed were unjust and unsustainable.
God as Creator and judge against injustice formed the context for Amos’s outcry against the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy.
[Amos] promised that the gifts of paradise could be restored to them if they would “establish justice” and “seek good and not evil.”
Let justice roll down like water And righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
The poetry of Amos captures something of the gestalt of paradise in upholding the struggle for justice, mercy, and peace by anchoring them in the life-giving waters of earth.
The book of Isaiah contains many references to paradise. First Isaiah was written between 742 and 689 BCE, when the Assyrian Empire threatened Judah. It expressed hope by describing a world where animals lived in harmony, as they did with Adam and Eve in Eden.
During the Exile, after King Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem in 586 and deported its leaders to Babylonia, second Isaiah used images of paradise to promise divine deliverance.
Some exiles [from Israel], sent to Egypt, believed the hard, exclusivist monotheism of King Josiah caused Judah to fall.
Though Isaiah asserted a form of monotheism, it was grounded in justice, rather than in favoritism or nationalism. God cared for the suffering and oppressed, and faithful people who were committed to the welfare of all would restore and sustain paradise.
Hese prophetic texts [Isa. 40:8-4:14, Isa. 58:6-11, Isa. 61:1,11] are not, however, unambiguous. While they proclaimed peace, they often imagined God as a warrior who would defeat the foes of Israel and slaughter the unrighteous.
I Samuel 8 warned against the establishment of a kingdom. Isaiah said all rulers must answer to the ethics of justice, neither kings nor nations possessed divine rights; they were accountable to the standards of righteousness that were the will of God.
Ezekiel, the sixth-century BCE prophet, wrote in Babylon during the Exile and reflected on the conflicts among the empires that dominated his time.
The first chapter opens with a theophany, an appearance of God. In this theophany, Ezekiel, among his fellow exiles along a river, looks up to see a thunderstorm. Four living creatures emerge from the clouds and lightning, each with human form but four faces: a human, lion, ox, and eagle. Each has four wings, and hooves that shine as though bronzed. Wheels spin beside them in the midst of a rainbow. This vision likely reflected the impressive stone carvings of totem animals that decorated Babylonian palaces
Ezekiel likened the growth of the great empire of Egypt to a flowering tree in Eden that was nourished by abundant water. The tree became too proud and God razed it (Ezek. 31). Ezekiel contrasted the blessed garden of God with the political ambitions, environmental devastations, and carnage of kings, and he promised a renewal of paradise for the nation . . .
And they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined towns are now inhabited and portified.” (Ezekiel 36:33-35)
In his oracles of comfort and hope to the exiles, Ezekiel pictured the restoration of paradise as abundant pasturelands tended by a shepherd.
Near the end of the book, Ezekiel detailed his vision of the rebuilt temple on Mt. Zion (Ezek. 40-47). He described being transported to the eastern gate, the direction of paradise . . . A great river welled up from below the threshold of the temple, flowing east and south. . . . Ezekiel said Jerusalem must be called “The Lord is there” (48:35). It was an earthly place where God drew near to human beings, and from which waters of life cascaded down to bring life to all the earth. It was not a place created after the apocalyptic destruction of this world, but it could be threatened by war and imperial domination. From his dwelling place in the temple, God announced, “Enough, O princes of Israel. Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right.” (Ezek. 45:9)
Some exiles, liberated by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, returned to Jerusalem and eventually built the second temple in Jerusalem under his son King Darius. They completed it in 516 BCE. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the controversies with local inhabitants and difficulties that accompanied this time of restoration, as well as the modest proportions of this new temple. Some leaders began o identify the second temple and Mt. Zion as the actual location of paradise.
One of the mysteries of Dilmun and Eden was their precise location. Whether in the direction of the rising sun or between four great rivers, paradise confused any attempts to pin it on a map. It eluded the control, captivity, or ownership of any one nation, people, religion, or time. In direct contrast to the wars, economic exploitation, fratricidal divisions, and environmental devastations of empires, it offered experiences and visions of justice, of the goodness of ordinary life, and of a vibrant peace. Paradise was described in terms recognizable as earthly life at its best. In these descriptions, it could be experienced as real, not as a permanent state of being but as aspects of life itself. It flourished where people took responsibility for the well-being of all and respected and protected the great cycles of life that sustain human life. Many of the Psalms date from the second temple period. They praise God’s creativity, justice, and healing, using images of paradise.
The Psalms affirm that the gifts of paradise are tangible in this life. “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8) The speak of respite from weariness, pleasure in companionship, freedom from oppression, comfort in sorrow, delight in beauty, satisfaction of hunger, and protection from danger. Though these precious aspects of life can be lost or compromised, they are dimensions of human experience on the earth, not imaginary ideals. What it means to say that paradise is in this world: the actual tastes, sights, fragrances, and textures of paradise touch our lives. They call us to resist the principalities and powers that deny the goodness of ordinary life, threaten to destroy it, or seek to secure its blessings for a few at the expense of many.
The descendants of the exiles who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem did not enjoy a long peace. The Persian Empire gave them breathing space for a time, until the Greeks conquered the region and brought them once again under oppressive imperial domination. They maintained a line of client Jewish kings who heavily taxed the people for Rome and for their own gain. Herod (c. 74-4 BCE) was notoriously profligate and violent. He massively expanded the Jerusalem temple as a monument to his dynasty and [even] put a Roman eagle over the main entrance. Many Jewish resistance movements protested Herodian and Roman abuses, often with nonviolent acts and sometimes in armed revolt. The Romans suppressed opposition by crucifying dissident leaders and burning town to the ground. Jewish opposition intensified until the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 CE. They finally leveled Jerusalem in 139, rebuilt it as a pagan city, and renamed the region Palestine in honor of Israel’s enemies, the Philistines.
In Galilee, the legacy of paradise would feed a movement of resistance, led by a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. Like a tree planted by the water, his movement took root, moistened by the waters of paradise and shaded by its trees and vines. In the long genealogy of paradise and its call to humanity to live justly and ethically, was was yet another branch of this great, sheltering tree.
The Bible opens with Creation and with the Garden if Delight in Genesis 1-2 and closes with the last words of Revelation 22, “Let everyone who is thirsty, come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
Jesus shows ethical grace in action: love and generosity in community, care for all who have need, healing of the sick, appreciation for life, confrontation with powers of injustice and exploitation, and advocacy for freedom of the imprisoned.
In John’s Gospel he says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly: (10:10), and he speaks frequently of the promise of “eternal life” to his disciples. The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By folling his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.
The most oft-told story in the Christian scriptures is the miracle of loaves and fish . . .
The Roman emperors maintained their power by distributing bread to the poor.
The early church framed its most important ritual meal as this act of feeding. They called it the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, the meal that celebrated the bread of earth, blessed by heaven, and shared in community. John Dominic Crossan notes the significance of this practice: “ It is in food and drink offered equally to everyone that the presence of God and Jesus is found. But food and drink are the material bases of life, so the Lord’s Supper is political criticism and economic challenge as well as sacred rite and liturgical worship.”
The sky is the most mysterious part of the cosmos, and it is the most regular and reliable in its patterns. The sun, moon, and stars make their rhythmic courses, marking the pace of planting and harvesting and generating the flow of time within the space of the great cosmos. The heavens bring sweet water to earth in the rain and fill the mountain storehouses of snow that feed the great rivers. Thus the heavens were, for the ancients, the wellspring of spiritual power. They were not something out of this world, but were the locus of life-giving power within this world, a realm of constancy from which humanity received many blessings. Their spiritual messengers visited those who awaited them in dreams and visions, and their earthly emissaries brought illumination and life.
In the bread of heaven, God blessed ordinary food for ordinary people.
He [Jesus] challenged this paternalistic system [Rome giving bread to the poor] by offering food blessed by heaven and not by Rome.
The modern world has a tendency to divide the sacred and the secular and to disconnect the spiritual from the physical.
In offering “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets, connected paradise, abundant life, to the practical needs of human beings, who require a sustainable and sustaining life free from economic exploitation and political oppression.
This is why, at the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus addresses Peter, a leader among the disciples, by saying, repeatedly, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
In first-century understandings, the logos (Word) was a divine being who coexisted with God and who created all things in the kosmos (world). Many branches of the Israelite tree shared the concept of the divine Logos. It emerged from the Hellenization process, the mingling of Greek ideas with Hebrew and Persian cultures in West Asia and North Africa. Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50CE), a Jew who used Platonic philosophy to interpret the books of Moses, associated God’s acts of Creation with Logos.
In the Septuagint, the Hebrew feminine noun Hokmah (Wisdom), which was linked to Word, as the principle of Creation. John retells the Creation story found in Proverbs 8 and fleshes out the connection between Logos and Sophia as synonyms for creativity (Prov. 8:23-9:6,excerpts).
Without those who bring the Spirit of God into the world, in the flesh, humanity will be bereft of the power of life, the breath of divine Spirit that makes creation possible.
They said Christ, as the glory of the Word made flesh, restored to humanity its original glory in Eden.
Baptism “in the name of Jesus” placed humanity in paradise on earth and bestowed on his disciples the power of Logos/Sophia.
People sought to know the spirits that would help them and avoid those that caused harm. The Christian scriptures claimed that the Spirit of God, the creativity, wisdom, and power of life, dwelled in human beings. This Spirit descended sand took up residence in the flesh, inhabiting this life in all its diversity, as different in manifestations as we are different from one another. Jesus was the sign of this reality. His very name came to signify the power of life lived in the Spirit. To be baptized in his name was to possess the same power.
John’s story of the wedding in Cana and its wine suggests the vineyard of the Song of Songs (John 2:1-11). The drama begins when the wine runs out before the festivities have ended. Prompted to act by his mother and assisted by the household servants, Jesus turns six jars of water into wine. The wedding has already taken place offstage; the story focuses on the guests enjoying the banquet. Until Jesus acts, the existence of paradise, symbolized by wine, the fruit of the garden, is uncertain. The miracle of water into wine “revealed his glory” and demonstrated that, at the moment, the joys of the garden flowed into the world. A chapter later, John the Baptist testifies to his joy by speaking of Jesus as the bridegroom and himself as the best man at the wedding: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. The wedding has happened. Paradise is here.
The story of the Samaritan woman.
Her theological disputation with Jesus is the longest in the New Testament.
Her interrogation opens an extended conversation about ordinary water and the living water of eternal life. Using a paradise image of the “well of living water” first mentioned in the Song of Song 4:15, Jesus tells her he has living water to offer: Those who drink . . .
She says she would be glad to have some of his water, but rejoins that Samaritans have their own sacred mountain, different from Jews who claim all people ought to worship in their temple in Jerusalem. With this brief comment, she alludes to the biblical stories of fratricidal enmity amount the twelve tribes of Israel and the civil war that split them north and south. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, the “Samaritans,” had build their capital of Samaria on Mount Gerizim and the two southern tribes in Judah, the “Jews,” had their capital in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. . . . the Samaritans had long rejected the Jews and their temple. Her comment about their differences can be seen as a test of Jesus’s loyalties to that temple. Jesus rejects it, identifying himself as a friend of the Samaritans. He says that he embraces all who worship God “in spirit and truth.” She concedes that her people awaited a Messiah who would “proclaim all things to us.” Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:24-26). In saying “I am,” ego eimi, Jesus invokes Moses, the Samaritan’s most important religious figure. When God called Moses from the burning bush, Moses asked for God’s name. “I am who I am,” God replied (Exod. 3:14). By echoing these words, Jesus announces to the Samaritan woman that he, like Moses, possesses the power of the Name and embodies God’s life-giving presence. He is the fulfillment of her people’s hopes. This “I am” statement is the first of many in John’s Gospel.
The Samaritan woman would become one of the most popular figures in early Christian art.
Her boldness in disputation suggests that one way paradise flows into the world as living water is through those who raise questions probe answers, and stay in the conversation.
The Gospels challenge systems of domination wherever they manifested themselves, including gender relationships.
Jesus had women friends, shared communal meals that transgressed social divisions, and refuted dogmatic applications of sacred scripture. . . . these practices threatened even the male disciples, who complained that Jesus spoke with women and was too generous to outcasts.
Eternal life consisted of knowing God and loving one another, in this life and in God’s world. “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” Jesus says (John 17:15). Eternal life was possible here and now because the presence of divinity in the world, come down from heaven to bless this earthly life.
They knew and saw God in this life now, as well as in the life to come. They possessed the power to resist unjust powers. They lived deeply rooted in holy ground, in paradise.
Defiant of Rome to the end, Jesus spoke directly to Pontius Pilate of the power he served. Pilate, interrogating Jesus at his trial about his title of king of the Jews, asked, “What have you done?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world. . . . Jesus’s use of “this world” distinguished imperial strategies of war, torture, and state terrorism from an ethic of nonviolent resistance to injustice. “This world” was the empire occupying Jerusalem. Jesus’s realm had a different source.
The world of Pilate was imperial violence; the world of Jesus was life-giving truth.
. . . resistance to his authority, Pilate threatened that he determined whether Jesus lived or died. Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above . . . The Geek world translated here as ”power” signified authority conferred from a source beyond the individual. . . . Pilate’s power came from Rome, not God. . . . Imperial, totalitarian control lacked the power of truth, love, generosity, or ethical grace.
When Jews accused him of blasphemy for claiming to be God’s Son, he replied by quoting Psalm 82, using scripture sacred to the Jews to make the case that God as many children, he was not unique (John 10:34-38).
Most early church teachers believed God worked through the Spirit of wisdom, the flow of justice, the strength of truth, acts of love, and the lure of beauty.
Jesus’s suffering on the cross and his corpse did not appear in Christian art until the tenth century. [The authors] were puzzled by this absence. After all, the Gospels commit significant rucifixion was designed to destroy both bodies and identities . . . In the slave rebellion of Spartacus that was defeated in 71 BCE, six thousand crucified bodies rotted along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome.
The authors of the Passion narratives constructed an innovative strategy to resist public torture and execution. They created a literature of disclosure and wove the killing of Jesus into the fabric of a long history of violence against those who spoke for justice. In placing the opening of Psalm 22 on Jesus’s lips, they evoked the bitter lament of grief and struggle that runs through the whole Psalm: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps.22:1)
The Passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, love, creativity, ad truth-telling. In telling his story, his community remembered his name and claimed the death-defying power of saying his name aloud.
The purpose of such writing is assuredly not to valorize victims, to praise their suffering as redemptive, to reveal “true love” as submission and self-sacrifice, or to say that God requires the passive acceptance of violence. . . . The story of Jesus’s crucifixion, in marked contrast, asserted that the answer to abusive power is the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life, to do deeds in Jesus’s name.
The Passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus’s movement. In doing so, they placed before his movement the choice to tell the truth and live by ethical grace. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of imperialism, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life.
The final disclosure of paradise in John comes with the Resurrection. Galgotha . . . had a garden. . . . two of Jesus’s secret Jewish followers, one of whom was Nicodemus, took his body to a new tomb and buried him . . . Mary found two angels in the tomb instead of a body. Jesus appeared to her in the garden at dawn . . .
The Resurrection appearances in all four Gospels have the quality of visions and dreams, the way people are surprised by apparitions of the departed.
The Resurrection was the gift of persistent love, stronger that death: “life in his name” (John 20:31). It was not, however, a panacea or a final solution to life’s struggles and conflicts. It did not quell conflict within the community of Jesus.
In Luke 23:43, when Jesus said to the thief hanging next to him on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” Christian believed he meant it. They understood that in extremities of repression and pain, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it . . . for love is strong as death” (Song of Sol 8:7,6). Rage, protest, and lamentation carried the energy of this power, as did acts of compassion, generosity, and justice. Those who loved him, comforted by the ancient words of scripture, the choreography of well-knows rituals, and the prayers of many, resided with Jesus in paradise, the space of resistance to the death-dealing powers of Rome and its many legions.
In the cross-cultural brew that produced early Christianity, the assurance of paradise was an inebriating grace, a life-giving recipe drawn from many ancient sources. . . . When Christians gathered to share of the bread of heaven, partaking in the Eucharist feast, they entered the most concentrated form of paradise on earth, where living and dead communed with the risen Christ, and the banquet of abundance was spread for all. From feasting in paradise, they took strength to embody ethical grace in the world, the world that God so generously loved.
. . . Jesus[,] the pioneer and perfecter of our faith . . . has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (parts of) Hebrews 12:1-3
The dead and the living remain connected. In their retelling, the stories were shaped and reshaped by those who told them, and who tell them still.
Where and how the dead live on can be experienced in many ways. The book of Hebrews pictured the assembly of departed saints as a “great cloud of witnesses” who surround the living.
You have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus. (Heb. 12:22-23) The idea that the righteous live on after death and inhabit a realm from which they could visit the living is an ancient one. In testifying to the presence of the risen Christ, Christians reflected a mix of ideas about the realm of the dead that emerged from the cultures that influenced the Hebrew Bible, as well as from Greek and Roman traditions. Visitations from the dead were a familiar experience, as they continue to be for many today. The book of I Enoch, a Jewish apocryphal text composed during the third to first centuries BCE, described the abode of the righteous as a version of Eden, a garden of delight and abundance located on the earth. There, the first-century Testament of Abraham said, the dead rested “where there is no toil, no sadness no sighing, but peace and joy and endless life.”
By the third century, the Christian realm of the dead had become a place of beauty and peace. The departed rested close by in a region of earthly paradise, a mysterious dimension of this world with green meadows, streams, and fragrant flowers and fruits. The dead could rest because Satan could not enter, and they no longer had to wrestle with sin, evil, or oppression. They did not, however, rest so far away that they could not visit the living to give advice, comfort, or guidance. In their realm of paradise, resurrected saints were restored to the divine presence and gained spiritual power to assist the living. . . . The living could feast with them in sacred meals and could experience their presence in dreams and visions.
Memorial feasts with the dead were common and popular. The meals were usually held in the evening, often outdoors under covered arbors near the entrance to tombs. Participants spread tables with special foods and wine and invited the dead to join the meal.
Small stone chairs have survived on which a lighted candle would be placed to signify the presence of the dead.
Following such banquets, it was traditional to distribute food or coins to the poor, extending the grace of the feast to benefit others.
In the fourth century, some Christian bishops began to preach against these banquets, apparently appalled that the living indulged with too much enthusiasm on occasion.
Christians held memorial feasts with the dead in the catacombs outside of Rome. Romans required that Jews and Christians inter their dead outside the walls of the city, where areas of soft underground tufa rock lent itself to the digging of burial caverns. Most pagans cremated their dead, though some also began burying them around the second century.
To keep the population from shrinking and undermining the financial base of the empire, every woman needed to have at least five children before she died. Rome penalized citizens who did not marry and bear as many children as possible.
The catacombs were religiously diverse burial sites, reflecting close relationships among Jews, Christians, and pagans. Catacomb art contains no images related to judgment and hell.
In the third century, empire-wide persecutions of Christians erupted several times. The first identifiably Christian images appear around the same time in the catacombs. . . . Though the catacombs were not secret gathering places, many catacomb images depict biblical stories about resistance to empires.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are shown standing in a fiery furnace without being burned. These three youths defied imperial coercion successfully because of diine protection (Dan. 3:12-97). [other stories: Daniel and the lions, Susanna, and Jonah] The catacombs include no images of Jesus’s crucifixion, but they show his birth. . . . the three magi is the most commonly depicted. The Gospel of Matthew said they were from the east, the direction of paradise. They were, by legend, Persian astrologers and magicians.
Jesus appears in the catacomb images as a miracle worker and healer. He and Moses are both shown using a magic wand and performing water miracles.
Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254), a Greek theologian born inEgypt, said that the Egyptians maligned Moses as a magician and that the Romans slandered Jesus Christ on similar charges.
63Most often, Jesus has the l
look of a shepherd. He occasionally milks a sheep. Someimes he even wears a puffy hat, like the magi. He is often young and beadles with long hair, quite at odds with the cropped, mature, masculine look of an emperor.
The attentive, personal care of a shepherd differed from the remote imperial model of military control and delegated political authority. Church leaders were expected to model themselves on the shepherd, the bishop’s staff is a shepherd’s crook. They saw to the care of the sick, ministered to those in prison, offered hospitality to strangers, managed commonly held resources and distributed them to the poor and elderly, and settled disputes and conflicts. In addition, they taught the basic ideas of the faith, explained the stories in the scriptures, prophesied, initiated converts, and organized community participation in the rituals. By the third century, these community practices of leadership and care created a Christian social welfare network in cities throughout the empire.
The success of the church’s system of networked communities increasingly threatened the empire’s bread and circuses, strategies of welfare and violent entertainment designed to pacify the unruly masses. Rome responded to the threats by killing Christian leaders, which led to speculation about who or what survived death in the afterlife. Two North Africans of the early third century, one Latin and one Greek, offered divergent explanations. Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-225). One of the earliest Latin theologians of the church, highly valued the body and argued that paradise was found in the material life of Creation. Death would bring an even greater union of flesh and spirit, which the cycles of renewal in nature already revealed. To be restored to paradise after death required a resurrection of flesh and spirit, since there could be no residence in paradise without a body.
Origen of Alexandria, who was a neo-Platonist, argued that spiritual power lay in the soul’s immateriality. As was typical in Roman society, he saw the body as a lesser reality in need of discipline and control by civilization. He understood paradise as a spiritual journey of the soul to God, in which material existence would be left behind. He described martyrdom as liberation from the body, “Bring wild beasts, bring crosses, bring fire, bring tortures. I know that as soon as I die, I come forth from the body, I rest with Christ.”
Though Tertullian and Origen held contrasting views of resurrection, they affirmed that persecution could not sever the connection between the living and the dead. “[The deceased are] as it were present and reclining at the banquet held for them,” Tertullian wrote. Origen pictured the dead joining with the living whenever Christians gathered for worship. In fact, the dead would be the first to arrive: “Souls come more rapidly than living persons to the places of worship.” The living received the blessing of paradise when the dead visited them.
The word “martyr” literally means witness.
Early Christians did not regard martyrs as victims, but as people who manifested the power of God.
Christian who resisted Rome unto death were actually few and far between.
As a cosmopolitan movement, Christianity benefited from the empire’s infrastructures. [i.e. social stability in cities, protection from invasions in towns near frontiers, imperial system of roads]
The story of Perpetua [who] was killed on March 7 in the year 203 in Carthage, Tunisia.
Elements of Perpetua’s dream echo the Christian ritual of baptism, in which the newly baptized were given white robes and welcomed into earthly paradise in their first Eucharist feast.
The paradise of the dead existed simultaneously with this life, and it could be accessed through rituals and altered states of consciousness.
Their visions [Perpetua’s and Saturus’s] traversed the permeable boundaries between the paradise of the living and of the departed. The two experienced a world that already existed, where beloved friends awaited their arrival.
Perpetua and her community may have belonged to the New Prophecy movement. Perpetua received cheese from the shepherd in her vision of paradise, and opponents of New Prophecy groups pejoratively called them “bread and cheesers” because they used cheese in their Eucharist. Also called Montanists, they claimed legitimacy through their legacies of martyrs and their apocalyptic visions of a transformed world that would descend from the heavens. The New Prophecy was led by the women Priscilla and Maxmilla, prophets and estatic visionariew, and by the man Montanus. The movement stressed ecstatic visions of the Holy Spirit speaking through their prophets and practicing fasting and chastity.
The movement endured until around the fifth century. Tertullian may have been the editor of the Perpetua story, he was probably in Carthage at the time of the executions. A master polemicist and satirist, Tertullian maintained an uncompromising support of martyrdom and ridiculed Rome for persecuting Christians.
If the Tiber rises so high it floods the walls, or the Nile so low it doesn’t flood the fields, if the earth opens, or the heavens don’t, if there is famine, if there is plague, instantly the howl goes up, “The Christians to the lion!” What, all of them? To a single lion.?
[Tertullian’s] turn to Christianity was accompanied by purist moral sensibilities and his sharp, ironic wit. Sometimes, in his most outrageous writings, one easily imagines him winking at the reader. He is notorious for calling women the “gateway of the devil” and proposing the term “original sin.” Tertullian eventually turned his acid polemics and wit against other Christian leaders, who he thought compromised with the empire too much.
Persecuted Christians faced a dramatic choice of life or death: hold fast to the power “not of this world” and dwell in paradise, or deny it and succumb to the unjust and oppressive power of Rome, losing paradise here and paradise beyond the grave. The New Prophecy martyrs had clear apocalyptic expectations about the transformation of the world, but their vision of change differed from early Christianity’s most famous version of apocalypticism, the book of Revelation. Revelations envisions the total destruction of the earth, rather than the descent of heavenly power into a beloved place.
“Apocalypse” means unveiling. Revelation unveiled the principalities and powers of oikoumene, the household of Rome, and described their destruction.
The text exposed how empires inflate appearances of power by fomenting fear and terrorizing people into submission. The author’s outrage is worthy of Amos. Like the prophets, it too proclaimed that the savage bloodletting, environmental catastrophes, and cataclysmic horrors of empires carried the seeds of their own destruction.
[Revelation] disguised the past as the future, making memory, the destruction of Babylonia, into a foretelling, as if to say history was fated to repeat itself. . . . Revelation’s coded message left open speculation about what would be destroyed. . . . [Its] visions of a final cosmic battle of good against evil and the creation of a new heaven and earth came to dominate later Christian readings of the future. . . . [Scripts about the end of the world] fed what theologian Catherine Keller calls the West’s “apocalyptic habit,” the predilection to see the impending end of history in one’s own time and to act it out. Mesmerized by stark, apocalyptic either/or choices in a complex world, people drive toward solutions that seek salvation through destruction.
After decades of internal turmoil and struggle against Roman oppression, Jews rose up in revolt in 66-70 CE. Rome responded with massive force, sending troops into Jerusalem to raze its temple. Three years later at Masada, a fortress on a mesa along the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea, a thousand Jewish resisters and their families were the last holdouts against the empire. Their situation hopeless, they thought death at their own hands to be preferable to capture.
. . . Jews organized a second revolt in 139 CE. . . . DeDio’sRoman History reported the destruction of “50 Jewish fortresses, 985 villages and the death in battle alone of 580,000 Jewish men.” . . . The book of Revelation was probably written around this time.
In Revelation, Babylonia represents the Roman Empire, just as it does in the catacomb depictions of stories from the book of Daniel. The whore of Babylon, its corrupt capital city, symbolizes not Rome bu Jerusalem. Harlotry was used by the Hebrew prophets as a metaphor for apostasy. Pagan Rome was not an apostate city, but Herod’s Jerusalem was. The Author of Revelation depicted scenes of destruction worthy of what Rome did to Jerusalem when its legion devastated the city in 139 CE… He told his people to purify themselves and their communities, to trust in God, and to await the arrival of a new heaven and new earth. Jerusalem was to blame for her own destruction. What else was left to hope for but an entirely new beginning?
The author of Revelation drew on Ezekiel’s visions in constructing his prophecy. He was steeped in the prophet’s images of mythical beasts and cosmic wonders, and he added his own fantastic nightmares, inspired by Zoroastrian images of heaven and, especially, hell.
There failings sounded almost moders. They were to stop consuming poisonous foods and harming themselves. They were to reject the poverty of riches, the hollowness of soulless consumerism. Instead of gazing inward, they were to wake up and pay attention to what was happening in the world.
The author told his listeners to hold fast in times of trial, to uphold truth, and to overcome self-satishied mediocrity and lukewarm equivocating. He told the church at Ephesus, hardworking and patient, that its intolerance of evildoers had stolen its capacity to love. If it repented and found its love, the author promised, “To everyone who conquers I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” (Rev. 2:7).
With his images of Jezeel and the whore of Babylon, the writer of Revelation perpetuated the use of female promiscuity as a symbol for religious apostasy, reinforcing the mandate of violence against women . . .
Revelation’s image of a wrathful, punishing God was a major reason it was frequently left behind when Christians assembled lists of their sacred books. It had difficulty being included in the Christian canon and has remained controversial since. Yet it also criticized its own fantasy of destruction. Sometimes, when it spoke of victory, it advocated a power different from the violence used in “this world,” a power that scholar Barbara Rossing describes as “lamb power.” The power was what Jesus said was not of “this world,” and it was the power of the enthroned lamb in paradise
Revelation asks its readers to believe that the murderous powers of war and catastrophe are instruments of good when wielded by the heavenly opponents of apostasy. Its idol is the sheer power of destruction, which dissolves moral distenctions between good and evil, between the legions of Satan and the forces of God. Alfred North Whiehead noted, “The church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.” The idea of an omnipotent God who is not accountable to moral questions but defines his own morality is still common in Christian circles today. In the face of the last two centuries of genocide, natural disasters, wars, and accumulations of weapons of mass destruction, an increasing number of religious people of conscience have concluded that an omnipotent God is neither good nor moral. If the power of God is no different from Satan, where is goodness to be found?
Revelation has more words devoted to paradise than does any other text in the scriptures. But Revelation’s paradise is too thin and meager to carry the weight of its fury. In being obsessed with the dualism of good and evil and galvanizing its attention on empire, it closes the door, finally, on any possibility of forgiveness, and it envisions a denatures new Jerusalem that is out of this world. It loses its grounding in the world as a gift of God. Once its volcanic heat is blown, it can only offer a crystalline, cold comfort. It promises a glittering antiworld, a place absent meadows, night, dreams, animals, companionship, and pleasure. Its paradise resembles Doris Lessing’s description of hell in a locked psychiatric word, the light are on all the time, and nowhere can one find tender mercies or the warmth of love.
. . . . [E]mperor Diocletian took control of the empire in 284, and for nineteen years he worked to save it from a century of runaway inflation and bankruptcy, a military stretched too thin, civil wars, urban riots, plagues, invasions, and the dropout members of the ruling and wealthy classes . . .
During the third century of disasters and failed emperors, Christian churches formed regional systems with presbyters and deacons, headed by a bishop, with the bishop of the largest city leading the region. By the middle of the third century, Rome had 155 priests, and North Africa had more than ninety bishops. . . . Christians renounced personal wealth and status by donating their holdings to the community and sharing them in common, a practice described in the book of Acts and letters of Paul. By the mid-third century, the church in Rome was reported to be supporting about fifteen hundred widows, orphans, elderly men, shipwrecked sailors, miners, prisoners, and sick people.
In 303, Diocletian turned his attention to Christianity and issued a series of bans against it. He began by confiscating property and destroying churches. . . . His ten-year, empirewide persecution was the worst in the church’s history and is often called the Great Persecution.
There are worse things than dying. One is having to live with the knowledge that you, by your own choice, have surrendered to forces you abhor and been complicit in the destruction of what you most love. To submit to Rome’s demands was, for many, a different kind of heath sentence. Apostate leaders severed their connection to the Spirit, relinquished their freedom and moral agency, and abandoned their community.
Christian cherished the remains of martyr’s bodies, holding to tatters of cloth and fragments of bone as talismans of life-giving power. They interred [the bones] in the catacombs or build small octagonal or round building to hold the remains of martyr near where they died. Eventually, beautiful reliquaries were crafted to hold the saint’s relics. Churches were built on or next to the martyria, and the lives of martyrs in paradise were depicted on the walls in vivid mosaics. Such places became major pilgrimage sites, where the faithful could come and experience the power of the Spirit and gain access to energies of resistance, healing, and life. . . . “To come to the tomb of a major saint . . . was to breathe in a little of the healing air of Paradise.” -Peter Brown
Resistance cannot be measured by one life or one lifetime alone. It requires solidarity across the
generations. In our time,the righteous dead call us to keep the faith . . .
[from a contemporary memorial prayer:] “Those who lived before us, who struggled for justice and suffered injustice before us, have not melted into the dust, and have not disappeared. They are with us still.” Their devotion to life is a sustaining inheritance. When we choose to hold fast to love as they did, we enter withy them into paradise, now.
Theodore of Euchaita, a Christian, was conscripted into the Roman army in 306. He refused to worship the emperor and was burned at the take for it. “I have been, am, and shall be with my Christ.”
Emperors Constantine (306-337) and Licinius (308-324), issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which decriminalized Christianity and established religious tolerance. . . . After the edict, church leaders responded to Christianity’s favored status in several ways. They accommodated imperial demands; they struggled to hold a power base separate from the empire; and they used their newfound clout to fight their Jewish and pagan opponents. Imperial favor lasted barely a half-century. Constantine’s nephew Julian, who took power in 361 and was slain in battle in 363, briefly reinstated paganism, patronized Judaism, and persecuted Christians. His was the last attempt to reclaim the old pagan Rome. . . . Theodosian Codes of 429-438 CE transformed some church cannons, passed at councils of bishops, into Roman civil laws.
In the midst of this century of changing fortunes, Christian leaders produced an extensive literature about paradise. They advanced ideas and practices already developed over three previous centuries of resistance to imperialism, and they forged new patterns of dissidence. They also accepted imperial patronage, which expanded their capacities to care for the sick and needy and funded the building of churches filled with lush visual environment of paradise. The church maintained its tensions with empire by insisting that paradise in this world was most concretely realized in the church nd that Jesus Christ incarnated God and returned humanity to paradise.
Artists and architects took the iconography of the martyr’s shrines and developed it into large-scale public worship spaces. Most artwork from the fourth century has been lost, but mosaics from the fifth and sixth centuries have survived in Ravenna, Italy . . .
As soon as the congregants entered ancient churches, they stood in a three-tiered sacred cosmos. A starry night sky or multihued clouds represented the first tier, the heavens; from this mysterious realm, the right hand of God emerged to bless the world, and celestial beings hovered in golden skies. The second tier was an intermediary space over which the living Christ presided. The departed saints stood with him in the meadows of paradise and visited to bless the living. The third tier was the floor of the church where worshippers stood in God’s garden on earth.
. . . the sacred cosmos in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna [was] a small, cross-shaped building. Built around 430 as a martyrium commemorating St. Lawrence, the interior central dome displays a midnight blue sky that teems with gold stars. A simple Latin cross marks the center apex of the sky, and the winged creatures of Ezekiel’s heavenly vision, a lion, ox, eagle, and man, emerge from red and white clouds in the corners of the dome.
Ancient visitors to this shrine would have stood . . . one level below on the stone floor looking up at the canopy of the heavens, and around at the paradise that was home to Christ and the departed saints.
In this three-tiered universe, paradise had both a “here” and “not here” quality. Christians taught that paradise had always been here on earth. Sin had once closed its portals, but Jesus Christ had reopened them for the living. While Christians could taste, see, and feel the traces of it in ordinary life, they arrived most fully in paradise in community worship. With its art and building, the church created a space that united the living on earth with the heavenly beings and departed saints, who surrounded and blessed the living. . . . touch the heavens at every Eucharist. In that holy ritual, the community stood within the sacred cosmos, blessed by the fruits of the earth and the power of the saints.
Early church sensibilities about salvation were oriented to space, to a world of many dimensions, blessed by the all-permeating Spirit. However, the modern Western religious consciousness imagines salvation almost entirely in temporal terms. Theologians speak of sacred and profane time, of salvation history, and of hope. They interpret the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise as the beginning of salvation history: the world runs along a hard arrow of time, beginning with human sin and culminating in a final New Age, kingdom of God, Second Coming, or New Heaven and Earth. Humanity lives “between the times,” awaiting a future yet to be consummated. Christ will return to fulfill God’s promise of salvation, which the faithful will receive after death, after God destroys this evil world, or after God creates a just world and has beaten all swords into plowshares. While these future-oriented themes are present among early Christian ideas, they did not delay salvation until after death or in an indefinite future time. They pictured salvation as the landscape of paradise, an environment full of life that was entered here and now through the church.
Salvation in paradise was an experience and a place, as well as work yet to be completed. The early church understood that paradise encompassed many dimensions, material and spiritual, awaiting and fulfilled. . . . Through such wisdom, Christians sought to live joyfully and enact justice, nonviolence, and love.
. . . even in a conflict-ridden, difficult world, paradise existed on the earth. . . .
Early on, teacher spoke of the church itself as the renewed paradise of God. Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon exhorted those who might be misled by unsound, heretical ideas . . .
Irenaeus did not blame Adam and Eve for sinning and threatening human destiny. He thought they were like naïve children who made a huge mistake. . . .
Theophilus of Antioch, another theologian of the second century, taught that humanity was not intrinsically good or evil but had the freedom to become divine. To assist humanity with this possibility, Gd gave Adam and Eve a place to learn: . . .
Origen of Alexandria agreed that the church offered paradise in some form in this life and that Eden existed somewhere as a real place. However, as a neo-Platonist, he disliked literal interpretations of paradise: . . . the world of ideas was superior to material life . . . the soul preexisted the body. Humanity would ultimately join with the world soul, God, from which it had descended into this life.
Origen’s comtemporary, Cyprian (c. 200-258), a bishop of Carthage martyred in the same persecution that killed Lawrence, taught that the church was the paradisus com fructus pomorum (the garden with abundant fruit) described in the Song of Songs and the place of miraculous waters in the desert . . . These metaphors affirmed that the church provided both material and spiritual nourishment.
The Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate versions of Genesis supported material understandings of the earth as paradise.
Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 236) observed . . . that paradise is not heavenly but part of heaven.
Many theologians speculated about how much paradise infused this life and in what ways it was known. Some placed it on top of a remote mountain in Mesopotamia, since the Tigris and Euphrates flowed from there. Attempts to identify the other two rivers, the Gihon and Pishon, shifted the placement. The Gihon was usually the Nile, but the Pishon could be the Ganges, the Danube, or even the Arabian Sea. Those who preferred the Ganges placed paradise east of India, somewhere off the coast of China. . . . Basil the Great (c. 330-379) concluded that remnants of paradise existed on the heights of virtually any mountain.
Early church discussions of paradise tended to be pastoral, poetic, and meandering.
Whether or not Adam and Eve had sex in Eden was disputed, most though not, but Augustine insisted they did, but without lust.
Early Christian theologians incorporated Greek and Roman ideas into their musings about paradise. Hesiod described a golden age when humanity “lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief.” . . . Homer’s Odyssey told of a great orchard island with two abundant springs. . . .Virgil, Ovid, and Horace were among other writers who described a golden past, Happy Isles, or other places in which, in their native state, human beings “kept faith and did the right.”
The cross-cultural, multireligious origins of paradise were enough to make pagans accuse Christians of stealing their ideas. . . . Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) justified these influences by claiming that Homer borrowed his ideas of paradise from Moses, the designated author of Genesis. Philo of Alexandria, . . . mounted a similar defense in the first century about the relationship of Plato and Moses.
. . . fourth-century theologians, Ephrem, Ambrose, and Augustine, among others, said it was both a real place on earth and an allegory for human spiritual development.
Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373), a poet, teacher, and lay ascetic from Nisibis, Suria, was the greatest writer of his century on paradise. Nisibis, located in conflicted borderlands between the Roman and Persian empires, was a major crossroads that attracted Asian, African, and European residents . . .
[Ephrem] wrote poems that argued against the Manicheans, who promised release for souls trapped in the earthly “realm of darkness.” Their prophet Mani taught that souls could merge after death into the “paradise of light” by practicing a strict asceticism during this life. Though he was a voluntary lay ascetic who had taken a vow of celibacy, Ephrem affirmed the body and sex.
[parts of] Genesis 1-2: . . . the story of Paradise . . . lifted me up and transported me from the bosom of the Book to the bosom of Paradise.
Ephrem’s most extensive reflections on paradise were recorded in his Hymns on Paradise, a book comprising fifteen long poems. In these poems, Ephrem spoke of paradise as a landscape that called humanity to live ethical, just, and joyous lives and to journey toward God. He pictured paradise as a great cosmic mountain that encompassed the earth and the ocean. “Gloriously entwined is the wreath of Paradise that encircles the whole of creation.” The baptized entered paradise now and lived within the embrace of this mountain. Its foothills were the home of the repentant; its slopes housed the just. Its higher regions, past the tree of knowledge, were the abode of the glorious, the children of light. The summit, beyond the tree of life, was the dwelling place of the Shekinah, the shining presence of God. From these heights, “Divinity flew down to draw humanity up.” The descent of Christ and the ascent of humanity took place on the holy mountain of paradise. This exchange restored humanity to Eden.
All dimensions of life, heart, mind, soul, and strength, belonged in paradise. In Ephrem’s symbolism, different zones of the mountain also represented dimensions of human existence. The base was the body; the rising slopes were the soul, the spirit, and the intellect; and the summit was humanity’s divine nature. Ephrem used erotic images from the Song of Songs to describe these zones. The delights of the garden filled the lowest regions; the summit was the bridal chamber. In the church, humanity gained access to all the zones of paradise and its inebriating pleasures: . . .
Born into a Christian family during the Great Persecution, [Ephrem’s] life was marked by the wars of Rome and Persia. When Constantine conquered the eastern half of the Roman Empire in 324, the Christians in Nisibis, which was located on the easternmost edge of the empire, enjoyed security for a time. However, peace was short-lived. Beginning in 335, King Shapur II of Persia began a long campaign to reconquer Mesopotamia. In the period 337-350, Shapur besieged the city . . . The inhabitants resisted the attack and rebuilt their city.
In 361, the emperor Julian, Constantine’s pagan nephew, seized power and tried once again to suppress Christianity.
After the fall of Nisibis, Ephrem made a new life in exile in Edessa, a city known as the “Athens of the East.” . . . When a famine struck Edessa in 372, leaders of the city’s church asked Ephrem to lead the effort to alleviate it. His writings and actions during this famine and the epidemics that followed it demonstrate his understanding of what living in paradise required. Ephrem organized food distribution and set up hospitals to care for the sick. He enlisted the cooperation of the healthy to maintain the community and extended the church’s care to the entire city. His poetry and hymns on paradise show us that he encouraged those under his care to savor the mystery of the goodness of life until their last breath[.]
For Ephrem, paradise was a reality that infused the church through works of love and rituals of sensual joy. He perceived proofs of paradise in communities that struggled to live with ethical grace: to care for one another, to live nonviolently and wisely, to resistempires when necessary, and to appreciate the beauties and pleasures of ordinary life. Though paradise was only partially realized in the church it could still be tasted and experienced there.
The Eastern church affectionatelycalls [Ephrem] still, the Songbird of Paradise.”
Ambrose of Milan (c. 3390-397) [was] trained in law, [and] became governor of Liguria and Emilia in 370. . . In 374, . . . Ambrose was drafted to be the bishop of Milan, which made him the emperor’s bishop. Ambrose had to be baptized, ordained, and consecrated in eight days; this was after the community caught him trying to leave town. Ambrose commented that his lack of education in theology required him to teach in the morning what he had learned overnight.
Brose wrote an extensive commentary on Genesis 2-3 that he called Paradise. . . . [He] still could not pin down where and what paradise was exactly. He explained that even Paul, who was “caught up in paradise,” could not remember if he experienced paradise “in or out of the body” (2 Cor. 12:2-4).
. . . paradise was . . . the spiritual state of a “fertile soul” who produced “good fruits.” He described each of the four rivers of Paradise as flowing through geographical regions of the earth such as India and Ethiopia, but at the same time the Great River, or fount of paradise, was Jesus Christ, or Wisdom.
After Ambrose established a power base of churches in northern Italy, he had the audacity and political acumen in 390 to excommunicate the Roman emperor Theodosius, who had ordered a massacre in Thessalonica . . . Ambrose, in keeping with the church’s teaching that shedding human blood was a sin, forbade the emperor from participating in the Eucharist until he had performed sufficient penance.
Theodosius accepted the discipline of his bishop and his Christian community . . .
At the time of the emperor’s penance, Augustine was in Milan . . .
In compelling the repentance of the emperor for shedding human blood, Ambrose showed the extent to which a bishop of the church had authority over a baptized emperor, and he demonstrated that life in paradise had ethical requirements that could call even an emperor’s behavior into question
Augustine (354-430) . . . converted to Christianity largely because of Ambrose . . . His mother, Monica, had attempted to raise him in the Christian faith, but he found it simple and inadequate. . . . he became a Manichaean dualist and rejected the Jewish scriptures. . . . at the age of thirty he achieved one of the highest academic positions in the Latin world: teacher to the imperial court in Milan. . . . Ambrose baptized him in 387. . . . rather than marry the wealthy young girl whom Monica selected for him, he chose celibacy and the priesthood. . . . served as the bishop of Hippo, about sixty miles west of Carthage, from 395 to the end of his long life. . . . Augustine rejected the idea that the world was the “displeasing” product of an evil source hostile to God.
Augustine turned to Creation and paradise as alternatives . . . He concluded his Confessions with an extended meditation on the seven days of Creation. The Spirit had breathed over the depths of humanity’s fallen state and the voice of God had called, “Let there be light.” . . . “Displeased with our darkness, we turned unto Thee, and there was light” Augustine associated the light of Creation with deeds of justice and mercy: . . .
Augustine called the world “a smiling place.” He suggested that “paradise” had multiple, interconnected meanings: The word “paradise” properly means any wooded place, but figuratively it can also be used for any spiritual region, . . . ( . . . wonderfully and singularly sublime), . . .joy springing from a good conscience within man himself is Paradise. Hence the Church also, in the saints who live temperately and justly and devoutly, is rightly called Paradise, vigorous as it is with an abundance of graces and with pure delights.
The church responded to Creation with praise and joy and sought to yield fruits of love, justice, and compassion.
When the Vandals sacked Rome in 410 . . . Augustine wrote The City of God to distinguish the “city of the world,” Rome, from the “city of God,” the church. In this book, which many consider his greatest, Augustine again affirmed paradise as a real place on the earth, and also as an allegory for the church’s mission in the world:
Paradise is the Church, as it is called in the [Song of Songs]; the four rivers of Paradise are the four gospels; the fruit-trees the saints, and the fruit their work; the tree of life is the holy of holies, Christ; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the will’s free choice.
. . . the early church, before and after Constantine, taught that paradise was a place, a way of life, even an ecosystem. The church as a community that dispensed “the medicine of life” nourished human life in paradise. The church was a concentration of paradise, a place where the strengths, weakness, needs, and contributions of each member could complement the others. Their life in paradise was a shared accomplishment in which the exercise of human powers and the imperatives of human need worked together to save and sustain life for all members together. People could come to see the value of their own lives and learn that their actions mattered to others, to see power in a personal sense of agency. They could learn to negotiate power and its responsible uses for the good of the whole. Talents and gifts could bless many. Heavy burdens and difficulties that might have crushed individuals could instead be borne on the shoulders of many. No form of governance and no society can thrive without this interstitial zone of human contact and interaction, what the ancient church called the body of Christ, the church of the Holy Spirit, the assembly of saints, and paradise on earth.
[Constantine] invited fifteen hundred bishops to his summer palace in Nicaea, Anatolia, in 325, all expenses paid, only about three hundred attended. . . . [He] wanted bishops at the Council of Nicaea to settle disputes about the nature of the divinity of Jesus Christ. . . . Was he “subordinate” to God (homo-i-iota) or “of the same substance” as God (homo-ousios)? That I, the iota, raised important issues not just for Christ’s identity and power, but for the identity and power of baptized Christians who became partakers of Christ’s divinity. [Constantine] wanted a unified church so it could more efficiently serve the empire. . . . Roman imperial practices viewed the emperor as a son of God who was divinized after death (or occasionally during his lifetime).
. . . the bishops satisfied Constantine’s demand for agreement, . . . Christ was “of the same substance” as God, . . . they gave themselves and every baptized Christian who shared in Christ’s divinity greater spiritual power and authority than the unbaptized emperor Constantine.
The anti-iota stance would later be called orthodox or Nicene Christianity.
The Nicene Christ held a tension between the church and imperial domination and established a power struggle between them.
The pro-iota position was associated with the Alexandrian presbyter Arius (250-336) and came to be called Arianism after it lost the vote. Arius . . . regarded Jesus as divine, but saw him as a “creature” descended from God, not a creator alongside of God. He held to a strong monotheism, and his teachings emphasized that Christ shared humanity’s creaturely struggles and difficulties.
The controversy over Nicaea would rage for another century . . .
THE GOOD SHEPHERD AND CAESAR
In the earliest surviving apse image of Christ, Rome’s early-fifth-century St. Pudenziana Church, Christ sat on a throne of Jupiter, a sign that he was higher than Caesar. His apostles were dressed in togas and seated like a council of gods at a time when not even senators were allowed to sit in the presence of the emperor. Christ held a book, not a scepter. Above this scene hovers a large, golden, jeweled cross. The bishop’s chair would have been positioned directly under the image of Christ to indicate the divinity of the church as Christ’s living body.
[Thomas Mathews,] “[T]he victory over Arianism was a vindication of the freedom of the Church from imperial control”
By the fifth and sixth centuries, Christians had formed a full-blown iconography that placed worshipping Christians in the sacred space of paradise, presided over by the living Christ.
[The authors] saw this iconography for [themselves] when [they] visited the Church of St. Vitale in Ravenna, consecrated in 547.
. . . the Galla Placidia mausoleum, [was] located across the yard and built about a century before St. Vitale.
Blue globes, like the one Christ sat on [his “enormous orb”], appeared frequently in Roman imperial art, usually as a small orb held in the hand of an emperor. The globelike orb symbolized Roman control of the known world.
[Continuing description of the apse mosaic at St. Vitale in Ravenna] All around Moses, . . . little bushes blazed. All earth was holy ground, illumined by the Spirit. Every ritual in the church took place in this cosmos, the image of paradise in this world. Fourth-century rabbis taught that the presence of God, the Shekinah, had departed from the earth when Adam and Eve sinned, rising higher and higher with the tragedies of human failure told in Genesis. They said that through the righteous, beginning with Abraham and culminating with Moses on Sinai, God’s presence had returned to dwell with humanity, and paradise was regained.
Everywhere, the images in St. Vitale said, God’s presence assured liberation from unjust empires and the opening of paradise for those who had been in exile.
The Portal to Paradise
Baptism was the portal to paradise. Through this ritual, Christians gained entrance into the garden of God, which stood beyond the open doors of every church. The church dipped initiates into lakes, immersed them in rivers, or drenched them from urns to wash them in the living waters of the Jordan, the great river of paradise that flowed throughout the earth and blessed all its waters. “Water was the beginning of the world, and the Jordan the beginning of the Gospel tidings,” said Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem.