Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Romulus & Remus: A Lesson for Christianity

The founders of Rome are said to be twin brothers named Romulus and Remus. Born in 771 B.C.E., they were the sons of Mars, the god of war, and the priestess daughter of another god-king, Numitor.


Mars, God of War

Numitor was ruler of the city of Alba Longa, about 20 miles south of present-day Rome.


The Alban Hills, outside Rome

Their mother, Rhea Silvia, had been forced to become a Vestal Virgin by her uncle, Amulius (Numitor’s brother, who overthrew Numitor), because Amulius had been warned that Rhea Silvia would produce sons who might overthrow him. Rhea Silvia, however, became pregnant when she was raped by Mars.

Enraged, Amulius ordered that Rhea Silvia be buried alive – the standard execution for a Vestal Virgin who broke her vow of celibacy. He also ordered that the twins be executed. However, the slave who was to perform the execution placed the boys in a basket upon the Tiber River, and sent them floating away to safety downstream.

The river god Tiberinus rescued the twins, and took them to the Palatine Hill, along the banks of the river, to be nursed by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker.


Romulus and Remus feeding

The twins grew up as shepherds, but their strength, stature, and regal bearing soon set them apart from their peers.

In time, Amulius discovered that the twins were still alive, and set out to kill them. However, the twins by now commanded a citizen army, and they defeated and killed Amulius. The citizens offered the dual crown of the Alba Longa to the twins, but they refused to take it, since their grandfather (Numitor) was still alive. Instead, they restored the crown to Numitor, and set out to found their own city on the slopes of the Palatine Hill, where they had been raised.

However, they began to argue once they set out to build their city. They disagreed about where its actual location should be. They decided to have a contest to see who had the true will of the gods on his side. Using augury (which was an ancient form of reading the will of the gods through signs in nature), they each counted the number of vultures they saw in the sky. Romulus saw the most and thus won the contest. Remus was outraged and the two brothers fought. Romulus won the fight by killing his brother.

Thus, he built his city in the location of his choosing, along the Palatine Hill, and named it after himself.

Rome was born. The year was 753 B.C.E.

Romulus became the first king of the city, and the population grew to large numbers under his rule. He created a city council of 100 men, which would eventually become the Senate, and he also created the first Roman legions. He warred with a neighboring tribe called the Sabines, and after defeating them, they were added to the population of Rome, nearly doubling its size.

In the 38th year after the founding of the city, 717 B.C.E., Romulus and a number of local citizens went to the Campus Martius (the Field of Mars), which was a wide, grassy plain to the west of the city, where games, elections, and other municipal events were held.


The Field of Mars as it would have looked centuries later, at the height of the ancient Roman Empire

While they were there, a great storm arose, which darkened the entire city. While this was happening, Romulus sneaked away and went to the Quirinal Hill, where he ascended into heaven to live with the gods. A temple was built on the spot to his honor, and he was worshipped thereafter as a god himself.

As anyone familiar with the bible will note, there are a number of similarities between the mythology of Romulus and Remus, and the stories in the bible. Moses, it was said, was placed inside a basket and set afloat on a river, in order to escape a vengeful king. Jesus is said to have been conceived by the union of God and a virgin. Upon his death, a great storm is said to have overtaken the land, covering it in darkness. Later, Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven to live with God, and to be part of God himself (the Trinity).

The story of Romulus and Remus, of course, predates the events in the New Testament. And while Moses is believed to have lived several hundred years before Romulus and Remus, his story – including his origins in a basket on a river – was not recorded until after the inception of the mythology surrounding the founding of Rome.

We could argue all day about whether there is any theological significance in these similarities. Skeptics would say that this (as well as many other examples) proves that the stories in the bible are simply a retelling of pre-existing mythological themes. Believers would either reject the dating of the various stories, or would take the route of C.S. Lewis and argue that these earlier stories were simply examples of ancient mythology paralleling what was to come – all part of God’s grand plan for humanity (one must wonder, if this Lewis argument is true, if the events described in, for example, the Star Wars saga, will eventually play out in reality, many centuries in the future).

But my purpose with this essay is not to argue these points. Instead, I want to illustrate a parallel between how we interpret secular history as opposed to Christian history.

When traditional Christians read the story of Romulus and Remus, they no doubt read it as a mythological tale (despite the fact that archaeological evidence suggests that Romulus was a real person, and, as illustrated above, the dates of the supposed lives of Romulus and Remus are recorded by ancient historians). At the very least, traditionalists will assume that while Romulus, and possibly his brother Remus, were real people, the events attributed to their lives – such as virgin births, being the sons of a god, raised by wolves and woodpeckers, ascended into heaven without dying – these events would be regarded as mere mythology painted against the lives of otherwise real people. Maybe Romulus really founded Rome after killing his brother, but his mother wasn’t really a virgin, and he didn’t really ascend into heaven without dying. Additionally, he probably was never set upon a river in a basket, and he certainly wasn’t rescued by the River god and raised by suckling a she-wolf.

Perhaps you already see where I’m going with this.

Can we not – indeed, should we not – apply the same rational analysis to the life of Jesus? Why do we reject the mythology surrounding Romulus, but accept as theological truth an identical mythology surrounding Jesus? Why is it absurd, to our 21st century, post-Newtonian mindset, to consider that Romulus was really born of a union between Mars, the god of war, and a virgin, but it’s not absurd to our 21st century, post-Newtonian mindset to consider that Jesus was born of a union between Yaweh (also a warrior god, incidentally) and a virgin? Why do we suspend disbelief for one, but not the other? And more importantly, why don’t we apply the same rational analysis to the biblical story that we apply to all other ancient mythologies?

Of course, in the end, there is no unified answer. As I said above, skeptics will largely agree with me, and traditionalists will simply shrug these questions off, or offer (what I believe to be) those all-too-convenient Sunday School answers.

But for the traditionalists among us, let me at least encourage you to give these ideas some thought. What is your core motivation? Why do you reject one, but not the other? Why do you use reason and logic with one, but not the other?

I suppose what I am arguing is not unlike the old atheist adage that says something like, “Think of all the reasons why you reject Zeus, Odin, Thor, Mars, and Osiris. I reject the Christian god for the same reasons.”

Of course, I don’t personally reject the Christian God. What I reject is the traditional Christian notion of God. I believe that God is far too great, and far too transcendent, to be limited by Christian (or any other religion’s) theology.

So, for the traditionalist reader, please consider the story of Romulus and Remus. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere, for anyone who wants to hear it.

14 comments:

deine schwester :) said...

Makes sense to me. :) But then, I'm hardly a traditionalist.

Chris Traina said...

There is a problem with your thinking. There are over 500 witnessed accounts of Jesus both during his life and after his death, when he had resurrected. These people who had seen Jesus were willing to be tortured and killed rather than backtrack on the story. If we wanna use logic and reasoning, If I was making up a story about somebody and I was being threatened by torture and slaughter unless I told the truth, I would certainly tell the truth. Too much evidence supporting the Life, death and resurrection of Jesus, nothing for Romulus. I pray God would reach out to you and show you the Love he has for all of us though we are unworthy. He demonstrates it in his Holy Son

Anonymous said...

Chris Traina,

Where is the evidence for you evidence? Sounds strangely like the same "apologetics" that have been used for decades to make the same point. Yet all of your "evidence" is taken from the Bible. While it may be true, it is not objective evidence to support your case. One does not use a source to prove the same source if one is objective.

Just Sayin'...

Scott said...

Thanks to both of you for reading and commenting.

I think what I said in the original post (which was made about a year ago) still holds true: "...skeptics will largely agree with me, and traditionalists will simply...offer...those all-too-convenient Sunday School answers."

Chris, I consider myself a Christian, albeit in the "liberal progressive" camp. I came to this place spiritually after many years as a traditional believer like yourself.

Although I am by no means a professional, biblical scholarship is a passionate hobby of mine, and I have read dozens of books by scholars and theologians from across the religious spectrum - from evangelical to atheist. I also read and study the Bible on my own, both for academic as well as spiritual reasons. I grew up in the church, and was educated at private Christian schools, up through and including my college degree in history.

I do not believe you can read the Bible honestly without being willing to read it critically. My opinion is that the Bible should be read and analyzed just like any other ancient text. If faith cannot stand up to reason and scrutiny, it is not a faith worth having, in my opinion.

Your statement about the 500 witnesses is - as the anonymous poster pointed out - spurious at best. Our only source for that is Paul's letter to the Corinthians, and Paul's didn't hide the fact that he was reporting this second hand. He wasn't actually there, and there are certainly no corroborative accounts in the Gospels.

Furthermore, most Christians assume that Paul's words about the resurrected Jesus referred to a physically raised dead body that had come back to life. We assume that because we read Paul's words through the lenses of the Gospels - which were written 1-2 generations after Paul's death. Paul makes it clear throughout his letters that his perception of the resurrection was a spiritual one, not a physical one. Paul never mentions an empty tomb, scars in Jesus' hands or feet, or Jesus hanging out with the disciples after his resurrection - those are all stories depicted in the Gospels, not the Pauline corpus. Paul's theology says that Jesus was resurrected in a spiritual body of glory, not that his dead corpse actually rose up out of the ground.

If someone completely unfamimliar with Christianity were to be given the letters of Paul, and then asked to comment on those letters, they would unquestionably have a dramatically differenct concept of what it all means than what most Christians do. That's because most Christians read the various books of the Bible through the lens of all the rest - as if it were a single book composed by committee, rather than a collection of different writings written by different people in different geographical areas and different chronological eras, all writing their own personal views of what it means to be a Christian.

I encourage you, when you read your Bible, to read the books/letters as they were written - individual accounts by individual people writing their own individual perceptions of the meaning of the life of Jesus. When you read the Bible that way, you discover that there are dramatic differences in how different New Testament writers viewed Jesus and the meaning of his life.

As for why the earliest Christians would have endured torture and death because of their faith in Jesus - that's something that proves that they were certainly sincere in their faith and sincere in what they believed, but it does not by any means prove that they were *correct* in what they believed. Perhaps you'll recall the Heaven's Gate community of believers who believed so sincerely that they were catching a ride on a flying saucer trailing in the wake of the Hale-Bopp Comet, that they all willingingly committed suicide, believing that was the only way to their salvation. I'm not saying that the Heaven's Gate cult and early Christianity are equal, I'm simply pointing out that loyalty - up to an including death - to a religious system does not prove that the religious system is true. Another prime - and perhaps more readily obvious - example would be the 9/11 terrorists and countless other militant Muslims who have died for their beliefs.

Scott said...

A bit of clarification on the issue about Paul's theology...Paul's theology shows that he believed Jesus had been raised *to heaven* in a spiritual body of glory. Again, nothing from Paul about Jesus walking around on earth, his dead corpse having come back to life.

The fact that Paul was referring to resurrection in this "spiritual" sense - rather than in the literal sense that most modern Christians believe in - is evidenced by the fact that he includes *himself* in his list of those who had "seen" the resurrcted Jesus. Paul doesn't hide the fact that he never knew Jesus during his life, and doesn't hide the fact that his conversion to Christianity occurred as a result of a "vision" of Jesus while on the road to Damascus. This story is dramatized for us in the book of Acts. But either way, Paul's encounter with the resurrected Jesus was a spiritual one - he wasn't actually there in Jerusalem on the first Easter. So the fact that he includes himself in the list of those who saw Jesus, together with his clearly outlined resurrection theology about "spiritual bodies of glory," proves that his list of those who witnessed the resurrected Jesus was a refence to those who had experienced Jesus spiritually, not those who had necessarily seen a dead body walking around town with scars in the hands and feet.

Again, we absolutely MUST read the books of the Bible as individual texts, without distorting them with the lenses of the others, because that's how they were written - as individual texts. There were no Gospels when Paul was living and working and writing.

Anonymous said...

well said Chris Traina I agree with you completely

auderus said...

I see no problem with your thinking and your conclusion is supported to the extent you laid out your position. There are a couple other points worth adding,
1. History is at best not a science we can even now argue about how history is recorded and how accurate it is for example even the civil war, WMD's in the middle east and this is recent history. Attempting to be objective is of course the correct goal, yet accuracy and proof are very high standards that even science can find hard to nail down, Look at recent physics and M-theory, is the universe probabilistic or deterministic, they just do not know and experiments support both conclusions. So conclusive history is soft at best.

2. religion and Politics are the two that often are not topics in casual interaction for I believe two reasons, a. they are full of emotion and b. they are very very subjective

3. I am a man of faith and science I feel like a bully when I have in my youth argued one religious approach against another it is so easy to unwind any religion by the standards of proof, objectivity, and science, the fact is religion is not of the realm of proof, scientific method and conclusive evidence. Religion is about faith and hope, both of these are built upon the concept of belief without proof.

4. Life is a series of decisions we make for various reasons, we like to think we have proof but science has shown even the concept of truth can be a temporal idea that changes over time, doctors are always upgrading what they believe to be the best practice based on truth. ulcers were never caused by spicy food or stress but for years the was thought to be the truth. Medicine and Science understand how very really hard it can be to articulate and prove the truth. we need to accept that limitation set.

5. If you are smart objective and of a scientific mind don't be mean to those who have faith. I have a great education and high IQ and I and smart enough not to try and prove my religious beliefs to anyone, I just try to demonstrate the benefit by the way I live, forgive, love and try to help others. When I was young and looking and didn't have faith I liked to win arguments by twisting up people of faith by getting them to try to prove things, it was so easy to unwind them... I was an intellectual bully.

6. If you are ever in a position that your life really puts hard questions in your mind that all of our objective knowledge and science just doesn't seem to answer then you may seek faith and hope to reach for some deeper meaning. If not great fantastic, but please don't be so insecure as to try and dismantle the faith hopes and beliefs of others, especially simple people who really and very loving and kind. and need hope to survive. The ones who use religion as a means of control, domination and to exclude and hurt others, have at em they need to be educated, just be sensitive enough to know the difference. Best wishes to all who read this :-)

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Auderus. I can't disagree with anything you've said. I've always tended to abide by the maxim that if a given belief provides comfort and peace to someone, then more power to them, as long as it is not harmful to themselves or others.

Anonymous said...

There is also the case of if we are to treat the Biblical texts as any other historical document, then why do we (scholars, teachers, universities, the general populace) employ an almost unquestioned acceptance of at the very least,"general" accuracy of ancient non-Biblical accounts which are far removed copies of original texts, but we do not for The Bible? Homer's Iliad (written in 800BC has its earliest "hard" tangible COPY traced 400 years later), Herodotus' History (written in 480-425 BC with the earliest tangible copy we have dating 900AD-over 400 years), Thucydides History (written in 460-400 BC with the earliest hard copy in 900AD- so 500 years), Caesar's Gallic wars (written in 100-44BC, earliest hard copy in 900AD), Tacitus' Annals (written in 100AD and earliest copy in 1100AD), but with the New Testament, being written in 50-100AD, there is a mere 50 year gap for 114 fragments of them being found, then only a 100 year gap before 200 copies of many of the books were being found and then 325 complete hard copies of the New Testament being found only 225 years afterward. Within the context of all Historical documents, the NT has the shortest gap of found hard copies from the actual purported events and yet many accept non biblical documents as more or less accurate despite a myriad of political reasons for why numbers and accounts might have been exaggerated and yet we dismiss the accuracy of the innocuous plea for humanitie's peaceful salvation from the mouths of soon to be martyrs who wanted to record the sayings and teachings of one who died for what he taughts who they claimed to later be the resurrected Christ. Then, for evidence OUTSIDE the Bible (revoking the "self referential!" outcries from the atheist camp)Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, has preserved copies of Papias, bishop of Heirapolis directly recording the apostle John discussing the painstaking lengths that the apostle Mark took in recording the witness account of Peter in regards to Jesus life and sayings. Then, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons who was a direct disciple of the apostle John and later martyred in 156 AD for his Christian belief wrote that the Gospels were so solidly recorded that even the heretics who misapplied their doctrines witnessed them in their original written form. These are not Paul's letters and do not seem "at best, spurious."

Anonymous said...

Hmm, just noticed I had a few typos up there, sorry. Tried to rearrange the grammatical construct of some of my sentences when I was plugging in some of the historical references and documents and I forgot to fix a few of the sentences there, sorry again, fellers. :-)

Scott said...

Anonymous: thanks for the reply, and sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you.

I agree with what you've said as far as your run down of the textual background. Yes, the NT is very well attested by early copies.

I think people trust secular books from ancient history because there is not as much motivation for scribal alterations in the texts. There is also not as much reason for the original authors to embellish things. If Herodotus, for instance, told of magical or supernatural events, I have little doubt that historians would find the accounts spurious.

Be that as it may, I don't think any serious historian reads any text of ancient history without a critical eye - whether secular or from the NT. One of the jobs of the historian is to try to untangle fact from fiction within historical accounts. The NT isn't immune to this, but it's also certainly not the only ancient text that is scrutinized.

Patrick Spier said...

The 500 are mythical, since no one ever mentions one name and they are only found in a religious book, and logic should show you that these people were brain washed and really believed they were dying for a good cause just like the countless atheist that die for this country.
Just because it's written in a book doesn't make it factual.

Patrick Spier said...

Scott, do you think it's way off for scholars and historians to believe Paul was a mythical character?

Scott said...

Thanks for commenting, Patrick.

I do think it's way off to assert that Paul (or Jesus, for that matter) was a mythical character. Certainly mainstream religious scholars and historians are in almost universal agreement that Paul did exist, and I don't know of any legitimate historical arguments against his existence.

I did once run across someone (on the Internet of course) arguing that Paul didn't exist and that Marcion, a 2nd century Christian leader who was eventually denounced as a heretic, actually invented Paul and wrote all his letters. Marcion is well-attested in early Christian writings, primarily because other early Church fathers were so intent on discrediting him (he preached that the god of the Old Testament wasn't the same god who fathered Jesus). Marcion was one of the first major Christian leaders to develop a canon of texts (i.e., a "bible"), but it consisted only of Paul's letters and the gospel of Luke (which was undoubtedly written by a follower of Paul). In other words, Marcion was heavily inspired and influenced by Paul.

For this reason, conspiracy theorists have tried to make ridiculous arguments that Marcion actually invented Paul and wrote all the letters attributed to him. This is patent nonsense and no supported by one shred of textual or historical evidence.

The simple fact is, the preponderance of that historical and textual evidence suggests overwhelmingly that Paul was a real person and, in fact, a very controversial figure in the first generation of Christianity.

It's also important to remember that we have multiple early attestations of Paul's existence by other Christian writers. The author of 2 Peter, writing in the early part of the 2nd century, mentions Paul's letters (calling them difficult to understand), which shows that they were already in wide circulation by that time. The author of Luke and Acts also, obviously, knew of Paul, as the whole last half of Acts is basically a biography of his life. Virtually every scholar on earth dates Luke-Acts sometime in the 1st century, probably in the 90s. Finally, the first epistle of Clement, written in the 90s by Clement of Rome to Paul's church in Corinth, mentions Paul and references a number of his letters.

So no, I don't think there is any reason to suppose Paul was a mythical character.

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