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This essay seeks to present, in a nutshell, a number of reflections on the long trajectory of ancient Christianity, particularly in the East, from its beginnings until the coming of Islam. As is well known, the Islamic conquests transformed the Christian self-understanding in the East, on both sides of the border between Byzantium and the Caliphate. In the West, too, the consciousness of the new, powerful challenge to the Christian empire was never very far away. Hence the advent of Islam constitutes the first real challenge to the belief in the ecumenical destiny of Christianity.
The social and intellectual vitality of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity was in large part a function of their ability to articulate a viably transcendent hope for the human condition. Narratives of Paradise - based on the concrete symbol of the Garden of Delights - came to play a central role for Jews, Christians, and eventually Muslims too. The essays in this volume highlight the multiple hermeneutical perspectives on biblical Paradise from Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins to the systematic expositions of Augustine and rabbinic literature. They show that while early Christian and Jewish sources draw on texts from the same Bible, their perceptions of Paradise often reflect the highly different structures of the two sister religions. Dealing with a wide variety of texts, these essays explore major themes such as the allegorical and literal interpretations of Paradise, the tension between heaven and earth, and Paradise's physical location in space and time.
In an old New Yorker cartoon, two signs offer to send the newcomer to heaven in two opposite directions. One points to “paradise,” the other to “lectures on paradise.” To be sure, a collection of scholarly essays on ancient perceptions of paradise, such as this one, falls short of a promise to regain long lost paradise. And yet, from Dante's Paradiso to Baudelaire's Les paradis artificiels, powerful attempts have been made, time and again, to reclaim paradise through writing. The central human experience of paradise, it seems, is double: that of nostalgia for an irretrievable loss, and that of the unquenchable expectation for regaining it; what one could call the tension toward paradise, the epektasis of paradise. Indeed, paradise never disappeared from Western consciousness, and, despite Entmythologisierung, real or imagined, the concept retains in late modernity its force of attraction on earlier generations. “Work on Myth,” (Arbeit am Mythos, to use the apt title of the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg's powerful study of Western culture): the history of paradise in Christian culture may be compared to a kaleidoscope, where images, symbols, mythologoumena and concepts play a major part, and can be rearranged in a series of formations, at once similar and different, but always stimulating.
The word “paradise,” as is well known, stems from Iran. The concept's career in the cultures issued from the biblical traditions, however, starts with the first chapters of Genesis. Soon, in early Judaism, the paradise from Genesis “blows up,” as it were.
‘Let one man worship God, another Jove’ ‘Colat alius Deum, alius Iovem’. With this lapidary plea Tertullian establishes himself as one of the earliest advocates of religious tolerance in the Christian tradition. In the Roman Empire of the late second century, the Christians were in great need of some religious toleration. Those Christian writers whom we call the Apologists aimed, precisely, at convincing Roman intellectuals in the corridors of power that toleration of the Christians and of their religious beliefs would in no way harm the state, and that such a toleration was, moreover, congruent with principles of reason shared, at least in theory, by all people.
One of the major historical paradoxes reflected by the development of early Christianity is its transformation, during the course of the fourth century, from a religio illicita seeking recognition and tolerance into an established religion refusing to grant others (and its own dissenters from within, the ‘heretics’) what it had sought for itself until the recent past. The traditional answer to our paradox is that, as long as the Christians were in need of religious toleration for themselves, they knew how to make a case for its necessity. As soon as they came to power, however, they forgot their early virtues and learned how to deprive others of what they had just acquired. Christian intolerance, in such a view of things, would be rooted in human nature, rather than in some implicit aspects of Christian theology.
This explanation no doubt suffers from an oversimplification of complex phenomena.
The essays in this book consider issues of tolerance and intolerance faced by Jews and Christians between approximately 200 BCE and 200 CE. Several chapters are concerned with many different aspects of early Jewish-Christian relationships. Five scholars, however, take a difference tack and discuss how Jews and Christians defined themselves against the pagan world. As minority groups, both Jews and Christians had to work out ways of co-existing with their Graeco-Roman neighbours. Relationships with those neighbours were often strained, but even within both Jewish and Christian circles, issues of tolerance and intolerance surfaced regularly. So it is appropriate that some other contributors should consider 'inner-Jewish' relationships, and that some should be concerned with Christian sects.