The Julian Narrative

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 595.

Julian’s “favorite thoughts were to protect the oppressed of all nations and religions, to promote the well-being of all his subjects, more especially by alleviating the burden of taxes, to revive the philosophical sciences, to restore the ancient religion, freed, however, from its most conspicuous blemishes, which had rendered it so contemptible and ridiculous; finally, to confine Christianity, which had gained so much power during so short a period, within its proper limits.”

Graetz is discussing Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor from 361-363 C.E. Unlike his predecessors and successors, Julian was not a Christian. Rather, he was a pagan who detested Christianity. To his credit, he reversed the persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Holy Roman Empire. He actually tried to rebuild their temple, but that project was cut short when he died in battle. And Christians were quick to affirm that Julian’s death was God’s punishment of him for leading Rome away from Christianity.

Did Julian persecute Christians? From what I read in Graetz and other sources (well, wikipedia), Julian didn’t kill Christians, but he did try to isolate them from Roman society by cutting them off from its intellectual life. For example, Christian teachers couldn’t use pagan sources, which were crucial in Roman education.

I guess what this quote illustrates for me is the different ways that people emplot events. Julian was a good man, on some level. He valued justice and philosophy. He relieved his persecuted Jewish subjects. He didn’t buy into the anti-intellectualism or anti-Judaism of certain Christians in his empire. He was somewhat like John Walton: he was a good man who was searching for God in some manner, but he didn’t care too much for organized Christianity.

But, the way Christians emplotted it, God didn’t care about the good things that Julian did. Julian didn’t embrace their narrow Christian doctrine, and so God wasn’t on his side. God punished Julian, leading to the rise of emperors who reinstated the Christian policy of persecuting Jews.

A question often enters my mind when I hear evangelicals emplot events, for instance, like when they say that a liberal, non-fundamentalist professor is of Satan while the bold (obnoxious) fundamentalist Christians are of God: Is God really that narrow-minded? If so, why would I want to worship such a God? Because he’s bigger and stronger than me?

Things never quite work out in my life as the fundamentalists emplot. When I was at DePauw, I went to an evangelical Bible study group, and the Christians there were talking about how they planted seeds for God on “gay day.” The way they told it, God was clearly on their side, and they were winning souls for God on the spiritual battlefield.

One day, I noticed that a woman was setting up a table for gay day, so I went outside to witness to her. “God will use me to bring this woman to repentance,” I thought. So I went out and asked her what she thought about religion and homosexuality. After she gave her response, I was about to share with her my evangelical spiel, when she suddenly cut me off. There were others there who needed her help. She handed out ribbons to people who had gay relatives–and, believe me, admitting support for homosexuals was not exactly in at DePauw, especially not in fraternities! One of the students receiving a ribbon said that his brother was gay, and he projected an attitude of “I want to support my brother, but I hope no one is seeing me.”

I guess what I’m trying to convey is this: my evangelical spiel looked pretty shallow in the face of all this. God wasn’t dramatically using me in that incident, as he supposedly used my Christian friends. And the whole emplotment of good vs. evil didn’t seem to fit in that situation. A student was trying to support his gay brother. What is evil about that?

But let’s look at the secularist side. Julian looks like a hero, but he wasn’t all that tolerant towards Christians. That’s the way it often is with secularists or liberals who preach “tolerance”: they’re not exactly tolerant of conservatives or Christians. They want to ban Intelligent Design from public schools in the name of “science,” or they seek to remove religion from the public sphere, period. Julian did good things, but he wasn’t all that tolerant of people he disagreed with. His bad!

So is there a point in all this morass? I guess my point is that I have problems with all sorts of narratives: conservative Christian and secular. They end up simplifying reality too much, and they’re not that tolerant to people with other perspectives.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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9 Responses to The Julian Narrative

  1. steph says:

    Who wants to remove religion from the public sphere? I don’t think ‘intelligent design’ should be banned from schools, but it comes under the religion curriculum. I wonder if God was using you after all, when he introduced you to the woman in order to suggest that homosexuality is not evil and she had no need to ‘repent’. I think Julian wanted no group to dominate another so that all could live peacefully next to each other … maybe.

    I like your post by the way.


  2. Byker Bob says:

    I’d say that your post illustrates that this complexity has been with us at least from the early centuries of Christianity. And, different events and activities become very difficult to categorize or fully explain, especially if any one of us is in a particular “box”. That’s why I aways hate it when someone thinks they have me all scoped out and neatly placed into one of their various files, or boxes. When people do this to us, it marginalizes us. And that is often deliberately orchestrated by an opponent who is playing to win.

    Everyone we could possibly meet is a mixture of good and evil, and all of the shades in between. There are some who have learned to mostly tap into their “good”, and some who have even learned to fake this. There is only one who truly knows our hearts.

    In real everyday life, having made some sincere attempts at evangelism over the course of my life, and having had some bomb badly, I tend to hold back, possibly even too much. I read a book on the topic of personal evangelism at the suggestion of one of my forum friends. The book, “Reimagining Evangelism”, by Rick Richardson, suggests looking for places where the Holy Spirit is working, and going with that general flow. We all perceive, from time to time, openness on the part of aquaintances. If we can answer questions, ask some more of our own, and learn some things about the people around us, this process often allows us to do some seed planting which may grow into full fledged conversations about life, giving us opportunities to share our faith. The process seems quite natural then, and is likely to go much better than it would if we immediately launched into some sort of canned religious presentation. I had never thought of personal evangelism quite in that light, so the book was quite valuable to me.

    James, I like these books that you often quote. Are they your textbooks, or are they books you are reading independently? Whatever the case may be, it’s nice to be able to study along with you as you work towards your PHD.



  3. James Pate says:

    Hi Steph,

    I think those who try to ban religion from schools want to remove it from the public square. In the case of ID, there are people who don’t want it in public school classrooms, for the very reason that they are public school classrooms. Europe was even worse on this a few years ago. And I think that people try to keep religion out for the same motive you ascribe to Julian: they want to keep the peace, and they see Christianity as too divisive. I’ve heard liberals say that the Christian right doesn’t just want a place at the table: they want to own the table! That may have been why Julian cracked down on Christians.

    On your comment about God using me, I agree that God may put me in situations where I am learning, not teaching. This was definitely one of those situations, since I didn’t even get to throw my seeds out! But I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn. I’m uncomfortable with saying it’s that homosexuality is all right, since that goes against the Bible. But, then again, the Bible is somewhat of a binary book. How often does it see shades of gray?

    Hi Byker Bob,

    What you say about witnessing reminds me of Henry Blackab’s Experiencing God, which says we’re supposed to identify where God is working and join him where he is. We identify God’s work when someone asks spiritual questions, since there are passages that say a person doesn’t seek God unless he draws them.

    On the books, they’re things I want to read. Some of them are recommended by my professors, some are not. I’m just reading the ones that aren’t to get an overview of history. There’s just something about Schaff and Graetz that you don’t get in modern historians. Passion, maybe? Or a desire to find meaning rather than just a bunch of facts?


  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi James,

    If you’re reading the Bible as a fundamentalist, sure homosexuality is wrong, even though the Bible is ambiguous. There are plenty of other abominable sins, the Sodom story is about hospitality and rape and even the Pauline texts are not beyond ambiguity. But anyway I prefer to read texts in their historical context. I don’t think we are all the same. Even heterosexuals are not the same. I think homosexuality is ‘real’ and not necessarily something that can be ‘cured’. It is, if you like, just part of the complexity of humanity. I think God was suggesting that the world which accepts that complexity is a good world. That’s what I would hope anyway. (Think of the cute penguins – homosexuality exists in their species and they stay faithful to one partner all their lives).

    I don’t know anyone who wants to ban religion from schools. While not wanting creationism talk in the science class, the secular societies in which I live advocate teaching religion in schools and part of the religion curriculum includes obviously biblical creation. As for the public sphere, the only societies in which I live have free speech and freedom of religious expression. Maybe you have radical reactionaries against all religion in America? If so, that’s outrageous.


  5. steph says:

    Sorry – that was steph. I typed me but I don’t know what happened…


  6. James Pate says:

    Hi Steph,

    I tend to see the Pauline texts as unambiguous on the homosexuality issue. That’s something I discussed a while back, when Michael Westmoreland-White was doing his series on it. You can read my comments by clicking on “homosexuality” under the topics–on this blog, of course. What you say about the complexity of nature sounds good, but I have problems throwing out what the Bible says on the topic.


  7. steph says:

    That’s why I prefer to read the Bible in its historical context – I mean, is eating shellfish an abominable sin? While I prefer too, to read Paul in his context, and as a rather fallible human being, I was more convinced by Michael at the time than you (sorry). And as an agnostic, I just cannot see homosexuality as wrong. It may be unusual, but they are some of the most genuinely loving, artistic, people I know generally in committed and eduring relationships unless they are single, and generally humble God believers and Christians (except for a Buddhist couple I used to know), These people could never be ‘straight’.


  8. James Pate says:

    I may have asked you this in other contexts, Steph, but, if you’re an agnostic, why would it matter to you what Paul said? When I asked you this in our discussion about guns a while back, you said you were referring to the Bible because I’m religious. But it has to be more than that. You visit all sorts of religious blogs. You’re doing a Ph.D. in New Testament. Is the Bible a part of your spiritual journey, in some way, shape, or form? Or are you interesting in it because of its effect on Western culture?


  9. steph says:

    I’m interested in the Bible (and other texts) as a historical religious text and also the way it influences and shapes our culture – but mainly as historical documents. It matters what Paul wrote because it means alot to Christians and I share this world with Christians.


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