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Were the Early Christians Subalterns?

By Pedro Paulo A. Funari, Universidade Estadual de Campinas.

Graffiti ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ, Alexamenos worships god, considered as a dominant attack against a Christian. Source: Ronald V. Huggins.

Paulo Nogueira, a notorious scholar of ancient religiosity, returns in his last book to a recurrent theme: the popular character of Jesus' followers. It is worth reflecting on this a little: how popular were these early Christians? All history is interpretation, and that in the present, even if it is about the past, and with a view to longings for the future. It can't be any other way. Nogueira starts from an approach in the scope of Cultural History, particularly, in the wake of culture as narrative. Literary theory and semiotics provide elements for a materialist approach to popular religiosity, as proposed by Mikhail Bakhtin and Aron Gurevitch. There is abundant evidence, both in the New Testament and in the so-called apocryphal, extra-canonical writings, regarding the presence of the people in the Jesus movement, such as slaves and the poor, but there are also many mentions of literate and resourceful people (Mark , 15, 42-46; Acts, 16, 13-15). Jesus himself appears, here and there, reading (Luke 4, 16) and writing (John 8, 6), participating in wealthy environments (John 2, 1-12). Paul of Tarsus, author of the earliest Christian writings that have come down to us, worked (2 Thessalonians, 3-8), but he was not only literate, but learned, both in Greek and Hebrew, so one can guess from what he says about himself (Philippians 3, 5). Many of these early followers of Jesus were called the poor, a recurrent term in the Gospels and there are even explicit condemnations of the rich and the accumulation of wealth (Luke 18, 24-25). On the other hand, meals (the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, as we would later say) in the homes of wealthy Christians gathered the humble, not without conflicts though.

Poor and rich participated in this early Christian world, which raises the question of what could unite them, albeit in a partial and contradictory way. This takes us to subalterns, to subalternity, a neologism full of meanings. Generalized in the 20th century, the expression is used much earlier, since the 16th century, to designate being underneath. Anti-colonialism would give new meanings to the word, but always linked to the situation of submission, by being apart, below others (the name of the blog that publishes this text refers to History seen from below). The most general principle need not be submission, but the disregard of the other, with its potential not only to put the other in a lower position, but also to eliminate him, in physical terms, but never without any consequences for the dominator or their destroyer. If we consider the coexistence of diversity, not their submission or destruction, the past can serve the present for a fairer future.

From this perspective, these first followers of Jesus, poor and rich, literate and illiterate, women and men, young and old, could be united by the experience of exclusion and marginalisation, but also by seeking to overcome exclusionary and oppressive dichotomies. Depending on our reading, they could be based on what we want from human relations (and beyond that, those with all living beings) in the present and in the future. The prophet (Isaiah, 11, 6; 65, 25), when announcing the coexistence of predator and prey, attests well to the antiquity of this proposition of expanded empathy, even beyond the golden rule (treating the other as yourself, Leviticus 19, 9-18; Mark 12, 30-31). The female protagonism among these early Christians, as attested in the Gospels and in Paul's authentic letters, goes in the direction of this libertarian reading.

The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy, circa 250/330 AD The catacombs can be interpreted as heterotopias (sensu Foucault), against the prevailing normality. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

But, many would say, what about the repeated references to the duty of obedience of slaves to masters (Ephesians 6, 5), of women to men (Ephesians 5, 22-24), condemnations of a number of behaviours considered abominable, such as sodomy (Corinthians 6, 9-10), worship of demons (Colossians 3, 5), promiscuity (1 Corinthians 7, 2), among many others? And its uses in the present, even more oppressive, in serving to persecute and even eliminate those who behave in this or that way, what can be said? The answer seems simple: History is always made in the present and, we might add, with a view to a future. We can value, without ignoring the contradictions and limits, the libertarian power of the early followers of Jesus, in their potential openness to the other, to the difference. Oppression or freedom, respect or destruction, it is up to us as humans but also as historians to choose. Jesus' followers can be, as Walter Benjamin would say, messengers of change (like the angelus nouus), pregnant with peace between different ones, not with the silence of cemeteries (Tacitus, Agricola, 1, 21).

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