Not many leaders in history write books. Quite a few don’t read books. Those that do put pen to paper rarely write anything of more than historical interest. But even among the small number of scribblings of the powerful that do stand up to scrutiny, Julian the Apostate’s lengthy polemic ‘Against the Galileans’, his critique of the Christianity of his time, is a completely unique document. There really is nothing to compare it with.
It must have been a therapeutic book to write. For ten years he had hidden his paganism. As the nephew of Constantine, the man who brought Christianity to the empire, and possible heir to the throne it would have been suicide to admit it. Now he was the emperor himself he could say what he really thought, and boy did he ever do so! Being brought up as a Christian in the middle of all the controversies of the time, he knew his enemies and their literature well. In fact that is an understatement. He was as knowledgeable of Christian doctrine as any bishop. More so probably. He knew Christianity well and had long been aware of its flaws. Against the Galileans isn’t simple nit picking, it is a full out and out assault on every aspect of the beliefs of the Christians from the bottom upwards.
His first problem is with God. As a pagan Julian had adopted Plato’s conception of the one God. The Christian version just doesn’t stack up against the Platonic one. The God of Plato is supreme and transcendent, the definition of creativity and perfection. God is beyond good and evil and is the unique source of all knowledge. Matter is not simply created by God, it is the manifestation of His soul and provides an imperfect and incomplete vision of the pristine forms in His sublime mind.
Compare that to the rather workaday God of the book of Genesis. He seems to be bedevilled with project management issues. And he has severe problems in the design department. He fails to get it right first time on several occasions. He ends up having to flood his own handiwork and intervene personally to stop mankind doing undesirable things. He starts getting things wrong from day one in the Garden of Eden by neglecting to provide Adam with a companion. (Actually strictly speaking that is day six.) When he belatedly adds her she instantly gets herself and Adam into trouble by eating forbidden fruit – though why the forbidden fruit needed to be created in the first place isn’t explained.
As to the plan of creating a man with no conception of good or evil in the first place, what, Julian asks, is the use of someone who can’t tell good from bad? In any case, Julian has noticed that in Genesis God creates relatively little in the way of new material – his main activities are devoted to rearranging stuff. To Julian this is indicative that God doesn’t really have the full capabilities of a genuine creator. It all sounds much more like a low level regional god who has been puffed up beyond his pay scale by overenthusiastic supporters.
Moses is demoted to the role of a tribal leader pushing his own people’s deity against those of the neighbours’. The ten commandments are dismissed as commonplace. With the exception of the requirement to stick to one god, any religion has much the same set of guidelines.
Having put God and Moses in their place, Julian next finds fault with a few of the individual stories. Anyone who flicks through the Bible knows that it isn’t hard to find the completely unbelievable in its pages. For example Julian forensically examines the account of the tower of Babel, one of the times God needs to come down to Earth to sort things out in the world that he had created. There was a danger that the tower being built would enable men to get into Heaven. It is easy to imagine quite a number of counter strategies open to an omnipotent being faced with this situation. The one God settles on is to give men lots of different languages to hinder future co-operation. This seems a little on the mild side. “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord. And can take the form of a tedious but perfectly surmountable barrier to effective teamwork.
Julian points out that even with the advantage of a common language, it would be an impossible task even for the whole of mankind to make enough bricks to even reach the Moon let alone Heaven. He doesn’t quote it, but he is probably using the very accurate figure calculated by Aristarchus some 600 years before.
That Julian is abreast of this kind of detailed scientific information and the authors of the Bible aren’t is telling. We are used to the idea that science has vastly outstripped the compass of the Bible but it is worth remembering that in straight scientific terms the Greeks were ahead of the Bible before it was even written.
Saint Paul was well aware of this shortcoming and pops a warning against listening to philosophers into one of his letters.
Of course it is possible to treat a story like that of the Tower of Babel as simply a fable. But Julian is equally unimpressed looking at it that way. It might account for the differences in language, but it fails to explain why the people who speak such different languages also have different cultures and appearances.
Julian treats us to a quick review of how he, and presumably other educated Romans, saw the characteristics of the various races – he is generally quite positive about them all. Modern day Germans will no doubt be intrigued that their ancestors are described as being courageous and loving liberty, but badly organised. He attributes the differences between peoples to their different national gods. And he makes the rather obvious point that the Hebrews had not exactly flourished as might have been expected for a race that had singled out for special treatment by the Almighty. They had failed to produce not only any respectable philosophers but hadn’t even managed a decent general and consequently had not prospered greatly.
Julian is a mystic not a skeptic: he is more than happy to accept the supernatural as an explanation and to take the writings of the Bible at face value where there is no particular reason to doubt it. He just doesn’t rate it much. The miracles of Christ are dismissed as crummy rather than untrue. It is hard to disagree. Turning water into wine seems a bit prosaic for someone who is supposed to be God. Feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish is a handy talent for a poorly organised party thrower, but hardly resonates with the role of creator of the universe. The non-catering related miracles are even more random and uninspiring unless you find pigs jumping off cliffs particularly exciting.
That the Bible has not been very well edited and is full of inconsistencies and contradictions is too obvious to miss and has amused generations of readers, but as far as I can tell Julian was the first to publicise them. He points out the striking difference between John and the other gospels. He derides the inability of Mathew and Mark to even agree on the same flagrantly bogus genealogy for Joseph. And what is the point of tracing him back to King David anyway? If Jesus was the son of God, the credentials of the man who happened to be married to his mother would be irrelevant.
Julian is respectful of Jewish culture. He goes to some lengths to justify an assertion that Moses required the Jews to sacrifice to their God. This enables him to minimise the differences between the Jews and other races, especially as he has demoted their God to a minor one. I have a feeling that Jews of the time reading it would not have been entirely happy with this interpretation. But it was an attempt by Julian to reach out to a group that whatever else they might be, were reliably anti-Christian. I imagine that they would go along with it as it meant that they could worship freely and even to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem which Hadrian had destroyed.
For sheer novelty value Against the Galileans must have been a sensation. Emperors just didn’t do that kind of thing. And for the powerful Christian faction to be so openly attacked, mocked even, must have stunned adherents, opponents and the uncommitted alike. It was a radical text in more ways than one. The Romans had always been notably tolerant of religious diversity. Julian gives this tolerance a solid justification. He does this by interpreting all religions in a Platonic framework. But this was very new – previous generations of pagans had felt no need to justify their behaviour. It is also written in such away that explicitly invites contrary views to be expressed. Julian is seeking to win an argument by reason, not laying down the law. Reading it, it is easy to forget that he was an absolute ruler. Maybe he had a vision of an empire where people were free to debate. Maybe one of his motivations was to open up this discussion and others as well.
The full text of Against the Galileans has not survived: it would be great to have more. The Church was soon to have an almost total monopoly on the reproduction of manuscripts and nothing so scandalous had any chance of being kept in circulation. My review is of the little of it that has been reconstructed from a rebuttal written by some otherwise worthless bishop (Cyril of Alexandria if you really want to know) and a few other fragments. It would be wonderful to have the whole thing.
But we have enough to give us an insight into the mind of one of the most original figures in history. Julian failed to save paganism, but it wasn’t for lack of good arguments.