Two different events this week mark the gulf between conservative close-mindedness and liberal open-mindedness. Glenn Beck took the path of outrage and rejection in dealing with Reza Aslan’s unwelcome truths about Jesus and his environment (that is, first century Judaea rather than 21st century America).
Beck went on his television program to “expose the truth” about Aslan:
Listening to Beck’s poor excuse for an argument will give you a headache, but it is important none the less in revealing not how the ancients viewed history but how we view it today. It is also important because it reveals how conservatives like Beck can purport to read the Bible without actually reading it.
For example, Beck says Luke 1 proves Aslan is lying when he says the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. But what Luke actually says is that he was NOT an eyewitness to what he is writing:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word (Luke 1:1-2).
To make matters worse, Beck’s puerile logic demands that if the Gospels are not accurate than neither is Aslan’s book!
Sister Rose Pacatte of the Ignatian News Network showed that it doesn’t have to be that way between Muslims and Christians, between fact and belief. She also showed that you don’t have to be the Flying Nun to be a cool nun.
Sitting down with Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, she conducted the interview that Lauren Green should have conducted. It is amazing the difference a few sensible questions minus the bigotry can accomplish.
Sister Pacatte asked about biblical literalism – that is, that everything in the Bible is literally true. Reza Aslan helpfully explained that this is a rather new idea (you know, like the idea that the only thing God really hates is gay people).
Part of the foundation of evangelical Christianity is the conception that scripture is God-breathed, it’s inerrant, it’s literal, every word of it is actual fact and truth. Well, from an academic perspective what’s fascinating about that is that’s a very new idea. I think a lot of the people who believe that think that’s what Christians have always thought for 2,000 years. That notion of inerrancy is only about 100, 120 years old.
“It’s true,” Pacatte remarked. “It’s more recent, from the Plymouth Brethren time.”
It is sad that so many Christians know so little about their own religion, let alone the religions of others. As Reza Aslan told Lauren Green, such knowledge would be mutually beneficial.
Aslan also talked about some ground that Bart D. Ehrman has covered in his books – the difference between belief and fact:
The ancient mind did not think of history the way that we think of history,” he explained. “We think of history as a collection of observable and verifiable dates and events. That conception, that definition of history would have made no sense to the Gospel writers for whom history was not about revealing facts, it was about uncovering truths.
Aslan’s point about how history is perceived is an excellent example of how the world can be viewed differently from age to age. These are differences we must be cognizant of when we read about the past, or read ancient accounts. We must understand the Iliad not as we understand it, but as the ancients understood it. The same is true of the Bible.
Take another example: The Romans did not view geography as we do. You always see maps in movies about the ancient world, but the Romans did not have maps. In fact, neither the Greeks nor Romans even had a word for “map.” Instead, they had itineraries that showed the distances from one point to another, like the Peutinger Table.
Writes historian Susan P. Mattern:
Roman geography had an important practical element, especially in the itineraries and periploi produced by the army or merchants and which could contain very accurate records of distances. It also had a theoretical element, a Greek theory of the world’s climatology, symmetry, and proportions that persisted throughout antiquity. But it also had what we might call a more literary and traditional, even “poetic” or romantic element.
Foreign relations was also understood quite differently. Foreign policy was not determined by experts who specialized in various nations and cultures but by a small elite whose knowledge base was literature and what we would think of as mythology.
As Susan P. Mattern relates in her study of Roman strategy,
[T]he Roman perceptions of the world seem to lack a certain level of complexity from the modern point of view. They were based on a long and intricate literary tradition. This tradition reflected a certain set of values and sense of cultural. identity.” Roman foreign policy had an honor-based element, that is, what we would call “face.”
We might see this sort of thinking as irrational but the Romans understood the world they lived in better than we do. As Mattern writes, “the image of Rome was the primary issue. Rome’s success, its very safety, ultimately depends less on the force that it could wield, which was not necessarily large or overwhelming, than on the image of the force it could wield and on its apparently willingness to use that force at whatever cost. This is the concept of national honor.” 
What the Romans did at Masada is a case in point, where the Romans made a point by committing and entire legion and auxiliaries – some 15,000 men – to destroy less than a thousand Jewish defenders; or Trajan’s employment of fully half the Roman army to conquer Dacia. Why? Certainly not what we would think of as pragmatic reasons like defensible borders. Instead, there was not only booty and the issue of reputation, but also the fact that the Dacian king had previously humiliated Rome.
Their [Roman] policy depended on perceived and acknowledge military superiority, on the terror and awe of the enemy; and if this image was challenged by invasion, defeat, or revolt, the Romans reasserted it with the maximum possible brutality and ferocity.”
People today have the idea that people in the past thought the same way we do – again, the example of homosexuality – a 19th century pathology – is relevant.
As I have pointed out here before, the ancients did not see gender the way we do. For a Roman male, for example, or a Norseman for that matter, a man was active, a woman passive. A man was a penetrator while a woman was penetrated. It did not so much matter what the man penetrated – anus,mouth, or vagina (that’s for you, Ken Cuccinelli). What made a man a man was not just his penis but that he penetrated. In Norse society, a woman could take on the characteristics of a man by acting like a man, and even be admired for it.
We have a hard time understanding that ancient peoples saw the world differently than we do, and interacted with it differently as a result. Conservative Christians like to think they are identical to the Christians of the first century but nothing could be further from the truth.
The sad part is that rather than acting like a first century Christian, or even trying to, these modern conservative Christians insist first century Christians must have thought and acted like they do.
It is no wonder Glenn Beck and Lauren Green and others have such a difficult time grasping our own shared reality, let alone the shared reality of a world long past.
 Susan P. Mattern. Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 41-42
 Mattern, 53.
 Mattern, 21-22.
 Mattern, 107-8
 Mattern, 108
 Mattern, 210.
 Ray Laurence. Roman Pleasures: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (London: Continuum, 2009).
 Nancy Marie Brown. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (New York: Harcourt, 2007). See also Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (1995).