On Blasphemy

The societies of the ancient Mediterranean world assumed a reciprocal relationship between the divine and human beings.  Nations and cities looked to their patron deities for prosperity and protection, especially in times of political, economic, and social pressure, while individuals throughout the Mediterranean flocked to the Delphi to pose questions to the oracles in hopes of receiving divine guidance.  Similarly, the Romans promoted the notion of the pax deorum, the belief that social order rested on human behaviors that showed proper respect to the gods.

Embedded within this cultural ethos was a deep suspicion of those who challenged or refused to participate in this compact.  In the fifth century BCE, the Athenians pronounced a death sentence on the philosopher Anaxagoras for his materialist cosmology.  Although he managed to escape to Asia Minor, his younger contemporary Socrates was less fortunate: at his trial, Plato records that Meletus charged him with rejecting the gods of the city and introducing new divinities (Apology 26b-d).  Even in Classical Athens, freethinking had its limits (see Richard Janko, “Socrates the Freethinker,” in A Companion to Socrates, ed. Sara Ahbel-Rappe and Rachana Kamtekar [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009], 48-62).

The Israelite tradition similarly condemned impiety as a offense worthy of death (Leviticus 24:15-16), and the gospel tradition states that the high priests charged Jesus with blasphemy after he claimed to be the messiah (Mark 14:61-64; cf. Matthew 26:63-66), even though claiming messianic status did not traditionally warrant a death sentence.  Later followers of Jesus encountered a similar fate for their exclusive allegiance to God, with Roman imperial authorities condemning to death those who refused to honor their divinities.  Ironically, when Christianity came to dominate European life, they too wielded the charge of blasphemy against their opponents (e.g., Giordano Bruno, George Fox, and William Penn).

Blasphemy thus has a long history in the Western tradition and has reappeared most recently in Greece, a nation under severe stress.  In the following NPR segment, Joanna Kakissis explains that political and religious conservatives have cited Greece’s old blasphemy laws as a way of silencing those who would dare to offend God.  In the background of these efforts is the assumption that an insult to the divine causes cosmic and social disorder–a revival of the ancient trope.

Old Greek Blasphemy Laws Stir Up Modern Drama