Pagan Desecration and Toleration

In a terse news item from Jerusalem last week, the AP reported that orthodox Jews rioted when construction crews broke ground for a new hospital building.  The cause of the rioting?  It was believed that Jews were buried there in an ancient cemetery and that the graves were being desecrated.

During the excavation, however, Israeli archaeologists recovered a 2,000 year old pagan altar, which prompted them to declare that the deceased were not Jewish but instead were pagans (i.e., Romans and Greeks):

Israeli archaeologists say workers have uncovered an ancient pagan altar while clearing ground for construction of a hotly disputed hospital emergency room.

They say the discovery proves an ancient cemetery at the site that has been at the center of protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews does not contain the graves of Jews.

Protesters claim an emergency room extension at Barzilai Hospital in the city of Ashkelon is being built on an ancient Jewish cemetery. They demonstrated there when officials began removing graves this week, and rioting erupted in ultra-Orthodox areas of Jerusalem.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said Thursday the discovery of the 2,000-year-old incense altar, along with the nature of the graves, shows the cemetery was pagan.

Although the article contains no additional information, it seems safe to assume that the protesters were much relieved and the rioting ceased.  Who cares about pagans after all?

Speaking of pagans, Egregores has taken serious issue with Stephen Prothero’s claim that for “most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths.”  Egregores correctly notes that this description is generally limited to monotheistic faiths, which tend to be quite intolerant of others.  He then provides a nice historical overview of Greco-Roman polytheism, which tends toward tolerance:

James B. Rives, in his Religion in the Roman Empire, goes so far as to state that [pagans] did not even think in terms of “different” religions from their own:

[O]n a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the [Roman] empire had more similarities than differences. As a result, when people from one tradition were confronted with another, they often found much that was familiar and immediately understandable, and tended to treat what was unfamiliar simply as a local peculiarity. In short, the impression we get from the sources is that people thought not so much in terms of “different religions,” as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with regard to the gods.

Pagans, in other words, either wouldn’t have been concerned about the disinterment in Israel or they would have rioted, claiming that the dead should be respected, regardless of their faith or identity.

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