Review: Christian Caryl on The Triumph of Christianity

from Christian Caryl

Just try, for a moment, to imagine a world without Christianity. It’s a mighty counterfactual— you’ll quickly find it hard to picture. Would everyone in Minnesota be a Zoroastrian? Would a grotto of Mithras replace St. Peter’s? Would the Prophet Mohammed, or Martin Luther, or Karl Marx have spoken to us as they did?

It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a Wiccan. Like it or not, Christianity is so deeply interwoven with the fabric of history that it’s almost impossible to envision our civilization without it.

So how did we get here? Historian of religion Bart Ehrman has set himself the task of accounting for Christianity’s rise in his fascinating and lively new book The Triumph of Christianity. The answers are not obvious. The available evidence—including the New Testament texts themselves—suggests that the number of followers drawn to the new religion in its first few decades was vanishingly small. Yet by the end of the third century, Ehrman estimates, the community of believers had swollen to an astonishing 30 million. “The ancient triumph of Christianity proved to be the single greatest cultural transformation our world has ever seen,” he writes. Given the magnitude of the event, it’s hard to accuse him of overstating the case.

Believing Christians have a straightforward explanation: Christianity’s spread results from the truth of its teachings. But for those outside the fold Ehrman’s work uncovers multiple external causes.

In particular, he notes that Christianity challenged in several fundamental ways the prevailing pagan culture of antiquity, where myriad gods and goddesses could co-exist without contradiction. First, like the Jewish belief system from which it emerged, Christianity was exclusive. The Lord of all Creation demanded 100 percent allegiance: “There shall be no other gods before me.” (For ancient Jews and Christians, this didn’t necessarily mean that other divinities didn’t exist—just that they didn’t deserve to be worshipped.) For Christians, the reward for entering into this pact was correspondingly rich: the promise of eternal life. To join the circle of the faithful was to be among God’s uniquely chosen. Ehrman, rather provocatively, doesn’t say much about the actual ministry of Jesus; he’s much more interested in what came after. Jesus doesn’t seem to have viewed himself as the “founder of the church”—more as a radical Jewish reformer in an already well established apocalyptic tradition. Yet he did plant the seeds of the future with his small cell of devoted followers who were prepared to carry his message beyond his execution. Jesus’s promise of eternal life in return for rigorous adherence to one God, and the ethical code this adherence entailed, stood in stark contrast to pagan religious practice, which was essentially local, specific, and transactional: paganism did not offer a comprehensive promise of the rewards of a religious life. You prayed to the gods of business for success in business; you prayed to the gods of war for success in war; and when you were visiting Ephesus or Antioch, you made a point of venerating the city gods to be on the safe side. Christianity’s spread had the effect of undermining paganism, as its exclusivity was inimical to the persistence of rival beliefs.

The most striking Christian innovation was its emphasis on evangelism. Christians viewed all of humankind as candidates for salvation—and, in contrast to Judaism, there were no dietary rules or circumcision requirements blocking the way. The key figure here, as Ehrman notes, was the Apostle Paul, who made converting non-Jews the center of his missionary effort and, crucial to the startling rise of Christianity, forged a theology that could travel across cultural boundaries. Christ had proclaimed the possibility of eternal life for everyone, and almost immediately his apostles began spreading the “good news” (the gospel, or evangelion in Greek) throughout Judea and the rest of the eastern Roman Empire. They seem, though, to have envisioned the path to salvation as passing through adherence to received Jewish laws; they just wanted to welcome more members into the club. Paul, by contrast, set out to expand the Jesus community to include everyone—an idea he expressed most powerfully in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christianity also differed from its pagan predecessors by bringing together “numerous aspects of life that had always been kept distinct,” as Ehrman says. Standard Graeco-Roman religion consisted primarily of ritual practice, paying obeisance to the gods in the hope of easing the burdens of life. Christianity, by contrast, entailed “a way of thinking about the divine, and a set of stories about divine intervention in the past.” This all-encompassing discourse offered answers to every question and also provided clear guidelines for righteous behavior.

Ehrman also touches upon the sociological factors that favored Christianity. There’s evidence, he says, that early membership in the Church was dominated by women and members of the lower classes—a faith that could transport to any believer was not limited to a priestly cast and created opportunities for people who usually found themselves on the margins. Believers were expected to take care of each other, to share their property and wealth, and to attend weekly meetings that fostered a “tightly knit community.” Politics has its place in this story, too. The Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the fourth century brought the upstart religion into the mainstream by giving his seal of approval to what until then had been a struggling competitor in the marketplace of faiths. Constantine suddenly boosted Christianity to the status of officially approved religion. Ehrman shows that the process was more subtle than the dramatic story of Constantine’s battlefield conversion: in the official version, Constantine received a vision of the cross before a crucial battle with his imperial rival, and above it the words “in this sign you will conquer.” The battle was duly won, and henceforth Constantine venerated the Christian god who had enabled the victory. Ehrman notes that Constantine’s shift towards Christianity was actually a long and rather complex journey, and even after Constantine declared his preference for Christianity, he allowed other religions to flourish.

The Christians had a particular edge when it came to the centrality of miracle stories—with special emphasis on healing and resurrection. The Christian miracle stories resonated especially powerfully with skeptical audiences used to enigmatic interpretations of divine favor. The proliferating stories of blind men given sight and the dead brought back to life weren’t just gripping tales; they were evidence that Jesus’ promises of redemption had real-world effects.

Ehrman’s capacious history shows that Christianity’s dramatic rise can be multiply accounted for without recourse to miraculous explanations. In its many manifestations—theological, social, economic, political—its spread, he shows, was rooted in the pervasive human desire for direct and sustaining contact with ultimate truths.

Christian Caryl is Op-ed Editor/International at The Washington Post and the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is at work on a novel about the early Christian world.

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