Book Review: How Christianity prevailed in the Pagan world – Tom Bissell

Roman Goddess Victoria

Tom BissellThe Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. By Bart D. Ehrman. 335 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.

The field of New Testament studies has never been a reliable starting point for scholars seeking publishing superstardom. One explanation for this is the subject matter itself. A true understanding of the forces that shaped Christianity—seemingly familiar but in fact highly arcane—requires the ability to synthesize and express deep learning in a dozen interlocking subjects. Bart Ehrman, who considers himself a historian but has done extensive work in textual criticism, has managed to achieve his remarkable renown by writing a string of best sellers that skillfully mine and simplify his more scholarly work.

That may sound pejorative, but it’s not. Ehrman’s outreach to a popular audience—among whom I happily include myself—is wholly to the good, if only because throughout history average Christians have proved oddly unwilling to dig into the particularities of their faith, beyond familiarizing themselves with a few tentpole doctrines. They share this reluctance with one of Christianity’s most spectacular converts, the Roman emperor Constantine, who credited his victory at the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312 to the auspices of the Christian deity, despite not knowing much about Christianity, including the degree to which it was riven by sectarian disagreement. The following year, Constantine co-issued the Edict of Milan, granting Christians the right to practice their faith unmolested.

In The Triumph of Christianity, Ehrman describes the Edict of Milan (which was neither an edict nor written in Milan) as the Western world’s first known government document to proclaim the freedom of belief. At the time, Ehrman notes, “Christianity probably made up 7 to 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire.” A mere hundred years later, half the empire’s “60 million inhabitants claimed allegiance to the Christian tradition.” Ehrman declares, without hyperbole, “That is absolutely extraordinary.”

Over the centuries, countless books have been written to explain this, a great many of them by Christian writers and scholars who take the Constantinian view: Their faith’s unlikely triumph was (and is) proof of divine favor. Interestingly, Pagan advisers argued in vain to the first Christian Roman emperors that Pagan beliefs had been what won the empire favor in the first place. When the emperor Valentinian II removed the altar of the goddess Victory from the Roman Senate house in A.D. 382, for instance, a Pagan statesman named Symmachus reminded him, “This worship subdued the world.”

Very little about the historical triumph of Christianity makes sense. When Constantine converted, the New Testament didn’t formally exist and Christians disagreed on basic theological concepts, among them how Jesus and God were related. For those living at the time, Ehrman writes, “it would have been virtually impossible to imagine that these Christians would eventually destroy the other religions of Rome.” Some saw glimmers of danger, however. An otherwise unknown Pagan philosopher named Celsus wrote a tract called “On the True Doctrine” that attacked Christians’ penchant for secrecy, refusal to partake in public worship and naked appeals to “slaves, women and little children.”

The great appeal of Ehrman’s approach to Christian history has always been his steadfast humanizing impulse. In his superb book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which concerns textual variants in early Christian texts that were driven by theological agendas, Ehrman argues that these corruptions weren’t typically the product of willful obfuscation but rather the work of careful scribes trying to make sense of often perplexing language, imagery and traditions. Ehrman always thinks hard about history’s winners and losers without valorizing the losers or demonizing the winners. The losers here, of course, were Pagan people.

Ehrman rejects the idea that Constantine’s conversion made much difference; the empire, he writes, would most likely have turned Christian in time without him. So how did Christianity triumph? To put it plainly, Christianity was something new on this earth. It wasn’t closed to women. It was so concerned with questions of social welfare (healing the sick, caring for the poor) that it embedded them into its doctrines. And while there were plenty of henotheist Pagans (that is, people who worshiped one god while not denying the validity of others), Christianity went far beyond henotheism’s hesitant claim upon ultimate truth. It was an exclusivist faith that foreclosed—was designed to foreclose—devotion to all other deities. Yet it was different from Judaism, which was just as exclusivist but crucially lacked a missionary impulse.

Ehrman, summarizing the argument of the social historian Ramsay MacMullen, imagines a crowd of 100 Pagans watching a persuasive Christian debate an equally persuasive adherent of the healing god Asclepius: “What happens to the overall relationship of (inclusive) Paganism and (exclusive) Christianity? … Paganism has lost 50 worshipers and gained no one, whereas Christianity has gained 50 worshipers and lost no one.” Thus, Christian believers go from roughly 1,000 in A.D. 60, to 40,000 in A.D. 150, to 2.5 million in A.D. 300. Ehrman allows that these raw numbers may look “incredible. But in fact they are simply the result of an exponential curve.” At a certain point, math took over. (Mormonism, which has been around less than 200 years, has seen comparable rates of growth.)

Ehrman quotes a valuable and moving letter from a devout Pagan named Maximus, which was written to Augustine near the end of the fourth century: “God is the name common to all religions. … While we honor his parts (so to speak) separately … we are clearly worshiping him in his entirety.” But when Pagan intellectuals decided to confront Christianity on its exclusivist terms—“We believe in one God as well!”—they effectively stranded themselves on their own 20-yard line. The heart-rending Pagan inability to anticipate the complete erasure of their beliefs gave Christianity one clear path to victory  (emphasis added).

And yet, when the [boot] was on the other foot, Christians had different opinions about religious oppression and compulsion. Many of Christianity’s earliest apologists wrote of their longing to be left alone by the Roman state. Here is Tertullian: “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that everyone should worship according to his own convictions.” These Christians “devised,” Ehrman writes, somewhat cheekily, “the notion of the separation of church and state.” But when Christians seized control of the empire, the separation they had long argued for vanished. The charges once lobbed against Christians—atheism, superstition—were turned against Pagan people.

Ehrman is careful to note that, for the most part, there was no Christian secret police forcing Pagans to convert: The empire was too large and diffusely governed to make such an effort feasible. In addition, “there was no one moment when the world stopped being Pagan to become Christian.” Rather, it happened in the manner of Hemingway’s theory of bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. Reading about how an entire culture’s precepts and traditions can be overthrown without anyone being able to stop it may not be heartening at this particular historical moment. All the more reason to spend time in the company of such a humane, thoughtful and intelligent historian. – The New York Times, 13 February 2018

» Tom Bissell is an American journalist, critic, and fiction writer based in Los Angeles, California. The first two paragraphs of this review have been omitted in this post.

Constantine with Christian bishops and Nicene Creed

2 Responses

  1. About Constantine and the Christianising of the Roman Empire

    Nobody knows whether Emperor Constantine formally converted to Christianity or not. Some say that he declared himself Christian in Gaul, and others that he was forcefully baptized on his deathbed [by his fanatic mother Helena]. What is certain is that he patronized the new cult for political reasons and became its saviour when he called the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, where Christianity was officially recognised in the Empire. He retained the title and position of pontifex maximus during his lifetime and therefore can be called Christianity’s first pope, as the bishop of Rome, whom he elevated, would assume this office and title after him. Joseph McCabe, telling the horrific story of how Christianity was imposed on the Empire, in The Testament of Christian Civilization, writes, “Constantine, natural son of a rural tavern-girl and a Roman officer, waded through rivers of blood to the throne, and he was driven from Rome to Constantinople by the scorn of the Romans because he ‘put to death, first his excellent … son, and then the son of his sister, a boy of promising character, then his wife and a number of friends.’ This summary statement of a terrible crime, which Eutropius makes … is confirmed by St. Jerome … and not now disputed.” Mgr. Duchesne, describing the character of the second Christian emperor, Constantine’s son Constantius, in History of the Arians, writes, “He slew his uncles and his cousins. He had no mercy on the father-in-law whose daughter he had married, or on his relatives in their affliction. He treated his brother infamously … and he delivered his wife to the barbarians.” McCabe continues, “Thus the rule was made safe for the three Christian princes and the bishops. Then the eldest son fell into civil war with the youngest and was slain; Constans, the youngest, proved a monster of vice and tyranny and was assassinated; Constantius, now sole ruler, adopted what some still call the vile heresy of the Arians … and he turned the Era of Religious Peace which his father was supposed to have inaugurated into an era of such red-hot passion, murder, and torture on religious grounds as the world had never seen before. … It is ironic that the repulsive struggle that fills the first half of the fourth century should have turned upon the question whether Jesus was God or was merely so beautiful a character that he was ‘like’ God. Still more ironic that the first emperor upon whom the bishops prevailed to adopt the policy of coercion should have adopted also the Arian heresy and applied in its favour the principles of violence, which was, they assured him, consecrated by the interest of religious truth. However that may be, Constantius, surrounded by the vile and unscrupulous eunuchs with whom Constantine had filled his court, made ten times as many Christian martyrs in twenty years as the Pagan emperors had made in two hundred and fifty, and introduced methods of savagery which even the Goths and Vandals would not emulate.”

    Emperor Constantine is regarded as the father of European Christian civilisation and is worshipped as a saint in the Orthodox Church!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karl Popper

    Hindus must take the review above as a warning and heed philosopher Karl Popper’s sage words.

    Liked by 1 person

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