Book Review of “The Triumph of Christianity” by Bart D. Ehrman, a History of Early Development of Christianity

Jesus died around 30 CE., at which time he had only a handful of followers, all of whom considered themselves to be Jews. But by the late third century, Christianity had split off from Judaism, and attracted enough followers that the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, felt it threatened the stability of the state and vigorously persecuted it. Despite the persecutions, by 313, it had grown sufficiently powerful and significant that the new Emperor (Constantine) even converted to Christianity himself. He then issued the Edict of Milan, which granted official tolerance to Christianity. And in 380, Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making it the only authorized religion in the Empire. How could the religion have grown so fast?

Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, attempts to answer that question in The Triumph of Christianity.

Ehrman points out that the Romans were generally very tolerant of all religions. When new peoples entered the empire (usually by conquest) the Romans simply added and adopted the gods of the new people to their pantheon (with a lower case ‘p’). In fact, they did not even have a word for “pagan,” since virtually everyone in the empire recognized some or all of the Roman gods. The Romans tolerated the Jews, who worshipped only one god, probably because the Jews did not proselytize.

But the Christians were different. They proselytized vigorously. Moreover, they were exclusive in that they taught that the worship of gods other than their own was sinful. There was no room for other gods in their society. Each new convert to Christianity reduced the number of believers in the traditional Roman deities.

Ehrman argues cogently that Saul of Tarsus, better known as Saint Paul, was the most important convert in history. Although a Jew by birth, Paul fundamentally changed early Christianity from an inward-looking Jewish cult to a cosmopolitan, outward-looking, proselytizing organization.

Conversion of St. Paul, Michaelangelo, Sistine Chapel

What arguments did the early Christians use to convert others? To the Jews, the Christians asserted that Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophesies of a Messiah. This argument required a rather radical reinterpretation of those prophesies since most Jews expected the Messiah to create a formidable Jewish earthly kingdom. The argument had limited success.

To the pagans, the Christians claimed that Jesus worked many miracles. Although few if any Christians had actually witnessed the miracles, many had heard about them and repeated the tales with great conviction.

Ehrman also notes that Christianity as a community resource was very attractive to Roman pagans: it emphasized the church as an accepting family that would care for all of its members; it welcomed women; and as a bonus, guaranteed life after death.

Finally, the Christians in essence threatened nonbelievers with the prospect of eternal damnation and hellfire. That argument was strong enough to convince even the brilliant philosopher, mathematician, and gambler Blaise Pascal (albeit many centuries later) that it paid to hedge one’s bets and practice Christianity.

The actual growth rate of Christianity was not as staggering as it may first appear. Ehrman shows that the church had to grow by only about 3% per year to reach 10% of the population – 2.5 million people – by the year 300. By 380, it had reached majority status.

Emperor Constantine I

The second most important convert of all time after Paul was probably Emperor Constantine I. Although many historians have argued that he may have feigned his conversion, Ehrman argues that it was genuine. He had little to gain politically from converting since Christianity was a distinct minority at the time. Moreover, he took an active part in shaping Christian doctrine, calling for the historic Council of Nicaea in 325 to settle various theological issues. His conversion was especially significant not only because of the example he provided, but since all of his successors (except Julian, who ruled only from 361 to 363) espoused Christianity as well.

The story of the first two centuries of Christianity is open to a lot of speculation because the cult was too small to attract the attention of contemporary secular historians. The accounts in the apocryphal gospels are too fantastic to merit credibility. Even the canonical gospels are hard for nonbelievers to accept. Thus it is important for serious modern historians like Ehrman to piece together and interpret what is actually known about that time.

Evaluation: As usual, Ehrman doesn’t break any new ground, but repackages what is already known into a non-academic, reader-friendly format. His subject matter happens to be endlessly fascinating and consequential, which also helps.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2018

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