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The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World Hardcover – February 13, 2018
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— Reza Aslan, New York Times bestselling author of Zealot
“The great appeal of Ehrman’s approach to Christian history has always been his steadfast humanizing impulse... Ehrman always thinks hard about history’s winners and losers without valorizing the losers or demonizing the winners… 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 Book Review
“Drawing on a wealth of ancient sources and contemporary historical research, Bart Ehrman weaves complex questions into a vivid, nuanced, and enormously readable narrative.”
— Elaine Pagels, National Book Award-winning author of The Gnostic Gospels
“Like a good college lecture class, [Ehrman’s] book offers both a wealth of historical information and, to make sense of it all, a few plausible theories — including his own. He doesn’t tell us what to think. He gives us a lot to think about.”
“Ehrman is a great scholar, and this — as one would expect — is a book full of learning and nuance.”
— The Spectator (UK)
“Well worth reading for those wishing to dispel myths around the early Christian churches.”
— Publishers Weekly
“The value of Ehrman’s book, as is so often the case with his writings, is in his ability to synthesize complex material and distill it into highly readable prose.”
“One of Christian history’s greatest puzzles after the age of the apostles is how a tiny band of mostly-illiterate outsiders converted the proud and massive Roman Empire in just three centuries — a historical blink of an eye. In The Triumph of Christianity, Ehrman brings impressive research, intellectual rigor, and an instinct for storytelling to this extraordinary dynamic.”
— David Van Biema, former religion writer at Time and author of the forthcoming Speaking to God
“Accessible and intriguing.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“Bart Ehrman is the leading expert on early Christian texts and here he takes the story on into the fourth century in a vivid and readable narrative that explores why Christianity “triumphed” as a world religion. The work is particularly valuable for its critical survey of the work of other scholars in the field.”
— Charles Freeman, author of A New History of Early Christianity
About the Author
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (February 13, 2018)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1501136704
- ISBN-13 : 978-1501136702
- Item Weight : 1.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #137,285 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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However, I found it difficult when he seemed to keep interjecting interpretation of facts based on assumptions rather than evidence either pro or con. Often a statement is made that seems to ignore other material (N.T. Documents) or betrays an unfamiliarity of them.
The final straw was when he refers to Acts 1:13-14 Where, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the remaining 11 of the 12 Disciples are listed as praying in the upper room along with Mary and the (half)-brothers of Jesus. The next verse (15) tells us that Peter stood up “in the midst of the disciples” and includes this additional information: “(altogether the number of names was about a hundred and twenty)”. The author then asks “How were so many converted in the space of one verse?” !?! I was astounded at such a massive misreading of such a simple passage. For me, it capped my prior concerns and eventual frustration.
Does the fact that vs. 13-14 are not giving an exhaustive listing, and that vs. 15 is not speaking of ‘instant conversions’ really need to be explained? Even if you consider the account unreliable, that doesn’t excuse misreading it.
I very rarely ever write a review, much less one like this. Perhaps I should have waited until the emotions of my frustration diminished. However, I do not mind reading Church Histories written by those with a bias I do not share (can glean much), but I do expect a scholar to bring basic common sense and objective understanding to the texts to which he refers. When I continue to encounter statements such as the one mentioned above, I eventually have to recognize that the book is just not worth my time.
Ehrman approaches this book from a critical historical perspective, not a religious/theological perspective, but it is a respectful and honest look at the early Christian centuries. Regardless of where you stand, there's a lot to learn here (such as a brilliant reconstruction of Paul's modus operandi for converting gentiles). It's an engaging and thought-provoking read.
Unlike other histories which focus on Constantine's seemingly miraculous conversion, Ehrman's starts at the real beginning in the first century, when what had first been dismissed as a minor variation on Judaism began to gain acceptance among gentiles, thanks primarily to the missionary work of the man later known as St. Paul. Over the next several centuries Christianity grew steadily but quietly, generally tolerated though occasionally subject to persecution, until by the early 300s it had a large enough presence in the Empire that the Emperor Constantine thought it politically worthwhile to convert. Constantine and his immediate successors (except his nephew Julian the Apostate, who ruled for less than two years) encouraged Christianity's spread and in return received the loyalty and support of its growing numbers of adherents. Eventually Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, leading Christians to dominant status.
This is a typically well-researched and well-documented work by Ehrman. He writes for a general audience but never abandons scholarship to do so. The Triumph of Christianity should become a standard reference on the subject.
a. The faith was a missionary effort first begun by the apostle Paul the first and greatest of the converts to Jesus Christ.
b. Christianity was an exclusive religion calling on its members to forsake their adherence to a variety of pagan deities.
c. Rather than exclusively focusing on ritual and ceremony the Christians taught the need for high ethical standards.
d. Christianity spread through social networks which planted the seed of Christ in the soil of paganism.
e. The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity made the faith a legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.
f. Belief in miracles added to the numbers of those who professed belief in Jesus Christ the risen Savior.
Ehrman is always thought provoking and he will exercise the little white cells in your brain whether you agree with his argument or not. Excellent research and an understandable writing style add to the lustre of this book.
Top reviews from other countries
There is one minor (maybe) niggle. While Erham does quote his sources throughout the book, and in the notes, there is no separate bibliography. Personally I’m disappointed I have to winkle out further reading from the text rather than having it neatly presented to me. However, all in all, another excellent read from the modern guru of early Christian history.
His starting point was the religious background in the days before Jesus. Then, there were only pagans and Jews. He hastened to explain that paganism is not really a religion, but a general description of the diverse practices of diverse peoples worshipping many different deities. He goes on to show the close relationship between Jesus (and thus Christianity) and Judaism. The followers of Jesus were not worshipping a new god; it was the same god as the Jews’. The term ‘Christian’ did not materialise until much later, after Paul. Initially, the differences were only in the practices such as keeping kosher and circumcision. Ehrman went on to explain that in the process of conversion, many converts (mainly from pagan worshippers) had no idea what they were converting to.
Ehrman discusses the role that claims of miracles play in the conversion of pagans, even though the vast majority who were converted this way had not themselves experienced any form of miracles or had seen any miracles being performed.
He downplays the role of Constantine’s conversion as a major reason for the spread of Christianity. The persecution by Christians against pagans, however, significant, but he says that even without the massive coercion of Christians, Christianity continued to grow. The rise was exponential and was simply a matter of mathematics. One neighbour converts another who happens to be the head of the household, and immediately gains new converts through the rest of the household following his lead. The early Christians had no real Christian dogmas that modern Christians have by way of the New Testament, which came much later. Indeed, Ehrman says, most of the early Christians were illiterate, so evangelism was not made through the written word.
A major point from this book is that, if so many millions became Christians without even understanding what Christianity was, in the modern age, should believers ask themselves the same question – what exactly it is that they understand by becoming a Christian?
A small-time preacher, with a short activity and little following became almost overnight the embodiment of the basic tenets of the most followed religion in the world.
In its first almost 300 years it conquered the Middle East, North Africa and Europe without any help from political authorities and despite persecutions.
Its message was so revolutionary and attractive that at the time when Constantine adopted it, it was already the most spread and organised religion within the Roman Empire.
I always wondered how it happened and this book gave me a lot of answers.
The doctrine evolved over centuries but the messianic message and resurrection attracted and gave hope to the initial Jewish followers.
“Jesus was the messiah, but not one anybody had expected. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed that his death had brought about a much greater salvation than anyone had anticipated. Jesus did not come to save God's people from their oppression by foreign power; he came to save them for eternal life. This is what the earliest Christians proclaimed.”
The word was quickly spread by the initial followers, Paul being the most important of them all.
His interpretation of the meanings of Jesus life and sacrifice made the new faith easily attractable to the gentiles.
“If the salvation of God came by the death and resurrection of Jesus, this must be how God had planned all along to save his chosen people. That must mean that salvation could not come in any other way-for example, by the zealous adherence to the prescriptions of the Jewish law. If salvation could come by belonging to the covenantal community of the chosen people, or by keeping the Law of Moses, there would be no reason for God's messiah to have suffered an excruciating death.
Following the law thus must have no bearing on how a person stands in a right relationship with God.
That in turn had inordinately significant implications. If the law had no bearing on a person's standing before God, then being a Jew could not be required for those who wanted to belong to God's people and enjoy his gracious act of salvation. The only requirement was trusting in the sacrificial atonement provided by Christ. That in turn meant that the message of salvation was not for Jews alone. It was for all people, Jew and gentile. And it came to gentiles apart from observing the Jewish law.
Thus, to be members of God's covenantal people, it was not necessary for gentiles to become Jews.”
This idea will be further developed by Luther. As lately I am very much into Christian studies, I just bought a book about him as well 😉.
But I digress, for Paul “God had not abandoned the Jews or vacated the Jewish religion; Christ himself had not opposed the Jewish faith or proposed to start something new. Christ stood in absolute continuity with all that went before. But, for Paul, without Christ the Jewish faith was incomplete and imperfect. Christ was the goal to which that faith had long striven, and now he had arrived. True, in his own eyes he did not stop being a Jew or think he was preaching a message at odds with Judaism. But he did turn around the literal meaning of “conversion” – making a radical change in his understanding of that religion and, even more obviously, in his understanding of Christ, rejecting his earlier view of Jesus as condemned by God and coming to see him as God's messiah. For Paul, this was the completion of God's plan for the human race. Paul's mission had been predicted by the prophets of old, in anticipation of the coming kingdom of God. Paul was to bring the history of the world to its preordained climax.”
“Paul's message, in a nutshell, was a Jewish apocalyptic proclamation with a seriously Christian twist. God was saving this world.
He had destroyed the power of sin by the death of Jesus; he had destroyed the power of death by the resurrection of Jesus; and he would destroy the power of evil by the return of Jesus. It was all
going according to plan. Paul knew for a fact that it was because with his own eyes he had seen that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
He also knew that Jesus was soon to return. This time he would not come meekly.”
As we all know, Jesus did not come back (yet), but Paul assured the followers, as Jesus did as well, that the day of the reckoning will be during their lifetime. This apocalyptic expectation was one of the main attractions of the new faith. Later on, the unfulfilled expectation was dealt with, more of less credible, by other authoritative biblical scholars.
Regrettably, as there are almost no sources about the initial spread of Christianism, the author jumps up from Paul directly to Constantine.
“Roman religions involved many gods; they were all about practice, not about belief; they had no orthodoxy or heresy, no doctrines, almost no ethical requirements (with a few exceptions, such as a proscription of parricide), and no sacred "Word of God" giving instructions about theology or daily ethical practices. There were no trans-regional religious organizations or leaders. The religions on the whole were massively inclusive and highly tolerant. They principally entailed cultic activities of prayer, sacrifice, and divination.
They all subscribed to the existence of many gods and all were based on cultic acts of worship, such as sacrifice, prayer, and divination. As such, they were by and large inclusive. None of them insisted their god was the only divine being, or that this god was to be worshiped in only one particular way everywhere. As a corollary, these religions were highly tolerant of differences. So too was the Roman government, both centrally in Rome and throughout the provinces. There were exceptions, but only when a cult was judged to be morally degenerate or socially dangerous.”
Only the Jews believed in a single god and rejected all the others but they didn’t actively sought converts. In that world, the evangelizing mission of the Christian church was unparalleled and unprecedented: "Such a proselytizing mission was a shocking novelty in the ancient world" and, as we know, it will never stop.
“If the concerted attempt to win converts was not a standard feature of ancient religion, even Judaism, why did Christianity become missionary? Some informed intuition would suggest that surely it had to do with the nature of the Christian message. Christians as early as Paul-the first to undertake a worldwide mission-maintained that Christ died because it was God's plan to bring salvation to the world.
Those who did not experience this salvation were lost, doomed to punishment. As an apocalyptic Jew, Paul, and then his converts, insisted God was soon to enter into judgment with this world. A cataclysmic act of destruction was to occur. Those who were in Christ would be spared the onslaught and be brought into God's eternal kingdom. Those who were not would be destroyed.”
“Christianity was the only evangelistic religion that we know of in antiquity, and, along with Judaism, it was also the only one that was exclusive. That combination of evangelism and exclusion proved to be decisive for the triumph of Christianity. If it had been evangelistic but not exclusive, it may well have gained adherents, but paganism would have remained unaffected. Pagans would simply have begun to worship Christ along with whatever other gods they chose: Jupiter, Apollo, Diana, Mithras, Isis… take your pick. If, on the other hand, it had been exclusive but not evangelistic, Christianity, like Judaism, would have simply been an isolated and marginal religion without masses of adherents.”
There are no sources naming evangelistic rallies, so the author presumes, correctly I think, that the Christianism spread simply by word of mouth within their various networks of personal relationships, with converts telling their families, friends, neighbours and other associates of the "good news" they had come to believe.
What made the difference were the amazing stories that verified the Christian message. From the beginning, starting with the astounding life and ministry of Jesus himself and continuing through the work of his apostles and then their successors, the power of God had been manifested in real and tangible ways.
God was at work, and his followers could prove it through the miraculous activities they engaged in.
Few people could claim to have observed any of these spectacular miracles of faith. But that was not necessary. All that was needed was belief that such things had in fact happened, and possibly that they continued to happen.
The more the stories were told, and told with conviction, the more listeners were likely to think they might be true.
These stories were accompanied by the insistence that God's power manifest in the world now simply foreshadowed what was to take place in the hereafter. The people of God were about to enter an eternity of joy, peace, and glory. But those who refused to accept the message would pay an ultimate price. The sufferings of the present age were nothing in comparison with the torments that awaited those who rejected the truth and continued to worship the minions of evil.
Pg 154 There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that, far more than the glories of heaven, it was the tortures of hell that convinced potential converts. The hellish vision is certainly one that obsessed a number of Christian authors, some of whom delighted in thinking how their enemies among the pagans would roast forever.
Unrepentant pagans recognized the rhetorical force of these descriptions. Thus, the second-century critic Celsus pointed out that Christians succeeded in their proselytizing because they "invent a number of terrifying incentives. Above all, they have concocted an absolutely offensive doctrine of everlasting punishments and rewards, exceeding anything the philosophers. . . could have imagined."
Christians too declared the effectiveness of divine terrors. As Augustine declared: "Very rarely, no never, does it happen that someone comes to us with the wish to become a Christian who has
not been struck by some fear of God.
There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that, far more than the glories of heaven, it was the tortures of hell that convinced potential converts. As Augustine declared: "Very rarely, no never, does it happen that someone comes to us with the wish to become a Christian who has not been struck by some fear of God."
There are not enough sources to chart the Christian growth with precision, but a steady growth can explain it.
“It would be a mistake to think that it was Constantine's conversion alone that facilitated the Christianization of the empire. If Christianity had simply continued to grow at the rate it was growing
at the time of the emperor's conversion or even less-it still would have eventually taken over.
It is impossible to say what would have happened if Constantine had not converted. One could argue that, had the Romans been even more determined to stamp out the faith, they could have done so. Or one could argue the opposite: that even more rigorous Roman opposition would have hardened the Christians' resolve and made them more fervent in the propagation of their religion, making true Tertullian's claim that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church.”
“We will never know what might have happened. But we do know what did happen. Constantine converted at an opportune moment. Christianity was poised to grow exponentially even as its rate of growth slowed. The masses did begin to pour in. The emperor showered favours on a religion that excluded the possibility of all other worship. From that point on, looking at the matter in hindsight, the pagan cults of Rome were doomed. An exclusive commitment to the one God of the Christians destroyed the other religions in its wake. Within eighty years of Constantine's conversion, the transformation would be both massive and official. Rome would become predominantly and officially Christian.”
“Christianity was not declared illegal in the empire before the middle of the third century. There were no empire-wide laws or decrees issued by the central authorities in Rome that proscribed the faith. Christians did not, as a rule, go into hiding. For the most part they lived perfectly normal lives in the midst of other people who practiced a wide variety of other religions. The catacombs were not meeting places for Christians forced to congregate in clandestine cells for fear of violent perception. Persecution itself was rare, and there were relatively few casualties.
When it happened, it was not because the Christian religion was illegal per se; it was because the Christians were perceived as dangerous, either to the social well-being of a local community or, eventually, to the ongoing health of the entire empire.
Nero did not, technically speaking, prosecute Christians for being Christian. He executed them for committing arson. True, they probably were not guilty, but that was the charge. Being a Christian was not punishable, but setting fire to Rome was. "Third and finally, Nero's persecution was localized. It involved only the city of Rome. Between Nero in 64 CE and Marcus Aurelius in 177 CE, the only mention of an emperor's intervention in Christian affairs, apart from the episode involving Trajan found in Pliny's letters, is a letter from the emperor Hadrian that gives instructions to a local governor to conduct his trials against the Christians fairly.
Nevertheless, the official Christian propaganda is full of martyrs. Nothing new, even the communists invented their own martyrs.
Surprisingly for people like me who did not read much about this era, Constantine did not make Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
“On the contrary, Constantine had no mission to convert the masses of pagans who continued to follow traditional religious practices. He was content to practice Christianity himself, to support and promote the activities of the church, to intervene in ecclesiastical affairs when issues of unity arose, to fund the building of churches, and to provide social and economic advantages to Christian clergy.
During Constantine's reign, Christianity was certainly a favoured religion, and it probably did not require extraordinary intelligence for members of the imperial elite to realize that converting to the faith would not hurt their chances for advancement.
He certainly converted to worship the Christian god alone in 312 CE, in connection with the battle at the Milvian Bridge, even if it took a long time for him to realize fully what it meant to embrace the Christian faith. Still, this was a genuine conversion. At that point Constantine dedicated himself to honouring and obeying the god of the Christians. He did not do so with complete success, if being a faithful Christian means loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. Then again, he was not the sort of figure Jesus would have envisioned while preaching in rural Galilee. Constantine was an emperor with enormous burdens and responsibilities. Harsh legislation and the occasional ruthless act were all part of the job.
Possibly the most important thing Constantine did for the future of the religion is that he saw that his sons were raised in the Christian tradition in preparation for what was to come next. With the exception of the nineteen-month reign of Constantine's nephew, Julian, in 361 to 363 CE, every remaining Roman emperor was Christian.
Constantine also set an important precedent in his decision to intervene in ecclesiastical affairs. His intervention makes perfect sense in a Roman imperial context. All of Constantine's predecessors had been the chief priest, the pontifex maximus, of the religions of Rome - as was he, despite the fact he was a Christian
Even though he was a complete neophyte, a theological child, Constantine thrust himself into matters of Christian polity and theology.
A unified church was important for a unified empire. And a disunified church or at least parts of it-obviously failed to carry out the will of the God over all. That could lead to disaster.”
“By the end of the fourth century the first Christian emperor's decision to prefer persuasion to coercion had become a thing of the past. Christianity was declared the state religion. Traditional pagan practices were proscribed, temples were levelled, and sacred cult objects and art were destroyed.”
And thus, the heroic rise entered into an intolerant era, one reason being the intolerant potential of this exclusivist religion, and the other being the almost absolute power it had for a long time over its subjects, but this is a matter for other academic studies.
This journey into the fog of early Christianism was very educative and thrilling for me.
I recommend it.