The rise of Christianity

Reader Alexander called my attention to what he said was an “interesting article in Aeon. It will not make theologians happy.”

And the article, called “Christians were strangers” (subtitled “How an obscure oriental cult in a corner of Roman Palestine grew to become the dominant religion of the Western world”) is indeed worth reading, though at 3300 words it’s longer than a usual piece. The author, Michael Kulikowski, is identified as ” professor of history and classics at Pennsylvania State University, where he also heads the history department.”  His speciality is late Roman history.

As I’m off to a wedding, I’ll leave you with the puzzle posed at the essay’s beginning and then the two paragraphs at the end. I’ll let you figure out for yourself why the article won’t make theologians happy.

Beginning:

The Roman empire became Christian during the fourth century CE. At the century’s start, Christians were – at most – a substantial minority of the population. By its end, Christians (or nominal Christians) indisputably constituted a majority in the empire. Tellingly, at the beginning of the century, the imperial government launched the only sustained and concerted effort to suppress Christianity in ancient history – and yet by the century’s end, the emperors themselves were Christians, Christianity enjoyed exclusive support from the state and was, in principle, the only religion the state permitted.

Apart from the small and ethnically circumscribed exception of the Jews, the ancient world had never known an exclusivist faith, so the rapid success of early Christianity is a historical anomaly. Moreover, because some form of Christianity is a foundational part of so many peoples’ lives and identities, the Christianisation of the Roman empire feels perennially relevant – something that is ‘about us’ in a way a lot of ancient history simply is not. Of course, this apparent relevance also obscures as much as it reveals, especially just how strange Rome’s Christianisation really was.

End:

As most people know from their own experience, intellectual differences can harden into intractable convictions for all sorts of non-intellectual reasons. Patronage, factionalism, political advantage, social cliquishness can all play a role in the formation of intellectual positions and in continuing attachments to them. From the fourth century onwards, Roman history is filled with bitter religious conflicts, state persecution of heretics, and the perpetual alienation of communities whose Christian beliefs pitted them against official orthodoxy. Since the time of Constantine, in fact, Western history has been plagued by the impossibility of policing belief rather than practice. After all, how do you decide what someone really believes, or does not believe?

That problem would not have come to have its historic, and tragic, consequences had Constantine’s conversion not rapidly brought much of the imperial population with him. As social advancement came to depend on being a Christian, and as the civic calendar of non-Christian beliefs was increasingly dismantled, the majority of urban Romans actively thought of themselves as Christians by the end of the fourth century. Rejecting Christianity now stood as the marked and unusual choice that embracing it had been 200 years before. How Christianity went on to become not just a state religion, but the central fact of political life, and how Christian institutions of the Middle Ages both maintained and distorted the legacy of the ancient world, is another, different story.

 

32 Comments

  1. Darrin Carter
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  2. Mark R.
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Well, the author doesn’t mention Jesus as the main reason for Christianity’s rise. It was a belief that allowed greater social mobility; it wasn’t about the soul, but about the material world. Theologians wouldn’t like that I suppose.

  3. ploubere
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    One Christian distortion, commonly taught for centuries in the West, is that the fall of Rome was brought about by paganism and lack of morality. Rome’s decline in fact coincides with its adoption of Christianity. One must qualify that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Nevertheless, Christianity didn’t make people behave better, nor did it improve civilization in any form. Rather it contributed to the fracturing of social order and retreat to tribal behavior that marks the Middle Ages.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 20, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      That was fairly well argued by Edward Gibbon in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in 1776.

      Of course, one needs to explain why it fell in the West while in the East Byzantium continued on as a flourishing and prosperous Christian empire centered on Rome’s second capital, Constantinople.

      (And did their being less subservient to the papacy in Rome have anything to do with it?)

      • Voltaire
        Posted August 20, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        What people in the west usually don’t know is that at the time Constantine made christianity the official religion of the empire, christians had expanded their religion very rapidly in the east. Sometimes I think Constantine chose Christianity for using it as part of his effort to crush the parthians, to no avail. Romans never subdued them.

        A very good book about the history of middle-eastern religions (christian, Iranian and islamic) is:
        Tom Holland. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.

        • Posted August 21, 2017 at 8:29 am | Permalink

          Constantine made christianity the official religion of the empire

          No he didn’t. He was the first Christian emperor and the first to endorse Christianity, but it only became the official religion of the Empire in 380 under Theodosius.

      • ploubere
        Posted August 20, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        Good point. One argument involves the common use of lead in Rome, resulting in widespread brain damage combined with heightened aggression.

      • sensorrhea
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        Would you happen to have a book recommendation about the Byzantine Empire? I feel like I don’t know enough about it.

        • Posted August 21, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          If I may interject: Judith Herrin, Byzantium, 2008. History of the Byzantines comes with a health warning: yes, they could be as revoltingly dysfunctional as the Caesars, but they did it over and over again. Added to which the Emperors settled on about 3 names for centuries so that you begin wondering whether you’ve read this story before.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 20, 2017 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      Funny enough the Romans always saw the East as corrupt and unethical. I guess they got their historical comeuppance . 🙂

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      It’s still commonly taught today in Evangelical churches all over the US. All I knew about Rome growing up came from preachers, and this tale of why Rome fell was a staple. We were constantly warned that unbelief and immorality would lead the US to suffer the fate of Rome.

      I can remember how astonished I was when I got older and started reading for myself and realized that Rome actually fell *after* it became a Christian Empire. 800 years Pagan and it held together. 100-200 years Christian (tops), it fell apart. That’s very different from the preacher’s story.

      (The other thing that bothered me about this tale when I started to learn real history was the idea that the fall of Rome was surprising, when probably the more surprising thing is how it lasted a thousand years)

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 4:53 am | Permalink

      Nevertheless, Christianity didn’t make people behave better, nor did it improve civilization in any form.

      In particular, after the Christianisation of the Empire, it remained not just a slave-holding society, but one in which the overwhelming source of power for any sort of industry was the mark-1 whip on the shoulder of slaves.
      If the ingenious engineers of the Roman empire had to actually deal with shortages of power then they’d have made much more extensive use of water power (which they did use, but rarely) and could plausibly have developed steam power which Hero had introduced centuries before in a “toy” form.
      There was a discussion a year or so ago here about the Antikythera Mechanism, a 1st century BC astronomical calculator. Which indicates that the engineers of the time were capable of complex, high precision work. I can’t see what, apart from the lack of need for power, prevented the Romans from developing steam power. If they had, we could well be fretting over the 7 year round trip for updates to propagate to WEIT-Centaurii.

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I can think of a few theologians that would be delighted by this article. The notion that Constantine was a major corrupter of Christianity whose actions resulted in a horrendous falsification of Christianity is current among some maverick (definitely NOT evangelical) Christians.

    Most notable is former Catholic priest, James Carroll (not to be confused punk rocker Jim Carroll). His book “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History” just blasts Constantine.
    As Wikipedia notes, “The book’s title refers to Constantine’s transformation of the cross, which Carroll points out, was not a symbol used by Christians in the first three centuries of the Church’s existence, into a symbolic sword infusing a spirit of violent intolerance into the development of Christianity.”

    Later books of Carroll’s have been harsh on Pope Benedict and George Bush. Carroll outlines his personal Christian beliefs in a recent book called “Christ Actually”. Really, Carroll would LOVE this article.

    Richard Dawkins’ tie-in film documentary to “The God Delusion” and James Carroll’s film doc of “Constantine’s Sword” are two of four embarrassing appearances of Ted Haggard in documentaries in 2006-2007. The other two are “Jesus Camp” and “Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi” (AP is the daughter of Nancy Pelosi.)

    =-=-=

    There’s a bad come-back pun to “circumscribed exception of the Jews” lurking somewhere.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 20, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      First you draw a dotted line around something, then you cut along the dotted line

  5. Posted August 20, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    “How Christianity went on to become not just a state religion, but the central fact of political life, and how Christian institutions of the Middle Ages both maintained and distorted the legacy of the ancient world, is another, different story.”

    Indeed, it is. As is the questions of Jesus’s historicity itself.

  6. Randy schenck
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    The persecuted soon become the persecutors. That is the history of Christianity.

  7. Posted August 20, 2017 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    According to the article, Christian religion…

    (a) was adopted by most for the wrong reasons. Not truth, or any such lofty things mattered, but for grimy social or selfish reasons.

    (b) shows Christianity as an utmost intolerant faith.

    (c) depicts Christianity as a faith of a Thought Police persecuting beliefcrime.

    (d) portrays Christian religion as “breathtakingly simple”, and appealing to the base motive of securing spritual survival in an afterlife.

    (e) makes a point that Christian theology was cobbled together, rationalized by theologians who fancy themselves as being influenced by a holy ghost, who complicated something “breathtakingly simple” to a point of “incomprehensibility”. That must sting.

    (f) desribes matyrdom as vastly exaggerated, and Christian art as a form of violence “porn” (that puts it mildly, consider their God is shown as torture porn displayed in every other room).

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      (a) was adopted by most for the wrong reasons. Not truth, or any such lofty things mattered, but for grimy social or selfish reasons.

      Making it indetectably different to other religions. And golf clubs.

      (b) shows Christianity as an utmost intolerant faith.

      Always a sign of confidence. All that internecine (no, that’s not an accidental word) warfare.

      (c) depicts Christianity as a faith of a Thought Police persecuting beliefcrime.

      Ditto.

      (d) portrays Christian religion as “breathtakingly simple”, and appealing to the base motive of securing spritual survival in an afterlife.

      In comparison to (say) Greek polytheism where you’ve got a dozen major gods to keep happy, and no afterlife worth speaking of, no matter how good you’ve been.

      (f) desribes matyrdom as vastly exaggerated,

      A recent set of lectures I’ve been listening too, about Byzantium, pointed out the likely effect of a dozen or two Christians being martyred in the stadium : “Can I get two sausage-inna-bun with fermented fish sauce. Hurry up, I want to get back to my seat before the next hundred-gladiator battle! I know they’ve got to clear the piles of corpses away between scenes, but why do the bother with these religious suicides? Haven’t they got any good murderesses to be executed by donkey-rape? Oh, a roast head of garlic too. Grazie!”

      • Posted August 21, 2017 at 6:24 am | Permalink

        The great philosopher Alan Moore once said,

        “Monotheism is, to me, a great simplification. I mean the Qabalah has a great multiplicity of gods, but at the very top of the Qabalic Tree of Life, you have this one sphere that is absolute God, the Monad, something which is indivisible. All of the other gods, and indeed everything else in the universe, is a kind of emanation of that God. Now, that’s fine, but it’s when you suggest that there is only that one God, at this kind of unreachable height above humanity, and there is nothing in between, you’re limiting and simplifying the thing.

        I tend to think of paganism as a kind of alphabet, as a language, it’s like all of the gods are letters in that language. They express nuances, shades of meaning or certain subtleties of ideas, whereas monotheism tends to just be one vowel and it’s just something like ‘oooooooo’. It’s a monkey sound.” — Alan Moore, Mindscape of Alan Moore (documentary, 77 mins.)

  8. Posted August 20, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    The author stumbles right out of the gate by relying heavily on the historically unreliable Acts.

    The history of the early christian church is far more convoluted than the tidy little cover-up story fabricated by the Roman church.

  9. Jacques Hausser
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    The best sentence of Kulikowski’s paper:
    “While theologians have always been able to render Christianity subtle to the point of incomprehensibility, to many it has always appeared breathtakingly simple: ‘Believe exclusively in the Christian god, who is the one and only god, and you will find eternal life.’”

  10. jwthomas
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    There are quite a few books about the origins and history of Christianity. I’ve read a few and don’t see anything new in this essay. If there had been new information or insights this article would have appeared in one of the history journals rather than Aeon, where you get no brownie points for publishing.

    • alexander
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 12:43 am | Permalink

      “If there had been new information or insights this article would have appeared in one of the history journals rather than Aeon, where you get no brownie points for publishing.”

      One of the history journals? Kulikowski tries to reach the general public with his insights, he is not after “brownie points.” As a science journalist I’n not after brownie points either!

      By the way, there is an interesting book on the topic: “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason” by Charles Freeman.

      Ignore the first Editorial Review on Amazon, it’s by Publishers Weekly, now a religious rag.

      • James Walker
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 2:02 am | Permalink

        Good book, I highly recommend it.

        I’m not sure if it’s in that book that I read that one of the consequences of the adoption of Christianity as a state religion was the need to clarify doctrine – who was and wasn’t a ‘real’ Christian, which led to the imposition of a uniform dogma (usually decided by the Emperor rather than the theologians) and the relegation of other sects and beliefs to heresy.

      • jwthomas
        Posted August 21, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        My point was that Kulikowski had no new insights to share.
        As an essay aimed at a public unfamiliar with the subject it
        does a good enough job. And nobody is dissing science journalists.

  11. Emerson
    Posted August 20, 2017 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Other author, Ramsay MacMullen, has written almost the same things in “Christianizing the Roman Empire”: “Prior to Constantine’s conversion, Christian teachings were spread discreetly in private homes and shops and depended for their persuasiveness on the performance miracles. Once Christianity had the sanction of the emperor, however, it began to profit also from the respectability and prestige, the advancement and material rewards, that his power could ensure. Church membership increased rapidly and, in the last decade of the century (IV), accelerated even more when the state began to persecute non-Christians.”.

    • Posted August 20, 2017 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      “…accelerated even more when the state began to persecute non-Christians”, Emerson. I’d add to that by observing that the state-backed Christians, the Athanasians, persecuted other Christians, the Arians: so much so that Arian, their leader, eventually declared himself orthodox. He loved Big Brother: or rather, Father. Indeed St. Hilary of Poitiers, who was on the winning Athanasian side, expressed his horror at the internecine (and internicene – cheers, Ant Allan, for the stellar pun) C4th blood-letting.

      It’s a good question why Constantine and his C4th descendants threw in their lot with Christianity: what was in it for them? Materially, I mean. How had Xtianity become such an odds-on chariot to bet on? I’m not convinced that the wonderful Gibbon gave a proper answer, and I never could. There’s only so much one can know and polymathy, since von Humboldt – “the last man who knew everything” – is out of the question.

      I bet Prof. Candida Moss, the debunker of persecution of classical Xtians, could enlighten us, though. Plus, Stark, the Prof. of early Christian demographics.

  12. chrism
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    If you can find a copy, Gore Vidal’s “Julian” provides an excellent read about the unsuccessful attempt to reverse the spread of the new orthodoxy. Perhaps some lessons for those of us who see other dangerous ideas spreading like cellulitis on the limbs of society.

  13. peter
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    The poor lions were kept hungry and thirty before being pushed into a stadium filled with the noise of crowds. No sensible lion will get into on a stadium floor by its own free will.

    • sabre422
      Posted August 21, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      This article sounds so much like the lectures I received back in 1968-69 during two semesters on the History of the Roman Empire while attending college. My professor literally made a similar comment about christians being killed or eaten by lions, but backed it up by providing inventories similar to husbandry records of animals kept for use in the Colosseum in Rome. While not thoroughly complete, they did include some interesting tidbits from the more violent periods of persecution. What is quite interesting is that lions are difficult to keep in captivity and the husbandry techniques at the time resulted in many being documented as toothless and blind…. so they were primarily used for show, as they were hardly suitable for slaughtering humans of any sort.

  14. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 21, 2017 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    We know that he was executed for disturbing the Roman peace during the reign of the emperor Tiberius

    He doesn’t seem to keep careful track of his assumptions.

  15. Posted August 23, 2017 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Can I commend to you an absolutely wonderful history podcast called “The Rhine” which uses the river as a frontier conceit to elaborate on Roman, middle-eastern and European history. Episodes 48 and 49 cover the rise of Christianity in the Roman world – and they were not nearly as persecuted and they represent- and the adherence of Constantine to monotheism. Though he also retained the gods of his father, in particular SolInvictus. Christianity bécane a useful political tool in furthering his consolidated hold on empire. This is not to say he wasn’t a believing Christian, but rather that it conveniently supplemented his megalomania.


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