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“Triumph” and “Distinctiveness” of Early Christianity

March 29, 2018

I hope that readers will forgive my rather immodest notice yesterday of Tom Holland’s (postive) review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, The Triumph of Christianity, in The Spectator, immodest because the review includes also a positive reference to my book, Destroyer of the gods.  Holland’s collocation of our two books also allows me to offer some thoughts of my own about them.

Ehrman’s book deals with a much more traditional historical question:  Why/how did the early Christian movement “triumph” or “succeed”–i.e., move from being a sometimes-persecuted sect to the officially adopted religion of the Emperor, and thereafter the dominant religion of the Empire?  Ehrman rightly emphasizes that Constantine was no fool, and that by the time that he lifted the sanctions against Christianity it had already made impressive inroads in Roman-era society, both in numbers and in the social levels of converts.

So, with various previous scholars, Ehrman explores what things might have made Christianity “successful”.  The factors that he offers are, so far as I can tell, similar to those proposed by earlier scholars.  And they are cogent proposals.

Grateful as I am at Holland’s comparison, my book, Destroyer of the gods (Baylor University Press, 2016), however, it isn’t really directed to the same question that is the focus of Ehrman’s book.  Instead, as my sub-title indicates, Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, I focus on certain features of early Christianity that were, in that setting, unusual, that marked out Christianity in historical terms, and that subsequently have come to shape modern views of “religion.”   As indicated in my opening sentence, “This book addresses our cultural amnesia.”  We (Christians and non-Christians) hold certain unexamined notions without remembering where they came from or how odd they were originally.

These distinctive features that I discuss in Destroyer may well have contributed to the advance of Christianity, at least for some people.  But I’m making a somewhat distinguishable point–that early Christianity was, in historical terms, a new kind of “religion” with some emphases that were, well, odd in the Roman setting, but are no longer so for us.

So, I don’t see Ehrman’s book and mine as competing treatments of the same question.  We focus on distinguishable questions, whatever the merits of our respective efforts to address them.  No need to choose which one to buy or to give your brother-in-law for his birthday!

I should also mention again that in another small book I pose yet another question that I think hasn’t been adequately (or perhaps directly enough) engaged:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016).  You might at first think that this is simply the same question addressed by Ehrman; but it isn’t.

For the question posed in my title is not why did Christianity collectively grow, but, more specifically, why did individuals choose to become Christians in those early centuries, when the social costs of doing so were so significant.   Scholars have often proposed attractive features of early Christianity, such as a close-bonded fellowship, economic sharing/care, high ethical principles, and (as Ehrman proposes) miracles (real or perceived), an effective organizational structure, and some other features.  (Actually, the fullest listing of putative external and internal factors-of-success probably remains that by Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, 1906, German original 1902, esp. pp. 19-35.)

These are all cogent suggestions.  But, not only were many of them not exclusively features of early Christianity, they don’t really address the question I explore in the Why on Earth book.  These proposals don’t engage adequately the on-the-ground circumstances faced by people who considered conversion to Christianity.  There were negative consequences, not just nice things offered by Christianity.  So the “ground-level” question is what made Christianity so attractive that individuals were willing to take the consequences and pay the social costs?

A forewarning:  My book doesn’t set out to provide a final/definitive answer.  I don’t think we can provide one yet, because we haven’t focused sufficiently on the question.  I do offer a few initial thoughts.  But my main purpose in that little book was to press the question phrased in that particular way.  (So you can buy it, too, without duplicating either Destroyer of the gods, or Ehrman’s recent book!)


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  1. jaysmith permalink

    Dr.Hurtado have you responded to William Horbury’s review of your book Lord Jesus Christ book anywhere. If so please give the link

    • No, Jaysmith. I don’t recall responding to his review. I have given a critique of his tendency to equate any kind of honorific language or attitude as “cult”. See, e.g., my review of his book, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ in Evangelical Quarterly 72/1(2000) 77-79.

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    If many of the common folks back then, as now, were tired of cruelty, war, hate and despair, than a great deal of the appeal of Jesus’ faith would be kindness, peace, love and hope, same as today.

    • John: YOu oversimplify both sides. Not all “pagans” advocated/practiced “cruelty, war, hate and dispair” and the early Christian message wasn’t simply “kindness, peace, love and hope”. E.g., one of the dominant themes in early Christian texts and art is the *power* of Christ.

  3. Mark Browne permalink

    Maybe the reason so many people considered Christianity was that it is/was true!

    • Mark: But you’re making a value statement, not offering a historical explanation.

  4. It would be interesting to see your reaction to Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. She gave a powerful presentation at a Classics gathering in Cambridge, England, late last year. I found her persuasive, but others have questioned her scholarly credentials.

    • As I have it reported to me from other historians, her book is just a pop-recook of Gibbon. About a century out of date in scholarship.

  5. Adolf von Harnack’s The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries can be found here:

  6. Professor Hurtado,

    Ehrman admits himself, ‘It is very hard indeed – impossible actually – to know what most people thought’ – we do not have the written records’. He was speaking I think about the notion of the afterlife that pagans held. I am pretty sure you once said something similar (about the lack of sources) when I once asked you on this blog about the attraction of Christianity in the first three centuries A.D.
    Isn’t it largely a matter of conjecture then what the attraction was, when there might have been quite a price to pay to reject existing religious/moral mores for such a strange religion? I have read and enjoyed both Ehrman’s ‘The Triumph of Christianity’ and your own (excellent) work, ‘Destroyer of the gods’. Ehrman seems to suggest the attraction was the promise of an achieving a good afterlife and the belief on hearsay evidence that the Christian God would allow miracles. He seems to discount the possibility of any attraction in more superior or at least more widely-appealing Christian ethics (indeed he suggests that Christian help to plague-victims was counter-productive to promoting Christianity in leading to infection and deaths of Christians). I found Ehrman’s emphasis on such factors rather unconvincing. Your own work, as Holland points out, seems to suggest a greater and more revolutionary appeal for the arrangement of human relations. And Christians being seen to practise such beliefs must have been a factor?

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I thought your book was about how Christianity prevailed. Kloppenberg thought that’s what it was about. Holland thought so too. The title seems to suggest it. At what point do we conclude that readers have a better handle on what a book is about that its author?

    • Uh, Donald. Nothing in the title suggests that the book is about Constantine and the “triumph” of Christianity. And nothing within the book fits that agenda either. Some readers (but certainly not all) have apparently read it through the lens of the more commonly addressed question. I think from the opening lines onward, I make it clear what I’m addressing. But, of course, readers are free to take from works what they will.

  8. As a general comment on early Christianity, I’m still not convinced that we know what that even was. In other words, I don’t think we know enough about what competing ‘sects’ there were and how they eventually coalesced around what we know as Christianity today. For example, were the heretics simply leaders of sects that lost out to the mainstream? If there is definitive information on this that I simply don’t know about I’d appreciate references.

    • David: We can never know all that we’d like to know about the past. But we can know some things. If you read Celsus’ attack on Christians/Christianity, it’s pretty clear that he thought he knew what they were, and they seem to be recognizable in beliefs and such.
      As for the “heretics” and “sects”, “early Christianity” was a composite affair, not monochrome. And some of the “heretics” wound up being left by the wayside because they didn’t want to be joined with others.
      If you want to read more about early Christianity and its development, here’s a suggestion:
      William Tabbernee, ed., Early Christianities in Contexts: An Exploration Across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

      • Apologies, I meant to reply as follows: Thank you, but I’m not convinced that anyone writing in the late 2nd century (perhaps in reply to Justin Martyr?) would have much knowledge of what had taken place regarding the formation of Christianity over the preceding 140 years or so. Even assuming what he wrote was valid, I don’t see it as covering the very early stages of the rise of what became Christianity, in particular prior to anything Justin Martyr wrote about. And of course, Justin himself seems to have had difficulty finding meaning in life until his dialogues with the Christian that he met, still perhaps 100 years after the death of Jesus. My position is that from around the middle of the 2nd century we increasingly know about Christianity at the time, but still know very little about how it got there, in particular what happened in the 1st century.

      • David: I repeat that we’d always want to know more. But we can say some things with confidence. We have letters of Paul written as early as 50 CE, i.e., texts from a named/specific person (about whom we have some knowledge),these written to named/known cities, with a number of named individuals (which allows a certain prosopographical analysis), and dealing with issues that arose in those churches (so we know something ofwhat issues there were, variations in belief, practice, etc.). And Paul both travelled extensively and was also personally acquainted with a number of others, including leaders in Jerusalem. No need to curse the darkness; we do have candles to see some things.

  9. I will try to get this one very soon.

    My biggest complaint about Ehrman’s book is he really says absolutely nothing about the honor/shame dynamic in the Mediterranean Greco-Roman world. That’s absolutely essential in my opinion to understanding how people behaved and believed what they believed and to the rise of Christianity. Read Ehrman and you won’t even know that he exists. I hate to say it, but it honestly looks like Ehrman is nowadays just writing books to write books. His past three altogether have been quite disappointing.

    • Nick, You should really express your critique to Ehrman rather than here. And you may be just a bit harsh in that final sentence.

      • Robert permalink

        Amen. Nick was even given a free 1-year membership on Bart’s blog so that he could do this directly rather than develop his criticisms elsewhere without genuine interaction.

    • Jim permalink

      That Christianity steadily grew during the first three centuries is beyond remarkable, and it’s reasonable to propose that there was likely more than one contributing factor. IMO, Hurtado and Ehrman focus on two different contributing factors to this rapid growth of Christianity. Prof Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods (which I have read) covers the personal aspects of the attractiveness of Christianity (to individuals, families, communities), while prof Ehrman’s Triumph of Christianity (which I am just starting to read) takes on a more of a “compound interest” approach, based in part on sociologist Rodney Stark’s earlier proposed estimates of the growth of Christianity.

      While both books address the overarching theme of the remarkable growth of Christianity in the early centuries, and certainly there will be points of intersection between these two books, imo, it’s worthwhile to look at several potential contributions to this anomaly in Western history as there may have been several contributing factors. (I suppose one can then debate on assigning likely percent values to each factor that contributes to the overall picture). Once again, this is just my opinion though.

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