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A Welcome Review of The Triumph of Christianity

It is every author’s dream to have a book reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.   I’ve never had that happen before.   Until now.   This Sunday The Triumph of Christianity will be reviewed by Tom Bissell, whose writings some of you may know.

Most reviews in the NYT bring out both the outstanding features and the shortcomings of the book under consideration.   A damning review can be devastating.  Rarely is a review all praise.   I would say this one is extremely generous and exceedingly gratifying, written by a knowledgeable scholar who “got” the book.

You can see it here, with graphics: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/books/review/bart-d-ehrman-the-triumph-of-christianity.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fbook-review&action=click&contentCollection=review&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=sectionfront

But here is the text of the review itself:

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THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY 
How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World
By Bart D. Ehrman
335 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.

“I used to believe absolutely everything that Bill just presented,” the scholar Bart D. Ehrman once said during a 2006 debate with the conservative theologian William Lane Craig. “He and I went to the same evangelical Christian college, Wheaton, where these things are taught. … I used to believe them with my whole heart and soul. I used to preach them and try to convince others that they were true. But then I began … looking at them deeply myself.”

Ehrman, in other words, is no longer an evangelical, or even a Christian. Although he’s written a number of valuable books on the shortcomings of fundamentalist readings of Scripture, not every enemy of fundamentalism has approved. On his popular blog, Ehrman has occasionally responded to personal attacks by the atheist crowd, who do not share his considered equanimity. In 32 years, he’s managed to write or edit more than 30 books, while also pausing to debate Christology with Stephen Colbert.

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. 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 (author of Christianizing the Roman Empire), 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.

And yet, when the caliga 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.

Tom Bissell’s most recent book is “Apostle.” His essay collection “Magic Hours” is being reissued in paperback in March.

 


My Interview with Michael Shermer
Being Blindstruck by Triumph

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Stephen  February 15, 2018

    Excellent. A good beginning.

    Do you ever review books yourself in any forum?

    (I would love to see your response to Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament. It’s supposedly somewhat idiosyncratic and has caused quite a stir in some quarters. Gary Wills said it has caused him to re-think his previous non-apocalyptic view of Jesus.)

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      Yes, occasionally. There was a very interesting (and rather vitriolic) back and forth between Hart and N. T. Wright about the translation. Not sure where, but it’s on the web.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  February 15, 2018

    Have you ever thought of yourself as the Apostle Paul of textual criticism? Paul didn’t invent Christianity but he took it to the masses. So with you. Whether your influence will match that of Paul remains to be seen! Congratulations on another good and hopefully influential book.

  3. Avatar
    Eric  February 15, 2018

    Congratulations. It’s glowing. Hope it drives sales way up! And to say I “knew you” when!

  4. Avatar
    godspell  February 15, 2018

    This review constitutes a triumph in itself–but I must note that it’s written by someone who was converted to the Reformed Church of Ehrmanism some time back. 😉

    Consider me skeptical Mormonism is growing by any means other than marriage (converted spouses) and propagation (large families). They are terrible terrible missionaries. (And, it would seem, not always very good spouses either, but every barrel has some bad apples.)

    As to going from persecuted to persecutors, once the shoe was on the other foot–I wish I could find exceptions to that in human history, but it seems pretty universal. Power corrupts. A Catholic wrote that line, you know. (But in a bigotedly Protestant country.)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      Maybe so. But I’ve never met him and have never had any communication with him — not so much as an email.

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 16, 2018

        Just because a critic is a fan doesn’t mean he stops being a critic.

        I’m a fan too, but I shall no doubt have criticisms to make, once I’ve read it.

        It’s on my Kindle, but I’m in the middle of Ron Chernow’s gargantuan biography of U.S. Grant.

        I have some criticisms to make there as well, but an excellent book. Very relevant too.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  February 15, 2018

    “On his popular blog, Ehrman has occasionally responded to personal attacks by the atheist crowd, who do not share his considered equanimity.”
    Heh.

  6. Avatar
    flshrP  February 15, 2018

    Yes, this NYT review is very positive. Congrats.
    Which means that you should be prepared for the inevitable incoming flak–both from your (possibly envious) historian peers and from the Peanut Gallery.
    The motto of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket company comes to mind: “Gradatim Ferociter”.

  7. Avatar
    jdub3125  February 15, 2018

    Well congratulations Professor! I’ll be contrarian and not plan to read the new book. However, I would gladly donate a copy to someone on the blog who would like to read it but can not afford it. Are there logistics for that?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      Not really. Why are you simultaneously interested in the blog but not interested in the book?

      • Avatar
        jdub3125  February 18, 2018

        Ok. Well, I will wait and see what shows up, gift wrapped, on the table beside my birthday cake or on the floor under the Christmas tree. Meanwhile, I like worthy causes, and none are greater than those supported by the blog.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 16, 2018

      I’ll take a copy. Was gonna buy a Kindle version.

  8. Avatar
    seahawk41  February 15, 2018

    Well, a very good review! My copy came yesterday, but I’ve not started reading it yet due to other stuff (finishing a sci fi novel, evaluation for cataract surgery), but this review whets my appetite, so I will right away.

  9. Avatar
    Tempo1936  February 16, 2018

    So glad your talents are being recognized. You are a bright light in a world that needs more 💡. Hope the book is #1 for many weeks.

  10. Avatar
    toejam  February 16, 2018

    Nice. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from Tom Bissell’s “Apostle”.

    Any plans for an audiobook or ‘Great Courses’ series on ‘Triumph’?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      It’s already an audiobook; Great Courses: don’t know!

      • Avatar
        ddorner  February 16, 2018

        It’s a great book. And the audiobook is wonderful as well. I’m on my second listen. George Newbern’s narration is excellent. You might remember him as Steve Martin’s son in law from the Father Of The Bride films.

  11. Avatar
    ddecker54  February 16, 2018

    Congratulations, Professor!!!

  12. Avatar
    gwayersdds  February 16, 2018

    Only Just started reading the book but it seems to me that the reviewer “got it”. I am learning more about what “paganism” was like than I thought possible. Also revising what I thought I knew about Constantine. Can’t wait to finish reading the entire book. Thanks Bart for writing it.

  13. Avatar
    jmmarine1  February 16, 2018

    I have yet to read your new book, but I did read the review in the Wall Street Journal. Amazing how the reviewer chose to critique the book you did not write, and deal only tangentially (and poorly) with the book you actually did write. Have you had to put up with this nonsense with any of your other books?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      Yes, my thesis runs precisely counter to the one he’s been promoting for a few years. I couldn’t have picked a worse person to write a disinterested review!

  14. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  February 16, 2018

    Bravo !! I expect to have your book waiting for me when I get home this evening. Now to find the time to read all of it in one sitting !! (Never happen, but one can hope!)

  15. Avatar
    Pattylt  February 16, 2018

    I just finished the book. Even though I have a pretty good knowledge of this subject, I found it an enjoyable read and have no major issues with it. Those that have it fixed in their minds that Constantine is the reason for Christianity’s success or that it was miraculous because “Jesus” of course will have issues. I appreciate a history that is fair, thorough and gives a very good account of what we do and do not know.
    I have one question regarding how miracles were the major reason for converts. I don’t doubt that people believed these miracle stories. People believed what trusted people told them. Fact checking just wasn’t done and wasnt even possible back then. But the miracle stories are basically lies. Yes, some were just exaggerations but so many were made up at some point in the telling and these stories continued to be made up for years after. I guess my disappointment that all religions feel a need to lie to get people to believe like them just disappoints me to no end. Christianity is no better or worse than other faiths but I want to jump up and shout,”can’t anyone tell the truth?” Are lies necessary for faith?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      I don’t think they’re lies. Rumors start *all* the time; usually their false; and usually they don’t start with someone telling an intentional falsehood.

  16. Avatar
    bcdwa288  February 16, 2018

    You often draw a firm distinction between historical and theological approaches to Christianity and the Christian scriptures. While you affirm the historical approach as the most legitimate you seem to be tolerant of people who stubbornly take the theological view. One of many examples is that of the Resurrection. If I am correct you do not believe that event really happened. It is not historical. The same basic idea is true of the “miracles” and many other events in the Bible. But you have said that it is quite alright with you if people believe those things from a theological perspective.
    I agree with most everything you say and write. I have read many of your books and your blog posts, and have closely watched many of your debates and lectures. But I have trouble understanding and maintaining the tolerance you seem to have with theological defense of the historicity and authenticity of these events. I understand that fiction can convey deep (metaphorical) truth. But it seems to me that there are foundational events recorded in the New Testament that either happened historically or they did not happen. The Resurrection is perhaps the best example. If it actually happened basic Christianity is on solid ground. If it did not happen Christianity falls quickly to just another superstition. The Greatest Story Ever Told degrades to The Greatest Lie Ever Told.
    As you so aptly write in the 8th Chapter of “Jesus Before The Gospels” Christianity has been an large positive influence on civilization over the last 2 millennia. Many other authors have enumerated the great evils it has committed.
    How does one gain the positives of Christianity without being subjected to the constant flow of misinformation from the Bible and lies from the pulpit?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      YEah, I’m afraid it’s not easy. The best way is to choose your church carefully!h

  17. Avatar
    Hormiga  February 16, 2018

    Yes, I saw that even before getting the book (which I’m now reading).

    Congratulations indeed!

    If you see other interesting reviews, for a wide range of values of “interesting”, please point them out here, along with such commentary as you have the time and inclination to give.

  18. Avatar
    Matt7  February 16, 2018

    Nice review! Makes me want to run out and buy the book (oh, wait, I already have a copy). Interesting allusion to the rise of anti-Enlightenment sentiment toward the end.

  19. Avatar
    madmargie  February 16, 2018

    I pre-ordered it and got it right away. Luckily a friend gave me a $50.gift certificate for Christmas. I have begun to read it.

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