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Beginning the Triumph of Christianity

I’m in Washington D.C., where I just now gave my first “book talk,” a reading from part of my new book The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, at the wonderful bookstore, “Politics and Prose.”   The book is officially published on Tuesday!   And for those interested, this is how I begin the Preface, on a personal note before getting to the matter at hand.

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In my junior year of college I took a course in English literature that made me understand for the first time how painful it can be to question your faith.  The course introduced me to poets of the nineteenth century who were struggling with religion.  Even though I was a deeply committed Christian at the time, I became obsessed with the work of the great Victorian poet of doubt, Matthew Arnold.  Nowhere is Arnold’s struggle expressed more succinctly and movingly than in that most famous of nineteenth-century poems, Dover Beach.   The poem recalls a brief moment from Arnold’s honeymoon in 1851.   While standing by an open window, overlooking the cliffs of Dover, Arnold takes in the shoreline below, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the sea as the tide goes out.

The sea is calm to-night.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; — on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

He asks his bride to join him at the window to enjoy the sweet night-air, and to look down where the waves break upon the beach:

Listen! You hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin.

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring,

The eternal note of sadness in.

This is the sound, he notes, that Sophocles described many centuries before — in his play Antigone — a sound that made the Greek dramatist think of the “turbid ebb and flow/of human misery.”  The sound gives Arnold a thought as well, but one quite different and particularly attuned to his age.  For Arnold the retreating sea is a sad metaphor for the Christian faith, ebbing from his world and leaving a naked shoreline in its wake.

There was a time, he wistfully recalls, when the world was comfortably filled to the full with faith:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But that sea too is now retreating, and one can hear the sucking sound as it pulls back from the shore:

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

For Arnold, the modern, educated person no longer has the comforts of religion, the presence of an all-powerful and loving divinity, or the redemption provided by a Son of God who has come into the world to save those who are lost.  In the void left by the withdrawal of the Christian faith, all that remains is a confusing and chaotic emptiness, filled only in part by the presence of others, the people we love and cherish who can join us through the uncertainties, pains, and anxieties of life.  And so he concludes his poem:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Here is a world of profound and disastrous mayhem and confusion – a struggle of armies fighting to the death, in the dark, with no joy, peace, or certainty.  In this void we have only are our friends, companions, and loves:  “Ah love, let us be true to one another.”

Dover Beach, and other poems of its era, resonated with me as a young college student because I was beginning to move through my own nineteenth century.   In my liberal arts education I had begun learning about the geological and biological sciences, philosophy, critical thinking, and intellectual history — all of which posed problems for my faith, much as they had for the intellectuals of Arnold’s era.   And I too found my emerging doubts deeply disturbing..

Now, forty years later, I have a different perspective on these nineteenth-century struggles.  Rather than experiencing them personally as a Christian, I look on them as a historian specializing in the study of religion.  Even though I myself am no long at sea, I can empathize with those who have been wracked with doubt and uncertainty, forced to reconsider and even abandon their faith, not simply since the rise of modernity but throughout history.

 

The Christian Revolution

In the first four Christian centuries, the religions of the Roman Empire came under assault by those proposing a new faith, declaring that only the worship of the God of Jesus could be considered true religion.  As Christianity spread, it destroyed the other religions in its wake, religions that had been practiced for millennia and that were simply assumed, everywhere and by everyone, to be good and true.  But Christians insisted they were evil and false.   For those reluctant to accept these claims – or even those unsure of what to belief – this transition was no less agonizing than that of Victorians living centuries later.

The Christian revolution proved far more massive and its triumph far more enduring than the skepticism that emerged as a counter-force in the nineteenth century.   Even though many Victorians experienced radical doubt, or left the faith altogether, the Christian tradition did not disappear.  There are still two billion Christians in the world.  By way of contrast, in antiquity, when Christianity succeeded in taking over the Roman Empire, any pagan religions left in its wake were merely isolated and scattered vestiges of ancient “superstition.”

The ancient triumph of Christianity proved to be the single greatest cultural transformation our world has ever seen.  Without it the entire history of Late Antiquity would not have happened as it did.  We would never have had the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Renaissance, or modernity as we know it.   There could never have been a Matthew Arnold.   Or of any of the Victorian poets.  Or of any of the other authors of our canon: no Milton, no Shakespeare, no Chaucer.  We would have had none of our revered artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Rembrandt.  And none of our brilliant composers: Mozart, Handel, or Bach.  To be sure, we would have had other Miltons, Michelangelos, and Mozarts in their place, and it is impossible to know whether these would have been better or worse.  But they would have been incalculably different.

By conquering the Roman world, and then the entire West, Christianity not only gave rise to a vast and awe-inspiring set of cultural artifacts, it also changed the way people look at the world and choose to live in it.  Modern sensitivities, values, and ethics have all been radically affected by the Christian tradition.   This is true for almost all who live in the West, whether they claim allegiance to Christianity, to some other religious tradition, or to none at all…..

 


The Conversion of Constantine
Do We KNOW the Original Words of the NT?

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Comments

  1. mjordan20149  February 11, 2018

    The Arnold poem is also one of my favorites. Samuel Barber set the words very effectively for voice and string quartet. There are many recordings, but this one looks particularly good to me:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUtgMrXXJj0




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    • llamensdor  February 14, 2018

      50 years ago, Simon Schuster published my novel, “Kane’s World.” The following year, a British Commonwealth edition was published by Michael Joseph Ltd. The reviewers at a number of top British publications compared my work favorably to the writings of Matthew Arnold. I was both flattered and humbled. Interestingly, while all editions of the book are out of print in the U.S. and foreign markets, in Britain, the book continues to be reproduced by “copying” and I receive a small but welcome check annually.




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  2. reedm60  February 11, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Sorry I missed you sir. I bought my tickets back in November 2017 but my flight from Cincinnati to Washington DC got cancelled. Seriously disappointed.




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  3. jdub3125  February 11, 2018

    Professor speaking of Christianity’s effect on the West, how about sometime you take a day or two off from the blog and let your brilliant and lovely wife write a couple of guest posts? Any topic of interest to her, and if she requires an invitation from a blog member, consider it extended. I suspect others on the blog will agree.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2018

      Interesting idea. If she weren’t so unbelievably swamped with other things these days, I’d think about it!!




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  4. Telling
    Telling  February 11, 2018

    Given the longevity of Christianity, do you ever wonder if there may be a legitimate logical Jesus message of eternal life hidden there somewhere?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2018

      Not sure what you mean. Other religions, of course, are much older. My view is that the age of a religion is not an indication of its “truth”




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      • tompicard
        tompicard  February 12, 2018

        So, your book is based on premises different than those held by Gamaliel ?




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      • Telling
        Telling  February 12, 2018

        But we do find in art and literature, and politics and science and I suppose just about everything else, the greater works will be the lasting ones. Why wouldn’t this too be true of Christianity, particularly so being it’s overpowering influence that permeated all the great art and literary works, and politics in the West?




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  5. godspell  February 11, 2018

    Dover Beach is a fine poem–memorably used in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but the irony there is that when read aloud at a party by the book’s protagonist, it’s impacting people who have lost faith in everything, poetry included–and are, as a result, leading barren, sterile, emotionally desolate lives. They live in a world of bad television, shallow entertainments, dulling their nerves with intoxicants–and none have ever given religion a moment’s thought–because, after all, this is a society that has banned all books, including the bible.

    As you imply, Christianity appeared on the scene at a time much like the one Arnold describes, when an empire has reached its zenith, and can only now decline–and people are only paying lip service to their beliefs, it’s all about money and power. I don’t see any equivalent of Christianity out there, waiting to renew us, though. We don’t seem able to create great religions anymore. Maybe somebody is, and we’re just not seeing him/her now.

    It’s Arnold’s faith, that he still holds to (otherwise he wouldn’t have written the poem), that touches them, disturbs them, makes them recognize their unhappiness.

    Without some kind of faith, nobody is really alive. But there must be a choice. Faith can’t be imposed from without. It has to be felt from within.

    PS: Not everybody is so impressed with Dover Beach.

    https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/dover-bitch

    😉




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2018

      Ah, yes, my English professor in college read us that. Very funny.




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  6. Jana  February 11, 2018

    Congratulations! Checking back now as to your latest book’s birthday! So excited for you.




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  7. Hume  February 11, 2018

    I think you miss believing in Christianity. On some level, in some sense.




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  8. toejam  February 12, 2018

    Looking forward to this book. Just listened to your interview on Bob Price’s “Bible Geek” show. Very enjoyable!

    A question 🙂

    I’ve read in a lot of commentaries that Paul’s ‘receiving from the Lord that which he handed on’ (1 Cor 11:23) was a common phrase used to denote the passing on of oral tradition, and that it should not be confused with Paul claiming he received this teaching via direct personal revelation from Jesus. However, James Tabor and Richard Carrier have pointed out that the word Paul uses here for “received” is the same he uses in Galatians in describing his “receiving” personal revelation that he insists was not taught to him by men. Is Paul claiming that he received the tradition of the Lord’s Supper from a personal revelation?

    I note a lot of commentaries that prefer the idea that Paul is passing on that which he received from apostles before him but ultimately stems from Jesus often cite the Jewish writing Pirkei Avot (aka ‘Ethics of the Fathers’) as an comparable example. The Pirkei Avot opens:

    “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it over to Joshua. Joshua handed it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets handed it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah. Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G‑d, and deeds of kindness. Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward..”

    etc.

    However this seems to favor the Tabor/Carrier idea, because each individual is said to “receive” the information not from Moses, but from the person who handed it on to him.

    My question is… Is there a clear cut example of the phrase being used in the way scholars normally interpret it? E.g. Is there any example of a Jewish text saying “Rabbi x received the tradition from Moses” when it’s clear he didn’t actually get it from Moses directly but from his teachers?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2018

      I don’t think Carrier is your best source for biblical scholarship!! But the issue is not simply the word “receive.” It’s the *combination* of “delivered over (to you)” that which I “received” which is said to be traditional language for passing on a tradition. Off hand I don’t have the references.




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  9. RonaldTaska  February 12, 2018

    Wow! Quite a start. Congratulations! Seeing this book published must be very exciting for you. My copy should be arriving from Amazon soon and I look forward to reading it.

    By the way, several posts ago, you mentioned that most of what you write in trade books is supported by most scholars, but there was one thing that you contend that is different from what most other scholars contend. What is it that you contend that is out of step with most scholars? You mentioned the idea that Paul contended that Jesus had an angelic existence before Jesus was born and then you were going to go on and explain this difference you had with most scholars.

    I also hope you follow up on the thread about why you think the description of Lazarus seeing Abraham in heaven was not something Jesus actually said. I would still like to hear why you think that. You mentioned that this description is just found in one Gospel source and then you were planning to explain more about your position on this issue. Thanks.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      Yes, I’ll be getting back to the afterlife soon. And to the afterlife itself eventually….

      The point that I was referring to in which I differ wiht most scholars is my view that Jesus was probably not given a decent burial.




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  10. Seeker1952  February 12, 2018

    I don’t want to discount the many good good things (along with many bad things) that Christianity has done in history but one point of view is that Christianity interrupted the humanistic and scientific progress that was taking place in the classical world and that it inevitably led to the Dark Ages (including the Medieval world broadly speaking). Only with the Renaissance and the revival of classical learning did the Western world once again begin to make significant progress.

    Offhand I don’t know why continued paganism should be more successful than Christianity at stopping the barbarian invasions or, later, the spread of Islam. And Roman rule, while it promoted peace and trade and prosperity and a fair amount of progress, was also quite oppressive.

    Since the triumph of Christianity was such a critical historical juncture, I’m wondering if your book addresses whether and to what extent its triumph was a good thing as compared to a continuation of classical civilization.




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  11. Boltonian  February 12, 2018

    ‘To be sure, we would have had other Miltons, Michelangelos, and Mozarts in their place, and it is impossible to know whether these would have been better or worse. But they would have been incalculably different.’

    I hope the philosopher A.C.Grayling reads at least your preface because he seems to think that we would have experienced the Enlightenment 1300 years earlier had it not been for the advent of Christianity. How does he know such a thing? He just states that it is palpably obvious. Well, not to me it isn’t. In a recent debate with the historian Tom Holland on this subject, Grayling lost the argument comfortably, in my opinion.

    I love that poem, btw; not that I had any faith to lose in the first place but I can understand the sense of forlorn emptiness after the scales have finally fallen from one’s eyes.

    ‘Triumph’ is on order, along with the latest Steven Pinker – looking forward to getting stuck in to both.




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    • turbopro  February 13, 2018

      If I may please: would you have details on how to obtain a written, audio, or video transcript of the debate betwixt Mssrs Holland and Grayling? Thx.




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      • Boltonian  February 15, 2018

        If you follow Tom Holland (the historian not Spiderman) on Twitter you can make contact with him that way. I did not save it, I’m afraid but I am sure he will post the link for you. Tom is reading The Triumph of Christianity right now, as it happens.




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  12. Stephen  February 12, 2018

    Did you have time this trip to take in the Museum of the Bible?




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  13. Leovigild  February 12, 2018

    “The Christian revolution proved far more massive and its triumph far more enduring than the skepticism that emerged as a counter-force in the nineteenth century. “

    Maybe you should give it the full four centuries that Christianity got — after all, by 133 CE, by the estimated growth you posted (40% per decade starting from 1000), there were only ~30,000 practicing Christians. Today, 100 years after the start of the skeptical movement, there are far more than 30,000 nonbelievers in traditionally Christian countries.




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  14. Ibn.Fawda  February 12, 2018

    I pre-ordered in November and Amazon just delivered. I will start reading tonight. Thanks!




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  15. rburos  February 12, 2018

    Tomorrow!




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  16. Iskander Robertson  February 13, 2018

    was jesus homeless ? peter said ” we have given up everything”
    does that mean they left worldly responsibilities like work, looking after family etc to live on the streets ? who was supporting jesus financially ? would it have been enough to support everyone in the group? if jesus got invited to houses, did the disciples get invitation too ? if jesus was getting a good funding, why looking for food from trees ? why do the disciples do the same?




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  17. clifh  February 14, 2018

    Have you any plans to record lectures for The Great Courses on the subject of the triumph of Christianity?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      Nothing in the works! I’m thinkipnb about suggesting it.




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  18. BartyD4all  February 14, 2018

    Just got Triumph from Amazon. Looks great.




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  19. SidDhartha1953  February 14, 2018

    Great teaser! I can’t wait to open one of the two copies I ordered. They’re supposed to arrive tomorrow.
    Question, prompted by a YouTube video I just watched. Valerie Kaur, a mother, civil rights activist, and Sikh, was talking about radical love. She mentioned that Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. King both spoke a lot about loving others, but very little about loving oneself. King is noted for his struggles with self doubt and depression. Do you think Jesus loved himself or considered that an essential aspect of living by love?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      Im not sure we’re able to give a psychological profile of someone 2000 years ago with the kinds of sources available to us.




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      • SidDhartha1953  February 16, 2018

        True. I was thinking of the disservice done by some modern Christians who interpret Paul’s “esteem others better than yourselves” to the extent that they think they should always put themselves last. Do you think Paul meant it that way or that Jesus’s teaching would have suported that view?




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 16, 2018

          I waffle on that one. If they meant “really and truly last,” then that would mean imminent death.




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  20. SidDhartha1953  February 14, 2018

    Another thought brought on by the back and forth over whether Christianity revived/replaced a dying civilization or snuffed it on the verge of a new age of light: in the world of religion alone, without Christianity there would be no Islam, no Sikhs, no Bahai Faith, as the latter two were in part offshoots of Islam.




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