O frabjous day, callouh, callay. My book was published, just today!
The Triumph of Christianity was, in some senses, many years in the making. Here is how I talk about how the idea for it first blindsided me, two decades ago.
The idea for this book struck me twenty years ago during my first trip to Athens. I was keen to explore the archaeological wonders of the city, and most especially the Agora and the Acropolis. The Agora was the ancient center of the city and is still filled with monumental buildings: the old Athenian meeting place called the Metroon; the impressively reconstructed Southern Stoa with its rooms, shops, and areas for people to mingle; and a number of ruined sacred sites – including the single best preserved Greek temple to come down to us from antiquity, one dedicated to the Greek god Hephaestus, god of volcanos, fire, and metal working.
Constructed from 449 BCE- 415 BCE during the glory days of Athens, it is a large and imposing structure in the Northwest part of the Agora. Made completely of marble, it stands on a large platform, 104 by 45 feet. The front and back — east and west sides — are adorned with six massive columns; the two longer sides thirteen. Along the top are magnificent friezes, one of which depicts the labors of Heracles. Inside the temple, in antiquity, stood bronze statues of Hephaestus and the patron goddess of Athens, Athena. This testament to the architectural skills of ancient Greece stands virtually intact today – including its roof – appearing much as it did to the Athenians twenty-five centuries ago, a glorious temple that would have been observed in person by Euripides and Sophocles, by Socrates and Plato.
High above the Agora, to the southeast, stands the Acropolis, home to numerous archaeological wonders, including the glorious Temple of Athena Nike; the temple known as the Erechtheion with its six enormous female statues, the Caryatids; and of course, chiefly, the Parthenon, perhaps the most magnificent ruin of any kind to come down to us from classical antiquity. Although much larger than the Temple of Hephaestus, the Parthenon took less time to complete, just fifteen years. The temple is dedicated to Athena, the “parthenos” – that, is the virgin. But the building was not a cultic site devoted to her worship. It was instead used as a treasury for the city of Athens.
The building is simply enormous. It stands on a base measuring 228 feet by 101 feet, on which stand eight giant columns on both front and back, seventeen on each side. Their construction is an architectural marvel. If all the columns had been straight and exactly the same size, the building would appear curved to the naked eye. And so the architects designed the columns to lean slightly toward the interior of the building, and enlarged them slightly in the middle. Moreover, the floor of the temple is imperceptibly higher in the center than at the sides. Altogether these carefully plotted design features make the building appear completely straight and symmetrical.
In antiquity a statue of Athena stood inside the structure, measuring twelve meters high and constructed of fine ivory and gold around a wooden core. It was made by Phidias, the most famous sculptor of classical antiquity. Numerous other sculptures adorned the temple, including those known today as the Elgin marbles, called after the man who confiscated them in the early nineteenth century, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The marbles can still be seen in all their relocated glory in the British museum.
The temple of Hephaestus and the Parthenon were high on my agenda during my visit, as were the surrounding archaeological remains. But I was especially intent on climbing an otherwise unimpressive rock outcropping that, as a historian of early Christianity, I had known about since my youth. This is called the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. It is where the Apostle Paul allegedly delivered a speech to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers upon first arriving in Athens during his second missionary journey.
The Areopagus today looks much as it did in Paul’s time, a stony crag overlooking the city, boasting no ruins of any kind. Its only distinctive features are a plaque embedded in the rock below, encapsulating the text of the speech Paul delivered, and a set of slippery steps leading up to the top. It is a spectacular location, not because of any inherent merit or archaeological ruins, but because on both sides can be seen the vestiges of one of the most spectacular civilizations the world has ever known, the magnificent remains of the Agora below and the even more magnificent remains of the Acropolis above. This is Athens, the home of some of the greatest philosophers, dramatists, artists, architects, and political thinkers of classical antiquity, captured in a gaze downward and upward.
Paul visited the spot on his second missionary journey. He had come to Athens to preach about Jesus and his resurrection. Some of his original audience wanted to hear more from him. So, as requested, he ascended the Areopagus to speak to a group of philosophers who regularly gathered there. He started his speech by mentioning he had seen a large number of temples and idols in their city, but was particularly struck by an altar dedicated to “An Unknown God.”
Scholars of early Christianity have long debated how to make sense of such an altar. Possibly it was erected as a back-up measure by a group of pagans nervous not to leave any god out from their collective worship – in case there was one god who had been left unmentioned, unnamed, and unattended in the city. This altar was in that one’s honor.
Paul uses this altar to an Unknown God as a launch pad for the rest of his address. The Athenians may not know who this God is, but Paul does. He in fact is the one God over all, the ultimate divine being, the God who created the heavens and the earth. As the creator of all things he has no need for any physical representation or earthly temple. This is the God who is soon to judge the world and everyone on it through the second coming of his son Jesus, whom God had raised from the dead.
Paul’s words did not find a welcome acceptance on the Areopagus. It is not that the philosophers there were shocked, dismayed, or challenged. They were simply amused. Paul was relatively uneducated — in comparison to them, at least — and was speaking nonsense about a physical resurrection of the dead. Most of them mocked, though some wanted to hear more later. Paul did make one or two converts.
While standing on the site twenty years ago I thought about Paul, his sermon, and his surroundings. Paul was a lower-class artisan and itinerant preacher. From an external, material perspective, nothing stood in his favor. He was widely maligned and mistreated, frequently beaten, sometimes within an inch of his life, and lacking any worldly power or prestige. In many ways he stood on precisely the opposite end of the spectrum from the great cultural heroes of Athens, the heart of Greek civilization.
Then the realization struck me. In the end, Paul won.
What Paul preached that day on the Areopagus eventually triumphed over everything that stood below me in the Agora and above me on the Acropolis. It overwhelmed both the temple of Hephaestus and the Parthenon. No one, except, probably, Paul himself, would have predicted it. Yet it happened: Christianity eventually took over Western Civilization.
In this book, I have tried to explain the triumph of Christianity without making it a triumphalist narrative. As a historian, I do not think the Christianization of the Roman Empire was inevitable and I do not celebrate it either as a victory for the human race and a sign of cultural progress on the one hand, or a major socio-politico setback and cultural disaster on the other. I think it is impossible to say whether the world would have been a worse place or a better one had it not happened. Something else would have happened in its stead. But what?
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