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Being Blindstruck by Triumph

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.

 

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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?

Members of the blog see five to six posts a week on everything connected with early Christianity.  If you’re not a member, you don’t!  So why not join?  It costs little, gives a lot, and every penny goes to charity.


A Welcome Review of The Triumph of Christianity
The Conversion of Constantine

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Comments

  1. cmdenton47  February 13, 2018

    I think this piece is one of the best things you’ve ever written. Bravo!




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  2. pbth4  February 13, 2018

    woke up this morning to my copy on my kindle … great beginning … looking forward to reading it … CONGRATULATIONS!




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  3. Betty Jo  February 13, 2018

    It may be too broad a subject, but how does Western Christian development compare to Eastern philosophical development?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t know!




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    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 15, 2018

      There are some similarities. For example, the same way Christianity became the established religion in the West via Constantine and Theodosius, Buddhism became an established religion/philosophy in India via Asoka (google him) and Confucianism became the established religion/philosophy in China via the Han emperors. Some scholars have also made similar connections between the Achaemenids and Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism and the Aryan invaders of India.

      There are many other common threads, such as:
      ~ Teacher/disciple relationships
      ~ Asceticism/monasticism
      ~ The notion of a hidden or esoteric teaching/truth
      ~ Sacred scriptures
      ~ Metaphysical exercises, such meditation vs. ecstatic states (cf. “being in the Holy Spirit” with eastern “mindfulness”)
      Etc.




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  4. talmoore
    talmoore  February 13, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I believe you buried the lede. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call your book the Triumph of Paul — a man I would consider a half-wit charlatan and wannabe philosopher?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      No, I don’t think Paul is the whole story, by a long shot.




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      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 15, 2018

        Can we split the difference and say Paul is 50% of the story?




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 16, 2018

          Ha! I don’t do history by percentages. 🙂




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          • talmoore
            talmoore  February 18, 2018

            Richard Carrier does.




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          • Bart
            Bart  February 18, 2018

            Oh boy does he….




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  5. Wilusa  February 13, 2018

    That last paragraph – what it says about your intent, as a historian – is terrific.

    And with your degree of interest in the origin and growth of Christianity, it must have been wonderful to stand where Paul had stood!




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  6. TimAZ  February 13, 2018

    Congratulations on the new book! I was excited to see it arrive on my reader this morning.




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  7. nichael  February 13, 2018

    Yes! First thing this morning i received a notification from Amazon that the book had shipped. Can’t wait.

    [[As an aside, it’s interesting how your internal mental “parsing defaults” can get reset by what you’re used to seeing. I could swear that when I first saw the subject-line above that it read “Being Blindsided by Trump. 😉 ]]




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  8. rivercrowman  February 13, 2018

    Makes my day! Another great book on the way. Thanks Bart.




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  9. Linda  February 13, 2018

    Our copy is due in today!! Just in time.




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  10. fishician  February 13, 2018

    Do you think Christianity would have prevailed if it had completely shed its Jewish roots? Or was putting a new twist on an old religion one of its strengths?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      It’s hard to say what that would have looked like: it couldn’t shed its worship of the Creator God, for example, I wouldn’t think. It *may * have een able to shed the Old Testament I suppose. Some Christians tried!




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  11. epicurus
    epicurus  February 13, 2018

    I got lost trying to find the site of Plato’s academy back in the pre google maps days, I left the Agora heading north I think, into a sprawling run down suburb, every sign in incomprehensible greek letters. It was getting dark when I gave up and nervously tried to retrace my steps back the agora, not a cab to be seen, but of course, I finally made it back.




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  12. DavidNeale  February 13, 2018

    I look forward to reading the new book!

    Off-topic: can you recommend a book on the Elephantine papyri and their implications for the dating and origins of the Hebrew Bible? I just saw a blog post relying heavily on the absence of reference to the Torah in the papyri, and arguing that the Torah should be dated as late as the third century BC, which surely can’t be right (how can the original Hebrew be barely older than the Septuagint?!)




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  13. Tony  February 13, 2018

    I don’t recall anything in Paul’s letters about a sermon in Athens. Probably because it is not there – and all this comes from Acts 17:16-34.

    A growing number of secular scholars see Acts as a fabrication. Bart, are you actually relying on Acts to get factual information about Paul?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      He certainly preached in Athens (see 1 Thess 3), but no, I’m not claiming the account in Acts 17 is historically accurate.




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  14. kminor2  February 13, 2018

    “Every triumph is also a defeat, and the ecstasies of those who prevail are matched by the agonies of those who lose”

    Poetic and profound.

    Congratulations on your new book.




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  15. hoshor  February 13, 2018

    What are you giving up for lent this year?! 😉




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      Not my blog!




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      • jdub3125  February 15, 2018

        Giving up king cake is easy, especially if you eat the whole thing on Mardi Gras. Yum!




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  16. Hume  February 13, 2018

    What’s the connection between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      I didn’t know there was one!




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      • Hume  February 16, 2018

        But Bart it would seem like a massive coincidence if both festivals were about fertility, birth, and love.




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  17. godspell  February 13, 2018

    There’s three ways to look at history:

    1)Contingency: Nothing is inevitable, history (including evolutionary history) is just a succession of happenstances.

    2)Teleology: Everything had to proceed in more or less the same way. What happened happened because it had to happen.

    3)There are certain basic patterns one can discern, but considerable flexibility in how they are manifested, and there’s always a few wild cards in the deck–who usually take the form of military conquerors, but Jesus sure doesn’t fit that mold.

    You can believe it was all foredestined, or you can believe that remarkable things happen throughout history because of a series of events that really do read like an improbable fiction, crafted by a storyteller with an exaggerated sense of irony. Or some admixture of the two.

    Thing is, none of those interpretations really jibe with a a truly random universe.

    It is entirely improbable than we are all here. And the more we study the universe around us, the more improbable it seems.

    A tough universe to fathom, for theists and atheists alike. It won’t give any of us what we want.

    Sure is interesting, though.




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  18. flshrP  February 13, 2018

    Received my copy of your new book this afternoon. Ain’t Amazon Prime the greatest!!




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  19. rburos  February 14, 2018

    Just finished the first two chapters and I am really enjoying if of course. I have, however, a few thoughts that lead to questions about your goals regarding this book.

    You are writing “down”, which is expected in a trade book, surely. But you seem to be doing that more so in this book than in others. It almost reads like an introduction to Bart Ehrman, and that makes me curious as to how you plan out these projects. Outside of the real and pragmatic need to sell books so that the publisher will cover their costs, it’s your understanding of your audience that I’m seeking.

    I really enjoyed the narrative you provide in chapter 2 regarding Paul’s conversion, thought process, and missionary strategy. Not only does it illuminate a complex topic for us, it also provides a springboard and professional guide for further independent study. Thank you! But it is a reduction of much of what you have already written and lectured before–though might I add that you communicate this even better than Sanders (much much better). Even a casual observer of Ehrman recognizes the simplification and reusing of former elements within what is surely a new construct (including a much larger overall narrative!). Is Triumph meant to serve as an introduction into your other works in particular, and thereby draw a new reader into this fascinating world of New Testament scholarship in general? If so, Triumph seems to work very well within that construct. But who exactly is your audience, and how do you make these decisions? Does the publisher have input?

    I remember you saying once on a Youtube video that you hoped that you could inspire agnostics and believers alike to simply be smarter agnostics and believers (I’m paraphrasing so I hope it is fair). These first two chapters do that in spades.

    Smaller question–you write of Paul attending the local synagogue for Sabbath services and using the occasion to proclaim his gospel. Do you feel this attention was directed at the theophoboi? As you didn’t mention it, I’m not sure if it was because of trade-book-simplification or if you didn’t find merit.

    Now it’s off to chapter 3! Again, thank you for your continued work.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      I’m not assuming that anyone knows my earlier work when reading this book, so I simply cover what I need to do in order to make my points. But teh conversion of Paul is not something I’ve talked about much, outside of my book Peter Paul and Mary Magdalene. On theophoboi: Paul never mentions them, and I’m slightly dubious of the category in general. There surely were some gentiles who worshiped in synagogues, but probably not masses, and we don’t know much about them.




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  20. frankmelliott3rd  February 14, 2018

    “O frabjous day, callouh, callay. My book was published, just today!”

    And it received a very positive review in the New York Times. Congratulations!




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  21. RonaldTaska  February 14, 2018

    Good post ending with a great question. And I thought the Parthenon with Athena statue replica in Nashville was awesome.




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  22. Wilusa  February 14, 2018

    Huh – I don’t know how my previous comment got posted twice! I *was* adding a sentence…

    What I want to ask now…I know you’ve said you believe that if not for Christianity, we’d still be worshipping the Roman gods. (Somewhat more understandable in light of the explanation you give here, of there having been no real distinction between politics and religion.)

    I’m wondering: Do you think that (a) the invention of the printing press was all-important, and (b) it never would have happened without a demand for Bibles?




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  23. brandon284  February 14, 2018

    Congratulations Bart! how are your upcoming media appearances lookin’?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      Doing some interviews, some book readings, some podcasts — all good!




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  24. tompicard
    tompicard  February 14, 2018

    Jesus and Paul felt God is a driving factor in human history.
    Gamaliel (Acts5) likewise who commented “if it [preaching of the gospel] be of God, ye cannot overthrow it;”
    of course, to the brilliant men of Athens, that was nonsense. (as it is to brilliant men of today) . . .




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  25. doug  February 14, 2018

    Futterwacken! Futterwacken!




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  26. nichael  February 14, 2018

    Just wondering: Has anyone observed the similarity of the front cover of “The Triumph of Christianity” to the cover of Walter Issacson’s new book about Leonardo da Vinci?

    (No important significance, of course. But for those of us waiting for tToC to come out, it can really catch your eye from across a bookstore.)




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      I myself have! And can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad.




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  27. llamensdor  February 14, 2018

    Are you aware of the review of your book in today’s Wall Street Journal by Professor Boin of St. Louis University? It’s rather tepid at best, “…an unconvincing account of how Christians came to dominate Roman culture through their nagging evangelism.” A touch of envy, perhaps?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      I was *extremely* disappointed they asked Douglas Boin to write the review. Of all the hundreds of pieces of scholarship I’ve read on every related aspect of the problem over the past 25 years, his book was the *one* that I find most problematic. When I saw that he was reviewing the book, I said, Oh boy, here we go….




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  28. llamensdor  February 15, 2018

    I have had the privilege of visiting Greece, and especially Athens, several times. I visited the Acropolis at various hours of day and night, and also attended a world-class performance of Verdi’s opera, “Don Carlo” in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the foot of the Acropolis. That night there were late arrivals at the theater: Greek King Constantine and armed guards sitting a few feet from us. I have also been able to achieve my goal of visiting great sites by moonlight, in particular a full moon– including the Alhambra in Spain, the Temple of Karnak (not to mention the pyramids) in Egypt, the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon. While on the Acropolis, walking in the gravel near the Parthenon, I stumbled and somehow lost a contact lens. The moon was so bright that I found the lens “glowing” in the gravel.




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  29. Eric  February 15, 2018

    Poor review of your thesis in the WSJ, by a Professor Douglas Boin.

    I critiqued aspects of their selection of reviewer in the online comments, so far 9 other readers have indicated agreement with me.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      I was *extremely* disappointed they asked Douglas Boin to write the review. Of all the hundreds of pieces of scholarship I’ve read on every related aspect of the problem over the past 25 years, his book was the *one* that I find most problematic. When I saw that he was reviewing the book, I said, Oh boy, here we go….




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      • Eric  February 15, 2018

        This was my comment on WSJ, getting plenty of likes. No need to post this, I just thought you’d be interested:

        (Notice my self-proofing on WSJ is no better than it is here!)
        *********

        This review of book with a historical thesis is reviewed by an author with a competing thesis on the same (or very close) topic: the rise and success of the Christian Movement in the Roman Empire. (“Coming Out Christian in the Roman Empire” at least sounds like a theory in the neighborhood of Dr. Ehrman’s topic).

        The selection of this reviewer seems a “little too close” to be disinterested, intellectually at least.

        I am used to seeing history reviewers in WSJ with related but not competing areas of study. For instance, in this case, an academic focusing on the evolution of roman empire governmental practices or some such. Not someone who makes his own name on being an expert on religious development in the Roman Empire. The latter’s critique is more rightly presented in a competing book.




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 16, 2018

          Many thanks. You’re absolutely right. He tried to shift the paradigm with his book and I’m afraid it didn’t make the splash that he wanted. A book that promotes views widely held in the field are anathema to him.




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      • drussell60  February 16, 2018

        I know nothing about Douglas Boin but he seems to criticize you for the book you “did not” write (that he wanted you to write) as opposed to the book you “did” write. I am not in your league as a published author, but I ran into this with my first book (co-authored) on the life and musical legacy of the late great, Earl Scruggs (Rowman & Littlefield). Most of the reviews are 5 stars, yet there are a few negative reviews from people who clearly did not read the book, and criticized it for NOT being the book they wanted us to write. Even after clearly articulating our objective and focus, we were still hammered for not creating “their” book. I just started Triumph, Looking forward to it.




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  30. danielbice  February 15, 2018

    Congrats on the review. Somewhat unrelated: Is there a place where we can see Ehrman’s upcoming lectures or debates?




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  31. SidDhartha1953  February 16, 2018

    Triumph p. 77: you say the Roman world had no word for “religion.” James 1:24 KJV refers to “pure religion.” Does he use a word that applies to Jewish practice in particular, or is religion a mistranslation? Still loving the book!




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      It’s James 1:27 I think. The word there THRESKEIA doesn’t really mean what our term “religion” (and all its connotations) means. It tends to refer practices of worship.




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  32. SidDhartha1953  February 16, 2018

    Was Zeus necessarily one god, or is Zeus a generic term, like deus, which can be any god? Hence Zeus A would be “the god A” and Zeus B “the god B.”




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      Zeus was one God, but he was called by different (sur)names and worshipped in various ways throughout the Greco-Roman world.




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  33. SidDhartha1953  February 16, 2018

    On henotheism v. monotheism: in the Vedic tradition, a dichotomy has evolved between popular and philosophical religion. The less educated and more traditional devotees tend still to treat any of the innumerable God’s and goddesses as separate entities, while the more cosmopolitan believers speak more comfortably of God, treating the pantheon as many manifestations on one supreme being. Socrates seems to have taken the same point of view. Did the more educated and philosophically inclined Romans have any similar approach to polytheism?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      Yes, I deal with this in the book. Henotheism was popular among some pagans, absolutely.




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  34. drussell60  February 17, 2018

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    I know nothing about Douglas Boin but he seems to criticize you for the book you “did not” write (that he wanted you to write) as opposed to the book you “did” write. I am not in your league as a published author, but I ran into this with my first book (co-authored) on the life and musical legacy of the late great, Earl Scruggs (Rowman & Littlefield). Most of the reviews are 5 stars, yet there are a few negative reviews from people who clearly did not read the book, and criticized it for NOT being the book they wanted us to write. Even after clearly articulating our objective and focus, we were still hammered for not creating “their” book. I just started Triumph, Looking forward to it.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      Yes, the thesis in my book runs precisely contrary to the one that he has been trying to promote for several years. I think he was a disastrous choice for a reviewer — he has too much at stake.




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