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Did the Benefits of the Christian Community Win Converts? Readers’ Mailbag.

Here’s an important question I have received, along with an answer a lot of people think is counter-intuitive.  It has to do with why Christianity proved so attractive in the ancient world as they were desperately trying to attract converts.

 

QUESTION

Please help me understand – didn’t first-century Christians offer more than stories of Jesus and a god to pray to? Didn’t they also offer the care and support of a community? Weren’t they actually supporting and providing for each other’s needs? And if so, wouldn’t this make their religion attractive to others in need?

 

RESPONSE:

As it turns out, my view of the matter is that the answer to the first three questions is a resounding YES; but the answer to the final question – that is, the one that this reader is most interested in and (I would guess) thinks depends entirely on the preceding three – is MAYBE but the implication that this is why they grew and expanded is probably NO.  History is like that sometimes.

In my book The Triumph of Christianity I talk about reasons people have given over the years for the remarkable success of the early Christians in spreading their religion, from their start as a tiny band of illiterate unknowns from a rural no-place in a completely unpromising province of the Roman empire to becoming the dominant religion of the entire Mediterranean world, converting most of the Roman Empire in less than four hundred years.  How’d they do that?  It’s a really interesting question!

But I do not think that their success at first or even in the following two centuries was because of their community’s’ commitment to helping and supporting one another.  Here is what I say about it in my book.

*************************************************************
The Attractions of the Christian Community

It is often thought and widely claimed that one of the main reasons pagans converted to Christianity was because of the inherent attractiveness of the church community.  Pagan civic cults did not involve much of any community.  They did entail ceremonies performed in public in the presence of others.  But there were no weekly community meetings, opportunities for fellowship, or planned times of discussion, reflection, and sharing of concerns.

That was different within Christianity.  Much like the Jewish synagogues out of which they grew, Christian churches entailed regularly scheduled weekly meetings.  Converting to become Christian was not an isolated individualistic affair, a matter of private spirituality.  It meant joining the church.  The church was not a place – there were no buildings for Christian gatherings until the middle of the third century, so far as we know.  Prior to then, and probably for a good while afterward, most churches met in private homes and in outdoor areas such as cemeteries.  Rather than being a place, the church was a community.  A tightly-knit community.  A community as tightly knit as the nuclear family.  In fact, Christians were often encouraged to replace their families with the members of their new community.  The founder or leader of the church was a “father”; fellow believers were “brothers” and “sisters” in one big family.  Moreover, these were self-consciously communities of mutual love and respect.  They provided material support for their needy members.  They provided moral support for everyone who came.

Such, at least, were the claims of Christians who wrote about the church.  Whether all this was entirely true is another question.  But numerous scholars have maintained that …

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The Outrageous Immorality of Early Christians (!) (?)
Reason and Theology – Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    NonFingo  July 10, 2020

    The conclusion of your book chapter seems plausible. But your more generalized conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. Namely, you say it was NOT the case “…that their success … was because of their community’s commitment to helping and supporting one another.” It seems possible that the love and support within each community might have played a large part in minimizing the de-conversion of its members.

    You convincingly point out that the inflow into each community was restricted. Well then, since we know from history that these communities did in fact grow over time, some counterbalancing factor must have existed to restrict the outflow of members back into the non-Christian world. If you pour water into a leaky bucket, you must plug the holes for the bucket to fill; and all the more so if the water flows in via a narrow straw.

    At first glance, I think the most likely candidate for “hole-plugger” in these communities would have been the familial love from other members. This would tend to draw wayward members back into the fold, especially if that sort of family atmosphere was difficult to find in the outside pagan community.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2020

      Most anything is theoretically possible. The question is always: if there is no evidence for something, why do I think it is true? Once you articulate your reasons in the absence of evidence, they can be evaluated. But the argument my students often use that “It just seems right” doesn’t normally get us very far, if we are looking for historical evidence. But, well, maybe it is right! You would have to explain, given what we know of teh early Christian communties as secret societies, how outsiders knew about them. Maybe insiders lauded their friends with the values of community. It’s certainly possible. But none of our references to people converting talk about that….

      • Avatar
        NonFingo  July 13, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman, you seem to have missed my point; or, more likely, I have not articulated my point very well.

        You assert that the mutual help and support of early Christianity played no role in its growth. You provide evidence that there would have been significant hurdles to people joining the community that would have outweighed any perceived social benefits; I agree the argument for that seems compelling. But inflow into the community is only half of the dynamics; the other half is outflow from the community. I think one needs to also address the effect of help and support on the outflow of members from the community before proclaiming that it played no role in the growth of early Christianity.

        Regards.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 14, 2020

          I don’t think I’ve misunderstood you. I’m saying that if you want to make a historical claim of any kind you need to have evidence to support it (as my one-time colleague E. P. Sanders used to say: anyone who takes a position bears the burden of proof.) In this case, your claim is that the Christian community attracted members because they offered such help and support. I would simply say that if you want others to agree with you on anything you claim, you need to give them reasons, and the fact that something makes sense isn’t as strong of a reason as actual evidence. (The view that I have has is the mentioned in numerous ancient sources; it may not be the ONLY right answer, but it surely needs to be part of the answer.)

          • Avatar
            NonFingo  July 14, 2020

            Ugh. I’m not making a historical claim. I’m trying to point out a flaw in your argument. I’ve obviously failed to communicate my point. I give up.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 15, 2020

            I made a historical claim and I thought you were objecting to it. So if you’re talking about something else, then I think you’re right — we’re passing each other like ships in the night!

  2. Avatar
    Bennett  July 10, 2020

    So, if the perceived social benefits did not bring people into the religion, what did? I was going to suggest it might have been the concept of monotheism or perhaps the simple and uncomplicated nature of the religion. But of course, by the third century CE the Christian movement was anything but simple.

    So, in your opinion (since I don’t have your book to consult), what was it that drew people in?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2020

      Ah, that’s the point of my book. What did? The problem is that it takes me a couple of chapters to explain it, and if I just put it in one sentence it’s not at all convincing. But I will tell you what every ancient source that talks about it indicates: Christians “proved” that their god was more powerful than any/all the other gods, and since the reason for worship divine beings was to be helped by them, gradually over time, Christians convinced people that it was worth abandoning their gods for the Christian God. But there were lots of other factors that have to be factored in before one can see why that worked.

      • Avatar
        Bennett  July 12, 2020

        Fair enough, I need to read that book.

        A related question that has puzzled me – would you say that belief in the Greek and Roman pantheon was flagging during the first 3-4 centuries CE, which allowed the practice of Christianity to take over? Or would you say that the growing acceptance of Christianity caused the abandonment of the ‘old gods’? Once we get past the time of Constantine, we don’t hear much about Roman gods. Did they disappear quickly or do we just not read about them anymore?

        OK, so I realize those are multiple questions, not just one. Still, your input is much appreciated.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 13, 2020

          No, I argue in my book that in fact pagan religions were thriving in the period.

          • Avatar
            Bennett  July 27, 2020

            Working my way through the book, and I find it very informative and really fascinating. I am considering the numbers in Chapter 6 about the growth of the church and I am finding the assumptions made in Hopkins study to be problematic. Specifically, the arguments that there should be tens of thousands of letters between the individual churches during the period 50CE to 150CE. That seems to presuppose that the main communication method was by letter rather than direct contact. To me, it would seem that most churches communicated primarily with other local churches, and letters would not have been necessary. People traveled a lot even then, and other than missives from evangelists like Paul, why would there have been a need for writing more than talking? Churches we know about (Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Paul’s churches) could pass letters back and forth, especially if there were ‘leaders’ in the true sense. But otherwise letter writing would not seem necessary, especially when so few could read them. Surely if there were that number of letters, we would have more of them to look at.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 28, 2020

            Good point. But my sense is that he is decidedly not saying this was the main way of communicating between churches. He’s just saying that any one church can plausibly be thought to have written a letter / note to some other church once every three months or so, given what we know about letter writing in antiquity. The reality is that we’ve lost 99% of the writings from antiquity, of all kinds…

      • Avatar
        Chad Stuart  July 14, 2020

        I agree with you that Christians proved they had the most powerful god, but my experience with church is that the social aspect plays as much of a role as theology. My family never discussed religion in the house, but we went to church on Sundays because of the people. A sense of community is still how the church attracts people today.

        Though you’re right, there’s no way to prove how much of a role community aspect played in early Christianity with the evidence with have.

        Paul did make a big deal about membership and community in 1 Corinthians 12:24-26:

        “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

  3. Avatar
    veritas  July 10, 2020

    In my experiences of church life, there is no doubt in my mind that the benefits contributed to conversion. When 5-10 % of the population is considered poor in early Christianity, would it not be wise to join a church and feel accepted by your peers? I witnessed people coming to church and needing help as you described, Bart, physically,emotionally, socially and intellectually. The churches I attended, the needy most always outweighed the fortunate. The emphasis was Jesus helped the poor and needy. An affluent man in a church I attended once told me,” The church needs the wealthy to write the cheques(tithing) but the majority(poor) need the church to feed them”. I have never forgotten his words. Coincidentally, the Mormon church is considered one of the wealthiest (monetary) in the world, and yet only about 20-30% of the 15 million or so membership pay the 10% tithing required to be in good standing. The Romans, Vatican, wealth?

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  July 14, 2020

      Your present-day experiences don’t have much relevance to Christianity 2000 years ago. So much has changed since then.

      For example, there was no Bible, or readily-available way to learn about the beliefs and practices of Christians, nor could any non-Christian show up at Christian worship services (if they even knew where they were taking place) and be allowed inside.

      • Avatar
        Chad Stuart  July 15, 2020

        None of that changes to the power of community to attract people. Human beings have not changed much over 2,000 years and still have the same needs.

  4. Avatar
    clerrance2005  July 11, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Please, when Christianity became accepted by the Roman empire, didn’t rewards, incentives, political roles, inclusion of Christian leaders in State affairs etc. from the Christian Emperor also serve as an enticement for people to become converts.

  5. Avatar
    Poohbear  July 11, 2020

    Why do you think these people were ‘illiterate’? We had two tax collectors, a Physician, the Centurion, a “great company of priests”, maybe two from the Jewish Sanhedrin, four we know of who had businesses and others like Martha’s siblings who were well off. Jesus, like his father, was a tradesman, and John’s father was a priest in the temple. And of all the people Jesus chose, surely He would been mindful of those who could read and write?
    But to your point. Yes, some people were attracted to the fringe benefits of Christianity – but these people were also a source of sorrow, even offense, to the Apostles because they had a “feigned faith.”

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 11, 2020

    Very interesting. Thanks

  7. Avatar
    jeffmd90  July 11, 2020

    Do you think the fact that many of the early churches met in peoples’ homes was a reason for their insulated nature?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2020

      That was probably part of it. Of course they probably didn’t have many choices about where to meet….

  8. Avatar
    Venzen007  July 11, 2020

    When things aren’t pressing, it is easy to put them off for later. Christianity today doesn’t seem very pressing. I think early Christianity (when it first began) must have been very pressing (time-sensitive) in their beliefs in terms of the message, being that this world was coming to an end and not at some far away moment, but at ANY moment.

    In order to convert a large number of people, I would think you need a sort of immediacy, a situation where the converts don’t have to wait long for the result of their decision; they get the benefit right away (or close to right away). If the message didn’t contain the immediacy of “this world is ending any day”, but was just a message about worshiping this god instead of that god, I don’t personally see a draw sufficient to pull so many from their current faiths (in which I assume they had been indoctrinated since birth, i.e. very hard to change their mind). There had to be something urgent about the early Christian message, something immediate about it. I think that supports the idea that Jesus’ message and the initial post-Jesus message was still an apocalyptic one.

  9. Avatar
    Venzen007  July 11, 2020

    I also wonder whether any other religious tradition at the time Christianity was starting to spread was offering eternal life, resurrection from the dead, or something similar, in the way Christianity was offering it. Alleviation of the fear of oblivion or the unknown by offering everlasting life might have been quite an incentive if no other religious traditions were explicitly offering the same.

  10. Avatar
    jdmartin21  July 11, 2020

    As the church spread throughout the empire, those doing the spreading were former pagans. It seems these new Christian converts who, as you point out, found the Christian church’s social, emotional, physical, and intellectual benefits gratifying, would be happily telling all of their pagan family and friends of the wonderful social benefits of conversion. Are you saying that pagan converts weren’t doing much evangelizing or that their evangelistic message was not focusing on the social benefits of the new religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2020

      Yup, it’s possible there was a lot of that going on. But as it turns out, that is never mentioned as the reason others join. Strange in a way…

      • Avatar
        Chad Stuart  July 12, 2020

        As usual, look at who wrote the existing evidence – what incentive would any church leader have to write that people are converting for the benefits they receive for joining, other than salvation?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 13, 2020

          The incentive would be to say that our religion is superior to yours, as shown in the lives of those in our communities.

  11. Avatar
    janmaru  July 11, 2020

    Since anyone who got lost would like to be saved, it’s easy to understand what probably made the Christian religion so attractive: the promise of salvation.
    And the funny thing is that anyone wasn’t even lost in the first place. Christians made you believe such as such. Turning any source of education into a polycephaly organic madrassa.
    Education was the tool used to control others.
    Paintings in the church, for instance, have had always a function like comics: they told a story that anyone would understand, even the illiterate and the poor.
    Have you ever made any serious research on the educational system of that time, either in academia or in churches?

    P.S.
    Paintings were found also in the Catacombs of San Gennaro, in Naples. I’m using the term “church” in the wider term.

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  July 14, 2020

      Paintings in the church, for instance, have had always a function like comics: they told a story that anyone would understand, even the illiterate and the poor.

      This is what St. Augustine says, but it doesn’t really seem to be correct. First of all, the early Christian art that we have is far from transparent, in fact, it assumes rather deep knowledge of Christian narrative and doctrine. If you see an image of a woman seated, with a child, and three men standing in front of her, how are you to understand the meaning if you’ve never heard of the visit of the Magi to Mary and Jesus? Rather, the images suggests that those looking at them must have been already educated (by listening to readings from what would become scripture). They couldn’t do any educating by themselves.

      • Avatar
        janmaru  July 15, 2020

        The story told should not be the same for everyone.
        As usually happens with our kids, truth is delivered in such a wishy-washy manner that it could not be recognized.
        It might be an honest opinion. Aren’t our parents chit-chat the crossbones of our personality? Aren’t they loving persons and impartial people?
        Because they agree upon you, it becomes a truth.
        When a narrative is carried on, what matters is not its meaning but the shape-form that holds onto you.

        Christians heard stories, told stories and lower and higher truths materialized.
        A lower truth might be repeated often and often because it is consoling.
        A higher truth could be whispered over and over and set aside ’cause it will disturb too many people.
        The observed cannot exist without the observer, the truth cannot hold without a frame, like those paintings in the church ruined by the earthquake over the street where I do live.
        They hang in between.

  12. Avatar
    Chad Stuart  July 11, 2020

    Roman religion was predicated on belief that Rome had the favor of the gods. When bad things started happening to the Empire and Emperors who called themselves gods were shortly killed, it must have caused people to question whether Rome was still in their favor.

    As you say, a sense of community was lacking in Roman religion. I think that’s what the “mystery religions” provided people. Unfortunately, those appear to have been expensive to join, even for the well-off.

    So when a religion comes along at time when the gods don’t seem to be on Rome’s side anymore and offers a community that welcomes everyone, regardless of money or status, I think that would be very appealing. Christianity also lowered the bar in terms of effort required compared to the Roman religions and all of its state and household gods that must be appeased.

    Regarding this quote: “We know of no cases in which Christians desired to win adherents by means of the charities they dispensed.”

    As we can see happening all over the world today, no converts want to admit that charity was reason for their conversion even if it was what brought them to it in the first place.

  13. Avatar
    Colin P  July 12, 2020

    Hi Bart. Off topic but thanks for flagging the Quest. I found it very interesting. I’ve being thinking about your comments in the documentary. To paraphrase “Do you know if there is a God? Of course not. How could you? Do you believe there is a God? No”. I’m just wondering what your response would be to the question do you believe there is no God/supernatural being/dimension? If yes, why?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2020

      That’s right. I think the universe is all made up of physical matter — particles — and there is nothing in it that is not made up of physical matter. For me that increases the awe, rather than compromises it.

  14. Avatar
    jonas  July 12, 2020

    I think it’s important to remember that 300 years is a pretty long time for a religion to get off the ground — it seems from our vantage point that it was a big success right out of the gate, but for the first two centuries or so of its existence, it was *not* attracting people in droves, and the Roman elites who did hear about it (e.g. Tacitus and Pliny) thought it was bizarre and depraved. Even after Constantine’s conversion and public embrace of Christianity, traditional religion remained a powerful force in Roman society. As late as 398 there were protests when emperor Theodosius I formally banned the public practice of any non-Christian religion, with one writer, Libanius of Antioch, complaining that radical Christian monks were roaming the countryside, vandalizing pagan shrines, attacking priests, and threatening villagers who tried to use them. I tend to concur with Ramsay Macmullen that large-scale conversions to Christianity were due far more to social and political compulsion/convenience than some kind of personal awakening or commitment.

  15. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 12, 2020

    We should consider punishments as well as rewards. I can imagine non-Christians being “frozen out” socially, in a community where Christianity had taken hold. Need a job? Need some assistance? Don’t want to have rumors circulating about you and your family? Want customers to buy your wares? Better get with the program, buddy. We can make things tough on you. There are lots of communities right here in the USA, where it wouldn’t be a good idea to be openly non-Christian or non-observant. God forbid you should be known as “pagan” or an atheist. ! Your kids might have a tough time in school. You’ll never get into the country club! Might get some windows busted out. Graffiti on your walls. Actually, I think those pressures would have outweighed any rewards.

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