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Making Rome Pagan Again

After Constantine converted to Christianity, every Roman emperor, for all time, was Christian – with one brief exception: his nephew Julian, most frequently referred to as Julian the Apostate, who ruled for nineteen months in 361-63 CE.   This short reign was highly significant: Julian tried to turn the empire back to the ways and worship of paganism.  He is called “the Apostate” because he started out as Christian but then opted to worship the traditional gods of Rome.  And he tried to enforce this view on his Empire.  Here is how I describe how he did that (or tried to do it) in my book on the Triumph of Christianity.

 

The Last Pagan Emperor

Julian spent his first six months as emperor in Constantinople, and then nine unhappy and turbulent months in Antioch, before marching against the Persians.  He was killed early in the conflict, having ruled the empire for a mere nineteen months.  It was, however, an eventful year and a half, especially for pagan-Christian relations.  Upon ascending to the throne, Julian declared he had converted to paganism years earlier.  (The very fact that he could understand paganism as a “religion” to which he could even convert shows just how much had changed by his time.)  He made it one of his goals to reinstate traditional pagan sacrificial practices throughout the empire.  That required him to suppress the burgeoning Christian movement.

We do not know why, exactly, Julian became such a passionate devotee of pagan traditions.  We do know that …

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When Christianity Became the “Official” Religion of Rome
The Beginning of the End of Paganism

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    ask21771  May 1, 2018

    If the Jews had threatened to riot as the gospels state they did would Pilate had given into their demands

  2. Avatar
    jbskq5  May 1, 2018

    I loved the book Dr Ehrman and am eagerly awaiting your podcast with Sam Harris to be posted!

  3. Avatar
    saavoss  May 1, 2018

    I wonder… if Julian had not been killed in battle, after reigning only 19 months, if he would’ve been successful in turning back the triumph of Christianity… 🤔 … Is this the turning point? Would our world today be any different if Julian was successful and had a longer reign?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      Great question! No way to know, unfortunately.

      1
    • Avatar
      godspell  May 2, 2018

      Not if it came down to just him. We remember a lot of important Christians from this era. People of genius and ability. Paganism was not a unified religion, much as Julian wished that it was. Nor was he as capable as Constantine.

      You look at the English monarchs who tried to reestablish Catholicism. Or Cromwell’s attempt to impose his more stringent version of Protestantism. Failures, all of them. One man (or woman) is not a movement. And movements don’t happen just because of individuals, influential as some can be. They happen because they were ready to happen.

      We can’t know, but we can look at patterns in history. Christianity went right on growing after the Empire itself had fallen. Because it never depended entirely on the Empire, as the Roman version of paganism did.

  4. Avatar
    Eric  May 1, 2018

    A very clever ploy of his was to promise the Jews he would help them rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a project opposed by Christians and stymied by his own death in the Persian campaign.

    Gibbon asserts that the object was to both reinstitute another rival to Christianity and to demonstrate the falsity of certain prophecies then (and now?) much beloved by some Christians regarding the rebuilt Temple and delay thereof.

  5. Avatar
    Pattylt  May 1, 2018

    While 19 months is an extremely short time in which to reverse the rise of Christianity, and of course it ultimately failed, how successful was it during those 19 months? I imagine closeted pagans came out from the closet but do we have any idea how many converted back to paganism? In my view, many converts in either direction did so for political or financial gain so a pagan emperor would stimulate conversion for those reasons… just wondering if we know how many shifted away during this time and had his reign continued, how long it might have taken to have Rome become fully (or mostly fully) pagan again.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      Not hugely successful. But if it had been 19 years instead of months, who knows?

  6. Avatar
    fishician  May 1, 2018

    Do any of your opponents refer to you as Bart the Apostate? Do you think a Christianity known for “humanity towards strangers, forethought in regard to the burial of the dead, and an affectation of dignity in one’s life” but without political power would still have taken over the empire? I would like to think so, and that Christianity would have been better off for it. Seems to me that in an ironic way Christianity’s triumph in the political arena was also the loss of its soul.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      Ha! Not to my knowledge. And on the second question: probably not.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  May 2, 2018

        FYI, your former debate partner James White repeatedly refers to you as an “apostate” in his podcasts. I suppose you can take some comfort though in that he seems to dislike Mike Licona even more than he dislikes you. There is some arcane theological conflict between them apparently.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 1, 2018

    I’m not sure of the origin of the English word “pagan.” But you’ve said “paganism” took many forms. What – in terms of language – did Julian say he’d converted to? (E.g., the Latin word for “polytheism”?)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      I”m afraid we don’t have writings from him to know for sure. He probably talked about the traditional religions/ways. The origin of the word pagan is much debated; most often it is thought to derive from “paganus” — a “country person,” as an invention by the later sophisticated Christains to indicate that this new faith was accepted by everyone except the country bumpkins.

      • Avatar
        jhague  May 2, 2018

        That’s interesting. Weren’t Christians considered country bumpkins at one time in history?

  8. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  May 1, 2018

    why did matthew and luke replace the aramaic words with greek?

    ” Mark preserves the original Aramaic words that Jesus spoke, such as talitha koum (5: 41), corban (7: 11), ephphatha (7: 34), and Abba (14: 36), while Matthew and Luke replace the Aramaic with Greek. “

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      Presumably because they knew their readers couldn’t understand Aramaic!

      • Avatar
        nbraith1975  May 3, 2018

        Helping prove your point that well educated and highly literate men wrote the gospels – not uneducated and most probably illiterate day laborers.

  9. Avatar
    Apocryphile  May 1, 2018

    I have to admit that I agree with one of Julian’s actions, and think it should be re-implemented today – namely, the requirement of Christian clergy to contribute their wealth to municipal causes (i.e. taxes). It seems almost any group or organization in this country, simply by calling itself a “church”, can avoid having to pay taxes on the monies it collects, even that not set aside for charitable disbursement (which *should* be tax-exempt). This loophole (IMO) has led to a great number of abuses and corruption among the hierarchy, especially, it seems, with some of these ‘mega’ churches the size of football stadiums, where the preacher’s face and gesticulations are only visible on one or more ‘jumbo-trons’ suspended high above the lowly worshipers’ heads. (My criticism is directed not just at the large Christian churches, but at any ‘church’, regardless of size or religion, in this country).

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    • Avatar
      mannix  May 2, 2018

      Not all churches are fabulously wealthy, and many smaller ones survive on a shoestring, dependent on weekly collections. Taxing this money would force many to close; others would need to curtail their charitable contributions to pay those taxes. In addition, I suspect the %age of every dollar a church uses for charity that actually goes to the specific cause is probably significantly greater than that managed by government or an organized Charity.

      Otherwise, I see your point…clergy at large churches in higher income communities seem to live an enviable lifestyle.

      1
      • Avatar
        Apocryphile  May 9, 2018

        The bottom line is who do you want managing large scale social programs? Small scale faith-based charities are all well and good, but the question becomes how efficient are they at managing *large scale* social welfare and disaster relief programs? For this you need (dare I say it?) government, which operates on taxes (or at least government in coordination with large agencies like the Red Cross). If the tax system was equitable, with large organizations (including churches) and wealthy individuals paying a larger percentage of their income (ALL of their income) in taxes than smaller organizations and individuals, there would be less of a need for smaller entities to try to solve big societal problems. Large bureaucracies like the government have their problems with waste and inefficiency, true, but they are the only ones with the wide organizational structures in place to mount the massive logistical operations and relief efforts needed to solve big problems.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  May 3, 2018

      Believe it or not, this atheist does NOT want churches taxed. Remember taxation without representation? If tax dollars are collected from religious institutions then you are guaranteeing greater involvement in government. Rather I would like to see religions being monitored a bit more closely in regards to staying out of government with the threat of taxes and greater government involvement if they do.

      3
  10. Robert
    Robert  May 2, 2018

    “… he considered to be the greatest appeal of the Christian tradition, its social programs.”

    There is no way to quantify the extent to which Christian social action (care of widows, orphans, etc) was influential in its growth, but it is worth noting that a critic such as Julian considered this to be it’s greatest appeal. Tim O’Neil has a very positive review of your book, The Triumph of Christianity, but he also notes that your discussion of this aspect of ancient Christianity is perhaps deficient:

    “… His dismissal of Julian’s claim that these things did attract converts on the grounds that he was raised a Christian and so was an “insider” seems a little glib. …”

    https://historyforatheists.com/2018/04/review-bart-d-ehrman-the-triumph-of-christianity/

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      I don’t mean to be glib, but I do look for evidence for my historical views. One thing worth considering: Julian was writing in 361 CE. By that time CHristianity was a massive movement. This is the first time anyone mentioned the social aspects of Christianity as being important. But let me ask this: where does Julian say that Christians acquired members because of their social programs?

      • Robert
        Robert  May 2, 2018

        I’ll take your word for it that he does not, but it seems natural to assume that widows, orphans, and sick who benefited from the church’s care would be inclined to view it favorably. Yet that is not what interests me here, but rather that this was seen as an attractive attribute of the church even by a sworn enemy. Like St Lawrence proverbially pointing to the widows and orphans as the wealth of the church, it survives as a reminder that Mt 25 is a more important part of the Christian message than is usually appreciated by sola fidei fundamentalists.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 4, 2018

          What I argue in the book is that hte social benefits provided by the church may not have attracted people into it, but once they were in they provided enormous incentive for *staying* in.

      • Robert
        Robert  May 4, 2018

        “But let me ask this: where does Julian say that Christians acquired members because of their social programs?”

        I’ve come across a few quotes of Julian in his letters where he seems to say this, but I don’t know if all of the letters are considered authentic. There’s another quote which I haven’t succeeded in tracing it to its original source so I’m not sure if it is perhaps quoted in an early Christian text and thus suspect or maybe even fabricated by later Christian apologists.

        To Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia:

        … I order that one-fifth of this be used for the poor who serve the priests, and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. …

        http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/julian_apostate_letters_1_trans.htm

        Fragment of a letter to a priest

        … We must pay especial attention to this point, and by this means effect a cure. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices. For just as those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them two or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves, and that which for the moment seemed sweet, proves to be bitter for all the rest of their lives—by the same method, I say, the Galilaeans [p 339] also begin with their so-called love-feast, or hospitality, or service of tables,—for they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names,—and the result is that they have led very many into atheism. ….

        http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/julian_apostate_letter_to_a_priest.htm

        Here’s the unreferenced quote I haven’t found early than the 19th century:

        “Let us consider that nothing has so much contributed to the progress of the superstition of Christians, as their charity to strangers. I think we ought to discharge this obligation ourselves, establish hospitals in every place—for it would be a shame for us to abandon our poor, while the impious Gallileans [meaning Christians,] provide not only for their own, but also for ours; welcoming them into their agape [love], they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.”

        Lectures on the Nature and Dangerous Tendency of Modern Infidelity by Rev. Levi Tucker (Cleveland: Francis B. Penniman, 1837) 141
        https://archive.org/stream/lecturesonnature00tuck#page/140/mode/2up

        • Bart
          Bart  May 6, 2018

          Ah, right, that’s it. Yup, so in the early 360s this was his view. Again, we don’t have anything like this in the period I’m most intersted in, the first to third centuries.

          • Robert
            Robert  May 7, 2018

            “Ah, right, that’s it. Yup, so in the early 360s this was his view. Again, we don’t have anything like this in the period I’m most intersted in, the first to third centuries.”

            But if it was seen as an attractive feature, even the most attractive feature of the Church, and if by the 360s it had become significant enough to attract the attention and even competition of the Emperor, it is not likely that it started overnight. The attractiveness of ancient Christianity was not only miracle stories and certainly not a mere sola fide faith in individual redemption. Even a sworn enemy of Christianity highlights their support for the poor, their own as well as the non-Christian poor.

            1
          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2018

            The point is that what was well known to a former Christian when there were 20 million Christians in it would not necessarily have been known at all to completely outsiders when there were 20,000..

          • Robert
            Robert  May 8, 2018

            “The point is that what was well known to a former Christian when there were 20 million Christians in it would not necessarily have been known at all to completely outsiders when there were 20,000..”

            I agree; in fact that was partly my point. Even ‘though this aspect of a growing ancient Christianity had not yet come to the attention of a fiercely opposed emperor in the 360s, there’s no reason to suppose that it was not an important aspect of the movement when it was smaller. Or is there any reason to believe that caring for the poor and disadvantages, widows and orphans, the sick and imprisoned, etc, was a new development in the 4th century? I think it was important to the author of the gospel of Matthew (and other very early Christian texts) and that the parable of the sheep and the goats in Mt 25 did not just happen to be included by a poorly cognizant redactor who did not realize that Jesus had a different soteriology than the evangelist himself.

            1
  11. Julian
    Julian  May 2, 2018

    Perhaps I’m pre-empting a future post, but had Julian (not me, the other one) not been killed so early, but had reigned instead for an extended period of decades, how likely would it have been that Christianity would be relegated to a minor religion status in the empire? Was there so much cynicism towards the old pagan religions that they would have struggled to survive amongst the educated anyway? After all, criticisms prompting the scathing satire of Lucian had already been around for hundreds of years. Did Julian write much ‘apology’ with intellectual weight on behalf of paganism, and aside from manipulating the Roman laws, did he back up his position with any substantial arguments?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      It’s really hard to know. Impossible, I guess. Already at this point, though, Christianity was growing so fast that it probably would have taken over the empire completely, unless something truly drastic happened. But no, most pagans were not skeptical of their religion (despite Lucian and others — but Lucian himself was not an opponent of pagan practices, so far as we know).

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 2, 2018

      Given Julian’s clear lack of pragmatism–how likely was it that he was going to live that long? He was smart, energetic–but he took pointlesss risks to achieve something he had almost no chance of achieving. Constantine was by far the more formidable figure, but even he simply hastened something that was already happening.

      And in any event, if Julian’s zealous intolerant paganism had triumphed, it might well have had all of Christianity’s vices, with none of its virtues.

      We all make history together. It’s never just one man. The one man who came closest to defying that was crucified as a common criminal, abandoned by his handful of followers, believing himself a failure.

  12. Robert
    Robert  May 2, 2018

    I’m intrigued by Julian referring to Christians as Galileans, neither Jews nor Greeks, even so late into the 4th century. So far as we know, were there other authors of the time who used this term to designate Christians?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      That’s a great question. I don’t know of others who do so off hand.

      1
      • Robert
        Robert  May 4, 2018

        In the 2nd century, Epictetus, as quoted by one of his students, may be referring to Christians as Galileans. John Malalas, a 6th century Syrian, also says this was an early designations of Christians. He says this of Numerian (288 CE) and also of Constantine.

        2
  13. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  May 2, 2018

    Yes, the sun was blocked. They did not know if it was day or night? Then the sun was shown again. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. If it was by whom or what. Jupiter! No! Saturn/ Cronus!
    I am just kidding…

    [17] And they fulfilled all things and completed the sins on their own head. [18] But many went around with lamps, thinking that it was night, and they fell. [19] And the Lord screamed out, saying: ‘My power, O power, you have forsaken me.’ And having said this, he was taken up.
    [20] And at the same hour the veil of the Jerusalem sanctuary was torn into two. [21] And they drew out the nails from the hands of the Lord and placed him on the earth; and all the earth was shaken, and a great fear came about. [22] Then the sun shone, and it was found to be the ninth hour.

    Did they take him to the garden of Joseph afterward? “Woe” to the world. I love your blog Dr. Ehrman and I support your purpose. I am among those suffering. I just like to talk about God!

  14. Lev
    Lev  May 3, 2018

    ““Do we not observe that what has most of all fostered the growth of atheism [i.e., Christianity] is humanity towards strangers, forethought in regard to the burial of the dead, and an affectation of dignity in one’s life each of these ought, in my opinion, to be cultivated genuinely by us.” To provide pagan counterparts, Julian set up guest houses in cities and free distributions of wheat and wine to the poor.”

    This is FASCINATING! From a 21st Western point of view, without much knowledge of ancient history, I assumed humans always had an inner desire to care for and offer “affection of dignity” to one another, and this wasn’t unique to Christians, but it seems Julian was saying these were innovations within the Pagan world – is that right? Was the ancient Pagan world characteristically callus and uncaring by modern standards?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      Most of antiquity accepted an ideology of dominance: the powerful were to dominate the weak. Christianity preached something different (whether it always practiced it is another question): *caring* for the weak/needy.

      1
      • Lev
        Lev  May 5, 2018

        I have a ton of questions as a follow-up, but I stick with just one – the ‘what if it never happened’ question.

        I studied politics and political history at university, and I think it would be possible to build a case that Christianity put the brakes on technological and scientific advancement. If pagan Europe had continued to develop unfettered by Christianity, it’s possible the industrial revolution would have happened far earlier (maybe up to a 500 years earlier) leading to the sort of philosophers we saw with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who developed the secular idea of communism/socialism. This would have produced similar values of caring for the week/needy without the help of Christianity.

        What’s your view? Do you think Europe would have developed the way it has with caring for the weak/needy without Christianity? Were such values an inevitable consequence of human development and progress?

        1
        • Bart
          Bart  May 6, 2018

          It’s an interesting idea, but I think the Roman empire was going to fall apart even without the rise of Christianity, and it was this disaster that halted the technological developments needed for modern science to develop.

          2
          • Lev
            Lev  May 6, 2018

            I guess what I’m really asking, is whether you think Europe would have acquired the same values of caring for the needy / poor / weak etc via a route other than Christianity?

            For instance, a case could be made that the industrial revolution led to socialism/communism which seemed to offer a secular reason for caring for the poor – but then, how much of that philosophy was influenced by a civilisation soaked in Christianity for the best part of 1’500 years?

            Would Marx and Engles have reached the same conclusions without the Christian values of Europe? If not, then perhaps Christianity inspired the philosophy (Communism) that eventually conquered China – perhaps the consequences of the ‘triumph of Christianity’ in Europe is felt by almost all the world today?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2018

            I’m afraid there’s no way to know. Without the middle ages as we know them, how would we have had modernity as we know it?

            2
          • Avatar
            godspell  May 12, 2018

            Nitpicking here, but obviously in a reality even slightly different–let alone one where Christianity never rose to dominance in Europe–Marx and Engels would never have been born. And even if born, a different sequence events could have led them to very different fates. (Anyway, I tend to think we’d have been better off without them–lots more killing in the name of Marx in the 20th century–and for what?)

            I mean, all that would be needed to stop you or I from being born would be to make our dads ejaculate a few moments earlier or later than they did in the earlier timestream. Different spermatozoa, different baby.

            I know, ew. But still true. History isn’t inevitable because it’s made by human beings (not exactly as they please), and there’s nothing inevitable about us.

            😉

  15. Avatar
    Duke12  May 7, 2018

    Just a reminder that only a section of the Roman Empire fell apart. The Eastern Part recovered from the Barbarian invasions and thrived, with ups and downs, for another 500 years. And then survived for nearly 500 years after that — contending with Turkish Invasion 1.0 and Crusader Invasion 1.0 before finally succumbing to Turkish Invasion 2.0. But whether or not Christianity hobbled the sophisticated and civilized Eastern Empire from developing science is another matter. Possibly: I recall reading some opinions that a surge in religious conservatism eventually snuffed out the scientific and religious advancement that was going on in Muslim Spain and other parts of the Middle East.

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    • Avatar
      godspell  May 12, 2018

      I think it’s a dubious opinion. The Byzantines were very advanced for their time. It wasn’t religion that hobbled them–after all, every empire that ever existed has fallen, and most of them weren’t Christian. Byzantium may have become more hidebound and conservative with age–same thing happened to the Islamic empires. There may be no preventing that from happening. A natural process, that can be put off, but never denied.

      The western Empire would have fallen sooner if not for the revival Constantine brought about. The Dark Ages would have happened with or without Christianity–Christian monks and scholars preserved the knowledge of the Roman world, which became the foundation of the feudal world of Europe, and then the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

      If Christianity was the problem, explain the world we see around us now. Where the west–still primarily Christian–has exercised a cultural, political and scientific dominance (not entirely a good thing) that is only starting to wane (and so is Christianity’s hold on the west, so go figure).

      We tend to over-idealize Muslim Spain–it wasn’t so ideal as all that. But no question, Catholic Spain hobbled itself overreacting to it, once they got the upper hand.

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  16. Avatar
    Marko071291  February 21, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    I have a peculiar question that is not closely related with the subject of this post, but still I hope you can help me. Also, I pressume It’s not your area of expertise. If I wanted to know more about pagan charity in the city of Rome (from let’s say 4BCE to 4CE), is there a book or an article that could help me? Some kind of survey of examples from primary sources that deals with this kind of question? My end game is this: I would like to analyze and compare Christian charity in the city of Rome and nearby locations with the pagan charity. Hope you have something on your mind.
    Kind regards,
    Marko.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      Actually, I spent about a month reading up on just this question recently. If you can access it, a very fine article — maybe the best thing out there for your purposes — is Peter Lampe, “Social Welfare in the Greco-Roman World as a Background for Early Christian Practice,” Acta Theologica 23 (2016) 1-28. If you can’t find a way to access it, let me know.

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