In yesterday’s post I indicated some of the major issues involved with the question of how Christianity managed to take over the Roman Empire, as spelled out in the Prospectus that I wrote in hopes of finding a publisher interested in signing up my book In this post I’ll give another excerpt from the Prospectus, in which I discuss some of the common answers one can find in books and articles about the matter. How have scholars in the modern world explained the amazing success of the Christian mission?
In modern times one common answer is that Christianity came along at just the right time, when the “pagan” (i.e., polytheistic) religions of the Roman world were on the wane, when people had become sophisticated enough to realize that the ancient Greek and Roman mythologies were simply unbelievable, when people were looking for something more religiously vibrant and sensible. Christianity filled the void, in this view, left by the demise of the Greek and Roman pagan religions.
The problems with this answer have been widely recognized among scholars of antiquity over the past half century. On one hand, even at the height of paganism the ancient mythologies about the gods were almost never “believed” by ancient persons – even highly religious persons – in the way that the Bible is believed by conservative Christians today. The myths were seen as good stories, but were not what the religions were actually about (as I’ll explain further below). Moreover, all of the evidence now is seen to show that paganism was precisely thriving in the period when Christianity was on the rise. This new religion was not filling a void left by the demise of paganism in the empire. It was competing with other religions in their prime.
Some modern interpreters have suggested, relatedly, that Christianity succeeded principally because of its inherent superiority to the other religions of the empire. In this view, monotheism is clearly a more philosophically defensible position than polytheism and its (rather ridiculous, it is implied) multitudes of gods. Moreover, Christianity provided something lacking from the pagan religions: a stress both on (a) the spiritualized aspects of religiosity – in that reflections on the divine took precedence over animal sacrifices – and (b) its moral aspects, in that ethics, for ancient people, was a part of philosophy but not of religion per se. It was, then, Christianity’s inherent greatness that effected its success.
The problem with this view is …
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