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Older Explanations for Why Christianity Succeeded

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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The Fear of Hell, Good Debaters, and the Name of God: Mailbag April 22, 2016
The Triumph of Christianity: The Ultimate Question



  1. Avatar
    nacord  April 21, 2016

    Very excited about this book!

  2. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  April 21, 2016

    Infanticide and cannibalism? One would think apostle Paul would have mentioned such horrible acts in his letters if that were true.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      These charges didn’t start to appear until many decades after Paul.

  3. Avatar
    Rogers  April 21, 2016

    Jesus, as related in all the gospels, was known for manifesting divine power in the healings and exorcisms he performed. So the early church continued to convey a similar impression to outsiders? This, then – a reputation for healings and exorcisms – is what fueled the growth and success of the rise of Christianity?

    Certainly the NT writings, as in Acts, would promote such an impression. Yet for four centuries?

    At some point for such an impression of access to divine power to have been THE successful formula, the early Christians must have made good on such a reputation in some sense???

    Another angle that you have not mentioned, Bart, is that martyrdom drove a growth in Christianity – that their willingness and resolve to their beliefs in the face of persecution had an effect on Roman/Hellenistic psychology – that on an inward level this began to be admired and respected by many that witnessed acts of martyrdom.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      Yes, it’s an interesting question whether observing martyrs led others to believe. On the surface, it does seem unlikely. Watching someone get water-boarded usually doesn’t make someone else want to follow suit….

      • Avatar
        Rogers  April 22, 2016

        I would guess the psychology would go something like this:

        What is it about the beliefs of these people that they are willing to stand by them such that they are subjected to the atrocities of the arena (or whatever the persecution dejur)? They could easily just deny these things and avoid such a fate? What is it that could so powerfully motivate them?

        One could imagine that this might set off a kind of chain reaction of pondering further about the nature of the beliefs of these Christians.

        Didn’t early Church Fathers believe that martydom was one of their key formulas for success in spreading Christianity?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 24, 2016

          Yes, there are church fathers (e.g., Tertullian) who do indeed suggest this.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 23, 2016

        I don’t like to quibble (well, I suppose I do), but seriously–after it came out we were torturing suspected terrorists, did incidents of terrorism decrease–or increase?

        The Romans were lucky all the Christians wanted to do was save their souls.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 21, 2016

    I know you’ve said you believe that in some sense (I don’t remember how you qualified it), Jesus was the most important person who ever lived.

    I don’t believe that in a *general* sense, *any* one person can be *the* most important. But if it was something like “most important for determining the direction of Western civilization,” I’d say the most important was *Constantine* – who could, if he’d chosen to, have nipped Christianity in the bud. Your opinion?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      Without Jesus you wouldn’t have Christianity. Without Constantine, you would!

  5. Avatar
    mcritzman  April 21, 2016

    In studying early western history I’ve always seen the Cult of the Saints in the Catholic Church of that time to be very pagan. I just wonder if to many of the early converts they were just trading one set of divinities for another?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      It’s often been asked!

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  April 22, 2016

        I also see a lot of parallels between the Cult of Saints and pagan practices. Though saints are not gods, they are viewed as divine in some sense and powerful. Like pagan Gods, they also have their specific “area of influence” or function. They have their distinctive attributes and iconography. In addition, just like a certain temples were dedicated to a certain God, churches are also dedicated to a specific Saint. People pray for them, build altars, burn candles, etc… I just don’t know how early this happened in the history of Christianity. Was it early enough that this could have played a role?


        • Bart
          Bart  April 24, 2016

          Yes, there are some indications of such things as “relic” worship in the third century, e.g., in the martyr texts, and certainly by the time we get to Augustine.

  6. Avatar
    Shubhang  April 21, 2016

    Very interesting, I have also read two interesting views which seem to link the rise of Christianity to the political problems facing Rome

    1. I read Peter Brown’s book on the triumph of Christianity in Western Europe and one of the reasons I understood from that (any misinterpretations are solely mine) is that Christian theology of an almighty Lord with intermediary saints and clergy reflected the patronage relationships typical of Rome where prosperity rested in having a wealthy / powerful patron who could communicate with the central powers and control the flow of patronage in his sphere of influence – in Christian theology, this role was taken by the saints (spiritual patronage and intercession with God) and the clergy (who through public works influenced the flow of material goods in small urban communities).

    2. The second interpretation kind of works backwards – Rome had traditionally been a loosely bound set of cities that extracted wealth from the interiors and funneled it to the Empire and so cities had substantial political and spiritual autonomy with almost every urban community having their own patron Gods. The centrifugal pressures of the Third century which led to the temporary trifurcation of the empire were reversed through a more militarized and centralized regime which had to impose its authority much more directly and dramatically – the Roman emperors found the Christian concept of one sole almighty ruler to whom all must bow down very attractive to the kind of state they wished to create and hence promoted Christianity as a counter to the dispersed cults which carried a connotation of autonomy.

    It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation and that’s why it would be great to get your perspective on how Christianity triumphed!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      YEs, it will be very different from all this. I”m interested mainly in how lower class people (the vast majority of converts) came to be attracted to the Christian movement.

  7. Avatar
    Iris Lohrengel  April 21, 2016

    I am one of the non-scholars who have contacted you about a book manuscript that I wrote and that I am planning to publish, and of course have followed your thread about book publishing with interest. Obviously I do agree that a scholar knows (should know) more than the lay-person. I wish I had studied theology and, being now 48 years old, I am seriously thinking of a career change and do a degree in Theology. I studied Business Administration. When I was 18 years old, religion and church meant absolutely nothing to me. Now the understanding of the big questions in life, who am I, what is the purpose of life, why is there something rather than nothing, means everything. Life with its twists and turns sometimes moves into one direction, and then in another. But who knows, if I had studied theology, maybe this book would have never been written. I, a German, live in Guatemala, Central America. So I understand about the intricacy of language. And the complexity of culture. Language inadvertently expresses culture and culture is expressed in language. Speaking Spanish fluently, still so many problems of miscommunication occurred in the beginning as one person said something and I heard it with my Germany mind and understood something else. And vice versa. The Greek, with which the New Testament texts were written, needs to be understood from the cultural mind-set of the people who wrote the texts. When the texts were translated, the mind-set of the people who translated them inadvertently influenced their translation, expressing their worldview. Was the world created ‘in God’? Or was the world created ‘for God’? The Greek preposition for ‘in’ and ‘for’ is the same. Did Jesus say, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’, inside of you? Or did he say, as often translated, ‘the kingdom of God is in your midst’? What the translator believes influences his/her translation. I may not be a scholar but I do understand Christian (and non-Christian) mysticism. I have been studying Christian (and non-Christian) mystical traditions for the past 20 years. And I understand what the Gospel of Thomas seeks to communicate. Some people have commented on the enigmatic character of the sayings, but, from the point of view of Christian mysticism (and quantum physics actually) what those sayings *say* is really quite clear. Scholars argue about who is right. Some say the Gospel of Thomas is late and Gnostic, others say it is early and definitely not Gnostic. Some say that the NT Gospels are pretty close to Jesus’ original words, others say that we cannot know Jesus’ original words because we do not have them. As a non-scholar I can follow the argument and decide which one makes more sense to me, integrating it into my own argument. If I did have a Ph.D. in Theology, I would continue to argue what I said in my book manuscript, that what Jesus meant to express with his teachings and parables needs to be understood in the light of inner mystical experience, and what we now know about the nature of Reality through quantum science and astrophysics.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  April 23, 2016

      Interesting that you first state, “The Greek, with which the New Testament texts were written, needs to be understood from the cultural mind-set of the people who wrote the texts. When the texts were translated, the mind-set of the people who translated them inadvertently influenced their translation, expressing their worldview.” But you end up saying ” that what Jesus meant to express with his teachings and parables needs to be understood in the light of inner mystical experience, and what we now know about the nature of Reality through quantum science and astrophysics.”

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  April 21, 2016

    “People adopted this new faith only after becoming convinced that the Christian God was more powerful than any other. He was the God who truly did miracles.”
    Okay, I can see that. I am intrigued to see where you take this thesis.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  April 21, 2016

    What made the non-Christians think or say that Christians regularly held nocturnal orgies in which they committed incest, infanticide, and cannibalism? Is there any historical basis for this? Were they just trying to destroy the reputation of Christianity?
    I’m guessing that the cannibalism claim came from the practice of saying that they were partaking of the body and blood of their savior.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      Yes, that’s a common view. Another factor: these were *typically* the things one said about a secretive group that was under “suspicion”

      • Avatar
        jhague  April 22, 2016

        So it was just to make a suspicious secretive group look bad. It’s shocking how these items are the things used to make a group look bad.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  April 21, 2016

    I know what you’re saying, and you’ll get to this I’m sure, but it’s important to draw a distinction between belief in the stories about the gods behavior, which were seen as yarns told for the amusement and edification of the people, not as divine histories–and belief in the supernatural.

    Pagans believed the supernatural was everywhere, lurking around every corner, impacting every aspect of human life. The gods were just a small part of the supernatural world. There were all these forces–neither good nor evil, but tremendously potent–that needed to be propitiated. Pagan rituals provided a way of doing this. Christianity, as time went on, helped dispel belief in these forces, or to suggest there was a more powerful force–faith in a higher God, who stood above all creation–that could conquer them, expel them, as opposed to merely bribing them. Since even Zeus would die someday–like all the gods–there was no sense of permanence in paganism. Of course this was really the innovation of Judaism, but Christianity made it available to everyone.

    I’ve often wondered if we (meaning European people and their global off-shoots) could have developed our modern rationalistic scientific world (such as it is) if we’d remained pagans. True, the classical Greeks were pagans, but they were not able to sustain their innovations very long. And Socrates could attest to how imperfect those innovations were.

    Why did Christianity succeed? I think it told the better story–the best one ever, in fact. But you’re right–paganism had powerful stories of its own to tell. It wasn’t in decline. It was out-competed. However, it never truly died out. It’s still here.

  11. Avatar
    mcsimon3  April 21, 2016

    Two anecdotes on memory and story telling. My mother in law often said that she’d never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The art of story telling relies partly on memory, which may give the facts needed for a good story, but more on creativity, reinterpretation and enlargement of the facts. The facts become superfluous.
    Second. one of my daughters lived in El Salvador for 7 years. I visited her often and twice went to the compound where Arch-Bishop Romero was murdered with just her. Both times we were told by a nun of how and when he was shot. Both times we were told that he was shot as he raised the host to be consecrated, turned from ordinary bread to the body of Christ. The idea was that instead of Christ being sacrificed for all humanity, Romero was sacrificed to benefit all Salvadorans. Very meaningful and significant to the Salvadoran people.
    I went on a delegation with my daughter for the 30th anniversary Romero’s assassination. We again went to the compound and again were told the same story. One of the other people on the trip (there were about 50 of us in just this group including 2 Catholic nuns and one Episcopalian priest) whose name was Pat, who was an editor for one of the 2 large Catholic magazines in the US, told me that the story was wrong, that Romero was shot while during a insignificant part of the mass. Then he said ” It’s like watching the gospels being written.” I was floored. I thought most Catholics, especially one who was immersed in it, would have thought the gospels were true. But here was an admission that the gospels were exaggerations and told not to convey a truth or a fact, but intended to tell a story.
    So even today when we have all kinds of ways to record and identify facts, here ones were made up to have more of an effect on them and their people. Imagine what storytellers and believers 2,000 years ago who had no way to report facts, did with their stories.

  12. Avatar
    drussell60  April 21, 2016

    Bart, I am looking forward to your next work as it addresses a number of questions I have regarding the triumph of Christianity. You stated, ” Christians were infamous for their scandalous behavior, as it was widely thought that Christians regularly held nocturnal orgies in which they committed incest, infanticide, and cannibalism. Early Christians were not known for their support of family values.”

    You said that “it was widely thought” that early Christians engaged in all these listed degenerate activities. Is this based upon non-Christians at this time speculating they were doing these things, or are there reliable, documented written sources available that prove they were being naughty?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      No, there’s no documentation that they were *really* killing babies and eating them.

      • Avatar
        drussell60  April 22, 2016

        I was curious since you said that Christians were not necessarily more ethical people, but we’re infamous for their scandalous behavior.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 24, 2016

          Yes, that was their reputation in some well-attested circles.

  13. bnongbri
    bnongbri  April 21, 2016

    Hi Bart,
    Curious if in the course of your research you’ve read Doug Boin’s Coming Out Christian, and if so, how do you find his arguments on the topic of the spread of Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      Hey Brent. Yup, I’ve read it. He seems like a smart fellow. But I didn’t find his book persuasive. I need to re-read it because it was one of those discussions that I had a real knee-jerk reaction to, and I think maybe (he’s very smart) there’s more to it than I allowed the first time through. But I am not a big fan of what I sometimes call the “Na-ah” approach to history, viz, if every source says something than “Na-ah” that must be *wrong*….

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 21, 2016

    A thought about the idea that some in the ancient world may have embraced Christianity because they found monotheism more believable than polytheism: I see *Catholicism*, at least, as a thinly veiled polytheism.

    The special “veneration” (read “worship”) of Jesus’s mother…and celebration of *her* mother, about whom even less is known.

    All those other “saints” perceived as being prayed to for specific reasons (especially, Jude for “hopeless cases,” and Anthony for finding even the most trivial of lost objects). “Christopher,” for doing whatever you were best at, trivial though it might seem, *for the love of God*. That one actually was “inspiring”…but (sigh) they forgot about it when it belatedly occurred to them that the supposed “saint” didn’t really exist.

    All the other saints, plus angels (some still believe every person has a “guardian angel”!), *and* the Devil and a host of demons.

  15. Avatar
    cjeanne  April 21, 2016

    This is the book I have been looking for. After reading all of your books and many by Spong, Pagels and Armstrong…my question remains….why? As man developed more knowledge why didn’t the Gods simply fade out of existence.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  April 22, 2016

      You’re looking in the wrong the places. The imperative to believe in a higher power is biological. Try “Why God won’t go away” by Dr Andrew Newberg. He’s a neuroscientist that has studied religion and the brain extensively. He’s even brain scanned people while they are having a mystical experience. Unless the brain evolves significantly, God won’t go away.

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  April 21, 2016

    One can’t study history very long without being struck how fortuitous and contingent it often seems to be. For example, we seem to owe our dominance as a species on this planet to an asteroid or comet that impacted the Yucatán sixty-five million years ago causing a mass extinction that cleared out an ecosystem allowing our prehuman ancestor to flourish, the celestial equivalent of a traffic accident.

    I’m not being facetious and admittedly it doesn’t make for a very satisfying analysis but can we discount “pure, dumb luck” as an answer to your question?

  17. Avatar
    JR  April 22, 2016

    Very interesting thank you. You mention christian meetings were for baptised believers only. Is this from a particular source? If so what are some easily available sources for early christian practices that we could get hold of / find on line?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      Yes, this is mentioned int he sources. You may be interested in reading the discusisons of ealry Christian liturgical practices in the writings of Paul Bradshaw.

    • Avatar
      Eric  April 22, 2016

      The structure of the Mass to this very day reflects this history. The first half of the mass is “instruction” (readings, homily”) after which, originally, those going though the process of initiation left. Only the baptized were allowed to stay of the second half, the ritual Eucharist.

  18. Avatar
    dragonfly  April 22, 2016

    “people converted because they realized that this divine power was more abundantly available in the Christian faith than in any other religious option.”
    When I first read this I thought that one God with power over everything was more attractive than one god with power over the rain, another with power over the sun, another with power over the land etc. Is that what is meant or is it more to do with that God who actually cares about humans as opposed to the pagan gods who really didn’t seem interested in humans?
    Either way it explains a lot. Why would pagans be attracted to following a crucified criminal? They weren’t. They wanted access to Yahweh, Jesus was just the way to get it. Jews already had access to the same divine power, the same god. So they weren’t going to convert so readily, which is what we find. And Jews weren’t going out to convert other nations. On the contrary, they needed to be set apart from other nations – they were the chosen ones. So effectively, Christians brought the all powerful God of the Jews to the rest of the world.

  19. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  April 22, 2016

    I never read in depth about why Christianity took over Rome, but here is my vague understanding:

    1- Active converting focusing mostly on the weak and the poor. To those the concept of a suffering redeemer must have been alluring.
    2- Within few centuries about 10% of the population become Christian which is very good indeed but nothing WOW
    3- For some reason Constantine converts to Christianity and now conversions escalate dramatically as there are clear political advantages of being Christian.
    4- Theodosius I persecutes pagans and paganism is forever history.
    What do you think of this scenario, Bart?

    Oh by the way one more thing I want to read about: Very important: Julian the apostate

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2016

      Pretty good! You should write a book on it!

      • Avatar
        Samuel Riad  April 23, 2016

        I was simply trying to verify my impression on this subject as I never read in depth about it. Why mock me? ;(

        • Bart
          Bart  April 25, 2016

          OH, so sorry! You completely misunderstood me. I was *complimenting* you. They were very good insights, the sort that should be in books.

  20. Avatar
    JoeBTex  April 22, 2016

    It seems to me that the Zoroastrian influence on Jewish beliefs about the afterlife was not just limited to Jews. As a result, I suspect that the idea of a savior driven eschatology was not new to the Levant. With the Mithras story as the precursor, Paul simply preached that the savior foretold by the Persians was actually a Jew and the end times were near. This was amplified in the text with the addition of the Magi to the virgin birth story. Once the Roman soldiers began to pick up the story it spread more rapidly. Further, organized persecution actually had the reverse impact of legitimizing the cause. ..Just saying 😉

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