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Who Were The “Pagans” Christians Were Converting?

PART TWO of FOUR: Pagan Converts and the Power of God

This is the second lecture I gave at the Smithsonian on Feb. 10, 2018, based on my book The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World.  The premise behind the lecture: as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it converted almost entirely pagans (after the first couple of decades).   Who were these people, and what were they converting *from*?  And why?

Paganism is not and was not really a “thing.”  The term was designed (by Christians) simply to designate all the ancient religious practices that were not either Jewish or Christian — that is, it lumped together all kinds of religious practices, thousands of them, as some”thing” opposed to the faith in the Jewish god.

But is there anything all these religions spread throughout the  Roman world had in common?  And how did Christians approach people from these traditional religions, religions that each individual would have always assumed was simply right, involving rituals and ideas that had always been part of their heritage going back for many many centuries?   What is it that Christians possibly say that would both connect with such people and show that the Christian way was better?  It’s not as easy a question as one might think….

Here, in any event, is my talk about the pagans in the Roman empire Christians were trying to convert.

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Why Did Christianity Take Over the World? Smithsonian Lecture 3.
Fund Raising Event on the Blog: Contradictions in the Gospels??

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    wostraub  April 14, 2019

    Thank you for these great discussions, Bart. You were more than a little animated in your lectures, and I think the audience loved it.

    I still don’t understand why Christianity was able to replace paganism so easily, even if it did take several hundred years. Did the promise of eternal life finally catch on with the converts? Did the quality of daily life improve to the point where “living on the edge” was no longer a reason for believing in polytheism?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2019

      I don’t think it was easy — it was very hard and slow; I explain it all in my book The Triumph of Christianity, and in much shorter compass in the two lectures to come.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  April 14, 2019

    My impression is that all ‘pagans’ under Roman rule had to worship some of the same gods the Romans did, and therefore did loosely fit under the same broad umbrella. The Greeks obviously already worshiped some of the same gods under different names, and that held true for other Mediterrennean peoples. So a catch-all term was needed. It’s not much different than people from a specific civilization using some variant of ‘barbarian’ to describe people of a different civilization, or in some cases, none (depending on how narrowly you define civilization.)

    The interesting thing is that to this day people use the word pagan in a positive way. Even Christians. And few bother to use it as a negative, in my experience. It’s still considered a part of our civilization, even though most of us don’t understand the way Roman-era pagans worshiped very well. And we don’t understand how Christians or Jews of that era worshiped either, do we?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2019

      No, there was generally no requirement to worship the Roman gods per se.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 15, 2019

        In The Triumph of Christianity, you went into some detail about how Christians ran into problems with the Roman authorities over refusing to sacrifice to the gods of the polis, which is to say the Roman gods, though some might have originated elsewhere than the Italian peninsula. Sacrifice is a form of worship, and it was mandatory for all under Roman rule, because the polis couldn’t prosper without the good will of the gods, great and small. Correct? Nobody had an unfettered right to worship OR not worship as he or she saw fit, because the idea of freedom of conscience didn’t exist yet. The State had the right to demand worship from you–whether you believed in the gods was not the point. Obedience was.

        I see no contradiction here. Just a matter of terminology, is all. 😉

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2019

          No, technically sacrifice was not mandatory — there weren’t any laws requiring it, until a couple of times later in the third and early fourth centuries when the emperors wanted to deal with the Christians.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 17, 2019

            That will come as great comfort to all the Christians imprisoned, tortured, and executed for refusing to sacrifice, I’m sure. ‘Technically’ they were just as dead.

            Granting that my reference to law is a bit anachronistic, since the law was whatever the emperor said it was (may not be quite as anachronistic as was once the case), it was highly advisable to be seen making offerings to the gods of the polis. An identifiable group that made a point of not doing so (because they either didn’t believe those gods existed or would merit sacrifice if they did), and was actively trying to convince others to do the same, was going to incur some level of persecution, perhaps inconsistently and sporadically applied, but still quite intimidating, disadvantageous, and potentially fatal, depending on how much the local or central authorities wanted to flex their muscles.

            So no matter how many individual ‘pagan’ cults there were, no matter how many different gods they worshiped, they were still all ‘technically’ under the same umbrella, because faith was not purely a matter of personal choice, but was subject to state authority. How you worshiped was seen as being very much the business of the Roman authorities. The official explanation of which was that the gods would bring misfortune upon all for the lack of reverence of a few. The underlying explanation was that any expression of faith that wasn’t tied somehow to the overarching imperial authority was seen as potentially seditious, which is why Jesus died, which is why we’re all here talking about him.

            I’m just saying, the fact that there are different types of Christian (and were, almost from the beginning) doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as Christianity, and the existence of different types of pagan doesn’t mean there was no such thing as paganism. Christians were wrong, certainly, to refer to religions such as Hinduism as pagan. But early Christians would only have known polytheistic religions that were in some way overseen by Rome.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 15, 2019

        My understanding is that there was a requirement on the part of everyone in the empire (Jews specifically excepted) to “offer wine and incense” to the state gods, in return for which the gods would protect the state, and that failure to do so thus amounted to treason. That seems to come pretty close to worship to me, if not precisely the way Jews and Christians might use the term.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2019

          No, there were no legislative requirements, until emperors in the 3rd and early 4th c. tried to make Xns sacrifice. There might have been pressure, but no official state requirements.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 17, 2019

            Again, I don’t see this as a meaningful distinction, if it leads to the same result–which is persecution, torture, and execution. Nero blamed the great fire on Christians, precisely because he knew they were regarded with suspicion by many for their refusal to sacrifice to the gods. Christians who agreed to sacrifice to the gods would typically be released, and it was widely recognized that no sincere Christian would do this, even under threat of a painful death. They were only being persecuted for civil disobedience–to what?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 19, 2019

            Not according to our only source about the matter. Tacitus said he could pick them out as a scapegoat because they were known to hate the human race, that is, they were anti-social and separatist.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 19, 2019

            And why did Tacitus believe they were separatists? Because they disobeyed the state by refusing to sacrifice, then convinced others to do the same. They did not recognize the emperor as the supreme authority over the Roman world, even though none of them were violent insurrectionists, and they paid their taxes.

            The only active sign of disobedience was their refusal to sacrifice, and what alarmed the Romans was that this was spreading–most of all among the underclasses, and of course slaves. In any society based on keeping a large section of the populace docile and obedient, that is something that will inspire deep disquiet. It hadn’t been that long since Spartacus. They didn’t (couldn’t) understand the Christians, and what we don’t understand, we invariably fear.

            I don’t see what else could have led Tacitus and others of his class to such spurious conclusions, other than the refusal to sacrifice, even when threatened with death. Honestly, I don’t have a hard time seeing their POV. We have a more attenuated version of it with regards to certain distinct religious groups in our own time. Multi-culturalism, pluralism–these are modern ideas, that only partly dispel our collective distrust of anyone who stands apart.

            But we at least try, and that’s because our current civilization descends from these Christians who themselves stood for Freedom of Conscience. That the state has no right to oversee the private beliefs and practices of the citizenry. (That Christianity later itself betrayed this belief with regards to pagans, Jews, and ‘heretics’ can only be viewed with deep dismay, but of course that was Christianity after Constantine).

            I understand very well there was no religion called ‘paganism’–but the Christians were correct in saying that all of these people with their different practices and beliefs were still mainly accepting Roman authority over those beliefs–and how could God be subordinate to man?

            That was the difference. The dialogue between church and state began. And is still ongoing.

  3. Avatar
    matthewe.rand  April 15, 2019

    One could see how the stories of miracles might convert people, just as they often do today. There are a number of Christian groups that use miracles to convince and keep members in their faith. The Catholic / Orthodox stories of saints performing miracles, as well as the Catholic Marian apparition stories would be examples of this. The focus on God as all-powerful and can get you the things you need can often be seen in the black churches where the focus seems to be on “getting your blessing”, as opposed to how you are supposed to love, know and serve God. I guess a lot of “post hoc / propter hoc” sort of fallacy as “proof” of miracles.

  4. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 16, 2019

    Apologies if this was answered in the lecture, which I haven’t had time to watch but… Bart, when you say “after the first couple of decades” do you mean the two decades after the conclusion of the Book of Acts, or the two decades after the first conversion of non-Jews/Samaritans? I get the feeling from the Book of Acts that a lot of the “pagan” converts were really non-Jews who had been attending synagogues and had already accepted the “one-God” idea. Paul offered them full acceptance as members of the “people of God” without having to accept circumcision and other Jewish customs that were major obstacles to conversion.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 19, 2019

      I’m not sure what statement of mine you’re referring to, but I don’t think I would ever date an event from the first conversion of non-Jews…

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  April 19, 2019

        I was referring to “as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it converted almost entirely pagans (after the first couple of decades)” at the top of this page. You partly answer this in your reply to Rokyo, below, but I’m still wondering when your starting point is for your statement that converts to Christianity were “nearly all pagans.”

        • Bart
          Bart  April 21, 2019

          Ah got it. I meant that in the first couple of decades after Jesus’ death there were some numbers of Jews converting, but after that, it was mainly Gentiles.

  5. Avatar
    Rokyro  April 16, 2019

    Hi Bart, I’m at work (on lunch!) and can’t watch your video. I’m currently reading EP Sanders work on Paul, and I believe he claims that most of Paul’s converts weren’t the God-believers of the Jewish Synagogues, but rather Gentiles outside of them. Is this something you broadly agree with as well, or do you think Paul drew heavily from this group?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 19, 2019

      Yes indeed. I talk about it in my book The Triumph of Christianity.

  6. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 23, 2019

    Returning to the question of when Christianity began to convert ‘almost entirely pagans’, it sees to me that two decades after Jesus’ death is too soon. I picture quite a few Jews continuing to join until the 60s — maybe right up until the Jewish revolt and beyond. One reason is that Matthew’s community was still being persecuted by Jewish authorites it seems, and why would that be the case if there was no threat to the mainstream Jews from Jewish Christianity? I have no problem with “mainly pagans,” but not “almost entirely.” Sorry to nit-pick but I figure that even in Talmudic times the fact that the rabbis continued to denounce Christianity as a heresy must mean that Jews were converting in significant enough number to cause a reaction.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2019

      I think the Talmud is a good case in point. We know for a fact that by that time there were very, very few Jews converting to Christianity. Yet some Talmudic sources opposed Jesus/Christianity. Transfer that back to Matthew’s day. Just because there are traditoins that Matthew has inherited opposing Jewish leaders doesn’t make Matthew himself a Jew or his congregation largely Jewish. If you look at the congregations we actually know about in the 50s (ones for which we have some hard evidence) they are almost entirely gentile (Paul’s own, of course, but also the one he had had nothing to do with, in the church of Rome he addresses)

  7. Avatar
    car3366  August 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Are there any scholarly articles or books that you’d recommend that compare Pagan morals and domestic laws (e.g., marriage, adultery, etc) to Christian morals during the early years of the Church?

    I hear Christian apologists make claims about how immoral or unethical the pagans were, but no specifics. I know you’ve said Pagans were just as ethical as Christians during these early years, but I’d like to know more details about how their lives were the same or different ethically.

    For example, on the institution of marriage and monogamy. Based on my understanding of Greek and Roman history and law, those cultures had adopted the idea of “traditional” marriage (one man and one woman) long before Christianity did and had laws against adultery long before as well, although, of course, as with most cultures, how many in people in Pagan Rome and Greece actually practiced monogamy is a different matter .

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2019

      A good place to start is Wayne Meeks, The Moral World of the Early Christians.

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