I have found over the years that lots of people have mistaken ideas about Constantine the Great, the early fourth century Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity. I used to have mistaken ideas myself, until I started reading the sources and examining the scholarship. For example, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, right? (Wrong.) Constantine is the reason Christianity took over the empire, right? (Wrong again). Constantine didn't really convert to Christianity: it was a political move by a savvy politician who remained, at heart, a pagan, right? (Well, uh, sorry...) It is true, though that the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 CE is one of Christianity’s pivotal events, and that by the end of the 4th century, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion throughout Rome, leading to the suppression of other religious traditions. Here is a lecture I gave on Constantine and Christianity at the Smithsonian on Feb. 10, 2018. It is the last of the series of four that I have given here on the blog, based on my [...]
Here is Lecture 3 (out of 4) that I came at the Smithsonian Associates in Washington DC on Feb. 10, 2018, based, again, on my book The Triumph of Christianity. This lecture deals with the key aspects of the early Christian movement to try to explain its success. What was it about Christianity that allowed it to take over the entire Christian empire? People have all sorts of "common sense" answers to the question -- as did I for many years, even as a professional scholar -- which are probably wrong (e.g., Christianity was naturally superior to all the other religions, because of its strict monotheism and strong ethical stance, so naturally people were inclined to convert). The first time I realized the actual answer to the question was when, long ago, I read Roman social historian and Yale professor Ramsay MacMullen's brilliant analysis The Christianization of the Roman Empire. I pondered the matter for years, read massively on it, and here is what I ended up concluding (very much in line with MacMullen, but [...]
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 [...]
PART ONE of FOUR: Christianity’s Most Important Convert: The Apostle Paul In February 2018 I gave a series of four lectures for the Smithsonian Associates in Washington DC, based on my book The Triumph of Christianity. It was a bit tricky, as these things always are, figuring out which parts of the book to focus on, since each lecture could really be only on one thing, not lots of things. I decided to give the first lecture on the most important convert in the history of Christianity -- not Constantine (as I argue in the book) but the apostle Paul. Without that conversion, would we even have *had* Christianity as a world-wide religion? Good question! It's hard to know. But it *is* clear that this was a conversion of massive importance. Here is the lecture: Viewing for blog members only! If you'd like to join the blog, we'd like to have you. Doesn't cost much and you get tons of value -- and every penny goes to charity. So go for it! Please adjust [...]
On May 1, 2018 I was interviewed by Sam Harris for his podcast "Waking Up." Ostensibly the interview was to be about my book "The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World" but we covered a wide range of topics, from my autobiography to numerous substantive issues, including the nature of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the question of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, and the conversion of Constantine! Now *that's* a lot to talk about in a single interview! Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition:
I joined the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast as a call in guest for twenty-five minutes on March 6th, 2018. I was asked a lot of questions on a range of issues (including, but not at all limited to, my book "The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World"). It's an interesting podcast in general, and this was a fun one to do. The full program can be heard here: https://heretichappyhour.podbean.com/e/016-is-jesus-god-hotw-bart-ehrman/ Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition:
Here is Part 2 of my debate with Mike Licona on whether the Gospels are historically reliable. You won't necessarily have to have seen Part 1 to make sense of this one; a lot of it involves penetrating questions from the audience (trying to trip us up!) which one or the other of us addressed. Enjoy! Part 2: Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition: - Mike Licona is the author of The Resurrection of Jesus, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels and Evidence for God. REMEMBER: if you were a member of the blog, you would get interesting posts all related to the New Testament and the history of early Christianity, at least five times a week. So why not join??
A month ago, on February 21 I had a public debate with Mike Licona at the Bailey Performance Center at Kennesaw State University on the topic: Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? Ratio Christi and KSU History Club hosted the event. Moderator was Dr. Brian Swain, a historian of Mediterranean antiquity on the faculty there. You can probably guess the two sides we took in the debate. The crowd was largely on his side, which made for a very interesting evening. As I think you'll see, even though Mike and I disagree on most things, we have a good, friendly relationship. It was a long evening -- lots of back and forth, with a Q & A with the audience to follow. At times it got, well, animated. Here is part 1. I'll post the second part next week. Part 1: Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition. - Mike Licona is the author of The Resurrection of Jesus, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels and Evidence for God.
A week ago today I finally sent off the very last and final version of The Triumph of Christianity to my editor. It is done, as good as I can make it. Now it will go to a copy-editor who will go over it line by line, word by word to make sure the grammar, punctuation, and even spelling is all correct, and to make suggestions for writing style as needed. Depending on the copy-editor, sometimes there are tons of these stylistic suggestions, sometimes hardly any. As an author, I much prefer the “hardly any” approach – it’s much easier on me and more, well, affirming of my writing style. When I do get a lot of suggestions I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that the copy-editor is just doing his/her job and trying to make the prose better. But I do hate that part. I will then go through the copy-edited manuscript, approve or reject all the suggested changes, and return the book to the editor, for it to go [...]
OK, I am ready now to finish up my thread on the conversion of Constantine, based on the vision or visions that he had. So far I have narrated the three relevant accounts. If you haven’t read those posts, you should do so to make the very best sense of this one. The differences among the three accounts, and one can readily see why various scholars have suggested different ways of reconciling them. Some think he had just one vision, two years before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge (just before the panegyric of 310 CE), which at the time he took to be of Sol Invictus but later came to interpret as being instead a vision of Christ. In this view, at a still later date Constantine came to think that he had always understood it to be Christ and that, since the vision was so closely connected with his ultimate victory, he came to “remember” that it occurred the night before the battle. At the other extreme of interpretation, others have argued that [...]
Time for something new, about as different from the Pentateuch as you can get while still staying in the ancient world. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the Emperor Constantine over the past ten months and have decided to devote a thread to him on the blog. His conversion to Christianity is usually considered a major turning point in the history of the Christian religion. Before he became Christian all the Roman emperors were, of course, pagan, and some of them, including his immediate predecessors on the throne, were virulently opposed to the Christian movement. He himself converted near the end of what is called the “Great Persecution,” a ten-year period in which, at least in parts of the empire, the imperial forces were trying to wipe out the religion. After he converted, Christianity went from being persecuted, to being tolerated, to being religion-most-favored . It is a mistake to say – as so many people do say! – that Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman empire. He absolutely [...]
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Here’s a unique opportunity. Well, it’s not unique because it’s one you’ve had before. But you get it now again! As most of you probably know, the book I am working on, tentatively titled, The Triumph of Christianity, is about the Christianization of the Roman Empire. How did the Christian movement grow from about 20 people soon after Jesus’ death to some 30 million people in less than four hundred years? That’s a lot of converts! And it’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. (I actually taught a PhD seminar on the topic nearly 20 years ago!) I am especially excited about this book because I have moved to a new publisher. My past seven trade books have all been with HarperOne. That was a great experience and I will never, ever regret it. But I have decided to move on to something else, and last summer negotiated a contract with Simon & Schuster, one of the three largest trade publishers in the world. They have [...]
I am now nearly finished discussing the Prospectus that I floated before several publishers this past summer for my new book The Triumph of Christianity. My original idea, as you will see below, was to start with the earliest disciples of Jesus, right after his death, who came to think he had been raised from the dead – I’m happy to call them the “first Christians,” even though a lot of scholars object to calling anyone “Christian” until much later; I just don’t have those qualms – and to discuss the spread of Christianity up to the key moment in history, the conversion of the emperor Constantine nearly three hundred years later in the year 312 CE. Constantine’s conversion, in this way of looking at things, was the turning point. After that, the Empire was on the path to becoming Christian. I have since changed my mind and decided to go past Constantine up to the end of the fourth century. But before explaining that, here is how I end my original Prospectus. ***************************************************************** The [...]
I have been laying out the Prospectus for my proposed book The Triumph of Christianity that I circulated to several publishers last summer, and I am now at the very heart of the matter, the explanation (as I saw it then) for why Christianity succeeded so massively in the Empire during its first three centuries. Here is what I said: ****************************************************************** There were two key factors specific to Christianity that facilitated the growth of the Christian church. These two factors could not be found in other religions of the empire. And in tandem – this is a very important point: they worked in tandem – they led to the spread of Christianity and the demise of all the other religions of the empire. The factors: Christianity was evangelistic and it was exclusivistic. Religions in antiquity were not evangelistic, in part precisely because they were not exclusivistic. A broad survey of ancient writings makes it completely clear: most people did not much care whether you adopted their religious practices or not. No one insisted that you [...]
I continue here the brief overview of the book that I’m now working on, The Triumph of Christianity. To this point I have identified the problem that the book is trying to resolve (how Christianity grew from a small group of illiterate Jewish peasants from Galilee to becoming something like 10% of the entire Roman Empire within 300 years), some of the earlier attempts to solve the problem, and one of the fundamental issues involved, the movement from being a Jewish sect to being a gentile religion. Now I get more to the heart of the matter. The first section below talks about how quickly the religion would have had to grow from the time of its founding to become such a large religion by the early fourth century; the next section begins to deal with the issue of how it all happened. Again, this is all lifted directly from my original Prospectus. Whether the book will end up being structured like this is, well, anyone’s guess…. ********************************************************************* The Rate of Growth of the Christian [...]
I have been discussing and excerpting the Prospectus I wrote this last summer on my book that I have tentatively titled, The Triumph of Christianity. Here I discuss the beginning of the Christian mission, and how “Christianity” went from being a small Jewish sect to being a large number of gentile communities (with special emphasis on the work of Paul). ************************************************************************* From Jew to Gentile: The Rise of Christianity (two chapters) This section will discuss the very early years of the Christian movement as it shifted from being a sect within Judaism to being a largely gentile religion, all within the space of about 50 years. By everyone’s reckoning, Christianity began among a group of Jesus’ Jewish followers who believed that he was the messiah of God. In this section I will need to provide background to what the term “messiah” meant to ancient Jews. I will not give an extensive account of Jesus’ life and teachings, only enough to show what his overarching message was and how he acquired adherents to that message during [...]
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 [...]
I have begun now a new thread, which I anticipate will be a rather long one, on the book I am currently working on, which I have tentatively titled (recognizing that my tentative titles rarely actually become the title!) The Triumph of Christianity. I indicated in my previous post that I wrote up a prospectus to give to publishers in order to see if they were interested in offering a contract for the book. The prospectus ended up being about 17 pages long (double-spaced). As I mentioned already, the point of the prospectus is to show a potential publisher what the book is about, how it matters, and why it would be really interesting for regular ole readers (as opposed to irregular ole scholars). The following was the very beginning of my Prospectus, the opening salvo. ****************************************************************************************** In my public talks over the past ten years I have been asked one question about my research more than any other, a question that seems to arise out of any topic I address, whether it is the [...]
When my agent Roger and I decided that we might want to explore the possibility of going with a different publisher, the first step was to come up with a book proposal to shop around. For ten years or so I had been wanting to write a particular book, but had always put it off because it had seemed like such a MAJOR undertaking. I came to think that this was the perfect time to pursue it, to propose doing a new book on a completely new topic with a new publisher as a new beginning. The book was/is to be about how Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, until, less than 400 years after it started, it had taken over and the Roman Empire had officially become Christian. In my mind I was thinking about a title like “The Triumph of Christianity: How Faith in Jesus Destroyed the Religions of Rome.” It would be unlike anything I had ever done. The strategy was for me to write a 15-20 page prospectus in which I [...]