To start on my reflections on the rise and spread of Christianity, it might be useful to talk for a while about a particular article that has been highly influential both for my own thinking and more broadly in the contemporary discussion among scholars. The article was written by a prominent and deservedly acclaimed British historian, Keith Hopkins, a long-time professor at Cambridge University. It was called “Christian Number and Its Implication,” and it appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies in 1998.
Hopkins begins his article by reflecting on the fact that it’s very difficult to know even what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the numerical growth of Christianity. For one thing, what are we going to count as Christianity and whom are we going to count as Christians? Do we count only those who hold to the views that later came to be the dominant understanding of Christianity, for example, that there is only one God, or that Christ was both human and divine at one and the same time, or that the material world is the creation of this God, and so on? What about other forms of Christianity?
What about those people who called themselves Christian who thought there were two gods? Or thirty-six gods? Or 365 gods? What about those who called themselves Christian who thought that Christ was a human being but was not really divine? Or those who said he was divine but not human? Or those who said there were two beings, one of them divine and one of them human, whose temporary combination we call “Jesus (the human) Christ (the divine)”? Do we count the Marcionites? The Sethians? The Valentinians? The Ebionites?
In the fourth century the heresiologist (= heresy hunter), Epiphanius, a rigorously and rigidly orthodox Christian (i.e., one who toed the theological line that ended up becoming the only acceptable form of faith), wrote a book called The Panarion. That is a Greek-word that means…
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