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Why Did Christianity Succeed?

QUESTION:

What I have been wondering lately is “why” did Christianity win out. There seemed to be much competition in the ancient world between the pagan polytheisms and monotheistic religions. Competition not only between the Jewish religion and Christian religion but within Christianity.

I would be interested in why you think the current version of Christianity won out. Was it purely a matter of cultural evolution and this form of Christianity seemed to benefit people the most, easiest to adhere to, most flexible.

RESPONSE:

There are actually two questions here, both of them really interesting and really important!  One is: why / how did the “orthodox” form of Christianity manage to become dominant within the religion.  I will take a stab at answering that question in a couple of days, but be forewarned: it’s not easy, especially in a 1000-word post on a blog!

The other question is at least as interesting and even harder to answer: how / why did Christianity manage to become the dominant religion of the entire Roman Empire, so that it took over (for a while) pretty much all of the Western world?   This a topic I hope to address in a full-length book down the road, after I write a book on How Jesus Became God (that’ll be next year; I hope to write it in the Spring) and possibly a book on Why Christians Came To Hate the Jews (which I may tackle in a couple of years).   The book on how conquered the Empire is another interesting one, and I don’t have a good title yet (I’m using the banal The Triumph of Christianity for now, in my head).   It will take an entire book to lay out all the issues.

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The Growth of Early Christianity: A Clarification
Some Reading Suggestions on the New Testament

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  June 20, 2012

    1. As to your statement: “From the get-go, Christians insisted that their God was the only true God, that anyone who worshiped that God could NOT worship any other gods.” Isn’t this pre-Nicean insistence based on the first two of the Ten commandments; spec., “I am the LORD thy God,… Thou shalt have no other gods before me”? (Exo. 20:2-3)

    2. As to your statement: “In fact, anyone who did worship the pagan gods … was going to be punished for it. Eternally. In fire.” I’m unable to locate a reference to ΓΕΕΝΝΑΝ (γέενναν) earlier than IV CE in codices Aleph and B (and the word is absent from P64, ca. 200 CE). Isn’t this belief based on an incorrect post-Nicean concept of Hell?

    3. And as to your statement: “…, converting to being a Christian meant leaving your old religion behind….”, isn’t this what the earliest converts from Judaism into pre-Nicean Christianity did NOT do, choosing instead to bring their theological baggage with them?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      Good quesitons. 1. Yes, the Exodus verse is one that Christians would have appealed to. 2. There are numerous references to punishment in the afterlife in the Christian writings of the second century (not to mention the book of Revelation!). 3. Yup! But they weren’t pagans!

      • Avatar
        Pat Ferguson  June 22, 2012

        OK, we’re agreed as to question 1; i.e., the insistence of pre-Nicean Judeo-Christians that non-Jewish converts into Christianity comply with Exo. 20:2-3 (Commandments 1 and 2).

        As to question 2 (that the Christian belief in “hell” is based on an incorrect concept): isn’t it true that the concept of “hell” was foreign to Judaism until that concept was adopted into Judaism–and subsequently into early (pre-Nicean) Judeo-Christianity– from the religion of Persia (modern-day Iran); i.e., ZOROASTRIANISM? And for the purposes of this post, I didn’t investigate the “numerous references to punishment in the afterlife in the Christian writings of the second century”. But I did look closely at several English translations of two extant manuscript fragments seen in various locations in Revelation (P98 and P115, ca. II and III CE) and concluded these fragments only echo the Judeo-Christian concept of “hell” as adopted from the Persians.

        And regarding question 3 (that the earliest converts from Judaism into pre-Nicean Judeo-Christianity brought their theological baggage with them): I also agree that those converts weren’t pagans. But were they not “those of the circumcision” (Acts 11:2) who desired to exclude pagan converts from participation in early Judeo-Christianity unless they FIRST became Jews in belief and practice? (See Acts 11:3; 15:1, 5.)

  2. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  June 20, 2012

    I read Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion several months ago. I am not qualified to make judgments about Stark’s use of historical methods and material, but he drew some interesting sociological conclusions. Among the arguments he makes: Christianity was demanding enough that adherent experienced a sense of purpose but flexible enough that they grew. Unlike most Pagan groups, Christians met regularly and formed strong social bonds. Christians proselyted among family and friends, mostly Diasporan Jews, who were more open to Christianity than their Palestinian brothers and sisters. In addition to growth through their missionary work, Christians benefited from higher survival rates than Pagans during plagues because Christians provided basic nursing care to the sick, whereas the Pagans did not.. Christians had friends in high places, especially among noblewomen. Finally, though Christians were killed during persecutions, not so many of them were killed as is usually thought and the Roman government was sporadic in its persecution rather than relentless.

    I enjoyed the book and it gave me food for thought, although as I said I am not qualified to evaluated the evidence he presents. His style is straight-forward and clear, although I preferred less polemic at times.

  3. Avatar
    bholly72  June 20, 2012

    Your final lines reminded me irresistibly of the success of the invasive Norway Maple, whose roots exude a toxic herbicide to poison its neighbors.

  4. Avatar
    lbehrendt  June 20, 2012

    Bart, I struggle with your argument that Christianity’s exclusivistic nature was a factor in Christianity’s success. True enough, a convert to Christianity would become exclusively Christian, and would no longer worship a god like Apollo. But that strikes me as an obstacle to conversion: the missionary must convince the prospective Christian not only to accept the Christian God, but also to reject other gods. We can guess that there were plenty of would-be Christians who were willing to worship Jesus but unwilling to do so exclusively.

    My big question is how Christianity was able to spread AT ALL. How did someone like Paul convince others to join his fledgling church? I can’t imagine how stories of a crucified Jewish Palestinian rabbi might have persuaded pagans to follow Paul. Even if Paul told stories of the miracles worked by Jesus in his lifetime (and as you’ve noted, he never does so in his epistles), why would pagans have been impressed by this? Even if these stories were believed, there were other stories concerning other miracle workers. How would Paul have convinced his audience that Jesus’ miracles (performed in an earlier time and a remote place) were so special as to command an exclusivistic membership? What made Christianity so attractive to pagans?

    I also wonder sometimes whether the rise of Christianity was in some part an accident of history, and not the inevitable “manifest destiny” that some see it to be. It might be that Christianity succeeded not because of Christianity itself, but because of the genius of its early leadership, or the chance conversion of a relatively small number of key people along the way (Constantine being the most key). If a Stephen Jay Gould can argue against biological determinism (for example, that the rise of man is more of an accident than the logical culmination of evolution), perhaps you will make the case against the inevitability of the rise of Christianity.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      Yes, I do think “accident of history” is on the right track. And as to what missionaries preached that was so compelling — my guess it that it had to do with divine power (evident in stories of miracles). That, at least, is what is found in most of the conversion stories that we have.

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  June 21, 2012

        A book you did not list that some might find helpful on understanding pagans v. Christians:
        Luke Timothy Johnson, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009).

      • Avatar
        billott  July 9, 2015

        Bart, If instead, it was a “soon to be orthodox” Christian and a Pagan trying to convert 100 Gnostic Christians with the same success rate, would the conclusion be that the Pagan gains 50 and loses none, while the Christian gains none and loses 50? Even with a sample of mixed Christian and Pagan, I think this is a very weak argument.

        It seem to me your second point is compelling, however. Regardless of the number of Christian and Pagan missionaries (people attempting to convert others), if one group sustains a higher success rate and does not stop trying, the outcome will be 100% conversi0on. The difference in success rate will determine the amount of time, but not the outcome. Your point about the Pagans having no desire to convert people (no missionaries) pretty much insures the Christian will have a higher success rate. Getting Key influencers to convert increases the success rate or insures that it does not fall below the Pagans success rate (0?).

        • Bart
          Bart  July 9, 2015

          No, if they are preaching to an already Christian audience then obviously that’s a different question.

          • Avatar
            billott  July 9, 2015

            Obviously, true. 🙂 , But, more to my point, If the Pagans were trying to convert people, they would not limit
            themselves to Pagans, would they?.I think the key was the fact that Christians has a higher success rate than Pagans, because conversion was part of their “mission” and it wasn’t for Pagans.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 11, 2015

            Yes, my sense is that most pagans had no interest in converting others to their religious cults.

  5. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  June 20, 2012

    Interesting analysis. But why no mention of Constantine? It surely helped Christianity to have the Emperor on its side (for his own selfish reasons), no? Also, the whole Catholic Church is modeled on the hierarchy of the Roman Empire and ‘re-christened’ existing Pagan sacred grounds, buildings and holidays so that people didn’t have to adapt or change their routines too much.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      As I mentioned in my post today, Constantine is absolutely the key. But I’m dealing with the situation leading *up* to Constantine.

  6. Avatar
    tcc  June 20, 2012

    The threat of hell seems to be the most useful weapon for conversion in these religions, honestly. The Bible itself rarely gives a reason other than fear for believing in Yahweh.

  7. Avatar
    Adam  June 20, 2012

    “This focus on exclusivism made Christianity unique in the pagan world (even most Jews didn’t insist that pagans start to worship the Jewish God. The Jewish God, for most Jews, was for Jews!”

    Would you say that very early on Christainity was a “transethnic” movement that sought to bring together “all the nations”? Thus, while being theologically exclusive, the form of Christainity that won out was ethnically inclusive?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      If by that you mean Jews, Gentiles, and everyone — yes indeed! (Thus Paul’s mission)

  8. Avatar
    flowergal  June 21, 2012

    I have a book called “From Jesus to Christianity” by L. Michael White. Have you heard of this book and is it worth the read? I really want to know if the writer is a Christian, because if he is, I will skip it. I’ve read most of your books, by the way. I love your writing and speaking style! And, you were the “chink in the armor” that started to unravel my faith:)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      I know him — have for years — but honestly have no idea whether he considers himself a Christian or not. He is certainly not an evangelical, and doesn’t have a religious axe to gring, but approaches his topic historically.

      • Avatar
        flowergal  June 21, 2012

        Thank you! I can’t wait for your book “How Jesus Became God”. I heard you mention that you wanted to write that book a couple years ago when you did a book reading for “Jesus, Interrupted”. This is a topic I am very interested in!

        • Avatar
          donmax  June 27, 2012

          flowergal,

          There’s another very good book entitled When Jesus Became God written by a Jew whose name I can’t recall. It will be interesting to see how Bart’s book compares, don’t you think?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2012

            Rubenstein’s book is about the Arian controversy; my book will be dealing with developments in Christology *prior* to that point. But his is a great read!

  9. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  June 21, 2012

    One more thought: wasn’t part of the success also due to the ‘God-fearers’? Those Pagans who liked the Jewish god and some of the rituals associated with him but not all (like having to get a piece of your penis chopped off, all those dietary laws, etc). This new Jewish sect, that would end up being Christianity, allowed them then to finally be part of that exclusive club and worship that god (the one and only true one, of course) without all these annoying requirements.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      Yup, many people have thought so!

      • Avatar
        Pat Ferguson  June 22, 2012

        “…, many peope have thought so”? Is extant P45 accurate? Are the Greek-to-English translations of Acts chapters 11 and 15 based upon P45 correct? Are the passages relating to the attitude of “those of the circumcision” toward non-Jewish converts (e.g., Acts 11:2), and those passages telling of the ill will of “those who had believed from the party of the Pharisees” toward Paul (Acts 15:5ff, 21:21), also accurate/correct? If yes, then what was/is there to think about?

        Clearly, those early converts from Judaism into Judeo-Christianity, because of the theological baggage they carried with them, both believed and acted as though only a Christianity rooted in Mosaic Law was THE answer to Man’s spiritual woes and the furthering of their religious-political agendas. And so later believed the churches of Rome, England, the Methodists, the Baptists, the neo-Pentacostals . . . and on and on . . . ad nauseam.

  10. Avatar
    Jim Joyner  June 21, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman, I think you dropped out a word here in your article above.

    The book on how [???] conquered the Empire is another interesting one, and I don’t have a good title yet (I’m using the banal The Triumph of Christianity for now, in my head).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      Ah, you should be a text critic! Yes, supply “Christianity”.

  11. Avatar
    Jim Joyner  June 21, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m going to apologize for being a little off topic here but I would like to solicit your thoughts on the developing “canon” in the late 3rd century. I will try to give you my shortest version, hoping you will remember there are more historical data to add here …

    The time of Diocletian seems to be recognized for “radical innovation” with respect to formalizing and codifying authoritative Roman texts: rescripts and edicts, mainly. Formalization and codification invited (written) commentaries from jurists.

    Of course (my connection to your current blog articles), Constantine was raised within the courts of Diocletian and these activities could hardly escape his notice. If memory serves, Fox (good recommendation you made) suggests Constantine had some proclivities for (amateur) scholarship and had an interest in bibles (he requested 50 from Eusebius).

    Can you imagine (I can) Constantine saying to Eusebius, in an unreported conversation, You know, Eusey, if Roman law is being stabilized, codified and canonized, how can we not do the same for “God’s law”?

    I hope my idea is more serious than I present it here … I see the (potential) influence of textual canonization of Roman rulings on the canonization of the Christian bible as one of those shadowy forces in history that made a difference but was not observed by those present as anything noteworthy. I ask because: I don’t think the proffered reasons for 4th century trends towards canonization have explained everything we need to know; and, I’m not sure my idea adds anything helpful towards understanding the 4th century canonization trend.

    Perhaps “the explosion of the canon” in the 4th century started with the legal canonization during Diocletian’s time?

    I tried to ask Fergus Millar but he said to ask you. (Just kidding.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2012

      It’s an interesting idea, I’ll grant! I think the problem is that apart from the request for 50 Bibles (about which we know almost nothing), we don’t hear of any concerns for the Bible from Constantine(let alone for fixing a canon — contra Dan Brown!. I think we can detect a motion toward canon well before Constantine (in fact, I *know* we can), and nothing significant happened during his reign; the canon came to be fixed only many decades later. So it’s an idea worth pursuing certainly, but these various factors whould need to be brought to bear on the problem. But someone should look into it!

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  June 23, 2012

        Ok, thanks for expressing interest. I like your phrase “a motion toward canon.” But “nothing significant happened during his reign” surely must mean, no formal canon decision was made and recorded. My idea is that it seemed natural to Constantine and those around him to do for scriptures what was done (in Diocletian’s time) for Roman law. Sadly, if the idea is even approximately right, we probably will never recover good evidence of this “motion toward canon.” Oh, well.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2012

          Yes, right! There were indeed other significant things that happened!

          • Avatar
            donmax  June 27, 2012

            Yes, indeed, there were many significant things that were happening both before and after Constantine, including competition among Christians for scriptural recognition, meaning official acknowledgment of their favorite works as having been written by the right people. A timeline can help see what happened in this regard; 140 CE, Marcion formulates his eleven-book Christian canon; 303, Diocletian orders the destruction of all Christian religious documents; 325, the Council at Nicea convenes under Constantine’s direction; 331, Constantine commissions Eusebius to produce fifty “Christian” bibles; the Bishop of Alexandria publicly proclaims his own list of “sacred writings”; 382 Jerome begins his Latin translation’; 405, Pope Innocent declares a fixed and final collection of Roman Catholic/Orthodox scriptures. (Of course, much has been left out!)

  12. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 27, 2012

    Wouldn’t Paul’s message that God had raised Jesus from the dead and would raise us too, have been the major selling point for Christianity in those days? Isn’t that the central message and appeal of Christianity even today?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2012

      Yes, probably. But the question is: how did he convince anyone?

  13. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 4, 2014

    Just wondering have you ever studied or can tell me who has studied on
    Horus son of Osiris and
    Winter and summer solstice
    Egyptians sunrise
    And Christians sunset

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2014

      I’d suggest Marvin Meyer’s book on the Ancient Mysteries.

  14. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 4, 2014

    For example
    Egyptians hieroglyphs
    There is one depicting
    An Egyptian mummification and Christ or jesus resurrection inspired there mixed in one hieroglyph
    So is there any one or anything I can look up to find more about Egyptian mystery cult and gnostic Christians ” the ones in the circle” the ones with the know

  15. Avatar
    SWerdal  December 17, 2014

    How did he (Paul) convince anyone? (was Dr, Ehrman’s last Q) Same way Jesus had, is my guess. Both must have been uber-charismatic and able to mesmorize (to borrow a more recent word). And there’s this kingdom coming very soon so the message has urgency (to close the sale). Fascinating topic, and my next question after we have letters and copies of them some decades later after the crucifixions (of maybe both, if the story of Paul’s is correct) is whether the ancient audiences would be impressed by ANOTHER religion with preserved TEXTs (besides the Jews bible/OT)? Does it matter to the average illiterate that the tradition developing has been captured by the educated? (ancient nerd-types and scribes like me, I love it). And what was the waning and drop-off rate when the kingdom didn’t come and didn’t (no parousia, if I recall my greek) for over 250 more years leading up to Constantine? Because if you’re lucky enough to make 50 that’s still at least 5 overlapping generations, assuming baptisms kept families “in” the fold to grow and net accrete rather than diminish the overall numbers? I think the story after Constantine is easier to tell, but with the sporadic persecutions until then? Only true believers need apply, and you better not be among the last of the true believers dying on the vine (so momentum and statistical trajectory can’t be lost). Dr. Ehrman, you said in one post or video lecture that you estimate only 5% of the scattered empire population was Christian at the time of the great “get” (conversion) of the emperor. How’d you figure that proportion? It makes sense as you explained after that, that the strategy involved political knitting geographically so the switch still made sense to stitch a broader constituency from what’s crumbling, but why that beginning % (which is pretty small)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2014

      My 5% figure was coming from other scholars who have tried to crunch the numbers; one source is Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire.

  16. Avatar
    SWerdal  December 20, 2014

    Thanks- from small acorns mighty oaks grow. And even a blind squirrel like me finds a nut sometimes. On Jesus and Paul’s powers to convince crowds- John Adam’s letter to Benjamin Rush dated June 12, 1812 said, “…there is a germ of religion in human nature so strong that whenever an order of men can persuade the people by flattery or terror that they have salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, violence, or usurpation.” quoted on p. 13 of 56 UCLA Law Review (2008), “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?”, Geoffrey Stone http://www.uclalawreview.org/pdf/56-1-1.pdf I doubt Adams ever elaborated to further define such “order(s) of men” exploiting this “germ of religion in human nature”, but others have used more pejorative terms to describe each.

  17. Avatar
    edstrelow  March 5, 2015

    Indeed one can ask how the story of a crucified carpenter can have much appeal but I think there are also parts of the Christ story that are very human and appealing. Consider the baby Jesus. story. I recall that even as an agnostic how listening to Christmas carols about Jesus birth colored my attitude to my six month old first born. You also have the mother figure of Mary. These make the religion very human and accessible.

    I also wonder about the importance of absolution to converts. Many people even with humdrum lives feel lost wasted and worthless. Christian belief can be uplifting and therapeutic.

    And then there are others with serious issues in their lives who need something like spiritual help. I read a fine story today in the LA Times about a Berkeley professor of journalism who went to teach lifers in San Quentin prison. One of his assignments to these men was to have them write their own obituary. One man, in for murder, wrote that he wished his story to be that he died trying to save another person’s life. This man was seriously in need of some form of spiritual absolution, well beyond psychotherapy, so much that it was painful to read this story.

  18. John4
    John4  May 24, 2015

    Years ago I stumbled upon MacMullen’s book at my local Barnes&Noble, bought it, read it, and loved it. I’m so glad you like it too. And, I’m even gladder that you plan to write a book on the same topic. I think you would help me understand second century Christianity much better than I now do.

    Do you have a publication date in mind?

    *Many* thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2015

      It’ll be about four years from now i would think. I have another book to write first.

      • John4
        John4  May 27, 2015

        I will, then, rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him, lol!

        Many thanks. 🙂

  19. Avatar
    flshrP  August 17, 2015

    “As I mentioned in my post today, Constantine is absolutely the key. ”

    Right on.

    Edward Gibbon in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” put it this way (I paraphrase):

    “Of the many religions in the Roman World, the people held that they were all equally true, the philosophers held that they were all equally false, and the magistrates held that they were all equally useful.”

    In fact, the magistrate who made all the difference was Constantine I who used Christianity in an effort to unify his empire, which was too large for a single emperor to administer. Hence, two emperors and two caesars ran the four major divisions of the Roman Empire from the time of Constantine I.

    And, of course, the magistrates have been using religion to further their ambitions up to the present day.

    Gibbon was writing in the 18th century, the time of Voltaire. The latter’s take on this issue of state religions went like this:

    If I can convince you to believe absurdities, I can persuade you to commit atrocities.

    He was referring, very likely, to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, which were Christian-on-Christian bloodbaths. But I think Voltaire, who epitomized the Enlightenment, was slamming religion in general.

  20. Avatar
    jwaf  August 29, 2015

    My assessment of the “human phenomenon” is of a disparate range of often impassioned ideas about “how things should be” that can result in everything from gainful contemplation by an entire culture to mass bloodshed. (The Pythagorean conflict, embroiled in mathematics of all things, is prototypical example.) Some theorize that this is rooted in Darwinian or evolutionary tribal propensities – perhaps a survival-relevant unifying and organizing predilection.
    From nazi-ism to the highest altruistic and humanitarian movements and creeds, it sometimes seems to happen simply at the drop of the hat.
    There are important details within details of course: world wars, crusades, inquisitions, jihad, cynical Marxism “opiate”, Habitat for Humanity, maybe Doctors Without Borders or polio vaccine, or just for comfort and purpose as mentioned.

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