The Bonnie Lea Book Club tackled a book about the world’s most influential religion, examining how it grew as an offshoot out of a minor ancient sect based in the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire (Judaism) into the foundation of the West’s religion and philosophy for the next two millennia.
The author, Ehrman credits Christianity with overturning a culture of dominance, spreading an ethic of love and service in which everyone is equal before God. I agree and believe Judeo-Christian morality was the philosophical underpinning for America’s founding documents and subsequent European democratic development, while Mal rejected that high level of influence. How the religion became so successful, and how it replaced the existing order, particularly in its first three centuries, was the focus of the book.
In summary, the book examines three concepts: first, the existing pagan belief system was vulnerable to Christian spiritual and social arguments; second, its messengers, most influential, Paul; and finally the influence of Roman emperors, most consequentially Emperor Constantine.
The members of our book club had the broadest overall spectrum of reviews that we’ve had in several books. Mal did not like the writing, clarity or organization at all, and couldn’t finish it; Bill thought it was Ehrman’s best of three he’s read, and excellent. Most of us agreed that the organization and logic was disjointed; the writing dense at times, and Rob commented that for a relatively short book (less than 300 pages), too many topics were redundant and repetitive. And yet the insight into pre-Christian paganism, the appeal of Christianity to the masses, its inexorable growth, one convert at a time, and the Roman leadership structure made for interesting historical insight.
To be clear, for a highly respected New Testament scholar, Ehrman’s analysis was remarkably devoid of any theological depth or modern aspects of faith; this was a historical sociological study. To its credit, it provided a thorough examination of pre-Christian paganism that was the established philosophy of the day, where magic, mystery and a pantheon of gods brought answers to the difficult questions of why things happened. Paganism did not have a name; that is our retroactive label. It simply was.
Ehrman refers to the Bible frequently, so a brief overview of its organization and authors may provide some perspective. The first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, is the Jewish ‘bible’ before Jesus. It is here that Jewish law, including the Ten Commandments (first in Exodus) and rejecting certain foods (pork), are introduced. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written decades after his death by those authors about Jesus and his acts, words and teachings. Acts of the Apostles follows the Gospels, introducing us to Saul of Tarsus, an educated Jew (Pharisee) who dramatically converts to Christianity after leaving Jerusalem and on the road to Damascus, faced with a blinding light, and hearing a voice (from Jesus) asking “Why do you persecute Me?” Paul wrote the majority of the rest of the New Testament (Letters of Paul) to the new churches he systematically established throughout the eastern Mediterranean to Rome.
The book began and ended with Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity upon his march into Rome to unseat the previous emperor, and arguably the most influential character in Christianity’s rise. His mother was a Christian and his father a henotheist (believing in one top god, in his case the Sun God, Sol Invictus). But above that, he was an astute survivor, and a successful emperor of Rome for thirty years. He oversaw the congregation of bishops in Nicea, resulting in the Nicene Creed, still recited today in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches, and which outlines the church’s core doctrines. In addition he settled and developed Constantinople, (today’s Istanbul), on the Bosporus, easily defended and strategically located, where the Eastern Church was seated for over a thousand years until the Ottomans conquered the City in the 1400s.
Another of Constantine’s signature edicts was the Edict of Milan, which established for the first time a governmental principle of freedom of religious belief under the law.
The question of whether the inexorable growth of Christianity would have continued as swiftly without Constantine’s support tilted to no, it couldn’t have. His support also had the effect of permitting Christianity to influence the educated, economic military and political policy makers, While the trajectory would probably continue to rise, its ascendancy as the dominant religion of Europe and the Mediterranean was greatly influence by this Emperor. Ever the astute leader, he may simply have decided to ride this religious wave to hold together an increasingly broad and disparate empire. The emperor waited until shortly before his death to be baptized (though this was not an uncommon practice at the time to ensure entry into heaven).
Julian, a few emperor’s later, re-instituted the persecution of Christians; but he lasted less than two years (killed by Persians in battle). We also surmised whether a thirty year survival of Julian might have changed history.
Paul, formerly Saul, described above, was the great marketer. We discussed whether Paul’s interpretation of Christianity as we know it would have been approved by Jesus. James’ own words give us insight: he would NOT have, due primarily to Jesus’ intent to have his message become a natural extension of Judaism, rather than a religion most appealing to Gentiles or pagans. The appeal to pagans might have been Paul’s greatest success. While we know Jesus said that Gentiles could accept the Jewish God, it was clearly Paul who took this message and spread it to the densely populated cities along the Mediterranean, chronicled in the books of the New Testament.
The message had remarkable consistency (marketers take note). The main attractions were:
- This God was bigger and better than the pagan gods;
- the Jewish concept an ethical foundation; developed further where sinning could be washed away by this God, through Jesus;
- immortality, heaven, was the eternal joy and reward for conversion, while hell was eternal torture, a concept too many were familiar with.
- The message of Love thy Neighbor, Help the Poor, and establishment of communities of faith created social benefits
These simple messages provide an attraction, and conversion seemed most effectively to be a one-way door. Pax Romana also had created stability and fertile ground for a merchant class not solely concerned with survival to the next day, but time to contemplate bigger issues of the spirit. Converts and their offspring rarely returned to paganism.
Chuck’s notes were outstanding and made for a well organized discussions.
Here's a link to the book
Our next book is Educated by Tara Westover