The Triumph of Christianity

by Bart Ehrman, Oneworld, 352pp, £20

Over the course of the first four centuries of the first millennium, Christianity destroyed the other religions of the empire. Or did it? Bart Ehrman seems a little torn. Yes, he writes of old temples and statues of polytheism being demolished, of the very core of people’s personal and spiritual being “mocked, mutilated, and destroyed before their eyes”. Christianity thrived “by killing off its opposition”. Yet in other places in his book, Ehrman replaces the language of destruction with death by natural causes, with paganism “cut off from resources and abandoned by popular opinion”.

Whichever way you look at it, no century of Christian history was “more transformative than the 4th”. It began with the emperor Diocletian declaring war on the Church and ended with the emperor Theodisius declaring all pagan practices illegal, making Christianity, in effect, the state religion.

Ehrman thus takes on the character of a man panning for gold, sifting the historical record to find facts that will shine with explanatory power. How did the followers of an obscure Jewish preacher, crucified by the Roman governor in a remote province, build a religion that drove paganism from the field?

Ehrman concludes, first of all, that the triumph of Christianity is consistent with a rate of growth that was steady, rather than spectacular, based on the faith spreading through networks of family, work and neighbourhood. These are the channels through which conversion flowed. But why did it flow at all? Why wasn’t it blocked? Why didn’t other religions survive it?

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