The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY: HOW A FORBIDDEN RELIGION SWEPT THE WORLD
BART D. EHRMAN
London: Oneworld Publications, 2018 www.oneworld-publications.com www.bartdehrman.com hardcover & ebook 335pp; appendices; notes; index ISBN:9781786073013 £20 hardcover & £8.96 ebook
One of the greatest mysteries in the world is how twenty or so illiterate peasants living in the backwaters of the Roman Empire turned the teachings of an executed enemy of the state into what would become “the greatest and most powerful institution Western Civilization has ever seen.” Of course, some people will see the hand of God in this but taken as a non-miraculous and strictly historical event, it is an astonishing achievement.
The Roman emperor Constantius and his son Constantine came to York in A.D. 305, and it was there that Constantius died the following year, being succeeded by his son. Seven years later Constantine won a great battle and attributed the victory to the vision of a Christian symbol on the sun, which he interpreted as symbolising the intervention of the Christian god. Soon after, Constantine decreed that Christianity was to be the official religion of the Roman Empire.
It is generally agreed that Jesus was crucified about AD 30, which means that in roughly three-hundred years Christianity had gone from being an outlawed religion preached by a handful of Jesus’s followers, to being the official religion of the empire! Consider, too, that Christians probably accounted for an absolute maximum of about 10% of the empire’s population at the time of Constantine’s conversion, yet a century later, when Britain left the empire, 50% of the population of the empire, some 30 million people, were Christians.
And to add to all of that, Christianity wasn’t even a codified religion when Constantine converted. There was no agreed life of Jesus and no New Testament, and Christians belonged to numerous sects that disagreed with one another on even the most fundamental things. Frankly, nobody would have thought Christianity could supplant the well-established pagan beliefs, so how did it happen?
That’s the question Bart D. Ehrman sets out to answer in his new book.
Ehrman is a distinguished Biblical scholar, but he’s also a hard-nosed historian and, strange for a Biblical scholar, an agnostic or even an atheist. For me that makes him free of the taint of bias or the miraculous. Not everyone shares that opinion, and Ehrman often finds himself criticised by fundamentalists and atheists alike. But Ehrman knows his stuff and his writing style is easy and flowing, not at all stuffy, and pretty much as down to earth as you’ll find.
A figure who plays a pivotal role in the story Ehrman unfolds is Paul. For some reason I’ve never paid much attention to Paul, who was initially a rabid opponent of Christianity but underwent a conversion, traditionally on the road to Damascus, and Ehrman explains how really significant his conversion must have been.
Bart D Ehrman’s books are solid scholarship, well-written and entertaining. The Triumph of Christianity is no different. Recommended.
Review by Paul Begg.