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It doesn’t matter what religious (or lack thereof) belief you hold; it doesn’t matter where in the world you happen to have been born, there are only two things that matter for a book like this.
- Christianity has changed the course of the world.
- You have been born into a time when we can reflect and attempt to understand how, why, and when Christianity managed to do this.
I wrote another book review on Bart Ehrman’s latest book ‘Heaven & Hell – a history of the afterlife’ recently. It was my first foray into non-Christian ‘Biblical & Early Christianity’ scholarship, and I love it. I talk a lot about how I came across Mr Ehrman in the aforementioned blog post, so I won’t repeat myself here. Needless to say, though, having someone who loves the Bible, who isn’t scared to ask hard questions and expect real answers is a breath of fresh air.
This book tackles the subject of how Christianity spread and dominated in the way it eventually did. Now I have been told all my life that Jesus is the Bridegroom, and the Church is His bride. He grows and develops His Church and the different positions we see the Church spread into through history is due to how God’s plan and humans’ ambitions brought it into fruition. The way this book presents the ‘whys’ against the evidence and writings we have from antiquity is brilliant.
We are going through a pandemic as I write this, currently, I am on week 9 of lockdown and experiencing a lot of insane statistics and ‘facts’. One of the big things that has been really interesting to see is the exponential curve we (as in humanity) experienced with COVID-19. I mean I have learnt a lot about this stuff at school, as well as having an interest in investment and the reality of compound interest (a similar concept with growth). Mr Ehrman uses exponential growth to explain how Christianity, given the amount of time it had, could in fact have changed the face of the Roman Empire slowly as first, and then growing in its influences as more and more people were added to its growth curve.
A few of the common reasons people have told me that the church grew in the way it did:
Miracles – we read about miracles being performed by Jesus and then his disciples after he had ascended. Christianity gets started with a bang during the Passover festival at the start of Acts as ‘Pentecost’ begins, and the Holy Spirit comes to rest upon the believers in Jesus. We also see Peter’s shadow healing those who he walks past and hear of other amazing miracles happening in different areas and by a variety of other people within the New Testament and early Christian literature. Did miracles continue after the first century? Did the miracles happen at all? If they did then, do they have an effect on how the early church spread and grew? These are all questions that pastors claim to know the answers to and therefore tend to place miracles as one of the main reasons for people to turn and believe in God (specifically Jesus and His sacrifice).
Big Evangelistic Events – I have already mentioned Pentecost, but we also hear about Paul going to a variety of mission trips to different Greco-Roman areas to talk about how Jesus was in fact the Messiah that the world had been waiting for. We also hear today about large-scale evangelistic events; I have sat in many myself and been stirred to respond. But did the early church actually utilise big evangelistic events as the New Testament seems to suggest Paul did?
God – As mentioned above, the main reason for the growth of the church given out by believers in God is God. I mean, if you believe in God then it would make sense for God to be the reason for so many things within the world. It takes a lot of the world to begin to ask the question honestly ‘what if there is no God, how did these things occur?’. It’s been said in many history lessons: the winners tell the story. Could this be the case for the importance of God in the rise of Christianity?
The reality is, as Mr Ehrman concludes within this book, there are a whole host of natural, testable, and tangible reasons that Christianity could have spread without the need for miracles, big evangelistic events, or God. This is of course going to be hard for Christians to accept or even possibly engage with due to the need for the narrative to be as it has always been taught in our day and age, to include the above three as the reasons for the spread of Christianity to the rest of the world.
There is another book that I want to read on this subject by another non-Christian historian – Tom Holland. The book is called Dominion and it has a lot of great reviews from believers and non-believers alike. When I do finally get to it, I am very much looking forward to searching for any parallels between these two books, along with many differing opinions and takeaways.
Neither Mr Holland nor Mr Erhman are believers today – so that must stand for something?
‘If God wanted the world to become Christian, why hasn’t the world become Christian? If God wanted the masses to convert, why are most of the masses still not converted? Moreover, just in historical terms, if God made the Roman Empire Christian, why did it take so long? And why was the job never completed? Why did non-Christian religions continue to exist at all? Why are they still in the majority today?’ Ehrman, Bart D.. The Triumph of Christianity. Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.
Some serious questions there, questions that have played a role in my own deconversion from Christianity – it seems far too human for it to be God’s be-all and end-all. I find the thought of the religions an interesting one, we tend to play Christianity off against a single religion, why? As Bart Ehrman asks above if Christianity is the correct religion that God set in motion, why are there still so many other religions?
‘..throughout history people have thought miracles happened. Most often they have thought this not because they saw miracles but because they heard about them.’ Ehrman, Bart D.. The Triumph of Christianity. Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.
We do this all the time in church or small group settings, we talk about miracles that have happened to others or things we have heard second, third or fourth hand. We read about miracles in books to encourage us that the God we worship and follow is still performing the acts we have learnt to stand in awe of within the New Testament. Most people don’t see miracles, surely that should at least make us ask some questions?
‘Nearly everyone agrees that approximately half the Roman Empire claimed allegiance to the Christian faith by about 400 CE. The empire as a whole is thought to have comprised some sixty million people at the time, making the numbers of Christians staggering. Even so, recent scholars have demonstrated that no massive conversions would have been needed for the church to attain such high numbers. All that was needed was a steady and plausible rate of Christian growth.’ Ehrman, Bart D.. The Triumph of Christianity. Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.
Yet we read about Paul’s missionary works, or the acts of the early church and how masses of people came into Christianity and were ‘added to their number’. Christians long for revival today, looking at the New Testament, at the spread of Christianity and at the 20th century evangelistic events that saw many turn to Christ.
Whether or not there will be mass conversions to Christianity again is beside the point. One of the fundamental claims for revival is based on the claim that there were mass conversions within the early church in the first few centuries. Maybe there were such events, but there doesn’t need to have been to get the number of believers we have reported about at the start of the 5th century.
I think that is massive, and I think it explains how things grow in general. It starts with a few, and then expands and multiplies as people interact and tell those within their network about it. Exponential growth is possible in many areas, and there seems to be numerical evidence now available to explain why Christianity did as well as it did, which in turn tells us why we are in the socio-political position we find ourselves in today.
Christianity has given us the foundation to live within the morals we claim, but as we begin to unpick the foundation can we hope for the lives and morals we invoke today to remain? Well, that is entirely another subject.
In short – the book is fascinating, helpful, and full of ancient history – which is great. Get it, read it, and enjoy it 🙂
_End of Blog Blurb_
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. It has taken me a few years to get to a place where I am able to share my loss of faith and to start writing about the journey that I am still on for you all. I hope you find it useful.
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When Belief Dies #53 – 'Contours of Hope' with Jim Thring – When Belief Dies
- When Belief Dies #53 – 'Contours of Hope' with Jim Thring
- When Belief Dies #52 – 'An Old Perspective' with John Goldingay
- When Belief Dies #51 – 'Manuscripts and Ancient History' with Bart D. Ehrman
- When Belief Dies #Bonus – 'An Inquisition' with Daniel Kelly & David Ames
- When Belief Dies #50 – 'Magnifying Glasses & Big Pictures' with Esther O'Reilly