Christianity grew from a faith with a few hundred people to 30 million people in under four-hundred years. By the year four-hundred, half of the Roman Empire’s 60 million people believed in Jesus Christ. From being a persecuted minority to being the majority faith among the Romans, Christianity triumphed.
How exactly did this happen? That’s the question that Bart Ehrman asks in his latest work, The Triumph of Christianity.
According to Ehrman, the two main figures that acted as catalysts for this growth were Constantine and the apostle Paul. Constantine converted to Christianity in the 300s, coming from a privilege and authority. Paul converted in the 30s, coming from the Jewish religion and (in comparison to Constantine) without excessive privilege. Constantine declared laws and they happened; Paul caused riots and was beaten.
The two men come from different worlds and with different authority. And yet both played an important role in the growth of Christianity. Paul brought the faith to the pagan world; Constantine made the faith legal and prestigious.
And yet these two figures alone, in Ehrman’s view, cannot explain the full picture. Other factors include the difference between Christian faith and pagan religions. For example, pagans did not usually exclusively worship one god but many (or one god among many). But Christians demanded allegiance to one God to the exclusion of others (115–116). This made Christianity exclusive, which meant that Christians stopped worshipping other gods.
Further, the purported miracles of Christianity spawned growth in the fertile ancient world (139–143). The language of “purported” is important here because Ehrman does not believe miracles can be proved by history nor does he appear to believe the eyewitness reports of miracles (143; see also 70).
As a historian, Ehrman skeptically reads Christian sources. And yet one wonders if he is overly skeptical. For example, he finds the narrative in Acts about Paul to be suspect (50–51). Likewise, he only accepts 7 out of 13 letters attributed to Paul as being from Paul (41). The rest are presumably forgeries.
But could not these 13 letters (at least) provide real insight into the historical Paul? And more than that, is it entirely certain that all these letters are not from Paul? The historical tradition that affirms Pauline authorship of these letters is not minuscule.
Understandably, when a scholar does not accept certain commitments about the world (God exists) and how it works (providence), then skepticism about Pauline authorship or the book of Acts is warranted. Yet are the metaphysical commitments of naturalism really necessary for historical inquiry? Well, that’s a topic for another day.
And yet the question of naturalism relates to Ehrman’s argument for why Christianity grew. Due to his material commitments about the world, he cannot argue that Christianity grew (1) because it’s true or (2) because God exists and has guided the world in such a way. The majority of the world’s population maintains a belief in the divine, and so the reasons given in Ehrman’s book may not satisfy them.
Still, from the perspective of historical-social studies conceived as it is, Ehrman has done an excellent job of positing reasons for Christianity’s explosive growth. Even for those who use a larger set of data for historical inquiry (i.e., the supernatural), Ehrman’s book still benefits such readers.
And he excels in describing the societal effect that Christianity on the Roman Empire:
Christianity not only took over an empire, it radically altered the lives of those living in it. It opened the door to public policies and institutions to tend to the poor, the weak, the sick, and the outcast as deserving members of society. It was a revolution that affected government practices, legislation, art, literature, music, philosophy, and—on the even more fundamental level—the very understanding of billions of people about what it means to be human. However one evaluates the merits of the case, whether the Christianization of the West was a triumph to be treasured or a defeat to be lamented, no one can deny it was the most monumental cultural transformation our world has ever seen. (286)
In the end, Ehrman’s book is an enjoyable read. If one approaches The Triumph of Christianity as providing a plausible case for the growth of Christianity along historical lines, then such a reader will not be disappointed. Even for those who disagree with Ehrman historically (or want to expand the scope of history to include providence), the book will stimulate readers and provide insight into the history of Christianity.
Ehrman, Bart D. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the Word. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Disclaimer: the publisher provided me a review copy, although I was under no obligation to give a positive review.