Review: The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Bart D. Ehrman has made a cottage industry out of writing relatively brief, accessible books about early Christian history such as How Jesus Became God and Misquoting Jesus. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World is trademark Ehrman: clear prose and digestible chapters in support of Ehrman's opinionated interpretations of Christian history. The Triumph of Christianity examines Christianity's remarkable success in converting the better part of the Roman world in only a few centuries.

Ehrman takes pains to point out that, title notwithstanding, his book is not meant to be a triumphalist narrative. He never claims that Christianity succeeded because of its inherent superiority to pagan religions, nor suggests that Western culture is better off due to Christian success. Instead, he attempts to explain how a small Jewish sect under intermittent persecution by Roman authorities managed to overthrow centuries of pagan tradition. In doing so, he reminds us of the incredible variety of pagan religions, encompassing a diverse set of cultic practices honoring a multitude of gods.

One reason for Christianity's success was its exclusivity. Pagan religions did not demand that worshippers of certain gods turn away from others. Ehrman does point to pagan practitioners of henotheism, which lets worshippers focus on a single god without denying the existence of other deities. He suggests that henotheism may have prepared the ground for some Christian converts to recognize one all-powerful God, including, possibly, Emperor Constantine. More importantly, when pagans converted to Christianity, they renounced all other gods. A convert necessarily became an apostate to all of paganism, so that more Christians meant fewer pagans.

Ehrman also writes at length about Christianity as a missionary religion. While pagans had a precedent for monotheism in their Jewish neighbors, "we don't know of any missionary religions in the pagan world." The evangelizing mission of the Christian church was thus "unparalleled and unprecedented." Ehrman does not underplay the importance of such a development, but he does counter the narrative provided by the Book of Acts in the New Testament, which references mass conversions of pagans. He instead argues that conversion was more likely to take place on an individual level, with newly converted Christians telling their pagan friends the Good News. They would also convert the rest of their household, but Ehrman provides reasons to be wary of the official Christian account.

These are only a few of the explanations for Christianity's success that Ehrman examines. He offers a survey of many centuries of scholarship on the subject, writing about the merits of certain explanations while rejecting others. What emerges in his account is a measured, grounded, but no less astounding tale of a persecuted religion that swept the ancient world with shocking rapidity. And as it spread, "it destroyed the other religions in its wake, religions that had been practiced for millennia and that were simply assumed, everywhere and by everyone, to be good and true." Readers are left to judge the benefits and drawbacks of Christianity's triumph for themselves. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Shelf Talker: The Triumph of Christianity examines the religion's rapid expansion and eventual dominance of both the Roman Empire and Western culture as a whole.

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