Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Rise of Early Christianity

This is my response to this post at the Wildhunt Blog.

I just finished slogging my way through Robin Lane Fox's book Pagans and Christians and so I'm pretty fresh on the arguments. Fox's book is highly frustrating in that while it is exceedingly boring, long, boring, thorough and boring it nevertheless never really manages to answer the question it purports to address namely why Christianity managed to supplant classical paganism in the Mediterranean between 150 and 350 CE. Nevertheless, what conclusions it does point towards do not entirely match the six points of Chutney's summary.

"..bewildering array of new gods and cults.": not much evidence for this in Fox's book at least. Ever since Herodotus five centuries earlier people and known of many gods and pantheons. The families in power in the Roman Empire and regionally tended to be quite conservative, and so the longevity of any particular practice tended to give it authenticity. Early Christianity was dismissed out of hand precisely because it was new by the rulers of 2nd Century who also had a difficult time understanding that this new religion was anything other than a branch of Judaism.

"Conversion": Undoubtedly important, but understates how important the possibility for overachievement and perfectionism was for the movement. Christianity offered a select, dedicated few the opportunity to achieve glory through strict asceticism and civil disobedience. The teachings of Jesus pointed towards a self-control and self-denial that was both novel and quite attractive for some personalities. Thus, every wave of persecution allowed a new set of martyrs to step forward to actively assert their fanaticism and create the stories that attracted others to the faith.

Christian priests vs. pagan: nope, this is a bit off too. Christian priests did offer personal wisdom, but, more important, they provided a judicial role that was otherwise solely available through the relatively rare circuit of roman governors. Christian priests were anointed for their lifetimes, while pagan priesthoods were generally held through family lines and terms of service were generally limited to a few years. Some pagan oracular methods were co-opted whole cloth by the ensuing Christians and these oracles were generally seen as sources of wisdom before and after Christianity. It certainly true that Christian priests were more involved in people’s day to day lives.

Egalitarianism in the Christian priesthood: almost certainly true, but I'm not sure how important it was to the spread of the movement. Christianity did focus its attention on meeting the needs of Christian poor providing a role for both the rich and the poor in the community, and that delineation of roles might have been more important to Christianity’s spread.

Donations: well, particularly after the 2nd Century there were definitely some wealthy Christians already. More to the point, however, was the fact that donation to a pagan cult became a duty of an increasingly smaller set of families. There was a growing concentration of wealth in fewer families during this period which made the cultic acts become more acts of ostentation for the few than a universal service of the gods.

Mass movement: Christian leaders generally hid out in the hills during the persecutions. The biggest thing that allowed Christianity to flourish was the fact that it was eventually decided that Christianity could include more than just the overachievers and the perfectionists. You could lapse and offer the required incense to the gods during the persecutions, and Christianity would take you back after an appropriate act and period of contrition. Thus, it became fairly common for people to postpone baptism so that they could still insure their salvation while they knew they were still likely to willingly sin. Constantine was, by no means, alone in that particular tactic.

For me, one thing missing on the list is the point that Christianity managed to integrate philosophy with religion. Many pagan philosophers were not religious when compared to their contemporaries and conversely most cults had no philosophy whatsoever. Most pagan philosophers, for instance, had reached the conclusion that infant exposure was wrong. Christianity also said exposure was wrong and had a framework into which that ethic fit quite nicely. The integration was far from perfect, but it was more appealing and universal than anything that came before.

Certainly, the promotion of Christianity by Constantine mattered a lot as well. Fox seems to suggest that the growth of Christianity prior to Constantine has been overestimated by prior historians. He seems to believe that it was largely the money Constantine and his family poured into the Church that fueled its greatest period of growth.