July 06, 2018

Bart Ehrman hits a foul ball with rise of Christianity book

Type your summary here Type rest of the post hereThe Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an EmpireThe Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire by Bart D. Ehrman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nice try in theory, falls well short in reality

This was a book tough to rate.

I generally like Ehrman. I generally think that mythicists unfairly belittie him, though I disagree with some specifics of his own supporting material offered for a historic Jesus.

The idea of the book isn’t new, but presented in popularizing form from a knowledgable New Testament scholar, promised to be good, possibly very good.

But, it fell short. Short enough in some ways that I took fairly detailed notes at chapter breaks.

Without explicitly saying so, Ehrman seems to indicate that Christian evangelism and Christian miracle-working both had modest-to-moderate boosts for the early decades of Christianity, but no more than that, and then it was primarily word-of-mouth, just like you and I buy a car or toothpaste today.

However …

First, the evangelism issue is nowhere near as simple as Ehrman paints.

First of all, we know that Christianity was NOT the only evangelistic religion of antiquity, contra what Ehrman implies, and even semi-directly says.

Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries to the West went as far as Macedonia and Cyrenaica circa 200 BCE. Four hundred years later, Clement of Alexandria and other Christian fathers knew about ongoing Buddhist proselytizing. And, Will Durant even speculated it may have been an element in Christian missions. See more here.

Either Ehrman is surprisingly uninformed here. Or else, Ehrman’s definition of antiquity is narrow. Neither speaks well for this book.

That said, per reading between the lines in Acts, and in some of Paul’s letters, and my take on J. Massyngberde Ford’s Anchor Bible volume on who wrote the original core of Revelation, we know that at least a few followers of John the Baptist evangelized.

Paul himself mentions Apollos and Peter, even talking about Peter getting paid to take his wife with him.

So, Ehrman has a foul ball here.

On the miracle working, whether real or not, Ehrman doesn’t mention that this was common outside Christianity. Indeed, Jewish charismatics such as Honi the Circle Drawer come to mind. Or Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician.” Or the name Simon Magus. Ehrman doesn’t go into a lot of depth here. He even mentions Apollonius of Tyana, the contemporary of Jesus, but never goes into detail about his own reported miracle-working.

So, if Christian miracles were more powerful than Jewish, Greek philosophical, or pagan religious ones, why? They were all common. Ehrman doesn't discuss why Xn magic was considered more powerful, whether it had a big effect on recruiting or not.

And Ehrman knows "winners write history" on this just as much as anything else. The Old Testament illustrates that with the famous, and surely legendary, battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

It’s true that no ancient author writes an unbiased account of this in detail. But Ehrman, while noting that no actual such miracles likely happened, doesn’t explain why Christians were perceived to be (as he would seemingly have us believe) better miracle-workers or magicians.

The real issue is that, in the Greek world, outside of Apollonius and presumably other neo-Pythagoreans, plus healing miracles claimed at the temples of Asclepius, miracles weren't a big part of the religious framework. Outside of shape-shifting and adopting human guise, the Olympians have no preachers to even perform miracles. And, the likes of Honi aside, this wasn't a big deal in much of Judaism, either.

So, to the degree Christians performed sleight-of-hand, they had relatively minimal competition. To the degree they performed faith healings, they did it away from temples.

Beyond the miracles issue?

If evangelism were as low as Ehrman thinks it was after Paul, and pagans and philosophers did magic, too, then why was word-of-mouth as successful as Ehrman thinks it was? Word of mouth 2,000 yrs ago presumably was based on testimonials just as much as today.

Reality is that, with people like Polycarp, or Clement of Rome, their letters to other churches were surely part of an ongoing program not just of church maintenance but church planting and spreading. Look at the pseudo-Pauline letter to “Ephesians.” Originally a circular letter, it probably was written in similar spirit.

This may not have been as big a deal as modern Christians sending missionaries to New Guinea, but it wasn't nothing. I see it as more than Ehrman implies.

And, the third failing, a partial one.

I agree with Ehrman that many of the details of Rodney Stark’s projected growth rates of Christianity don’t withstand scrutiny.

However, even though Decius’ persecution wasn’t specifically against Christianity, Diocletian’s was. In a sort of analogy, American whites will start to flee suburban neighborhoods and even whole communities when an influx of minority population, and above all, African-American population, hits a certain percentage, usually around 10 percent.

Ehrman doesn’t ask if a similar phenomenon were in play here. If it was, his believed population percentage of Christians, empire-wide, was too low at the time of Diocletian to be such a trigger. Now, the persecutions were carried out most commonly in the eastern half of the empire, and we have some fairly good indications Christianity was stronger there.

Nonetheless, Ehrman doesn’t follow up.

A fourth problem? Per a commenter to my review?

Of course it was "word of mouth" how Christianity spread. There were no newspapers then, let alone radio, TV or Facebook. Handwritten books were expensive and time-consuming to produce. Ehrman does note that in a early Christian worship service, the leader might be reading from a copy of a letter of Paul or a gospel to an audience that was mostly illiterate and thus couldn't check the book themselves, either.

But, why would one pagan trust another who had joined not the "nutty enough" (from many pagans' point of view) Judaism, but a "nuttier yet" derivative of Judaism? Being someone's neighbor, or coworker at work outside of home, didn't necessarily mean trusting them that much. How much would a neighbor believe a neighbor who said something like "But THIS miracle was REAL!"?

So why WERE Christian "magoi" believed more than pagan ones at Asclepian shrines, similar ones from followers of John the Baptizer, or philosophical wonder-workers?

A fifth partial failing, in my opinion?

Ehrman seems to believe Christianity was not just majority-gentile, but strongly so, by circa 100 CE.

Yet, he fails to mention the “desynagoging” that happened circa 100 CE, per John. If this really did happen, it undercuts Ehrman’s thesis. If it didn’t, he should have offered a bit of exegesis on John here to explain this.

Despite John speaking bluntly of “the Jews,” I think something did happen.

I mean, in "Zealot," Reza Aslan appears to get this more correct! (He later goes on to get it incorrect, despite evidence he presents; but, that's Aslan in a nutshell.)

My personal guesstimate? At 100 CE, overall, Christianity was 25 percent Jewish, 65 percent "godfearer" Gentiles, and 10 percent Gentiles with little to no previous contact with Judaism. In a place like Corinth, I believe Paul had already been bringing people like this in, and that scared Jerusalem far more than godfearers being considered their equals.

Finally, Ehrman makes a partial version of the same error Stark does on population growth, and it’s connected to his overlooking or ignoring Buddhist evangelism.

He focuses on growth within the Roman Empire.

Armenia became officially Christian in 301 CE, nearly a century before Theodosius so proclaimed Rome. Various kingdoms that today make up Georgia became officially Christian before that time. Ulfilias proselityzed Goths, presumably with some Goths previously Christian, before Theodosius. Legends of Thomas Christians aside, there were Christians in India before this time. Ditto for ancient Nubia, beyond Rome’s Nile frontier.

In critiquing and criticizing Stark, I have noted all of this and said that at least 10 percent of Christians at the time of Constantine were outside imperial borders.

And, of course, by the period that closes Ehrman’s book, Christianity had not swept “the world.” It probably hadn't swept the Eastern Roman Empire; I suspect it had many closet pagans still. That's true in spades for the Western Empire.

Finishing up this last section of the notes as I got ready to post this led me to take Ehrman down from three to two stars. Several three-star readers seemed too kind in their detailed reviews.

Ehrman – and his agent who suggested this – should either have committed to an additional 20-30 pages and more rigor, or else suggested this as a series of magazine essays only, or similar.

Sixth and in brief? Christianity had the upper hand on established paganism in being able to mutilate statues of Zeus, etc., and say, "Look, nothing happened." That said, yes, Christians did the same to more rustic pagan icons among the Germans, etc. On the other hand, Joe Stalin could have said the same after shuttering churches across the USSR.

That said, this not the only clunker, in my opinion, that Ehrman has wrote. I didn't care for "Jesus, Interrupted" either.


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