Review: Ehrman’s Triumph of Christianity

The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman is among the world’s leading authorities on Early Christianity, and without a doubt, the most popular, serious, author on the topic. If Early Christian history and theology has a rock star, its Ehrman.  The dude has written over thirty books, many of the them bestsellers, but this is the first by him I’ve read.

It’s well worth the price of admission.

In clear, accessible, language Ehrman answers the question of why (and how) did a religion based on the teachings of a Jew from the middle of nowhere come to dominate the Roman empire in the span of a few hundred years. The answer is both simple and endlessly complicated.

First is the nature of monotheism itself, and the numbers associated with it. Ehrman lays this out clearly in the book, but put simply, if you convert one person away from polytheism to monotheism, and they convert two, who then convert four, you quickly start gaining very large numbers.

Second is who was converted – Christianity at least in its early days, was willing to take in, and give positions of power, to Jews, women, and the working class, all people excluded from positions of power in the standard Roman mystery cults and religious societies.

Third was the simple, relatable, narrative of the Gospels themselves. Much of the Jewish world was waiting for a messiah, for sure, but much of the rest of the western world was also hungry for a more relatable god like figure, one not born in Olympus, and one who’s religious message resonated with their everyday lives.

There’s more, of course, (we’re talking about one of the largest most important revolutions in history after all) but this is the basics. I’m sure experts will quibble with this book. Frankly someday I hope to know enough to quibble myself. But for someone like me, dipping my toes into this world, or even for the interested lay person, this is a great introduction to one of the most important events in western society.

Recommended.

Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

Review: Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome

Richard E. Rubenstein

From the perspective of a modern westerner, it is hard to understand how amorphous the early Christian movements were. In the first few hundred years after the death of Christ, much of what we now take for granted as pillars of the Christian faith were still in dispute. Were Christians Jews? Did they have to follow Jewish law? Was Christ divine? Was Mary?Leaders of the early Christian movement argued and died over these questions. Rubenstein, the author of Aristotle’s Children, another engaging book religious history attempts to tell the complicated story of this time in an accessible way. Overall he does a bangup job.

Like Rubenstein’s other works, When Jesus Became God is a good book with a misleading title. This isn’t really about defining the nature of Christianity – such a book would have to be much longer and more detailed. It is instead a popular history of one of the great theological debates of the early church – the Arian controversy. As that, it is a great read. I am no theologian, my knowledge of the time period and of the theological questions at issue in the Arian controversy are superficial at best, but from a layman’s perspective, Rubenstein brings the goods.

Briefly, the Arian controversy was about the nature of Christ and his relationship to god, the Father. Was Christ the son of god, a part of god, or simply a prophet? Was he to be worshiped? And if so, how? These were the issues that brought monks and priests of the fourth century into conflict and man did they get mad. Bitter fights, violence, excommunications — this controversy had it all. When it was all over, we had the dogma which has remained the center piece of the Catholic faith – the trinity and the divine nature of Jesus.

Many biblical controversies seem silly in hindsight, but not the Arian controversy. That those who backed Jesus’s divine nature and the conception of the trinity won had a massive and long lasting effect on the Church and western society.  All of which makes the Arian controversy an important and interesting story which Rubenstein tells well. Interested in the early church or the history of ideas told well? Check this out.