There are many good reviews of Bart Ehrman’s 2018 book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. So here I’ll try to not be merely redundant with those. Rather, I’ll summarize only briefly and add a few comments about what I hope people have gotten or will get from the book. They may remain misguided about important issues like these if they don’t read it or otherwise become better informed.
I’ve read a number of Ehrman’s books. (In this case and several of his lectures, heard them via audio/video.) This work follows his typical pattern:
- Evidence of deep familiarity with pertinent original sources as well as the work of prior and current scholars
- Skill in condensing as well as pulling out especially cogent and interesting points
- Ability to convey key analysis and occasional commentary of his own in a readable way for lay people
One issue often arises around Ehrman: Is he suitably objective, writing in an unbiased way, given that he is mainly an historian (vs. a theologian, etc.)? First, my own full disclosure: I’m a formerly orthodox Christian who gradually became quite progressive decades ago, thus “heterodox”. I still identify as Christian, but only if the term is accepted in the great breadth of its historical usage.
Now, I believe Ehrman, here, is about as objective as one can be expected to be. However, since he also was, in his early adult life, an orthodox Christian and became agnostic, his “bias” does show a bit in places. (I’d surmise he is more skeptical of the reality of all “miracles” than my “Process” view of reality allows for.)
I don’t think his occasional show of skepticism about the reality of things “supernatural” should concern readers too much, in that it seems infrequent and is subtle, and he is clear that at least reports of miracles, if not miracles themselves were key to the early growth of Christianity. Generally, he is consistent with his contention that historians cannot rightly weigh in on philosophical or “faith” views of events, but rather focus on largely the written evidences (occasionally other artifacts also). I come away with the impression that getting out solid information is more his aim than is dissuading people from some form or another of faith.
However, like me, he seems to want to help clear up misimpressions. I believe he and I would agree that healthy forms of faith or of skepticism need to be based on the most accurate possible knowledge of how things have actually happened, historically or in current events.
The historical coverage of The Triumph of Christianity is the time of Jesus until the end of the fourth century. Ehrman’s concluding chapter and “Afterward” (not to be skipped… it’s excellent), do touch on the later course of Christian history ever-so-briefly. For the centuries covered, the focus is mainly on the relationship of Roman governance to the growth of Christianity from the late first century to the late fourth, along with the interplay between paganism and Christian faith. These three decades can be fairly stated to be the most critical for the expansion, and possibly even the survival of Christianity. And of these, the fourth century is probably most pivotal. (Ehrman poses questions like, “If Constantine had lost the Battle of the Milvian Bridge [on the Tiber near Rome, where he had seen a vision of the cross as a sign under which to conquer], would Christianity have triumphed?”… without answering this hypothetical but significant question.)
This brings us to the “rant” part of my review. It really bothers me how often I hear people spout wrong or misleading ideas about things like the actions of the Emperor Constantine and their effects for Christianity. Similarly, misinformation about the extent and effects of persecution of Christians during the first three centuries (or a bit beyond) of our “Common Era”. That’s one reason devoting some time to reading (or listening to) a book like this is valuable. It is the best way to find corrections of the “common knowledge” floating about, which is so often inaccurate and/or misleading.
A few specifics:
- The growth of early Christianity was unparalleled… so fast that only supernatural acts (the Resurrection, coming of the Holy Spirit, astounding miracles, etc.) can explain it. Actually, as Ehrman and others have shown, a relatively steady and quite naturally-possible growth rate of 30% per decade (not year) gets us to the majority position of Christianity in the Roman Empire by the end of the fourth century.
- Persecution of Christians throughout this period was massive, such that nearly all Christians lived under threat of execution if they would not recant. Ehrman returns to what data we have, repeatedly, as he traces this issue through these early centuries. In summary, almost all persecutions were not empire-wide, and the one or two which were, were not more than a decade or so long. The numbers involved are hard to come by, but the number of executions may have remained in the hundreds, and not likely more than a few thousand, throughout a population of 60 million or more over three centuries (though any number is despicable, whether committed by “officials” or by Christian leaders against pagans, as they sometimes were in the 4th century).
- Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire and presided over persecutions of pagans as well as the creation of the Christian New Testament and purge of many other writings. (In effect, he alone make Christianity an empire-wide religion.) As with many misconceptions, these do have some resemblance to what we know historically… and accounts of which are detailed enough in Constantine’s time to be fairly credible on most matters. However, Constantine only allowed for and favored Christianity, helping build churches, etc. He did not make paganism illegal or directly coerce pagans to convert. He was not directly involved in establishing what books would eventually be included in the “canon” of our current New Testament, and he was too late to sponsor any major text changes. (A canon was proposed by the end of his century, the fourth, but not fully settled on until later.) He did call the first empire-wide Christian council of bishops, the Council of Nicaea, in 325. With that and other actions, he moved aggressively toward a forced unity among often-differing Christian churches, knowing that would serve him better politically than a heavily divided, contentious set of churches and regions.
A final point is important. Ehrman is wise and fair to suspend judgment when, near the end, he brings up the question often debated (to little if any benefit, in my view) as to whether the emergence of Christianity as the leading religion, as well as cultural and sometimes directly governing force, has been net positive or net negative for the Western world, or the entire world. How can we say? He reminds us that we cannot know what might have been developed in its place, or how that might have worked out. But the work of careful historians like Ehrman, who try to not overreach, does help humanize and place in broader context the complicated history of Christianity and its competition with others in the “marketplace of ideas” as well as the “halls of power”.
You’ve probably gotten the message that this book is worth spending time with, especially if you are one who likes to make comments about the early centuries of Christianity. If you have spare time for your intellectual growth, making you a better-equipped citizen, this is a good place to spend some of it.