Are you a devout Christian wanting to understand how anyone could NOT believe that the Bible is the complete, inerrant, historically accurate word of God? You need to read Bart Ehrman.
Are you just a history buff interested in learning more about the early Christian era and/or how we know what we know about the Bible? You need to read Bart Ehrman.
Dr. Bart Ehrman, in case you don’t know, is a New Testament scholar, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was, as he has told countless times, a devout evangelical fundamentalist Christian until he went to college and starting learning the truth about the Bible and its history. (He now describes himself as agnostic.) Dr. Ehrman earned his PhD at Princeton and for many years, in addition to his regular academic duties, has written books for the lay audience about the Bible and the early Christian history.
[For those interested in a deeper dive, we interviewed Dr. Ehrman three times on the American Freethought Podcast (in April 2008, May 2014 and March 2016). Also, see my review of Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted.]
Ehrman’s most recent work is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. The question Ehrman is trying to answer here is, “How did a tiny offshoot of Roman-era Judaism become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire (and therefore, of the entire Western world)?” The subtitle of the book is definitely misleading (and, I’d be willing to bet, not chosen by Ehrman), since one of the main points he makes is that, counter to the standard Christian narrative of the nascent religion resisting and eventually triumphing over broad-ranging, persistent and vicious suppression by Roman authorities, early Christianity instead grew slowly but steadily and was never really subject to any kind of seriously implemented empire-wide ban. Were Christians martyred by the Romans? Yes, but as Ehrman points out, the number of documented executions of Christians for being Christian numbers in the hundreds (perhaps only a few thousand), spread out over three or four centuries. Roman persecutions were piecemeal, and often consisted of little more than an imperial decree subsequently ignored across most of the vast territory controlled by Rome.
How Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and how it finally extinquished the pagan system that had thrived for millennia, is complicated and certainly open to interpretation. And not to spoil Ehrman’s book (which is absolutely worth your time), but the “triumph” of Christianity can be attributed to a number of factors:
Christianity was evangelical; i.e. gaining new converts was baked into the religion from its earliest days. The pagans of the ancient Mediterranean generally had no interest in gaining converts for whatever gods they worshipped; indeed, the Roman world is notable for its impressively diverse, and generally tolerated, set of religious beliefs.
Christianity, unlike pagan religions, was supported by scriptures, which provided a transmittable foundation of belief.
Christianity was exclusive. Nobody in the Roman world (except for Judaism) cared if you worshipped, for example, both Artemis and Neptune, or stopped worshipping Artemis to take up with another god, etc. (Although, it’s true the Romans insisted that everyone observe certain periodic, minimal religious sacrifices at the behest of the state, which is where Christians usually ran afoul of the authorities.) So…once someone accepted Christ they (more or less) automatically stopped worshipping other gods.
Christianity coupled morality with religion in a way that paganism did not. In the Roman world, morality was a matter for philosophers, not priests. The gods of Greece and Roman were personalities with good and bad traits, little different than the humans who invented them. Christianity insisted on a moral system that was (supposedly) dictated from on high.
Christianity upped the ante in terms of the afterlife. Most Roman citizens thought appeasing the gods was done for the purpose of gaining their favor in earthly life, with little consideration for an afterlife. Christianity, on the other hand, offered an eternal life of bliss in Heaven, or conversely threatened an eternity of torture for rejecting Christ.
After Christianity gained a foothold among the elites–particularly the emperors–it wielded the power of the state for the benefit of the church in a way that paganism had almost never done. Christian emperors, as well as governors and local magistrates, eventually used the sword to suppress competing religions and ultimately spelled the doom of religious practices that had persisted for a thousand years.
Ehrman also points to a general belief in miracles in the ancient world, and how this made the populace susceptible to a new religion that made extraordinary (but unsupported) claims of miraculous events.
Finally, Ehrman explains how Christianity “exploded” mostly through a steady trickle of conversions that build–like compound interest–until, within a matter of a few decades, followers of Jesus increased from mere dozens in the first century to millions by the end of the fourth.
Those are the broad strokes. Ehrman, as usual, provides a narrative readily comprehended by a lay reader, peppered with interesting anecdotes, historical asides, and dry humor.