Book Plunge: The Triumph Of Christianity

What do I think of Bart Ehrman’s latest published by Simon and Schuster? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

When I first heard about The Triumph of Christianity coming out, I was quite excited. The survival and eventual triumph of Christianity is something I consider to be a great argument for the truth of Christianity, especially since Christianity did not spread through force and was spread in a society that would want to eliminate it and that it was a very shameful faith. I was quite looking forward to seeing if Ehrman would either add to that thesis or challenge it.

This book sadly was disappointing in that regard. As I go through, I don’t find many clear answers. I do thankfully find that Constantine is not the reason the faith succeeded, although he might have made it’s eventual triumph faster. Sadly, Ehrman doesn’t seem to have much of an idea why it did. You get a basic answer of people talked to one another and each time someone became a Christian, paganism lost. Pagans would still be pagans if they worshiped a different god. They wouldn’t be if they worshiped Christ.

Ehrman also has the positive of talking about the things that Christianity has done. The Roman Empire at the time of Jesus was one marked by dominance. Slavery was unquestioned. Men had to be the leaders. War and conquest seemed natural. (p. 5)

Christianity changed that. We all think it’s natural to want to care for the sick and the poor. That’s because of Christianity. Without Christianity, we might never have had the realities of health care that we have today. Ehrman says we have simply assumed that these are human values, but they’re not. (p. 6)

This I can support definitely. So many times when atheists argue today, they point to the claim that the Bible condones slavery supposedly. It is taken for granted that everyone knows that this is wrong because we’re all humans. Go back to the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and it would more likely be the opposite. You would be the oddball not for approving slavery but for condemning it.

One of the first places Ehrman goes to is talking about Constantine. I find this quite odd seeing as Constantine is about 300 years later. It’s important to get to, but why go there so quickly? I want to know how Christianity even got to that point.

Ehrman does have some interesting points here. He is right that pagans were fine with you worshiping another god provided you were not excluding others with that. The Christians would not have really been a problem had Jesus been presented as one other deity in the pantheon to be worshiped. That is not what the Christians did. The Christians said God had revealed Himself in Jesus and that was the only way to worship Him. All other gods were false gods.

One author who has brought this out well is Larry Hurtado in his book Destroyer of the Gods. One would hope that Ehrman’s not interacting with that book is because it came out after the manuscript was done, but it’s hard to say since Ehrman can be good at giving the sound of one hand clapping and not interacting with the best of his critics.

Hurtado points out that by a gentile becoming a Christian, he was putting himself on the outs socially. It could be compared to someone leaving a cult today, and I mean a bona fide cult. If you have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons, that would be such an example. A Gentile would go into the home of a friend and all of a sudden, he couldn’t honor the household gods. He couldn’t go to the meetings of the gods at work. He was on the outs with his society entirely. He was risking everything.

A Jew could be given a free pass because the Jewish beliefs were ancient and thus, they were seen as something that could have been a valid path to God. For the ancients, those that came before them were even closer to the gods and knew how to get there. A religious idea that was new was viewed with suspicion. Hence, one of the early apologetic works was called “Neither New Nor Strange.”

A great work on this is Robert Louis Wilkens’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yet another work that Ehrman never interacts with). One who became a Christian was embracing a religion that was shameful. Your entire reputation and even identity was being put on the line in the Roman world by becoming a Christian.

Speaking of being a shameful religion, this is something Ehrman also never interacts with. He never looks at how the ancient world was a world of honor and shame. This permeated everything. Having honor in the ancient world meant more to them than paying our bills means to us. You won’t get this reality one iota from Ehrman’s book. It never enters the equation when it should be central to the equation. This is a glaring problem to me in the book.

To get back to Constantine, Ehrman does admit that Constantine wasn’t a perfect Christian, but he was at least a Christian. He did take his conversion seriously. Much of this material will be troublesome to people who are of the mythicist variety and think that Constantine is the only reason Christianity survived. (Again, I still want to know how the religion survived until Constantine.) Also, speaking of sources never interacted with, there is no mention of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine in all of this.

Ehrman then goes back to Paul, who I think would have been a much better start for the book, and in here actually says that in the life of Jesus some people did believe He was the Messiah. I am quite thankful to see this said from Ehrman. It’s also stated that the resurrection is what confirmed that Jesus was the Messiah. (p. 48)

It’s important to note how that works. Jesus isn’t the Messiah because God raised Him from the dead. God raised Him from the dead because He is the Messiah. The resurrection confirmed what Jesus had already demonstrated with His life and teachings.

Ehrman also will irritate the mythicist crowd by pointing out that while Paul never mentions the message he gave to potential Christians in his letters, that’s because he doesn’t need to. That message was given in person. The letters were to deal with other matters.

Something else interesting about Ehrman’s thesis, and yet confusing from his perspective, is that Christianity spread because of the belief in real miracles. Ehrman even admits that Paul says at times in his letters, such as in Romans 15, and I would add in 2 Cor., that he did miracles himself before his audience. Something important about this is that it’s easy to make a claim like that to people who already believe you’re the apostle to the Gentiles. Try saying that to the church in 2 Corinthians who is questioning your status because of the super-apostles. Paul is trying to get his opponents to remember what was done. You don’t point to what your opponents will remember unless you’re sure they will remember it and not dispute it.

But Ehrman doesn’t believe in miracles! That’s right, but he does say people did believe they had seen miracles or that the stories were reliable about miracles somehow. He thinks most often it happened because the people heard about miracles.

As a Christian, I do believe miracles happened, but Ehrman never interacts with skeptical ideas at the time. What about Lucian who seemed to make a habit of exposing miracles? Ehrman seems to take it for granted that this was an age that believed in miracles very easily. Maybe it was, but I’m not so sure, and that is something that Ehrman should argue. Still, there’s something odd about someone who doesn’t believe in miracles arguing that belief in miracles was the reason that Christianity gained converts.

Absent is one other possible explanation. Maybe people investigated the claims and decided Jesus rose from the dead. How would this happen? A group of people or one high honor wealthy person would send an investigator or a number of investigators to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. These people would talk to eyewitnesses and gather facts and report them back. Note that someone with high honor would have the most to lose by joining Christianity and so they would want to make sure the facts were right. There had to be such people since 1 Cor. 1 says that not many were in an honorable position, which means some were. Also, the church had to have some financial backing for the extensive letter writing and Gospel writing that went on. Those were not cheap.

Ehrman never seems to consider this idea. For him, word of mouth is sufficient, but that is a lacking idea. People would join a movement without checking where they would put their entire identity on the line by identifying with a crucified man? I don’t think Ehrman really understands the social consequences of becoming a Christian in that world.

On a positive note on the other hand, Ehrman does say that Paul did not invent Christianity nor did he invent the idea that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought salvation. (p. 71) This is not original to Paul as it was part of the package he came to believe. Paul had to have known what he was persecuting and how to recognize a Christian.

Ehrman also will not be a friend to the mythicist crowd when he says Mithraism could not have overtaken the empire. (p. 81) Mithraism was not exclusive like Christianity was. Exclusivism made it risky to become a Christian.

Ehrman is also right that people did not believe in life after death. What is not right about this is that that would have made Christianity a plus. For many, it would be like returning to a prison again. The body was something that you wanted to escape. A spiritual resurrection would have been much easier to accept. Teaching a resurrection to a body of flesh would not have been.

For this, Ehrman often thinks that Heaven and Hell were great motivators, but why should this be? If you don’t believe the person who makes the threat, why take the threat seriously? People speaking about hell would have likely been seen as wild-eyed fanatics.

Ehrman is also right about how the Romans were generally tolerant, but that’s because other religions weren’t stepping on any toes. Saying you shouldn’t worship the gods of the state or worship the emperor was going against that. Another movement Ehrman says was attacked by Rome was the Bacchanalia movement due to licentious practices. Christianity would have been seen as treasonous due to their being no separation of church and state. To deny the Roman gods was to deny Rome itself and a Gentile could not get away with that because we all know Gentiles are not Jews.

Ehrman does have his statement about other Christianities being around, but there is no reason to think any of them were close to dominating. Ehrman regularly does this kind of thing sadly. He will speak of a church that used the Gospel of Peter, but it was only for a short time and it was one particular area. There is nothing about how Egypt was even the most heterodox area and yet when we look at what we find there, orthodox manuscripts of the Bible outweigh the heretical works greatly. This is in Charles Hill’s Who Chose The Gospels? (Another work that there is no interaction with)

On p. 143, Ehrman does say that many people believe in miracles today not because they have seen them, but because they’ve heard about them, and eventually they just believe that they are possible and then true. Why should we think that our society will mirror the ancient one? People would risk everything again just because they hard a story and didn’t bother to check it? It looks like Ehrman hopes his readers are just as gullible as he thinks the ancients were.

On p. 181, in writing about 1 Peter, Ehrman does say they were facing opposition for their faith, but we don’t know what it was. It wasn’t an empire wide persecution. What could it have been? It never enters Ehrman’s mind apparently that it was shaming from their society. This is again the glaring blind spot in the book. Ehrman does not interact with what the culture was truly like.

When we get to the end of the book, we find Ehrman going on a different track, and one that is very mistaken. This is talking about intolerance, and this largely in the context of later Christian emperors opposing paganism. Ehrman says that intolerance is “the principled rejection of other beliefs and practices as wrong, dangerous, or both.” p. 256.

It doesn’t take much thinking to see the problem here. By this definition, anyone who thinks they are right in anything is automatically intolerant because all contrary beliefs have to be false. If Ehrman doesn’t even think that what he is presenting in a book is right, why should I bother listening to him? Apparently, Ehrman thinks it’s intolerant for Christians to think they are right. Is Ehrman intolerant then if he goes out and argues for his case as he does in debates and tells his opponents why he thinks they are not right?

He also has a section on the death of Hypatia which he says was at the hands of a Christian mob. The reality is despite what he thinks, we are not most fully informed. Every side tries to claim Hypatia and use her as a weapon against the other. A good source on her is here.

Oh. All this intolerance? It started with Jesus Himself. Jesus was not tolerate of the beliefs of the Pharisees. (How dare Jesus disagree! Rabbis never ever did that with each other!) Ehrman plays the card again about the Jews being addressed in John 8, not realizing that doesn’t mean all Jews of all time but would refer to a specific group of people. A good look at that can be found here. It’s interesting that Jesus and Paul are the intolerant ones, when they were the ones being put to death by their opponents.

Ehrman also says Paul was intolerant with issuing a divine curse on anyone who preaches a different Gospel. Yes. Paul does that. The stakes are high for him. Note that he never says though that he is applying the curse himself or to go out and kill the people of a different persuasion.

Ehrman on p. 285 says that tolerance was encouraged and freedom of religion was embraced. This tolerance was lost with the triumph of Christianity. Note that Ehrman says this in a country founded on Christian principles where he’s allowed to freely write as an agnostic and publish books arguing against Christianity. Yes. That is truly an intolerant society.

Note also pagans reveled in diversity to a point. There was no reveling in the new Christian movement at all. The Christians did not have the freedom to worship. Now do I think it is wrong when Christians get the power to use it to force Christianity on the populace. Still, it is quite bizarre to say the pagans were tolerant. It’s easy to be tolerant when those who disagree with you only disagree on what you consider a minor point and aren’t a threat at all. At least Ehrman acknowledges again the positives he stated at the beginning such as caring for the poor and the sick, but this tirade on intolerance is not really fitting and Ehrman always says on the one hand he wants to be neutral as a historian, but when he says something like this, he is hardly neutral.

In the end, I find this book just lacking. It’s almost like Ehrman is writing a book just to write a book and get something out there. You can see him picking out a few favorite source repeatedly and relying on them. I know Christianity triumphed and I have some good ideas why, but I don’t see why Ehrman thinks it did.

In Christ,
Nick Peters