The Triumph of Christianity | Reflections & Notes

Rodney Stark. The Triumph of Christianity: How The Jesus Movement Became The World’s Largest Religion. HarperOne, 2011. (506 pages)


Religion is often stereotypically dismissed as myth. But what if the academic history told about religion is actually itself the myth?

My pursuit at getting to the truth of that question–and all that it implies–is what makes Rodney Stark one of my favorite authors. If you’ve been raised with the standard Western history of Christianity, The Triumph of Christianity will require you to rethink everything you ever believed about this faith, and begin the process of rediscovering a more honest history of the Jesus movement.

A few notable items that Stark argues quite persuasively:

  • Jesus may have been from a wealthy, privileged class, and so would many of the early converts to Christianity.
  • At the very least some of the content of the Gospels were written down, not just early, but as the words themselves were actually being spoken.
  • The Christian religion led to far better material outcomes in health than the pagan populace, especially in maternity and during plagues.
  • The early Christian movement was majority women, even though the general population was majority men.
  • Christianity condemned infant exposure and abortion, effecting a disproportionate population growth of the religion.
  • It was Christianity that exemplified gender equality by condemned unchastity “in a husband as no less serious a breach of loyalty and trust than unfaithfulness in a wife.”
  • Paganism was not oppressed by Christianity, but rather survived for some time, and ultimately declined due to volitional conversion.
  • The Crusades were not an offensive campaign, but a provoked defensive endeavor, and did not loot, force convert, colonize, or barbarize Muslims.
  • There were no “Dark Ages,” “Enlightenment,” “Renaissance,” or “Age of Reason.” Reason and progress were outgrowths of Christian theology.
  • Capitalism was invented by 13th century Christian Scholastics.
  • Science, too, was developed from Christian Scholastics, rooted in Christian theology.
  • The Spanish Inquisition is a mixed bag of good and bad, but is exponentially smaller in the numbers of trials and executions that are popularly taught.
  • American Christianity thrived because of the pluralistic free market competition of religious ideas as separate from the state.
  • And, even though modern sociologists and philosophers are decrying religion and announcing the slow death of Christianity, the evidence suggests otherwise; that Christianity is still the largest religion in the world, with the greatest distribution across the globe, with the greatest number of new converts, and is growing faster than any other religion in the world.

We all live by a particular story, and part of my journey is the pursuit, not just of a better story, but a truer one; a story that is coherent with the best understanding of empirical history, that brings our tradition into the clearest light. It is only through that understanding that we can best frame how this faith ought to live in this current age. With this history from Stark, there is not only much in common that we have with our ancestors in faith, practice, and culture, but there is much to be reminded of, envy, and emulate.

May we all become more like the followers of Jesus that brought about the greatest and longest lasting revolution in history.



Part One: Christmas Eve

1 The Religious Context

Travel and trade applied not only to people and commerce, but to the gods as well. (9)

Pagan Temple Societies

…people only went to temples, they did not belong to them. (10)

Compared with the distant, mysterious, awesome, demanding, and difficult to comprehend God presented by monotheists, people often seemed more comfortable with gods that were less awe-inspiring and more human, less demanding and more (10) permissive–gods who were easily propitiated with sacrifices. These preferences help explain the very frequent “backsliding” from monotheism and into “idolatry” that took place repeatedly in both ancient Israel and Persia. There is something reassuring and attractive about nearby, tangible, very “human” gods. (11)

Zoroastrians and the Magi

…Zoroaster grew up in what is today eastern Iran during the sixth century BCE. …when he was about thirty, he had a revelation that Ahura Mazdā was the One True God. (11)

The Magi were a guild of professional Persian priests who served any and all pagan religions in the Persian Empire. … Through the centuries the Magi served as the primary proponents of Zoroastrianism and preservers of its scriptures. They also were widely acknowledged throughout the classical world, even by such famous authors as Plato and Pliny, as able to decipher omens and forecast the future, as related in the account of their arrival in Bethlehem. (12)

Religions in Rome

The Romans were far more religious than the Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, or other pagans of their era. “Every public act began with a religious ceremony, just as the agenda of every meeting of the senate was headed by religious business.” Nothing of any significance was done in Rome without the performance of the proper rituals. (12)

A remarkable aspect of the absence of a subsidized state religion in Rome is found in the priesthood. (13)

Seven major gods were established prior to the founding of the Roman Republic, headed by Jupiter (also called Jove) who was regarded as the supreme father of the gods and eventually equated with Zeus. (14)

Oriental Faiths

All were “pagan” faiths, but with some very significant differences. For one thing, they didn’t simply promote another temple (14) to another god–each was intensely focused on one god, albeit they accepted the existence of other gods. This intense focus resulted in something else new to paganism: congregations. (15)

[via: Also known as “henotheism.”]

Cybele, known to the Romans as Magna Mater (the Great Mother), …Attis…with whom Cybele fell in love. Unfortunately, the young man became sexually involved with a nymph and Cybele found out. In a fit of extreme anger Cybele caused Attis to become insane, and in his made frenzy he castrated himself, lay down under a pine tree and bled to death. Cybele sorrowed and caused Attis to be reborn, and he became her companion ever after. Attis never became a major figure, remaining only a member of his lover’s supporting cast. However, his self-castration became a major feature of Cybelene worship. For one thing, the most solemn ritual of Cybelene worship was the taurobolium, wherein a bull was slaughtered on a wooden platform under which lay new initiates who were then drenched in the bull’s blood–all in commemoration of Attis’s mutilation. It was believed that the blood washed away each initiate’s past, giving each a new life. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect linking the Attis story to Cybelene worship is that all “priests of Cybele were eunuchs; self-castration in ecstasy was part of the process of [their] initiation.” (15)

Isis,… (15)

Mithraism… (16)

Table 1.1: Number of Know Temples Devoted Exclusively to a Major God in the City of Rome (ca. 100 CE)

God Number of Temples
Isis 11
Cybele 6
Jupiter 4
Venus 4
Fortuna 3
Apollo 2
Sol Invictus 2
Aesculapius 1
Ceres 1
Diana 1
Janus 1
Juno 1
Liber 1
Mars 1
Neptune 1
Quirinus 1

Source: Beard North, and Price, Religions of Rome (1998), 1: maps 1 and 2.

The essential question is, why were the Oriental faiths so popular? (17)

[Franz] Cumont [(1868-1947)] argued that the Oriental religions succeeded because they “gave greater satisfaction.” He believed they did so in three ways, to which I will add a fourth and fifth. (18)

| First, according to Cumont, “they appealed more strongly to the senses,” having a far higher content of emotionalism, especially in their worship activities. (18)

…the new faiths stressed celebration, joy, ecstasy, and passion. Music played a leading role in their services–not only flutes and horns, but an abundance of group singing and dancing. … As Cumont summed up, the Oriental “religions touched every chord of sensibility and satisfied the thirst for religious emotion that the austere Roman creed had been unable to quench.” (18)

| Although Cumont made no mention of it, the chief emotional ingredient lacking in the traditional Roman faiths was love. (18)

The second advantage of the Oriental faiths was, according to Cumont, their stress on individualism and virtue. (18)

Some paths to atonement were built into the initiation rites of many of these new religions, which stressed purification and the washing away of guilt; various forms of baptism were common. In addition, formal acts of confession were practiced by followers of both Isis and Cybele, but no such practices existed in the traditional temple faiths. Nor was atonement achieved through rites alone; many of the new faiths required acts of self-denial and privation, sometimes even physical suffering–actions that gave credibility to doctrines of individual forgiveness. (19)

| Thirdly, Cumont noted that, for a society abundant in historians and written philosophies, it is remarkable that the traditional Roman religions had no scriptures. …the Oriental faiths were religions of the book: Bacchanalian, Cybelene, Isaac, and Mithraic religions offered written scriptures that “captivated the cultured mind.” (19)

As Cumont summarized, the new “religions acted upon the senses, the intellect and the conscience at the same time, and there-(19)fore gained a hold on the entire man. Compared with the ancient creeds, they appear to have offered greater beauty of ritual, greater truth of doctrine and a far superior morality. … The worship of the Roman gods was a civic duty, the worship of the foreign gods the expression of personal belief.” (20)

But Cumont failed to recognize two additional factors that were at least as important as the three he noted, and probably even more important: gender and organization. (20)

Above all else was their capacity to mobilize a lay following by involving people in congregations, in active communities of believers. (20)

| Roman paganism offered very little in the way of community. Most Romans were very irregular and infrequent visitors to the temples. But the Oriental religions expected their followers to worship daily on their own and then to gather for services weekly or even more often. Sheer frequency, let alone the intensity of these gatherings, made these religious groups central to the lives of their adherents. … Put another way, the Roman gods had only clients and festivals, not members and reg-(20)ular services. (21)

Fear of Congregations

…emperors feared all formal organizations as providing an opportunity for political conspiracies. Thus, late in the first century BCE, edicts were issued regulating the formation of all private gatherings. (22)

…it is societies like these which have been responsible for political disturbances. … If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club. – Trajan, in response to Pliny the Younger’s letter

While people only went to temples, they belonged to an Oriental faith. …the Oriental faiths often were viciously persecuted. …the Bacchanalians, the followers of Isis, and (to a lesser degree) the Cybelenes fell victim to imperial repression, all because of the “sin” of congregationalism. (22)

Suppressing the Bacchanalians

What was the movement really like? Why did it provoke such a violent, yet limited, response from the Senate? (24)

| Specifically, the cult of Bacchus (or Dionysius) promised the initiated that they would be welcomed into a blissful life after death, enjoying the company of their fellow initiates. … The ordinary person need only become an initiated and committed Bacchanalian in order to escape the dreary afterlife envisioned by the traditional religions of Rome and to gain everlasting joy: “Now you have died, and now you have been born, thrice blest, on this day.” This was a remarkable innovation and gave everyone, rich or poor, a substantial reason to join. (24)

But of perhaps even greater importance in gaining converts, the cult of Bacchus surrounded its members with a very intense group life. (24)

To become a member required initiation into the group’s mysteries and the swearing of solemn oaths of devotion and loyalty. (25)

…they were closely united into intense, very self-conscious congregations. …what the Roman Senate actually suppressed were the congregational features of the group–its regular meetings, its formal organizational structure, the strong ties among members, the prominent role of women in a group including both sexes, and, most of all, the high level of member commitment. These things, not noisy revelry, were what the Senate perceived as a threat and “wished above all to destroy.” (25)

Against Isis

In 58 BCE the Senate outlawed Isis and ordered her altars and statues torn down. They repeated their ban ten years later, and Roman consuls around the empire responded by destroying Isiac altars as “disgusting and pointless superstitions.” (25)

The relentless pressure and obstinacy of the Isiasts gave the [Senate]…no respite. They [the followers of Isis] restored their places of worship [whenever they were destroyed]. … Like the Christian faith later, Isiac perseverance was forged and strengthened in persecutions. – Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 1996; 86-87

Isolating Cybele

Just as Christianity gained immense influence by being credited with bringing Constantine victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Cybele (also known to the Romans as Magna Mater or Great Mother) was brought to Rome by order of the Senate in 204 BCE (personified by a hunk of meteorite) because of a prophecy inferred from the Sibylline (26) Books and confirmed by the oracle at Delphi that she would deliver victory for Rome over Hannibal. … Every March 27, the silver statue of Cybele was borne by a procession of her priests to a nearby tributary of the Tiber River and bathed, then carried back to the temple. (27)

[cf. Ephesians 5:26]

Her priests, known as the galli, excelled at ecstatic frenzies. Not only did they castrate themselves during their initiation; subsequently they cross-dressed, wore makeup, frizzed their hair, drenched themselves in perfume, and acted like women. Although Romans were not offended by homosexuality, they were absolutely appalled by effeminacy. (27)

Persecution of the Jews

Anti-Semitism was virulent and widespread in the classical world. (27)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE); Cornelius Tacitus (56 – 117 CE)

…the Jews were expelled from Rome in 139 BCE by an edict that charged them with attempting “to introduce their own rites” to the Romans and thereby “to infect Roman morals.” Then, in 19 CE the emperor Tiberius ordered the Jews and the followers of Isis to leave Rome. … In addition, all other Jews were banished not only from the city, but from Italy “on pain of slavery for life if they did not obey,” as told by Paulinus Suetonius. In 70 CE the emperor Vespasian imposed a special tax on all Jews in the empire, thereby impounding the contributions that had been made annually tot he temple in Jerusalem. And in 95 CE the emperor Domitian executed his cousin Flavius Clemens and “many others” for having “drifted into Jewish ways,” as Cassius Dif put it. (28)

Pagan “Monotheism”

Perhaps stimulated by the presence of Jews in their midst and by contacts with Zoroastrianism, many Greek and Roman philosophers began to entertain monotheistic ideas, while several pagan groups attempted to transform one of their gods into as close an approximation of monotheism as was possible within the limiting assumptions of polytheism. The most extensive efforts in this direction were made on behalf of the goddess Isis. (29)

| When Isis came west, she soon shed her Egyptian role as responsible for the rise and fall of the Nile. Instead, she began to be hailed as the Goddess Supreme, the Queen of the Sky, the Mother of the Stars, (29) and often was referred to as the savior goddess.

Isis is the female principle in nature, which is the receiver of every act of creation; wherefore she is called ‘nurse’ and ‘receiver of all’ by Plato, and by mankind in general ‘the goddess of ten thousand names.'” – Plutarch

But no matter how often Isis was referred to as the “one True and Living God,” she could not escape the limitations of paganism. She could be recognized as a supreme god, but not as an only god because the existence of a whole pantheon of other gods, including her son Horus, could not be denied within the context of paganism. Moreover, hers was entirely an otherworldly tale, in contrast to the manifest historicity of Judaism. That is, Isis’s “biography” took place entirely within the invisible world of the gods. (30)


On Christmas Eve, Judaism was the only fully developed monotheism available in the Roman West. It is well known that the Jews played a crucial role in preparing the way for the Christianization of Rome. But much too little has been made of the extent to which the Oriental religions also prepared the way: the geography of the spread of early Christianity through the empire closely followed the geography of the spread of temples devoted to Cybele and to Isis. By the same token, the persecution of the Oriental faiths, and of the Jews, anticipated the later Roman attempts to destroy Christianity. (31)

2 Many Judaisms

On Christmas Eve there were about nine million Jews living in the Roman Empire (which had a total population of about sixty million), about 90 percent of them living in the larger Roman cities west of Palestine. (33)


…he greatly compromised this achievement [rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem] by placing a huge golden eagle over the main entrance to the Temple. (35)

During his reign, Herod ran through ten wives and not only disinherited his sons from previous marriages, but had at least three of them murdered. (35)


…the Assyrians arrived [in Judea] in 597 BCE and took thousands of important Samarian Jews away to be held as captives in Babylon. Apparently, at this time the Assyrians also settled some of their own people in the Samarian region. Subsequently, these settlers requested teaching by Israelite priests and ever since have regard themselves as Jews–as did all the Jews remaining in Samaria from before the invasion. However, when the descendants of the Jews taken to Babylon returned to Palestine, they refused to recognize the “Samaritans” as Jews and did not allow them to participate in the rebuilding of the Temple. In response, the Samaritans built their own temple at Nāblus, at the foot of Mount Gerizim. (36)

| Bitterness increased in 128 BCE when the Hasmonean (Maccabean) King John Hyrcanus had the Samaritan temple destroyed. (36)

The hatred was such that to be called a Samaritan was a grievous insult…some rabbis said that to eat the bread of Samaritans was to eat pork, or to marry a Samaritan was to lie with a beast.”

Hellenistic Judaism

By early in the second century BCE, Jerusalem was so transformed into a Greek city that it was known as Antioch-at-Jerusalem. (37)

Jewish Pluralism

As demonstrate by both Romans and Jews, religious pluralism is the natural condition of any society (although, in the past it has not been the usual condition). That is, if the state permits religious diversity, there will come into being many religious groups spread across a spectrum of intensity. …religious monopolies can exist only to the extent that coercion is able to keep dissenting groups tiny and circumspect and that whenever coercion falters, competing religious groups will arise. (38)

Monopoly religions slide into accommodation with their social surroundings even when they were first established by those committed to an intense faith. One (38) reason that a monopoly religion drifts toward laxity is that religious intensity is never transmitted very efficiently from one generation to the next. Inevitably, many of the sons and daughters of sect members prefer a lower-tension faith than did their parents. (39)

This process has long been referred to as the transformation of sects, the social process that causes successful sects to become more moderate religious groups. Transformation also is speeded by the involvement of the religious leaders in worldly affairs, both political and economic. Finally, if such a religious institution lacks the coercive power to muffle competitive impulses, it soon will be surrounded by sect movements mounted by those wanting a higher-tension faith. This is what happened in Israel, beginning soon after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. (39)

…the official Jewish religion was a centralized Temple religion, and the observance of any organized rites elsewhere was frowned upon. Centralization was also served by the fact that the tithes were gathered in Jerusalem and dispersed from there. (40)

| It was this combination of a rich, relatively worldly priesthood controlling a subsidized state Temple, on the one hand, and “outsider” political rulers reluctant to coerce religious conformity, on the other, that gave rise to the full range of Jewish religious groups (the Talmud notes twenty-four sects). (40)

…typical of all such temple priesthoods, their [the Sadducees] theology was quite worldly. For example, they denied both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body and taught that God’s rewards are gained only in this life. Perhaps their most controversial position was to assert that “only those laws written in the Pentateuch were to be regarded as binding, while those that were not written down [those that were only “oral” traditions] were not to be observed.” (41)

| The Pharisees believed in an immortal soul, in the resurrection of the good, and in the condemnation of the wicked to “eternal torment.” In their view the “good” were those who obeyed the Law, both written and oral. The Pharisees probably originated as a sect movement, generated by the increasing worldliness and accommodation of the restored Temple religion. …the Pharisees “formulated the doctrine of two realms, secular and divine, with respect to the state.” Consequently, when the Roman Procurator initiated a census in order to fix the amount of Jewish taxes, “the Pharisees urged the people to cooperate, since the Romans were not interfering int he religious sphere,” thereby anticipating Jesus’s counsel to “render unto Caesar.” (41)

| Perhaps the most significant single contribution of the Pharisees was the establishment of synagogues in Israel. (41)

For many Jews, nationalism and piety were inseparable. (42)


…Jacob Neusner demonstrated, Judaism “presents no well-crafted doctrine of the Messiah.” (44)

Hence, Jewish expectations about the Messiah were “a vast mass of confused, involved and even contradictory notions.” … The apocryphal Psalms of Solomon prays that God will send the Messiah “to purge Jerusalem from gentiles…to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar…to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth.” There re even “far more savage passages in the other apocryphal books: they emphasized the warlike character of the messianic king and dwelt on the destruction of the heathen nations, the crushed heads, the piled-up bodies, the sharp arrows struck into the hearts of enemies…humiliated Israel awaited an avenger, or at all events a liberator who would give the nation back its place in the world.” (44)

Despite the many disagreements concerning the expected Messiah, most Jews seem to have assumed that his would be a worldly kingdom. That the Christ story departed substantially from prophecies of a worldly rule is the sticking point that always has been offered as the reason that the Jews rejected Jesus. (45)

cf. “Gabriels Revelation.”


It even might be said that in the end, despite having been reduced to rubble by Titus in 70 CE, Jerusalem conquered Rome. (45)

Part Two: Christianizing the Empire

3 Jesus and the Jesus Movement

The world’s largest religion is known as Christianity, not Jehovahism, because the Christ story is central to everything else. Consequently, Christians have always wanted to know as much as possible about the life of Jesus during his time on earth. Hence, it is appropriate to assess what can be known about the human Jesus before turning to the early days of the movement he inspired. (49)


Unfortunately, secular historians of the time barely noticed Jesus. (49)

Consequently, most of those who have sought the historic Jesus have turned to inference–to assuming what Jesus must have been like, given the time and place in which he grew up and pursued his ministry. Keep in mind that “must have been” is one of the most suspect phrases in the scholarly vocabulary; usually it should be translated as “we don’t really know, but perhaps.” (50)

In the end, our knowledge of Jesus comes down to the Gospels; there isn’t really anything else to go on. (50)

The human Jesus required educating. …it was a central part of Jewish culture that young men of outstanding intellect were recruited as rabbinical students regardless of their background–after all, the famous Rabbi Akiva (ca. 50-135 CE) began as shepherd. Perhaps the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus amazing the elders in the temple (Luke 2:42-51) was meant to convey how his talents were recognized and rewarded. (52)

But Can the Gospels Be Trusted?

…in 1929, archaeologists excavating a first-century street in Corinth unearthed an inscribed stone reading : “erastus, Procurator and Aedile, laid this pavement at his own expense.” (56)

Indeed, Saul Lieberman (1898-1983) pointed out that it was the “general rabbinic practice” in those days for disciples to write down the teachings of their masters.

[via: cf. Greek in Jewish Palestine/Hellenism in Jewish Palestine Paperback, by Prof Saul Lieberman]

The Jesus Movement

The Holy Family

The primary difficulty facing all religious prophets and founders is credibility–how to get others to believe their claims. Consequently, successful religious innovators are not isolated loners, but are well-respected members of primary groups for the simple reason that it is far easier to convince people who love and trust you, than to convince strangers. Thus, contrary to Mark 6:4 that a prophet is without honor in his own country and among his own kin, the most famous religious innovators began by converting their immediate families and friends. (59)

Perhaps as a surrogate for Joseph, Jesus’s uncle Clopas also was one of the disciples as was his wife Mary, although neither was one of the twelve. (60)

Indeed, according to Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160-215), following the Ascension, none of the apostles claimed leadership of the church, but deferred to the Lord’s brother, “James the Righteous.” After James was stoned by the Sanhedrin, Simeon, Jesus’s cousin and the son of Clopas, succeeded to leadership in Jerusalem. Jesus’s two grandnephews Zoker and James “were also leaders of the Palestinian Jewish Christian community around the end of the century.” In all, the early Jesus Movement was quite a family affair. (60)

…the Christian “holy family” played a significant role in the life of the early church, first in jerusalem and then probably mainly in the East. (61)

The Persecuted Church in Jerusalem

From the perspective of rank-and-file members, the life of the Jesus Movement was centered on gatherings in private homes, with “a focus on a common meal.” This probably had aspects of the “last supper” and, of course, allowed everyone to participate in the sacred, communal life. A vital part of the group’s mission was to preserve and transmit the teachings and activities of Jesus, thus it seems “likely that the first written collections of Gospel traditions were produced in Jerusalem.” This also helps explain why the Gospels sometimes reflect both fear and antagonism toward Jews; the first writers were people directly affected by the embattled situation of the Jesus Movement in Palestine. (62)

We don’t know more about the extent of this persecution or how long it took for the Jesus Movement to recover. What we do know is that the conversion of Paul did nothing to improve the circumstances of Christians in Jerusalem. (63)

Mission to the World

Although Paul is famous for his missionary journeys, he was, in fact, quiet sedentary. His active mission efforts in the West began in about 47 CE and ended with his arrest in Jerusalem in 56 (after that he was under house arrest in Caesarea and Rome). of this nine-year period, more than two years were spent in Ephesus, three years in Corinth, and at least a year in Antioch. That leaves about three years for his three long mission journeys. (66)

Paul’s missionary work, therefore, should not be thought of as the humble efforts of a lonely missionary. Rather, it was a well-planned, large-scale organization. – Helmut Koester

In fact, it is not clear that Paul usually played any effective direct role in establishing new Christian congregations. As mentioned, Christians already were meeting in many of the cities Paul visited, (67) and mission visits such as Paul’s have little impact on the conversion of individuals to a new religious movement, because that’s not how conversions occur. (68)

On Conversion

…conversion is primarily about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering attractive doctrines. Put more formally: people tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes. (68)

| Of course, one can easily imagine doctrines so bizarre as to keep most people from joining. It also is true that successful faiths sustain doctrines that do not have wide appeal. In that sense doctrines can facilitate or hinder conversion, but in the normal course of events, conversion primarily is an act of conformity. But then, so is nonconversion. In the end it is a matter of the relative strength of social ties pulling the individual toward or away from a group. …social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place. To convert someone, you must be or become their close and trusted friend. Consequently, when someone (68) converts to a new religion, then they usually seek to convert their friends and relatives, and consequently conversion tends to proceed through social networks. (69)

To say that doctrines play a quite secondary role in conversion is not to suggest that doctrines remain secondary. Once immersed in a religious group, people are instructed as to the significant implications of the doctrines, and most converts soon become very strongly attached to the doctrines–as are their friends. (69)

What [Billy Graham] did was to greatly energize the participating local churches by intensifying the commitment of their members, which often led them to recruit new members. (69)


After all is said and done, we still know very little about the Jesus Movement during the first century. We know that Jesus’ family played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem–Paul clearly accepted the authority of James, the brother of Jesus, who headed this church unit the was murdered in 62. Either in response to or in anticipation of the First Jewish Revolt, the Christian leadership left Jerusalem sometime in the late 60s and probably resettled in Pella. At this point their history ends–although it seems reasonable to assume that they played an active role in the rapid and remarkable Christianization of the East. As for the spread of Christianity in the West, it often is assumed we have substantial information on how this occurred, based on Acts and Paul’s letters. But a closer look reveals that here too the story is quite lacking in details. That may well be because the spread of religious movements is not accomplished by dramatic events and persuasive preachers, but by ordinary followers who convert their equally anonymous friends, relatives, and neighbors. (70)

4 Missions to the Jews and the Gentiles

The Diasporan Jews

Of inscriptions found in the Jewish catacombs in Rome, fewer than 2 percent were in Hebrew or Aramaic, while 74 percent were in Greek and the remainder in Latin. (72)

Thus did Philo interpret the Law “exclusively through the filter of Greek philosophy.” As a result, the clear religious and historical meaning of much of the Torah was “lost among the spiritual and moral sentiments by which Philo sought to demonstrate the harmony and rationality of the universe.” Philo’s was not a lonely voice; he was the most celebrated leader of the Jewish Diaspora at this time. Thus did the image of God sustained by the influential Jews of the Diaspora shift from that of the authoritative Yahweh to a rather remote, abstract, and undemanding Absolute Being. (73)

Cultural Continuity

Although social networks play the critical role in conversion, doctrine matters too, just not in the way that usually has been supposed. It is not so much a matter of what the doctrine promises to do for people as it is that bodies of doctrine, and the religious culture that surrounds them, represent investments of time, effort, and emotions. That is, any religion requires an adherent to master a lot of culture; to know the words and actions required by various rituals or worship activities, to be familiar with certain doctrines, stories, music, symbols, and history. Over time, people become increasingly attached to their religious culture. … Expressed as a social scientific concept, one’s religious captial consists of the degree of mastery of and attachment to a particular religious culture. (74)

| It follows that, other things being equal, people will attempt to conserve their religious capital. This proposition has many implications. For one thing, people will tend not to change religions, and the greater their religious capital, the less likely they are to change. … In addition, people are more likely to change faiths to the extent that they are presented with an option that allows them to conserve much of their religious capital. (74)

Applied to new religious groups, this becomes the principle of cultural continuity. Other things being equal, a new religion is more likely to grow to the degree that it sustains continuity with the religious culture of those being missionized. (75)

[via: But then is pagan conversion that much more astounding!]

In contrast with paganism, Christianity offered Diaspora Jews a chance to preserve virtually all of their religious capital, needing only to add to it, since Christianity retained the entire Old Testament heritage. Although it made observance of many portions of the Jewish Law unnecessary, Christianity did not impose a new set of Laws to be mastered. In addition, services in Christian congregations were very closely modeled on those of the synagogue and, in early days, Christian services also were conducted in Greek, so a Hellenized Jew would have felt right at home. Finally, Christianity carefully stressed how its central message of salvation was the fulfillment of the messianic promises of orthodox Judaism. (75)

Paul and the Diaspora

When Did Jewish Conversion Stop?

Nearly everyone believes the mission to the Jews soon failed. Some suppose that an impervious barrier to Jewish conversion was erected during the Jewish Revolt of 66-74, when many Diaspora Jews supported the rebels and Christians did not. Others accept that substantial Jewish conversion continued until the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132-135, which further alienated the church and the synagogue. But from then on, it is assumed that Jewish conversion was at an end. Perhaps so, but this conclusion seems contrary to a considerable variety of evidence and inference. (77)

| The first objection to the claim that the mission to the Hellenized Jews ended in failure early on is that the fundamental circumstances that led to its early success did not change–their weak attachment to Jewish culture and the Law persisted. (77)

| Of greater significance is the abundant evidence of continuing Jewish influence within Christianity. … Moreover, many of the early heretical movements such as Mar-(77)cionism, as well as the bulk of writings identified as Gnostic, were remarkably anti-Jewish. These attacks, as well as the ease with which they were rejected as heretical, support an inference of continuing strong Jewish influence within the church. (78)

Consequently, what may have been at issue was not the Judaizing of Christianity, but that in many places a substantial Jewish Christianity persisted. (78)

But probably the most fundamental assumption concerning the “failure” of the mission to the Jews is that after Christianity had overwhelmed Rome, there remained a substantial Diasporan Jewish population actively sustaining synagogues, and hence the Jews must have rejected the Christian mission efforts. But that overlooks that there were millions of Diasporan Jews, far more than enough to have provided large numbers of Christians while still sustaining synagogues. (79)

…by peeling away all of the tepid, Hellenized Jews, conversion to Christianity would have produced an increasingly orthodox, highly committed Jewish community, a community ideally constituted to sustain stout resistance to Christianization. (79)

…it seems likely that the mission to the Jews was far more long-lasting and successful than has been assumed. (80)

Gentile Yearnings

Where polytheism prevails, people add gods or easily switch their patronage among them, whereas conversion means to make an exclusive commitment to a particular divinity. That is, conversion implies monotheism (or something very close to it) and therefore rests on doctrine. … Monotheism prevails because it offers a God worth dying for–indeed, a God who promises everlasting life. And that’s why Christianity triumphed (81) among the pagans and why, even in the midst of a profoundly Christian world, Judaism has endured. Indeed, had Judaism not been so tightly linked to Jewish ethnicity, it might have swept over the pagan world long before the birth of Jesus. (82)

Pagan Cultural Continuity

A serious objection often raised against the entire Christ story is that it seems so fundamentally pagan. What purpose was served by the Crucifixion? Surely a God of miracles could simply have offered universal clemency to those who believed and thereby could have dispensed with any need for a “blood sacrifice.” (82)

But that’s the whole point. The message the Crucifixion sent to Greco-Roman pagans was: “Christ died for your sins!” Forget offerings of a hundred or even a thousand cattle! The Christian “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That message spoke powerfully and eloquently to a culture that took sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice, as fundamental to pleasing the gods–some of the Oriental faiths used blood from sacrificial animals to “wash away” an initiate’s sins. (82)

But to claim that these similarities with pagan mythology discredit Christianity is to fail to see how these features played to the pagan world! There they were taken as compelling proof of Christ’s divinity–the Christ story fulfilled every element of the classical hero, of how a human rose to become a god. The early church fathers fully understood this. Having told the Christ story to a Roman magistrate, Tertullian (ca. 160-?) suggested that he “accept this story–it is similar to your own.” And as the early church fathers realized, these similarities can be interpreted as examples of divine accommodation. (83)

| The doctrine of divine accommodation holds that God’s communications with humans are always limited to their current capacity to comprehend. … Hence, if the Christ story seems steeped in pagan conventions, this can be interpreted as having been the most effective way for God to communicate within the limits of Greco-Roman comprehension. These were “proofs” of Christ’s divinity that pagans could most easily recognize. (83)

[At the time Christianity arose] men were looking in certain directions and couched their religious aspirations and beliefs in certain terms. Christianity spoke the language which they understood and set its theology and its ritual in the forms which to its own generation seemed natural… [T]he Gospel [could not] have won its way if it had not found an echo in the religious searchings and even the religious beliefs of the time. – Cyril Bailey (1871-1957)

Moreover, the “pagan elements” of the Christ story maximized cultural continuity between Greco-Roman paganism and Christianity. Pagan converts could retain many of their familiar conceptions about the gods and miracles, while embracing the far more intense (83) levels of commitment, more comprehensive morality, and the far more compelling message of salvation. But unlike converts to Judaism, those who became Christians did not need to entirely abandon the more comprehensible, more familiar, more “human” aspects of the gods and embrace the remote, far less comprehensible, and forbidding Yahweh. Instead, Christians could have it both ways! … Christ gives a comfortable, reassuring, and more comprehensible aspect to Christianity than either Judaism or Islam can provide. Christ is regarded as an understanding, forgiving person who not only died that all may be saved, but who continues in the role of intercessor. Moreover, while Yahweh, Jehovah, and Allah are invisible and indescribable, Christ is plausibly depictable–consider the extraordinary impact of Christian art. (84)

5 Christianity and Privilege

Tradition has it that Christianity recruited most of its initial supporters from among the very poorest and most miserable groups in the ancient world. (87)

Subsequently, the most popular explanation of why people initiate new religious movements came to be known as deprivation theory, which proposes that people adopt supernatural solutions to their material misery when direct action fails or is obviously impossible. (88)

| Recently, it has become apparent that deprivation theory fails to fit most, if not all, of the well-documented cases of new religious movements–whether Buddhism in the sixth century BCE or the New Age Movement in the twenty-first century CE. Contrary to prevailing sociological dogmas, religious movements typically are launched by the privileged classes. (88)

Privileged Christians

Given what a minuscule fraction of persons in the Roman Empire were of noble birth, it is quite remarkable that any of the tiny group of early Christians were of the nobility. (89)

[2 Corinthians 8:9] … Paul was talking about Jesus having given up material, not spiritual, riches. (90)

…among the immense number of analogies and metaphors used by Jesus in the Gospels, only three times did he make any references to “building” or “construction,” and these are so vague as to indicate nothing about his knowledge of carpentry. … On the other hand, Jesus constantly used examples involving wealth: land ownership, investment, borrowing, having servants and tenants, inheritance, and the like. (90)

Many will object that Jesus often advised that wealth was  barrier to salvation and that one should give one’s wealth to the poor. But rather than interpreting this as a “poor man’s” complaint against the rich, it would seem at least plausible that these were the statements of someone in a position to say, “Do as I have done.” (92)

E.A. Judge identified forty persons who sponsored Paul and, not surprisingly, all were “persons of substance, members of a cultivated social elite.” (93)

Remarkable evidence of Paul’s association with he privileged comes from Judge’s calculation that, of ninety-one individuals named in the New Testament in connection with Paul, a third have names indicating Roman citizenship. (93)

…there is evidence in Paul’s letters that there already were significant numbers of Christians serving in the imperial household. Paul concluded his letter to the Philippians: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22). And in his letter to the Romans (16:10-11), Paul sends greetings to “those who belong to the family of Aristobulus” and to “the family of Narcissus.” Both Harnack and the equally authoritative J. B. Lightfoot (1828-1889), identified Narcissus as the private secretary of the emperor Claudius and Aristobulus as an intimate of the emperor. (94)

Did early Christianity also attract lower-class converts? Of course. … The point is that early Christianity substantially over-recruits the privileged, not that it only recruited them, or that most early Christians were well-off. (94)

Obviously, then, the early Christians were not a bunch of miserable underdogs. This always should have been obvious, not only from reading the Gospels, but from asking why and how a bunch of illiterate ignoramuses came to produce sophisticated written scriptures at at time when only the Jews had produced untying comparable;… (96)

Christian Literacy

…Paul’s Greek, it now is recognized that it was a “Jewish Greek,”” much like that used in the Septuagint… As for the Gospels lacking literary merit, the writing style is like that of the great Greek scientific works (such as Ptolemy’s astronomy)–works written primarily to convey information and therefore presented in “straightforward, factual prose.” The authors of the Gospels were not writing fiction or art; they had material to convey and their style was in keeping with “the professional prose of the day.” (97)

Thus the evidence strongly suggests that the Gospels were the end product of a faith that was set down in writing from the very start. It seems nearly certain that at least some of Jesus’s words were written down when they were spoken. It seems even more certain that the early evangelists, including Paul, possessed and often referred to written materials–far more of them than merely the postulated Q–which helps to explain the variations and differences across the Gospels. As for the latter, they were written to be read, not only by the emerging clergy, but by rank-and-file Christians! (99)

It seems inescapable that early Christianity was not an exception to the rule that religious innovation is primarily the work of the privileged. (100)

Privilege and Religious Innovation

Insufficiencies and Opportunities of Privilege

It is not merely that people will adopt supernatural solutions to their thwarted material desires, but that people will pursue or initiate supernatural solutions to their thwarted existential and moral desires–a situation to which the privileged are especially prone, since they are not distracted by immediate material needs. (102)

| It also must be recognized that the privileged are in a position to act on their spiritual dissatisfactions and desires in a way that the poor are not: they have visibility, influence, experience, and means. (102)

Finally, growing up in privilege often generates the conviction that one has the superior wisdom needed to transform the world and the right, perhaps even the duty, to do so. (103)


Karl Marx was merely reflecting the conventional wisdom of the day when he wrote that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature…the opium of the people.” But he might better have said that “religion often is the opium of the dissatisfied upper classes, the sigh of wealthy creatures depressed by materialism.” (103)

6 Misery and Mercy

Even if it is the affluent who usually initiate new religions, it is obvious that rich and poor alike often turn to Christianity in response to the widespread need to be comforted for the miseries of life–not merely poverty, but disease, the deaths of loved ones, and all the other misfortunes and disappointments humans face. (105)

What is almost always missed is that Christianity often puts the pie on the table! It makes life better here and now. Not merely in psychological ways, as faith in an attractive afterlife can do, but in terms of concrete, worldly benefits. … What that demonstrates is that Christians enjoyed a superior quality of life. They did so because of their commitment to what was an unusual virtue in ancient times: “the quality of mercy,” (105)

Urban Misery

Size and Density



One thing is certain: when human density is high, urgent problems of sanitation arise. (108)

Crime and Disorder


A recent analysis of decayed human fecal remains in an ancient Jerusalem cesspool found an abundance of tapeworm and whipworm eggs, indicating that almost everyone had them. (111)

Swollen eyes, skin rashes and lost limbs are mentioned over and over again in the sources as part of the urban scene. – John Stambaugh, The Ancient Roman City

Christian Mercy

In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security. (112)

In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice. (112)

Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. – E. A. Judge

…the corollary that because God (112) loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was even more incompatible with pagan convictions. But the truly revolutionary principle was that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and even those of faith, to all in need. (113)

…there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith. – Cyprian

The Christians…ran a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services. – Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, p. 75

There is no buying or selling of any sort of things of God. Though we have our treasure chest, it is not made up of purchase money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he is able; for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking bouts, and eating houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls of destitute means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. – Tertullian (155-22), Apology.

[via: For sake of comparison, I’ve included the same passage from chapter 39 of Tertullian’s Apology, from T. Herbert Bindley’s translation here:]

Certain approved elders preside, who have obtained this honor not by purchase but by testimony; for no divine privilege is obtained by money. Even the kind of treasury which we have is not filled up with sums paid under a sense of obligation, as if they were the price of religion; but each one places there a small contribution on a certain day of the month, or when he wishes, provided only he is both willing and able,–for the offerings are not compulsory but voluntary. These are as it were the deposits of piety. For afterwards they are not spent in feasting or drinking or in repulsive eating-houses, but in supporting and burying the needy, and in relieving destitute orphan boys and girls, and infirm old men, or ship-wrecked sufferers, and any who may be in the mines, or islands, or prisons, provided it is for the cause of God’s religion, who thus become pensioners of their own confession.

Nothing illustrates the immense benefits of Christian life better than responses to the two great plagues that struck the empire. (114)

Plagues and Faith

In the year 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. (114)

At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unaired corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape. – Bishop Dionysius, a pastoral letter written during the second epidemic (ca. 251)

Useless were prayers made int he temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things…[T]hey died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of attention… The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion and law…No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. – Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 2.47, 2.51, 2.52

As Canadian historian Charles Norris Cochrane (1889-1945) put it: “while a deadly plague was ravaging the empire…the sophists prattled vaguely about the exhaustion of virtue in a world growing old.” (116)

| But Christians claimed to have answers and, most of all, they took appropriate actions. As for answers, Christians believed that death was not the end and that life was a time of testing. This is how Cyprian bishop of Carthage, explained to his people that the virtuous had nothing to fear during the second great plague. (116)

How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the mind of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsman as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted…Although this mortality had contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown. … [O]ur brethren who have been freed from this earth by the summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since we know that they are not lost but sent before; that in departing they lead the way; that as travelers, as voyagers are won’t to be, they should be longer for not lamented…and that no occasion should be given to pagans to censure us deservedly and justly, not he ground that we grieve for those who we say are living. – Cyprian

Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. … The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, an number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that in death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal to martyrdom. – Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria

As William H. McNeill pointed out in his celebrated Plagues and Peoples, under the circumstances prevailing in this era, even “quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.” It is entirely plausible that Christian nursing would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds! The fact that most Christians survived did not go unnoticed, lending immense credibility to Christian “miracle working.” (117)

Hence Christians as a group would have enjoyed a far superior survival rate, and, on the grounds alone, the percentage of Christians in the population would have increased substantially as a result of both plagues. (118)

| What went on during the epidemics was only an intensification of what went on every day among Christians. Because theirs were communities of mercy and self-help, Christians did have longer, better lives. … In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the distribution of grain and wine to the poor, noting that “the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.” … Since pagan gods required only propitiation and beyond that had not interest in what humans did, a pagan priest could not preach that those person lacking in the spirit of charity risked their salvation. There was no salvation! The gods did not offer any escape from mortality. We must keep that in mind when we compare the reactions of Christians and pagans in the shadow of death. Christians believed in life everlasting. At most, pagans believed in an unattractive existence in the underworld. Thus, for Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted during the first great plague would have required far (118) greater bravery than was needed by Christian deacons and presbyters to do so. Faith mattered. (119)

7 Appeals to Women

From the earliest days women predominated. (121)

First, unless they specifically prohibit or at least discourage women from joining, religious movements always attract more women than men. … Far more important is the second part of the answer, which suggests that Christianity was attractive to women far beyond the usual level of gender differences. Women were especially drawn to Christianity because it offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led. (122)

Pagan and Jewish Women

In no ancient group were women equal to men, but there were substantial differences in the degree of inequality experienced by women in the Greco-Roman world. Women in the early Christian communities were considerably better off than their pagan and even Jewish counterparts. (122)

Christian Women

…recent, objective evidence leaves no doubt that early Christian women did enjoy far greater equality with men than did their pagan and Jewish counterparts. A study of Christian burials in the catacombs under Rome, based on 3,733 cases, found that Christian women were nearly as likely as Christian men to be commemorated with lengthy inscriptions. This “near equality in the commemoration of males and females is something that is peculiar to Christians, (124) and sets them apart from the non-Christian populations of the city.” [cf. Brent Shaw, “Seasons of Death: Aspects of Mortality in Imperial Rome.” Journal of Roman Studies 86:100-138 & “The Cultural Meaning of Death: Age and Gender in the Roman Family” in The Family in Italy from Antiquity to the Present.] (125)

Church Leadership


The exposure of unwanted infants was “widespread” in the Roman Empire, and girls were far more likely than boys to be exposed. (126)

If–good luck to you!–you should bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is female, expose it. You told Aphrodisias, ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry. [Quoted in Women’s Life in Greece and Roman: A Source Book in Translation]

In keeping with their Jewish origins, Christians condemned the exposure of infants as murder.

…we have been taught that it is wicked to expose even new-born children…[for] we would then be murderers. – Justin Martyr (100-165)

So, substantially more Christian (and Jewish) female infants lived. (127)


…many famous Roman women had been child brides: Octavia (daughter of Emperor Claudius) married at eleven. Nero’s mother Agrippina married at twelve. Quintilian, the famed rhetorician must have married a twelve-year-old since we know she bore him a son when she was thirteen. The historian Tacitus married a thirteen-year-old.

[Romans] gave their girls in marriage when they were twelve years old, or even younger. – Plutarch (46-120)

Girls are considered to have reached marriageable age on completion of their twelfth year. – Diorites Cassius (155-229)

Twenty percent of the pagan women were twelve or younger when they married (4 percent were only ten). In contrast, only 7 percent of Christians were under thirteen. Half of pagan women were married before age fifteen, compared with 20 percent of Christians–and nearly half of Christian women (48 percent) had not married until they were eighteen or older. …given that they fully support the extensive “literary” evidence, it seems certain that Roman pagan girls married try young, and much younger than did most Christians. (128)

There are reports of the defloration of wives as young as seven! This practice caused Plutarch to condemn Roman marriage customs as cruel, reporting “the hatred and fear of girls forced contrary to nature.” (128)


…Christians “regarded unchastity in a husband as no less serious a breach of loyalty and trust than unfaithfulness in a wife.” – Henry Chadwick (129)


Frequently, the rejection of divorce and of the double standard has been dismissed as incidental to a Christian revulsion against sexuality and a strong bias in favor of celibacy. (129)

In fact, devout Christian married couples may have had sex more often than did the average pagan couple, because brides were more mature when they married and because husbands were less likely to take up with other women. (129)

Sex Ratios and Fertility

One reason Roman men so often married very young girls was their concern to be sure of getting a virgin. But an even more im-(129)portent reason was a shortage of women. A society cannot routinely dispose of a substantial number of female newborns and not end up with a very skewed sex ratio, especially when one adds in the high mortality rate associated with childbirth in all ancient societies. (130)

As further evidence of the acute shortage of women, it was common for them to marry again and again, not only following the death of a husband, but also after their husbands and divorced them. In fact, state policy penalized women under fifty who didn’t to remarry, so “second and third marriages became common,” especially since most women married men far older than themselves. Tullia, Cicero’s daughter “was not untypical…married at 16…widowed at 22, remarried at 23, divorced at 28; married again at 29, divorced at 33–and dead, soon after childbirth, at 34.” (130)

The best estimate is that there were 131 males per 100 females in Rome, rising to 140 males per 100 females in the rest of Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa. In contrast, the growing Christian communities did not have their sex ratios distorted by female infanticide, on top of which they enjoyed an excess of women to men based on the gender difference in conversation. (130)

Pagan husbands also often forced their wives to have abortions–which also added to female mortality and often resulted in subsequent infertility. Consider the instructions the famous Roman medical writer Aulas Cornelius Celsus offered to surgeons in the first century. Having warned that an abortion “requires extreme caution and neatness, and entails very great risk,” he advised that the surgeon first kill the fetus with a long needle or spike and then force his “greased hand” up the vagina and into the uterus (there was no anesthesia). If the fetus is in a headfirst position, the surgeon should then insert a smooth hook and fix it “into an eye or ear or the mouth, even at times into the forehead, and then this is pulled upon and extracts the fetus.” If the fetus was positioned crosswise or backward, then Celsus advised that a blade be used to cut up the fetus within the womb so it could be taken out in pieces. Afterward, Celsus instructed surgeons to tie the woman’s thighs together and to cover her pubic area with “greasy wool, dipped in vinegar and rose oil.” – Aulas Cornelius Celsus, De medicina, 7.29

[via: Holy sh*t!]

So why did they do it? Probably mainly because it usually was a man, not a pregnant woman, who made the decision to abort. It is hardly surprising that a culture that gave husbands the right to have babies exposed also gave them the right to order abortions. (132)

The second chapter of the Didache (an early Christian text probably written in the first century) orders: “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.” (132)

By the start of the Christian era, Greco-Roman fertility had fallen below replacement levels so that by the third century CE there is solid evidence of decline in both the number and the populations of Roman towns in the West. (132)

Secondary Conversions

Secondary conversion involves yielding to considerable pressure and having sufficient reluctance to convert so that the choice is not nearly so freely and. (134)

Secondary conversions of husbands were very common in early Christianity. And the major reason was the great prevalence of mixed marriages due to the great surplus of Christian women in a world suffering from a considerable scarcity of pagan brides. Many Christian girls had to marry pagan men or remain single, and for many pagan men, it was either a Christian bride or bachelorhood. (134)

…marriages between Christians and pagan were common. … The church did not at first discourage this practice, which had its advantages: it might bring others into the fold. – Adolf von Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. Vol. 2, p.234

It would require extremely complex calculations to project the rise of Christianity solely on the basis of superior fertility, but the outcome of such a projection is easily seen: everything else staying the same, eventually, but inevitably, Christianity would have become the majority faith. (135)


The rise of Christianity depended upon women. In response to the special appeal that the faith had for women, the early church drew substantially more female than male converts, and this in a world where women were in short supply. Having an excess of women gave the church a remarkable advantage because it resulted in disproportionate Christian fertility, and in a considerable number of secondary conversions. (136)

8 Persecution and Commitment

Episodic Persecutions

Imperial Persecutions

Christianity was an obvious affront to the gods, given that the church denied the existence of the gods and charged that to worship them was blasphemy. (141)

…when the first major empire-wide, Roman persecution of Christianity erupted in the middle of the third century, the initial concern did not merely reflect intolerance of Christianity, but a perceived need for a universal expression of pagan piety. (141)

Persecution by Decius and Valerian

Decius came to the conclusion that all Rome’s troubles were of (141) religious origin. … The solution was obvious: a religious revival to regain the favor of the gods who had made Rome great! (142)

So the famous edict was issued requiring that “all inhabitants of the Empire sacrifice to the gods, taste the sacrificial meat, and swear that they had always sacrificed”–or that they regretted past neglect and promised future observance. In addition to seeking divine aid, Decius hoped that by returning to the traditional gods he also could reestablish a religious basis for a renewal of patriotism and civic-mindedness, persuading the people to be more willing to pay taxes and otherwise support the state. (142)

I would far rather receive the news of a rival to the throne, than another bishop in Rome. – Pope Fabian

It should be noted that apparently the Jews were not persecuted although they surely did not comply with the edict either. Romans believed that one was forever obligated to honor the religion of one’s ancestors, hence Jews were usually given an exception from actions in violation with their ancestral faith. Bu the Romans were contemptuous of all who had abandoned their ancestral faith as, of course, all Christians had done, making their refusal to comply with the edict doubly offensive. So the round-ups began. (143)

…303 the Great Persecution broke out. (144)

The “Great Persecution”

The evidence would seem conclusive that this last bloody persecution mainly originated with Galerius as he rose to power; he succeeded Diocletian in 305. (145)

Whatever the grand total, clearly the number who died was not sufficient to make any dent in the rapid growth of the Christian population. In 250 at the onset of Decius’s persecution, Christians probably already made up nearly 20 percent of the populations of the major cities and in 303 when the “Great Persecution” began, at least 10 percent of the whole empire had become Christian, and Christians probably were a majority in the major cities. It would have required a gigantic bloodbath to destroy the church. (147)

Christian Intransigence

…it seems appropriate to acknowledge that very substantial numbers of Christians denied or renounced their faith when faced with such ordeals. (147)

The Basis of Martyrdom

Early in the rise of Chrsitianity there developed a “cult of saints” that offered amazing rewards for martyrdom–not all of them postponed until the life after death. Extraordinary fame and honor were achieved by the martyrs. (149)

Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, which are the means of making my way to God. – Bishop Ignatius of Antioch

…the martyrs usually suffered their agonies in (149) public settings and that too helped to fulfill their hopes of making a lasting contribution to their faith. (150)

All martyrs were on stage. – Eugene and Anita Weiner

The Romans assumed that the bishops and clergy were the active elements of the church and should they be destroyed, the masses of ordinary Christians would simply drift away. This was no doubt true of the pagan temples and perhaps for the Oriental faiths. But it was a misreading of Christianity where behind each bishop, priest, and deacon there was a line of lay persons ready and able to replace them. Indeed, the church was an independent social sphere (140) wherein high status was entailed by positions within the group, whatever one’s status outside–a separate world wherein a high city official and a slave could meaningfully call one another “brother.” And within this Christian status sphere, no higher rank could be accorded than that of a “holy martyr.” (151)

Martyrdom and Credibility

The fundamental problem facing all religions is one of credibility. (151)

Of all the proofs and all of the testimonials, nothing approaches the credibility inherent in martyrdom. … Christian viewers could “see” that the hand of God was on the martyrs. Many pagans also were amazed: the distinguished physician Galen wrote of Christians that “their contempt of death…is patent to us every day.” Accounts of martyrdom make frequent mention of pagans having gained respect for the faith from having observed, or even having taken part in, the torture of martyrs. The pagan onlookers knew full well that they would not endure such tribulations for their religion. Why would so many Christians do so? (151)


It seems fitting to quote the introductory sentences written by Eusebius in The Martyrs of Palestine–his account of some who suffered during the Great Persecution. “These holy martyrs of God…accounted a horrible death more precious than a fleeting life, and won all the garlands of victorious virtue…And the spirits of the martyrs, counted worthy of the kingdom of heaven, are come to the assembly of the prophets, and are precious”

| Thus were the Roman authorities overmatched. (152)

9 Assessing Christian Growth

…it seems appropriate to pause here to create a plausible statistical model of Christian growth in the Roman Empire. It is impossible to extend such a model to include growth in the East since there is far too little to go on, but it must be kept in mind that there probably were substantially more Christians int he East than in the West at all points in time until after the Muslim conquests… (153)

Ancient Statistics

I propose that there were a total of about a thousand Christians in the empire in the year 40. (155)

Christian groups could be found in perhaps forty or fifty cities within the Roman Empire. Most  of these groups were quite small, some numbering several dozen people, others as many as several hundred. The total number of Christians within the empire was probably less than fifty thousand. – Robert Wilken

A Model of Growth

Table 9.1: Christian Growth in the Roman Empire
(Growth Projected at an Annual Rate of 3.4 Percent)

Year Number of Christians Milestone Percent of Population* Estimates
40 1,000
50 1,397
100 7,434
150 39,560 (-50,000) 0.07
180 107,863 0.18
200 210,516 0.36
250 1,120,246 (1 million) 1.9
300 5,961,290 (6 million) 9.9
312 3,904,032 14.8
350 31,722,439 (+30 million) 52.9

* Based on a stable imperial population of 60 million.

Keep in mind that this is a growth rate, not a conversion rate. It is made up of conversions and fertility, minus deaths and defections. (157)

The Geography of Christian Growth

Although Jesus preached in the villages and from the hillsides in Galilee, within twenty years after the Crucifixion, early Christianity had become overwhelmingly an urban movement. (158)

…for the first several centuries it is important to assess the Christian growth curve as heavily weighted to the cities, for that fact maximized the visibility as well as the local impact of Christian communities. (159)

Of the seventeen cities within a thousand miles of Jerusalem, twelve (71 percent) had a church by the year 100 and all of them did by the year 180, while of the fourteen cities more than a thousand miles from Jerusalem, only one (7 percent) had a church by 100 and eight (57 percent) had none by 180 (gamma = .50). (161)

Map 9.1: Christianization

Christianizing the City of Rome

Table 9.2: Estimated Christian Population of the City of Rome

Year Number of Christians Milestone Percent of Rome’s Extimated Population
100 700 <1,000 0.15
150 3,600 0.8
200 19,000 20,000 4.2
250 78,000 17.3
300 298,000 66.2


It certainly is not “proven” that Christianity grew at a rate of 3.4 percent a year, but a growth curve based on that rate is very plausible because it matches the credible milestones available on the matter and is in extremely close agreement with known measure-(164)ments such as the increasing percentage of Christian gravestones in Rome. The rate also is quite possible in that it has been achieved or exceeded by some contemporary religious movements for which very accurate data are available. (165)

| Possession of these estimates of the Christian population for the first three centuries brings needed discipline to the history of this era. If nothing else, it forces recognition of how tiny and fragile the church was for a such a long time. (165)

…too often histories of Roman politics late in the third and early fourth centuries have tended to ignore the very large and rapidly growing Christian communities, especially in the major cities–both as they caused anxiety in ruling circles and as they offered a potential source of powerful political support. Hence, although a great deal has been written bout how much the church benefitted from Constantine’s favor, far too little been written about how the support of millions of Christians benefitted Constantine by solidifying his power and ending decades of constantly changing rule. (165)

Part Three: Consolidating Christian Europe

10 Constantine’s Very Mixed Blessings

Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus–commonly known as Constantine I–was emperor of Rome from 306 until his death in 337. (169)


…it remains that historians (170) have been lacking in curiosity as to why Constantine appealed to the Christian God in the first place, rather than to Jupiter or another of the traditional gods of Rome. (171)

| One reason Constantine did so is that at this time everyone must have been very aware of Christianity since it probably was the faith of the majority of residents of Rome and many other major cities. (171)

No one knows when Helena became a Christian, but it was well before her son won at the bridge since while Constantine was still holding court at Trier, she donated her house to the archbishop for use as a church. (171)

…his funeral was conducted with Constantine’s remains situated with memorials to six apostles on each side of his coffin–symbolic of his self-conception as being the Thirteeth Apostle. (172)

| Perhaps the two most important things to remember about Constantine are that he was among the most powerful of all the emperors and that he took his “obligations” to Christianity as God-given and necessitating his personal attention and leadership. (172)

Building the Church

The claim that Constantine “built” the church must be taken literally, in that he immediately launched an immense church-building program all across the empire. (172)

Within two weeks after rate battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine donated an imperial villa just outside (172) Rome to the church and began work to transform it into the great hall that came to be known as the Church of St. John Lateran. (173)

At the age of eighty, Helena went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in about 326 where she interviewed local residents concerning their traditions as to the location of important sacred sites. Thus she learned that it was believed that Christ’s tomb had been buried beneath at temple of Venus, built by the emperor Hadrian in 130. What followed was one of the very earliest archaeological undertakings, well told by the church historian Eusebius (ca. 263-339) in his Life of Constantine. (173)

Constantine donated “an extraordinary amount of property” to the church. Thus, “massive grants of land and property were made…[and an] avalanche of precious metals.” (174)

But Constantine’s major contribution was to elevate the clergy to high levels of wealth, power, and status. Keep in mind that, contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. “What he did was to make the Christian church the most-favored recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favor.” [Fletcher, Richard. 1997. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. p. 19] (174)

Unity and Conformity

From earliest days, Christianity was marked by theological disputes, some of them of sufficient importance as to produce schismatic movements. (175)

Marcion… Montanus… Manichaeism… Valentinians… (175)

Perhaps the early church did not persecute heresy only because it lacked the means to do so. If so, Constantine provided the means in his unrelenting efforts to create unity within the church. As Eusebius reported: “to the Church of God he paid particular attention. When some were at variance with each other in various places, like a universal bishop appointed by God he convoked councils of the ministers of God. He did not disdain to be present and attend during their proceedings…Then such as he saw able to be prevailed upon by argument-(175)meant and adopting a calm and conciliatory attitude, he commended most warmly, showing how he favored general unanimity, but the obstinate he rejected.” (176)

The Donatist Controversy

At issue was the status of clergy, including bishops, who were traditores who had deserted the faith and collaborated with Roman officials during the Great Persecution–the many who had handed over their copies of scripture to be burned and some who had even betrayed other Christians to the oppressors.

By far the most important aspect of the case of the Dentists is that it marked the first use of repressive state power on behalf of the church. Constantine’s proclamation against the persecution of Christians would now apply only to some Christians. The affair also acknowledge the state as a legitimate arbiter of church policies. (177)


Was Jesus equal to God, having always existed? Or was he created by God, and hence there was a time when Jesus did not exist? Tradition stood with the always existing Son. But there were a number of dissenters, many of them bishops who had studied under Lucian of Antioch (240-312), a renewed theologian who was martyred at the end of the Great Persecution. Eventually Arius (250-336), a priest in Alexandria, emerged as the intellectual leader of this group who believed in the creation of Jesus, and as the matter became a major dispute within the church, the doctrine became known as Arianism. (177)

…the Nicene Creed, (325 C.E.) (178)

Thus the position was adopted that there could be no dissent and only one Christianity. This was a legal, not a sociological, position–as the latter holds that there never is complete agreement on religious matters and dissent is inherent in the variation in religious tastes that exists among members of any population (see chapter 2). (178)

Pagan Coexistence

Although Constantine played a central role in repressing all Christian dissent, he was remarkably tolerant of paganism throughout his reign. (178)

More significant even than his toleration of pagan temples, Con-(178)stantine continued to appoint pagans to the very highest positions, including those of consul and prefect (see chapter 11). In addition, pagan philosophers played a prominent role in his court, and depictions of the sun god appeared on his coins. Indeed, “Constantine directed his most ferocious rhetoric” not against pagans, but against Christian dissidents: dentists, Arianists, Valentinians, Marcionites, and the “Gnostic” schools. (179)

The Edict to the Palestinians is notable for the pluralism of its language. In it, Constantine repeatedly referred to God, but never mentioned Christ, using “phrases common to Christians and pagans alike [which] is consistent with the search for a common denominator that was the hallmark of his religious policy.” [Drake, H.A. 2000. Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance. p.244] But, it is the Edict to the Eastern Provincials that fully expresses Constantine’s commitment to accommodation and his rejection of coercive forms of conversion. (179)

Thus, in both word and deed Constantine supported religious (179) pluralism, even while making his own commitment to Christianity explicitly. (180)

The Persian Massacres


The creation of a rich, powerful, and intolerant Christian church was the primary legacy of the conversion of Constantine. Far better that he had remained a pagan who opposed religious persecution, while allowing Christian diversity to flourish. (181)

11 The Demise of Paganism

…large, active pagan communities “continued to enjoy, for many generations, [a] relatively peaceable…existence.” All that really happened is that they slowly “slipped out of history.” [Brown, Peter. 1998. “Christianization and Religious Conflict.” Cambridge Ancient History 13:632-64.] (184)

Consequently, we now know that a period of relative tolerance and tranquility prevailed between Christians and pagans during Constantine’s reign. (184)

We especially command those persons who are truly Christians, or who are said to be so, that they should not abuse the authority of religion and dare to lay violent hands on Jews and pagans, who are living quietly and attempting nothing disorderly or contrary to law. – Code of Justinian (529-534) (185)


And a public culture emerged that mixed Christian and pagan elements in ways that seem remarkable, given the traditional accounts of unrelenting repression. A newly famous example is a calendar prepared in 354 for an upper-class Roman. | The calendar was created by a prominent artists who later fulfilled commissions for Pope Damasus, and it is likely that many such calendars were circulated. As with Catholic calendars ever after, this one noted all of the festivals of the church and commemorated the burial dates of important popes. (186)

Indeed, a sort of Christo-paganism was prevalent well into the fifth century, and probably later. …not even St. Augustine could convince his flock in Hippo that such matters as bountiful crops and good health were not, in effect, subcontracted to pagan gods by the One True God, as Christians in Hippo continued to regard it as both legitimate and valuable to perform pagan rites. In many parts of Europe, the use of paganism as magic has continued into the modern era. (187)

In truth it was not Constantine or his immediate successors who reinstitute religious persecution, but the last pagan emperor– (187)

Julian’s Folly

Flavius Claudius Julianus, now known as Julian the Apostate, had only a brief (361-363) and quite disastrous rule as emperor. De-(187)spite that, he has become a virtual saint among anti religious intellectuals. (188)

Julian was ostensibly raised as a Christian, but some of his prominent tutors were pagans and they steeped him in the Greek classics. Under their tutelage, Julian became a puritanical, ascetic, and fanatical pagan, who had been initiated into several of the mystery cults, including the Eleusinian mysteries and probably Mithraism as well. (188)

Julian did not initiate the body persecution of Christians à la Nero or Diocletian, but he did condone the torture of several bishops, exiled others, and ignored the “summary executions that seem to have taken place in large numbers in central and southern Syria during [his] reign.” … When knowledge that a pagan emperor now ruled prompted pagans in Alexandria to torture the city’s Christian bishop, to tear him limb from limb, and to then crucify “many Christians,” Julian’s main concern was to obtain the dead bishop’s library for himself. (188)

Julian revived the widespread celebrations of blood sacrifices, sometimes involving a hundred cattle at a time, a practice that had long been outlawed in response to Christian influ-(188)ence. (189)

The effect of Julian’s efforts was to polarize Christians and pagans, to remove the middle ground that traditional culture had previously provided, while at the same time lending credence to militant fears of a revival of persecution. – H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance, 2000.

Persecution and Persistence

In the post-Julian era, the public persistence of paganism did not reflect imperial tolerance, so much as imperial pragmatism. (191)

The Decline of Paganism

Theodosius, the emperor who, according to Gibbon, extirpated paganism, appointed nearly as many men who were openly pagans as he did Christians to the positions of consuls and prefects, as can be seen in table 11.1. (192)

Table 11.1: Religious Affiliations of Men Appointed as Consuls and Prefects, 317-455

Reign Christians Pagans Unknown Number
Constantine (317-337) 56% 18% 26% 55
Constantius & Constans (337-350) 26% 46% 28% 43
Constantius (351-361) 63% 22% 15% 27
Julian (361-363) 18% 82% 0% 17
Valentianian (364-375) 31% 38% 31% 32
Valens (364-378) 39% 25% 36% 36
Gratian (3750383) 50% 11% 39% 44
Valentianian II (383-392) 32% 32% 36% 19
Theodosius (379-395) 27% 19% 54% 83
Arcadius & Honorius (395-423) 34% 12% 54% 161
Theodosius II & Valentinian III (408-455) 48% 4% 48% 157

Reading across the table, there seem to be three major patterns. First, except narrowly during the reign of Constantine and by a greater margin among those appointed by Constantius, men known to be Christians were not int he majority, and this held for the first half of the fifth century as well. Second, Julian did discriminate against Christians, although not entirely. Third, if it can be assumed that men whose religious affiliation is unknown were unlikely to have been Christians, then the decline of pagan influence and power was very slow indeed. (194)

Rather, what table 11.1 more likely demonstrates is that paganism died slowly in all classes and, as it did, the upper classes became increasingly discreet about their religious identity, seeking to maintain their position and their access to imperial favor. (195)

And that brings into view a major factor in the Christianization of the empire: opportunism. From the time of Constantine, with the very brief exception of Julian’s reign, the imperial throne was in Christian hands and very likely to remain there. Although identifiable pagans continued to be appointed to high political offices, their prospects were on the downward trend. In addition, the many powerful and increasingly lucrative positions int he church were closed to them. Understandably, many ambitious individuals and families chose to convert. (195)

A groundswell of confidence that Christians enjoyed access to the powerful spelled the end of polytheism far more effectively than did any imperial law or the closing of any temple. – Roger Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire.

Even many pagan philosophers broke ranks, some of them becoming leading bishops of the church. (195)


The triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation. – Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries.

The assimilation of paganism reflected several things. First of all, once established as the official faith of the empire, Christian leaders soon adopted a “trickle down” theory of conversion. It was sufficient that the upper classes in an area acknowledged the authority of the church and then to wait for their example to eventually trickle down the ranks until the peasants were Christians too. But the peasants tended to respond to Christianity as  they always had to the appearance of various new gods within paganism–to add the new to the old, rather than to replace it. Hence Jesus and various saints were simply added to the local pantheon. (196)

A second basis for the assimilation of paganism was overt church policy. In a letter dated 601 and preserved by the Venerable Bede, Pope Gregory the Great advised Abbot Mellitus who was setting out to miss ionize Britain:

[I] have come to the conclusion that temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed…For it is certainly impossible to eradicate all errors from obstinate minds at one stroke. [cf. Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People]


Granted that the early church fathers were certain that theirs was the Only True Faith, and therefore they could not, and did not, commit themselves to ideals of religious freedom. Nevertheless, the church did not exploit its official standing to quickly stamp out paganism, nor did the emperors accomplish this on behalf of the new faith. Instead, paganism survived relatively unmolested for centuries after the conversion of Constantine, only slowly sinking into obscurity, meanwhile managing to create niches for some of its traditions within Christianity and to live on among the only slightly Christianized European masses. (198)

12 Islam and the Destruction of Eastern and North African Christianity

Christianity did not start out as a European religious movement; in the early days far more missionary activity was devoted to the East than to the West. … Although we know precious little about how Christianity was spread in the East, we know that it was extremely successful there, soon becoming a major presence in Syria, Persia, parts of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Turkestan, Armenia, and on into India and even with several outposts in China. As for North Africa, it was “the most Christianized region of the Western empire,” home to “such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.” But the year 300, it is plausible that more than half of all Christians lived in the East and Africa; in 325, 55 percent of the bishops invited to the Council of Nicaea were from the East and this did not, of course, include Montanists, Marcionites, Manichaeists, or other Eastern “heretical” Christians. By the year 500, probably more than two-thirds of Christians were outside of Europe, and if we can identify a “Christian (199) center of gravity” at this time, it would be in “Syria rather than Italy.” (200)

| Christianity became a predominately European faith “by default” when it was destroyed in Asia and North Africa. The destruction began in the seventh and early eighth century when these areas were overrun by Islam. The number of Eastern bishops (as measured by council attendance) fell from 338 in 754 to 110 in 896. However, following the initial Muslim conquests, for centuries Christians persisted as a large, if repressed, majority. (200)

Muslim Conquests

Most of the Christians in Arabia were Nestorians, named for Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople, who was condemned (200) as a heretic in 431… However, Caliph Umar (caliph means successor and Umar was Muhammad’s second successor) possessed overwhelming military power and easily expelled all non-Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula. (201)

| Shortly before his death in 632, Muhammad’s forces began probing attacks into Byzantine Syria as well as into Persia. These attacks were in keeping with what came to be known as Muhammad’s farewell address, during which he said: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.'” That was entirely consistent with the Qur’an (9:5): “slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.” In this spirit, Muslim armies launched a century of successful consquests. (201)


It was a very long time before the conquered areas were truly Muslim in anything but name. There reality was that very small Muslim elites long ruled over non-Muslim (mostly Christian) populations in the conquered areas. This runs contrary to the widespread belief that Muslim conquests were quickly followed by mass conversions to Islam. (204)

| In part this belief in rapid mass conversions is rooted int he failure to distinguish “conversions by treaty” from changes in individual beliefs and practices. (204)

The second source of mistaken belief in mass conversions is the failure to recognize compelled or opportunistic conversions as opposed to those involving an authentic change of heart. (205)

In any event, despite the onerous conditions imposed upon them, the conquered peoples only slowly converted to Islam. Even as late as the thirteenth century, very substantial segments of the populations of the Muslim Empire outside of Arabia (where non-Muslims were not permitted) were Christians or Jews. (207)

Dhimmis and Muslim “Tolerance”

A great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance–that, in contrast with Christian brutality against Jews and heretics, Islam showed remarkable tolerance for conquered people, treated them with respect, and allowed them to pursue their faiths without interference. This claim probably began with Voltaire, Gibbon, and other eighteenth-century writers who used it to cast the Catholic Church in the worst possible light. The truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different. (207)

| It is true that the Qur’an forbids forced conversions. However, that recedes to an empty legalism given that many subject peoples often were “free to choose” conversion as an alternative to death or enslavement. (207)

dhimmis—these being Jews and Christians who refused to convert to Islam. (208)

[cf. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (3-volume set), 1974] VOLUME 1.pdf

This is not to say that the Muslims usually were more brutal or less tolerant than were Christians or Jews, for it was a brutal and intolerant age. It is to say that efforts to portray Muslims as enlightened supporters of multiculturalism are at best ignorant. (208)

…the Christians had immense influence and positions of power, chiefly because of the gifted administrators among them who occupied government posts despite the ban in Muslim law against employing Christians [in such positions] or who were part of the intelligentsia of the period owing to the fact that they were outstanding scientists, mathematicians, physicians and so on. – Moshe Gil, A History of Palestine, 634-1099

Stamping Out the “Unbelievers”

Just as little is known bout the spread of Christianity in the East, the final destruction of the dhimmi communities of Eastern Christians is lacking in detail. … Apparently, sustained attacks on the dhimmis began in Cairo in 1321, when Muslim mobs began destroying Coptic churches. These anti-Christian riots “were carefully orchestrated throughout Egypt” until large numbers of churches and monasteries were destroyed. (209)

The churches shall be uprooted, and the altars overturned, and the celebrations of the Eucharist shall cease, and the hymns of praise, and the sounds of calls to prayer shall be abolished; and the heads of the Christians, and the heads of the congregations of the Jews, and the great men among them, shall be killed. – Ghāzān, according to an account written by Mar Yabballaha III (1245-1317)


By the end of the fourteenth century only tiny remnants of Christianity remained here and there in the East and North Africa, having been almost completely wiped out by Muslim persecution. Thus, as Philip Jenkins put it, Christianity became a European faith because Europe was the only “continent where it was not destroyed.” [Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 2008] (211)

13 Europe Responds: The Case for the Crusades

Thus, it is the accepted myth that during the Crusades an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam. These claims have been utterly refuted by a group of distinguished contemporary historians. [Including Alfred J. Andrea, Peter Edbury, Benjamin Z. Kedar, Thomas F. Madden, Edward M. Peters, Jean Richard, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and Christopher Tyerman.] They propose that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations, by many centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organized and led by surplus sons, but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected. Most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. … Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that the knights established in the Holy Land, and which stood for two centuries, were not sustained by local exactions, but required immense subsidies from Europe. In addition, it is utterly unreasonable to impose modern notions about proper military conduct on medieval warfare–both Christians and Muslims observed quite different rules of war. Even so, the crusaders were not nearly as brutal or bloodthirsty as they have been portrayed. Finally, claims that Muslims have been harboring bitter resentments about the Crusades for a millennium are nonsense: Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900 in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East. (216)


…by the tie of the First Crusade, Christendom had been fighting a defensive war with Islam for more than 450 years! (217)

Thus the fact remains that the Crusades were fundamentally defensive, and it is against this general background of chronic and long-standing Western grievances that the very specific provocations of the Crusades must be considered. These involved the destruction of, and threat to, holy places in Jerusalem and the murder, torture, enslavement, robbery, and general harassment of Christian pilgrims. (217)

…Europeans, especially the nobility, had trustworthy independent information on the brutalization of the Christian pilgrims–from their own relatives and friends who had managed to survive. Even had the pope and emperor been cynical propagandists, that would not alter the motivation of the crusaders, for that depended entirely on what the knights believed. (221)

Economic Aspect of the Crusades

Had there been a financial squeeze on the knightly class, about the last thing they would have done was march off on a Crusade to the Holy Land. … Indeed, the great wealth of the knightly crusading orders was not loot, but came from donations and legacies in Europe. All told, “large quantities of Western silver flowed into the crusader states.” The Crusades were possible only because this was not a period of economic decline, but one of growth, “which put more resources and money into the hands of the ruling elites of Western Europe.” (221)

Why They Went

The Knights of Europe sewed crosses on their breasts and marched East for two primary reasons, one of them generic, the other specific to crusading. The generic reason was their perceived need for penance. The specific reason was to liberations the Holy Land. (222)

So finally, on June 7, 1099, and against all odds, the crusaders arrived at Jerusalem. Of the original forces numbering perhaps a hundred and thirty thousand, disease, privation, misadventure, desertion, and fighting had so reduced their ranks that the crusaders now numbered only about fifteen thousand, although Muslim historians placed their numbers at three hundred thousand. Those who reached Jerusalem were starving–having long since eaten their horses. Nevertheless, following a brief siege, on July 15, 1099, the badly outnumbered crusaders burst into the city. Thus, after about 460 years of Muslim rule, Jerusalem was again in Christian hands, although it was nearly destroyed and depopulated in the process. (224)

The Crusader Kingdoms

Thus the crusader states “remained dependent on Christendom for men and money, endured as long as Christendom retained enough interest to keep supplying them, and withered and collapsed when that interest was lost.” (228)

Nevertheless, the crusaders made no attempt to impose Christianity on the Muslims. In fact, “Muslims who lived in crusader-won territories were generally allowed to retain their property and livelihood, and always their religion.” Consequently the crusader kingdoms always contained far more Muslim residents than Christians. In the thirteenth century some Franciscans initiated conversion efforts among Muslims, but these were based on peaceful persuasion, were quite unsuccessful, and soon abandoned. (228)

Crusader “War Crimes”

The remarkable bias of so many Western histories of the Crusades could not be more obvious than in the fact that massacres by Muslims receive so little attention. (229)

No doubt it was very “unenlightened” of the crusaders to be typical medieval warriors, but it strikes me as even more unenlightened to anachronistically impose the Geneva Convention on the crusaders while pretending that their Islamic opponents were either UN Peacekeepers or hapless victims. (232)

Rediscovering the Crusades

One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders. Nothing could be further form the truth. Before the end of the nineteenth century Muslims had not shown much interest int he crusades…[looking] back on [them] with indifference and complacency. – Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Islam and the Crusaders in History and Imagination, 8 November 1898-11 September 201.” Crusades 2:151-67.

Muslim interest in the Crusades seems to have begun in the nineteenth century, when the term itself was introduced by Christian (232) Arabs who translated French histories into Arabic–for it was in the West that the Crusades first came back into vogue during the nineteenth century. (233)

Thus, current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth century creation, prompted in part by “post-World War I British and French imperialism and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel.” It was the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to rule with absolute authority, Abdulhamid II (reign: 1876-1909), who began to refer to European Crusades. This prompted the first Muslim history of the Crusades, published in 1899. In the introduction, its author, Sayyid Ali al-Hariri, noted that “the sovereigns of Europe nowadays attack our Sublime Empire in a manner bearing great resemblance to the deeds of those people in bygone times [the crusaders]. Our most glorious sultan, Abulhamid II, has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us.” (233)


The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. The Crusades are not a blot on the history of Christianity. No apologies are required. (234)

[via: wow.]

Part Four: Medieval Currents

14 The “Dark Ages” and Other Mythical Eras

To sum up: Western history consists of four major eras: 1) classical antiquity, then 2) the Dark Ages when the church dominated, followed by 3) the Renaissance-Enlightenment which led the way to 4) modern times. (238)

| For several centuries that has been the fundamental organizing scheme for every textbook devoted to Western history, despite the fact that serious historians have known for decades that this scheme is (238) a complete fraud–“an indestructible fossil of self-congratulatory Renaissance humanism.” It is appropriate to use the term renaissance to identify a particular period in the arts when there was renewed interest in classical styles, and to distinguish this period from the Gothic or the Baroque. But it is inappropriate to apply this term to identify the rebirth of progress following the Dark Ages because there never were any Dark Ages! (239)

The Myth of the “Dark Ages”

Ironically, the most beneficial factor in the rise of Western civilization was the fall of Rome! Like all of the ancient empires, Rome suffered from chronic power struggles among the ruling elite, but aside from that and chronic border wars and some impressive public works projects, very little happened–change, whether technological or cultural, was so slow as to go nearly unnoticed. (239)

…despite the fabulous wealth of the elite, Rome was very poor. As E. L. Jones noted, “emperors amassed vast wealth but received incomes that were nevertheless small relative to the immensity of the territories and populations governed.” (239)

| When the collapse of the Roman Empire “released the tax-paying (239) millions…from a paralyzing oppression,” many new technologies began to appear and were rapidly and widely adopted with the result that ordinary people were able to live far better, and, after centuries of decline under Rome, the population began to grow again. No longer were the productive classes bled to sustain the astonishing excesses of the Roman elite, or to erect massive monuments to imperial egos, or to support vast armies to hold Rome’s many colonies in thrall. Instead, human effort and ingenuity turned to better ways to farm, to sail, to transport goods, to conduct business, to build churches, to make war, to educate, and even to play music. But because so many centuries later a number of examples of classical Greek and Roman public grandeur still stand as remarkable ruins, many intellectuals have been prompted to mourn the loss of these “great civilizations.” Many who are fully aware of what this grandeur cost in human suffering have been quite willing even to write-off slavery as merely “the sacrifice which had to be paid for this achievement.” To put it plainly, for too long too many historians have been as gullible as tourists, gaping at the monuments, palaces, and conspicuous consumption of Rome, and then drawing invidious comparisons between such “cosmopolitan” places and “provincial” communities such as medieval merchant towns. (240)

| In any event, there was no “fall” into “Dark Ages.” Instead, once freed from the bondage of Rome, Europe separated into hundreds of independent “statelets.” In many of these societies progress and increased production became profitable, and that ushered in “one of the great innovative eras of mankind,” as technology was developed and put into use “on a scale no civilization ha previously known.” In fact, it was during the “Dark Ages” that Europe took the great technological and intellectual leap forward that put it ahead of the rest of the world. How could historians have so misrepresented things? (240)

| In part, the notion that Europe fell into the “Dark Ages” was a hoax perpetuated by very anti religious intellectuals such as Voltaire, and Gibbon, who were determined to claim that theirs was the era of “Enlightenment.” Another factor was that intellectuals too often have (240) no interest in anything but literary matters. It is quite true that after the fall of Rome, educated Europeans did not write nearly as elegant Latin as had the best Roman writers. For many, that was sufficient cause to regard this as a backward time. In addition, during this era only limited attention was paid to classical thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, and that too was taken as proof of widespread ignorance. (241)

| Another factor contributing to the myth of the “Dark Ages” is that in this era there no longer were large cities having hundreds of thousands of residents, as had ancient Rome and Alexandria. … But perhaps the most important factor in the myth of the “Dark Ages” is the inability of intellectuals to value or even notice the nuts and bolts of real life. Hence, revolutions in agriculture, weaponry and warfare, nonhuman power, transportation, manufacturing, and commerce went unappreciated. So too did remarkable moral progress. (241)

Progress in Technology

The Romans made little use of water or wind power, preferring manual labor performed by slaves. (241)

What is clear is that so much important technological progress occurred during this era that classical Greece and Rome had been left far behind. (244)

Inventing Capitalism

Historians of the rise of Western civilization agree that the development of capitalism was of immense importance–even Karl Marx (1818-1883) supports this view, writing that “[capitalism has] created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all the preceding generations together.” [In The Communist Manifesto] Although many sociologists still echo Max Weber’s (1864-1920) claim that capitalism originated in the Protestant Reformation, capitalism actually originated in the “depths” of the “Dark Ages.” (244)

St. Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) proposed that the “just price” to charge for something is not what it cost, but what “goods are worth according to the estimation of the market at the time of sale.” That is, a price is just if that’s what uncoerced buyers are willing to pay. Echoing his teacher, but using many more words, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) began his analysis of just prices by posing the question, “Whether a man may lawfully sell a thing for more than it is worth?” He answered by first quoting St. Augustine (354-430) that it is natural and lawful for “you to wish to buy cheap, and sell dear.” Next, Aquinas excluded fraud from legitimate transactions. Finally, he recognized that worth is not really an objective value–“the just price of things is not absolutely definite”–but is a function of the buyer’s desire for the thing purchased and the seller’s willingness or reluctance to sell, so long as the buyer was not misled, or under duress. To be just, a price had to be the same for all potential buyers at a given moment, thus barring price discrimination. (245)

Thus, by no later than the thirteenth century, the leading Christian theologians had fully debated the primary aspects of emerging capitalism–profits, property rights, credit, lending, and the like. As Lester K. Little summed up: “In each case they came up with generally favorable, approving views, in sharp contrast to the attitudes that had prevailed for six or seven centuries right up to the previous generation.” Capitalism was fully and finally freed from all fetters of faith. (246)

| It was a remarkable shift. These were, after all, theologians who had separated themselves from the world. Most of them had taken vows of poverty. Most of their predecessors had held merchants and commercial activities in contempt. Had asceticism truly prevailed in the religious orders, it seems most unlikely that Christian disdain for and opposition to commerce would have mellowed, let alone have been radically transformed. This theological revolution was the result of direct experience with worldly imperatives. For all their genuine acts of charity, monastic administrators were not about to give all their wealth to the poor or to sell their products at cost. It was the active participation of the great houses in free markets that caused monastic theologians to reconsider the morality of commerce. Nothing of the sort took place among Islamic theologians, with the result that capitalism could not develop, which had obvious consequences for Muslim economic progress. (246)

Moral Progress

All classical societies were slave societies–both Plato and Aristotle were slave-owners, as were most free residents of Greek city-states. In fact, all known societies above the very primitive level have been slave societies–even many of the Northwest American Indian tries had slaves long before Columbus’s voyage. Amid this universal slavery, only one civilization ever rejected human bondage: Christendom. And it did it twice! (247)

Progress in High Culture

As the distinguished medievalist Warren Hollister (1930-1997) put it in his presidential address to the Pacific Historical Association, “to my mind, anyone who believes that the era that witnessed the building of Chartres Cathedral and the invention of parliament and the university was ‘dark’ must be mentally retarded–or at best, deeply, deeply ignorant.” (250)

The Myth of the “Renaissance”

Indeed, “between 1125 and 1200, a veritable flood of translations into Latin, made Greek…[writing] available, with more to come in the thirteenth century.” This is fully supported by surviving monastery library catalogues from as far back as the twelfth century which reveal extensive holdings of classical authors. (251)

The Myth of Secular “Enlightenment”

The single most remarkable and ironic thing about the “Enlightenment” is that those who proclaimed it made little or no contribution to the accomplishments they hailed as a revolution in human knowledge, while those responsible for these advances stressed continuity with the past. That is, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, and the rest were literary men, while the primary revolution they hailed as the “Enlightenment” was scientific. Equally misleading is the fact that although the literary men who proclaimed the “Enlightenment” were irreligious, the central figures in the scientific achievements of the era were deeply religious. So much then for the idea that suddenly in the sixteenth century, enlightened secular forces burst the chains of Christian thought and set the foundation for modern times. What the proponents of “Enlightenment” actually initiated was the tradition of angry secular attacks on religion in the name of science–attacks like those of their modern counterparts such as Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Presented as the latest word in sophistication, rationalism, and reason, these assaults are remarkably naive and simplistic–both then and now. In truth, the rise of science was inseparable from Christian theology, for the latter gave direction and confidence to the former,… (252)

The fundamental question about the rise of the West is: What enabled Europeans to begin and maintain the extraordinary and enduring period of rapid progress that enabled them, by the end of the “Dark Ages,” to have far surpassed the rest of the (252) world? Why was it that, although many civilizations have pursued alchemy, it led to chemistry only in Europe? Or, while many societies have made excellent observations of the heavens and have created sophisticated systems of astrology, why was this transformed into scientific astronomy only in Europe? (253)

…the truly fundamental basis for the rise of the West was an extraordinary faith in reason and progress that was firmly rooted in Christian theology, in the belief that God is the rational creator of a rational universe. (253)


When one examines the conventional outline of Western history one encounters some truly fabulous inventions of great historical eras that never really happened: the “Dark Ages,” the “Renaissance,” the “Enlightenment,” and the “Age of Reason.” (253)

15 The People’s Religion

Popular Christian Commitment

Medieval society was largely composed of non-participants [in the churches].” – Michael Walzer

Substantial sections of thirteenth-century society hardly attended church at all. – Alexander Murray

Defective Clergy

Not only was the medieval public lacking in Christian commitment; the same was true of the rank-and-file clergy. In fact, given how ignorant the clergy were, it is no surprise that their parishioners knew so little. (260)

| In 730 the Venerable Bede advised the future bishop of Egbert that because so few English priests and monks knew any Latin, “I have frequently offered translations of both the [Apostles’] Creed and the Lord’s Prayer into English.” (260)

Not only did the clergy resemble the laity fun terms of ignorance; they often led similarly dissolute lives as was noted in the preceding chapter. (261)

Rural Neglect

If most medieval Europeans did not attend church, a primary reason was that for many centuries only the nobility and those living in towns and cities had a local church to attend! most churches in rural areas were not located in peasant villages, but were private chapels, each maintained by a local nobleman for his family and retainers, being only about the size of “a moderately large living room in a modern house.” (262)

Inappropriate Expectations

The primary reasons that even vigorous efforts failed to reach the peasantry and urban lower classes was the failure by both Protestant and Catholic clerics to propose a Christian lifestyle that was appropriate and attractive to ordinary people, and their failure to (263) present Christian doctrines in simple, direct language rather than as complex theology. (264)

In contrast, early Christianity was attractive to the laity because it offered a model of Christian virtue that improved their quality of life by urging attractive family norms, a tangible love of neighbors, and feasible levels of sacrifice, along with a clear message of salvation. When these aspects of the early Christian faith were preached in medieval times, as they often were by various reform and dissident movements, they continued to appeal–at least to some people. Thus we encounter the most significant aspect of medieval Christianity, both heretical and conventional; its appeal was primarily to people of at least some privilege, to the burghers of the towns and cities as well as to the nobility. (264)

…what parishioners understood as Christianity was never preached from a pulpit or taught in Sunday school, and what they took from the clergy they took on their own terms… Since the clergy were incapable of shaping a more popular version of the faith, villagers were left to do so themselves. – James Obelkevich

The People’s Religion

Despite their ignorance of Christianity and their alienation from the local clergy, Europe’s peasants and lower classes had a fulsome supply of religion of which they made constant use. (266)

…[they] practiced their own brand of religion, which was a rich compound of ancient rituals, time-bound customs, a sort of un-reconstructable folk Catholicism, and a large portion of magic to help them in their daily struggle for survival. – Gerald Strauss

…the emphasis was on pressing, tangible, and mundane matters such as health, fertility, weather, sex, and good crops. Consequently, the centerpiece of the people’s religion was, as it had always been, magic. (266)

Magic and Misfortune

The word magic initially identified the arts and powers of the magi, the Zoroastrian priests of Persia who were discussed in chapter 1. The magi were especially admired in the classical world for their command of astrology, but also for their repertoire of spells and occult ceremonies that claimed to enlist or compel supernatural forces to provide some desired outcome, that becoming the general definition of magic. The purpose of magic is the same as that of technology and science: to allow humans to control nature and events in a reality permeated with misfortune. (267)

In medieval times, medical magic coexisted with nonmagical remedies and treatments, and practitioners seldom distinguish between the two. Thus, the application of an herb thought to have medicinal properties was almost always accompanied by attempts to cast various spells and often by charms or amulet’s. The same was true of other “healing” efforts such as inserting a charm when binding up wounds, and “amulets of various kinds were used to aid in childbirth” by experienced midwives. Thus the success of a treatment confirmed both the magical and the nonmagical efforts. (267)

Revenge magic was widely known as maleficia or “evil doings” and consisted of attempts to harm others directly by causing death or injury, or indirectly by damaging crops or livestock. (268)

Church Magic

…a recommended treatment for someone with a speck in her or his eye was for the priest to pray:

Thus I adjure you, O speck, by the living God and the holy God, to disappear from the eye of the servant of God (name of victim), whether you are black, red, or white. May Christ make you go away. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Not surprisingly, popular magic soon as infused with elements of church magic. Many spells and formulations made use of holy water taken from church fonts. “People said the Lord’s Prayer while casting lead to tell fortunes. They…invoked the names of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost to protect chickens from hawks and humans from the evil eye…Village healers cured cattle of worms by spitting three times in appeal to the Trinity…They concocted infusions of baptismal water against bed-wetting.” The mixture of church and non church magic was so extensive that people even bound amulets into the swaddling clothes of infants, to ward off enchantments when they took them to be baptized. (270)

Theology and Tragedy

All magic works some of the time. (271)

Christianity is a theological religion. It isn’t satisfied with mystery and meditation, but relentlessly seeks to ground its entire system of beliefs in logic and reason. This has many admirable features, including the way the Christian commitment to rationalism provided a model for the development of Western science. But when confronted with magi, this aspect of Christianity turned out to have tragic consequences. In other cultural settings magic is usually taken for granted. Thus, the ancient Romans and Greeks devoted little or no effort to explaining why magic works–as it appears to do, at least some of the time. But Christian thinkers demanded to know why magic works. A clear answer could easily be provided for why church magic worked. God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, sometimes Mary, and various saints and angels were the active agents; when church magic failed it was because these supernatural beings had decided it should not work in a given instance. Clearly, however, these hallowed figures did not cause non church magic to work. Who then? The answer seemed equally obvious: evil supernatural beings, especially Satan. From there it was a short, obvious step to deducing that thousands of Wise Ones all across Europe were involved in satanic dealings. The witch hunts were born. (271)

Thus it was university professors who played the leading roles in generating and sustaining the terrible witch hunts that stormed across Europe. And it was the continuing magical activities of the peasants and urban lower classes in particular that gave substance to the witch hunts. (272)


Medieval times were not the “Age of Faith.” For the vast majority of medieval Europeans, their “religious” beliefs were a hodgepodge of pagan, Christian, and superstitious fragments; they seldom went to church; and they placed greater faith in the magic of the Wise Ones than in the services of the clergy. The frequent claims that empty churches and low levels of religious activity in Europe today reflect a steep decline in piety are wrong–it was always thus. As Martin Luther summed up in 1529, after recognizing the failure of his campaign to educate and arouse the general public: “Dear God help us…The common man, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about Christian doctrine; and indeed many pastors are in effect unfit and incompetent to teach. Yet they all are called Christians, are baptized, and enjoy the holy sacraments–even though they cannot recite either the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed or the Commandments. They live just like animals.” (272)

16 Faith and the Scientific “Revolution”

Long before the fiftieth century, every educated European, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round. Sphere was the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy, written early in the thirteenth century. The opposition Columbus encountered was not about the shape of the earth, but about the fact that he was wildly wrong about the circumference of the globe. He estimated it was about 2,800 miles from Canary Islands to Japan. In reality it is about 14,000 miles. (274)

Washington Irving (1783-1859)

Far more serious is that many similar falsehoods about the conflict between science and religion were made up by famous writers such as Voltaire and Gibbon during the “Enlightenment”–the same folks who invited the “Dark Ages”–and these fabrications have been (274) repeated and added to ever since by militant atheists such as A. D. White, Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins. The truth is that not only did Christianity not impede the rise of science; it was essential to it, which is why science arose only in the Christian West! Moreover, there was no sudden “Scientific Revolution”; the great achievements of Copernicus, Newton, and other stalwarts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the product of normal scientific progress stretching back for centuries. (275)

What Is Science?

Science is a method utilized in organized efforts to formulate explanations of nature, always subject to modifications and corrections through systematic observations. Thus science consists of two components: theory and research. Theorizing is the explanatory aspect of science. Scientific theories are abstract statements about why and how some portion of nature (including human social life) fits together and works. (275)

Clearly, then, science is limited to statements about natural and material reality, about things that are at elastin principle observable. Hence there are entire realms of discourse that science is unable to address, including such matters as the existence of God. Nor can there be a physics of miracles. (276)

The Scholastic Origins of Science

Just as there were no “Dark Ages,” there was no “Scientific Revolution.” Rather, the notion of a Scientific Revolution was invented to discredit the medieval church by claiming that science burst forth in full bloom (thus owing no debts to prior Scholastic scholars) only when a weakened Christianity no longer could suppress it. … But in fact the great scientific achievements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were produced by a group of scholars notable for their piety, who were based in Christian universities, and whose brilliant achievements were carefully built upon an invaluable legacy of centuries of brilliant Scholastic scholarship. (277)

Copernicus and Normal Science

Copernicus received a superb education at the best Italian universities of the time: Bologna, Padua, and Ferrara. The idea that the earth circles the sun did not come to him out of the blue; he was taught the essential fundamentals leading to the heliocentric model of the solar system by his Scholastic professors. What Copernicus added was not a leap, but the implicit next step in a long line of discovery and innovation stretching back for centuries. (278)

William of Ockham (1295-1349); Nicole d’Oresme (1325-1382); Jean Buridan (1295-1358); Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464); Albert of Saxony’s Physics (1492).

Consequently, everything in Copernicus’s famous book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is wrong, other than the placement of the sun in the center. It was nearly a century later that Johannes Kepler (1571-1639), a German Protestant, got things right by substituting ellipses for Copernicus’s circles. (280)

Isaac Newton (1642-1727); I. Bernard Cohen (1914-2003)

Scholastic Universities

Christian Scholastics invented the university and gave it its modern shape. The first two universities appeared in Parish (where both Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas taught) and Bologna, in the middle of the twelfth century. (281)

…the key to faculty movement was then as now innovation. Reputations were gained not by mastery of the old, but by advancing something new! And this was greatly facilitated by something truly unusual in intellectual life: an emphasis on empiricism. (283)

Scholastic Empiricism

Christian Scholastics were the first scholars to build their anatomical knowledge on human dissection! (283)

Science did not suddenly burst forth in the sixteenth century. It began centuries before in the Scholastic commitment to empiricism, and it was nurtured in the early universities as scholars pursued systematic efforts to innovate. Moreover, the truly remarkable aspect of the rise of science is that it happened only once. Many societies pursued alchemy, but only in Christian Europe did it lead to chemistry; many societies developed extensive systems of astrology, but only in Europe was astrology transformed into scientific astronomy. Why? (284)

The God of Reason

Science arose only in Europe because only medieval Europeans believed that science was possible and desirable. And the basis of their belief was their image of God and his creation. (284)

Furthermore, because God has given humans the power of reason it ought to be possible for us to discover the rules established by God. (285)

…the Greeks insisted on turning the cosmos, and inanimate objects more generally, into living things. Consequently, they attributed many natural phenomena to motives, not to inanimate forces. Thus, according to Aristotle, heavenly bodies move in circles because of their affection for doing so, and objects fall to the ground “because of their innate love for the centre of the world.” (286)

It was only because Europeans believed in God as the Intelligent Designer of a rational universe that they pursued the secrets of creation. In the words of Johannes Kepler, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony imposed on it by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” In similar fashion, in his last will and testament, the great chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) wrote to the members of the Royal Society of London, wishing them continuing success in “their laudable attempts to discover the true Nature of the Works of God.” (287)

| Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the rise of science is that the early scientists not only searched for natural laws, confident that they existed, but they found them! It thus could be said that the proposition that the universe had an Intelligent Designer is the most fundamental of all scientific theories and that it has been successfully put to empirical tests again and again. For as Albert Einstein, (1879-1955) once remarked, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible: “a priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way…That is the ‘miracle’ which is constantly being reinforced as our knowledge expands.” And that is the “miracle” that testifies to a creation guided by intention and rationality. (287)

What About Galileo?

So, what does the case of Galileo reveal? It surely demonstrates that powerful groups and organizations often will abuse their power to impose their beliefs, a shortcoming that certainly is not limited to religious organizations–the Communist regime in the Soviet Union outlawed Mendelian genetics on grounds that all variations within and across species are caused by the environment. But it also shows that Galileo was not some naive scholar who fell victim to a bunch of ignorant bigots–these same “bigots” ignored dozens of other prominent scientists, many of them resident in Italy! In any event, this celebrated case does nothing to alter the fact that the rise of science was rooted in Christian theology–indeed, for all his posturing, Galileo remained deeply religious. As William Shea noted, “Had Galileo been less devout, he could have refused to go to Rome [when summoned by the Inquisition]; Venice offered him asylum.” But he did not flee to Venice and often expressed his personal faith to his daughter and friends after his trial was over. (291)

| Of course, although Christianity was essential for the development of Western science, that dependency no longer exists. Once properly launched, science has been able to stand on its own, and the conviction that the secrets of nature will yield to prolonged inquiry is now as much a secular article of faith as it originally was Christian. The rise of an independent scientific establishment has given birth to new tensions between theology and science. (291)

Inerrancy and Divine Accommodation

Not only is all of this unnecessary; it is theologically illiterate. From early days, the great Christian theologians knew better than to commit to literal inerrancy! … An even more definitive theological objection to inerrancy is that all scripture was revealed within the confines of human comprehension at the time. Here we confront one of the most fundamental, yet remarkably neglected, of all Judeo-Christian premises, that of Divine Accommodation. This premise holds that God’s revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to compre-(292)hens–that in order to communicate with humans God is forced to accommodate their incomprehension by restoring to the equivalent of “baby talk.” (293)

The things of God should be revealed to mankind only in proportion to their capacity; otherwise, they might despise what was beyond their grasp… It was, therefore, better for the divine mysteries to be conveyed to an uncultured people as it were veiled. – Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Seen in this light, all scientific findings are fully compatible with theology, inspiring the learned response, “Aha! So that’s how God did it!” (294)

[via: i.e., “All truth is God’s truth.”]


This is a debate that can best be described by quoting Shakespeare, as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (295)

Part Five: Christianity Divided

17 Two “Churches” and the Challenge of Heresy

These can usefully be identified as the Church of Power and the Church of Piety. (299)

The Church of Power

The Church of Power was the main body of the church as it evolved in response to the immense status and wealth bestowed on the clergy by Constantine. (300)

Power and Corruption

Consequently, by the start of the eleventh century, after centuries of rule by the Church of Power, European Christianity lay in political and moral ruin. (301)

That so many young men with no prior religious service became popes helps explain why the moral condition of the papacy in this era can best be described as “squalid.” (302)

The Church of Piety

The Lazy Monopoly

Constantine’s favor transformed the church from an institution based entirely on member contributions and led by a clergy of but modest means into an institution based on immense state support and led by a rich and powerful clergy recruited from the upper ranks of society. He thereby created a lazy monopoly institution that behaved in precisely the way Smith described. (304)

Piety and Reform


The main difference between many sanctioned orders and others eventually denounced as heretical lay not in doctrinal differences but in whether the group was careful to fully acknowledge the authority of the Church of Power, especially in their public preaching. Thus, rather than continuing to press for church reforms, the Dominicans soon specialized in public preaching against all religious groups they judged to be insufficiently submissive. (308)





Despite persecution, the demand for reform would not die. New “heretical” groups continued to erupt: the Beghards and Beguines, the Fraticelli, the Humiliati, the Flagellants, and the Lollards. Soon came open rebellion in Prague as the queen and most of the nobility embraced Jan Hus (1372-1415) and his “Bohemian Reformation.” Although Hus was given a safe conduct to defend his views at a church council in Constance, upon his arrival he was seized and marched to the stake. Then came Luther. (313)

18 Luther’s Reformation

Far too many histories of the Reformation supposed that Martin Luther succeeded because he stood on the moral and theological high ground. In fact, for much of the twentieth century, accounting for the Reformation was regarded mainly as a theological, not an historical enterprise. However Luther had many predecessors, some of whom shared most of the his [sic] theological and moral positions, but that didn’t save them. As Luther himself acknowledged, Jan Hus had anticipated most of his reforms, for which Hus was burned alive, which is precisely what Pope Leo X had in mind for Luther too. Luther and his Reformation survived only because he attracted sufficient political and military support to thwart the forces sent to stifle him. (315)

Creating a “Heretic”

It was the local sale of indulgences that finally prodded Luther to act. … “The moment the money tinkles in the collecting box, a soul flies out of purgatory.” (317)

Do you not hear the voices of your dead parents and other people, screaming and saying ‘Have pity on me, have pity on me…We are suffering severe punishments and pain, from which you could rescue me with a few alms, if you would.'” – Johannes Tetzel, 1517

Luther nailed up his theses (written in Latin) on October 31, 1517. (318)

Hearest thou this, O pope, not most holy, but most sinful? O that God from heaven would soon destroy thy throne and sink it in the abyss of hell! … O Christ, my Lord, look down, let the day of thy judgment break, and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome. – Martin Luther

He called for an end to the sale of indulgences, for no more masses to be said for the dead, for the elimination of all “holy days” except for Sundays, and for the whole congregation, not just the priest, to sip the communion wine. Luther also proposed that priests be allowed to marry and that no one be permitted to take binding monastic vows before the age of thirty–later he advised the dissolution of all religious orders and that there be no more vows of celibacy. As for doctrine, Luther asserted the absolute authority of Holy Scripture and that each human must discover the meaning of scripture and establish their own personal relationship with God. Most radical of all, Luther proposed that salvation is God’s gift, freely given, and is gained entirely by faith in Jesus as the redeemer. That is, salvation cannot be earned or purchased by good works. Consequently, there is no purgatory since no atonement for sins is necessary or possible. One either has faith and is saved or lacks faith and is damned. As for good works, they are the result, or fruits, of faith. (319)

…the pope officially excommunicated him in January 1521. Next Luther was ordered to appear before the Imperial Diet meeting in Worms. (319)

Explaining the Reformation

Instead, Luther’s Reformation was almost exclusively an urban phenomenon. And within the urban context it is widely believed by historians that the Reformation spread rapidly because of its popularity among printers and its appeal to students and professors, to the urban bourgeoisie, and to the nobility. (321)

Reform and Discontent

Pamphlets and Printers

Luther’s Reformation was the first social movement for which printed materials played an important role–the printing press was only just coming of age. (323)

Professors and Students

The Reformation began at the University of Wittenberg. As the distinguished Paul Grendler put it, “The activities of the first four or five years of the Lutheran Reformation resembled a young faculty uprising.” (325)

Responsive City Governance

Royal Self-Initerest

Nearly without exception the autocrats opted for Lutheranism in places where the Catholic Church had the greatest local power, and chose to remain Catholic in places where the church was extremely weak! (328)

The Catholic Reformation

There is an immense irony about Luther’s Reformation as well as the other Protestant Reformations that gained a secure footing in Europe at this time. Their “reforms” were not lasting as each soon exhibited many of the defects of a worldly religious monopoly, while the church against which they had rebelled was dramatically and lastingly reformed as the Protestant challenge enabled the Church of Piety to return to power, never again to be thwarted. (330)

But there also was a dark side to the Catholic Reformation. The new spirit of strictness shifted the economic and intellectual outlook of the church. A reemphasis on asceticism set the church against business and banking to such an extent that it could mistakenly be argued that Protestantism gave birth to capitalism, despite the fact that capitalism was fully developed in Europe many centuries before Luther was born. (331)


In any event, when all was said and done, because the various Reformations also resulted in lazy and lax monopoly churches, Europes’ splendid cathedrals and picturesque chapels continued to be rather empty on Sunday mornings. (332)

19 The Shocking Truth About the Spanish Inquisition

But the most shocking truth about the Spanish Inquisition is that everything above is either an outright lie or a wild exaggeration! (335)

Creating the “Black Legend”

The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition was invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bits.” (335)

The Real Inquisition

Astonishing as it may seem, the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment. (337)


The term auto-de-fe does not mean execution, let along burning at the stake, but is best translated as “act of faith.” The inquisitors were (337) far more concerned with repentance than with punishment and therefore an auto-de-fe consisted of a public appearance by persons convicted of various offenses who offered public confessions of their guilt and were thereby reconciled to the church. (338)

The first decades of the Inquisition’s operations were not as fully documented as they were after 1540, but historians now agree that these were its bloodiest days and that perhaps as many as fifteen hundred people ay have been executed, or about thirty a year. Turning to the fully recorded period, of the 44,701 cases tried, only 826 people were executed, which amounts to 1.8 percent of those brought to trial. Together, this adds up to a total of about 2,300 deaths spread over more than two centuries, a total that is a far cry from the “conservative” estimates that more than thirty thousand were burned by the Inquisition. (338)


This may be the biggest lie of all! Every court in Europe used torture, but the Inquisition did so far less than other courts. For one thing, church law limited torture to one session lasting no more than fifteen minutes, and there could be no danger to life or limb. Nor could blood be shed. (339)

Contrary to the standard myth, the Inquisition made little use of the stake, seldom tortured anyone, and maintained unusually decent prisons. (339)


Even the virulently anti-Catholic historian Henry C. Lea (1825-1909) agreed that witch hunting was “rendered comparatively harmless” in Spain and that this “was due to the wisdom and firmness of the Inquisition.” (341)

The question was posed: If church magic works because God invests it with the power to do so, why does non church magic work too? … The conclusion seemed obvious: non church magic works because Satan empowers it! Hence, to practice non church magic constitutes invoking Satan and his demons. That its he definition of witchcraft. (342)

One reason that the Inquisition prevented a witch craze in Spain is because during its very first cases involving the use of non church magic, the inquisitors paid close attention to what the accused had to say. What they learned was that magical practitioners had no intention whatever of invoking Satanic forces. In fact, many thought they were using church magic! This was because the practices and procedures involved were very similar to those authorized for use by the clergy–recitation of fragments of liturgy, appeals to saints, sprinkling holy water taken from a local church on an afflicted area, and repeatedly making the sign of the cross. As a result, the accuse seemed (342) sincerely surprised to learn they had been doing anything wrong. (343)

Thus they assumed that most accused of using non church magic (including priests) were sincere Catholics who meant no harm and had been unaware of invoking demons. While it was wrong even to have implicitly invoked demons, it should be forgiven in the ordinary way, through confession and absolution. Consequently, nearly no witches were sent to the stake by the Spanish Inquisition and those  who were usually had been convicted for the third or fourth time. (343)

| Even more important, the Inquisition used its power and influence to suppress witch hunting by local mobs or secular authorities. (343)

Some historians like to claim that witch hunting finally ended because it was attacked by participants in the “Enlightenment,” such as Balthasar Bekker. But none of these “enlightened” attacks on witch hunts appeared until nearly a century after efforts by Catholic clergy had discredited the witch craze and made it entirely safe to say such things. (344)



A wave of Jewish conversions to Christianity began in the fourteenth century, as tens of thousands accepted baptism, and came to be known as conversos. This caused immense bitterness in the Spanish Jewish community–Maimonides proposed that conversos be stoned as idolaters. (345)




Solicitation involved a priest using the confessional and his powers of granting or withholding absolution to have sexual activities with a woman. (348)

Bigamy probably was quite widespread in this era when divorce was nearly unavailable, but only rarely did it become such public scandal as to attract the attention of the Inquisition (on grounds that it was sacrilegious). (348)

Sodomy primarily consisted of male homosexuality, but some cases of female homosexuality also were tried, as were some cases involving heterosexual anal intercourse (usually based on accusations by a wife). (349)

Bestiality accounted for 27 percent of the cases of sexual offenses in the three cities, although sometimes bestiality was included in the sodomy category… (349)

Book Burning

It seems of particular interest that of the books that the Inquisition did burn, most were condemned as pornographic! (350)


Part Six: New Worlds and Christian Growth

20 Pluralism and American Piety

Why did America become so well churched? What are the effects of the extraordinary religious pluralism that exists in the United States, and how do these many faiths manage to coexist peacefully? (354)

Colonial Pluralism

Following the Revolutionary War, state religious establishments were discontinued (although the Congregationalists held on as the established church of Massachusetts until 1833), and even in 1776 there was substantial pluralism building up everywhere (see table 20.1). This increased rapidly with the appearance of many new Protestant sects–most of them being of local origins. With all of these denominations placed on an equal footing, there being no government favoritism, there arose intense competition among the churches for member support. That was the “miracle” that mobilized Americans on behalf of faith with the result that by 1850 a third of Americans belonged to a local congregation. By the start of the twentieth century, half of Americans belonged, and today about 70 percent belong. (355)

Table 20.1: Number of Congregations in the Thirteen Colonies by Denomination, 1776

Denomination Number of Congregations
Congregational 668
Presbyterian (all divisions) 588
Baptist (all divisions) 497
Anglican (Church of England) 495
Quakers 310
German Reformed 159
Lutheran (all synods) 150
Dutch Reformed 120
Methodist 65
Roman Catholic 56
Moravian 31
Separatists and Independent 27
Dunker 24
Mennonite 16
Huguenot 7
Sandemanian 6
Jewish 5
TOTAL 3,228

Throughout the nineteenth century, there was widespread awareness that it was competitive pluralism that accounted for the increasingly great differences int he piety of Americans and Europeans. (356)

…the militant atheist Karl T. Griesinger, complained in 1852 that the separation of church and state in America fueled religious efforts: “Clergymen in America [are] like other businessmen; they must meet competition and build up a trade…Now it is clear…why attendance is more common here than anywhere else in the world.” (357)

Pluralism Misconceived

…pluralism threatens the plausibility of religious belief systems by exposing their human origins. By forcing people to do religion as a matter of personal choice rather than as fate, pluralism universalizes ‘heresy.’ A chosen religion is weaker than a religion of fate because we are aware that we chose the gods rather than the gods choosing us. – Steve Bruce

It seems to be the case that people don’t need all-embracing sacred canopies, but are sufficiently served by “sacred umbrellas,” to use Christian Smith’s wonderful image. Smith explained that people don’t need to agree with all their neighbors in order to sustain their religious convictions; they only need a set of like-minded friends–pluralism does not challenge the credibility of religions because groups can be entirely committed to their faith despite the presence of others committed to another. (358)

…pluralization and multiplicity of choices available in the contemporary United States can actually strengthen Jewish communities. – Lynn Davidman

Successful Religions “Firms”

Table 20.2: Some Growing and Declining American Denominations
American Members per 1,000 U.S. Population

Denomination 1960 2006-2007 % Change
United Church of Christ 12.4 .8 -69
Episcopal Church 18.1 7.0 -61
Presbyterian Church (USA) 23.0 9.8 -57
United Methodist Church 54.7 26.6 -55
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 29.3 15.6 -47
Unitarian-Universalist 1.0 .07 -30
Quakers (all meetings) 0.7 0.5 -29
Roman Catholic 233.0 229.9 -4
Southern Baptist Convention 53.8 55 +2
Foursquare Gospel 0.5 0.9 +80
Seventh-day Adventist 1.8 3.4 +89
Latter-day Saints (Mormons) 8.2 19.4 +138
Jehovah’s Witnesses 1.3 3.6 +177
Assemblies of God 2.8 9.6 +242
Church of God (Cleveland, TN) 0.9 3.2 +260
Church of God in Christ 2.2 18.6 +743

Conclusion: competition does not reward “cheap” religion. (362)

But it is not merely that more demanding religious groups attract and hold more members than do the less demanding faiths. They recruit them! That is, their members are sufficiently committed so that they seek to bring others into the fold, something members of the less demanding faiths seem reluctant to do. (363)

Mystical America

Pluralism and Religious Civility

Where there exists competing religions, norms of religious civility will develop to the extent that there exists a pluralistic equilibrium. Norms of religious civility exist when public expressions and behavior are governed by mutual respect. A pluralistic equilibrium exists when power is sufficiently diffused among a set of competitors so that conflict is not in anyone’s interest. (366)


Pluralism holds the key to the vitality of American religiousness as well as to the development of religious civility. (367)

21 Secularization: Facts and Fantasies

…the secularization thesis: that in response to modernization, and especially to modern science, religion must lose its plausibility and wither away. (369)

But, what has most vexed proponents of the modernization-causes-secularization thesis is that the most industrialized and scientific nation of earth remains so very religious: the great majority of Americans continue to be active church members. Not only that, Americans sho no signs of losing their belief in supernatural beings. (370)

The American “Exception”

World Religiousness

I think that what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious.” – Peter Berger

Understanding the European “Exception”

The one exception to this is Western Europe. One of the most interesting questions in the sociology of religion today is not, How do you explain fundamentalism is [sic] Iran? but, Why is Western Europe different?” Why, indeed? (375)


There could be no de-Christianization of Europe…because there never was any Christianization in the first place. Christian Europe never existed. – Andrew Greeley

…the historic lack of effective miss ionizing partly explains Europe’s “exceptionalism.”

Lazy, Obstructionist State Churches

In most European nations there is nothing resembling a religious “free” market. (376)

These close links between church and state have many consequences. First of all, they create lazy churches. … Second, these links encourage people to view religion “as a type of public utility.” (377)

The existence of favored churches also encourages government hindrance and harassment of other churches. (378)

“Enlightened” Churches

Believing Nonbelongers

…just as the non attending medieval Europeans had religion (if a rather unorthodox mixture), so do most Europeans today. So much so that the British sociologist Grace Davie coined the term “believing non-belongers.” (381)

Leftist Politics

…given that participators-(382)tion has always been low, it probably is more the case that the success of the Left in Europe had much to do with the churches having been weak in the first place. (383)

But it seems suggestive that while support for the extreme Left has greatly declined in Europe, the dominant churches–especially the state churches–have become progressively leftist. This has not brought them any resurgence in attendance. (383)

Statistical Moonshine

If modernization truly causes secularization, these effects must show up when other dominant cultural variations are held constant. They do not. (384)


Behind the secularization thesis has always lain an enormous conceit that recently has been brazenly displayed by the militant atheist and biologist Daniel Dennett when he identified himself and his anti religious confederates as “brights,” in contrast to those dullards whose minds are still infected with religious delusions. But there also is a barely concealed aspiration behind Dennett’s arrogant pronouncements and those of the writers of the other recent aggressively atheist books. For the truth is, religion is not passing away; instead it is very obviously making a great deal of headway around the world. As will be seen in the next chapter, never before has there been such widespread and intense piety in Latin America. Not only are there now few atheists in Russia; there are not missions of Christians in China. There are even signs that religions may be making gains in Europe. In most of Europe the fertility rates have dropped far below (384) replacement levels with the impending consequence of rapidly declining “native” populations, foretelling a Sweden without swedes and a France without French. What has gone little noticed is that the Europeans who go to church are continuing to have children to such an extent that this factor alone could result in a far more religious Europe. In addition the impact of tens of thousands of American missionaries, many of them self-financed volunteers, is beginning to result in some aggressive and competitive churches in Europe despite the regulatory barriers placed in their way. Indeed, the development of only a modest amount of religious competition in Italy seems to have played a role in producing a quite significant Italian religious revival. And so it goes. (385)

22 Globalization

By 1900 there were 5,278 American Protestant missionaries serving abroad as well as 5,656 from Britain and about 2,200 from Continental nations… (387)

Faiths on Earth

Nominal Members

Table 22.1: Worldwide Nominal Religious Affiliations (China Excluded)

Religion Number Percent
Christians 2,195,674,000 41%
Muslims 1,429,772,000 27%
Hindus 1,011,709,000 19%
Buddhists 289,856,000 5%
Jews 12,849,000 Less than 0.1 percent
Others 119,195,000 2%
Secular 240,650,000 5%
TOTAL 5,299,705,000 100%

Active Membership

Table 22.2 Worldwide Active Religious Affiliations (China Excluded)

Religion Number Percent Percent Reduction
Christians 1,281,042,000 44% 42%
Muslims 857,620,000 29% 40%
Hindus 579,192,0900 20% 43%
Buddhists 130,512,000 4% 55%
Jews 4,604,000 Less than 0.1 percent 64%
Others 59,724,000 2% 50%
Secular 23,570,000 1% 90%
TOTAL 2,936,277,000 100% 45%

The overall finding is that nothing much has changed when only active members are examined. Christianity is still by far the largest of the religions (44 percent), followed by Islam (29 percent).

Regional Variations

Christianity is not only the largest religion in the world, it also is the least regionalized. (392)

Table 22.3 The Regional Distribution of Christians (China Excluded)

Region Nominal Affiliations Weekly Attendees Only
North America 13% 24%
Latin America 25% 22%
Europe 28% 13%
Middle East and North Africa 1% 1%
Sub-Saharan Africa 23% 30%
South Central Asia 5% 6%
South Eastern Asia 2% 3%
Easteren Asia 2% 1%
Oceania 1% Less than 0.5 percent
TOTAL 100% 100%

Christian Africa

Table 22.4: Catholics and Protestants in Sub-Saharan Africa

Nation Catholics Protestants
Burundi 74% 20%
Rwanda 64% 29%
Angola 55% 33%
Mozambique 53% 34%
Cameroon 44% 35%
Central African Republic 44% 41%
Congo Republic 44% 46%
Togo 44% 17%
Uganda 39% 42%
Madagascar 38% 55%
Democratic Republic of Congo 36% 59%
Burkina Faso 32% 7%
South Africa 29% 53%
Kenya 28% 57%
Benin 27% 13%
Zimbabwe 27% 60%
Tanzania 26% 20%
Chad 26% 18%
Malawi 25% 63%
Ghana 25% 38%
Botswana 24% 20%
Nigeria 22% 33%
Liberia 14% 48%
Sierra Leone 11% 12%
Guinea 8% 1%
Senegal 5% 0%
Mali 3% 1%
Ethiopia 1% 16%
Djibouti 0% 0%
Mauritania 0% 0%
Niger 0% 1%
TOTAL 25% 32%

Latin American Pluralism

Protestants in Latin America

Table 22.5: Percent Protestant and Catholic, 2007-2008
(Gallup World Polls)

Nation Protestant Rom. Catholic Other Secular
El Salvador 38% 61% 1% 0%
Nicaragua 37% 61% 1% 1%
Guatemala 36% 61% 1% 2%
Honduras 36% 62% 1% 1%
Brazil 24% 71% 4% 1%
Costa Rica 24% 74% 2% 0%
Chile 20% 74% 3% 3%
Dominican Republic 20% 69% 0% 11%
Panama 18% 80% 2% 0%
Bolivia 17% 81% 1% 1%
Peru 16% 82% 1% 1%
Uruguay 12% 64% 6% 18%
Columbia 11% 88% 1% 0%
Ecuador 11% 87% 1% 1%
Paraguay 9% 89% 2% 4%
Mexico 9% 86% 3% 1%
Venezuela 5% 91% 2% 2%

The Catholic Response

The term Liberation Theology was coined by the Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez in 1968 and popularized by his book A Theology of Liberation (1971). (401)

The primary tactical means proposed to achieve liberation was the “Base Community” (communicates de base), wherein a liberationist leader would gather a small group to live and work together in a socialist commune where their political and moral awareness would be raised,… (401)

Liberation Theology failed as a social experiment, if for no other reason than that it was an ideological misfit. It lacked credibility to the political Left because of its religious rhetoric and connections to the church. Its emphasis on political goals and tactics made it a nonstarter in competition with religious movements. What remains noteworthy is that, as Anthony Gill demonstrates, Liberation Theology was not initiated primarily in response to the poverty of the masses, but in response to the Protestant threat. (401)

Table 22.6: Percent of Catholics Who Attended Church in Past Seven Days
(Gallup World Polls)

Nation Attended in Past Seven Days
Guatemala 72%
El Salvador 66%
Honduras 66%
Columbia 63%
Ecuador 63%
Costa Rica 61%
Mexico 60%
Panama 60%
Bolivia 59%
Nicaragua 58%
Paraguay 56%
Peru 53%
Dominican Republic 49%
Brazil 45%
Venezuela 41%
Argentina 31%
Chile 31%
Uruguay 16%

Christians in China

…there are about 35.3 million Christians in China. However, this should be regarded as the lowest plausible number since there is every reason to a some that surveys greatly undercount Chinese Christians. (406)

It seems entirely credible to estimate that there are about 70 million Chinese Christians in 2011. (407)

Moreover, it has become a common conviction even among non-Christian Chinese intellectuals that Christianity played the essential role in the rise of Western civilization, and hence it might be vital to the economic and scientific development of China as well. As a result, the Chinese exhibit a strong interest in Christian history, to such an extent that large numbers of books on that topic have been translated and published in China, including three of mine, with more to come soon (probably including this one). (407)

Why Christianity Grows

Mark 16:15 quotes the risen Jesus: “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.’ ” That is the “secret” to Christian growth: Christianity is able to motivate so many of its followers to proselytize on behalf of their faith that it currently is growing rapidly by way of conversions in what historically have been non-Christian regions.

| That brings us to a fundamental issue: Why does Christianity have such appeal? Four major aspects will be assessed: message, scripture, pluralism, and the link to modernity. (408)


When Christians seek to convert others, their emphasis usually is on Jesus, which is facilitated by the fact that the Gospels are the story of Jesus. (408)

| And the fundamental message of the Gospels is that Christ died for our sins, and hence all who accept Jesus as their Savior will enjoy everlasting life after death. (408)

Christianity not only offers the immense reward of eternal life, but many profound blessings here and now–as was demonstrated in chapter 6. (409)

| However, it would be misleading to represent the typical Christian as engaged in an ongoing existential calculus to weigh the benefits of faith, while overlooking the potent and widespread mystical and emotional aspects of the Christian experience. (409)


However, unlike most religious “texts” associated with other world religions, neither the Old nor New Testament is a compendium of veiled meanings, mysteries, and conundrums–there is nothing about the sound of one hand clapping. For the most part, the Bible consists of clearly expressed narratives about people and events. Although there are many theologically challenging passages (in Paul’s letters, for example) and some deeply mystical sections, most of the stories are suitable for people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, in addition to which they are interesting! Consider the Christmas story or the confrontations between Moses and the pharaoh. (409)


In January 1930 a group of leading liberal theologians was assembled to “rethink” missions, and in the report they issued in 1932, these liberal leaders charged that “it is a humiliating mistake” for Christians to think their faith is superior, for anything in Christianity that “is true belongs in its nature to the human mind everywhere.” Thus, “phrases like ‘evangelization of the world’…[are] downright embarrassing.” Therefore, these leaders proposed that if missionaries were to be sent out at all, it should not be to evangelize but to perform social services–to teach sanitation, not salvation. (411)

Of course, in many parts of the world foreign missionaries have become superfluous as local Christians have taken over the work of spreading the faith. Here too, pluralism plays a major role, for Christianity sustains a tradition of innovation and adaptation. Hence local snot only take over miss ionizing; they often form new denominations especially suited to their particular situation and culture–there are thousands of new Christian groups in Africa, for example. (411)

In the end, Christianity grows, partly because so many Christians work so hard to make it grow. (412)


Inevitably, as the religion of the West, Christianity is associated with Western modernity. Thus, for many in the less-developed world, it is nearly impossible to separate their embrace of Christianity from their acceptance of modern culture in general. The West’s demonstrable wisdom in such things as medicine and technology seems to certify Western wisdom concerning God as well. (412)

…in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this. – Chinese economist, quoted in David Aikman, “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power.”


Perhaps the most essential aspect of Christianity that has facilitated its globalization is its remarkable cultural flexibility. Wherever it goes, the faith is adapted to the local culture–made possible by its universal message. (412)


Excluding the Christ story from the list, three events stand out as being far more crucial than all the rest to the historical trajectory of the faith–two of them were exceedingly beneficial, and one of them was a great misfortune. (213)

Council of Jerusalem

Until this decision was made, Christianity was just another Jewish sect. Although Judaism had made a substantial number of converts, it seems unlikely that any religion unalterably linked to an ethnicity could have become a world religion–not even with the added Christian aspect. …the true importance of the Jerusalem Council’s ruling was not its effect on Paul, but on rank-and-file Christians who now were able to reach out far more effectively to their Gentile friends, relatives, and neighbors–a process that eventually assembled the world’s largest religion. (414)

The Conversion of Constantine

Religious dissent is inevitable because no single religious body can serve the entire spectrum of human religious preferences. … But where there is no freedom to dissent–where a monopoly attempts to dominate all demand–conflict is inevitable. … Hence, the medieval centuries of heresy-hunting and religious wars trace directly back to Constantine, as does a Europe wherein the people have long been so neglected by lazy monopoly churches that only small bands of worshippers huddle in the continent’s magnificent churches. (415)

| Had Constantine not made himself the arbiter and enforcer of Christian orthodoxy, but confined himself to policies of state neutrality, all this might have been spared, and Europe may have prospered from effective and sincere religious competition–as came to pass in America much more than a millennium later. (415)

The Reformations

In the long run, these Reformations undid much of Constantine’s harm to Christianity. In the shorter run, the Reformations merely replaced the lazy and intolerant Catholic monopoly with a number of equally lazy and intolerant Protestant monopolies. (416)

Summing Up

Finally, I have tried to bring some of the pivotal moments in the Christian journey to life and to expose many falsifications and errors in the traditional tellings. In closing, here are a few of the points I hope readers will consider and remember:

  • The first generation of the Jesus Movement consisted of a tiny and fearful minority existing amid a Palestinian environment abundant in zealots willing to assassinate even high priests for not being sufficiently orthodox and pious–let alone willing to tolerate Jews who claimed the messiah had come.
  • The mission to the Jews probably was quite successful: large numbers of Jews in the Diasporan communities outside Palestine probably did convert to Christianity.
  • Christianity was not a religion based on the slaves and lowest classes of Romans, but was particularly attractive to the privileged. Jesus himself may had been from a wealthy background.
  • Christian mercy had such profound worldly consequences that Christians even outlived their pagan neighbors.
  • In a Roman world quite short of women, women greatly outnumbered men among the early Christians. This occurred in part because Christians did not “discard” female infants and Christian women did not have a substantial mortality rate from abortions done in a world without antibiotics or even knowledge of germs. It also occurred because women were more likely than men to convert.
  • Paganism was not quickly stamped out by a triumphant and intolerant Christianity, but disappeared very slowly and lingers still in various New Age and esoteric circles.
  • For centuries, there probably were more Christians in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe. Christianity was eventually destroyed in these areas by Islamic persecution and repression.
  • The crusaders were not greedy colonialists, but marched east for religious motives and at great risk and personal expense. Many knowingly went bankrupt and few of them lived to return.
  • The so-called Dark Ages not only weren’t dim, but were one of the most inventive times in Western history.
  • Despite medieval Europe’s great cathedrals, most Europeans of that era were, at best, barely Christian. Few every attended church.
  • Science arose only in the West because efforts to formulate and discover laws of nature only made sense if one believed in a rational creator.
  • The Spanish Inquisition was a quite temperate body that was responsible for very few deaths and saved a great many lives by opposing the witch hunts that swept through the rest of Europe.
  • Religious competition increases the level of religiousness prevailing in a society. In the long run it also results in norms of religious civility.
  • The claim that religion must soon disappear as the world becomes more modern is nothing but wishful thinking on the part of academic atheists.
  • Despite the low levels of religious participation prevalent in Europe, religion is thriving, perhaps as never before, all around the globe; excluding China, but including Europe, 76 percent of the earth’s inhabitants say religion is important in their daily lives.
  • More than 40 percent of the people on earth today are Christians and their number is growing more rapidly than that of any other major faith.

About VIA


  1. Pingback: A Confession, Lament, and Hope in Showing Up | Reflections From My Public Protest | vialogue

  2. Pingback: Why You’re Christian | Reflections | vialogue

  3. Pingback: The Patterning Instinct | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: