The initial explosion of Christianity: how to explain it? The book by Barth D. Ehrman

How is it possible that a minuscule “sect of Judaism”, as is sociologically defined, could conquer the Roman Empire and dominate the Western world? We talk about Christianity and about its unbelievable demographic expansion. The new and interesting book by Barth D. Ehrman deals this historical question, thereby giving us remarkable surprises.

The most banal explanation for the rapid diffusion of the Christian religion, the explanation that would be given by Voltaire, Gibbon and Burckhardt would bring into play the political support given by Emperor Constantine. «It was not Constantine to convert to Christianity, but it was Christianity to turn into an imperial religion», writes the Italian anticlerical Corrado Augias, in Disputa su Dio e dintorni [Dispute on God and sorroundings] (Mondadori 2010). That is, the Emperor’s would not have been a true religious conversion, but a political move to use Christianity as an “instrument of power”. On the other hand, the Christian religion would have benefitted from the imperial support to spread like wildfire.

Agnostic B.D. Ehrman, expert of primitive Christianity and Professor at the North Carolina University, has a completely different opinion. He is an interesting scholar, to whom we pay much attention, not only because of the importance of his academic profile, but also because of his frequent intellectual honesty. As a non-believer, he set himself the goal to defy two extremisms: the atheist-mythicistic one, which does not believe in the existence of Jesus, and the Protestant-literalistic one, according to which the Bible is a historico-scientific work, immune from any mistake or invention.

In The Triumph of Christianity. How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (Simon & Schuster 2018), Ehrman has dealt with “the triumph of Christianity”, that explanation for its numerical explosion in the first centuries. He could not clearly overlook the role of Emperor Constantine and his Christian conversion, since he is even holy in many Eastern churches. The American biblist comes to the surprising conclusion that Constantine really had a dream or a vision (or, at least, he interpreted it so) that convinced him to abandon Paganism to turn to the Christian God.

Was it a sincere conversion or a political manoeuvre? Ehrman has no doubts: his conversion was authentic, so much that he quite easily refutes the thesis that claims the opposite. Constantine put an end to the persecution of Christians, bestowed benefits and made donations to the Christian clergy, financed the building of many churches, commissioned twenty expensive copies of the Bible, intervened personally to solve the controversies with Donatists and Arians. This attests his personal and spiritual interest, and Pagans were quite sure that he had become Christian. The idea that he was not sincere, concluded Ehrman, is simply untenable.

Answering the crucial question of the demographic explosion of Christianity in only four centuries (it shifted from 3,5-4 millions in 312 AD to 25-35 millions at the end of the fourth Century), the American scholar decisively denied that this was due to Constantine’s conversion. First of all, because it would not have been the right political move at all: at the moment of his conversion, indeed, Christians represented a little percentage of the population. Ehrman opts for estimates slightly inferior to Adolf von Harnack’s and Rodney Stark’s, thereby coming to consider that the Christian population was the 6-7% of the total one, strongly satirised. Thus, the idea that Constantine would have adopted Christianity for political reasons is clearly devoid of sense. He did not get anything out of it from the political viewpoint. Even if Constantine had not converted, added Ehrman, Christianity would have anyway grown exponentially and demographically. The reason would have been the exclusivity of the faith in only one God, as opposed to the Pagan polytheism, and the accounts of the miracles worked by him and by his first disciples. The explanation of the scholar, in this case, does not seem so clear and substantiated, and it has indeed received criticism from writer Tom Holland and historian Larry Hurtado.

Much more documented is, instead, the explanation given by sociologist Rodney Stark in his Ascesa e affermazione del cristianesimo [The Rise of Christianity] (Lindau 2007). Firstly, the evangelisation of the Jews had an enduring success; secondly, Paganism (direct “rival” of Christianity) – unlike Christianity – showed its incapacity of addressing spiritually and humanely the two disastrous plagues (165 AD, the first, and 260 AD, the second) which afflicted the Empire. «The assistance and solidarity of Christians were by themselves a great opportunity to form new bonds», above-all when they cured members of other religions who, often, converted. The third reason given by Stark is the numerical prevalence of women, thanks to the better social condition they found in Christianity, in addition to the prohibition of infanticide and abortion.

Coming back to the recent work by B.D. Ehrman, his denial of another possible explanation for the Christian demographic growth is worth noticing: the forced conversion of Pagans. Quoting Gregory of Nazianzus, who wrote: «I do not consider it a good practice to compel people instead of persuading them» – the scholar of primitive Christianity comes to the same conclusion as the majority of historians: Christianity did not “win” because of violence and coercion. Except for some more confused parts, the famous agnostic scholar published another noteworthy book. In the hope that it will soon arrive in Italy, too.

The Editorial staff

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