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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly but disturbing
This is a very short book on a very large topic. The scholarship is astounding, though evidence for this is wisely confined to the (extensive) notes section. MacMullen commands an unrivalled knowledge of the evidence surviving from early Christian times, from documents of course, but also from inscriptions and archaeological remains. He puts an amazingly cool and at times...
Published on 5 Oct. 2012 by E. Clarke

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7 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly but disappointing
I'm an historian who is interested in the early history of Christianity. I have read Wilken and Stark, as well as Chadwick and discussions about the Gospels and early Christian writings.

I had not expected Macmullen to be so anti-Christian in his writing to the extent that I think it let it affect his scholarly judgement. I am afraid that I found too many...
Published on 13 Dec. 2009 by tolkein


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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly but disturbing, 5 Oct. 2012
By 
E. Clarke "Cambusken" (Glasgow, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A. D. 100-400) (Paperback)
This is a very short book on a very large topic. The scholarship is astounding, though evidence for this is wisely confined to the (extensive) notes section. MacMullen commands an unrivalled knowledge of the evidence surviving from early Christian times, from documents of course, but also from inscriptions and archaeological remains. He puts an amazingly cool and at times imaginative historian's brain to work to make sense of all this evidence, coming to conclusions that are no doubt challengeable (as is the way of all science) but which seem to me to be fairly robust. To arrive at these from a survey of fragmented but extensive evidence is an intellectual achievement on a par with, well, I would say Quantum Physics.

From the New Testament and related documents we have some idea of how the very first Christian, or at least Pauline, communities functioned as household based, urban "assemblies". For the second century we know something went on about the formation of the role of "bishop" but we don't really know the process and how it interacted with the processes that later led to a so-called "orthodoxy". MacMullen reckons that there was a conversion rate of about half a million a generation over the second century, ending up with about 5 million "Christians" of one type or another (he is wise not to be more specific) by the time of Constantine's conversion. This was about 20% of the Empire's population. This might compare to similar conversions to other cults and may have involved comings and goings to "Christianity" but it quite remarkable nonetheless. He argues convincingly that these conversions took place largely at the domestic or local level, based on conversions of heads of households, or their wives, and subsequently their families and entourages. Overwhelmingly the (Christian) documentation suggest that conversion was the result of witnessing or hearing about miraculous events or happenings performed by wandering holy men, often in contests with the "daimons" of pagan temples. (Mac Mullen thankfully acknowledges both the strength and the intellectual and moral respectability of pagan religion). In accepting the Christian religion, people did not have to accept anything strange to them, either in science, religion or morals, just an obviously more powerful "god". The one new thing they had to come to terms with was the possibility of everlasting torment if they refused this obviously powerful Christ. This had an enormous effect.

The unique feature of Christianity was its intolerance of other religions, which perhaps explains the (infrequent) persecutions. Once Constantine allowed toleration of Christians, they became more open in their attacks on temples and their "daimons". They themselves attracted massive imperial donations and preference. There was a sort of "Dissolution of the Temples", as Constantine and others raided the temple treasuries and, as time permitted, closed them down or put them to other uses. This process was long drawn out because of local opposition. Meanwhile, vast tracts of land in Italy and elsewhere - with all their tenants and slaves - became church property, with attendant "conversions" of all concerned. Imperial career paths could now be enhanced if you followed your master's lead, and this had its effect all the way down to the local city level. Moreover, career paths in the Church now became lucrative, or at least had tax-exemption benefits, so much so that already in the third century there were frequent cases of corrupt and disputed appointments. The intolerance Christians showed to other cults they also showed to "Christians" with other ideas of what Christianity was (or to those who had been appointed to lucrative bishoprics they claimed for themselves).
By the end of the fourth century possibly a bare majority of the Empire was "Christian" in some sense, but there was certainly a majority, though not a monopoly at the elite level and later in the army, so that Christians could become more aggressive in applying what they claimed to be "the law" often with great barbarity. Christians like Ambrose and Augustine really did think they were fighting "daimons" so we should not be surprised at the ferocity of their appeals and the actions they provoked. They had no problem with forced conversions either, many poor pagans being offered a choice of death or conversion. Nevertheless, it is hard for at least one 21st Century Christian to feel any co-religiosity with these people. As we enter the sixth century, the "Christian mob" begins to make regular appearances, especially in great centres of pagan civilisation, such as Alexandria. These mobs are often also turned upon "deviant" forms of Christianity (though extensive property rights in the enriched Church were also in play).
Thus the church was established by word of mouth and local example, most often based on wandering miracle workers whose power persuaded people to choose an obviously more powerful, but very jealous, divine being over all the defeated "daimons". This was backed up (for the same reason) by imperial preference, money and an increasingly aggressive often very violent application of a "legal" demand for uniformity of belief and for the destruction of "daimons". It is an amazing story, but it leaves me at a loss to think what the Holy Spirit was up to during this (and, let's be honest, all later times). Perhaps the Reformers were right, and the whole Imperial Church was a sham, or at best an edifice within which real Christians could continue to lead out their lives quietly. Perhaps the Holy Spirit really does just choose specific individuals in any generation to be part of the "Church" no matter what institutions are put in place or "orthodoxy" enforced by the Princes and the Powers.
I have one reservation about the book and that is MacMullen's almost too casual writing style - allusive, almost ironical and often a bit involuted - which sometimes makes it difficult to work out exactly what he is claiming. The overall argument is clear and convincing, though, based on scholarship of the highest standard.
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7 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly but disappointing, 13 Dec. 2009
By 
tolkein (Chelmsford, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A. D. 100-400) (Paperback)
I'm an historian who is interested in the early history of Christianity. I have read Wilken and Stark, as well as Chadwick and discussions about the Gospels and early Christian writings.

I had not expected Macmullen to be so anti-Christian in his writing to the extent that I think it let it affect his scholarly judgement. I am afraid that I found too many places where he sought to minimise the impact of Christianity on Roman society despite the evidence. In his favour is a wealth of material and scholarly references.

I would recommend the book to Christians as a valuable discussion of the period, even though the conclusions should be viewed very sceptically.
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Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A. D. 100-400)
Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A. D. 100-400) by Ramsay MacMullen (Paperback - 1 July 1977)
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