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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, albeit incomplete, 30 Mar. 2011
This review is from: A New History of Early Christianity (Paperback)
History, it is said, is a chaotic mix of contingence and necessity. With one exception, I may add: the history of revealed religion. There it is all necessity: God's will through men. History then degenerates into mere chronicle of God's will as it unfolds - a "just so story" writ in capital letters.

It is the great and enduring merit of Charles FREEMAN to have eschewed writing such an implicitly hagiographic history, and to have taken Christianity to be a historical phenomenon as any other. How did Christianity emerge? The book portrays a tradition in the making: from many humble, disparate and often contradictory sources and rivulets the main stream of orthodoxy eventually materializes - decisively helped, from a crucial point on, by the secular power of the Roman emperors, who settled theological issues as they saw fit, and enforced their choice for their own purposes. The picture that emerges of Christianity is less one of the irreversible spread of an inerrant "revealed truth" as one of contingent but convergent "political compromise".

Core elements of religion are its theology, its personal ethics, its view of afterlife, and its rituals. Their contingent interplay results in the religion successfully implanting in the social tissue of the time, growing, and eventually displacing other religions.

On the theology FREEMAN's dosage of detail is just right. We can understand and appreciate the successive discussions on the essence of the Trinity. The interplay with pagan philosophy is essential, and he sorts out the crucial concepts with great clarity. In attempting to explain themselves to Pagans the early Christians had to deepen their view of the Trinity - using philosophical categories and concepts. The early optimism that revelation would suffice to understand God's nature soon yielded to pessimism - part Zeitgeist, part the unseemly wrangle of clerical ambitions. In the end the stamp "dogma" - undisputed doctrine that needs no rational justification - was placed on the now "sealed" topic. In many cases that stamp is that of the Emperor's hand, and the Emperor then secured compliance. Though certainly not novel, the central role of secular power is worth expliciting and underlining.

At the time of Constantine's edict of toleration, and 300 years after Jesus, Christianity was less than 10% of the empire's population. 200 years later, it was the dominant religion. Imitative positive feedbacks may have played a role, but the role of civil authority in first defining, then spreading by means fair and foul the faith remains undisputed. If the advantage of Christianity in consorting with power is clear, the need of the Roman Emperor for a religion like Christianity is less clearly fleshed out in the text. It was not occasional. As KULIKOWSKI has pointed out recently: "Over the centuries, even the most backward parts of the empire had come to be integrated into Greco-Roman culture and Roman citizenship, while imperial government grew to resemble an administered state rather than a parasitic superstructure delegating the actual tasks of government to local authorities." The bishops provided a ready-made administrative structure with a relatively homogeneous ethic. In addition, a personality like Constantine would no longer satisfy himself with being revered as a god; he wanted to act as God (or at least in His place). The Christian religion gave him here far more scope than Paganism.

A central point in the book is the "unintended" outcome of the quest for canon. When Constantine and then Theodosius started down that path, they could not have fully understood the consequences of centrally imposed conformism. Or they may have thought that they could be "just a bit pregnant" with it. In hindsight, the "closing of the Western mind" was a "path-dependent outcome" - and a cautionary lesson to all those clamoring for orthodoxy.

In the area of personal ethics, Dr. FREEMAN is somewhat less than complete. He points out the different strands - from Pauline and Augustinian pessimism to the emerging obsession with sexual matters. On the positive side, we have the novel and deep concern for the poor, and the commandment of love for each other. The positive attitude of Jesus toward women is noted, but the theme gets somehow lost. The subject of slavery is hardly mentioned.

If Christianity spread it was also because it offered a profoundly different ethics from that of the day. Just an example: slaves, who had been considered chattel, were now recognized as moral agents - and slaves probably made up more than half the population. Here, one may begin with Jennifer A. GLANCY Slavery in Early Christianity. Morals, furthermore, had been a private matter - in Christianity they became also a matter of the community. A better contrasting between everyday Christian and Pagan ethics would have been useful in understanding the attractiveness of the religion - but also its strangeness. Just imagine: a proud Roman knight is told that he may burn in hell, while his slave may have eternal bliss. What would have been his reaction?

One great novelty of Christianity with respect to Paganism was its emphasis on afterlife. Life was but a short trial period, followed by everlasting bliss or punishment. Notions of afterlife existed in Paganism, but were inchoate, or elitist, and certainly not universal or egalitarian. Even Judaism was unclear here, and on one point so was early Christianity - Jesus never mentioned Purgatory, and this concept emerged slowly, and was only fully affirmed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (Protestantism recused it). Again, a bitter contrasting of the Christian and Pagan views on afterlife might have given us a better view.

Rituals get shortchanged. Priests and then bishops and monks are mentioned, and somehow surface. But there is no clear focus on the inner structures of the Church as such, or on the changing role of women in them. Also sacraments only get incidental treatment.

By making these comments I'm not saying that Dr. FREEMAN would have been able to supply all answers: but simply addressing them explicitly would have helped me better to visualize the scope of the implanting process that Christianity went through in the society of its day, and on the extent of the change it eventually wrought to the pre-existing worldviews.

Other topics that would be addressed could be e.g. "portability". Pagan gods were all "local". With increasing movement of population, it would have been useful to be assured of a spiritual home anywhere in the empire. As economic conditions declined, the emergence of "praeter-natural insurance policies" against the vagaries of fate might have looked attractive.

To conclude, Dr. FREEMAN is very good on the inner development of the Christian faith. But a non-dogmatic history of early Christianity also needs to address the question: what were the popular bases of its appeal and eventual success (but for the heavy fist of the Emperor)? What changes did it bring to the people, and why did they embrace Christianity? A mapping of the subject would already have been a step in the right direction.
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