- - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY: HOW A FORBIDDEN RELIGION SWEPT THE WORLD

By Bart D. Ehrman

Simon & Schuster, $28, 335 pages

Ironically, religious scholar Bart Ehrman’s engrossing historical evaluation of the rise and triumph of Christianity really begins in his book’s afterword. Mr. Ehrman describes how the idea for “The Triumph of Christianity” first came to him 20 years ago during his first trip to Athens while visiting the site of the ancient Agora and the Acropolis.

After describing the pagan splendor of the architectural remains his story takes another turn: ” I was especially intent on climbing an otherwise unimpressive rock outcropping that, as a historian of early Christianity, I had known since my youth.”

This was the Areopagus, or Hill of Mars, where the Apostle Paul is said to have “delivered a speech to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers upon first arriving in Athens during his storied travels.” It is a fairly bleak spot with no classic ruins, marked only by a plaque commemorating Paul’s speech.

But from the Areopagus, you can view “the magnificent remains of the Agora below and the Acropolis above.” Paul’s speech to some of Athens’ best and brightest, delivered on this nondescript spot between two of the proudest monuments of classical Western civilization, was about “one God over all, the ultimate being, the God who created the heavens and the earth the God who is soon to judge the world and everyone in it through the second coming of his son, Jesus, whom God had raised from the dead.”

Paul made few converts that day and most of the assembled savants “mocked, although a few wanted to hear more later.” “Later” is a relative term. Standing on the same spot almost 2,000 years after Paul spoke there, it occurred to Mr. Ehrman that, “In the end, Paul won What Paul preached that day on the Areopagus eventually triumphed over everything that stood below me in the Agora and above me on the Acropolis No one, except, probably, Paul himself would have predicted it. Yet it happened: Christianity eventually took over Western Civilization.”

Dispassionately, almost clinically, and with an eye open to the faults as well as the virtues of the triumphant civilization that emerged — and that we still live in today — the author quantifies, qualifies and tries to understand how and why it happened. A large part of the answer must lie in the universal and non-exclusionary nature of Christianity itself: We are all children, not slaves, of the same Heavenly Father and he is not an arbitrary hurler of thunderbolts but a dispenser of justice and salvation.

Unlike Hinduism and Judaism, ancestry and bloodlines have nothing to do with it, although Christianity did, indeed, begin as a messianic offshoot — one might even say heresy — of Judaism, and derives many of its basic maxims and practical principles from Jewish moral teachings, most notably the Ten Commandments. What Christ added — not just as the eventually declared son of God, but as a teacher and preacher and a man of peace rather than a man of the sword like the many of the Old Testament prophets and, much later, Mohammed — was the radiant compassion of the Sermon on the Mount.

A new faith embracing all the divinely-inspired moral force of the Ten Commandments and the God-given humanity of the Sermon on the Mount had an awful lot going for it. And go it did. Statistics compiled by sociologist Rodney Stark and refined and tweaked by the author illustrate the incredible scope and pace. At the time of Christ’s death there were 20 known Christians. Seventy years later there were between 7,000 and 10,000. A century after that there were between 140,000 and 170,000; in another hundred years, between 2.5 million and 3.5 million.

One hundred years after that, in 400 CE, there were 25 million to 35 million, and Christianity was well on its way to becoming the nearly universal faith of civilized North Africa, the Near and Middle East and Europe. Almost all of the evils that afflict the world today — and some that we have overcome — long pre-date Christianity. But the remedies for most of those evils, including the abolition of slavery and the struggle for universal human rights up to our own day, were the achievement of a Western civilization shaped by Christianity and still driven by many Christian values now embraced by believers and non-believers alike.

Reason enough, as Easter Sunday approaches, to celebrate the fact that a man named Jesus once walked among us, inspiring a living faith in a merciful, forgiving Heavenly Father.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.


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