A World Full Of Gods: The strange triumph of Christianity

This is just about the strangest history book I’ve ever read – and am likely to read. An exercise in ‘postmodern’ techniques, it tries to give us a glimpse of what it was like living in the first centuries ‘After Christ’ when Christianity was first a small unknown sect, but grew into a state religion and then the largest world religion.

A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity was recommended to me by my teacher of ancient religions (Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Greek Mysteries etc) who said this book has the best hypothesis of what ‘Gnosticism’ was. Still, it’s really more of a history of Christianity which takes into account the society of the times: Romans and Jews in Egypt, Syria and Ephesus.

The basic premise of this book…

Unlike other histories of early Christianity, this book does not actually explain WHY Christianity became the state religion of the late Roman Empire. It does no more than say: these are the factors that contributed to its popularity and the rest was chance. Some reviewers see this as a weakness to the book, but I think it’s just plain honest. The later Roman empire was not a democracy after all, so Constantine did not have to choose Christianity as the state religion. That he did so was crucial to the development of Christianity as a state and world religion.

Fact and Fiction Mixed

There are two time travel chapters and one with a television show. It’s these chapters that make this book controversial and made me use the word ‘postmodern’ in my introduction. But this is the best of postmodern: the out of time portrayals help us realize our own limitations as western, wealthy (anyone with an Internet connection is, on a worldwide scale, wealthy by definition) and modern people of our time.

Some reviewers have felt that entry level college students might take fiction for fact, but it’s a very foolish college student who will take time travel as fact. I think that fact and fiction have been mixed in a way that is perfectly permissible and helpful to a felt understanding of what it was like to live in ancient Rome. Where the boundary between fiction and fact is not immediately clear, the footnotes do clarify. I needed that help with the repentant letter by Augustine on his death bed.The imagined letters by academics to the author are a nice literary device that will help the reader realize the dimensions and subjectivity in academic discourse. That too is an educational aspect of this book that ought to be a help to university students, not a hinder.

The real Jesus was a Jew, the leader of a radical revisionist movement within Judaism. It seems improbable that he had any intention of founding a new religion. But after his execution, ordered by a combination of Jewish priests and Roman officials, the Jesus movement rapidly evolved into an independent religion, persecuted and protected by the Roman state. Three centuries later, against all the odds, the Roman emperor Constantine (306-37 CE) converted to Christianity. All his successors (except briefly Julian the Apostate, 361-63) were Christian. By the end of the fourth century, pagan rites had been banned and Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman state. Within four more centuries, the heartlands of early Christianity – Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and north Africa – had all become predominantly Muslim. Religious allegiance followed political power.

(p.1, A World Full of Gods, The Strange Triumph of Christianity, by Keith Hopkins, introduction)

Paganism in Pompeii

Chapter 1: A world full of Gods

This chapter is in the form of time travel. A contemporary couple travels back in time to Pompeii as it was just before one of the final eruptions of the Volcano Vesuvius. The chapter gives us the context of the Roman Empire in one local. The Roman Empire was very large, and like modern India, included a large variety of local and not so local religions. By submerging us, through our fantasy, in this pagan world we get to experience something of this world.

We attend a wedding, visit the baths and marvel at the sexual (yes, you read that right) illustrations on the walls. In fact, one of the strengths of this book is it’s lack of politically correct censoring of the ancient sources. Where Jews are blamed in the ancient texts, this is repeated in the book with no moralizing at all. That is what people wrote, so that is what’s shared here. The illustrations include reproductions of things that on a page like this I would not like to repeat.

Jewish sectarians and asceticism

Chapter 2: Jews and Christians, OR how the dead sea scrolls were found and lost

It’s hard to describe this chapter without quoting the author of it. His writing is so very good and engaging, yet to the point. So here goes:

“The Jesus Movement started as a small and radical revisionist movement within Judaism. This chapter explores another small Jewish Cult Group, the Qumram Covenanters, who wrote and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. (p. 46)

This group is ascetic to the point of refusing the right of married men to sleep with their wives. It’s an all-male group. The chapter starts with a simple history of the group as it appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then halfway through the chapter we switch to a description of a television show. It’s a show about a show, to add more levels to the already multi-dimensional narrative. Confusingly enough the levels seem to mix too. I’m not sure I completely got this one. I tend to think it’s the weakest fictional bit in the book. However, it does function reasonably well as a view in the world of the Qumram Covenanters and their difference from Judaism and Christianity – then and now.

And of course, and this must be one motive for writing this chapter, it gives context to the rest of the book: the religious atmosphere in which Christianity developed. Whereas chapter one helps us realize just how prominent sexuality was in ancient Pompeii (and probably elsewhere in the Roman Empire), chapter two shows us a glimpse of people who took to the opposite end of the spectrum.

The core of early Christianity explored

Chapter 3: The Christian Revolution

I had my pencil out during most of this chapter. Every bit of it seemed, as I was reading it, worthy of being reread, quoted etc. It’s written as an ordinary history of early Christianity and starts out, again, very well:

The core of Christian belief was quite extraordinary. It is difficult for us now to recapture how very strange and offensive it must have seemed to pagans in the Roman world. Christians claimed that there was only one true God, who had sent his son, Jesus, the Messiah, both human and divine, into the Roman empire to save humanity from sin. Jesus had died, of his own free will, as a crucified animal, in Palestine. But Christ had not died. He was bodily resurrected from the dead and is now in heaven, passing just but merciful judgment on the living and the dead. In return for believing this, and for living a life free from sin, in deed and thought, and for meeting weekly to pray, Christianity offered its faithful the hope of salvation and immortality. Christ’s undignified suffering and death on the cross became the new symbol of human salvation.
Gloss it as you will, the worship of a crucified criminal as the son of God, the divine exaltation of a humble human, the crucifixion of God, and the ethical message of achieving individual salvation through faith, virtue, and repentance constituted a radical break with pagan polytheism, animal sacrifice and temple worship. (p. 76)

Two more quotes:

… it is essential to appreciate that the early Christian message was understood differently then and now, if only because the whole context of understanding was different. (p. 78)

The very existence, from early on in Christian history, of brief statements of Christian beliefs set Christianity apart from Judaism and paganism. Put crudely, the contrast is that Christianity became a religion of belief, whereas Judaism and paganism were religions predominantly of traditional practice, with settled adherents. Judaism was the religion of a nation, with few converts in each generation, and few expulsions. Pagans (as we usually conceptualize them) simply did what they had always done. But during the first three centuries C.E., a combination of factors – the integration of diverse cultures within the Roman empire into a single political entity, large-scale migration to cities and the evolution of mystery cults – stimulated religious syncretism, and increased fluidity in religious attachment. For the first time in Mediterranean history, religion had become a matter of choice, not of birth. (p. 80)

The chapter goes on describing how Judaism and Christianity grew apart, how important guilt, sin and forgiveness were to the individual Christian, what early institutions were like and how Christians dreamed of a unified church way before there was one. In this chapter the history of the emergence of the New Testament is also started, which is a theme throughout the rest of the book. It includes the theme of martyrs in the early church and tells us that there were way fewer martyrs than there were people who admired them.

Early Christians disagreed fervently among themselves as to whether Jesus was wholly divine…

Versions of Jesus

Jesus and his twin brother: varieties of Jesus

In this chapter we get introduced to the variety of stories told about Jesus and his family. The chapter is named after Judas Thomas who is sometimes portrayed a simply one of Jesus’s brothers, but also sometimes as his twin. However the chapter isn’t merely about him, it’s also about how the themes from Jesus’s life get transplanted into the themes of other Christian teachers. We also meet Andrew who converts the wife and brother of a governor.

This chapter is mainly an illustration of the fact that in the first centuries of our era Christianity didn’t yet have a precisely defined canon. It’s mythology wasn’t fixed and there was no central authority to do so just yet. Though there were many who dreamed of imposing that central authority.

Religions create, and thrive on, passionate commitment and passionate conflicts.
(p. 1)

Egyptian temples and magic

Chapter 5: Magic, temple tales, and oppressive power

Our time travelers are now in Egypt, under Roman rule, during the second century.

James and Mary have a lovers quarrel and James resorts to local magic to get her back. He does get her back, but soon after he gets captured by the authorities and Mary has to save him.

We get another glimpse of the world around early Christianity. Remember that Augustine lived in Egypt a few centuries later. We get a glimpse of temple life, of marriage between siblings, of rituals people perform and the reasons for performing them.

Pagans vs Christians vs Jews

Chapter 6

This chapter is a series of fictional letters. First a letter by the author to a university college. Then a letter by a recently converted Christian, Macarius, to his confessor. He writes about a dinner party at which he had to defend Christianity against Judaism and Paganism. He was hardly successful and writes not only what he said, but also what he should have said. Included is a ghost story of the time. The next letter is from that author’s college back to the author, sharing some theological objections to this story. Then Macarius’s confessor replies with even more of what should have been said. Then a Jewish professor replies to the whole thing as well.

The whole gives us an idea of the cultural tensions of the time, and of religious academia at present.

Pagans and most Jews thought that it was absurd to claim that Jesus was the Son of God.
(p. 1)

Gnostics, Manicheans and St. Augustine

Chapter 7: Recreating the Cosmos

The focus of this chapter is on religious choice in the Roman world and on competition between religions, as mirrored in different stories about how the universe began. Stories about creation served as a metaphorical map on which competing religious leaders – Jews, pagans, Christians, Gnostics, and Manichees – drew their particular versions of belief. Understanding the origins of the world was a symbol for understanding the nature of divinity and of humanity, and for revealing the ethical rules by which humans should conduct their lives in order to gain salvation. (p. 245)

We meet with various interpretations of Genesis that now seem outlandish. It doesn’t really matter whether the interpretation was originally Jewish, Christian, Gnostic or even Manichean: it all seems weird.

This is, again, a chapter of ordinary history. And, again, I’ve noted almost the whole text as important. It’s this chapter that made my teacher recommend this book as a good hypothesis on Gnosticism. But confusingly, the chapter treats Gnosticism as mainly Jewish and Christian, whereas my teacher felt it was a wider movement than that. The problem is, partly, that the texts which survived are probably only part of the whole. And those that did survive do not all have a Christian or Jewish background.

We get the now famous history of the Nag Hammadi library found by two peasants in Egypt in 1945. We get a summary of Gnostic beliefs, which some authors on Gnosticism have said is impossible to do: there is too much variety in Gnostic stories.

The middle of the chapter enters Mani, the founder of a now dead world religion: Manichaeism. It’s important precisely because it did once spread over most of the known world. There were Manicheans from Spain to China. Another reason why Manichaeism was important is that Augustine was a Manichean for nine years, before he became a Christian. Augustine is the central character in the last part of this chapter. First we get his refutations of the Manicheans, then his nightmare: a fictional account of what he should have felt about persecuting non-Christians.

What people thought and believed about Jesus

Chapter 8: Jesus and the New Testament, or The Construction of a Sacred Hero

Jesus was the Son of God, human and divine. We know very little about his life. Nor did the writers of the Gospels, though at least two of them were alleged to have been his disciples and so, close acquaintances. But the disciples of were reportedly illiterate, so they could not have been the authors of the gospels, as critics both pagan and Christian saw in antiquity. So in a narrow sense, the gospels of Matthew, John, Thomas, and Philip are religious fakes. That lessens their factual but not their historical value, or their religious truth. Belief validity is quite separate from fact correctness, and religious history is more concerned with representations than with facts. The gospels tell us what some ancient Christians thought and believed about Jesus. (p. 287)

This will perhaps be the hardest chapter to read for Christians. It’s an analysis of the miracles, the theology of early Christian authors: both within what was to become the New Testament, and outside it. One of the points of this chapter is that the gospels quoted the Hebrew Bible (what was to become the Old Testament) extensively. The Gospel of Thomas is compared to the canonical gospels and comes out as being least ‘Christian’. There’s a reason it wasn’t in the final New Testament. Comparing texts is a good exercise. For instance:

The traditional English Lord’s Prayer is a mixture of Matthew and Luke, because it is a translation of the text of an ancient Greek manuscript which has a longer version of Luke (a version that harmonized the text of Luke and Matthew). Even in antiquity, the texts of the gospels were open to emendations and additions. The texts that we have, and translate, is not necessarily the original text, but the closest scholars can get to it. The variants reflect the diversity of ancient Christianities. (p. 317)

The introduction to this book, by Keith Hopkins himself, is available online here.

  • A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity
  • Author:┬áKeith Hopkins
  • Also published as A World Full Of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Plume; Reprint edition (July 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452282616
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452282612
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.8 x 8.9 inches