Just a couple days ago I received the new book by Bart Ehrman entitled, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (Simon and Schuster, 2018). I had received a pre-published copy of the book several months ago and have been working through it.
The reason I have a keen interest in this volume is because it covers a lot of the same ground of my recent book which was released last year, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (SPCK/IVP Academic, 2017).
Currently, I am about 3/4 of the way through Ehrman’s volume and plan to review it formally in a few months. In the meantime, I have to say I am very encouraged by what I’ve been reading. I think Ehrman is spot-on in his analysis of much about Christianity in the early centuries. Indeed, our conclusions are very similar in a number of places.
What I found particularly refreshing was that the book lacked the polemic against traditional Christianity that is so often a feature of Ehrman’s recent books. Of course, I am not finished with the book yet (and I am sure there will be some points of disagreement before all is done), but so far it seems to be just a straightforward analysis of how early Christianity emerged in the first few centuries.
A few places that I think Ehrman makes insightful observations include:
1. Christianity did not succeed because of Constantine (as so many suppose) but would have likely succeeded anyway.
2. Pagan religions were mostly about ritual practices not about doctrinal affirmations of truth or ethics/morality.
3. Exclusivity of religious practice was, more or less, unknown outside of Judaism and Christianity. Thus Christians understood that they were to abstain from pagan religious practices.
4. One of the primary reasons (though not the only) Christians were persecuted was because they refused to worship the Roman gods–and this was thought to put Rome at risk of incurring their displeasure.
5. Other religions were not “people of the Book” (other than Judaism)–there was nothing like the Bible in the pagan cults.
6. The fact that Christians were both exclusive and evangelistic (neither of which were typically true of pagan religions) was a main reason for its success.
In sum, there is much to like (so far) in Ehrman’s new volume. But, the fuller review will not be out for a few months.