WITHOUT the New Testament, we would know more about John the Baptist than about Jesus, and it has been easy for Christians to form their wider impressions of the surrounding culture merely from the New Testament.
This Californian Professor of Ancient History attempts to redress the balance by providing a wide-ranging account of Graeco-Roman culture around the time of Jesus, with a particular emphasis on the popular religion of the time.
Knapp emphasises that it was generally believed that “the world was full of gods,” and that life was lived in the presence of, and in dialogue with, invisible supernatural forces. This gave life itself a sense of instability, as people believed they struck various bargains, sacrificial and otherwise, with the deities.
Judaism provided a partial exception, with its belief in Yahweh alone, and a belief that he was not a god with whom one could bargain. He was a god of justice and constancy, but this led to the struggle to make sense of an apparently unjust world, as in the Psalms and the Book of Job.
The ancient world was one where magic was taken for granted, with Jesus regarded as someone who performed “signs and wonders”, albeit in a comparatively benign way. The dependency of Christian witness on the testimony to the miracles of Jesus and his first followers gave way in the second century to an emphasis on persuasion.
The difficulty here lay in the absurdity to educated pagans of the claim that God had become a human being, and ended up being crucified. This led to a difficult relationship with Graeco-Roman thinkers, who regarded it as folly, while to the Jews it was blasphemous.
It is unsurprising, then, that persecution and martyrdom became a feature of Christian experience in the first centuries.
Knapp struggles to explain why Christianity nevertheless flourished. He says little about the hope beyond death, or the social inclusion, to which other historians have pointed. Early in the fourth century, everything changed, and Christianity became an imperial religion. As Knapp puts it, top down replaced bottom up, and persecution ended.
This is a lively and often entertaining account of the cultural context in which Christianity took shape. Those with a strong Christian commitment will find it a bit too detached and dispassionate. Knapp isn’t much interested in whether Christianity is true, but rather in the sociology of why it managed to succeed with such an unlikely message of a crucified God.
Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.
The Dawn of Christianity
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