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Crosses to crowns: books on the rise of Christianity

29 June 2018

John Binns considers Christianity’s rise

THE story of the growth of the Church is familiar. The accounts of dramatic workings of the Holy Spirit and arduous missionary journeys in the Acts of the Apostles have provided a story of church growth leading from small beginnings up to the acceptance of Christianity as the faith of the empire. Our familiarity with these events can lead to uncritical assumptions about how it all happened. These three books look more deeply into these momentous events. They draw on recent research from different disciplines to help us to understand the early history of the church better.

Professor Bart Ehrman has written many books interpreting historic texts and the history of Christianity to a wide audience. Here he addresses himself to the specific questions how and why the Church grew and changed from the faith of a small group of disciples into the official Church of the empire with an estimated 30 million members within the relatively short period up till AD 325.

To do this, he presents different kinds of evidence — interpreting contemporary documents, describing recent academic research, and also presenting sociological and statistical analysis. Using this mixture of sources, he addresses a set of issues. He shows how St Paul and his successors made converts; how pagans expressed their faith and what their worship was like; why the new faith of Christ threatened this; whether Christianity was illegal and whether Christians were persecuted; how sincere the emperor Constantine was in his faith; and what rate of numerical growth would be necessary for this growth to happen.

As we understand more about the faith and the life of people living at this time, we find some of our assumptions challenged, and realise how this forbidden faith came to triumph.

He wonders what the gains and the losses of this transformation were, and makes the uncomfortable comparison between the destruction by the Early Church of pagan temples and places of worship with the recent — and more modest — level of damage caused to classical sites such as Palmyra by Islamic State.

The two additions to the excellent Very Brief History series examine other aspects of the history of the Early Church.

Paul was the great missionary of the Early Church, and his letters have shaped the faith of countless Christians. The letters do not recount the events of Jesus’s life; nor do they provide a systematic theology. Instead, they respond to questions addressed to him, and advise on practical issues faced by the Church. They have been used by later theologians such as St Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther to make sense of their experiences and to set out their understanding of faith. Because of the disjointed character of his writing and the many uses to which he has been put, this short summary is helpful in bringing out the main themes and central message of Paul’s writings and shows us what he said and did.

The third book presents Byzantine Christianity. This is a huge subject, including the faith of a society that flourished for a millennium of history, many theological debates, and the shifting fortunes of a large multi-national empire. The book summarises this huge sweep of history in short and clear sections, introducing people and movements, some of which will be unfamiliar to the reader.

It is the history of the Orthodox Church as well as the Byzantine Empire — and, while the author makes the caveat that Orthodoxy and Byzantinism are not the same, the book shows how the Byzantine tradition continues to influence the Christian faith.

These books have been by recognised scholars who combine academic rigour, a focus on specific questions, and clear explanation. They introduce us to the findings of modern scholarship and help us to understand more of the life and faith of the classical world. We will value the better understanding of how the Church came into existence, and why it triumphed over other religious movements.


The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.

The Triumph of Christianity: How a forbidden religion swept the world
Bart D. Ehrman
Oneworld £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

Paul: A very brief history
John M. G. Barclay
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Byzantine Christianity: A very brief history
Averil Cameron
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

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