Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block

(In keeping with the season I present a brief historical (leaving any deities out of it) understanding of exactly why Christianity was so damn successful.  Next week I will deal with the other question: what exactly was the reaction of the Roman government and why, a topic that has been seriously distorted because, well, the Empire no longer exists and Christianity does.)

Christianity is clearly a fusion of east and west, being a sort of religious hybrid produced by the intersection of Hebrew monotheism and the Greek mystery cult brought on by several hundred years of Greek control of Palestine. To some degree it is also a mix of oriental mysticism and Greek rationalism, inasmuch as the basic beliefs were later influenced by Stoicism and neo-Platonism. In essence, the Jews supplied the idea of the sole, ethical creator god, disconnected from the natural world, while the Greeks, through their mystery religion, contributed the notion of the dying and resurrected god. Paul and his associates made the new religion palatable for the world outside Judaea by stripping it of unappealing Jewish ritual, such as circumcision and dietary laws, and Greek rationalism then proceeded to refine the understanding of the godhead.

First of all, Christianity shared the ideas that had made the mystery cults so popular in Greece and later the Roman Empire. Traditional Greek and Roman religion was essentially civic in nature, primarily serving the community and devoid of any personal or inspirational quality. The mystery religion, which came in a variety of specific cults, did not deny the traditional gods but rather focused in on a single or tiny group of deities, providing the worshipper with a more personal and intimate relationship with divinity. The cults also involved emotional initiations and revealed knowledge, known only to the initiates, who gained in the cult at least a measure of equality with their richer and more powerful brethren. Christianity had no secrets but it rested on revealed knowledge and also offered a sense of special community within its ranks. Most all the mystery cults revolved around the central figure of a god or human who either literally or figuratively dies and is resurrected, thus providing an analogue of hope for the worshipper facing the inevitability of death. Further, the cults promised some reward, initially in this life, but by the end of the fifth century BC evidence appears suggesting the idea of judgment and reward in another life.

Christianity offered all these things but was something more than just another mystery religion. The Christian god was not just some Olympic retread, but the god of love, completely absorbed in those he had created. His death and resurrection was not simply some mythic event that had nothing to do with humanity beyond providing a message of hope. Rather, he became human and died specifically for humanity, a divine sacrifice that reveals an entirely novel concept of god. He was the god of all – rich, poor, slaves, free, men, women – something that was not always true of polytheist deities; for example, Mithraism, far and away the most popular cult in the Empire, was open only to men. And Christianity (at least until a powerful church emerged) cost nothing but commitment, while the polytheist religions required sometimes costly sacrifices, such as the bathing in bull’s blood incumbent on Mithraists.

Above all, this new god may have been open to everyone, but he definitely had a bias towards the poor and downtrodden. The rich and powerful had always had the edge in spiritual affairs, whether in the quality of their gifts or in outright control of the mechanisms of the religion. For the first time in history there was a god who favored the meek and chided the wealthy, and of course the vast majority of the in habitants of the Empire fit into the former category. This must have made for immense drawing power.

The religion also quickly developed the primitive ideas of judgment in the mystery cults into a full-blown system of reward and punishment in the next life and firmly rooted the judgment in the moral code inherited from Judaism. Obviously, promise of a better life in the next world is going to turn the heads of those whose life in this one is not that great, and while Christianity is born into an imperial society that constituted one of the more comfortable periods in history, in a few centuries life in the Roman Empire was going to become very unpleasant for most of its subjects. Now, the reward and punishment was based on the observance of a fairly strict ethical code, which might be expected to turn away potential converts. Most of us can get through life without committing homicide or adultery, but the thought crimes are very tough; “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is after all a rule even Jimmy Carter violated. But most people want a moral structure provided for them, and the basic rules provided by Christianity struck a favorable chord precisely because they were good rules. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments because they proclaim the basic laws absolutely necessary for a stable society.

So the demanding moral code was likely also an attraction of the new religion, which was offering reward in the afterlife for behavior that virtually all normal humans consider good and proper. On the other hand, not even a Mother Teresa could keep all these rules all the time, and what made the whole system feasible for the average Joe was the loophole: forgiveness. Were it not for the mechanism of contrition and forgiveness, the new religion would be making impossible demands and simply not work.

Extremely important in the triumph of Christianity is the simple fact that it happened in history. The core event of the religion, the death and resurrection of the god, did not take place in some distant mythic past, as in the mystery cults, but right there in the Roman province of Judaea during the reign of Tiberius (14-37). The first apostles of the new god had actually been there, first hand witnesses of the essential events of the religion. They heard the sermons and saw the miracles and the crucifiction, and some claimed experience of the resurrection itself. This gave the religion an impetus unmatched by the old belief systems.

Additionally, though it may have played something of a negative role in the spread, the exclusiveness of the monotheistic religion certainly helped preserve it intact. Syncretism, the identifying and combining of gods across cultural lines, was an inevitable component of polytheism and produced religious hybrids, such as the cult of Isis and Serapis. This simply could not happen to Christianity – at least in any serious way – because there were no other gods. This would produce a religious fanaticism unknown in antiquity outside the Hebrews, and that fanaticism presumably helped a bit. These were people who were willing to die for their god, and that kind of commitment surely had to impress potential adherents.

Finally, there is the element of coincidence: the charismatic preacher was born at the height of the Roman Empire.  Without this huge area of political stability and easy communications the new religion would very likely not have been anything more than another eastern cult.  Two centruies earlier Rome was only beginning to nose into the eastern Mediterranean, and it is not all clear that the new religion, which would be perceived as a heresy by the Jews, would have survived the religiously reactionary Hasmonean kingdom.  Two centuries later and the religion would almost certainly not have the time to spread and develop its infrastructure before the western Empire collapsed.  It might survive in the east, but the conversion of the barbarian tribes becomes more problematic, and what would the history of the west be like without the Church to carry civilization through the Dark Ages?

"In hoc signo, Baby!"

“In hoc signo, Baby!”

Such are the reasons for the initial survival and spread of Christianity, but the final triumph and emergence of the new creed as the exclusive religion of the western world owed less to its nature than to political developments. Because of popular hostility and ultimately government obstruction (tune in next week), by the beginning of the fourth century Christians constituted perhaps only ten percent of the population, but for seemingly cynical political reasons Constantine the Great (sole emperor 324-337) embraced the religion. One might question the conviction of Constantine, who converted only on his deathbed, but the imperial family became Christian, and after Constantine every emperor but one (Julian the Apostate) was a member of the faith, thus making Christianity a powerful force in the government of the Empire. With the power of the sate behind it Christianity began a rapid expansion, as polytheists were subject to greater and greater persecution.

The collapse of the western Empire in the fifth century guaranteed the complete supremacy of Christianity, as the Church, now the only surviving governing structure in the west, emerged as a kind of international corporation manipulating the emerging barbarian kingdoms. The conversion of the Germanic tribes, especially the
Franks, resulted in a new warrior Christianity, which spelled doom for the surviving polytheists of Europe. The Prince of Peace had finally triumphed, albeit with a sword in his hand.

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