Christianity’s success made its shocking ideas disappear – 12/24/2022 – Science

In a world where the “date of birth” of Jesus is the basis of the calendar even in non-Christian countries, where people hang crosses around their necks as mere fashion accessories, it is almost impossible to realize how counterintuitive and profoundly shocking the ideas that spawned Christianity were 2,000 years ago.

In his most recent book, entitled “Dominion”, British historian Tom Holland argues that the success of the Christian revolutionary project was so great that today it seems invisible, despite still influencing movements hostile to religion.

Holland’s work is definitely not lacking in intellectual and temporal ambition – over 642 pages, he ranges from the wars between the Greeks and Persians in the 5th century BC to the social media battles in recent years🇧🇷 Its objective is to map how the emergence of Christianity shaped in a peculiar way the development of what we usually call the West, creating a way of thinking that would not be found in any other part of the world and that decisively influenced the course of history.

The historian approaches these large-scale questions with all the zeal of a new convert. Not that he converted to the Christian faith, mind you (Holland, raised Anglican, is an atheist). His original and most enduring passion, historically speaking, is for the world of paganism, having published two books on the rise and development of paganism. Roman Empire (a third volume is due out in 2023).

“When I read the Bible, the focus of my fascination was less on the children of Israel or Jesus and his disciples and more on his adversaries: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Romans,” he writes. “I found that the biblical God was infinitely less charismatic than the Greek gods . I admired their rock star glamour.”

However, says Holland, the more he examined the great civilizations of classical antiquity, the more he realized the existence of a chasm between the Greco-Roman way of thinking and values ​​and the world where he had grown up. For the historian, it became clear that the size of this abyss was not only due to temporal distance, but to the transformation brought about by the emergence and triumph of Christianity in the West.

The greatest symbol of this transformation is the cross. In antiquity, both among Greek and Roman polytheists and among Jewish monotheists, there was nothing more shameful and worthy of disgust than the body of someone executed by crucifixion. The slow and excruciating death (a word, incidentally, which also comes from “cross” in Latin), in which the criminal, naked, was exposed to public mockery and the greed of dogs and carrion birds, was reserved for those who were considered the scum of the world. Only rebellious slaves, roadside robbers and poor rebels who dared to rise up against the power of Roma they were nailed (or tied) to a cross.

By transforming Jesus, a peasant prophet who had this humiliating fate, into the Son of God, Christian belief was shown to be subversive in the original sense of the term. That is, it was a faith that placed the most insignificant and despised subjects of the Roman social order, those who were “down there”, in the highest position – “the last will be first and the first will be last”, as the Gospels say .

As if that were not already threatening enough to Rome’s sense of hierarchy and political control, the nascent Christian movement proposed, at heart, an alternative to the so-called “Pax Romana” – the peace imposed by the emperors on the Mediterranean basin, guaranteed by the spears and swords of the legions. In the words of the apostle Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew converted to faith in Jesus: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This promise of unity that transcended ethnic, gender and social status boundaries seemed to compete with the “Pax Romana” also in that the nascent Christian movement did not recognize the legitimacy of the official religion of Rome. This Roman “civic religion” was, in many ways, extremely tolerant, accepting gods from the most diverse cultures of the Empire under its umbrella. But Christians, in addition to rejecting these gods, also rejected the worship of Roman emperors, seen as gods on earth—and therefore implicitly rejected the great unifying symbol of imperial power. This explains why Christians began to be persecuted by Rome.

It is possible that precisely this unifying potential was one of the reasons that led to the Roman Emperor Constantine (AD 272 – AD 337) to end the persecution of Christians and adopt the faith preached centuries earlier by Paul. His successors would end up transforming Christianity into the official religion of the Empire and, finally, into the only permitted one (with the exception of Judaism).

It seemed a complete contradiction to the original character of the faith – the persecuted who became lords of Rome and persecutors. But, as Holland convincingly demonstrates throughout the rest of the book, the original Christian “DNA” was never completely erased. And that meant that, from time to time, the initial intuition of the followers of Jesus – God is manifested in weakness, not in strength; the last will be the first – regained transforming power and even challenged the new hierarchy created by the Church.

Is Holland not pushing the point when he says that this impulse ultimately underlies movements like the Enlightenment, socialism, and even the Internet woke movement of recent decades? It’s possible—one of the book’s shortcomings is perhaps that it fails to recognize that the egalitarian and compassionate tendencies of the Christian tradition are also present in other religious and philosophical currents.

Bearing that defect in mind, however, the work is a welcome reminder of the radical nature of history that began two millennia ago.

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