The Rise of Christianity
How do we explain the rise of Christianity?
Christianity is a remarkable religion and one that is today rarely given the credit it deserves. Christianity is essentially a religion of peace and love – in strong contrast to Islam which made its way through war. Indeed Islam was one of the most successful war machines that the world has ever seen, conquering the eastern and southern parts of the Mediterranean in little more than a century. But Christianity made its way without war; it was a slow burner and it took three centuries from the birth of Christ to the Edict of Toleration, when Christianity first became a major accepted religion.
The Crusades are often produced as evidence of Christian belligerency, but we must remember that the Crusades came over a millennium after the birth of Christ and were themselves a response to the aggression of Islam. The Muslims had captured the holy places of Israel and Palestine by force, and it was clear that they would not give them up except by force. The Crusades were tit for tat: the Muslims only understood force, and sadly force had to be used against them to recapture the holy places.
Christianity also solved the problem of sacrifice. In most religions, sacrifice plays a major role, when animals and occasionally humans have to be sacrificed to the gods to propitiate or appease them. The Jews began to reduce the role of sacrifice by saying that sacrifice should only take place once a year at the Temple in Jerusalem which is why they are somewhat aggrieved that the temple area has been taken over by the Moslems and is occupied by the Dome of the Rock — one of the worlds great examples of architecture. But this has perhaps the fortunate by-product that the Jews no longer have to sacrifice a lamb every year
For the Greeks and the Romans, sacrifice was a great public feast where the animals that were sacrificed were then roasted, and the meat was then given out to those who attended. It was a form of social services, where even the poor could get their bellies filled.
The Christian abolition of sacrifice one of the reasons is why in modern times, Christianity has had such a great success in Africa. In Africa, many of the religions tended to be rather grim affairs, with gods who demanded regular sacrifices and terrified their worshippers. Thus it was rather a relief to be converted to Christianity which not only had the lure of coming from what was clearly a rather advanced society, but where the new god was one of love, where the sacrifice had been made once and for all by the founder of the religion, and where real sacrifice was replaced by a nominal sacrifice, by the drinking of bread and wine which replaced all the expensive and extravagant sacrifices of the old religions.
It can of course be said that Christianity itself often showed a distinct lack of tolerance. Indeed in comparison with the Roman religion, Christianity was extremely intolerant and following the edicts of Theodosius, it extended its intolerance to other religions and began forbidding the traditional rituals and destroying the ancient temples. Even in Egypt, where the Romans ostentatiously preserved the old Egyptian religion, the old religion was finally swept away by Christianity. But then almost all religions save those of Greece and Rome, tend to be intolerant.
How did Christianity come to be so influential?
From our market-oriented point of view, Christianity is an extremely interesting religion, as it straddled the divide between market and pre-market societies. Christ was born into a very mixed milieu. Palestine had always been an intermediate state, intermediate between the civilisation of the Mediterranean and the mystique of the Desert. The eastern end of the Mediterranean, the Levant, of which Palestine plays a prominent part, is basically a wonderfully fertile territory. But to the east, beyond the river Jordan, was the Desert where a few hardy tribesmen scratched a living and where holy men could retreat and see visions. And Palestine tended to be the area where the visionary holy men from the desert intermingled with the suave sophistication of the Mediterranean.
The Jews had already come into contact with the great empires of the East: they were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, and their sufferings resulted in a dynamic new type of religion. However the advent of the market economy in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Persian Empire presented an altogether more insidious infiltration of new ideas. For nearly 200 years, the religious fervour died down. But it was from this intermingling between the new market economy and the Jewish religion that Christianity was born.
The time of Christ was a time of great upheaval for the Jews. Rome was in the middle of its programme for reordering the world, and Palestine as always was a problem. The Roman solution was their usual answer, to put in a client King, Herod the Great. Although Herod was not altogether a nice person – he put to death at least one of his wives, his mother-in-law and several of his sons – he was nevertheless from the practical point of view, one of the great kings of Israel. His buildings are to be found everywhere. A famous example is Caesarea Maritima, the new port that he built on the Mediterranean, constructing a huge mole using the latest Roman concrete techniques, where the Romans had invented a type of concrete that would set under water. However, his greatest building programme was in Jerusalem itself where he rebuilt the temple, constructing the huge rectangular platform on which today the Muslim Dome of the Rock stands.
One side of the platform forms the Wailing Wall. It is a massive structural achievement and should surely be regarded as the third temple. This display of power and magnificence by a Roman client must have been a great shock to the traditional views. And it was into this turmoil, this clash between Jewish tradition and the new force of Rome, that Christ was born.
I think it was Richard Reece who first pointed out the monetary background to the life of Christ. If one wishes to study how the Romans used money, most Roman literature is of little use: the Roman aristocracy despised money, as most aristocracies do, so money is rarely mentioned in classical literature. There are two major exceptions: the first is the Satyricon, the satirical novel written by Petronius, the suave courtier who was described as the ‘arbiter of elegance’ at the court of the Emperor Nero. Only one chapter of his novel has survived – the account of the feast given by Trimalchio, a rich freed man who is the epitome of the nouveau riche and incredibly vulgar in his use and display of money.
And the other work is the Bible, specifically the Gospels. The Gospels are full of references to money: the parable of the ten talents; the rhetorical question of the two sparrows sold for one farthing, or as one Gospel says five sparrows sold for two farthings – a somewhat better rate. Some of the accounts favour money whilst others show money as being evil. There is the account of Christ ejecting the money lenders from the temple, which must have been somewhat unpopular as money changers enabled Jews from different parts of the Empire to change their money into the local currency, so that they could buy their lamb for sacrifice.
Christ was clearly deeply ambivalent towards money. He was very much an outsider — it was not clear who his father was, which must have been an unsettling experience. He was deeply immersed in the Jewish religion, and he was greatly influenced by John the Baptist, who appears to have been a typical mystic from the desert. But at the same time he was hugely attracted by the sophistication of the Greco-Roman civilisation: he was mesmerised by money and saw it as being both deeply attractive and horribly wicked: he understood both traditions, and his great success was that he succeeded in synthesising the two.
His teaching combined the sophistication, and sometimes the sophistry of the Greeks with the mysticism of the desert. But the Jewish authorities turned against him, the Romans began to perceive him as a troublemaker and eventually he was put to death by the Romans, though famously the Roman procurator washed his hands of the responsibility for this. But following his death, his disciples saw him in a resurrected form for just three days, after which he ascended into heaven and was seen no more. However the teachings he left behind proved extremely potent. Paul, a Jew who held Roman citizenship, was converted and promoted the new creed as as a superior form of Judaism. Under his leadership, the new creed spread throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean, many of his journeys being recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.