The great appeal of Ehrman’s approach to Christian history has always been his steadfast humanizing impulse ... Ehrman always thinks hard about history’s winners and losers without valorizing the losers or demonizing the winners. The losers here, of course, were pagan people.Reading about how an entire culture’s precepts and traditions can be overthrown without anyone being able to stop it may not be heartening at this particular historical moment. All the more reason to spend time in the company of such a humane, thoughtful and intelligent historian.
Tangled lives...the raw footage of history, sadly wind up on the cutting-room floor of Bart Ehrman’s The Triumph of Christianity, a chipper but superficial retelling of the rise of Christianity ... Mr. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, is to be commended for daring to tackle the rough politics of the fourth century. But he never quite finds his footing as a social historian. The story he tells, it must be admitted, features a spectacular cast: maniacal emperors, wondrous miracle workers and at least one well-known day laborer ... in the balance of the book, he connects the dots and proceeds to characterize—in 'broad swaths'—the 30 million Romans who converted to Christianity ... There's a lot left out of the picture ... What readers are given, instead, is an unconvincing account of how Christians came to dominate Roman culture through their nagging evangelism.
Ehrman’s conclusions are debatable, as he knows perfectly well. Like a good college lecture class, his book offers both a wealth of historical information and, to make sense of it all, a few plausible theories — including his own. He doesn’t tell us what to think. He gives us a lot to think about.
He offers a survey of many centuries of scholarship on the subject, writing about the merits of certain explanations while rejecting others. What emerges in his account is a measured, grounded, but no less astounding tale of a persecuted religion that swept the ancient world with shocking rapidity.
Ehrman’s book remains solidly grounded in first-rate scholarship. And although a few loony emperors do lurk about and the (very) occasional persecution arises, the reader in search of the dramatic, the sentimental, or the miraculous is likely to find scant fulfillment here ... Ehrman calmly delineates the sound statistical case that Christianity enjoyed a 'steady and plausible rate of growth' to embrace half the empire’s population ... We don’t need the heavens to open, or the home team to triumph in a brilliantly filmed, thrills-and-spills chariot race, to gasp at the stunning ascent of this humbly spawned religion.
This survey does contribute to the subject by chronicling the later history of the Empire and the complexity of historical change. Retrospection, however, contains pitfalls. The very word 'triumph' assumes a deficit and so we are challenged to identify it. The overall impression from a scholar who, by the way is a professed atheist, remains the traditional conclusion that Christianity triumphed because it was spiritually superior.
A number of reasons are examined [for the triumph of Christianity]: evangelism, works and miracles, the offer of expiation of sin, and the promise of heaven. And while it’s impossible to come to an exact conclusion, by leading readers through the history and, yes, the mystery of conversion, Ehrman offers much to consider, including noting the diversity and religious freedom that was lost in the process.
Ehrman doesn’t provide new research, but his careful synthesis of existing scholarship creates an approachable study of the early church. Strong aspects of the book include Ehrman’s placing of such issues as Christian exclusivity, Christian care for plague victims, and Christian martyrdom within the context of the wider Roman ethos. The book covers much familiar ground but is well worth reading for those wishing to dispel myths around the early Christian churches.