A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity

A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity

by Keith Hopkins


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A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity by Keith Hopkins

“Evokes the sights and sounds of the ancient world with daring and imagination… An intellectual tour-de-force that challenges us to see the history of Christianity through the eyes of those who actually lived it.”—Los Angeles Times

In this provocative, irresistibly entertaining book, Keith Hopkins takes readers back in time to explore the roots of Christianity in ancient Rome. Combining exacting scholarship with dazzling invention, Hopkins challenges our perceptions about religion, the historical Jesus, and the way history is written. He puts us in touch with what he calls "empathetic wonder"—imagining what Romans, pagans, Jews, and Christians thought, felt, experienced, and believed-by employing a series of engaging literary devices. These include a TV drama about the Dead Sea Scrolls; the first-person testimony of a pair of time-travelers to Pompeii; a meditation on Jesus' apocryphal twin brother; and an unusual letter on God, demons, and angels.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452282612
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/01/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Keith Hopkins is a professor of ancient history at King's College, Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction This is a tale of passion, illusion, and controversy. It retells the magnificent though troubling story of the growth and triumph of Christianity in the Roman empire during the first three centuries after Jesus' birth. Christianity triumphed, but only after prolonged struggles with the Roman state, with competing religions, and with internal dissidents. So in order to understand the growth of early Christianity -- perhaps "Christianities" would reflect its diversity better -- we have to set it in its Jewish and pagan contexts, and we have to trace its fierce internal controversies.

The real Jesus was a Jew, the leader of a radical revisionist movement within Judaism. It seems improbable that he had any intention of founding a new religion. But after his execution, ordered by a combination of Jewish priests and Roman officials, the Jesus movement rapidly evolved into an independent religion, persecuted and protected by the Roman state. Three centuries later, against all the odds, the Roman emperor Constantine (306-37 CE) converted to Christianity. All his successors (except briefly Julian the Apostate, 361-63) were Christian. By the end of the fourth century, pagan rites had been banned and Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman state. Within four more centuries, the heartlands of early Christianity -- Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and north Africa -- had all become predominantly Muslim. Religious allegiance followed political power.

Religions create, and thrive on, passionate commitment and passionate conflicts. Jesus is a symbol both of devotion and of disagreement. Pagans and most Jews thought that it was absurdto claim that Jesus was the Son of God. And early Christians disagreed fervently among themselves as to whether Jesus was wholly divine, or wholly human, or a subtle mixture of human and divine. Modern believers have tried to forget these ancient debates, and have largely succeeded. But these were only some of the beliefs which early Christians died and later killed for. They help to remind us that there were then, as there still are today, many Christianities. And it was by no means predictable which orthodoxies would win.

This book is an experiment in how to write religious history. It started with a research project on early Christianity at King's College, Cambridge, comprising five scholars of different nationalities, religious outlooks, and academic specialties (American, British, German; Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, agnostic, atheist; Jewish history, Roman history, New Testament, church history, rabbinics, patristics, theology). Unsurprisingly (in retrospect), we couldn't work together. We disagreed about almost everything, although (as we now claim) we all learned a huge amount from one another.

So what did I learn? Primarily that I didn't know enough, and sometimes didn't want to learn, about other faiths. Beneath the liberal veneer, there was a reluctance, a deep resistance, to be open minded, to unlearn the half-unconscious absorptions of childhood and adolescence. Put another way, my atheism was indelibly Protestant. And religious history is inevitably affected by what writers, and their readers, believe. But history is, or should be, a subtle combination of empathetic imagination and critical analysis.

This history plays on several irreconcilable tensions. What was it like to be there? We don't and cannot know. And yet surely empathetic imagination should play its part. We have to imagine what Romans, pagans, Jews, and Christians thought, felt, experienced, believed. But, as with baroque music played on ancient instruments, we listen with twentieth-century ears. We read ancient sources with modern minds. And if we report what we do know in quasiobjective, analytical terms, then inevitably our whole language of understanding and interpretation is deeply influenced by the modern world, and who we are in it. We cannot reproduce antiquity. And religious history is necessarily subjective. We know from experience that other writers, and readers, are very likely and fully entitled to disagree.

So why, then, don't we incorporate this empathetic wonder, knowledge, pseudo-objective analysis, ignorance, competing assumptions, and disagreements into the text of the book? That's what I've tried to do. Successive chapters explore Roman paganism, Judaism, and early Christianity in their variety and interactions. But they also explore different methods of historical reportage, description, and analysis, and some of my colleagues' objections.

We start in ancient Pompeii. Two modern time travelers report what they've seen during a brief stay, timed just before the eruption of Vesuvius. By this tactic, I wanted to share the liveliness, pervasiveness, and passion of paganism through texts and artifacts. But inevitably, we see the Roman world only through modern eyes; the alien culture of ancient Rome has to be interpreted by us. Time travelers stand for one version of history, fictionalized in order to expose the difficulties which all historians face in recreating the past. But time travelers have a restricted view; they can report only what we already know. I'm far too inhibited an academic to make things up. This is not a novel, even if it has a few novel-like characteristics. And in a letter incorporated into the text of the book, one of my liberal colleagues roundly criticizes the whole experiment: innovative perhaps, rambunctious, but from an intellectual standpoint fatally flawed. Even the endnotes, which cautiously document every step and most words, can't fend off her criticism.

The second chapter tries to go one better. But the problem is slightly different: how to evoke the flavor of an obsessional sect of fervently committed Jews from Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947? The tiny Qumran sect of ascetic males opens a small window on the religious ferment in Roman Palestine in the first century, before the Jewish rebellion of 66-73 CE. These Jews were not proto-Christians -- far from it, though they shared with Jewish Christians both religious passion and hopes about the Messiah(s). They highlight the intense religiosity in Palestine during the period in which Christianity first arose. But the Dead Sea Scrolls are repetitive and difficult to understand. So here I try to capture both the intensity of their religious passion and the difficulty of reporting it now, by using a quintessentially modern idiom, a TV drama, in which all that we see/read is mediated by a simplifying process of (mis)interpretation. This TV play is set partly in ancient Rome, partly in the modern world. The Qumran myth is replayed, as all old myths should be, with ancient and modern players, and with authentic words. But in the modern medium, much is also changed; there are, for example, slippages of time and character. That too is unlikely to please my critical colleagues. So they too are given a voice, though only after the show is over. For me, the hero of this play is the TV camera itself, which, like a historical source, arbitrarily selects what it chooses to show, never lies, and never understands.

The third chapter, on the evolution of early Christianity as a revolutionary movement, is a conventional, objective analysis. This "objectivity" is the product of my unbeliever's distance from the Christian sources; but then, this unbeliever stance might not seem "objective" to believers. Indeed, what would an objective account of early Christianity look like? This chapter concentrates on the evolution of the New Testament, on the growth of an orthodox tradition of belief, on orthodox Christians' increasing efforts to impose a unity of faith through a hierarchy of priests and the canonical New Testament. It finishes with a study of persecutions and martyrs, which partly subverts convention by arguing that the Roman state largely protected Christians. And it argues that Christian Martyr Acts, which are dramatic accounts of Christians' trials and sufferings, functioned more as an alternative than as a stimulus to martyrdom. Reading about martyrs' bravery and faith recreated the performance, with only vicarious suffering.

The fourth chapter, called "Jesus and His Twin Brother," retells some of the religious stories from the secret (apocryphal), nonorthodox writings which from the second century onward supplemented the New Testament. And Jesus' twin brother is an icon for Christian religious inventiveness. Some Christians, at least, thought they needed to pursue salvation by enlarging the divine within themselves. They needed an intermediary between their own inadequate humanity and the transcendently divine Jesus. Jesus' twin brother is a symbol of believers' need to search for God within themselves. The chapter is split round a letter from a German academic who trenchantly objects to the infantilization produced in the reader by these stories. Stories, he claims, are no substitute for rigorous intellectual analysis. Religious history, if not religion, is too serious for stories. But in the Roman world, stories, not analysis, were the stuff of religious persuasion. And storytelling used to be the stuff of history.

The second half of the book has a similar structure. We begin again with our two time travelers, Martha and James. But this time they visit Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor (Turkey) to see something of the variety of pagan practice and religious passion. It's a radically different world, of disease, dirt, and animal sacrifice, of temples, professional priests, magic, blood, violence, short lives, and long stories. Romantically, we often imagine Greece and Rome as our cultural ancestors. We tend to forget that the strangely alien cultures of Egypt and Syria were important parts of the Roman empire and cradles of early Christianity. Suitably, in a story about religion, at the end of the chapter James is unjustly arrested, thrown into prison, summarily tried by a Roman judge, and strung up to be tortured. But in the nick of time he is saved by a miracle of modern science. This naive fiction invites the reader to reflect on the difference between the unbelievable, the believable, and the believed. Some early Christians believed that Jesus too did not actually suffer on the cross, but escaped by a magical illusion.

Chapter Six comprises a "previously unpublished" letter written by a recent convert to Christianity in the early third century seeking advice from a more experienced believer. The new Christian, Macarius, has (unwisely) accepted a dinner party invitation from an old friend, still pagan. At dinner they all discuss religion, and the pagans take the opportunity to offload all their pent-up criticisms of upstart Christianity. Ancients were not as kindly as modern liberals. Much of what they say is probably untrue, but that did not necessarily reduce its force; besides, Macarius probably exaggerates Christian virtues. Even so, he doesn't manage to say all that he wanted to, and subsequently thinks of. To add insult to injury, at dinner he is seated next to a Jew (as though there were no difference) who comforts him by giving his scurrilous account of Jesus' life: all pure invention. Long before the evening ends, most of the guests have turned from serious discussion to ghost stories and dancing girls. Macarius leaves bruised, but with his convictions undiminished.

Chapter Seven recreates the rival, semi-Christian universes of Gnostics and Manichees by retelling their versions of creation. In creation, we see the nature of God(s) and of the humans they made. Stories of creation set the stage for the first interaction between God and humans. They allow believers to explore the nature(s) of God(s) and humanity. And since practically no one nowadays is either Gnostic or Manichee, they provide us with an ideal template for perceiving how believers construct God(s) and their religion's foundation myths. For Gnostics and Manichees, one basic problem was, why did a good and omnipotent God allow evil into the world? The Gnostics' typical answer was that it was a tragic and stupid mistake, committed by God's youngest daughter, Sophia-Wisdom. Manichees saw world history as a continuous struggle between the forces of Light and Dark, good and evil. Orthodox Christians eventually followed Augustine in considering evil as humans' fatal flaw, inherited by all of us from Adam and Eve. The chapter ends with Augustine's deathbed nightmare, previously unrecorded, in which he dreams scarily that some of his beliefs were ill founded.

The final chapter is a study of Jesus, not so much of the historical Jesus as of the many and varied Jesuses of history, constructed over time. Jesus, I argue, is not just, nor even primarily, a historical person. Rather, like the sacred heroes of other great religions, he is a mirage, an image in believers' minds, shaped but not confined by the images projected in the canonical gospels. To be sure, his canonical historicity is part, but only part, of the image. But as with all beliefs, most is imagination and inspiration. History here is a history of representations, not of facts. So, ancient Christians constructed many Jesuses, as modern believers still do. Fixation on any particular version as the true Jesus is more a matter of believer choice than of historical truth or falsity.

The structure of the book is like a triple helix of multicolored and interwoven strands. The three major strands -- Judaism, paganism, and Christianity -- were each in themselves diverse, complex, and changing. They continually interacted, both inside themselves and with their own variants, and externally with one another. Patterns of identity and fusion are visible much more in the illusory calm of retrospection than they ever were to contemporaries. And so to reexperience the thoughts, feelings, practices, and images of religious life in the Roman empire, in which orthodox Christianity emerged in all its vibrant variety, we have to combine ancient perceptions, however partial, with modern understandings, however misleading. That is the tension and the excitement of recreating and reading a history of a vanished world which was once full of harsh realities, dreams, demons, and gods.

Copyright © 1999 by Keith Hopkins

Table of Contents


One: A World Full of Gods
(Time travel in pagan Pompeii; the Roman context of Christianity)

Two: Jews and Christians, or, How the Dead Sea Scrolls Were Found and Lost
(Narrative and drama in three scenes about Jews, Christians, history, and us)

Three: The Christian Revolution
(Christian character and evolution: persecutors, martyrs, and bishops)

Four: Jesus and His Twin Brother
(Varieties of early Christianity; the apocryphal New Testament)

Five: Magic, Temple Tales, and Oppressive Power
(The time travelers continue: Egypt, Syria, and Ephesus)

Six: Pagans vs. Christians vs. Jews
(Competing stories in a semi-intellectual discussion of differences)

Seven: Recreating the Cosmos
(Creation in Jewish, Gnostic, and Manichean thought)

Eight: Jesus and the New Testament, or, The Construction of a Sacred Hero
(Jesus in the gospels and after)

Select Bibliography
Subject Index
Selective Index of Proper Names

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—Seth Schwartz, Jewish Theological Seminary of America

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