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Backgrounds of Early Christianity - Everett Ferguson

Book Review by Ursus

Few things invite such invective as the topic of Christianity. It is seen as either the best or worst product of Greco-Roman civilization depending on one's proclivities. The very fact it was a product of its culture should make for a fruitful and objective study on Antiquity, but one finds the pursuit hard to conduct without an explosion of zealots on both sides of the debates. What I would like to do is to broach the topic, hopefully without adding any more bias or vitriol to the debate. To that end I offer the following review on a book that may prove helpful to both sides.

Everett Ferguson is professor emeritus of Bible at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He is thus a Christian scholar at a Christian institution lecturing to a Christian audience. One may rightfully suspect just how objective his study could be. In his concluding paragraph, Ferguson opines that the ultimate promises of Christianity are a matter for faith, not history. But what he attempts to do in the preceding 585 pages is to document the historical forces leading to Christianity. The vast majority of that history mentions Christianity only in passing, serving instead an overview of the imperial society that unwillingly yet inevitably birthed Christianity. On that account, this book is an erudite and mostly objective read that can profit both believer and skeptic.

What this book is not about is a history of the early church leading to Constantine's conversion and subsequent councils which articulated the dogmas of the faith. Instead, as stated in the author's preface, the focus on the book is on the parallels between early Christianity and imperial society. What was the relationship of Christianity to its environment, and why did Christianity ultimately succeed where other systems had failed?

Part one offers an outline of the political history of the ancient world. The Near East and Greece before Alexander the Great are briefly considered. Then Ferguson highlights the exploits of Alexander the Great, the Hellenistic kingdoms, and the rise of Rome. Rome's administration from late Republic to the later empire are reviewed lightly for the reader. Ferguson says what many before him have said: Christianity as we know it was unthinkable without the conquests of Alexander, for Christianity as it developed was a product of the Greco-Oriental cultures that developed in the conqueror's wake (which Rome later absorbed). But equally important was the Jewish Diaspora that resulted from the conquest of Israel by Babylon. The Jewish communities that settled throughout the later Hellenistic realms would serve as the seeds of Gentile Christianity.

Part two offers a quality review of Greco-Roman and Jewish society and daily life. Topics include social classes, education, literature and architecture, entertainment, the military, law, family life and slavery. Ferguson actually does quite an excellent job of narrating a comprehensive overview of these myriad topics. However, if there is an area of the book where a Christian bias may manifest itself a little too clearly, it would be here. Ferguson seems to take a dim view of Greco-Roman culture and its cultural maxims, while instead almost unconsciously praising Jewish culture. The author feels that in Greece man was the measure of all things, in Rome law was the measure of all things, and for Jews God was the measure of all things. The author has difficulty in disguising which of those three things he finds most venerable.

Parts three and four delve into Greco-Roman religions and philosophies, respectively. Here the author does treat the subjects with even-handedness. He does a wonderful job of explaining the at times complicated world of Greco-Roman religious and philosophical thought. He treats the subject with just the right mixture of depth and breadth. Anyone not already familiar with this murky spiritual and mental world will come away with an appreciation of just how many different worldviews confronted the individual in Antiquity.

Part five surveys the history, structure and beliefs of Judaism from the Persian period to just after the Roman destruction of the temple. Jewish religion of this period was no more monolithic than Greco-Roman society, and from certain internal tensions arose fertile ground for Jesus and his followers. This was an enlightening section that honestly serves as the necessary supplement to studies of Greco-Roman culture.

Part six finally attempts to draw together the first five parts in relation to the rise of Christianity. Under examination (briefly) are the different sects of Christianity, the separation of Christianity from Judaism, and the relationship between Christianity and Pagan society. The author makes good use of primary quotes dealing with the Roman officials' response to Christianity. I am glad to see Ferguson acknowledge what many of his peers do not: the Roman prosecution of Christianity was mild, sporadic, and usually instigated by locals rather than by imperial officials. The author establishes the religious tolerance of the Romans, the only exceptions directed toward cults that were deemed disloyal to the establishment (and he makes notes that the Druids and Bacchanants also ran afoul of Rome).

But we are left with the original question as to why Christianity triumphed in a Greco-Roman environment whereas others did not. Ferguson sees three items as critical: 1) Greece and Rome furnished the cultural and physical infrastructure vital to the transmission of a universal savior cult. Greece provided a common language, and specifically a common philosophical language, in which Christianity would develop. Rome provided the roads, laws and security that were conducive to cultural interaction. However, the author notes these forces were available to any cult. Indeed, the cult of Isis was present in every imperial port town and was a competitor to Christianity. Thus a common infrastructure was a necessary, but not sufficient, requisite for Christianity

2) The Jewish Diaspora formed as much as 7% of the population of Antiquity. They were found at all levels of society, from slave to wealthy businessmen and administrators, and while more prevalent in the East they were not unknown in the West. Hellenized to a degree, they were the perfect centers from which Christianity could penetrate into the Gentile mind. But again, (and this is my analysis, not the author's) this was also true of Alexandrian sailors and the Isiac cult. There was yet something more powerful at work, which brings us to the next topic.

3) Since the time of Socrates, Greco-Roman religion operated on various levels. At the bottom was the simple (critics would say 'crude') faith of the masses and their temple cults. At the top was a speculative and pantheistic system inspired by various philosophies. Somewhere between the two and blending into both was a belief in magic, astrology, demonology and other various occult forces. At no time in Greco-Roman society was there ever a pagan faith that could unite these levels. Julian the Apostate had plans to forge an integrated Pagan state religion, but died in Persia before his schemes came to fruition. It was left to Christianity to realize the spiritual needs of religious consumers in one convenient marketing package. As the author explains:

Popular religion was unable to hold the conviction of the educated, and philosophy unable to reach the masses. Christianity successfully integrated a religious faith with a worldview and pattern of life that were philosophically defensible, if not "philosophical" in the strict sense ... Nevertheless, the situation was not so clear-cut. The pagan beliefs in demons, astrology, and magic were so resistant that they did not really die but were absorbed into the triumphant Christianity of a later age. Similarly, much of the traditional ritual survived in Christian ceremonies.

All of this is certainly true. But is it a sufficient explanation? To my way of thinking it explains why, by Constantine's time, Christianity had become an influential minority. It does not however explain the total, rapid collapse of Paganism. Ferguson seems to feel Christianity won the hearts and minds of its citizens in the free marketplace of ideas. It was rather Constantine's conversion that sealed Paganism's fate. Once the emeperors began converting to Christianity, the rest of the State was sure to follow; once the State was prepared to use force to champion the new faith and outlaw competing systems, society at large was fated to become Christian. Without Constantine I can see Christianity still becoming an influential force, but not the sole faith. I think the real question is: What inspired Constantine and his successors to champion a minority faith over established tradition?

Alas, that question has to be addressed by another book. Hopefully I or another UNRV reviewer will assume that topic soon enough. But before one travels that route, one should read Ferguson's book as a necessary prologue.

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Book Review of Backgrounds of Early Christianity - Everett Ferguson - Related Topic: Roman Religion


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