By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
While most people don’t see religion as a contest, Christianity changed that. Some Christians’ intention was to convert others and wipe out all the other faiths. Christianity did overtake all other religions and asserted itself, not only on the beliefs, practices, and forms of worship of people in its day, but also on the thought, culture, society, and political structures of the West for all time, until now.
The Numerous Serendipities
While there was much gained for the world by the triumph of Christianity, much was lost as well. To begin with, it is important to note that human history and culture would absolutely have carried on had Christianity never appeared on the scene, or if it had been squashed out of existence early on, or if it had merely lived on as one of the innumerable religious options in the empire.
Obviously, something else would have happened if Christianity had not become historically and culturally dominant. Ultimately, of course, there’s no way to know what that would have been. In some ways, the triumph itself was a matter of numerous serendipities.
What would have happened if Emperor Julian had ruled for 40 years instead of 19 months? Would he have succeeded in his goal of marginalizing and then eliminating Christianity? Would the glories of Greece and Rome have lived on, grown to even greater heights, left us with unimaginably great legacies? What would have happened if Emperor Constantine had not won the battle at the Milvian Bridge but instead died in the conflict? Would Christianity have sputtered and died, or would it have continued to grow at an exponential rate? Would one of his emperor sons have later converted, or would persecution have returned and squashed the faith? If so, what would have happened then? Even more, what difference would it have made to the world if Paul had not seen the light? Would someone else have arisen to take the gospel to the Gentiles, making possible the conversion of the entire pagan world? We don’t know, and we can’t know.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Christianization and the Church
However, we do know that Christianity won over the masses in the empire, and in doing so, considered its own historical movement a triumph. If about half the empire was Christian by the year 400 CE, the great majority was Christian by 500 CE.
This Christianization brought enormous benefits to the church. It went from being legalized under Constantine, to being legislated for under Theodosius I, to being the dominant religion of the West in the centuries to follow. Once emperors became Christian, converts poured in, and of particular importance, the path was open for the aristocracy to follow. The leaders of the church shifted from being simple local believers who happened to be literate to comprising the most highly educated, well-connected, politically astute, wealthy, and revered elements of society. The wealth and the power of the church itself became enormous.
Impact on Culture
There were, of course, fantastic cultural results. We can’t possibly assess how Western culture would have developed had this triumph not occurred. The history of Western philosophy, art, music, and literature, as we know it, would not have occurred. There never could have been a Descartes, a Kant, or a Hume; no Giotto, Michelangelo, or Rubens; no Handel, Bach, or Mozart; no Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky and on and on and on.
Would we want to live in a world like that? It’s impossible to say. We have no idea who the pagan greats would have been had the Christian church not taken over Western Civilization. They would have come into existence of course, but would they have been as great as these? Who knows? However one answers these questions, it’s very hard indeed to wish that these particular greats had never come to deepen and transform our lives.
Losses Due to Christianization
At the same time, much was lost. Not simply the potential for other philosophers, artists, musicians, and others, but also the great works known to have existed that are no more with us. A great deal of ancient pagan culture was eventually destroyed, or simply never preserved. Some remnants, of course, adorn many of the great museums and libraries of the world. But most of the art and architecture was not preserved, and most of the literature was simply never copied for posterity. That’s completely understandable.
Copyists, reproducing literary texts in the Middle Ages, were invariably Christian monks working in Christian monasteries. They were far more interested in reproducing the letters of the Christian apostle Paul, than the plays of the pagan author Platus. As a result, thousands of ancient books known and suspected once to have existed are gone forever: plays, novels, poems, histories, philosophical works, scientific treatises, essays, and all the rest.
Another way to look at the gains and losses is in terms of broader social values and practices based on different kinds of ideology. If one had to describe the ideology guiding those in power in ancient Rome, in the simplest terms possible, it would be with the word dominance. It was simply understood widely on every level that the more powerful were to assert their power over those who were weaker; this was the ideology—more powerful states over the weaker—masters over slaves, men over women. This wasn’t simply okay, this was expected.
Common Questions about the Spread of Christianity
Christianization brought enormous benefits to the church. It went from being legalized under Constantine, to being legislated for under Theodosius I, to being the dominant religion of the West in the centuries to follow.
With growth in Christianity, the leaders of the church shifted from being simple local believers who happened to be literate to comprising the most highly educated, well-connected, politically astute, wealthy, and revered elements of society.
Copyists, reproducing literary texts in the Middle Ages, were invariably Christian monks working in Christian monasteries. They were far more interested in reproducing the letters of the Christian apostle Paul, than the plays of the pagan author Platus. As a result, thousands of ancient books known and suspected once to have existed are gone forever.