By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
In any contest, when one person wins, someone else loses. Most people probably don’t see religion as a contest. In the ancient world, it was almost never considered one. However, all that changed with Christianity. Some Christians did see religion as a contest. Their intent was to convert others and wipe out all the other faiths. They believed that when the Christians won, everyone else lost.
Is Religion a Contest?
Pagans following one set of cultic practices, or another had no interest in converting others. For them, all the cults were valuable. None of them was the single path to the divine. Jews had their own customs, practices and beliefs, but they rarely had any interest in converting others. They, by and large, wanted simply the freedom to follow their own practices and customs.
However, Christians from early on insisted that they had the one way to salvation. Anyone who followed any other path would be lost. They would not only be unhappy in this life, but even worse, they would suffer extremely dire and eternal consequences in the next. These Christians did see religion as a contest. Not everyone was missionary about it, out to convert others, set to wipe out all the other faiths. But some Christians were, and this became the official line of the church.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Sights in Athens
In Athens, there are great sights of classical Greek antiquity. There is the Athenian Agora, filled with all its monumental buildings, including the reconstructed very large South Stoa with its rooms, shops, and areas for people to visit; the best-preserved Greek temple from all of the antiquity—the impressive and imposing temple dedicated to Hephaestus, the Greek god of volcanoes, fire, and metal—constructed over a 34-year period in the second half of the 5th century BCE, and completed in the days of Socrates.
There is also the acropolis standing high above in the southeast, home to numerous archaeological wonders: the glorious temple of Athena Nike, and the temple known as the Erechtheion, with its six enormous female statue pillars, the Caryatids, and of course, chiefly the Parthenon—possibly the most magnificent ruin of any kind to come down to us from classical antiquity. It is an enormous structure and engineering marvel dedicated to the state goddess Athena, whose since-destroyed giant statue of ivory and gold around a wooden core, stood over 35 feet high.
Finally, there is a relatively unimposing and uninteresting place that is nonetheless of supreme importance for understanding the history of early Christianity: the Areopagus, Mars Hill. This is a rocky outcrop below the acropolis and overlooks the Agora. Both can be seen from the same spot. There’s no building on it. It’s a barren outcropping with steep stairs leading up to the top. In the ancient world, the Areopagus was known as a gathering spot for Greek philosophers discussing their views. And it’s the spot on which the apostle Paul is said in the New Testament book of Acts to have delivered one of his most famous speeches.
According to Acts, Paul had come to Athens in order to convert pagans to believe in Jesus and his resurrection. He came into town, and he began preaching and some who heard him asked him to come and speak with a group of philosophers on the Areopagus. And so Paul did so.
He gives his speech in Acts 17, and he begins by pointing out that as he had gone through town, he’d seen a number of temples and altars, but he had seen one special altar that really drew his attention. It was an altar that was to an unknown God. Paul wants to use this occasion to explain to these pagans who this unknown God really is because in fact, they don’t know, they don’t know his name, but Paul knows who it is. This is the God who created all things, and whose son Jesus had been raised from the dead, bodily raised from the dead for the salvation of the world.
The philosopher’s listening to Paul preach his gospel considered his talk unlearned and somewhat amusing. Paul was not in their intellectual league, and he had little to offer them. In particular, they mocked his idea about a bodily resurrection. For them as good Greek thinkers, when a person dies, their soul lives on but the body decays forever. Paul was preaching a physical resurrection of Jesus and of others. As a result, Paul made very few converts in town.
Victory of Christianity
If one stands on the barren spot, they would realize that some of the greatest accomplishments of human culture lay below them in the Agora, where such greats as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had walked. And above them would be the acropolis, home to some of the greatest architectural structures in human history. And this barren rock outcropping, where there was no building, was where Paul had offended the bemused, real intellectuals of his own day, who did not and could not think he could be taken seriously with his low-brow superstitious views.
And then, looking down at the Agora, looking up at the acropolis, one may suddenly realise that in the end, Paul won. What Paul preached that day to a far more sophisticated, cultured, and highly educated audience, eventually triumphed over everything Greek culture had on offer. It overwhelmed both the temple of Hephaestus down below and the Parthenon up above. The mind-boggling cultural achievements of the Greeks, and the Romans who followed them—the architecture, the art, the literature, the philosophy, and everything else—they would be swept under the carpet, most of them destroyed for all time in the wake of the Christian conquests.
Common Questions about the Triumph of Christianity
Athenian Agora includes the reconstructed South Stoa with its rooms, shops, and areas for people to visit, and the best-preserved Greek temple from all of the antiquity—the impressive and imposing temple dedicated to Hephaestus.
Parthenon is an enormous structure and engineering marvel dedicated to the state goddess Athena, whose since-destroyed giant statue of ivory and gold around a wooden core, stood over 35 feet high.
The Areopagus, Mars Hill is a rocky outcrop below the acropolis that overlooks the Agora. It’s a barren outcropping with steep stairs leading up to the top. It’s the spot on which the apostle Paul is said in the New Testament book of Acts to have delivered one of his most famous speeches.