Christianizing the Roman Empire AD 100-400

by Ramsay MacMullen (1984), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

How did the early Christian church manage to win its dominant place in the Roman world?  Consensus is that Christianity revitalized life, in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life, providing new kinds of social relationships (eg Rodney Stark).

MacMullen takes a less kindly tone in attempting to identify reasons for conversion, eg mass ‘conversions’ of Bedouin at a monastic site (p 2-3).  Conversion is the change of belief by which a person accepted the reality and supreme power of G-d and determined to obey him (p 5).  Immersed as we are in the Judaeo-Christian heritage, we hold that religion means doctrine, and that conversion to Christianity involves rational and intellectual criteria.

Roman religion did not share this; it was characterized by undisturbed religious toleration, and worship was basically a self-interested activity to gain favour from powerful beings (p 13).  Christianity demanded a choice.  Jesus was not just a new deity to add to the already crowded pantheon, but the Great G-d, at war against all rivals.  And the teaching was that of monotheism, evidenced by widespread exorcism, showing the superiority of Jesus (cf John 20:30), an exchange of views ‘about wonderful cures wrought by this or that divine power’ (p 40).

MacMullen cites examples of non-religious factors in conversion, eg wealthy church members had strong influence on would be converts (p 54).  ‘Conversion gave to strong pressures that affected the course of the new religion’ (p 85). Emperors and ecclesiastical officials controlled the distribution of material benefits (p 114).  Silencing, burning and destruction were all forms of the church’s demonstration of supremacy; monks and bishops and emperor had driven the enemy from the field’(p 119).

A hard hitting book that avoids some of the sentimentality we attach to the early church.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.