Christianity and Roman Society: A Good Read

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(Larry Hurtado):  Over the last couple of weeks one of the books I’ve worked through is Gillian Clark’s Christianity and Roman Society (CUP, 2004), and I commend it heartily.  At only 121 pp., plus bibliography & index, it packs in an impressive amount of cogent and sage discussion in a small package.

Clark focuses on the right, key questions:  “How on earth did this tiny religious splinter-group survive to become the dominant religion of the Roman world?” (p. 13).  And, after noting the views of some scholars that Christianity was essentially a savvy amalgam of Greek philosophical ideals, Jewish scripture, and emphases promoted in the Roman environment, she asks, “So, if Christianity was one among many religious options in Roman society, proclaiming one among many saviours, why would anybody choose it?  This was the one option that was neither compatible with tradition religion, nor respected as Judaism was for its ancient monotheist tradition” (p. 15).

Time after time, as Clark engages thorny issues, she seems to me to display commendable good sense in her judgments.  For example, she writes, “But the more we understand about religious options in the early centuries CE, the more difficult it is to answer the great historical question.  Why did Christianity survive and succeed in Roman society?” and “Why would they [pagans] choose the one religious option that could get them executed for subversion?” (p. 37). Noting that “it takes only one terrorist attack to make people afraid,” she observes that the early Christian fear of persecution was real, regardless of how many Christians were actually executed (p. 47).

She also rightly cautions against the simplistic tendency of some to write off early Christian asceticism as “madness ” (so, e.g., E. R. Dodds), or as prompted by and expressive of various forms of neurosis.

In discussing the question, “What difference did Christianity make?,”  she strikes me as offering a balanced appraisal, offering specific ways in which Christianity was like its cultural environment and specific ways in which it did differ.

Heartily recommended!

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