By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Christianity began in a polytheistic and Jewish Rome and expanded exponentially. However, at the same time, early Christian practices were even more varied than they are now. The Triumph of Christianity reveals how it “went viral.”
In modern times, Christianity is one of the biggest religions on Earth. For example, a 2019 Pew Research Center study showed that 65% of Americans identify as Christians,
despite a decline in recent years. Of course, it didn’t start out that way. What we would call Christianity today began with little more than a dozen followers, competing with pagan religions and Judaism in ancient Rome 2,000 years ago. After the crucifixion of Christ, the religion spread like wildfire in a contentious world.
Wondrium’s new course The Triumph of Christianity dives into the early trials and successes of Christianity, with Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, who has taught several Great Courses on Christianity in the past. To help explain what makes The Triumph of Christianity stand out from the others, Brandon Hopkins, Content Developer for Wondrium, spoke at length about its exceptional material.
The Challenge of Christianity
When it comes to content development, Wondrium selects from a wide range of proposed topics to make new courses. What made the company settle on this angle of Christian history?
“People are hugely interested in the history of Christianity, and this is focusing specifically on early Christianity,” Hopkins said. “How do you go from 20 people who are really into this guy that mainstream Jews reject out of the gate [in the time of Jesus] to, three centuries later, it’s the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, and eventually under Theodosius the Great, it becomes the mandatory religion of the Empire?
“How does that happen?”
In other words, seeing Jesus get crucified and killed sat at odds with the Jewish belief in an all-powerful righteous hammer of God, so to speak, leading to their reluctance to see him as the Son of God.
The early resistance to Christ as the Messiah didn’t just come from everyday citizens. In ancient Rome, Hopkins said, the state had a “great interest” in its people following polytheistic religions and worshipping gods like Zeus. They gave Judaism an exception due to its longstanding practice, but contradictory religions were discouraged. This made the spread of Christianity even more surprising due to its exclusion of pagan gods.
“If you were going to give up the pagan pantheon for Christ, then you were saying, ‘This is the only mode of worship I’m participating in,’ which pagans don’t do—[paganism is] non-exclusive,” Hopkins said. “When people convert within paganism, they’re not losing pagans—if you want to worship Apollo, go ahead, but you still worship Aphrodite and everybody else. When they convert to Christianity, you’re taking a pagan out of the numbers.”
The Life of Paul
Another striking element of The Triumph of Christianity is its look at the apostle Paul and his role spreading the words of Jesus in the earliest days of Christianity. For example, Hopkins said, there’s nearly a century between Jesus’s death and any written account of Jesus.
“It’s the ancient world; it’s not like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are sitting there with tape recorders, you know? And literally [Paul] gets beaten up when he tries to pass the message of Christ on; in a lot of towns he gets thrashed.”
On the other hand, Paul found much success proselytizing to pagans. Even in the first century CE, Judaism’s traditions included abstinence from certain foods, religious circumcision, and so on. Hopkins said that Paul framed his teachings to pagans along the lines that by forming a new covenant with Jesus, they didn’t have to be circumcised—which, given the state of medicine at the time, was good news for grown men—nor did they need to give up pork and other foods.
In other words, they didn’t have to convert to Judaism first to get to Christianity.
Paul’s journey as Jesus’s famous apostle and the challenges Christianity faced at its inception only constitute some of the content of The Triumph of Christianity, which is available to stream now on Wondrium.
Edited by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily