“Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity” by renowned classicist, James J. O’Donnell, is an interesting and informative examination of that period of the Roman Empire when the traditional pagan religion was replaced by “Christianity.” What Christians would refer to as paganism was largely a casual belief system in an assemblage of gods, each of whom supposedly had a particular jurisdiction (just like the Catholic “saints” who followed). Prayers and sacrifices were offered to the capricious and unpredictable gods in hopes of attaining success in business, warfare, and personal circumstances. People were apt to adopt the god/s favored by a particularly successful person in the hopes of replicating their good fortune. Paganism was an impersonal religion largely based on ritual and tradition; zealots and “true believers” were few.
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire its adherents encountered persecution due to its peculiar monotheistic and exclusivist claims. Christians also refused to worship the emperor. But Christianity grew despite the opposition and was eventually proclaimed the state religion in 380. O’Donnell does an excellent job of presenting the tensions between the dying, old religion and the new. As the church’s leadership became increasingly more powerful and wealthy as an important and influential cog in the state apparatus “Christianity” began to adopt many of the formal and impersonal characteristics of the preceding religion. Personal faith in Jesus Christ morphed into sacramental ritual, liturgy, legalism, and evolving “tradition,” all tightly controlled by the ascending clergy-class.
O’Donnell isn’t a believer but he has provided an excellent introduction to how Christianity initially devolved from simple faith in Jesus into an iron-fisted, worldly institution focused on wealth, power, and absolute control.