For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re revisiting a re-edited post that was originally published back on August 9th, 2015.
Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity
By James J. O’Donnell
Ecco/Harper Collins, 2015, 293 pp.
This book, by respected classicist historian, James J. O’Donnell, is an extremely interesting and informative examination of that period of the Roman Empire when the traditional pagan religion was gradually replaced by Christianity.
What Christians would refer to as Roman paganism was belief system in a large pantheon of gods, each of whom supposedly had jurisdiction over a particular realm, occupation, or activity (like the Catholic “saints” who followed). Prayers and sacrifices were offered to the capricious and unpredictable gods in temples throughout the empire 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, pragmatic 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 had also refused to worship the emperor, which resulted in severe persecution. However, Christianity grew despite the opposition (or because of it), and was eventually legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD and proclaimed the official religion of the empire by Theodosius in 380 AD. Between 389 and 391, the emperor issued the “Theodosian decrees,” which proscribed extremely harsh penalties for all remaining pagan practitioners.
As an extremely important pillar in the empire’s structure, the church became increasingly institutionalized, taking on the imperial trappings of its patron and focusing on the accumulation of wealth and power. Personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, as taught in the New Testament, devolved into sacramental ritual, complex liturgy, exacting legalism, and evolving “traditions,” all tightly controlled by the ascending clergy-class.
O’Donnell does an excellent job of presenting the tensions between the dying, old religion and the new. However, he also addresses the many accommodations made by the new state church to the old religion once it gained the advantage. As pagan “converts” streamed into the church for reasons of social, political, and financial expediency, the church made concessions and absorbed (aka “Christianized”) many of the beliefs and practices of the preceding religion. I’ve already referred to the replacement of patron gods with patron “saints” (see here), but another illustrative example of this syncretism was the appropriation of the title of the pagan religion’s high priest, “Pontifex Maximus” (Latin: greatest priest), by the Roman bishop.
O’Donnell isn’t a believer, but he has provided an excellent introduction into the nuts and bolts of how the Christian church initially began its degeneration from the preaching of the Gospel and simple, saving faith in Jesus Christ into an iron-fisted, worldly institution focused on wealth, power, and absolute control, shielded by a veneer of ostentatious piety. Excellent. Highly recommended.
Postscript: I praise God for raising up the 16th-century Reformers to reclaim the Gospel of grace, however I believe there was always a remnant of genuine believers, even within the authoritarian Catholic institution, who were trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone.