A provocative and contrarian religious history that charts the rise of Christianity from the point of view of traditional” religion from the religious scholar and critically acclaimed author of Augustine.
Pagans explores the rise of Christianity from a surprising and unique viewpoint: that of the people who witnessed their ways of life destroyed by what seemed then a powerful religious cult. These “pagans” were actually pious Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Gauls who observed the traditions of their ancestors. To these devout polytheists, Christians who worshipped only one deity were immoral atheists who believed that a splash of water on the deathbed could erase a lifetime of sin.
Religious scholar James J. O’Donnell takes us on a lively tour of the Ancient Roman world through the fourth century CE, when Romans of every nationality, social class, and religious preference found their world suddenly constrained by rulers who preferred a strange new god. Some joined this new cult, while others denied its power, erroneously believing it was little more than a passing fad.
In Pagans, O’Donnell brings to life various pagan rites and essential features of Roman religion and life, offers fresh portraits of iconic historical figures, including Constantine, Julian, and Augustine, and explores important themes—Rome versus the east, civilization versus barbarism, plurality versus unity, rich versus poor, and tradition versus innovation—in this startling account.
The early Christian movement began amid numerous other religions in the Hellenistic world, but the now-familiar story of the rise of Christianity very often leaves out the complex relationships between early Christians and these other religions. O'Donnell shines a light on that omission, in meticulous detail and through lively storytelling, animating the world of ancient religions, early Christianity's place in that milieu, and the ways that the first Christians created a category of paganism to describe other religions. In the first and second centuries, Christians were the odd ones out: "if there are many gods, people who claim to believe in exactly one god, a god few had heard of... are, functionally speaking, atheists," he writes. O'Donnell brilliantly chronicles the growing toleration of Christianity by the Roman Empire up through the fourth century, when it became the accepted religion of the empire. He convincingly demonstrates what many have known all along: paganism is a category that modern Christians invented to define themselves against other religions and to use, often, to justify persecution of those different from Christians. This is a must-read book.