If you have a “bucket list,” of things do in this life, consider putting a trip to Rome on there. My wife and I spent two weeks last October, walking through Rome’s ancient side streets, following tour guides underground in the Catacombs, and savoring some delicious food above ground, all while uncovering layers and layers of buried history. I could have spent a whole month in Rome, and still hungered for more.
What stood out to me the most was how this once great center of pagan, classical culture, was overtaken by the story of Christianity. How did this marbled, sculptured story of the Greco-Roman world get superseded by the painted images of the Crucified and Risen Christ, found throughout so many of Rome’s churches?
My wife and I took another trip recently, a bit closer to home, down to Florida and back, which afforded me a lot of time driving and riding in a car … for many hours. It was the perfect opportunity to listen to some Audible audiobooks, so I downloaded James J. O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity , and I enjoyed it immensely. I felt like I was right back there in Rome, ascending the Palantine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum.
Pagans is one of the recommended books that you will find, while viewing Tim O’Neill’s excellent website, History for Atheists. Followers of Veracity will know that Tim O’Neill has done a great service by properly educating atheists regarding the accurate history of Christianity, and Christians can learn from him as well. As an atheist himself, to accuse O’Neill of having a cognitive bias favoring Christianity simply falls flat.
Likewise, O’Donnell, a classical scholar at Arizona State University, and biographer of Saint Augustine of Hippo, manages to correct a lot of popular errors of pagan and early Christian historiography, despite having a somewhat contrarian bent of his own.
In O’Donnell’s retelling, “paganism” as a religious system, did not exist, prior to the rise of Christianity, in the latter days of ancient Rome. The religious traditions of the Greco-Roman world were an amalgamation of various local practices, shrines, and deities, all jumbled together, to be ultimately synthesized by Greek philosophy and Rome’s politics. Christianity essentially invented “paganism” as a concept, as a convenient way of describing what the Christian faith was not. Christianity was unique, as was Judaism, from which it came, in that it claimed that the God is Israel, who raised Jesus from the dead, was the one and only true divine being. The victory of Christianity therefore made the ad hoc assemblage of pagan gods and goddesses irrelevant.
In describing the transition of the pagan world to a Christian Rome, O’Donnell skewers many common misperceptions, that all too often get tossed together along with other “fake news” of our day, propagated by social media. Take the word, “pagan” itself. Historically, to be “pagan” had no religious connotation. The root word, pagani, simply meant “country folk.” This makes great sense considering that the early Christian movement took root in cities like Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, and not the countryside.
More “fake news” gets annihilated with O’Donnell’s prose. No, the emperor Constantine did not impose his imperial thumb on the Christian church, in order to “make” Jesus into a God, at the Council of Nicea. If anything, O’Donnell correctly shows that Constantine went along with the bishops’ decisions at Nicea, affirming the divinity of Jesus, largely as a matter of political expediency. But he was actually more sympathetic to the Arian heresy, that situated Jesus as being something greater than merely human, but nevertheless, still not wholly divine. You can think of Constantine as a politicized promoter of Jehovah’s Witnesses-style theology, as opposed to someone who supposedly “made” Jesus into becoming God.
It was not until emperor Theodosius, several regimes later, that orthodox Christianity, as we know it today, got the full rubber stamp from the seat of political power in Rome, as affirmed by the church at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
This did not mean that Theodosius’ orthodox theology necessarily made him a nice guy. Theodosius was excommunicated from the church, by the influential bishop Ambrose, following a massacre that Theodosius ordered in Thessalonica. Only after months of penance was the emperor readmitted back into the church. Though Theodosius did crack down on pagan temples, much of the old ways of the Greco-Roman gods were already fading away.
Furthermore, the greatest Christian thinkers of the 4th and 5th centuries, like Ambrose and Augustine, made use of the classical tradition, when it served the purposes of promoting the Gospel. They were not afraid of any inherently polluting influence of paganism, though such thinkers often disagreed with one another, as to what aspects of pagan culture could be redeemed, and what aspects of pagan culture should be rejected, when advancing the cause of the faith.
I appreciated O’Donnell’s frank retelling of this fascinating period, avoiding the over-romanticization of Christianity’s history, on the one side, while also correcting a lot of the misinformation, regularly propagated by atheists on the Internet, on the other. It was a relief to hear from a genuine scholar. Alas, O’Donnell’s contrarian tendency disturbed me at a few points, which I thought took away from his overall presentation.
For example, O’Donnell matter of factly describing Saint Augustine of Hippo to be entirely ambitious in using his rhetorical skills, to promote himself, as a defender of the faith. I can see this in Augustine as the young Christian, but I would certainly hope that as Augustine matured, so would his growth in sanctification. Plus, O’Donnell’s insistence that Augustine never actually “converted” to the Christian faith, came across as forced and unconvincing. Yes, Augustine had a Christian mother, and so he surely did have some basic Christian instruction as a child. But that did not mean that Augustine automatically embraced his mother’s faith. Augustine’s Confessions still tells that story of his conversion, as a young man, into the loving arms of Jesus, rather well.
But aside from a few prickly moments like these, I found O’Donnell to be generally an excellent, accurate tour guide of ancient Rome. O’Donnell does not reveal where his sympathies regarding the Christian faith really stand (based on his few, cynical digs, here and there, he probably is not), but for a work of history like this, he need not to. If you want to understand how the ancient world transitioned from “paganism” to Christianity, O’Donnell’s Pagans would be a good place to start.