The Dawn of Christianity

By Robert Knapp, Profile Books, £25

The extraordinary success of the Christian religion, growing from a small group of baffled Galileans cowering in an upper room in Jerusalem to the state religion of the Roman Empire, is hard for historians to explain. Nietzsche ascribed it to the appeal of its egalitarian ethos to hitherto subject classes of society such as women and slaves. The devout Christian sees the hand of God and so too, it would seem, does Robert Knapp.

On October 28 in AD 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine, as he prepared to fight his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, saw the sign of the Cross appear in the sky. The Christian religion, Knapp concludes, “might well have died but for Constantine’s cross in the sky. A second miracle resurrected Jesus a second time. This time the faith he inspired, carried on the shoulders of empire, spread throughout the Mediterranean lands for good.”

Knapp does not tell us whether or not the Trinitarian Christian God was responsible for this miracle: he is a diligent scholar who taught ancient history for more than 30 years at the University of Berkeley in California, hardly the seat of faith-based speculation.

His earlier book, Invisible Romans, was much praised for informing us about the lives of ordinary Romans, rather than the Roman elite. Here too, in The Dawn of Christianity, he gives a detailed account of the beliefs of pagans and Jews both before, during and after the time of Jesus.

The early Christians might have been disillusioned that Jesus did not return in their lifetime, but the message of the Gospels fell on fertile soil in the sense that no one at the time doubted the existence of supernatural beings who intervened in their lives: for the pagans, a number of gods; for the Jews, Yahweh, the one true God.

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