“The Triumph of Christianity”: In New Book, NT Scholar Tries to Explain How 20-or-so Jesus-followers Converted Much of the World in 300 Years

“The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World” and author Bart D. Ehrman.
“The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World” and author Bart D. Ehrman.

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman became a superstar on the heels of his popular trade books debunking long-held assumptions about Christian Scriptures.

With titles like “How Jesus Became God,” “Forged” and “Misquoting Jesus,” he gained a devoted following of fellow agnostics, atheists and ex-Christians.

They may not appreciate the title of his newest book, “The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World,” which is set to be released Tuesday (Feb. 13). In it, Ehrman tries to explain a long-puzzling historical drama: How did 20 or so Jesus followers come to convert much of the world in the space of 300 years? (Sociologist Rodney Stark published a book of the same title in 2011.)

Most of the research into the first few centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion around the year 33, he concedes, is not new. Scholars have been grappling with how Christianity exploded on the scene for a long time. Ehrman’s goal is to bring that issue to the masses in plain English, marshaling the evidence — most of it written in Greek and Latin — and crunching the numbers.

True to form, Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, doesn’t exalt in Christianity’s success, despite his new book’s title. “In this book I have tried to explain the triumph of Christianity without making it a triumphalist narrative,” he writes. (As someone who has written 20 books for lay readers, Ehrman may know something about what titles are likely to sell.)

RNS caught up with Ehrman before he left for Washington, D.C., to give four lectures as part of a sold-out Smithsonian Associates program on Saturday. He will also give a reading at Politics and Prose on Sunday.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you focus on this particular era of Christian history?

The thing that struck me was how significant this Christian revolution was. Christianity became the most powerful institution in the Western world. My question in the book is: How did that happen?

How do you get from 20 insignificant, illiterate, lower-class day laborers in a remote part of the empire to 30 million people and end up being the most influential power in the West? I’ve always thought it was a very important question and the book tries to answer it.

You conclude that the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the year 312 was not the signal event that led to Christianity’s rise. Explain.

What I came to realize is that it probably would have happened whether or not Constantine converted. If you actually plot the growth of Christianity, you realize that it’s an exponential curve. Christianity is gaining a few people early on and they’re gaining massive numbers of people later on. It’s like investments: The rate of growth ends up creating huge amounts of money later when you have a lot of money; earlier, when it was just a little bit of money, it’s little growth.

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