Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar's Empire
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The supposed collapse of Roman civilization is still lamented more than 1,500 years later―and intertwined with this idea is the notion that a fledgling religion, Christianity, went from a persecuted fringe movement to an irresistible force that toppled the empire. The "intolerant zeal" of Christians, wrote Edward Gibbon, swept Rome's old gods away, and with them the structures that sustained Roman society.
Not so, argues Douglas Boin. Such tales are simply untrue to history, and ignore the most important fact of all: life in Rome never came to a dramatic stop. Instead, as Boin shows, a small minority movement rose to transform society―politically, religiously, and culturally―but it was a gradual process, one that happened in fits and starts over centuries. Drawing upon a decade of recent studies in history and archaeology, and on his own research, Boin opens up a wholly new window onto a period we thought we knew. His work is the first to describe how Christians navigated the complex world of social identity in terms of "passing" and "coming out." Many Christians lived in a dynamic middle ground. Their quiet success, as much as the clamor of martyrdom, was a powerful agent for change. With this insightful approach to the story of Christians in the Roman world, Douglas Boin rewrites, and rediscovers, the fascinating early history of a world faith.
before in antiquity. Since at least the eighth century B.C., Al Mina in Lebanon had functioned as one of the first Mediterranean trading posts, for Greeks and people of the Levant. Four hundred years later, that engine of cultural exchange was still chugging along when a twenty-two-year-old boy from Macedonia stood poised to give it an explosive jolt.5 Over a period of a decade and a half, before his death in 323 B.C., Alexander would march from Macedonia to Persia to the area of modern Pakistan
territories, Lebanon, and Syria appear on the map today—became the epicenter of their struggle for Mediterranean supremacy. For the people of Jerusalem, laboring along in their effort to rebuild the Second Jewish Temple, geopolitical change was the sound they heard rumbling outside their door. The world of Alexander, his successor, and everything they represented—Greek religious customs, like annual festivals for Hercules; Greek culture, like plays and performances; even increased trade between
tourists—to see the site of Rome’s eternal flame, for example, at the Temple of Vesta. A few more may have been on the prowl for a well-connected friend. As Cicero thundered in the Forum that day, all sense of routine would have been interrupted. As the crowd tuned in to what they heard coming from the speaker’s platform, they may have grown increasingly anxious, too. Catiline’s network reached well beyond his camps in Tuscany, Cicero revealed. As he and the other senators had just learned,
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8:10). In the mid first century, Paul had been warning people in Corinth not to participate in their civic dinners. Four centuries later, Chrysostom was warning his community not to flock to Antioch’s racetrack and root for their favorite horses, or go to the theater and applaud their favorite actors. Any Christian who did so risked engaging in what Paul had called “unprofitable and hurtful associations.” The solution? No games, no races, no
were now being condemned for what Victorinus called civilianism. Or, as we probably recognize it, using its more proper Latin form, paganism. The unassuming man who had famously asked “Do walls really make someone a Christian?” had taken up the urgent task of policing his own Christian peers using military imagery and notions of spiritual war. The words “pagan” and “paganism” had come crashing into history. In this heated conversation that was about to erupt between Christians in the Western