Book review: Christianity, How a Tiny Sect From a Despised Religion Came to Dominate the Roman Empire

by Jonathan Hill

★★★★★

Wow! This one belongs on my favorites list. I fell in love with this book before I began reading; it’s beautiful enough for the coffee table, and scholarly enough for the library.

Thankfully, the writing lives up to the presentation! Hill’s work is enjoyable, frank and immensely informative, making for a hard book to put down. I’m reminded of another book I enjoyed: J.R. Porter’s treatment of the historical Jesus, Jesus Christ: The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith. Hill picks up where Porter left off, tracing the first four centuries of Christianity’s roots, and how it survived persecution, internal strife, and pagan and imperial competition. Along the way, you’ll meet the church fathers and the early monks, you’ll relive the struggle to define the Trinity, and you’ll get to know the emperors who left their mark upon Christianity, including, of course, the infamous Constantine. You’ll meet the Donatists, the Arians, and more. And peppered throughout the book are pictures of ruins, artifacts, maps, and Christian artwork.

I can vouch for Hill’s careful scholarship for the initial chapters, where he discusses first-century history, but I confess I’m no scholar of the next three hundred years, so I won’t guarantee the book’s historical accuracy; I can claim, however, that I learned far more about this period from this book than I have in past studies, and enjoyed the experience much more! Hill brings the characters and controversies alive. My favorite part of the book was digging inside the minds of the early apologists, such as Justin Martyr and Origen. It left me wanting more, and searching the internet for more books by Jonathan Hill.

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7 Comments

  1. I find the title to be interesting. I did not know (in fact I am dubious) that a tiny sect came to control the Roman empire. I believe it is clear one Roman emperor came to see that there was a tiny sect, the proto catholic church, among the many efforts of the time to serve God, that he could use for his political needs. In return he put the might of the Roman empire behind one effort to build a religious power. It was nice for him that a religious power better met his political needs. This did mean quite the persecution of those trying to serve God in any other way.

  2. Question: If there were no Constantine, would there be no Christians today?

    This book portrays Constantine in a better light than others I’ve read. Much is made, for example, of the fact that Constantine delayed baptism until his deathbed; but Hill points out that it was common practice, even encouraged by the bishops, to delay baptism. The reason is that one wouldn’t want to succumb to sin after being baptized, so it’s often prudent to wait.

  3. There continued to be different Christian groups before and after the Catholic persecution, so the answer is there would have continued to be Christians. Since the political reality of a church power was still there, another leader eventually would have eventually picked a sect to work with.

    On the delay of babtism, that is interesting. On the one hand one can see that they thought they could be perfect like Christ after the babtism when that is not true as is shown by Paul; on the other hand one can not help but wonder what force caused the Catholic church to move to babtism of babies. I am guessing it was again that old political force thing. The sooner you can get people into your power base the better, unless you are still worried first about the soul of the individual. Then it eventually becomes the right thing to do for their souls(because of the force of tradition).

  4. Perhaps it would help if you define what you mean by “Catholic,” either by naming a non-Catholic group or naming a non-Catholic Christian of the times.

  5. That is a wise thing to do in any discussion, first make certain that each understands the others ideas. My idea of Catholic in this situation is the “Catholic church as created through the help of the emperor of Rome.”

  6. Meaning, the Catholic church sprang out of the council of Nicene? Because that was the first time an emperor took a direct part in trying to unify the church? I’m guessing you’re going to offend today’s Catholics, who trace their lineage back to Pope Peter!

  7. You missunderstand me a little bit. Just a little bit. The Catholic church did not spring out of the council of Nicene. That council was just a tool in the forging of a better tool for the emperor. The Catholic church was built from the emperor giving his authority, power, and backing to one sect. He then continued to foster its growth by helping in the persecution of any other belief. He also helped it to organize itself politically. That is the grist for a great book and that book would offend some Catholics.

    The Catholics do make a mistake, but it is easy to see why they do it. They trace their lineage back to Pope Peter. That makes sense, the pope is the political leader of the organization and the pope with his power is what the Catholic church has all been about. So, its beginning is with the first pope they identify. I would trace my belief, the way I try to serve God back to God and the beginning of His creation, Genesis 1:1.

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