Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity by Keith Hopkins

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch

When I was researching the Roman Empire's financial crisis of the late 3rd century and subsequent embrace of Christianity as part of the solution, I found a wealth of information in the late Keith Hopkins book "A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity."  Before his death in 2004, I had often admired Hopkins insight shared in a number of television documentaries on the Roman Empire. 

Although Hopkins is mostly remembered as a professor of ancient history at Cambridge, he also served a lectureship at the London School of Economics. Since my research was going to cross over from history to economics, I was excited to find his book, originally published in 1999.

But the book, like the man, was quite unconventional. Instead of a purely historic treatise on the rise of Christianity, it began with a fictional tale of time travel to first, ancient Pompeii, and then to ancient Egypt, to give the reader a taste of other competing religions during the formative years of Christianity's development.  Although I was really more interested in facts than fantasy, I enjoy time travel tales so was not dissuaded from continuing to read on.

Then, I came upon a very long third chapter and it was literally stuffed with the background information and sociological interpretation I was truly looking for.  I marked each usable passage with purple sticky tabs and soon that portion of the text was fluttering with purple markers.
Hopkins, a sociologist, drew parallels between the ancient Christian "revolution" and the political upheaval resulting in the establishment of communist China.

" Rome as in China, the veneer of virtuous prescription disguised a multitude of sins; the church grew steadily richer, and more corrupt; Christian rigorists pursued mad ends with obsessional fervor; bishops borrowed the oppressive powers of the state to bully, exclude, and even execute doctrinal rivals. "

Hopkins goes on to point out Christians viewed themselves as the fervent elect, chosen by God, and linked together by their difference from and radical rejection of others. 

"...once in alliance with the state, Christian leaders exploited their newfound powers in order to impose single versions of correct belief, through votes by universal councils of bishops.  Almost inevitably, once its influence and power was buttressed by the state, the church also became in part a business, distributing charity, patronage, privilege, and immortality."

How I interpreted this information and dozens of other passages in relation to the financial crisis of the Roman empire and the "conversion" of the Roman Emperor Constantine can be read in my paper, "Did Financial Exigency Drive The Roman Empire to Embrace Christianity?"

Hopkins spends the rest of his text examining Christian literature, comparing different versions of the gospels, and evaluating Christianity's turbulent coexistence with Judaism and paganism.

If you are looking for an account of purely historical events, this book, with the exception of Chapter Three, may disappoint.  But, if you are open to exploring religious roots as a journey, you may find Hopkins unorthodox approach thought-provoking.

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