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.
our time can’t be written in definite articles: the Americans, the Australians, the Chinese. So why, I wonder, have we chosen to treat the people of the past differently? Gibbon is long dead, but bookshelves and shopping carts are still filled with studies of the Christians, the Romans, the early Christians in the eyes of the Romans. Even among those who reject the idea of “culture clash”—two cultures incapable of mixing, like oil and water—there remains a persistent belief that the Christians
Asia Minor, the Ptolemy family in Egypt—were commissioned to live out his legacy. Unfortunately, Alexander’s memory was not strong enough to keep these two family dynasties, the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, united. In the third and second centuries B.C., each began to compete for a controlling interest in the regions where their influence overlapped. The territory of Coele-Syria, which occupies part of the land bridge between Asia Minor and Egypt—the place where Israel, the Palestinian
opportunity to worship whatever god he has chosen.”10 What it meant to be Roman had just gotten a little bit bigger, as it had been doing for centuries. What really happened to Constantine on his march to Rome? How much weight should those events bear in explaining the political victory of Rome’s Christian community? Galerius’s edict, from A.D. 311, frustrates any easy attempt to connect Constantine’s conversion to the new legal rights for Christians, as does Licinius’s own participation in the
Boulding (New York: Viking, 1998). Thanks to editor J. O’Donnell, the Latin text of Augustine’s Confessions lives online; it was originally published in three volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). ——. Letters. “Letter to Publicola.” English translations of Publicola’s letter and Augustine’s reply (Ep. 46–47) are available in the series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, volume 1, edited by P. Schaff (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing, 1887). For the Latin text of the letter,
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