Rated 5 out of 5 by Jacqueline Divine doings, top-down and bottoms-up
Christianity rose from nothing to become within 400 years the official religion of the Roman Empire, the military power responsible for crucifying its founder. This is an astounding development that begs for explanation. Believers, of course, see God's hand in this. But can historical scholarship shed more down-to-earth light on the whole process?
Theories abound. The most extreme fall into two camps:
• BOTTOMS UP: Thanks to Christian proselytizing and the death of martyrs under Roman persecution, the Jesus movement attracted new followers among the downtrodden. Eventually, their numbers grew so large that Emperor Constantine (272-337 BCE) could no longer ignore them.
• TOP DOWN: Constantine cynically "tried out" a Christian symbol (one of many) to rally his superstitious troops before a crucial battle at the Milvian Bridge near Rome. His victory encouraged him to promote the new faith as a tool to stabilize his crumbling, polyglot empire.
I am exaggerating a bit to make a point, but notice that neither of these perspectives nullify the other. Constantine would not have used a Christian symbol had it not already been familiar among his troops. What else can be said?
Dr. Harl's THE FALL OF THE PAGANS AND THE ORIGINS OF MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANITY is an attempt to weigh both alternatives and fill out some details from a historian's point of view. He is only concerned with the "big" contest between Greco-Roman paganism and Christianity — the contest that changed the course of Western civilization — not the spread of Christianity among other pagans such as the Celts or the Norse.
More specifically his focus is the Eastern Mediterranean — Palestine, Turkey, Greece and the Balkan regions — where St. Paul was most active in the early days of the Jesus movement. This might seem restricted compared to the Roman Empire as a whole, but that is where the earliest manifestations of Christian thought in written form appeared, and where Harl's expertise lies.
Long story short, Dr Harl explores both the top-down and bottoms-up options and comes up with some of each, with more weight given to the first.
After the first wave of persecution under Nero, proselytizing in public was not an option. Christianity spread slowly through family networks among tradesmen, some of whom were wealthy enough to use their homes for communal meals. Thus their numbers amounted to approximately 10% of the empire's population by Constantine's time, hardly enough to "force" his interest. More important than percentages, however, was the community's hierarchical organization, its scriptural basis and the growing sophistication of its apologetic literature. This was no rabble. Constantine respected that.
But at the end of the day, Constantine was a military man and his interest in religion was very down-to-earth. Could it bring victory? Even at the town or parish level, bishops were expected to be exorcists, miracle workers and community organizers, all tangible things.
I'm only giving you a glimpse, as Harl explores in great detail how paganism and then Christianity "worked" at the local and imperial levels. Paganism and its many festivals communicated common values and promoted the exchange of services across social groups that were very hierarchically-minded. It was never "idol worship". No religion ever is.
When Christianity took over, therefore, it had to satisfy the same needs.
Presentation was very good with plenty of maps, geographical pictures and even CGI images to explain architectural developments. On its own, this is an excellent course best seen in video form.
TTC has produced many other course covering early Christianity. How does this one compare?
Dr Ehrman's historical Jesus series is primarily concerned with the ultimate victory of an orthodoxy under the Bishop of Rome, over a multitude of "Christianities" that flourished briefly after Jesus' death. How close can we get to what Jesus probably said?
Dr Johnson's many courses, including his most recent HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, is less concerned with "Jesus" and more with "Christ", the collective image of God that survived among tiny bands of Greek-speaking followers left behind after Paul's death. We cannot go behind Paul's letters and the Synoptic Gospels to discover anything "real" because no third-party, non-Christian records exist that describe Jesus in any detail.
Ehrman and Johnson are primarily interested in Christianity as a religious phenomena — its inner dynamics and doctrinal conundrums.
This is not Harl's focus. He is more concerned with the Roman Empire as an evolving social entity, crumbling away by the 300s. How did the Christian religion, however defined, orthodox or not, affect this entity?
Strongly recommended for ancient history enthusiasts.
April 14, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by AlabamaLawyer Brilliant Scholarship!
Prof. Harl is one of the most erudite scholars employed by the The Teaching Compnay. This is my second DVD course with Prof. Harl and one of the most interesting that TLC has produced. If you are interested in a genuine study of the early Christian church that is supported by honest and even-handed scholarship, then this is course that you will want to obtain.
Prof. Harl possesses a deep and systematic knowledge of the Roman Empire (one of his other courses - 'Rome and the Barbarians' - might be considered a supplement to this course) as well as other factors of history, geography, culture, languages, and religious practices of the Mediterranean world. He lectures easily and keeps your attention throughout each 30 minute lecture. The added slides, diagrams, photos, coins, maps, and other visual aids are a great addition to the lecture.
Prof. Harl is not a theologian like Prof. Timothy Luke Johnson or Bart Ehrman, but a professional historian. Therefore, his approach to early Church history and the development of Church canon and structure is quite different than that of either Johnson or Ehrman. I think for a fair assessment of the development of the early Christinian church, it is important to use all valididated sources, and this especially includes archaeological materials which include writings, coins, excavations, other documents that can provide detailed information of that time and place.
This course could easily be considered a transistional course between history and religion. The course clearly supplements and offers significant and scholastic historical details to both Ehrman's courses 'The New Testiment' and 'From Jesus to Constantine' and Prof.Johnson's courses 'Jesus and the Gospels' and 'The Apostle Paul.'
November 24, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by StokeNewington Another great Harl course
Many have already reviewed this, and I would only like to add that you can't go wrong with Kenneth Harl, whose vast knowledge and infectious enthusiasm make this course, like others of his that I have enjoyed, a real treat. Excellent visuals, too, including - inevitably - those coins!
September 4, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by opus37 Another home run
I enjoy Dr. Harl's courses. This is another success in my opinion. He tells the story in an interesting manner with enough enthusiasm to really make it interesting. This is a historical perspective on the start of the christian religion. It compliments a more philosophical/religious approach that you find in other courses. What this course brings home is how religions blend and change over time to suit the trends and traditions of the past.
August 16, 2016