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 RoyT Excellent In Every Way!
This course is yet another home run with Professor Harl at bat. I have already been captivated by his TC courses on the Peloponnesian War and Alexander the Great, but was not sure if I was going to find this subject as compelling. I had, however, the same experience as with the other two courses, swept along from lecture to lecture, and sad to see that Professor Harl was coming to the end of these twenty-four sessions.
Aside from Professor Harl’s evident mastery of the subject and his willingness to discuss other scholarly and popular interpretations (notably the 2009 movie ‘Agora’), his presentation style is highly engaging, peppered with good common-sense observations and humor, and includes exceptional discussions of how the coins of the period reveal significant aspects about the topics discussed. As with the other TC courses, Professor Harl makes regular reference to the work of other scholars and points upon which he disagrees, always providing detailed justifications. For me, two of the most interesting examples to cite are Professor Harl’s denial that the pagan mystery cults were a “parallel to Christianity” (Course Guidebook, Page 33), and that the triumph of Christianity cannot be attributed to an assumed Roman economic and/or spiritual crisis. In addition to these fine lectures, there is an equally impressive three hundred page guidebook, containing excellent lecture summaries, a timeline, a glossary, biographical notes, and annotated bibliography.
I learned a lot about the early centuries of Christianity’s development, much of which I had only as a hazy and impressionistic understanding. Professor Harl gets the point across that there was nothing inevitable about Christianity’s ascendency, and shows this not only in focusing on the early Christians, but also on the life, beliefs and practices of the pagans. Relevant Roman social, political, cultural, and military matters are also discussed. Though he touches on Christian beliefs and, most notably, the conflicts between Arian and Nicene Christians, Professor Harl leaves theological issues to other TC courses.
The many interesting things for me in this course include how few of the early Christians there were, and how persistent paganism was, even to the fifth century; the nature and extent of persecution of Christians, and the extent to which pagans later suffered at the hands of the Christians; how Diocletian’s third century administrative reforms had the unintended consequence of smoothing the way for Christianity’s rise; the absolutely critical roles of the emperors Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian and how truly important for Christianity was the empire’s division between Rome and Constantinople; how Christian ascetics and monks played a larger role in Christianity’s expansion than the examples of the early martyrs; and, how significant were such often forgotten individuals as the Christian theologian Origen (important in helping establish the Christian canon and reconciling Christian and classical philosophy), and the fourth century emperor Julian, referred to as the Apostate (Constantine’s nephew, raised as a Christian), who tried to turn the empire back to paganism. Finally, Professor Harl ties things together at the end by noting in what ways Justinian’s sixth century world “was the basis for the religious and ethical values of the West down to this day” (Course Guidebook, page 195).
You are in for a real treat with this TC course. Very highly recommended!
January 2, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by DallasJohn Expansive But Perhaps Overly So
I've thoroughly enjoyed Prof. Harl's histories and loved Vikings and Barbarians. I've also poured through a number of courses on the origins of Christianity, Jesus, and the Catholic Church. I figured this course would be a perfect supplement to those religious histories. In a way, it was. It is expansive and delves into the transition to Christianity from the pagan Roman world. It is loaded with information. My only issue with Harl is that, at times, his delivery becomes somewhat unfocused or tangential and overwhelms the listener with information. The tangents are great anecdotes that sort of help deliver the historical message, but also create the feeling of a somewhat disorganized presentation of a truly enormous amount of historical information.
Perhaps that wouldn't have been the case had I bought and used the hard copy course guide, but I listen to the presentations on my commute every day. The delivery made this a bit hard to follow. It did not seem to be broken into linear time periods, often referenced back in time with long stories about figures and anecdotes I thought we'd moved past, and seemed at times to focus on the pine needles, as opposed to even the trees instead of the forests.
November 18, 2015