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 NicC From Pagan To Christian: Reference & Devotion
These lectures form one of four major turning points in The Western tradition -- the others being CLASSICAL GREECE & ROME / (Self-Government), THE AGE OF DISCOVERY / (The New World), and THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION / (Modernity) according to the professor. Although not a theology or a philosophy course, these lectures survey: philosophical / religious ideas, sacrifice tests / Christian persecutions; ancient mystery cults / rituals; theological concepts / ecumenical councils; literary / architectural forms, etc.; they are all explained in historical context -- the Roman Empire from the 1st – 6th centuries. Literary and historical sources from Christian, Jewish, and pagan authors are discussed and correlated with supplemental data from archaeology, epigraphy, and numismatics. THE FALL OF THE PAGANS AND THE ORIGINS OF MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANITY from Professor Kenneth W. Harl is a masterpiece of scholarship. It erects and responds to a major social and historical transformation: how did Christianity rise to such heights of secular power and spiritual prestige throughout the Roman Empire radically transforming classical pagan civilization, to becoming the foundations of Western civilization itself?
Survey the empire’s pagan cults, stoic morality, Platonic ideas, and the early Christian conversions. Here GRECO-ROMAN PAGANISM is understood intellectually as concerning scholarly knowledge in high Platonic-Greek / Ciceronian-Latin language and in no way less meaningful than Christian ideas originally in vernacular-Greek still not unified, codified, nor intellectualized in its philosophy, theology, and dogma and so is taken much less seriously by the ruling-elites; the JEWISH RELIGION / war (66 – 73 A.D.), its temple sacrifices, an ancient set of ritual-beliefs which Rome sees as strange (no images / statues) but historically legitimate; CHRISTIANITY is even more appalling to the Romans since it is new and without a long established history (Crucifixion 30 A.D.), it is a pacifistic-sect of Judaism that refuses to honor the traditional gods and the emperor-cult which is political-treason and leads to its outlawing throughout the empire beginning with Emperor Nero’s rescript (64 A.D.). This is a legal precedent for the Roman Empire which historically allowed all religious sects / provincials to practice their rituals if they honored and sacrificed to the traditional gods and the emperor cult of Rome; this refusal forced Christianity to develop new institutional means and ways of spreading its faith.
Read about Pagan-Rome and CHRISTIAN CLASHES which at first is sporadic and eventually becomes the empire-wide persecutions of the 3rd century. Witness: conversions, persecutions, and heresies; the growing authority of bishops, the early apostolic church, Christian apologists and theologians; the growth in new literary forms: epistle, apology, theology, sermon (Clement, Origen, Eusebius & Augustine), pagan critics, henotheism, and esoteric theurgists (Galen, Celsus, & Plotinus), and evolving an increasingly intellectual depth of Christian theology and pagan Neo-Platonism; CRISIS OF THE 3rd CENTURY in its spiritual and imperial forms: GREAT PERSECUTIONS 250-251, 258-260, & 303-313 A.D. (Decius, Valerian, & Galerius), Persian-wars (Ardashir & Shapur), Germanic-threat of Goths and Vandals, civil unrest and rise of soldier-emperors, economic dislocations, the dualistic challenge to pagan and Christians of Manichaeism, and the transformation of the Empire under the TETRARCHY 284 – 305 A.D. (Diocletian’s Rule of Four) which will become the institutional rock of Constantine’s Imperial Church onto when historical Christianity is erected and legalized.
Finally, these summarized events must be noted before The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity is understood historically: the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 A.D.), the CONVERSION of Emperor CONSTANTINE (Edict of Milan 313 A.D.), the source of Christian Doctrine (Council of Nicaea 325 A.D.), the creation of a new Christian capital at Constantinople vs. traditional pagan Rome, the Christianization of basilicas, mosaics, frescoes and cathedral churches as an architecture of the interior life (Hagia Sophia); JULIAN THE APOSTATE who orders the pagan temples reopened (361-363 A.D.) and issues massive reforms for the Empire but are short lived; the growth of asceticism / monasteries 4th – 6th centuries (Anthony & Pachomius); Emperor THEODOSIUS outlaws paganism (391 -392 A.D.) and declares Nicene Christianity as the sole legitimate religion of the Empire, The Battle of the Frigidus in A.D. 394 as another Milvian Bridge experience of conversion. From the professor: “JUSTINIAN completes the logic of Theodosius ensuring the world became medieval Europe.” Now, paganism is spoken of as Hellene, barbarian, and heathen in nature -- Plato’s Academy at Athens comes to an end. To let the professor close “the preservation of the classical writings giving the West the dual traditions of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultural treasures are preserved; Europe becomes the heir to classical Rome. The classical arts and writing survived, but in a Christian world…” The themes of these lectures are profound, transforming, and enlightening *** EXCELLENT & HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ***
October 15, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Lawyerlee A must on the gains of early Christianity
I generally adore any course that Kenneth Harl teaches -- he packs his courses full of information, as well as wonderfully enlightening asides, and I am riveted. The information in this course was, as always, wonderfully presented and fascinating, but it felt as if at times Professor Harl was stretching to create a coherent whole. The course felt a little disjointed (and I emphasize "a little"). As is often the case with his courses, it is almost necessary to listen to each lecture twice to ensure that your mind captures all the tidbits of information Professor Harl throws out. Worthwhile, despite some editing issues.
August 5, 2014