Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology
[D]evotion to the Christian god took a wide range of forms and … diversity rather than uniformity of practice and belief was the norm among early Christianity. An expansion of ‘Christianity’ in this sense, however, is of limited historical interest, because it would have been nothing particularly new. It was an inherent feature of the Graeco-Roman tradition that cults could expand and contract, i.e., that some deities would acquire more worshippers while others would have fewer. The expansion of Christianity is historically significant precisely because it represented something more than a new deity acquiring increasing numbers of adherents: it represents the growth of a new social and conceptual system, a new ideology of religion.
A clear understanding of this new ideology is thus even more important to an understanding of the expansion of Christianity than the analysis of Christian numbers …. [T]he phenomenon of rejecting old practices and beliefs in favor of new ones was something that did not and could not exist within the traditional Graeco-Roman system … and … consequently the very fact of conversion was an indication of a fundamental systemic change: a system in which choices of religious belief and practice were non-exclusive, open-ended, and virtually limitless was being replaced by one in which choices were exclusive, sharply defined, and relatively restricted. Adherence to the Christian god acquired revolutionary significance, I would argue, only insofar as it involved participation in this new ideology. Without that, a mere increase in the number of Christians, regardless of its magnitude, could never have led to the expansion of Christianity, because there would have been no ‘Christianity’ to expand.
It is my purpose in this paper to sketch out more explicitly some of the key elements of this new ideology, which I term exclusivity, homogeneity, and totalization. I cannot claim any great novelty in my analysis of these elements, particularly of the first two, but I hope that a succinct overview will highlight their crucial relevance to the whole notion of Christian expansion. For the sake of clarity I analyze each element separately, although as I shall argue in my conclusion it is precisely their interconnection that rendered Christian ideology so distinctive and effective.
The conception of the divine world that prevailed in the Graeco-Roman tradition, and indeed in most of the cultural traditions within or adjacent to the Roman Empire, was one that emphasized its multiformity. Despite the recurrent tendencies toward monotheism, the normal view was that the divine world consisted of multiple superhuman entities; even the monotheistic tendency itself normally took forms, such as hierarchization and syncretism, that accepted and proceeded from a polytheistic premise. In such a system … exclusive devotion to one deity was not really a possibility, not so much because it was frowned upon, but simply because it made no sense. The prevailing instinct seems instead to have been to encourage at least the token recognition of all forms of the divine … on the communal level it was normal for cities and other organized groups to add cults for new deities to those already established, without rejecting the one in favor of the other.
To this openness the exclusivity of Christianity stood in dramatic contrast. The assumption that adherence to the Christian god meant a rejection of all other manifestations of the divine is pervasive in most extant early Christian texts … But the fact that this assumption was also widespread among non-Christians is perhaps even more significant …. An insistence on exclusivity seems thus to have been widely perceived as one of the most distinctive features of Christianity.
This exclusivity was not unique to Christianity, but was already well established in the Jewish tradition out of which Christianity arose ….
But while early Christians may have inherited the ideal of exclusivity from Second Temple Judaism, they seem to have developed it in some novel and significant directions. We can get a clear sense of this if we compare the disucssion of gentile cults in the Wisdom of Solomon with that found in early Christian texts. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon … castigates other religious traditions in the harshest terms … [passages cited: 13:1-9; 13:10-14:10; 14:11-12; 14:25-27] … Yet for all the havoc wrought by idolatry, the author describes it simply as a human error: a gross error, and one with devastating consequences, but one brought about by ‘mischance or misgovernment’ (14:21). This analysis of idolatry seems to have been the most common one in the Jewish tradition. [Here, Rives also cites the Letter of Jeremiah, as well as Jer. 10:1-16 and Isa. 44:9-20.]
When we turn to early Christian texts, we find something radically different. When Paul writes to his fellow Christians in Corinth, he warns them sharply against the dangers of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. “What do I imply by this? That an idol is anything but an idol? Or food offered to it is anything more than food? No; but the sacrifice that the heathen offer are offered (in the words of the Scripture) ‘to demons and to that which is not God’ (Deut. 32:17); and I will not have you become partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:19-21). Paul apparently accepted the traditional Jewish view that idols were simply inanimate matter and that the rejection of the true God for false gods was the root of all evil (see especially Rom 1:18-22). Yet for him that was only half the story: idols were also a link to evil demons, and therfore dangerous …. Traditional cult and myth was thus nothing but worship of and interaction with these evil demons. Although we can identify a Jewish source for many of these motifs, their combination into a general analysis of idolatry seems to have been distinctly Christian. [Rives’ footnote here refers to Athenagoras (Leg. 23-27), Tertullian (Apol. 22-23), and Minucius Felix (Oct. 26-27)]
Christian exclusivity, then, much more than Jewish exclusivity, became firmly grounded in a dualistic view of the cosmos, in which the Christian god embodied all goodness and demons were evil beings ranged against him. Idolatry was accordingly not the result of mere human error but an expression of cosmic evil; to participate in the worship of these so-called gods was not simply to make an error of judgment but to become subservient to powers that opposed God ….
The extent to which people accepted these arguments is of course uncertain …. Nevertheless, the extensive evidence for Christian refusal to take part in traditional cult acts suggests that the [exclusivist] analysis advocated by most Christian leaders was indeed widely accepted by their followers ….
[T]he Christian characterization of traditional cult as the worship of evil demons entailed not only avoidance of that cult but ultimately active hostility towards it …. Accordingly, acceptance of the new Christian ideology ultimately entailed the imperative to stamp out all other approaches to the divine. The ideology of exclusivity … marked out ‘paganism’ as something to be eliminated and replaced. And when Christian leaders gained access to Roman imperial authority, this is precisely what they proceeded to do. As many recent studies have emphasized, the notion that traditional practices and beliefs were by the fourth century moribund and effete is simply mistaken: ‘paganism’ did not die of natural causes, but was deliberately murdered.