A new history of Christianity that upends Edward Gibbon

St Paul’s conversion led to the most dynamic period of globalisation in history

By Tom Holland
Little, Brown, 624pp, £25/$32

The Romans are the most “epic” figures in history, as my son says about anything awesome, exerting a glamour and allure that no other civilisation has successfully matched. That magnetism can appear heightened by what followed: the illiterate bleakness of the early Middle Ages, and the joyless religion that came with it. Many down the years have lamented the switch from the Rome of the Caesars to the Rome of the popes.

The young Tom Holland was one of them. Raised as an Anglican, the historian developed a childhood fascination with dinosaurs that evolved into a love of those other “apex predators”, the Romans and Greeks. “Although I vaguely continued to believe in God,” he writes, “I found him infinitely less charismatic than the gods of the Greeks: Apollo, Athena, Dionysus. I liked the way that they did not lay down laws, or condemn other deities as demons; I liked their rock-star glamour. As a result, by the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and his great history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, I was more ready to accept his interpretation of the triumph of Christianity: that it had ushered in an ‘age of superstition and credulity’. My childhood instinct to see the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised.”

This, indeed, is a widespread view. Even before Gibbon wrote his great work the idea had prevailed that the 15th-century Renaissance and the later Enlightenment saw the birth of reason in revolt against Christianity, which had in those 1,000 dark and superstitious medieval years suppressed science and freedom.

Yet the paradox, as Holland shows in this account of how Christianity came to shape the West, is that even our idea of secularism is itself a very Christian one. Liberalism was never a reaction to Christianity; it was a product of it – perhaps, one might say, a heresy. Ditto Marxism, socialism and the various progressive creeds of the modern era, right up to the current “Great Awokening” in the US: the identity politics movement with its focus on the sanctity of victimhood.

Our assumptions about progress, the rights of the individual, our horror of racism and sexual exploitation, even the acceptance of gay marriage, are the products of Christianity and the thought processes it laid down. These beliefs are not in themselves universal or “natural”, and to the Romans they would have been incomprehensible.

Holland made his name with thrilling popular histories about the ancient world, yet the more he studied antiquity, the more alien it became. It wasn’t just that Spartans or Romans killed innocents in large numbers, something moderns have done too, but that they lacked even the suggestion that the weak might be worth pitying. “That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian,” he writes.

Cruelties such as infant exposure (or abandonment, especially of female infants) were almost universally accepted two millennia ago – with the exception of one or two small German tribes and, at the other end of the empire, a monotheistic people in the eastern Mediterranean. In this polyglot region, the God of the Jews had already begun to attract the interest of Gentile neighbours, people who stood at the back of synagogues and were referred to as “God-fearers” (theosebeis). Although curious as to what the Jewish God told them, they hesitated to take the ultimate step. But when one day in AD33 a Pharisee called Saul saw a vision of the recently executed criminal Jesus of Nazareth on his way to Damascus, it would spark the most dynamic period of globalisation in history.

The new faith was universalistic. As St Paul stated in Acts: “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

Christianity was also revolutionary, with Jesus’s teachings unlike those of other philosophers. “The standards of virtue he preached – to love one’s enemy, to abandon all one’s worldly goods – were so demanding as to seem impossible to meet,” writes Holland. “He was peculiarly tender with sinners. He dined with Jews who violated the law and talked beside wells with adulterers.”

In this new otherworldly moral order even women of the lowest class could rise to unheralded heights in a way unthinkable to conservative Romans, with slaves like Blandina of Gaul “among the elite of heaven, seated directly within the splendour of God’s radiant palace, ahead of those who in the fallen world had been her immeasurable superiors”.

The religion’s preference for the poor was yet another alien idea, and when the 4th-century Martin of Tours handed his cloak to a beggar and dreamed, it is said, that he saw Christ in those same clothes, it was a powerful statement about the humanity that resided within even the lowest. And Christianity contained within it the seedbeds of even more radical ideas. In that same century Gregory of Nyssa began to take Christian thinking to its next logical conclusion: why, if man was created in God’s image, could any of God’s children be held in bondage?

Holland’s narrative task is hugely ambitious and he tackles it deftly by honing in on time and place rather than attempting an all-encompassing history, shining a light on individuals and the moral leaps that took place in their time.

There is a grand cast of characters along the way, including the 13th-century Elizabeth of Hungary, a princess who spent each evening in the hospital, attending the sick, bathing them and cleaning their bedsores and injuries, and also employing a spiritual tutor who regularly beat her.

Or Columbanus, one of countless heroic Irishmen of the early Middle Ages, who with a small band of followers travelled to Francia and lived a life of almost absurd austerity. It was said that bears would obey his commands, and even kings had to pay heed: when a local ruler asked Columbanus to accept as legitimate four children by four different concubines, the Irishman refused, even in the face of threats. The Christianisation of the north meant the taming of these blond beasts. Once a powerful man might have taken a slave girl as and how he wished, and marry more than one woman, but now he could no longer.

Slowly but surely Christian roots went deeper into Western soil, even as some followers were beginning to question its truth. But perhaps the greatest change was Christianity’s “revolution to the erotic”. Now men were to be joined to their wives like Christ to his Church, “by the standards of the age into which Christianity had been born … an obligation that demanded an almost heroic degree of self-denial”. Divorce was prohibited, and to leave a wife was to “render her an adulteress”, as Christ had said.

Even more radically, couples could no longer be forced into marriage and priests were instructed to join them even, if necessary, without the permission or knowledge of their parents, so “treading on the toes of patriarchs”.

“Here was a development pregnant with implications for the future. Opening up before the Christian people was the path to a radical new conception of marriage: one founded on mutual attraction, on love.” It also brought a “more subversive principle: freedom of choice”.

Today the faith, in Europe at least, is much diminished and losing its battle against secularism and liberalism. And yet, as Holland argues, today’s culture wars are “less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions”, with progressive secularists teaching a variation of the faith. The social justice theory of “intersectionality” is just the latest sub-strand of Western thinking that owes its origins to Christianity, a hierarchy of victimhood that could be best summed up as “The last shall be first, and the first last.”

In October 2017, leaders of a Women’s March convention in Detroit had one panel “Confronting White Womanhood”, offering white feminists the chance to acknowledge their own entitlement, confess their sins and be granted absolution. If this isn’t religion, what is? Indeed, it could be said that when one takes out the supernatural what is left is less than rational.

Christianity’s revolutionary message lies at the heart of our cultural assumptions, especially on the – theoretically more secular – political left. All of these worldviews owe their descent to that most revolutionary of ideas, at which the author marvels: “It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe – that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth.”

Holland has written a number of intelligent popular histories, but this is his greatest accomplishment to date, and it is no exaggeration to call it a masterpiece. To tell the story of Christianity in one volume is a challenge of mountainous difficulty, and the author succeeds spectacularly, keeping the pace and focus over 500 pages of enlightening, entertaining and often deeply moving narrative. One might even call it “epic”. To make the stories of St Paul and Augustine a page-turner is no mean feat – but it helps, of course, that this is the greatest story ever told.