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Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson recounts the historical forces that shaped early Christianity in imperial Greco-Roman society. Ferguson attributes Christianity’s triumph and the fall of Paganism to the Hellenic and social/physical infrastructure, widespread Jewish Diaspora, and the unifying ideological foundations of Christianity at a time when Paganism was not philosophically defensible. Further, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity led to the outlawing of Paganism, allowing Christianity to thrive. This paper provides a review of the book that could give insights into the historical, philosophical, and socio-cultural foundations of Christianity.
The book examines the various perspectives on the imperial Greco-Roman civilization and the forces that led to its triumph over pagan systems in six parts. Part 1 gives an overview of the political history of early civilizations that reigned between “330 B.C. to A.D. 330”, the Greco-Roman period.1 Drawing on sources from this period, the book considers the exploits of the rulers of the Persian Empire. The fall of Persia in the hands of the Greek alliance in 479 saw the liberation of Greek cities and the rise of religious secularism and democracy.
The book later examines Alexander’s conquest of Persia, Egypt, and Phoenicia and how it fostered the spread of the worship of Greek gods and Hellenistic kingdoms in the ancient world. It reiterates the rise and spread of the Roman Empire to the East and its positive impact on the physical infrastructure and security of the East. Ferguson concludes that Christianity “was a product of the Greco-Oriental cultures” that emerged from Alexander’s conquests.2 Also, the Jewish Diaspora in Hellenistic kingdoms after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem helped spread Christianity among the Gentiles.
Part 2 gives an account of the Greco-Roman society, including its social classes, pedagogy, literature, military organization, and architectural designs, among others. In Roman society, affluence and education were a mark of social status. Ferguson distinguishes the class stratifications of the senatorial order (noble families), equestrian order, plebeians, freedmen, and slaves that could be freed in a pagan temple. The author offers a comprehensive overview of various aspects of the Greco-Roman society and draws parallels between Roman law and the Jewish culture.
A Christian bias is evident in the way the Ferguson denigrates the Greco-Roman culture and philosophical doctrines. He exalts the Jewish culture that “directed attention to higher concerns” as opposed to the existing Hellenistic social structure.3 He notes that while the pre-Socratic Greek culture regarded man as the “measure of all things”, the Roman society was founded on the law.4 In contrast, the Jews regarded God as the center of all living. Ferguson, being a Christian scholar, seems to favor the Jewish view as the most venerable perspective on absolute truth.
Part 3 explicates the murky theological foundations of ancient religions in great depth and breadth. It covers the ancient Greek and Roman religions, Hellenistic-Roman religious systems, Grecian mythologies, and Gnostic doctrines. It also explains the emergence of monotheism and heliolatry or sun worship. The chronicles the religions and doctrines with much even-handedness. Part 4 focuses on the philosophies that marked the Hellenistic-Roman period. It explains the dominant philosophical inclinations of Sophists, Platonists, Stoics, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, among others.5
Part 5 gives information on the historical foundations of Judaism from as early as 538 B.C. It recounts the Jewish history from the Persian era to the Greco-Roman period, belief systems, and practices that laid the ground for Jesus and Christianity. Part 6 examines the various sects of Christianity by citing evidence from non-Christian sources, including quotes from Roman leaders. It also explains the views of pagans regarding Christianity, barriers to its growth, rival faiths, and its unique place in the Ancient World.
The book excels in providing the backgrounds and historical foundations of Christianity. However, Ferguson seems to lay more emphasis on the heritage of the New Testament than on ancient Christianity by focusing on the Roman and Greek philosophical perspectives championed by early apologists. He notes that the cultural interaction created a common infrastructure that became the impetus for Christianity’s development. In his view, the ancient Greeks gave the language and philosophical foundations while Romans developed the roads and laws that favored the development of Christianity and other competitor cults. However, Christianity persisted while other pagan sects died out. Therefore, the argument of a common infrastructure cannot explain why Christianity thrived while other cults disappeared.
Further, the book offers a wealth of historical information that adds to our understanding of the New Testament. Ferguson describes the “pedagogue” as a slave with great “mastery of his charges” gives insights into the slave-master relationship in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.6 Also, the author debunks the myth that Mithraism birthed Christianity.7 Therefore, the information contributes to our understanding of the scriptures.
Another important argument of the book relates to the role of the Jewish Diaspora in the diffusion of Christianity. Hellenized Jews occupied all levels of the Greco-Roman society and included merchants and officials. Therefore, they could serve as the agents of Christianity in the Gentile world. Ferguson notes that the Greco-Roman religion comprised of the lower class temple cults, the followers of the pantheistic system at the top, and believers of astrology and magic in the middle.8 There was no religion at the time that could bring together these disparate levels and meet the spiritual needs of each class. Therefore, it could be argued that the rapid spread of early Christianity was because it appealed to diverse spiritual needs as an integrated faith for all people. As Ferguson writes, Christianity, as a “philosophically defensible” religion, absorbed most of the pagan faiths; however, most of the “traditional rituals were retained in Christian ceremonies”.9 These factors made Christianity an influential faith at the time.
By the time of Constantine’s conversion, only a minority group practiced the Christian faith. Ferguson’s argument that the integrated nature of Christianity made it appealing to many citizens does not sufficiently explain the waning of Paganism in the Ancient World. Therefore, it could be argued that it was the conversion of Constantine that heralded the end of pagan faiths. The conversion of emperors, including Constantine, meant that they could champion Christianity within the state using influential force. Their subsequent outlawing of competing for Pagan faiths allowed Christianity to thrive.
The book, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, offers a detailed account of the forces that allowed early Christianity to triumph over established traditions. Notable historical forces are the integrated ideological foundations of Christianity, the common infrastructure resulting from a cultural interaction (Roman and Greek cultures), ancient philosophies, a significant Jewish Diaspora, and Constantine’s conversion.
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
- Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 5.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 56.
- Ibid., 67.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 110.
- Ibid., 295.
- Ibid., 54.
- Ibid., 119.