Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 102-103
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A World Full of Gods:
The Strange Triumph of Christianity
A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity. By Keith Hopkins (New York, Free Press, 2000) 402 pp. $26 cloth $14 paper
This book tries to explain why Christianity was so successful in the Roman Empire during the first two centuries of its existence—that is, during the first two centuries of what we call the Christian era. Hopkins does not spend more than a page on the historical Jesus; he is not interested in chronicling the progress of important individuals. Instead, he seeks to show the progress of ideas.
Hopkins is an authority on the economics of the Roman Empire. A model of the Roman economy that he put forward twenty years ago remains the basis for much of the ongoing discussion about the nature of its classical economy. He clearly has the authority to write convincingly about this period. His aim in this book is to extend his reach—and perhaps his readers' as well—into new areas, and he does so by a bewildering variety of expositional devices. This is a serious book, even though readers may be misled by its opening, an advertisement in London's Time Out for time travelers to visit ancient Rome. This fancy is followed by a reconstructed Roman dinner party, contemporary e-mails to and from Hopkins, recipes for resurrection stories (see, for example, 169), a trip to Hell, and other strange rhetorical devices. The book contains copious footnotes and several conventional scholarly essays that attest to Hopkins' ability to write a "straight" book.
The starting position of this book is that Christianity was only one of many competing messianic religious ideologies in the early Roman Empire. Hopkins is interested in why one set of ideas proved to be so persuasive to so many people of the time. To investigate this phenomenon, Hopkins proceeds by taking three steps: First, he describes life and religion among pagans at the time; then he reviews and categorizes a variety of messianic cults, many of them obscure; and finally he provides an argument for the success of one among them, Christianity.
The first step is taken with the aid of "time travel" and copious illustrations from the art of the time. Hopkins is at some pains to show that sex occupied a different place in pagan Rome than in early (and late) Christianity. Sex, he argues, was a prominent part of everyday life in pagan Rome, flaunted publicly by all. Witness the vivid, conspicuous depiction of a "jolly man [weighing] his erect penis against a bag of money" on the wall in the entrance to one of Pompeii's finest homes, the Vetti house (caption to Plate 5, following 308).
This consciousness is hard to recapture after two millennia of Christian teachings. The collection of Roman erotic drawings in the Naples museum has been relegated to a "secret cabinet," segregated from other Roman art in a way that no pagan Roman would have done. Hopkins explains that the asceticism of Christianity was one of Christianity's strengths, but it was also a hurdle that prospective adherents had to overcome.
The second step acquaints us with many of the resurrection stories that circulated within the early Roman Empire. Hopkins maintains that [End Page 102] what we know as the heresies of the early Church were rival ideologies and narratives that lost the contest for acceptance—for example, the Acts of Thomas, a gospel that did not make it into the Biblical canon. He attempts to organize this genre of Roman literature into a core story and variants to show how the familiar account of Jesus compares with others of the time; he considers the resurrection aspect to have been more of a marketing device than a spiritual or historical account. His analysis of competing stories occupies much of the book.
In the final step of this intellectual journey, Hopkins argues that Christianity triumphed because it had the best story and because...