- The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles by Robert Knapp
Early Christianity, the Christ movement, polytheism, monotheism, Judaism, history of Christianity, the Mediterranean region
Robert Knapp boldly tackles an ambitious goal: describing the context and the emergence of the religious movement that will later be called "Christianity" in the period around the turn of the eras. Knapp sees the Christ movement as establishing a new relationship between humans and the supernatural realm. The ultimate goal of this book's analysis is to elucidate why and how, in a radically conservative context, people made such a change.
This very readable book can be divided in two parts of roughly equal size. In the first half (Chapters 1 to 6) Knapp describes the socio-religious contexts for the emergence of the Christ movement. Throughout the Mediterranean region a few basic elements shaping the relationship between humans and gods were shared: an acknowledgement of divine superior power over human affairs and the development of individual and communitarian strategies designed to appease and minimize the unpredictability of the gods' actions. In the first half of the book, however, the Jewish and the "polytheist" strategies are presented separately. The religious history of the Jewish people is described in great detail beginning with the exile and leading up to the introduction of the "sects" (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and so on) which is largely indebted to Josephus and Philo. Throughout these centuries, Knapp emphasizes a few trajectories shaping Judaism (besides the turn toward monotheism). On the one hand, the observance of dietary and purity prescriptions became more widespread even in everyday life, as attested by material remains. On the other hand, average Jews grew more and more disaffected with the Temple and began to orient themselves toward a more "internalized" religiosity to the detriment of the authority of the priesthood. "Polytheist" religion is described in the long Chapter 5 which surveys a broad array of conservative, local, and communitarian sets of practices and beliefs. Knapp identifies two notable changes in this scenario. First, the emergence in Hellenistic times of philosophical schools whose focus is specifically on ethics, thus providing an important corrective for the lack of a moral system in polytheist religion. [End Page 421] Second, religious associations provided an important space for practices and discussions alongside the established spheres of civic and family religion.
The second half of the book (Chapters 7 to 11) describes the trajectory of the Christ movement from Jesus to the second century CE. Interestingly, the figure of Jesus is briefly presented in Chapter 7 after a series of other messiahs and charismatics (mostly drawn from Josephus) who appeared and met unlucky ends over the first centuries BCE and CE. Knapp argues that the Christ movement fit well within the trajectories of internalization and moralization that he had sketched out beforehand both for Judaism and polytheist religions. Hostility, however, was generated in both camps by the claim of divine sonship on the part of Jesus and his followers (for the Jews) and by the exclusivist requirement to abandon sacrifices and other similar traditional practices (for the polytheists). In Chapter 10 Knapp maintains that the Christ movement's success depended largely on the miracles and magical acts performed by its missionaries. Such acts were, in the eyes of Mediterranean audiences, indistinguishable from the services provided by magicians and other performers of powerful deeds throughout the entire area in the period under consideration. The last chapter of the book sketches the changes that shaped Christianity under the double crisis produced by the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the realization that the end of the world was not coming as immediately as expected. Christianity moved sharply away from Judaism and, at the same time, took on more and more "polytheistic" features, both (but in significantly different terms) among the elites and at the popular level.
The book is well-written and carefully put together, with a rich complement of seven maps and forty-nine...