Ordinary people of antiquity interacted with the supernatural through a mosaic of beliefs and rituals. Exploring everyday life from 200 BCE to the end of the first century CE, Robert Knapp shows that Jews and polytheists lived with the gods in very similar ways. Traditional interactions provided stability even in times of crisis, while changing a relationship risked catastrophe for the individual, his family, and his community. However, people in both traditions did at times leave behind their long-honored rites to try something new. The Dawn of Christianity reveals why some people in Judea and then in the Roman and Greek worlds embraced a new approach to the forces and powers in their daily lives.
Knapp traces the emergence of Christianity from its stirrings in the eastern Mediterranean, where Jewish monotheism coexisted with polytheism and prayer mixed with magic. In a time receptive to prophetic messages and supernatural interventions, Jesus of Nazareth convinced people to change their beliefs by showing, through miracles, his direct connection to god-like power. The miracle of the Resurrection solidified Jesus’s supernatural credentials. After his death, followers continued to use miracles and magic to spread Jesus’s message of reward for the righteous in this life and immortality in the next.
Many Jews and polytheists strongly opposed the budding movement but despite major setbacks Christianity proved resilient and adaptable. It survived long enough to be saved by a second miracle, the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Hand in hand with empire, Christianity began its long march through history.
This is a sound synthesis of historical data that, in broad strokes, paints the picture of how the nascent Christian movement influenced many different peoples and laid the foundations for Christianity to thrive globally.
Following his highly acclaimed Invisible Romans, Robert Knapp returns to a topic that focuses once more on the lives of ordinary people in the Roman Empire. Based on extensive research using primary sources—inscriptions, papyri, and literary texts—The Dawn of Christianity makes vivid the relationship between humans and supernatural beings as experienced by polytheists and monotheists alike in the ancient Mediterranean world. Knapp offers a history that is often left murky by other modern authors who have written about the rise of the Jesus movement.
Knapp’s The Dawn of Christianity is easily the best account of the subject available that I have come across. Written by a superb historian in an accessible and lively style, it will attract general readers and specialists alike.
Knapp examines Christian sources to demonstrate the murky line between formal religious practice and the spiritual experience of ordinary people.
This work challenges long-held explanations that are based on the primacy of Christianity’s theological aspect. Without discounting its significance, however, Knapp offers a more nuanced interpretation of how the message of Christianity complemented the movement’s primary advantage: the ability to offer, by show of miraculous power, a credible and more effective path toward negotiating the supernatural contingencies of a challenging and uncertain world.
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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