Book Review: Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity

Over at RBL is my review of  James J. O’Donnell, Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2015).

In this book classicist James J. O’Donnell looks at precisely how Christianity superseded paganism in the late Roman Empire. His big idea is that Christianity did not win a gradual and inevitable confrontation with paganism until it eventually became ascendant. That narrative is a product of Christian revisionism; the reality was more complex. O’Donnell’s book is interesting because of his claim that Christians invented paganism in order to tout themselves as having vanquished it. He is surely correct that the story of the gradual and inevitable rise of Christianity over “paganism” is too simplistic at best and erroneous at worst. His more precise depiction of Christianity as an evolution of sorts within paganism that became hegemonic within the Roman Empire as a result of the good fortune of historical accidents strikes me as a bit too simplistic. Christianity also existed outside of the Roman Empire, and it developed its own complex relationship with local religions and rulers that were independent of imperial sponsorship and support. But that is another matter.

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