All Things to All Men

R. Joseph Hoffman over at the The New Oxonian has another entry in the “why are atheists so rude” genre. There’s not much to say about these types of posts as they tend to be substance-free, but there was one throw-away segment that wandered into historical territory and caught my attention:

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause. Eventually, that strategy made Christianity the majority faith of the Roman empire.

I’ve run across these ideas about Paul before, and I thought I’d use this as an excuse to complicate them a bit.


John, Jesus and Paul


Let’s get the first part out of the way. According to tradition, John the Baptist and Paul both met the same fate: beheading as a punishment for troubling the authorities. And according to most historical Jesus scholars, John the Baptist played mentor to Jesus, so you can’t say he never accomplished anything. Any comparison has to accept that John started the movement that Paul found so inspiring.

Hoffman alludes to 1 Corinthians and Paul’s claim to be “all things to all men.” But accepting that at face value causes a problem when you run into one of Paul’s testy moments. For example, in Galatians we get to see Paul when his authority has been questioned.

Paul insisted that he derived his authority solely from God – no scholar’s modesty here. He prayed that “If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received [from me], let him be accursed.” And cursed “I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!” Since his opponents were arguing for circumcision, this is sometimes translated as a wish that they’d ‘finish the job’ and castrate themselves. Fun guy.

Rather than being a flexible teacher, Paul had a very touchy pride that appears to have led to rifts between himself and the rest of the movement. His preaching led to a near riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:21-41), which the author of Acts attempts to explain away as caused by the base motives of the pagans, but which was more likely caused by the perception that Paul was dishonoring the patron Goddess Artemis.




Then there’s the question of how much Paul accomplished. This question is hard to answer, because we have no reliable numbers from the period. Most of the traditional estimates come from Christian sources that were written very late. Some estimate that 10% of the Roman population was Christian by the time of Constantine.

There are problems with that number. 10% is also an estimate as to the number of Jews in the Empire. We have a great deal of archaeological evidence for the presence of Jews, including artwork and synagogues. In comparison, we have scant archaeological evidence for the presence of Christians.

This has led some historians, notably Peter Brown and Kenneth Harl(*), to suggest that Christians never spread as widely or as deeply as once thought. Whatever Paul’s successes as a missionary, his converts mainly stayed within the Jewish communities. The Neronian persecution put the brakes on future missionary work, and Christianity remained a minority of the Jewish minority until Constantine

If Brown and his colleagues are right then Constantine’s role is absolutely vital. There are many people who shaped early Christianity, like Paul, Ignatius and Origen. Without their influence Christianity may have survived, but it seems unlikely that it would become a world religion. However, without Constantine and the powers of the emperor, there is no real question: Christianity would have remained an afterthought.

So what can we atheists learn from “old time religion”? I suppose the lesson is that it doesn’t matter how cranky and controversial you are. If one of your converts holds absolute power, then your success is assured. I’m not sure how this lesson is useful, but there it is.

(*) Arguments here drawn for Kenneth W. Harl’s Teaching Company lectures, “Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity.”

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  • trj

    Good old tolerant Paul. Yep, no need to shout at people, like those strident atheists do*, when you can instead just curse them.

    *) except they don’t.

  • drax

    Vorjack, you should know that being religious allows you to ignore any facts that my contradict your world view, especially those from ancient history. It is interesting, though, that Constantine having absolute power as you say, didn’t somehow write himself into the christian narrative. I’m no historian, maybe he tried?

    • grumpygirl

      That definitely depends on your religion. Not all religions are narrow-minded and ignore facts. However, believing in “Faith” and ignoring facts is entirely different.

      • Yoav

        It’s just a matter of degree and which facts are being ignored. Liberal christians ignore the fact that their magic book is full of hatred and bigotry so they can hold the faith that they follow a merciful and moral god. Ken Ham ignore the entirety of scientific advancement over the last 500 years so he can hold the faith that the earth is 6000 years old. in both cases faith supersedes the facts.

        • Custador

          Excellently put. Kudos.

  • Darwin

    That’s what I always thought as well. Frankly without Constantines protection and financial support, Christianity would have remained a minority religion.

  • vasaroti

    My impression of Paul is that he was plenty flexible. After all, he got rid of the stuff in Judaism that would have prevented him from acquiring gentile converts, particularly those wealthy who gave him lodging. Looks to me like “all things to all people” meant targeting a specific demographic in practice.

  • alnitak

    Whoa there! According to Paul’s letters, he had nearly zero success in his ministry; the letters take most of his converts to task for misunderstanding his message or taking up with other Christian missionaries who taught a different gospel. Which points out that there was an active “christian” movement before Paul, and that the big cities all had “christian” communities before Paul, or at least without his influence . Paul’s letters made him a big cheese later on, but his personal success was very close to zero. In particular, Christians stopped thinking that there were two paths to god, one by faith in Jesus and another by obedience to Jewish law. Pauline Christianity basically died with Paul; later interpreters made of his letters what they liked to bolster their own theology. Who here goes to a church that agrees that Jews are be saved by obeying the old laws?

  • Ken

    ” When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
    Still true, for all of us. Except I do think non-believers like to know the difference, and do seek out “real facts,” as opposed to “revealed facts.”

  • Sabio Lantz

    Great criticism on that part of Hoffman’s post. I have just learned of Hoffman and have started reading a little. Do you think his voice offers any desirable correct element to other atheists? Do you think his voice helps enlarge Atheism?

    • Beau Quilter


      I’m afraid I don’t see any criticism of value in Hoffman’s post. He ends with a rather simpering:

      “Then stop worrying about what goes on in the heads of religious women and men, or their being hypocrites for believing some of the things you no longer believe.”

      What an infantile take on atheist reactionism. Atheists aren’t worried about what goes on in the heads of the religious – we’re worried about what vomits out of their heads and onto the floor of our public education system, our legislative system, our medical system, and our scientific community.

      When the ideology of religious people puts creationism in the science classroom, imposes prejudiced morality on our legal system, allows churches to curtail our women’s medical support, and stops the incredible promise of scientific stem cell research …

      … you better believe atheists are going to speak out!

      • Atheist Pilgrim

        This, exactly this!

  • Brian K

    Hoffman’s atheism seems to consist only of a self-defined status that allows him to criticize “other” atheists for our sins. A little bit of No True Scottsman falalcy, perhaps. But he always seems toa rgue the pre-religion side.


    I’ve never understood how any objective person could look at the life of Paul and not conclude that there is at least an even chance the man was simply crazy. One of the many problems associated with the bible is that, most of what it contains could not be defended against an accusation of the book being pure fiction.