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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