A secular historian is stirring up his field by arguing that the major influence on Western civilization is not Greece and Rome, as has been commonly assumed, but Christianity.
Our values of mercy, equality, kindness, peace, the value of each person, rights, freedom, and the like derive from Christianity. They are not to be found in pagan antiquity. They just aren’t. And those distinctly Christian values have shaped the West’s institutions, politics, thought, art, history, and social development. Today, even secularists, even the new atheists who attack Christianity, hold to a distinctly Christian ethic.
That’s the thesis of the British historian Tom Holland in his book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books). We blogged about this book back in June, but I want to call your attention to a fascinating conversation with Holland.
It is reported in the new Patheos blog Unbelievable?, which is an extension of Justin Brierley’s podcast and YouTube channel of the same name, featuring debates and conversations on Christian apologetics. The ministry, based in the UK, sponsored a discussion between Holland and Bible scholar and former Anglican bishop N. T. Wright.
From this, Erik Strandness has written a terrific blog post entitled Tom Holland: “I began to realise that actually, in almost every way, I am Christian,” reflecting the historian’s own journey from atheism. He quotes Holland, a specialist in classical history:
“The more you live in the minds of the Romans, and I think even more the Greeks, the more alien they come to seem, the more frightening they come to seem. And what becomes most frightening really is a kind of quality of callousness that I think is terrifying because it is completely taken for granted. There’s a kind of innocent quality about it, nobody really questions it…Caesar is by some accounts slaughtering a million Gaul’s and enslaving another million in the cause of boosting his political career and far from feeling in anyway embarrassed about this, he’s promoting it, and when he holds his triumph, people are going through the streets of Rome carrying billboards boasting about how many people he’s killed. This is a really terrifying alien world and the more you look at it, the more you realize that it is built on systematic exploitation… In almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking and this worried me more and more.”
I would add that, although there is much of value about ethics and virtue in ancient writers–specifically, the “natural virtues” of justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance–they also saw “pity” as a weakness, endorsed slavery, prized warfare, and had few problems, as Holland says, with exploitation and cruelty. The interviewer and blog-writer Erik Strandness summarizes what Holland discovered: “He was stunned to find that a small Jewish sect that worshiped a condemned criminal and who held to a relatively small corpus of sacred writings had radically changed the world.” He quotes Holland:
“Compacted into this very, very small amount of writing was almost everything that explains the modern world and the way the West has then moved on to shape concepts like international law, concepts of human rights, all these kind of things. Ultimately, they don’t go back to Greek philosophers, they don’t go back to Roman imperialism. They go back to Paul. His letters, I think, along with the four gospels, are the most influential, the most impactful, the most revolutionary writings that have emerged from the ancient world.”
Illustration: “Ecce Homo” [Christ and Pilate] by Antonio Ciseri – http://www.most-famous-paintings.org/Ecce-Homo-large.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10356430