The Dawn of Christianity

People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles

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Robert Knapp
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , August
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“The experiences of supernatural power that ordinary people shared are the key to understanding the dawn of Christianity” (xvi). Thus begins Robert Knapp’s study on the cultural and historical conditions that made Christianity possible and fostered its development; and Knapp is not wrong. This book, written by a classicist with a long and distinguished career, rightly acknowldeges the shared similarities between polytheism, Judaism, and Christianity, insofar as all people of the ancient Mediterranean maintained practical and tangible relations with their deities. These relations and practices included sacrifice, prayer, miracles, and so-called magic.

The book consists of eleven chapters, organized according to Knapp’s assessment of the cultural and historical circumstances that contributed to the development and growth of Christianity. Arguably, the first half of the book establishes the religious and cultural context for the early movement, whereas the latter half details how Christianity succeeded despite hostility towards it. Knapp refuses the traditional divisions between Jew/Christian/pagan by analyzing evidence for all such categories side by side. The strategy is effective in coaxing the reader to understand that such categories did not denote radical difference, after all. And yet, he argues, the emphasis on miraculous events associated with Jesus and his followers heightened the allure of the movement enough to draw converts away from their traditional practices.

Elements of the book indicate that the intended audience is the educated non-specialist. This is not an insult, but a boon. The book features helpful maps at the beginning, illustrative color photographs in the middle, and appendices that will help the curious reader at the end: a section of suggested further readings, and a section called “Who’s Who and What’s What,” in which a vast array of ancient figures (historical and mythological) are identified and described (e.g., Abraham, god fearers, Suetonius, and Varus, to name a few). These features make the book very reader-friendly, which can be rare in academic publishing.

To my mind, the most important analysis arrives in chapter 9, “Christianity’s Appeal.” Here, Knapp helps to dispel the notion that gentile converts were drawn to Christianity because of the intractable truth and depth of its meaningful message. As he points out, “a body of information could cause rethinking [for ancient Greeks and Romans], but conversion based on contemplation was unusual” (180). Rather than mezmerising ancient audiences with the meaningfulness of a gospel message, the allure of Christianity derives partly from a network of social connections and rumors of incredible miracles. The insistent and diverse reports of divine miracles—from Jesus to Paul to Origen to the martyrs—is a significant part of Christiainty’s early reputation. 

The value of the book is not its cutting edge argument, for Knapp’s argument is not entirely new among those who specialize in early Christianity. Rather, the book has great value due to the deftness and clarity with which Knapp treats his evidence and the ease with wich he takes the reader on an informative journey. Such a journey is heavily data-laden, but never dry or stilted. He is truly an inviting author who brings the breadth and depth of a classicist to the study of early Christianity. 

Some aspects of the book may raise the eyebrows of New Testament scholars. Knapp occasionally treats as historical fact things described in ancient sources that NT scholars commonly view as literary invention or embellishment. For example, he recounts events decribed in Acts (75; 179) as if they actually happened, whereas many NT scholars do not view Acts as historically reliable. Furthermore, he relies frequently on the category of “magic” without unpacking the cateogry, whereas many scholars of ancient Mediterranean religions now tend to critique the category (even when they use it). But such issues should not detract from the overall purpose of the book, which is to demonstrate, with extensive evidence, the religious and cultural context for Christian origins. The book is quite successful in accomplishing that goal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Eyl is Assistant Professor of Religion at Tufts University. She is the author of the forthcoming Signs, Wonder, and Gifts: Divination in the Letters of Paul(Oxford University Press, 2019).

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Knapp is professor emeritus of classics at the University of California, Berkeley.


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