Pagan practices paving the road to Christianity?
In the first centuries of Christianity, Church authorities already disapproved of magic and amulets. Yet amulets, oracles, and magic among Christians survived well into the second half of the first millennium. Modern scholarship now commonly accepts that the advent of Christianity did not put an end to these pagan practices; at least not immediately. Rather, it caused their transformation. Some would further argue that this pagan-Christian connection worked the other way around, too. Namely, that the early Christian emphasis on miracle working and supernatural powers of Jesus and his followers was helpful in recruiting converts from among polytheists.
Writing for the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Robert Knapp of the University of California, Berkeley, explains that in antiquity the responses to the pressing questions of daily life “rested on the belief in supernatural powers of all sorts surrounding and penetrating every aspect of life. There was no meaning, no problem solving, no hope, no society, unless these powers were recognized, mollified, and persuaded to do good—or at least to do no harm.” To this end, continues Knapp, “ordinary polytheists’ religious experience was a complete and seamless integration of all-important aspects of daily life,” where multiple gods and powers provided a functional context vital for social integration and survival. So why would anyone risk abandoning the inherited way of life for a new, “untested” religion?
Knapp argues that the key element of early Christianity that quickly spread the new religion across the entire Roman Empire rested in the ability to meet polytheism on its own ground—by offering to help deal with life’s contingencies and proving the superiority of their God. The ability to direct supernatural power (through signs and miracles) appealed to many Jews, too. Miracles, after all, were a long-accepted proof of Yahweh’s power.
Though it may have been an embarrassment to the philosophizing Christian elites, miracles and everyday religiosity were able to win over ordinary Jews and polytheists alike. Magic and miracles proved to be central for convincing common people to accept the new religion.
To learn about the ways emerging Christianity appealed to ordinary polytheists and made them give up their ancestral relationships to supernatural powers, read the article “How Magic and Miracles Spread Christianity” by Robert Knapp in the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
This article first appeared in Bible History Daily in January, 2020
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