What Was Christendom?

By Ed SimonJuly 13, 2020

What Was Christendom?

Dominion by Tom Holland

NOT FAR FROM the headquarters of the Bank of England and the Mayor of London’s official Mansion House, on a side street named Walbrook, situated between Cannon Street and Bank Junction, a group of construction workers in 1954 accidentally broke into a subterranean room buried for centuries. While excavating what was to be the foundations for a skyscraper to house the Legal & General financial services corporation, the workers would enter into the carefully buried domain of a third-century house of worship from the era when Britannia was a distant Roman province. Archeologists from the nearby Museum of London were quickly able to ascertain that the site had been dedicated to a Middle Eastern messianic figure whose popular cult had spread throughout Rome in the centuries before imperial collapse. These worshipers enacted their rituals within hidden catacombs, for at the center of this faith had been a quasi-divine figure that had been involved in a violent sacrifice integral to the world’s redemption. Initiates marked their entrance into the faith by submerging into a pool of water; they prostrated themselves before an image of his violent sacrifice; and when meeting in their temples they took part in a ritual meal in honor of their messiah’s memory. Their messiah had supposedly been born on December 25. In late antiquity, his cult had adherents from Persia to the Picts, Carthage to Cologne. The name of their god was Mithras.

Their religious competitors, the early Christians, certainly noticed the similarities. Writing of its echoes to rituals like baptism and communion, the Church Father Justin Martyr claimed that “evil demons in mimicry have handed down that the same thing should be done in the Mysteries of Mithras.” Tertullian claimed that the “devil (is the inspirer of the heretics) whose work it is to pervert the truth, who with idolatrous mysteries endeavors to imitate the realities of the divine sacraments.” For the Church Father, Mithras was a bold usurper of Christ’s prerogative, because the Persian god “promises forgiveness of sins through baptism; and if my memory does not fail me marks his own soldiers with the sign of Mithra on their forehead, commemorates an offering of bread, [and] introduces a mock resurrection.” Victorian critics thrilled to the comparisons, with the French philologist Ernest Renan enthusing that “[i]f the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic.” Subsequent scholars have questioned such an assertion (by far the least problematic of Renan’s claims), even while a certain segment of the general reading public sees in Mithras and other mystery cults some sort of confirmation of the unoriginality of Christianity.

Pseudo-scholarly works like Brian Flemming’s documentary The God Who Wasn’t There and books such as George Albert Wells’s The Jesus Myth lean heavily on the supposed congruences between Mithraism (as well as other sects) to argue that Christianity is based entirely on ahistorical mythologizing. A representative example of the genre would be Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? The authors write that “[w]hen we began to uncover such extraordinary similarities between the story of Jesus and Pagan myth we were stunned.” From those apparent similarities, and contra absolutely all scholarly consensus, Freke and Gandy conclude that Christ himself didn’t exist. Their reasoning, apparently, that if Mithras (and Osiris, and Dionysius, and so on) didn’t exist, neither did Jesus. Central to the so-called “Christ myth theory” is the fallacious reasoning which sees in syncretism some kind of slam dunk that discredits the historical factuality of there being a first-century Jewish teacher named Yeshua ben Yosef. Often the mythic details of the sects to which Christianity are compared have to be altered or stretched to fit a critical Procrustean Bed, so that differences are obliterated.

Mithraism, for all of the anxiety it inculcated among the Church Fathers, had some notable differences. Initiates in the London Mithraeum worshiped a god who was born magically from a rock, was associated with pagan gods from Mercury to Sol Invictus, and was accompanied by a retinue of strange deities such as the leontocephaline Arimanus. Even more than in the realm of mythology, Mithraism was crucially different in how it was experienced by worshipers. While Christianity flourished among Roman lower classes (and was particularly attractive to women), Mithraism was an elite faith favored by soldiers, a mystery cult that required its initiates to ascend through certain levels of knowledge, and that its secrets were not fit for the common folk. Such an ethic was reflected in their religious narrative (as near as we can tell, their scriptures don’t survive, if they ever existed). The sacrifice that Mithraism commemorated wasn’t the scandalous, demeaning, pitiful death of their messiah, but rather a sacrifice in which he was the executioner. Within the London temple, there is a stone relief depicting Mithras slaughtering a divine bull.

Though Mithras isn’t to be found in Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, I suspect the author might see those divergent sacrifices as being that which made all of the difference between Christianity and its upstart interlopers. The adherents of Mithraism in their underground temples were only one of many new religions to have emerged out of the Augustan Age and into late antiquity, from Manicheanism to the Gnostic cults, though Christianity and its sibling rabbinic Judaism are the only that still have adherents. Mithraism, for all its seeming similarities to Christianity, only has a superficial relationship to the faith of the Nazarene, for the mystery cult in its secrecy reaffirmed the elitism of classical paganism, whereas Holland describes it the “true division in society lay […] between those who were naturally masters and those who were naturally slaves.” Shared Christmas Day birthdays aside, Christianity and Mithraism were ethically separated by a vast gulf, where the former overturned mainstays of Roman belief including that “custom was the ultimate authority; that the great were owed a different justice from the humble; that inequality was something natural, to be taken for granted.” By that standard, there is perhaps something more to be recommended in pagan consistency than Christian hypocrisy, and yet Holland’s point about the singularity of the gospel message must be taken seriously.

Mithraeum are decorated with depictions of Tauroctony, the mysterious narrative ritualized by the god’s adherents that centered on the violent sacrifice of a bull. An inevitably violent scene, stone carvings present Mithras in Persian-style breeches and Phrygian cap, a cape frequently about his shoulders, as he restrains a mighty bull between his legs, twisting the unfortunate creature’s head to the side while he slides a knife across its neck. The bull, with the connotations of mythic creatures from the Minoan Minotaur to the Carthaginian Moloch, is a sacrifice offered up by the conquering god. When Mithras is splashed with blood, it is not his own. Such a death is to be contrasted with the symbol at the center of Christianity, where it is not a deity who holds the knife, but rather the bloated, bloodied, broken body upon the cross is that of God Himself. Holland writes that “a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque.” The uniqueness of Christianity isn’t necessarily that God died — Pan died. And it’s not that Christ was resurrected — Osiris returned from the dead, too. Rather it’s that God should die in such a uniquely shameful way, executed by a capital punishment so anathema to the ancients that every culture blamed every other culture for its invention. So despicable was the idea that God should be crucified that Christians resisted depicting that moment in their art for almost a millennium, the earliest crucifixes being presented in graffiti by mocking pagans. Holland argues that it’s that death which makes Christianity different from its pagan competitors, for among “a people who had always celebrated the agon, the contest to be the best,” the crucifix signaled that “God had chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong.”

From the religious mélange of classical Europe it was Christianity that most fully inverted the ethics of the Roman world, in a manner that was so all consuming that it’s hard for us to see the innate radicalism of the Christian message. Holland is less interested in the why of Christianity’s victory than in its implications, this religion that is at “once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity, and the index of its utter transformation.” He argues that, in a “world that took for granted the hierarchy of human chattel and their owners,” Christ’s disgraceful death had upended the traditional and almost universally accepted oppression that defined the classical world. Holland also shows that, whether or not we’re willing to acknowledge it, a multitude of ostensibly secular contemporary movements, from human rights to socialism to feminism, are possible precisely because they have their origins in that original scandal, whereby “Christ, by making himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave, had plumbed the depths to which only the lowest, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused of mortals were confined.” Were the secretive mystery cults of Mithras to have reigned ascendant, we could assume that certain principles — egalitarianism, liberty, even revolution — would have been cognitively nonsensical. That Christ was a spurned member of a marginalized group, living on the edge of an oppressed province of a powerful empire, makes all the difference. Mithras was a prince and a demigod, but Christ was something different, “closer to the weak than to the mighty, to the poor than to the rich. Any beggar, any criminal, might be Christ,” as Holland writes.

Dominion’s most important contribution is in emphasizing how terms we take for granted, even concepts seemingly as fundamental as “religion” and “secular,” come “freighted with the legacy of Christendom.” Anglo-American presumptions are often of a particular historical script, whereby the glories of ancient Greece and Rome were occluded by a “Dark Age” of unthinking, tyrannical, superstitious Christianity, only to have that eclipse rolled back first by the Reformation, and then by the Enlightenment. Such a narrative is attractive to those who view themselves as inheritors of Protestantism and secularism, and it remains the de facto paradigm in the wider culture. Holland notes that “nothing in this narrative was true,” despite such an interpretation “becoming a wildly popular myth.” So widespread is this simplistic understanding of history that there would be an embarrassment of embarrassments to procure example, but a recent critically celebrated manifestation of that long-discredited story is seen in Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Here the author repeats misapprehensions about the classical world that have been common since the Renaissance — for example, that the ancient pagans lived in a “fundamentally liberal and generous” world. As Holland would explain, such a contention is actually the exact opposite. From Gibbon to Nixey, the story of antiquity’s shifting into the medieval, and the medieval into the modern, has been told in the same way (even if the latter thinks her version is new). Dominion provides a helpful corrective, a reminder of how liberal values find their origin in some of the abstractions of Christianity, as astutely argued by an author who makes clear that he has no sectarian allegiances to the faith itself.

Classical paganism, while tolerant of divergent traditions, was far from “liberal” in the modern sense, and certainly not egalitarian. Arguably, toleration and elective democracy (and then only briefly) are the only aspects of contemporary liberal values that can be found in the ancient world. In a mostly convincing way, Holland argues that concepts like human rights, socialism, revolution, feminism, science, and even the division between religion and the secular (which then allows for ecclesiastical disestablishment and toleration) find their origins specifically in the gospels, the Pauline epistles, and the writings of the Church Fathers. Both Athenian democracy and Roman syncretism might get short shrift in Holland’s genealogy of the Western world, but the narrative he spins about the ways in which certain Christian concepts were secularized over the millennia into a modern ethos is largely correct and a crucial rejoinder to the Nixeys of the world. “It is incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted,” Holland writes, and we’d do well to remember that. Whether Christian or not, religious or not, the language which we use, the conceptual frameworks through which we think, can be traced back to first-century Jerusalem. What makes Christianity singular, Holland would argue, is its fusion of social inversion (evidenced by placing a crucified criminal at the center of its story) with the Pauline doctrine of universalism.

He claims that “preaching a deity who recognized no borders, no divisions” had “resulted in an innovation never before attempted: a declaration of belief that proclaimed itself universal.” Appropriating the strictures of Jewish monotheism, figures like Paul greatly expanded the definition of covenantal thinking, while taking the emancipatory logic of inversion implicit in the Hebrew scriptures and drawing that radical thinking to what Paul would think is the ultimate conclusion — God on the cross. This synthesis of inversion and universalism, Holland claims, renders the principles that “all souls were equal in the eyes of God.” As such, the origins of egalitarianism, human rights, and even revolution aren’t to be found among the Jacobins of Paris, or the revolutionaries of Boston and Philadelphia, but rather in the Bible. “Never before had there been anything quite like it,” Holland writes, “a citizenship that was owed not to birth, nor to descent, nor to legal prescriptions, but to belief alone.” While today the language of human rights can be estimably secular, the thesis itself would have been nonsensical to an ancient Roman; human rights had to first be filtered through this conception of the fundamental metaphysical equality of souls created by God. If there is a deficiency in Holland’s interpretation, it’s that sometimes his triumphalism renders an almost secular supersessionism regarding Jewish contributions to this project. Arguably, both inversion and universalism are more than abundant in the Hebrew scriptures as well, even while Paul’s preaching that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” is a stirring encapsulation of those principles. Perhaps in this one instance, that rightly critically derided term “Judeo-Christian” is more helpful than not in terms of understanding the difference between Athens and Jerusalem.

Though Holland promises not to write a history of Christianity, that’s effectively what he’s done, offering explanations throughout of how those various modern categories he associates with Christianity did indeed find their ultimate origin in the religion. Certain arguments reoccur throughout his book, and while he doesn’t equally make his case for why certain concepts must have an origin in Christianity, one which he unassailably provides biblical genealogy for is socialism. Far from being the bane of faith, Holland provides ample evidence that socialistic thinking, indeed revolutionary thinking in general, would have been nonsensical to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Socialism is derived ultimately from the same place where human rights find their origin — the belief in the fundamental dignity and equality of God’s human creatures. There is thus a golden thread that connects Luke in the Book of Acts (which tells how the apostles sold their “possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need”) to Basil of Caesarea’s preaching in the fourth century that the “bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe to the naked; the shoes you let rot to the barefoot; the money in your vaults to the destitute,” and Karl Marx in the 19th century imploring that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” What should be clear is that Holland is emphatically not saying that socialists must be Christian (though I’d argue the inverse). Rather, he’s arguing that values of equality and economic justice would have made no sense to those in antiquity before the gospels, even if those same principles can now exist unmoored from their beginnings. He writes that “in a world where lepers could be treated with dignity, and the abolition of slavery be urged on the rich […] subversion of the traditional way of ordering things” there was an “intimation of reverberations that lay far distant in the future.”

If Holland is largely convincing about the Christian genesis of human rights through a language of natural law, and of the revolutionary socialism implicit in the rhetoric of Acts and the scandal of the crucifixion itself, Dominion’s argument is less clear when it comes to the genealogy of science and feminism. He identifies nascent science with a particular philosophical view that “God’s order was rational, and governed by rule that mortals could aspire to comprehend,” seeing in the Aristotelian scholasticisms of medieval thinkers like Peter Abelard the beginnings of empiricism. The question is begged a bit too much, for if Christian Aristotelianism is the origin of the scientific method, then it would seem more proper to simply trace that category back to Aristotle himself. As it is, there’s simply too many examples from the classical past or from the non-Western world that could act as rejoinders to the idea that something about science’s development is necessarily implied from the postulates of Christian theology. Were Holland to argue that particular philosophies concerning science, whether you call those approaches scientism or positivism, have their origin in Christianity (and more specifically Protestantism), that would be an argument I’d be more amenable toward. As is sometimes the case with a book that seems too scholarly for popular readers, yet too popular for a scholarly audience, Dominion lacks the critical vocabulary to make a more nuanced case. 

Dominion makes some evocative conjectures that are worth taking seriously as concerns the relationship of sexual equality to Christianity. The stereotypical understanding of Christianity’s preoccupations with sex, whether one envisions the hypocritical sadomasochistic priest or the repressed Puritan, are far from the designation “sex positive.” Beyond even the supposed priggish moralizing of early Christians rejecting the fun and carefree debauched bacchanals of classical Rome, there are the misogynistic passages of Paul which in many denominations have precluded full equality for women. In such a context, Holland’s argument that Christianity had an instrumental role for feminism may seem counterintuitive, but by historicizing what was radical about the gospel message in its earliest centuries, Dominion gestures to what remains radical about it today. Describing the sexual politics of classical Rome, which is often romanticized as some sort of libertine utopia, Holland explains that it exemplified a “sexual order rooted in the assumption that any man in a position of power had the right to exploit his inferiors,” and that far from a scolding moralism, “Paul’s insistence that the body of every human being was a holy vessel” was actually a demand for bodily autonomy. If read alongside the revisionist historiography of the past two generations, such as E. P. Sanders’s seminal work on Paul which demonstrated that the noxious chauvinism of the epistles is most likely later interpolation, then Holland’s claims about the hidden progressive gender politics of Christianity comes into sharper relief.

Where Dominion is unequivocally correct, and possibly most helpful to those still enraptured by the delusion that modernity signals a clear break with a Christian past, is in his excavation of the deep roots of secularism. Here is where Holland’s argument will be the most objectionable to strident humanists, atheists, and agnostics, while ironically also being the most accurate of observations in the entirety of the book. Holland is most definitely correct when he observes that secularism “was not a neutral concept. The very word came trailing incense clouds of meaning that were irrevocably and venerably Christian.” The division between “saeculorum” and “religionem” unmistakably Christian in origin, arguably traceable to the moment in Mark when Christ says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The gospel writer tells us that the assembled “marveled at him,” and it’s no wonder, for the idea that there is a clear delineation between temple and state, religion and the secular, is nonsensical in other cultural contexts. The relationship between the sacred and the profane has been an ongoing negotiation in Christianity, but so all consuming have those divisions been that those who reject Christianity in favor of a secular order seem unaware that the template with which they’re working in has theological origins. Over the course of history, the division between the religious and the secular became only more pronounced. Holland explains that after the Reformation the “essence of religion appeared clear: it lay in the inner relationship of a believer to the divine. Faith was a personal, a private thing. As such, it existed in a sphere distinct from the rest of society: from government, or trade, or law.” An irony in that this is a conception of faith that both Protestants and secularists would agree to, even while the more steadfast adherents of the latter would refuse to acknowledge their descent from the former. And yet such a schema would sound bizarre to most religious self-definitions; historically, there has been no equivalent in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.

This is not to say that secularism isn’t good, or that it isn’t worth defending, only that when appeals are made to it as a doctrine, we should be clear that we’re not talking about some value-free, neutral, ahistorical category, but rather we’re discussing what is in effect sublimated Christianity. We see this in our own critical apparatus, whereby people become unable to recognize religious phenomena as being properly so, or when we straitjacket definitions of sacred experience so that we impose a Christian model of faith on divergent expressions that are far from the Western paradigm of “religion.” For most of its history, religion has been not just belief in doctrines, but also the language you speak, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and the company you keep. To define religion as purely an issue of “faith” is to project a Christian, and specifically Protestant, understanding of what “religion” is. The reduction of religion to faith, and the definition of faith to delineate only belief is a fiction. But, in some ways, the fiction of secularism is instrumental for an absolutist faith such as Christianity, for it can be understood as the method by which Christendom evolved a space for pluralism while still maintaining its admirable and egalitarian universalism. Holland writes that the “ambition of the Church to provide salvation to peoples of every race and background had become a weapon to be turned against all who spurned its offer […] no response to those who rejected it, save persecution.” Liberal secularism is an invention of universal Christianity that countenances pluralities free from persecution.

Such a formula becomes helpful in interpreting contemporary Western society, culture, and politics. As Holland writes, the so-called culture wars are “less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions.” This is a reading of the current era which needs to be better understood and promulgated. So often the culture wars are read as simply a Manichean struggle between the religious and the secular, conservatives and liberals, but by situating our ostensibly agnostic politics within the long history of Christendom, Holland has provided an important service for reading our political fights as more sectarian than might be first presumed. He claims that if opponents of abortion were the heirs of Christians who “toured the rubbish tips of Cappadocia looking for abandoned infants to rescue, then those who argued against them were likewise drawing on a deeply rooted Christian supposition: that every woman’s body was her own,” and that supporters of “gay marriage were quite as influenced by the Church’s enthusiasm for monogamous fidelity as those against it were by biblical condemnation of men who slept with men.”

The point is that either side in these battles would have been unrecognizable to our classical antecedents who are erroneously overstated as being our intellectual forebears. Whether left or right, liberal or conservative, progressive or traditionalist, Christian or not, the parameters of how we view the world were radically reset by Christianity, and that is the language with which we still speak. “Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God?” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the few atheists who actually took both Christianity and its challengers seriously. “Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? — for even gods putrefy! God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

Dominion goes a long way to convincing the reader that even if accounts of God’s death haven’t been overstated, there is something to be said in that the corpuscular putrefaction of His corpse has left a fecund soil in its wake. There’s always a risk in dancing on the grave of a God who is known to resurrect Himself periodically. The flowers that grow about His tomb can bear traces of the life within, even if we’re unaware of the soil from which they draw life. If Christianity is a narrative about how God can die and yet remain, then the history of modernity is a story about how we remain haunted by a deity whom we pretend no longer exists.


Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The AtlanticThe Paris Review DailyAeonJacobin, The Washington Post, The New York TimesKilling the BuddhaSalonThe Public Domain ReviewAtlas ObscuraJSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. The author of several books, he most recently wrote Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost (2023). He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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