Whatever your beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and state, there’s no question that the Christian religion has had a profound effect upon world history. And yet, in its early years, who could have guessed that it would ever become more than just another Oriental mystery cult – one among many that claimed adherents at that time?
What would have been the course of history if Christianity in fact had not become the state religion of the later Roman Empire; had never grown beyond a minor cult? Would the Greco-Roman pantheon have survived, or been supplanted by another Eastern religion? What nations, what societies would have developed in Europe and the Near East? Would Islam have ever arisen if Christianity had not preceded it?
I apologize if this topic has been explored before; I couldn’t think of a search term that would winnow it out of the archives.
Well, I’m not sure that this would have effected Islam. As I recall, (and I admit my knowledge of this history is woefully inadequate), Islam began as a reaction, or at least in opposition, to “paganism” in the Arab world.
I don’t think, however, that the Roman pantheon would have been able to hold out regardless. Something about monotheism seems to have taken over the western world in the 1000 years preceding this millenium. I suspect it has to do with an evolution of the concept of the universe as a whole. That is, where we used to see the wind as having a distinct personality from the rocks, we eventually began to see existence as some sort of a single “thing”. Its like being able to think about cultures instead of individual practices.
What you’re asking is an alternate-history question, of which there have been several fictional treatments.
Robert Silverberg has published a series of alternate-history stories based on the assumption that the Exodus failed on the shores of the Red Sea, thus Christianity never arose, and the Roman Empire never fell. The stories recently were collected in a volume called Roma Eterna. You can read a review on the website of Uchronia: The Alternate History List: http://www.uchronia.net/bib.cgi/label.html?id=silvromaet.
In Steven Barnes’ two Insh’Allah novels, Socrates fled Athens for Egypt rather than commit suicide, stimulating a philosophical movement there. Two centuries later, Egypt and Carthage unite to destroy Rome, and an Egyptian-Abyssinian empire comes to dominate Africa and Europe. Christianity exists, but only as a minority cult.
WOW! Thanks, BrainGlutton! I like Silverberg’s and Barnes’ books but hadn’t read the ones you’re recommending – must look into them, as I will the others you’ve cited. That uchronia website is a great place to wander through.
I will confess that Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol series of stories had planted this speculation in my mind. I take it out and play with it, now and then, but was eager to hear other viewpoints.
pervert, my impression is that Islam regards both Judaism and Christianity as precursors – Jews, Christians and Muslims are all “people of the Book” – and considers Jesus as a prophet. I’d welcome correction and/or expansion on this point.
Yes. That is my understanding as well. But that history is part of the the “myth” (I dont mean it in a bad way, please don’t hurt me ) of the religion.
What I meant is that I’m not sure the sociological forces were a reaction of some sort towards christianity. One of the reasons that Islam was so friendly to Judiasm and Christianity was that they were all 3 monotheistic. I’m not sure why the Zoroastrians were excluded, except that they were a little farther away in the begining and did not fit into the myth.
And my only point was that if Christianity did not exist, or was not present in the area, then it would not have effected Islam much. It might have effected the religious story, or perhaps even the rituals. But I don’t know much about those, so I can’t be sure.
Thanks, Tam, your right. the history book I read ( some time ago) mentioned them and I forgot.
A most interesting idea Badtz Maru. What would Islam look like if it had been more heavily influence by the Greeks? Shoot. I don’t know enough about Muslim traditions to even speculate. I will have to get some more Islamic histories to read next month
Of course, to be a party-pooper, all of this is ignoring the concept of chaos theory. If you removed, say, Jesus from the equation you would affect more than just the creation of Christianity. His lack of being there would’ve rippled out, causing many people not to be born, event shifts, and basically a wildly different future. The further out from the point of divergence, the more unrecognizable such a future would be as the primary ahistorical event causes more and more secondary ripples which cause tertiary ripples and so on.
I’ve heard about this chaos theory. One variant involves Cleopatra’s nose. If she had been endowed with an enormous shnozz Mark Antony wouldn’t have wanted to get to know her in the biblical sense and history would have been so drastically altered that there would be no bible from which to derive a biblical sense, as it were.
Would it not be possible that Druidism and the Norse theology would have survived and even flourished if they hadn’t had to face Christianity’s insistence on being the only allowable religion? If I recall correctly, the pre-Christian Romans were quite tolerant of religions other than their own official pantheon.
So even assuming a similar sphere of Roman conquest and influence as in our own history, would a non-Christian Roman Empire have been more inclined to let those religions continue to flourish? I suppose that would depend on whether the Roman authorities perceived those faiths as supporting rebellion against the empire. Julius Caesar, IIRC, considered Druidism a threat to the security of the Gallic provinces.
One question regarding this. Can any of you explain further why you think Islam would not have formed without christianlity?
I certainly agree that it would not have looked the same, and I read the idea that it might not have picked up the example of christianlty’s spread.
But given that the large empires Roman and Persian both preceded Christianity and Islam, It seems likely that many of the forces which lead to Islam’s rise would still have existed.
Meanwhile, lets not forget that the most important religion in Rome was the cult of the emperor. Remember that much of the early Christians trouble with Rome was due to its refusal to participate in this cult. And It seems to me that many of the tenets of Islam (especially monotheism) would have served the emporers just as well as Christianity.
I think it was this “one god to rule them all”(OK, sorry about that:)) aspect of Christianity that allowed it to be used by the emporers, and that in turn allowed it to use the emperors to spread so far and wide.
The Roman Empire that was still extant and quite powerful when Islam began was a Christian Empire and had been for roughly a couple of centuries or so. The cultural milieu into which Islam was created had a great deal of influence from that Christian Roman Empire. The Cult of the Emperor was long gone. Likewise, the Roman state religion had started to run out of steam, which is why Isis, Mithras, and other foreigners had become so popular.
There was no “druidism” left on the Continent–Rome had wiped it out quite convincingly soon after the Empire was formed. In the British Isles, it seems to have been having some problems. It had been wiped out in Roman territories and by the 4th-6th century it nearly folded up and blew away in the face of a handful of Christian missionaries. That particular “old religion” seemed to command very little loyalty among its adherents. The Roman Synthesis (cf Caesar’s notes on Gaul) would have likely ended up oozing its way in.
Norse religion (I hesitate to call what they had a “theology”–that term implies a systemization they didn’t do). could have fared better, but in the historical era it seems that only a priviliged class really got into that whole “Valhalla” thing. The rest of the poor schmucks didn’t get a thing out of it–live, farm, die, go to Hel. What a great future that religion promises. Thus, Mithras and/or Isis could have been easy to “export” north. Isis could have been transformed into an enlarged Freyja/Frey cult, since Isis and Osiris were both husband and wife and brother and sister.
When we look at the history of early Christianity, we see that it spread far and wide in all directions, as far as the cultural contacts of the time could take it – even south to Ethiopia – but then it ran up against a limit and stopped. Christian missionaries made converts in Persia and India, but those did not become Christian countries. Why not? Because Christianity, a prophetic religion that offered a definite moral code and promise of a desirable afterlife, was more appealing to a lot people than the old, traditional religions it replaced, which had no systematic moral code and only a vague conception of the afterlife. But Persia already had a prophetic, moralistic religion, Zoroastrianism, and therefore no need for Christianity. Hinduism too has a definite moral code and a morally relevant afterlife.
If we take Christianity out of the picture, the Roman world could have been fertile ground for some other prophetic, moralistic religion to replace its old paganism – but I doubt it would have been Mithraism, which was limited to men, and to rich men who could afford a whole bull to sacrifice for their initiation. And Judaism would not have become empire’s universal religion either, not without reforms that would have been so revolutionary as to render completely irrelevant the idea of a Jew’s descent from Abraham. Perhaps something similar to Islam would have arisen – but it would have been very different from Islam as we now know it. Mohammed’s religious view were deeply influenced by his contacts with Jews and Christians. (His knowledge of these religions was imperfect – it was only late in life that he learned that Christians did not consider themselves a Jewish sect.)
In Kirk Mitchell’s Procurator series, which I mentioned above, the 20th-century Roman Empire is just starting to be troubled by a prophetic religion from the East which looks a lot like Islam.
Because Persia was the major rival to Rome. The Shahs weren’t going to allow a strong Christian presence in Persia, because they were afraid a Christian Persia would fall under the dominance of Constantinople. You’ll note also that most Persian Christians at that time tended to be Nestorian, because the Nestorians were persecuted by the Byzantines. So, they were “safe”, and independent of the Byzantine state in the way that Orthodox Christians weren’t.