Several thousand years ago, the major superpower had a culture of religious pluralism which had existed for centuries. By the fourth century, a minority religion with a radical one-god theology and mandate to convert followers was able to “rebrand” this Roman pluralistic religious culture as “paganism” as a way of controlling and ostracizing those who refused to believe in their god. Within a hundred years, Christianity had supplanted centuries-old religious Roman religious traditions. The story of how this happened makes for great reading.
O’Donnell’s work is always something to look forward to: vivid and erudite; lively, contrarian and eye opening. For my money, it’s exactly what you want history to be: an argument that strips away received wisdom and brings the ancient world to life again.
Praised by reviewers and historians from Gary Willis to Madeline Albright, Booklist says of this: “Although [Pagans] is serious scholarship, it does not take itself too seriously. The result is an engaging view of antiquity few of us have seen.”
“[T]he now-familiar story of the rise of Christianity very often leaves out the complex relationships between early Christians and…other religions. O’Donnell shines a light on that omission, in meticulous detail and through lively storytelling, animating the world of ancient religions…. In the first and second centuries, Christians were the odd ones out: ‘if there are many gods, people who claim to believe in exactly one god, a god few had heard of… are, functionally speaking, atheists,’ he writes….He convincingly demonstrates what many have known all along: paganism is a category that modern Christians invented to define themselves against other religions and to use, often, to justify persecution of those different from Christians.”
— Publishers Weekly
Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity (9780061845352) by James J. O’Donnell. $27.99 hardcover. 3/17/15 hardcover.