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Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and…

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity (2015)

by James J. O'Donnell

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I enjoyed reading this book and found it thought-provoking, but I can't quite muster that final star. It took a while to figure out where O'Donnell was going. I decided to read Pagans because of the book summary that talked about how this was a history of the rise of Christianity as told from the viewpoints of the non-Christians whose religion(s) were destroyed by it. That's not entirely off-base, but having read the book, I'd say O'Donnell is arguing that "paganism" was created by Christianity as something it was differentiating itself from. It's not an entirely new argument—I've heard it over the years from modern Pagan writers—but I thought it would be interesting to hear it from what was more likely a modern Christian viewpoint.

For me, the main fault of the book was a lack of focus. As I said above, the publisher's description didn't match the book. This happens, but the problem continued into the book itself. I went through the first half of the book enjoying each chapter, but wondering why some of them had been included. Often, a chapter didn't seem related to the ones before and after it, so the first half of the book felt more like a collection of essays on pre-Christian Roman religious practices. Later, the author began referring back to these earlier chapters. and I appreciate how he brought all this together, but yes, I wish it had been clearer at the beginning. The book was more focused by the second half, but that covered the period in which Christianity was triumphing, and that part of history simply doesn't interest me as much. And this is a lot of history to cover in 241 pages (not counting the notes or the index). I found it helpful that I'd already done some reading on ancient Roman history, although O'Donnell is concentrating on the 4th century CE which is later than I'm familiar with. I get that the book is meant for non-specialists, but it would've been nice to slow down some more and get more in-depth with some of the points covered.

Still, yes, I recommend it if this is a topic that interests you. O'Donnell's tone is conversational. He likens the book to a tour of Rome, comparing what a tour guide might tell you to what he argues was closer to the truth. As a lover of linguistics, I liked when he'd take a word like "paganism" or "church" and talk about how it came to be used in this context. If you're willing to read a history you're unlikely to completely agree with, this may be worth your time. ( )
1 vote Silvernfire | May 13, 2016 |
This is the third book by O'Donnell I have read. He is a very learned man, but tends to downplay the role of Faith. He appreciates the significance of Constantine's victory in 311, but rightly points out that Constantine did not become a Christian till on his deathbed. His account Of Julian downplays the role customarily assigned him in the Church History I studied in past years, but he agrees that after Julian's death paganism came to an end and Christianity triumphed. An erudite and interesting book, but the author's views are not appealing to me. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Dec 3, 2015 |
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When Polynices quarreled with his brother, Etiocles, over control of ancient Thebes, he raised an army led by seven mighty captains.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061845353, Hardcover)

A provocative and contrarian religious history that charts the rise of Christianity from the point of view of traditional” religion from the religious scholar and critically acclaimed author of Augustine.

Pagans explores the rise of Christianity from a surprising and unique viewpoint: that of the people who witnessed their ways of life destroyed by what seemed then a powerful religious cult. These “pagans” were actually pious Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Gauls who observed the traditions of their ancestors. To these devout polytheists, Christians who worshipped only one deity were immoral atheists who believed that a splash of water on the deathbed could erase a lifetime of sin.

Religious scholar James J. O’Donnell takes us on a lively tour of the Ancient Roman world through the fourth century CE, when Romans of every nationality, social class, and religious preference found their world suddenly constrained by rulers who preferred a strange new god. Some joined this new cult, while others denied its power, erroneously believing it was little more than a passing fad.

In Pagans, O’Donnell brings to life various pagan rites and essential features of Roman religion and life, offers fresh portraits of iconic historical figures, including Constantine, Julian, and Augustine, and explores important themes—Rome versus the east, civilization versus barbarism, plurality versus unity, rich versus poor, and tradition versus innovation—in this startling account. 

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:21 -0400)

Looks at the history of the rise of Christianity as experienced by the adherents of the traditional religions of the ancient world who directly experienced the major disruptions brought about by the rise of what they viewed as an upstart cult.

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