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A Look Into the Kaleidoscope of Christian Dawn

A WORLD FULL OF GODS, The Strange Triumph of Christianity, By Keith Hopkins

The Free Press, $26, 402 pages


Now and then, a certain playfulness can be found in otherwise sober works of biblical history and commentary, but "A World Full of Gods" is downright zany. Keith Hopkins, a professor of ancient history at Cambridge, breaks out of the customary restraints of academic scholarship to conjure up what it was like to live in the world in which Christianity competed with Judaism and a whole pantheon of pagan gods and goddesses. The result is an intellectual tour de force--"a triple helix of multicolored and interwoven strands," as Hopkins puts it--that challenges us to see the history of Christianity through the eyes of those who actually lived it.

Hopkins' goal is to put us in touch with what he calls "empathetic wonder"--"we have to imagine what Romans, pagans, Jews and Christians thought, felt, experienced, believed"--and, to do so, he insists on adopting a mind-boggling array of literary devices, including the first-person testimony of a pair of time travelers who visit ancient Rome, a TV drama set in the Essene community at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, a meditation on Jesus' apocryphal twin brother, a lively exchange of correspondence between the author and various colleagues and critics, and much more.

Along the way, Hopkins succeeds in evoking the sights and sounds of the ancient world with daring and imagination. For example, his time travelers, dubbed Martha and James, describe the smell of burning human flesh on a funeral pyre in Pompeii, the fine points of buying and selling slaves ("Just like used cars," they say), the sexual adventures that might enliven a visit to a Roman bath and a spirited session of goddess-worship devoted to Isis. Now and then, he allows his characters to engage in thoroughly modern (and sometimes thoroughly mundane) banter with each other.

"I'd kill for a coffee," says Martha, exhausted by the exertions of slave-shopping.

"You'll have to do with some bread and goat's milk," James replies.

The original custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls, whom Hopkins describes as "the intense devotee core" of the ascetic sect known as the Essenes, are depicted with the same wry intimacy. We learn, for example, that members of the community "were not allowed to spit, interrupt, dress badly, guffaw foolishly, gesture with the left hand . . . or defecate on the Sabbath," a rule that was enforced by the simple expedient of setting up the latrines "beyond the maximum distance which an observant Jew could walk on the Sabbath." To explain how the messianic expectations of the Essenes differed from those of the early Christians, Hopkins offers us the script for a television program in which the characters include not only the Essenes but also someone called Bob, who is described both as a TV director and as God.

What drives Hopkins to all of these exertions and contortions is his conviction that conventional histories of religion do not adequately convey the richness or the diversity of the ancient world--they do not allow us to fully appreciate how remarkable it is that Christianity managed to survive and prevail against the rival faiths of antiquity.

Hopkins insists, for example, that no single textbook definition can sum up the beliefs of early Christianity: "Perhaps 'Christianities' would reflect its diversity better," offers Hopkins. He concedes that Jesus may be approached as a man of flesh and blood--"The real Jesus was a Jew, the leader of a radical revisionist movement within Judaism"--but he is ultimately less interested in the historical Jesus than the transcendental one. "Like the sacred heroes of other great religions," he insists, "he is a mirage, an image in believers' minds, shaped but not confined by the images projected in the canonical gospels."

The unlikely success of Christianity, according to Hopkins, can be explained by the very fact that Jesus was the focus of such controversy among early Christians. "Religions create, and thrive on, passionate commitment and passionate conflicts," he argues. "And early Christians disagreed fervently among themselves as to whether Jesus was wholly divine, or wholly human, or a subtle mixture of human and divine."

"A World Full of Gods" is charged with high spirits and bawdy humor, and the experience of reading it is often phantasmagoric and even psychedelic. But Hopkins is utterly earnest in his goals as a teacher. He wants us to understand that "ancient Christians constructed many Jesuses, as modern believers still do," and he seeks to share with us "the tension and the excitement" that he experiences when encountering both the myths and the realities that helped to turn the first courageous followers of Jesus into the founders of a new faith.


LJonathan Kirsch is the author of "Moses: A Life" and "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel."

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