Ramsay MacMullen imagines an ancient Christian conversion

In Christianizing the Roman Empire (thanks for the book recommendation, Joel!), MacMullen tries to stay close to the written record in explaining why people converted to Christianity when it was illegal.  He argues that most of the evidence suggests that non-Christians converted because miraculous cures and exorcisms showed them the power of God.  Early Christian sources record that “exorcist” was a special office in the church.  He tries to synthesize the evidence to conjecture about how this might have been lived out:

Testing to see if I can imagine in some detail a scene that conflicts with no point of the little that is known about conversion in the second and third centuries, I would choose the room of some sick person: there, a servant talking to a mistress, or one spouse to another, saying, perhaps, “Unquestionably they can help, if you believe.  And I know, I have seen, I have heard, they have related to me, they have books, they have a special person, a sort of officer.  It is true.  Besides and anyway, if you don’t believe, then you are doomed when a certain time comes, so say the prophecies; whereas, if you do, they they can help even in great sickness.  I know people who have seen or who have spoken with others who have seen.  And healing is even the least that they tell.  Theirs is truly a God all-powerful.  He has worked a hundred wonders.”  So the priest is sent for, or an exorcist; illness is healed; the household after that counts as Christian; it is baptized; and through instruction it comes to accept the first consequences: that all other cults are false and wicked, all seeming gods, the same.” (40-41)

UPDATE (2/22/10): I added a world that I unwittingly omitted from MacMullen’s quote.



  1. Yeah, he’s got some really interesting arguments. I wonder how his interpretations have fared in the scholarly world since the book was published or how they have been supplemented by other research.

  2. I can’t really speak to that although I think I’ve seen him referred to quite a bit and I think he is very well-respected in the field. I could be wrong! I looked up a lot of his references and was very impressed with how thorough he is.

  3. Yeah, I agree with you. His footnotes add a whole other layer to the book. I know that he is cited in Peter Brown’s Rise of Western Christendom (2nd edition published in 2003), and Brown is one of the most respected authors of the late antiquity period.

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