Atlantic, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

And Man Created God, By Selina O'Grady

How did a minor offshoot of Judaism beat its many rivals to become Rome's state religion?

Why? Those with an interest in first-century Rome and the origins of Christianity always and ever must return to this question. Why, out of all the other minor deities that flourished at the birth of Rome's empire, did the jealous god of a small, dangerously restive province become the one that Rome would pick three centuries later to control its own restive population?

Why not the embrace cult of Isis, far more popular? Why not follow the teachings of the Stoics, or of Zoroaster, neither of which required that their followers become martyrs? Why not the Buddha, Confucius, Apollonius? What did Christianity have that made it uniquely suitable?

Selina O'Grady, producer of the BBC's moral documentary series Heart of the Matter, is well-placed to answer this question. Armed with a coherent time-line and some exceptionally lucid maps, her latest work sets out the nature of society and religion in the first century AD.

She starts with Augustus, who made himself both emperor and god while telling the Senate that he was doing neither. His spin was masterful, only let down by his successors who tarnished the brand of imperial deity to the point where it became a laughing stock. He wasn't alone in being a man who called himself a god. His neighbour, the Candace (Queen or Queen Mother) Amanierenas, ruled as hereditary God/Queen of what was then Meroe and is now southern Egypt/northern Sudan. At the conclusion of their war, which by all rational measures she had lost, she sent him a sheaf of golden arrows, stating that if he wanted peace, they were a token of friendship, but if he wanted war, he would need them. Augustus backed down and sued for peace; in the realms of men-become-gods, lineage mattered and Augustus was a parvenu.

In some parts of the world, god-rulers were not permissible. Herod the Great, client king in Judaea, endeavoured to bring Roman culture to his people and ended up slaughtering them to keep himself safe. Yaweh was a jealous god who brooked no rivals, and the Pharisees were in the process of bringing his worship into the home. Where, previously, the Sadducees had preached a distant deity who set rules to which only the hereditary priestly class could possibly adhere, the Pharisees preached an oral tradition that allowed more flexibility of worship, but brought with it responsibility. Because it was now possible for all good Jews to follow the rules laid down by their god, so it was necessary – and that meant they must not acknowledge Caesar as a god.

This intransigence led ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem and allowed the rantings of an apostate – Paul – to usurp the original teaching of a man he had never met and turn it into a state religion.

O'Grady takes us on a detailed tour of the philosophies, cults and religions available to the Roman citizen, from Stoicism to Buddhism. In Rome, the cult of Isis offered a personal god, a community of worship and a sense of an afterlife. The worship of Mithras, which offered much the same, grew in the second century and so is not covered, a source of sorrow to those of us who find Mithras a more congenial god than Yaweh. Perhaps that's for another book.

There would be room, also, for another book covering the circumstances under which the Christianity came to be taken on by Constantine. I came away understanding vastly more of the options on offer, but without truly understanding what it was about Christianity that made it so perfectly suited to the Roman state's control of its population.

This should not, however, detract from a masterful narrative, clearly told, with great panache, insight and humour. It should be required reading for anyone, Christian or otherwise, who has an interest in the historical context in which the "mystery cult of Yaweh" became one of the dominant forces in the world.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment