The man who changed everything

Jesus seems to defy the impotence of individuals in the face of historical forces

As you likely know already, today is Easter Sunday. This is the day when Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. For believers this is the central moment of human history: the moment of humanity’s redemption. However, I would argue that even seen in secular terms Jesus stands out in history.[1]

Generally speaking it is beyond the power of a single individual to profoundly shape history. This is a point made by Michael Gove’s bête noir the historian Richard Evans in the process of explaining why historical what-ifs are a largely futile exercise:

…every historian tries to balance out the elements of chance on the one hand, and larger historical forces (economic, cultural, social, international) on the other, and come to some kind of explanation that makes sense. The problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by these larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way. And yet this simply isn’t the case, as many a tyrant in history, from Napoleon to Hitler, has found to his cost. To suppose otherwise is to regress into a “great man” view of history that the historical profession abandoned decades ago.

Yet it is hard to see Christianity’s emergence as the pre-ordained outcome of larger historical forces. Yes they had an impact: the unity of the Roman Empire sped up the transmission of new ideas. But from my limited knowledge of Ancient History[2] it does not seem Christianity was filling a vacuum or bringing a situation back to equilibrium. There little reason to think that without Jesus and his teachings that Christianity or something like it would have emerged.

There were religious movements with similarities to Christianity but none of these seem likely to have spread in its absence. Surprisingly given their harsh treatment in the Gospels, the Pharisees bore many theological similarities to Christians. However, even when the destruction of the Temple left them the dominant strain within Judaism it never emulated Christianity’s success amongst gentiles.

As an alternative we could speculate that without the Jesus the rise of a monotheistic religion based on adherence to a holy book would simply have been delayed a few hundred years until Islam’s arrival. But there are reasons to doubt this. For starters, Jesus is a profound influence on Islam – the Qur’an mentions him constantly. So who is to say what Islam would have looked like without Jesus or whether it would have existed at all. And even if it had, by the time of Muhammad the unity of the Roman Empire which had facilitated Christianity’s spread across Europe was gone. It thus seems likely that without Jesus and Christianity, Europe would have stayed pagan for the foreseeable future.

This would have had extraordinary historical implications and not just for the religious history of the lands that eventually became Christian. Our current view about ideas as fundamental to the modern world as capitalism, human rights and science emerged out of an intellectual culture defined by Christianity.

In the light of Evans’ criticisms of counterfactuals, I shall refrain from trying to predict what a world without Jesus would have looked like beyond suggesting that it would have been very different from what exists now. In short, one does not have to be a Christian to see the man we celebrate today as pivotal for human history.


[1] For this article I am assuming that Jesus was indeed a historical figure.

[2] Seriously I don’t know much about this. Correct me if I’m wrong!

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