Here’s a bizarre scenario (with no basis in the historical record…). c.c.c.1000 a Jewish, a Muslim and a Christian missionary find themselves on the wrong side of the Ural Mountains among a horse-killing, horse-worshipping pagan people (and before anyone writes in there is some ancient and medieval evidence for Jewish ‘evangelism’). The Christian missionary, Peter, goes to village A, the Islamic missionary, Muhammad, goes to village B and the Jewish missionary, Abraham, to village C: monosyllabic placenames were apparently common in the foothills of Asia in the Middle Ages.
A few more details to make this scenario still less credible but fairer. Each village is next to a river and has a hundred inhabitants (in a steady age pyramid), two hundred horses and ten fields. As to the missionaries, they are actually triplets with the same looks, the same charisma, the same talents. The three were brought up under the same parental regime (the Mum had read Dr Spock), only having this or that monotheistic religion beaten into them in their late teens: environmental factors are, necessarily, present but equal. Then each of the three villages is run by a chief who also happens to be one of three triplets brought up by a horse-riding, horse-killing overlord all with equal looks, charisma and talents: the dad died the year before in a nasty riding accident and was eaten at a Yuletide feast. And one final detail, before sociologists or economic historians chip in: there are no Christian, Muslim or Jewish principalities within fighting distance. In other words the missionaries are going to have to convert through arguments and, if their deity grants it, miracles.
Now to the question: given three months which of our three missionaries is going to be most successful? In other words, cropped of all confounding associations and factors which religion speaks most naturally to a polytheistic horse eater? And, frankly, polytheism hasn’t got a chance. After all, if any of the horse-worshipping priests begin to talk about an arbitrary universe, the missionaries can ask rhetorically what the chances are that an arbitrary universe would have had three triplet missionaries visit three villages ruled by triplet horse-riding, horse-eating chiefs…
To Beach, anyway, the victory of Judaism or Islam is in the balance. Judaism perhaps is a little more clannish and a little more creative; the ‘yoke’ of Islam, meanwhile, is more regimented and more God-focussed. But what is striking to this blogger is Christianity’s third place position. Once Abraham and Muhammed have got the locals to accept the idea of a single God they have triumphed. After that it is just a question of teaching a particularly bright young lad Arabic or Hebrew, copying out the Torah/Koran, and making sure that everyone prays in the right direction.
But Peter… Pity poor Peter. Christianity might be aesthetically the more attractive religion: ‘eternity interpreted by love’… Or it might be for sissies: ‘turn your own bloody cheek, Jesus’. But it is by far the most complex.
‘Well, yes, there is one God, Kubla, but He is actually three, one of the three parts was the son of the Father, he was born in the reign of August Caesar, but he is co-eternal that means he has been around since the beginning of time. Yes, yes, we’ll get to ‘eternity’ in a minute. Then, there is the holy spirit. He is a dove, no, no Kubla, a dove, not a horse.’
Perhaps in a horse-killing, horse-eating culture blood drinking has something to recommend it, but otherwise…
No wonder, thinking about it, that Arianism (which drastically simplified the Trinity) was more successful among the painted ‘savages’ to the north of the Rhine in the third and fourth centuries AD.
So, if this is correct, why should it be that Christianity is today the religion of a third of the inhabitants of the world. Beach with a beautiful Catholic wife and some ingrained Christian sympathies hates to do this, but if absolutely forced to answer he would probably whisper the word: ‘gunpowder’. Would he be right though? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
21/June/2013. KMH, an old friend of the blog, writes: The evangelizing advantages of Christianity that I can think of are: 1) The horse-eating, polytheistic pagans are choosing a simplified polytheism from their point of view. The abstruse idea of the oneness of God in Christianity isn’t that important for them in daily life. 2) No requirement to learn a new language or learn to read printed text – the priests or pastors will explain everything. They can keep their holy days if they give them a new name. 3) Christian evangelists know that to convert pagans they need supplies of food, clothing, tools, medical supplies, etc. to help convince them they have the better religion. We don’t see that with Judaism or Islam. 4) The more “controversial” the Christian evangelizers are in their denominational beliefs, the harder they will try to make converts. This started with the Arians and later continued on with the Protestants, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. So the Christians deviating from Rome the most may be the most fanatical in evangelizing pagans. Beyond the Urals in 1000 AD would imply the Greek Orthodox, not differing much from Catholicism. However, another date might be more interesting. Nathaniel adds to this: Of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, Christianity may be the least ethnocentric, anchored less than the others to the overall culture of its original followers. Christianity almost from the start was multi-ethnic, and I’ve even seen claims that it was one of the first “religions” in the sense of separating religious activities from other aspects of life. This may make it easier to adopt in spite of its theological complexity. And perhaps the idea of “three gods in one” makes MORE sense to a polytheist than it does to a strict monotheist — there’s argument among Jews and Muslims about whether Christianity is monotheistic at all.’ Lehmansterms, meanwhile, writes: ‘One word, slavery’. Thanks Lehman, KMH and Nathaniel!
30 July 2013: Jonathan from A Corner writes, As regards Peter, Mohammed and Abraham walking into a bar, I mean over the Urals, you are presumably aware of the best medieval attestation of competitive missionary activity, that recounted in the thirteenth-century Russian Primary Chronicle to explain how the variously Slavic and Norse forebears of the Rus’ lords of Novgorod and Kiev wound up Christian? Here it was a four-way battle, as missionaries arrived from the Bulgars (Muslim, apparently!), the Germans (Latin Christian), Khazars (as you may know, almost inexplicably, Jewish) and Greeks. Khan Vladimir is unimpressed by the way the Jews’ God has treated them, the Germans are much too keen on fasting, and the Muslims, although they promise a lot in the next world, require the Rus’ to abandon pork and wine, and as Vladimir is made to say, “Drinking is the joy of the Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” Then the Greeks come along and tell horrible stories about all their rivals, run briefly through the Creation narrative and the Fall and Incarnation. But Vladimir, though swayed, is cautious, and sends ambassadors to inspect the faith of these peoples as it is actually practised in their countries, except the Khazars who were clearly never in the running, and basically the sheer amount of gold and art in Constantinopolitan worship clinches it, and that’s why Russia’s Orthodox, though the Chronicler still manages to slip in the God of Battles motif by allowing Vladimir to take Cherson by means of a divine revelation and then bargain the baptism he means to have anyway for marriage to a Byzantine princess, in whose presence he then experiences a miraculous cure! God had obviously spent some time thumbing through the folklore motif index for this one. You will detect that the Chronicle, whose translation you can find online here: is a famously `inventive’ source, but if one was to apply it to your question all the same, one other advantage Christianity might have in your hypothetical situation is dietary restrictions, lack thereof; no kosher, no halal. Of course there’s Lent, but in some ways that’s rationalisable as a way of conserving supplies. (And seriously, if you don’t know the Chronicle, you’ll thank me, it contains many magicians and pigeons swindled by a vengeful Varangian princess used as incendiary bombs, as well as the conversion story, princes’ skulls turned into drinking cups, and much much more.). Thanks J!