Making my way through Tom Holland’s new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (or as it will be known in the US when it comes out later this month, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World), and it is chock-full of tasty anecdotes and asides, all written in prose far more sparkling than one expects to find in work of history, popular or no. We’ll no doubt be posting from it quite a bit in the coming months. Here’s a portion of the preface:

The utter strangeness of [Jesus’ resurrection and ascension], for the vast majority of people in the Roman world, did not lie in the notion that a mortal might become divine. The border between the heavenly and the earthly was widely held to be permeable. In Egypt, the oldest of monarchies, kings had been objects of worship for unfathomable aeons. In Greece, stories were told of a ‘hero god’ by the name of Heracles, a muscle-bound monster-slayer who, after a lifetime of spectacular feats, had been swept up from the flames of his own pyre to join the immortals. Among the Romans, a similar tale was told of Romulus, the founder of their city.

In the decades before the crucifixion of Jesus, the pace of such promotions into the ranks of the gods had begun to quicken. So vast had the scope of Roman power become that any man who succeeded in making himself its master was liable to seem less human than divine. The ascent into heaven of one of those, a warlord by the name of Julius Caesar, had been heralded by the blaze across the skies of a fiery-tailed star; that of a second, Caesar’s adopted son, who had won for himself the name of Augustus, by a spirit seen rising—just as Heracles had done—from a funeral pyre. Even sceptics who scorned the possibility that a fellow mortal might truly become a god were happy to concede its civic value. ‘For the human spirit that believes itself to be of divine origin will thereby be emboldened in the undertaking of mighty deeds, more energetic in accomplishing them, and by its freedom from care rendered more successful in carrying them out.’

Divinity, then, was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself: to nail them to the rocks of a mountain, or to turn them into spiders, or to blind and crucify them after conquering the world. That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque. The ultimate offensiveness, though, was to one particular people: Jesus’ own. The Jews, unlike their rulers, did not believe that a man might become a god; they believed that there was only the one almighty, eternal deity. Creator of the heavens and the earth, he was worshiped by them as the Most High God, the Lord of Hosts, the Master of all the Earth. Empires were his to order; mountains to melt like wax. That such a god, of all gods, might have had a son, and that this son, suffering the fate of a slave, might have been tortured to death on a cross, were claims as stupefying as they were, to most Jews, repellent. No more shocking a reversal of their most devoutly held assumptions could possibly have been imagined. Not merely blasphemy, it was madness.

Those looking for a bit more to whet their appetite should check out the interview Holland gave to The Church Times in the UK.