Believers or Converts? Finding Religion in the Second Century

Kendra Eshleman

Skidmore College

At the climax of the apocryphal Acts of Peter, the apostle Peter defeats his arch-rival Simon Magus in a public miracle contest.  The audience responds with a spontaneous acclamation: "There is only one God, the God of Peter!"  These Romans are believers in the Christian God, but would second-century Christians have accepted them as converts to Christianity?  Ramsay MacMullen has argued influentially that they would have.  In his view, religious conversion in antiquity required little more than a simple statement of belief in the reality and power of a god; converting to Christianity was essentially no different from embracing a new pagan deity.  Yet a closer examination of the Acts of Peter calls into question this minimalist model of early Christian conversion.

In this paper, I will compare the process of conversion to early Christianity to the phenomenon of pagan new religious affiliation, by setting the Acts of Peter alongside another second-century narrative, Lucian's Alexander the False Prophet.  Reading these works together suggests that Christian converts did indeed come to their new faith in much the same way as worshippers of new pagan deities.  Pre-existing social networks are instrumental in the spread of both Christianity and the cult of the oracular snake Glycon, and in both cases belief in the new deity is regularly triggered by a display of divine power.  Yet while recruitment to both cults proceeds along much the same lines, in the Acts of Peter acknowledging the power of Christ is only the beginning of a process that includes regular instruction, worship, and behavioral change, and culminates with baptism and communion.  Conversion to second-century Christianity requires the process as a whole, not merely its first step.   



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