The Dawn of Christianity review – how a startup faith won hearts and minds

Robert Powell in the title role from the 1977 TV drama Jesus of Nazareth
Robert Powell in the 1977 TV drama Jesus of Nazareth … ‘It was risky to give up your gods for new ones, inviting divine displeasure.’ Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

In the ancient world of the eastern Mediterranean, many people believed implicitly in the supernatural. They turned to magic and religion to help them survive and thrive, cure illnesses and to ensure good fortune in their uncertain lives. This was true both for pagans, who believed in many gods, and Jewish people, for whom there was only one god, Jahweh. As Robert Knapp argues, it was risky to give up your gods for new ones, inviting divine displeasure. But in the first century AD, some Jews and polytheists began breaking with traditions and embracing a new religion: Christianity. From the dust and heat of Judaea came a new message, from Jesus of Nazareth, who used magic and miracles to convince followers he spoke as a god. He offered a “reward in this life and a happy immortality in the next”. By the end of the third century, 10% of city dwellers were believers. Knapp draws on more than 30 years of research into ancient history to offer a fascinating glimpse into the beliefs of ordinary people and to show how a new religious message won hearts and minds.

The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles is published by Profile. To order a copy for £9.34 (RRP £10.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.