Bart Ehrman: Religion in the Ancient World

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 49-50.

For most ancient persons, religion was not the way to guarantee an afterlife; it was a way to secure life in the here and now. For the majority of people in the ancient world, life was constantly lived on the edge. There was nothing like modern medication to prevent and cure disease; a tooth abscess would frequently prove fatal. There were no modern surgical methods and only primitive forms of anesthesia; women often died in childbirth, and simple operations could be hellish nightmares. There were no modern methods of agriculture and limited possibilities for irrigation; a minor drought one year could lead to a poor village’s starvation the next. There were no modern modes of transportation in rural areas, food distribution was limited at best. War, famine, disease, poverty – the eternal blights of the human race – were constant and perennial concerns of ancient persons. And, of course, all the anxieties of personal relations were very much alive as well; ancient people too knew the tragic loss of a child or friend, fear for personal safety, unrequited love.

In a world that is helpless against the elements, the gods play a major role. They supply rain for the crops, fertility for the animals, children for the family. They bring victory in war and prosperity in peace. They heal the sick and comfort the downtrodden. They provide security and hope and love. These are things beyond the control of mere mortals; they can come only from the gods.

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