"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Spread of the Early Church

Like an unwatched fire creeping through the leaves before setting the forest on fire, the early Christian church, from unpretentious beginnings, began to threaten even the mighty Roman Empire. It began in a far-away insignificant corner of the Empire. The arsonist: a gentle man of whom it was said: “a bruised reed he would not break.” This man claimed he was God; an idea so ludicrous to the authorities of the time that they crucified him. They wrote off the lunatic without even considering the possibility that he might really be Lord. He said that his kingdom was not of this world, and by the way his first subjects acted, it would appear that he was right. His high ranking officials were fishermen and other unpretentious poor people of no account. His subjects spanned broad demographic lines, scattered across the known world. We will examine the rapid spread of Christianity in the first century A.D and some of the unsuccessful efforts by the Romans to stop the fire from spreading.

The impetus behind the spread of Christianity in the First Century was Jesus' command to his fellow Jewish followers to, “go make disciples of all nations.”1 Quickly spreading from the Middle-eastern Judea, Christianity was soon known in much of the Roman Empire. Jerusalem started out as the major center of Christianity. It was here that Jesus was crucified and here that his few disciples remained and began preaching the Gospel. The primary documents from the period show that in the days after the death of Jesus there were about a hundred and twenty Christians in Jerusalem.2 This number quickly grew till there were some five thousand Christians in Jerusalem soon after Jesus' death.3 The number continued to increase until the Jewish authorities in power became jealous of the rapidly increasing influence of this new religion.

Persecution against Christians began with the imprisonment of leading believers, called apostles. When, in rebellion to the temporal authorities, these men refused to give up their freedom of speech and instead continued to speak to others about their faith, the punishment grew more violent. Flogging and stoning along with imprisonment became common. A first century writer states that: “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”4

The persecution in Jerusalem had this unforeseen and ironic effect: it caused fleeing Christians to rapidly disperse over a wide area, thereby disseminating their beliefs in areas not previously acquainted with Christianity. Because of the unique message of Christianity being a fulfillment of the Jewish law and prophesies, Jews in Israel were particularly receptive to it. As Christianity continued to spread it followed the footsteps of Jews sojourning in other parts of the Roman Empire. This large and scattered diaspora of Jews—by some estimates as many Jews lived abroad as lived in Palestine5--had established synagogues in the cities and towns where they had taken up residence. Such an arrangement made it easy for Jewish Christians fleeing the persecutions in Jerusalem and other areas of the Jewish province to resettle with members of their own culture in what were considered “Gentile” cities. Christians fleeing to other parts of the Roman Empire were, therefore, missionaries from necessity as well as conviction.

Using synagogues as pulpits in many cases and reasoning from Jewish scripture that the claims of Christianity were true was an effective way to spread Christianity. To the Jews, that is. Soon though, Christianity began reaching non-Jews also. As one of the earliest examples of this, a first century history explains: “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Antioch, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”6 The missionary activity of Paul also had a great deal to do with the expansion of Christianity beyond Jews only.

Paul must figure large in any examination of the growth and spread of Christianity. A Roman citizen but also a Jew, he had a Greek education as well as a Hebrew training. He was an apt man to persuasively bring Christianity to the attention of Jews, Greeks, and Romans. He established churches across the Mediterranean region and had a lasting influence. Yet it is an error to think that he single-handedly took Christianity across the Roman Empire. Churches in many major cities, including Rome, were already established before Paul visited, showing just how quickly Christianity spread. Indeed, “by the end of Paul's life, outposts of the new faith were flourishing from the Holy Land north to Syria and across the northern rim of the Mediterranean through Asia minor and Greece and Rome.”7

The end of Paul's life brings to mind the new trouble facing Christians about three decades after the death and resurrection of Christ. Emperor Nero in 64 A.D began a bloody persecution of the Christians living in Rome that also extended to other parts of the Empire. According to tradition, Paul was beheaded by Nero in Rome. Before this time Christians had largely escaped the notice of the Roman government. The official cause of this persecution was the fire that destroyed much of Rome. Blaming Christians was a convenient way to get rid of what was thought to be a disruptive segment of society. Christians by this time had become a nuisance to the government for their refusal to worship the Emperor; for their condemnation of Roman vice; and for considering themselves citizens of heaven first and citizens of the Roman Empire second.8 Their religion made them outsiders and potential dissidents of the state. Christians were sometimes called atheists because, “for the Romans, religion was first and foremost a social activity that promoted unity and loyalty to the state--a religious attitude the Romans called pietas, or piety.”9 By rejecting the Roman paganism, Christians were thought to be disrupting the unity of society. So while Nero was a more likely arson suspect in the burning of Rome, Christians were the perfect scapegoat.

In the first century, Christians were still very much a minority despite their explosive growth. While estimates vary, historian Edward Gibbon suggests that before the conversion of Constantine in 312, only about one in twenty Roman subjects professed Christianity. Those living in Rome at the time of Nero's persecution “did not exceed seven thousand.”10 Nevertheless, “by the year 100, it is estimated that there were already upward of 300,000 believers throughout the empire—an eight fold increase in 30 years--and of these some 80,000 were concentrated in Asia Minor.”11 Dr. Everett Ferguson reveals that the main centers of Christianity were, not surprisingly, in the main cities of the Empire: Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. Further he says, “At the end of the first century Ephesus and the Roman province of Asia were the center of the numerical strength of the church.”12

The demographics of Christians in the first century covered a broad spectrum. Pliny the Younger reported to Emperor Trajan that Christians composed “persons of all ages and classes and of both sexes... The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cites but in the villages and rural districts as well.”13 Christianity was not just a religion of the poor and downtrodden, but proportionally there have always been a greater number of disadvantaged. Edward Gibbon points out that
the Christian religion,which addresses itself to the whole human race, must consequently collect a far greater number of proselytes from the lower than from the superior ranks of life. This innocent and natural circumstance has been improved [to falsely show]... that the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace.”14
What Gibbon and Pliny are trying to say is what Christian belief does say. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”15

Maybe it was ideas like these that gave Christianity part of its appeal. The unity and largeness of it transcended class and nationality. Everyone could become a Christian and feel they had a place. This unity was also perhaps what earned it the hatred of the established authorities. For Christians said that there was another king in another sphere, in which the Roman and Jewish rulers had no authority. No wonder it spread like wildfire and could not be contained by the Jews or Romans. When Nero set the Christians on fire to light his garden at night, he mockingly said: “now you are the light of the world,”16 not knowing that the fires he was lighting would be swallowed up in a greater spiritual fire that that would in turn swallow up the Roman Empire.

1. Matthew 28:19

2. Acts 1:15

3. Acts 4:4

4. Acts 8:1

5. Joseph L. Gardner, editor. Atlas of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the Holy Land. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1983, second edition. 205.

6. Acts 11:19-20

7. Joseph L. Gardner, editor. Atlas of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the Holy Land. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1983, second edition. 204.

8. Boise State University. “Disasters: An Ancient Persecution”. http://www.boisestate.edu/history/ncasner/hy210/nero.htm

9. Religion Facts. “Persecution in the Early Church.” http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.htm

10. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited and abridged by D. M. Low. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1960. pg.184, 187.

11. Joseph L. Gardner, editor. Atlas of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the Holy Land. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1983, second edition. 205.

12. Everett Ferguson. Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries. A.C.U. Press, Abilene, Texas, 1999, third edition. 11.

13. Henry Bettenson, editor. Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, New York, 1960, eighth printing. 7.

14. Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited and abridged by D.M.Low. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1960. 187.

15. Galatians 3:28

16. Boise State University. “Disasters: An Ancient Persecution”. http://www.boisestate.edu/history/ncasner/hy210/nero.htm

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