EARLY CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE

APPEAL OF CHRISTIANITY


image found in Carthage

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Christianity probably appealed to people in several ways. First of all, it did have a very high moral standard that it set forth.... Of course some philosophical sects and groups would also put forth rather similar ways of life for their practitioners. Christianity had an institution that provided material benefits but also had a whole sacramental system that offered to its practitioners, supposedly, repentance from sins and overcoming sin and overcoming death... As the church developed, it allowed for different degrees of Christian devotion. So, that if you wanted to give yourself up to a highly ascetic life and renounce practically everything, you would be much glorified for doing that, but you could be married and have a position in worldly life and have a family, career and so on and that was all right, too. So, Christianity could adjust itself to different types of people, just as it could adjust itself to the highest class of intellectuals but also adjust itself to common people whom the church writers always remind the theologians that Christ died for the lowly, as well as, for the educated. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “In the final analysis, after we've answered all the questions that the historian has tools to answer, there still remain fundamental mysteries about religious change. Why among all of the movements following prophets in Rome and Palestine did this one survive? Why among all of the varieties of Judaism in the first century did only two survive as world religions? One, the religion of the Rabbis -- the other, the religion of Christianity. And, hidden [in] this is something which we finally don't have the tools, I think, to analyze, and that is that this new message, [this] rather improbable message that the Son of God has come to earth and been crucified, in human form, and risen from the dead ... appealed to a lot of perfectly ordinary people, or so they appear to us, in such a way that they were willing to change their lives and to become initiated into a group which brought them only hostility, estrangement from their families and neighbors, and the possibility of persection to the point of death. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“What was there about this movement which could make that kind of appeal to people? ...In the final analysis, I think we don't know. We can speculate, we can say it offers a kind of community, which is rare in any society and certainly rare in antiquity. It offers a closeness, it offers a powerful ideology which explains the evil in the world, or at least it provides powerful symbols for understanding that evil, it offers you a sense of the moral structure of the universe.... It has an ideology of justice, which will be guaranteed by God, finally. It offers a community which shapes the basic moral intuitions of its members, which brings that kind of moral admonition, which otherwise, in the Roman world, we find... only in the schools of philosophers, which after all, is an elite phenomenon, limited to a very small stratum of highly educated people. [Christianity] makes this [morality] available to perfectly ordinary folk. <>

“So, we can talk about a lot of these factors, which we say must have entered into this, and yet finally there is hidden behind the difficulties of our sources, but hidden more behind, I think our final inability to penetrate the deepest structures of the human personality, there is the fact that countless individual decisions were made that added up to a profound cultural change in the whole Empire.” <>

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar catholicsaints.info ; Saints' Books Library saintsbooks.net ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection colecciondeverda.blogspot.com ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Christianity Offers Believers a New Community


Agape feast found in a Christain catacomb

“What did Christianity offer its believers that made it worth social estrangement, hostility from neighbors, and possible persecution? Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “Why was the Christian community something that people wanted to join? I think that only because at least certain parts of the early Christian mission were intent in creating new community, that only for that reason this movement was successful. Now what does it mean "new community?" Let me talk about this in two different levels. One was certainly that the message that was preached here promised gifts, spiritual gifts, to people that went beyond the everyday life experience and promised also immortality, a future life which would be liberation from sickness and from disease and from poverty, and individual isolation. There is a future for the individual. And the message of the possibility for a human being to be related to something that is beyond the powers of this world was certainly one great attraction. But that alone would not have been enough. I think it's a very important spiritual-religious factor. But it would not have been enough, because, in spite of all the glories of the Roman Empire, people lived in the world in which there was inequality, there was great poverty on the one hand and immense wealth in the hands of a very few people. There were sickness and disease and there were no public health services, and doctors were expensive. [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Now here's also the question of the inequality which Rome really reinforced through the Augustan system. Rome is a very strict hierarchical system, in which the emperor is at the pinnacle, all the way up and then all the blessings in the world that come to people come down from above. The emperor is the conduit to the divine world. And if you're at the bottom of that social pyramid, not a whole lot of things are coming down to you anymore. Slavery slowly diminished, but continued to exist. <>

“Now the Christian community, as we have it particularly in the letters of Paul, begins with a formula that is a baptismal formula, which says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. This is a sociological formula that defines a new community. Here is a community that invites you, which makes you an equal with all other members of that community. Which does not give you any disadvantages. On the contrary, it gives even the lowliest slave personal dignity and status. Moreover, the commandment of love is decisive. That is, the care for each other becomes very important. People are taken out of an isolation. If they are hungry, they know where to go. If they are sick, there is an elder who will lay on hands to them to heal them. <>

Christianity Creates A Sense of Belonging

20120224-Christian catacomb Paul_philosopher.jpg
Image of St. Paul in
Roman Christian catacomb
Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Now what are they offering? It's very simple. With new immigrant groups, all of them trying to find their way into Roman society -- to make it in the Roman world, to be a part of the mainstream, to march up the ladder of success -- belonging is one of the key issues, and what I think the Christians offer probably as well or better than anybody else in the Roman world is a sense of belonging. To be part of the Christian community... to be part of the church, is to belong to a society of closely knit friends, brothers and sisters and Christ, and it may be something as simple as that that spells the [basis] of the success of Christianity in the Roman world.... [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Christianity was beginning to grow in substantial ways by the late second and early third century precisely because it was responding to some basic, deeply felt human needs. It really was probably beginning to answer the questions that people were asking, and we can see that growth in a variety of ways. For one thing, there really is no empire wide persecution of Christianity throughout the entire second century and into the first half of the third century. It was always sporadic; it was always local concerns. The first time the empire as a whole says "We have to eradicate Christianity," is not until the year 249, 50, the persecution of Decius, ... but by that time, the Christians are so numerous that they can't possibly be eradicated; they've already grown that much. <>

“So, in the sense, the persecution really doesn't catch up until it's already too late. We have some indication of the basic growth of Christianity at this time, especially in the cities, in terms of the records of the city of Rome. In the year 251, right at the time of the persecution of Decius, we have a register of the church at Rome, which says that they had 46 presbyters and 56 exorcists and doorkeepers and a number of other people that they catalogued; seven of this and seven of that; quite a lot of people are in this catalog. And at the end, it says over 1,500 widows [and needy persons] on the roster of the church at Rome; that is, people, women who are being taken care of by the church. The church becomes, in a lot of ways, a new kind of social welfare agency in the Roman Empire. The leaders of the church are the patrons of society. By the end of the third century, Christian bishops in many places will have taken over the role of the old civic patrons that had led the processions at Ephesus and Corinth and Rome. They've made it into society.” <>

Christian Message of Love


Christ and Mary Magdalene

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “One of the key words which we find in many varieties of the earliest literature of the Christians is the word "love" and, okay, people have always talked about love and that's no surprise, but they talk about love in a very strange way. They talk about a God who loves, a God who loves enough that he would send his very son into the world -- never mind how odd the notion of God having a son was to the Jews, who began this movement, but there it is -- and who calls upon people to exercise a similar kind of love, a love which is manifested in this death, of the Son of God. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“One of the oddest things about Christianity, of course, is that it begins with having to explain a paradox. The one that they think of as Savior, the one whom they come quickly to speak of as the Son of God..., is also the one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. How do you put that together? One of the ways they do this, is by saying, "What a remarkable thing is this, that the Son of God comes not to conquer the Romans, not to establish a political state in Israel, but he comes to demonstrate the love that the Creator of the universe has for all people?" So that this shaming act that Pontius Pilate used to try to wipe out this little group, is turned about, in the Christian mentality... [into a] manifestation which demonstrates God's approach to us, and therefore sets a kind of model, by which people ought to relate to one another. <>

“One of the things that runs through the Pauline letters, is his conviction that what he calls the Word of the Cross, or the reasoning of the Cross, ought to pervade the whole lives of the congregations which he has founded. So, that... the way in which one exercises leadership or authority in the congregation... must somehow tally with the notion that the power of God is manifested in this reversal of things, in which the powerful one comes to be crucified in the most shameful form, that the one who is equal with God, gives that up to take on the form of a slave. This becomes the model of what love is. Or in the Johannine literature and the Johannine letters, you have similar kinds of language, "We love because he first loved us." So that love is in some sense being re-defined as this other-regarding sacrificial act, [choosing] to put oneself on the line for the sake of the good of the other, and this is grounded in the claim about the way the ultimate power and structure of the universe manifests itself in human society. I think this must have had a very powerful, emotional appeal to people. <>

Christianity Spreads in Greco-Roman Cities and Clashes with Paganism

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “This is obviously an interpretation which begins within a Jewish framework, which is based upon Jewish scriptures ... which are understood within Jewish institutions and Jewish traditions. Now, the really difficult thing is, to explain that great jump that takes place when Christianity moves out of the villages of Palestine into the urban centers of the Eastern Roman provinces, and very quickly crosses the boundary between the local Jewish community, which doesn't respond terribly well to this message, to those outside, the ordinary members of these multi-cultural Greco-Roman cities, who don't have any concept of Messiah, couldn't be less interested in a King of the Jews, who find the notion of resurrection from the dead a very odd concept, at best. How did they make that transition, how did they transform their message to make sense of it to those people? [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“One of the characteristics of the Roman Empire [in] this period from the end of the Republic, right on down to the decline of the Roman Empire, is that there is suddenly great freedom of movement, more so than any period before that and in some ways, more free that any period that will happen again, until the invention of the steamship. This means that in every city in those Eastern Roman provinces there will be a variety of people who have immigrated there from other places, so that you will have many ethnic groups who have had to adapt to a larger culture and they do this in two ways. One by assimilating to a pattern, which has been imposed upon this by things Greek and things Roman - the powers of culture and the powers of politics. And the other way is by trying to maintain their identity by importing things from their homelands, and those things which they import, which establish identity, are more often than not, a religio[n].” <>

Spread of Christianity in Greco-Roman Immigrant Communities


ancient vase with Greek writing and Christain iconography

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “For example, if [you]... go to the ancient island of Delos and just look at the archaeological remains of the various immigrant groups, you will see here a place where the Italians have established an association, over there you will find a great clubhouse, which is built by the immigrants from Beirut, who have established there a cult center for their god, whom they now name Neptune and Poseidon, because that's understood in the larger culture. Up on the hills you'll find shrines of the Egyptian gods, and so on. On the back side of the Island, we will find within 100 yards of each other, the location of the Samaritan group and of the Jewish Synagogue. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“So, how did these people establish themselves with some identify of their own, within this culture? And, the answer, I think, is to be found ultimately in the peculiarities of the Greco-Roman family, the household. Again and again, you will find that a group has come in, they have settled in a certain area, with people from similar homelands and similar beliefs and similar identity. They will have formed an association around their native gods, and they will have found some patron, who may be a member of the group, maybe from outside the group, but someone who has means enough, to provide a place for them to meet - invites them into his home or her home, for often times the patron will be a woman, ... and there provides them a place, some security and a kind of bridge... to the larger society. The Jews have followed the same procedure. <>

“Another place that is very helpful to see this [is] a little town on the banks of the Euphrates River, called Dura-Europas, which had the good fortune to be destroyed in the year 256, good fortune, from the point of view of the archaeologists, so that the remains are there, untouched until 1935, when [excavations] started up. And here, we find along one wall of that street, buried under sand, we find a place, which was once a former house, a private residence, that has been made into the shrine of the god Mithras. We find another private home which has been converted into a synagogue, with magnificent paintings on the wall, and we find another small house, which has been converted into a Christian meeting place, with a baptistery, also with paintings on the wall. This rather graphically illustrates this procedure by which the private household, can be become a kind of bridge head for a new group, establishing its identity, enabling it at the same time to fit into the larger society of the city but also to maintain its own customs and its own special identity.”

“So, among these immigrant groups... a group who would be Christians shows up,...but there's something strange about this. They're not an immigrant group. They didn't come from anywhere. They begin, doubtless, as an offshoot of the local Jewish community, but they came from all over. Their ethnic composition is varied and yet they behave as if they were immigrants from somewhere. They have all the trappings of an immigrant group, and this is a peculiarity. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“How did they get to be different enough that they preserve a certain identity, by their practices and by their beliefs, over against the surrounding culture? And I suppose the answer has to be that they are what modern sociologists would call a "conversionist group." [This] means that, if you belong to this group, you don't belong to any other. The process of initiation, which makes one a member of this group, at the same time cuts one off from the other groups that one had belonged to before, even perhaps one's family, and that is the side of it that makes one look like an immigrant. The very language that they use, calling one another brothers and sisters, children of God, and so forth, implies this kind of re-socialization, in which they have become a different kind of family, a different kind of community.” <>

Christian Welfare Institutions in the Roman Period


early church in Ostia Antica, Italy

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “Now we have increasingly in the Christian churches, in the time up to Constantine, the establishment of hospitals, of some kind of health service, we have a clear establishment of social service - everything from soup kitchens to money for the poor if they need it. We have the very important establishment of the institution of widows, because a widow in the Roman society who had lost her husband and did not have money of her own was at the very bottom of the social ladder. One of the first welfare institutions we find in the church was all the widows who were recognized as virgins of the church, considered particularly precious possessions of the church; they were paid by the church and therefore were rescued from utter poverty in most instances. [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Christianity really established a realm of mutual social support for the members that joined the church. And I think that this was probably in the long run an enormously important factor for the success of the Christian mission. And it was for that very reason that Constantine saw that the only thing that would rescue the empire is to take over the institutions that the Christians had already built up, [including], by that time, institutions of education in reading and writing, because Christians wanted to have their members knowledgeable and capable of reading the Bible.... We find that in administration of the last pagan emperors, before Constantine, at the very end of the third century, a large number of the people in the imperial administration are Christians, because they could read and write. Which constituted a big problem with the persecution of the Christians because they were thrown out of their office first when the persecution began, and suddenly the government didn't work anymore. <>

“One should not see the success of Christianity simply on the level of a great religious message; one has to see it also in the consistent and very well thought out establishment of institutions to serve the needs of the community. <>

Early Missionary Activity Within the Roman Empire

Carl A. Volz wrote: “Most of the early expansion of Christianity within the Roman Empire in the post-apostolic period is due to believers who will remain forever anonymous: Jewish Christians who shared their faith in the Jewish communities of the diaspora, Gentile Christians who shared their faith with colleagues, friends, and family members. In class we discussed the witness of Christian communities and their works of charity (described in the works of the Apologists); the witness of the martyrs (we mentioned the example of St. Perpetua and her companions in Carthage in A.D. 203), and later, the witness of holy men and women (we took as example St. Simeon the Stylite, who prayed atop a pillar for about forty years until his death in A.D. 459). [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~\]

“Figures of special interest for the spread of the faith within the boundaries of the Roman Empire include St. Gregory Thaumatourgos ("the Wonder-Worker"), a student of Origen who, from 243 until his death in 272, ably confronted paganism in Pontus and Cappadocia. A similar figure from the next century is St. Martin of Tours, who from his consecration as Bishop of Tours in 372 until his death a quarter-century later challenged and rooted out paganism in northern Gaul. In the following century we can point to Apa Shenute of Atripe (ca. 350-466) who, during an exceptionally long life, cooperated with several patriarchs of Alexandria to consolidate the Church and overthrow the remnants of paganism in Egypt. /~\

Early Missionary Activity on the Periphery of the Roman Empire


St. Gregory the Illuminator

Carl A. Volz wrote: “St. Gregory "the Illuminator" is remembered as the apostle of the Armenians. Himself an Armenian nobleman, he converted to Christianity in Cappodocia shortly after St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker had been active there, and returned to Armenia where he converted much of the nobility to Christianity. With the conversion of King Tiridates II (d. 330) to Christianity, Armenia became a Christian kingdom. Iberia (today the Republic of Georgia) became a Christian kingdom shortly after afterwards. According to tradition, the apostle of the Georgians was a young Christian woman named Nino who was taken captive durintg a raid, but who then converted the Georgian royal family to the Christian faith. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~\]

“Christianity appears to have spread to Mesopotamia already in the first century. According to apocryphal tradition, the apostles sent Addai (or Thaddaeus, one of the 70 of Luke 10:1) to Edessa (the capital of the buffer state of Osrhoene; today the town of Urfa in Turkey) in response to a request for healing sent by King Abgar V ("the Black") to Jesus Christ himself! It seems likely that Edessa, like Arbela (today Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan), the capital of Adiabene, were evangelized by Jewish Christians scattered by the suppression of the Jewish revolt of A.D. 67-70. Christianity thrived in Mesopotamia, and spread to the East: to Persia and beyond. /~\

“At the southernmost edge of the Roman Empire lay the kingdoms of Nubia (between Aswan in Egypt and Khartoum in the Sudan). In about the year 543 the (Chalcedonian!) emperor Justinian decided to send a mission to these kingdoms. This, however, was at the height of the controversies between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. The empress Theodora, Justinian's non-Chalcedonian wife, sent a rival, non-Chalcedonian delegation! Theodora's delegation arrived first, and the result was the establishment of non-Chalcedonian Christian Nubian kingdoms. Nubian Christianity thrived for more than seven centuries (!) before political weakness and the influx of new peoples led to the Islamicization of the region. /~\

“Returning to the north, the earliest preachers of Christianity to the Goths probably included Christian clergy who had been taken prisoner in raids on Roman territory. Later, Ulfilas was ordained (Arian!) bishop of the Goths in 341. One of his chief tools of evangelism was his Gothic translation of the Bible. It was at the end of the next century (496) that Clovis, king of the Salian Franks, was baptized as a Catholic, with the result that the Franks became the first Catholic kingdom among the Germanic peoples. /~\

“A century later we note the missionary efforts of Pope Gregory I ("the Great"), first in Italy, but then in sending Augustine ("of Canterbury") to Anglo-Saxon England. While this led to Latin Christianity gaining a foothold in the south of England, the main missionary work in the British Isles was carried out by Celtic monks. The first great missionary to the Irish had been Patrick, who first arrived in Ireland as a captive in ca. 405. Over time, the Irish church developed a unique eastern Mediterranean "flavor", but also a missionary fervor which may be indicated by a few famous names: Samson (ca. 490-560), Columba (521-97) and Aidan (d. 651) (known for their work in the British Isles), and Columbanus (ca. 550-615) and his followers (who established monasteries across northern Europe -- Gaul, Switzerland, and even Lombardy). Building on this work, in the seventh century Anglo-Saxon monks (Wilfrid, Willibrord, Wynfrith =Boniface) undertook missionary work in much of what is now Germany and Holland. The Saxons were subdued and converted in a series of campaigns by Charlemagne, whose evangelistic methods may be summarized as "convert or die". /~\

Christianity Grows in the Roman Empire


Paleo-Christain sarcophagus from Cordoba, Spain with an image of Daniel and the Lions

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: ““At least as far as Western Christianity is concerned, Rome finally emerges as the center of things and as the broker of power. In one sense, it's perfectly natural. We're talking about a movement which develops in the Roman Empire, after all, and Rome is the capital.... Obviously, this political center and cultural center carries over into ecclesiastical politics and ecclesiastical culture, as Christianity emerges as a group, more and more at home in the culture of the Roman Empire. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“The relationship between the Christian groups and the largest society around them, the culture, around them, is ambiguous and ambivalent, from the very beginning. On the one hand, one of the sources [of] their power, is [that] they're different. They behave like a group of immigrants, even though they're not immigrants. They mark themselves off from the culture around them. They're different, they're seen as different, by outsiders and by themselves. On the other hand, they depend upon things which are utterly common in that culture. They interpret themselves with the symbols and the language and the expectations that are common to many, many groups, both religious and otherwise, in that culture. On the one hand, they want to set themselves apart. On the other hand, they want to attract everybody, and this ambivalence, this paradox between the in-group and the culture outside, persists, I think, through all of Christian history.... <>

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Given the intersection between religion and politics that we find so characteristically in the Hellenistic Roman world and especially within these major cities, it does seem incongruous that Christianity could have survived, much less have grown to be the prominent force that it would become by the early fourth century when the Emperor Constantine would make it one of his official religions of the empire. But I think we can see several factors that contribute to that growth and development. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“For one thing the Roman world was not uniform in its religious beliefs. There were lots of new religions that had come in between the time of the conquest of the Alexander the Great down to the time of the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian, when the Christians become a prominent issue. Within this period we find new religions coming from all over the Eastern Mediterranean world. There are the cults of the Egyptian gods, Isis and Serapis. There is the great mother goddess... from Eastern Turkey.... <>

“All of these traditional forms of Mediterranean national religions also come in to the Roman world and have cultic followings. So from the Roman perspective, new cults aren't necessarily a problem. The Romans begin to get concerned about these religious groups, however, precisely when it seems they become subversive or when they will not participate in the public religious life of the empire. Anything that looks like disloyalty to the state raises the concern of governors and magistrates like Pliny the Younger. <>

“From a historical perspective, the growth of Christianity in the second and third centuries really is a phenomenon to be reckoned with, both socially and religiously. What made it grow? What made it succeed in ways that even other new religious groups of the time did not is a very important question. Now traditionally at least the answer to that question of why did Christianity triumph in the Roman world was answered very simply. It was God's will, of course, but I think we can probably find some other answers as well. <>

“Sometimes it's been suggested that Christianity appealed to a kind of higher moral plane. A better form of religiosity than their Roman neighbors, and that's what made people convert to Christianity. I'm not really convinced of that. What we really see in the second and the third centuries is that Christianity is defining its identity precisely in terms of the values of Roman society at large. They say "We're just as ethical as you, or better but in terms of what you Romans think are the ideal virtues of society. We Christians are practicing Roman family values just like you."So there not really holding themselves apart from Roman society in quite the same way as we might have expected. <>

Massive Demographic Change in the Roman Empire Aid Christianity’s Growth


Roman and Christain symbols combined

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “So why do they succeed? Why do people become Christians? I think there are some important historical observations to make here. One is that we have to realize that the Roman Empire itself was going through some massive demographic changes at this time. Now let's think about it this way... cities are growing but the population itself, at least within cities, was probably not growing easily. There's more people dying than are being born in most major cities. In other words, the old pagan aristocracy is shrinking, not growing. Where are they coming from, these new people in the cities? Probably they're immigrating from the countryside or moving from other countries, but then again that's exactly what we hear about the Christians. They're on the move. They travel to the cities. They're the new population along with a lot of other people, so I think from a kind of social perspective we have to see the growth of Christianity as a product of the changing face of the city life in the Roman world.... [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“On top of all that there are plagues and famine, and it's been suggested by demographers now that if you've got a survival rate of only one tenth more among one part of the population than another segment of population when you have a massive die off... the result will be that at the end of this process [there will be] far more members of that one group relative to the total population. In other words, in a very short period of time you can have a group that was at one point a very small minority seemingly become miraculously now the majority, and I think in part that's what happens to the Christians. That through this period of very turbulent times in the second and third century, the Christians now become a significant proportion of the leading citizens of some of the major cities of the Roman world. <>

Spread of Christianity

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “If it weren't for the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek, and if it weren't for Diaspora Jewish communities living in synagogues, rimming the edge of the Mediterranean, Christianity could not have spread. But Christianity [is] an interpretation of the idea of Israel. And the way Christianity is able to spread as it does is through the lifelines of these Diaspora synagogues. The language of the movement, as soon as we have actual evidence from [it], is Greek. The Bible it refers to is the Greek Bible. The communities that serve as the matrix for the message are synagogue communities, and we get stories in Matthew or stories in John about this particular community being kicked out of the other synagogues. So what do they do? They form their own group. Business as usual, again. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“But I think it's really because there is an international population that resonates with these great religious ideas of God as the Creator, of righteousness pouring down like waters, of a Kingdom of God and what that would mean in terms of the way a community socially constitutes itself ... it's because of that, because of Diaspora Judaism, which is extremely well established, that Christianity itself, as a new and constantly improvising form of Judaism, is able to spread as it does throughout the Roman world. <>

“Why do people join the movement? Jews joined the movement because it is a particular articulation of Jewish religious hope seen through this one figure of a redeemer. But it's certainly consistent within what we know as the different options of Judaism. The intriguing thing is why did gentiles join? And, here we have, again, the evidence of Paul's letters in 50. He thought it was miracle. These are gentiles, who are going in and out voluntarily from the synagogue, who, on the basis of the message they're getting about the Son of God being on the verge of coming back, are suddenly enabled -- Paul says, through the Holy Spirit -- [to] abandon idol worship. They make a commitment to this particular community. <>


Gallarus Oratory in Ireland

“If you look at the way the movement spreads sociologically, as opposed to theologically, if you look [at] what distinguishes Christianity from all the other religious options in the Mediterranean, it doesn't distinguish it from Judaism. Both groups meet at least once a week. Both groups have very articulate ethical norms. Both groups have a tremendous ethic of community charity. Both groups have revealed ethical patterns of behavior.... No promiscuity. Don't kill the kids. Don't worship idols. Don't go to whore houses. This whole thing that serves to build up community and create a kind of support system. Also, there's this tremendous religious prestige, thanks to the antiquity of the Jewish Bible, which by entering into the church, these Christians enter into that history as well. That's tremendously prestigious and important. Judaism itself is, for all its peculiarities, considered prestigious because of its antiquity. And so there are lots of reasons, sociologically and practically, why Christianity would appeal. <>

Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “Most people who study the origins of Christianity are curious about how this unlikely movement would have succeeded in such a powerful and dramatic way. And it's not an easy question to answer, why this movement succeeded when others did not. One thing that I always think about is that the gods of the ancient world, if you look at them, their images, if you read about them in the Iliad, and the poetry of Sophocles..., the gods looked like no one more than the aristocrats, the emperor and his court. They looked like the courtiers. But here is a religion which claims that God is made manifest in a peasant, probably a man who didn't write, a man who came from the people, a man who was completely unimpressive in worldly terms and much more like the vast majority of people. And in this astonishingly unexpected place, this movement said, God is revealed to be with us. I think that's a powerful statement in itself. [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton Universitym Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“The Gospel of Mark most people think is the earliest of the gospels of the New Testament. And that book is extraordinary and strange.... If you read it apart from the others, it's a story of this country teacher coming from nowhere with incredible power descending upon him, healing people, exorcising people, speaking strange, bold astonishing things, and startling everyone. And then the end of the story, from Chapter 9 on, moves toward his agonizing and humiliating death. And there's the suggestion of the end of the original book that he will rise from the dead, but the way Mark was originally written, the story of the resurrection isn't told. So it's a devastating story of human pain. And I think that must have deeply appealed to many people then, as it does now, for one thing. <>

“When I was working on the book, "Adam, Eve and the Serpent," I was thinking a great deal about why this movement succeeded, and I thought it may have had a lot to do, as well, with the story they told about the creation. Because they told the story about how human beings were made in the image of God.... Now if you think about the gods of the ancient world and you think about what they looked like they looked like the emperor and his court. So those gods looked very different. But this religion is saying that every person, man, woman, child, slave, barbarian, no matter who, is made in the image of God and is therefore of enormous value in the eyes of God.... That's an extraordinary message. And it would have been enormous news to many people who never saw their lives having value. I think that is a powerful appeal of this religion.... The Christian movement seemed to convey a sense of human worth in two ways. Both by the story of Jesus and his simplicity and his humility in terms of social status, in terms of achievement, in terms of recognition during his lifetime. And also in the story of creation; it conveys royal status on every person.... <>

“When we think about the appeal of this movement to many people it's certainly clear that some were drawn by the way that this community would take care of people. For example, like other elements of the Jewish community, the followers of Jesus tended to feed the destitute, take care of people who were widowed so that they wouldn't become prostitutes and orphans and so forth. That was a primary obligation of Jewish piety. And Jesus' followers certainly understood that. We know that when people joined the Christian communities in Rome, for example, they would be buried. This is not something anyone could take for granted in the ancient world. And this society was one in which people took care of one another. So that is an enormous element of the appeal of this movement. <>

Roman Influence on Christianity


Roman-Temple-like church, the Clitumnus near Trevi

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The transformation of Christianity over the first 300 years of its existence is really a profound one. What started out as a Messianic claimant or a political rebel, a victim of the Pax Romana, by the time of the conversion of Constantine becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire. And even then, that's not a simple transformation. It would take another hundred years before most of the Roman world really converted to Christianity. But still, with the conversion of Constantine, it's a very significant change and the change is one we can see in several stages. What is originally a movement oppressed by Caesar because it's a competitor, eventually becomes a cult of...the Lord Christ, by the time we get to the late first and early second century. With the conversion of Constantine, however, it becomes an imperial religion. Now, Jesus had been transformed into the Lord Christ of Heaven and Constantine, the emperor, ruled in his name. ... [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“The imperialization of Christianity can be seen in some of the monuments of Rome itself where imperial ideology and symbolism, the trappings of imperial grandeur, are brought into and overlaid onto the Christian tradition itself. This is probably seen as well as anywhere else in the apse mosaic in the Church of Santa Podenziana at Rome. Here, we have what looks at first to be a very traditional scene from the gospels: Jesus is seated in the middle of his apostles flanked along either side of him. It looks very much like a kind of Last Supper scene, and yet you notice that there are two women seated behind, and they look like very noble Roman women. It's probably the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, also flanking the apostles. But then you look closely and you realize that this Jesus looks differently from what we had seen previously in the iconographic tradition of, say, the catacombs. Jesus is in a very elaborate, expensive toga, seated enthroned in an imperial chair. <>

“This Jesus looks like the emperor himself, and here he sits enthroned in front of a very elaborate cityscape behind. And it's not the city of Rome, it's the new imperial city of Jerusalem. Behind him, we see Constantine's Church of the Holy Sepulchre that had only recently been completed in Jerusalem itself, and behind is the rest of the new city of Jerusalem, rebuilt for the first time, significantly, after it had been destroyed in the first revolt. So, Constantine's imperial patronage of the church is reflected in a variety of ways in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, in the establishment of Christian monument, in the place of Christianity in Rome, and one more way: in the presentation of Jesus in his disciples. Now they look like the Roman aristocracy; they are a part of the mainstream of Roman society. This is an imperial Jesus. <>

Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “There's this sentence in the gospel about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's. Jesus said that in the context of a pagan Caesar. Once Caesar is Christian, the things line up differently. While bishops are religious figures and you don't have a figure like a bishop king, the way you have in Plato, say a philosopher king or something like that, there's a kind of theologizing of secular power and a secularization of episcopal power. Somebody like Augustine functions as a Roman magistrate, as much as he is a premier theologian and religious figure. ... [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“[T]here's a beautiful mosaic in Ravenna, a city in northern Italy, which I routinely show my classes. It's of a beautiful, very handsome, well muscled, beardless man. He's dressed in a Roman officer's uniform. And he's stepping on the head of a lion, and he's holding a standard. And the standard says in Latin, "I am the way. The truth. And the life." And usually my students can't read Latin and I say, "Who's this a picture of?" And they guess, "The Roman Emperor." But it's not. It's a picture of Jesus. <>

Pagan View of Christians

What did normal Roman-era pagans think about the new cult, these so-called Christians? Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “By the early part of the second century it appears that the Christians, because they're no longer being viewed as a sect of Judaism, are really being considered by their pagan neighbors as another one of these foreign cults that have crept into the Roman world, and clearly in some cases it's causing a great deal of concern and consternation on the part of their neighbors. They don't know quite what to make of them. They don't know quite what they're teaching or what they're saying or what they're doing so some questions begin to come up. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]


Christains in the Roman Empire

“We tend to think of Christianity over against paganism in the Roman empire but we have to be a little bit cautious about what we mean by paganism. First of all paganism itself is really not a religion. There is no such thing as the doctrine of paganism. In fact we have to remember that it's the Christians who use the term pagan to define those people who are not Christians. It's a Christian term for another group or the other people and so really it's a Christian's way of thinking.... <>

“In many respects we probably have to assume that Christians on the whole wouldn't have looked all that different from their neighbors. In many places and at many times they would have fit in very nicely with their larger social environment. They would have just blended in. With a few key exceptions, and this is where the Christians become more noticeable to their pagan neighbors. They don't go to the temples. On important feast days when it would be customary to offer sacrifices on behalf of the health of the emperor and on behalf of the health of the state. The Christians probably would have viewed these ritual performances as incompatible with their belief in the one true God. So Christians would have been on those occasions conspicuous by their absence. <>

“When the Christians really do become much more prominent in the social arena of Greek and Roman cities, the pagans start to take note of their absence from important festival days and they're unwillingness to participate in certain aspects of social life.... [O]nly when there becomes a large enough proportion of Christians in the empire as a whole and in the cities in particular that their neighbors can really start taking notice of them [do] persecutions commence. <>

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: ““There's one simple phrase in Paul's letter to the Corinthians that summarizes it, that what he was preaching was folly to the Greeks. And there's an episode in the Book of Acts that exemplifies that folly, when on the hill of the Areopagus in Athens, Paul preaches to the philosophers assembled there and tells them about the death and resurrection of Christ. They're all ears until he comes to resurrection, and then they dismiss him as making a claim that's quite preposterous. They would have understood claims about the immortality of the soul, but the notion that the dead body could be resurrected was viewed as ridiculous. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

Celsus' Attacks Christianity

Celsus was a Greek writer in the second century who criticized Christianity as a threat to the stable communities and worldview that the "pagan" religious and social system sought to uphold. His work as a whole has been lost, but when the third century theologian Origen sought to answer Celsus' charges in a work appropriately called “Contras Clesus” (Against Celsus), he preserved most of Celsus' criticisms. Origen's replies are certainly worth reading in their own right, but the following excerpts are chosen in order to show how a thoughtful "pagan" viewed Christianity. [Source: bluffton.edu]

According to “Contra Celsus” by Origen: “[Celsus] accuses [Jesus] of having "invented his birth from a virgin," and upbraids Him with being "born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God."... [Source: Contra Celsus by Origen, Translation is from volume 4 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, published 1867-1872]

“After these points Celsus quotes some objections against the doctrine of Jesus, made by a very few individuals who are considered Christians, not of the more intelligent, as he supposes, but of the more ignorant class, and asserts that "the following are the rules laid down by them. Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence. By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children."...

“But as Celsus delights to heap up calumnies against us, and, in addition to those which he has already uttered, has added others, let us examine these also, and see whether it be the Christians or Celsus who have reason to be ashamed of what is said. He asserts, "We see, indeed, in private houses workers in wool and leather, and fullers, and persons of the most uninstructed and rustic character, not venturing to utter a word in the presence of their elders and wiser masters; but when they get hold of the children privately, and certain women as ignorant as themselves, they pour forth wonderful statements, to the effect that they ought not to give heed to their father and to their teachers, but should obey them; that the former are foolish and stupid, and neither know nor can perform anything that is really good, being preoccupied with empty trifles; that they alone know how men ought to live, and that, if the children obey them, they will both be happy themselves, and will make their home happy also. And while thus speaking, if they see one of the instructors of youth approaching, or one of the more intelligent class, or even the father himself, the more timid among them become afraid, while the more forward incite the children to throw off the yoke, whispering that in the presence of father and teachers they neither will nor can explain to them any good thing, seeing they turn away with aversion from the silliness and stupidity of such persons as being altogether corrupt, and far advanced in wickedness, and such as would inflict punishment upon them; but that if they wish (to avail themselves of their aid,) they must leave their father and their instructors, and go with the women and their playfellows to the women's apartments, or to the leather shop, or to the fuller's shop, that they may attain to perfection;--and by words like these they gain them over."

Ancient Roman Graffiti Shows the Novelty of Early Christianity


Alexamenos graffito, from around AD 200, may be the earliest surviving depiction of Jesus

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “One of the major implications that we get from this material in the early second century such as the letters of Pliny describing the Christians is that the Christians at this stage are still something new, something novel from the perspective of the Romans. The Romans don't really know quite what to make of them. They're odd. They sort of look like Jews. The Christians don't do certain things but they really don't know what they believe and what they stand for and why they're different. They're just different. They're foreign. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“[W]e have a good example of this kind of pagan perspective on Christians from a little graffiti found in Rome from the Palatine Hill. It shows a man hanging on a cross and below it is an inscription scratched very crudely into the wall.... It's quite literally graffiti in the modern sense of the term and it says Alexamenos worships his god. In the picture we see Alexamenos bowing down before the man on the cross, but the unusual thing is that the man on the cross has the head of a donkey. From the perspective of these pagans there was this unusual belief attached to Christianity. They're worshipping a crucified man, that in of itself is probably something that they would have thought odd, and secondly the identity of this crucified man is somehow confused with animal deities... some sort of peculiar half animal, half man person. The pagans really don't know quite what to do with all this. <>

“Even if we hear a fair amount of pagan attack on Christianity as stupid or criminal and we do know that some persecutions occur, we shouldn't necessarily assume that all Christians were against the Roman government, were marginal parts of society. In many cases, Christians did participate in social activities and were good citizens. Indeed the Christians often claim, "We are the most ethical part of your empire. We behave better than the rest of you. Why would you want to persecute us?"” <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.