Why did Christianity flourish so quickly during the Roman era? It flied in the face of polytheism. I understand that roads made a huge influence in the speed of proselyting. I understand the fact that you were a martyr if you tried to spread the word and were killed. What I’m trying to figure out is why the hell it spread as quickly as it did.
WAG: Christ was the anti-Caesar. The Caesars were supposed to living sons of dead gods (previous Caesars). Christ was sold as the resurrected son of a living god. And with the hope that you could be resurrected too, even if you weren’t super-special like Dionysus, Aesculapius, and Hercules.
WAG - it was inclusive.
You didn’t need to be a patron of one of the gods and build a temple like the Romans, you didn’t need to be one of the chosen people, you could just be an ordianry Joe/Jane and we can show you the path to heavenly reward.
That’s a pretty big selling point if you’re pushing religion to the masses.
The Roman Empire was a great environment for a religion to spread in. You had a large territory with good transportation, a common culture, and a couple of universal trade languages.
Look at how quickly Christianity spread through the Roman Empire in comparison to its spread outside of the Empire. Christianity was slow to reach Northern Europe and Ethiopia and never really caught on in Persia and India.
Generally, religions have reinforced the social interactions and work ethics that were required by societies to function in a productive way. If a society’s elders/leadership saw that Christian values might make their kingdom or empire work better, they would adopt it, promote it, and help spread it to the masses under their control.
1- it was seductive; it promised even the lowest of the low an eternal afterlife; indeed said they would be preferred
2- it got support from the highest levels of society very quickly, viz Emperor Constantine
3- it was a coherent brand, whereas polytheism was just a bunch of disconnected belief systems that had no commonality and no organised proponent
~330 years is quick? Compared to Mohammed’s spreading of Islam, for example? Although I’m sure the loss of the Roman Empire made it easier.
I have a question re: monotheism. Or I guess henotheism. Emperors like Aurelian and king nutjob Elagabalus established Sol or Sol Invictus as the chief god. Would that have made monotheism more palatable?
This is pretty much it, Christianity even allowed slaves to join congregations and proclaimed them as being equal. The amazing part to me is that Roman Emperors would adopt a religion that proclaimed that slaves were there equals and that it would eventually be adopted even by most of the elite senatorial families of Rome.
In 302 you have Diocletian persecuting Christians, apparently with popular support from the ruling classes. In 313 Christianity is legalized by Constantine, in 380 it becomes the official state religion under Theodosius I and from 389 they start persecuting pagans.
The reversal seems pretty rapid 90 years for roles to swap and Christianity to completely replace a thousands of year old tradition that was entrenched in the ruling classes (some of whom actually claimed descent from pagan gods).
Be careful not to overestimate the spread of Islam as a faith, as distinct from the Islamic State. It did spread quickly as a general proposition, but though some areas saw fairly rapid conversion ( Arab populations in Syria for example ), many other regions did not. Egypt was probably majority Christian right down to the 10th century.
Gibbon’s Decline had a long discussion on this. Basically Christianity had organized proselytizing (and freelance) as one of its tenets, which had not been necessary for Zeus or Venus for centuries. It had a fixed hierarchy and was centrally directed, while it seems most of the local temples were freelance individual concerns. The Christian dogma was pretty much collected and determined, while the roman pantheism seems to have been a mishmash of whatever sounded good at the time. Plus, there was likely a certain “coziness” of the elite with the temples, and the usual corruption of the establishment. It seems most temples were basically ways to collect offerings to support the local priests who ran that temple. By contrast, Christianity was a club anyone could belong to; I’m sure that twosome extent it functioned like a college fraternity alumni or (allegedly) Scientology in Hollywood, where it provided social network connections. Most churches as an underground were simply communal gatherings with modest needs, not a way to add to the tax burden to support grandiose edifices. For Christianity, that came later.
According to Gibbon, once Constantine promised to legalize Christianity, simply to get some additional support during a civil war / coup. Once they came out of the closet, so to speak, the old religion could not compete and was dead in a few decades despite occasional efforts to revive it. Of course once the Christians had true power, they used that to suppress those unfortunates who could not see the true way.
Another point was that Christianity latched onto mystic jibber jabber, such as the trinity being one but three and resurrection and the imminent rapture… It’s competition in this regard was other eastern cults like that of Isis. The mystic nature seemed to appeal, much like TM, or Carlos Castenada or UFOs seem to appeal to some segments of society today.
Many good ideas here, but the main point and not yet mentioned, even by Cecil, is that of Jesus’ resurrection and appearing before his formerly-scared and hiding disciples. I am a believer, so that’s my context. I am also a scientist.
The resurrected Christ, standing in front of them, eating with them, that would blow anyone away and convince any doubter, even Thomas. Even you.
Until Jesus rose from the dead and showed himself to them, the disciples were all scared and hiding. They denied knowing Jesus, let alone working with him. They feared for their very lives. What explains their change to being outspoken evangelists, willing to die for their faith? Did they all drink the same Kool-Aid?
Also, consider the conversion of the vehement anti-Christian such as Saul of Tarsus, one who persecuted early Christians.
If people want to talk about the Roman Empire’s providing the infrastructure for the fast spread of a message, any message, what about today’s internet? Attempts at new, all-inclusive “religions” happen every day, but none survive the scrutiny that Christianity has for millenia.
It all comes down to the resurrection. Without that, Christianity is nothing. That’s what sold so many books for Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code - it began with supposed “proof” that the resurrection was false, then went on to spin a good yarn sprinkled with many elements of truth. A fun read, by the way (especially the illustrated version). The movie was, well, just okay.
Look, you either believe and have this faith, or you don’t. If you have it, you’ll study the bible as history and religion and see how it lines up and withstands scrutiny. If you don’t, you’ll think it’s all hogwash and will believe the many arguments against it; but if you give it a chance and look into it, you just might surprise yourself.
It wasn’t all that quick. It took about 300 years before it became the dominant religion of the Empire.
That may have been a point in its favor. By the time of the early Empire, few Romans, certainly few with any sophistication, could take traditional Roman polytheism seriously any more. The same goes for Greek polytheism (and other religions, such as Egyptian polytheistic sun worship, that had one flourished in parts of what was now the Empire). Roman and Greek religion, in particular, had grown up in small scale, largely rural agricultural societies, and then in small city states, and were rooted in those sorts of social, political and economic conditions. The huge, centralized, bureaucratic Roman Empire was a very different world, and the old gods did not fit it, people wanted something different. Instead of the people with power over you being squabbling independent local prices and chieftains (who you probably actually got to meet, or at least see, fairly often, now all the power over you traced back to the one Emperor, who you would probably never see, far away in Rome. Christianity modeled the new socio-political system much better.
Furthermore, the old, traditional religions had been being undermined, for the past three or four centuries, by the Greek philosophical tradition: critical and largely naturalistic rationalism that had made the old mythical stories seem ridiculous to anyone with a smidgin of education. It may seem an odd thing to say from a modern perspective, but in the 1st century, Christian monotheism looked very rational and “scientific” compared to the old, elaborate myths (and the early Christians, for the most part, were probably not making much of a deal of the old Hebrew myths that are in the Old Testament). What is more, although Jesus and the original Apostles were probably not much influenced, or only indirectly, by Greek rationalism, Greek rationalist ways of thought start to get into the mix even with Paul, and even more in John’s Gospel, and more and more so as the religion developed over the next few centuries. To many people it looked as though, unlike older religious traditions, Christianity got you (most of) the best of both worlds of rationality and religion: logic and science (such as it was back then), and eternal life too!
In fact, the early Roman Empire was a huge bubbling ferment of different religious traditions, with origins in all the different parts of the cosmopolitan Empire and beyond, competing, hybridizing and interacting, as people sought for something to give meaning to their lives when the official state religion of the old Roman gods could not. Christianity eventually emerged triumphant from this melting pot, but it did take many centuries, and I don’t think there is much doubt that the Christianity that eventually emerged and effectively took over the Empire was something very different from what had been going on around Jesus, or even around Paul, in the early first century, and (although they did not like to talk about it) some of its intellectual roots went back to places far from Galilee and Judea. In those early centuries it both competed with and hybridized with aspects of many non-Jewish traditions: Gnosticism, Persian Zoroastrianism, Hermeticism, various cults based upon old Egyptian myths, Syrian Sun worship, Mithraism, Manicheanism, and I am sure many more. Christianity emerged as the strongest hybrid out of this melting pot, but it was by no means obvious all along that it would, and ultimately what made the difference was that Constantine found it politically expedient to ally himself with the Christians in the civil war by which he made himself Emperor.
Of course, a large part of the reason that it was expedient for Constantine to ally himself with the Christians was that, already by that time, a large proportion of legionaries were Christian. (Though far from all of them, and it is probably significant that, before he got pally with the Christians, Constantine had tried to ally himself with the Sun worshipers.) Earlier on in the Empire’s history, it had looked as though the more militaristic Mithraism, rather than Christianity, would become the dominant religion amongst the legionaries. I have heard it said (though I don’t take it too seriously) that the reason Christianity eventually displaced Mithraism was that becoming a full-fledged Mithraist involved being baptized in the blood of a freshly slaughtered bull; to become a Christian, you only had to be baptized in water, which was much cheaper.
The roads were largely built to move the legions around the Empire, and it was probably the legionaries, more than anyone else, who spread religious ideas around. In order to prevent mutinies and local nationalistic uprisings, the Romans made an effort make sure men from all different parts of the Empire were mixed together in the legions, and, for the most part, tried to ensure that a legionary’s service would be far away from his homeland. An unintended consequence was that religious ideas and beliefs would be spread very quickly, by individual legionaries, from one end of the Empire to the other. Also, the legions themselves formed an ideal culture for the hybridization of religious traditions.
Official persecution of Christians was not nearly as widespread and constant, as Christians have since liked to make out, but it did happen, and Christians, out of all the multifarious religious movements of the time, do seem to have been uniquely singled out for persecution. I am not sure why that was, but one of the results, paradoxically, may have been to make the Christian movement stronger by making Christians more militant, and forcing them to develop a strong underground organization and feeling of solidarity that most of the other religious tendencies of the early Empire did not have.
Well, not all that quickly, all things considered.
Clearly this is not what happened with Christianity during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire. Until Constantine, the authorities either ignored it (as they did most other religions within the Empire) or actively persecuted it.
True, but also true of most of the other competing religions of the early Roman Empire. One thing I have heard suggested, though, was that for some of the other religions that developed and found their adherents mostly within the legions, notably Mithraism, you could really only be a fully initiated member if you were a man. Christianity (most aspects of it, anyway) was open to women too, and perhaps even children. Of course, Christian women would often pass along their religion to their sons and daughters.
OK, that’s eleven people, twelve if you count Paul on the Damascus road. What then?
There were more people than that who thought that Charlie Manson was the Messiah.
No, He has never appeared to me. Nor has He ever appeared to you, or any other person, in the flesh, in the way He is supposed to have appeared to the original disciples. To maintain otherwise, indeed, would get you drummed out as a heretic from virtually any Christian congregation in the world.