22 September 2015
#History of World Civilization, Day Twenty-Two
Why was Christianity successful in spreading throughout the Roman world?
From twelve to millions; from holding secret meetings for fear of being beaten and quite possibly killed, to being the law of the land, all in the span of a few centuries, Christianity has a unique history in the course of human religion. Call it “BC” and “AD,” or “BCE” and “CE,” the fact remains that for the past 1,500 years, the reckoning of time in all of earth history is cleaved in two (if slightly inaccurately) by the birth of a carpenter’s son in a little backwater town in Judea called Bethlehem sometime in 4 BC (probably NOT December 25th).
Part of Christianity’s success can be accounted for by the fact that it was not, strictly speaking, a “new” religion, built from scratch with no foundation. Christianity claims to be the continuation, or perhaps it is better to say fulfillment, of Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth and his followers proclaimed that He was, in fact, the prophesied Messiah, which the Jewish Old Testament predicted would come into the world to establish peace and a new, righteous kingdom in the lineage of David, their greatest king. Jesus thus had a ready-made audience of people who were expecting His arrival. Well, they were expecting someone’s arrival. As it turned out, He was not what most of them hoped He would be.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Jerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel since King David conquered it from the Jebusites, was under Roman occupation. The situation was, at best, tense and occasionally brutal. Four main sects of Judaism had arisen during what biblical scholars call the “Intertestamental Period” –roughly 400 years between the last book of the Old Testament and the appearance of John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the Messiah. The Sadducees rejected not only most of the Old Testament –believing only the five books of Moses to be authoritative- but also the concept of resurrection of the dead. They were wealthy, educated, and Hellenistic, and generally tolerated Roman rule. The Pharisees were the Bible-thumpers, or rather, the Tanakh-thumpers, rigorous in their practice of the Mosaic Law (and their significant addition and expansion thereof), and scornful of those lesser Jews who were not as devout. The Essenes practiced a strict monastic lifestyle and were even more scornful of slackers than the Pharisees were. However, the ones causing the real problems for the Romans were the Zealots, Jewish resistance fighters who openly called for and tried to arouse a revolt. They hoped the Messiah would be a conqueror, overthrowing the Romans and liberating the Jews.
When Jesus did not meet the requirements of any of these four sects and was executed as a potential rebel by the Romans, most Jews went back to their daily lives, despite claims of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which were never adequately refuted. However, those who did believe in Jesus as the Messiah (called “Christians” for the Greek word for Messiah: “Christos”) were a faithful, evangelical group. Jesus message of love, acceptance, forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life (salvation) resonated with many, who eagerly told their family, friends, and anyone else who would listen. Though they increasingly had to meet in secret, their numbers grew rapidly.
One of the crowning achievements of the Roman Empire was their magnificent system of high quality roads that made land travel across the empire easier than ever. Christian travelers, traders, and dedicated missionaries used these roads to carry the Gospel (good news) of Jesus to all parts of the empire. They won converts amongst not only Jews, but also other ethnic groups, generically called “gentiles” by the Jews. However, at that time, Christianity was still viewed by the Romans as a potential threat to the Pax Romana, by the Jews as a perversion of Judaism, and by pagan merchants as a threat to business. Persecution was rampant, and many Christians were killed (martyred) for professing Christ. All that changed in 312 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (or at least claimed to). The following year, he issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity and ended official persecution. By 380 AD and the Edict of Thessalonica, Christianity was the official state religion of the Roman Empire, although by then, the Western Empire was crumbling under the weight of internal strife and the onslaught of the Visigoths from the Balkans.