Why Christianity spread so rapidly to become the main religion of the Roman empire

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Constantine's Conversion, depicting the conver...

Why did the number of Christians go from zero in the year zero to become the numerical majority of persons in the Roman world by about the year 350? How does one account for its dramatic success?

Many Christians themselves like to answer that question by appealing to the way Christian martyrdoms inspired the admiration of others, or to the power of witnesses who persuaded many that Jesus really had been raised from the dead. It was the miraculous work of God against all human odds that brought Christianity to the top.

A more plausible reason?

But would it make more sense if the reason was that Christianity itself encapsulated all the highest values of the Roman world as we find them expressed in their pagan traditional literature and stories. What if it was a religion that was increasingly seen as the epitome of what most people came to recognize as all that was good and noble in their pagan traditions?

The opening question is posed by Professor of Religion Gregory J. Riley and the answer he submits to it is:

It was the appeal of the early Church to the wider Greco-Roman society that fueled its rise, and that appeal was very much a result of its success in modeling the ideals of the culture as a whole. The early Christians imitated and copied the fundamental values found in the literature and stories of its wider culture as it formed its self-image and presented itself to the world. . . .

Christianity took hold in the empire as no foreign cult could (for example, Judaism, the Isis cult, and Mithraism) precisely because it was not foreign, but an expression and imitation of the best the empire had to offer.

(Riley, G. J. (2001) Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Christian Century. In MacDonald, D. R. (Ed.) Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity (pp. 91-103). Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International.)

But isn’t Christianity Jewish?

New Testament scholarship has largely stressed the Jewish origins of Christianity. The form of Christianity that eventually won out over the many competing varieties in its earliest days claimed that its beliefs were all based on the Old Testament, even if this required an allegorical reading of the OT to justify.

But there have been others NT scholars who have turned their attention to the fact that “Christians spoke and wrote in Greek and were fundamentally influenced by Greco-Roman literature and culture.” Their efforts have unfortunately not been enthusiastically welcomed by many scholars who have stressed the Jewish heritage of Christianity.

The assumption that has biased some scholars against those who have explored the relationships between early Christian writings (including the Gospels and NT epistles) and pagan literature has been that the Greco-Roman world was pagan, and therefore “bad” and naturally opposed to Christianity, while the Jewish world was “good” and from God and stood opposed to all things pagan. A few exceptions have been allowed, such as the noble thoughts of Socrates and some nice aphorisms in Homer, but these have not been enough to break the general rule that Christianity and paganism could have nothing in common.

Or is it more Greek than Jewish?

Riley challenges the above rhetoric of the gulf between pagan culture and Christianity:

Yet the rhetoric has led us away from what many Christian writers knew well, that very many good ideas found among Christians came from Greek tradition. Greek-speaking Christians defended the use of classical literature as foundational for good character, ethical behavior, and a proper education, well into the fourth century and beyond. Christians in antiquity never developed their own school texts to replace the classics until forced to do so by Emperor Julian in the mid-fourth century. Christians raided the classical tradition for its good ideas and then condemned pagan authors for their immoral myths; Julian finally took offense and made the Christians face their own hypocrisy. (p.93, my emphasis in all cases)

Evidence of this includes the way Christians and Jews toiled to “prove” that Plato and others had stolen their ideas from Moses! These efforts prove that they knew their best ideas were really those of the Greeks.

Certainly Christians wrote of Jewish and biblical heroes as their exemplars, but note how they did this. They did not tell the stories of Moses, for example, in the way they are told in the Bible. They wrapped such heroes up in the ideals of the pagan philosophers and classic literature.

The substance and basic stance of Christianity cannot, in fact, be derived from the Old Testament. We might do better to attach the collected works of Plato to the front of the New Testament than to do as we do now. Christianity cannot be derived from Plato alone either, of course, but we would go much farther in understanding its basic message using Plato than we do using Moses and the Deuteronomists.

Comparing Jesus with David and Socrates

Jesus was said to be the Son of David. Yet Riley observes that his lifestyle, message, career and death were far more like those of Socrates than of David.

Consider some details:

  1. Jesus said, What does it profit if you gain the world and lose your soul? This sounds like a Socrates. Such a statement was meaningless to the forever conquering King David!
  2. The cross of Christ is central to Christianity. Contrast the Old Testament that curses those who hang on a tree, praises long life, peace and worldly prosperity. Christians did not preach long life, peace and a prosperity gospel in the name of a crucified Christ.
    • “Yet tragic deaths and martyrdoms are the very substance of Greek literature, and the examination of a soul facing such a fate is its driving spirit.” (p.95) — Riley does not give examples, but one has only to think of Hector and others in the Iliad, Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues, and Greek tragedies about the fates of King Agamemnon, Antigone, Prometheus, Pentheus . . . .

The power (or winning appeal) of the cross

Though Paul said the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, the fact was that the cross contained enough meaning to win over the empire. It did this by investing the cross with one of the noblest messages of paganism:

a righteous and powerful Son of God is persecuted by unjust authorities, divine and human, faces his own horrible death with courage, and overcomes.

Riley comments:

This is not an Israelite story, but it is the oldest and most inspiring plot-line in Greco-Roman literature. (p.95)

Christians earned the grudging respect of even the Roman elite by living like heroes. Their “Christ crucified” message was told through the model of pagan ideals.

The importance of the Old Testament

Riley does not deny the role of the Old Testament or “Jewish backgrounds” to Christianity. The Christian Bible was initially the Greek Septuagint Old Testament. It necessarily presented the figures of Christianity like Son of David and Messiah to a non-Jewish audience. Christians quote the OT often enough, particularly to reinforce moral judgments.

Allegorically interpreted, the OT gave them a venerable and authoritative “holy scripture”.

On the other hand, Christians rarely quote approvingly directly from classical literature. They could hardly appear to be sanctioning Homer as holy scripture.

[Y]et the substance of what they believed and taught came not in the main from the Old Testament, but from Greek literature, science, theology and philosophy. This they gained not only through the Hellenistic synagogue, but also directly, through their own upbringing and Greek education.

Why this view is not more widely addressed

Riley lists 6 reasons for the failure to appreciate the above explanation for Christianity’s appeal to the pagan world:

  1. Christian writers seem to quote directly only from the OT and largely ignore Greek literature.
  2. Few NT readers would recognize allusions to classical literature in the NT, since few know Greek literature very well.
  3. “Biblical studies” has largely been confined to, well, the Bible — and Greek literature is often ignored.
  4. Our Bible defines only the OT and NT as “holy” and all else as “profane”.
  5. This reinforces the idea that Christianity is Jewish and not Greek, and that Jewish is good and godly, while Greek is pagan and devilish.
  6. We need not look at Greek and Roman causes for Christianity’s rise, since Christianity was a Jewish off-shoot and by God’s will overthrew paganism.

All this leads to a kind of inability to see that there ever was Christian mimesis of classical ideals, even when it is before our eyes, in our own New Testament and subsequent Christian literature. (p.96)

My next post

. . . . will flesh out the above with some specific examples of the ways in which the Gospels and Paul can be shown to have addressed pagan ideals and applied them to Jewish characters.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

17 thoughts on “Why Christianity spread so rapidly to become the main religion of the Roman empire”

  1. I’m not sure that 300 years could be called a rapid rise, but reasons for the rise would have been:

    1. Use of healings, prophecy and “mighty signs” in the early church, performed by Paul and others, that would have led for conversion
    2. Distribution of monies to the widows and the poor, from Paul onwards, and the idea of sharing wealth as common property
    3. Second Century repositioning of Christianity as a “school of philosophy”, attracting large numbers of intellectuals, and bringing Christian influence into high Roman society via Christian teachers and philosophers
    4. Martyrdoms, of course, as you mention above.
    5. A general disenchantment in the traditional Roman gods among the population generally, and the rise of interest in mystery cults.

    Lucian, writing around 160 CE, gives a hint at most of the above when he writes:

    The poor wretches have convinced themselves first and foremost that they are going to be immortal, and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death… Their first lawgiver persuaded them they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once and for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So, if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing on simple folk.

    Christianity rose because it appealed to all sides of society: mind (philosophy), spirit (mystery cult) and body (common property and support of the poor).

    1. Riley speaks of the conventional 300 years. I think it was more likely 200 years, but its starting base was in the thousands, not 12, so same same anyway.

      But one question about Stark’s figures. Don’t they assume the grown of a monolithic faith (e.g. Mormonism as a comparison). Yet what we think of as the “monolithic” Christianity that developed along some sort of single trajectory really only emerged from the mid to late second century. How might this factor — the diversity of early Christianities — affect the figures, I wonder?

      1. Mormonism quickly splintered. The major variant today has altered considerably from what it was, and we can see that the “heretical” variants look more like the original animal (Now where have I seen that before? 🙂 ). That these groups aren’t particularly large is probably because they have been suppressed by the state from pretty much the start, while the major variant became the state in one locality and has had (grudging) state support elsewhere within a century of its birth. If there had been similar active suppression of Christianity in its first few centuries I’d wager it would more quickly have accommodated to its environment and the “heretical” variants would be as equally insignificant. Equally, if you dropped LDS into a similarly benign environment with proto-Orthodxy it would, on its actual record, probably haveout-competed that proto-Orthodxy. The circumstances of the two faiths are different and their evolution contingent on their circumstances. Also, you can also see Mormonism is a variety, albeit singular, of Christianity ie. one sect of a DIVERSE faith.

  2. “It was the appeal of the early Church to the wider Greco-Roman society that fueled its rise,” No. This is wrong. Perhaps the ‘heretical’ versions did. But then they were stamped out and ‘orthodox’ Christianity was imposed by force. ‘Orthodox’ Christianity has no appeal without the imposition of fear.

  3. Neil, I would imagine that the lack of a monolithic Christianity would have been a drag on the growth of Christianity as a lot of the missionary activity would be directed at other Christians and not pagans or Jews. The numbers, and I’m not Stark, so I don’t really know his thoughts on this, I would assume include all those that would consider themselves Christian.

  4. It actually seems to me that the lack of a monolithic Christianity is what fostered growth. Every two-bit Christian could start his own church with his own heretical ideals and change the Christian message to suit his congregation. If Christianity were monolithic, it wouldn’t have the elasticity to modify its teachings to fit a particular demographic.

  5. Above all the main reason of spreading christanity in a short period was the amendments in basic rules of the religion according to the necessities as pervailing situation . I think so.

  6. How would this explain the rise of Christianity despite persecution? How did it embody Roman culture–if Roman culture persecuted it? Further, how would it as a monotheistic religion fit into a polytheistic culture?

    1. It was not “Roman culture” that persecuted Christians but specific powers. The ideal of an individual standing for righteousness — or religious belief — against a cruel state is seen way back in Greek drama (Euripides) and most notably with Socrates. Persecution is about power struggle within a society that embraces a broad common set of values. Specific new beliefs may threaten old institutions, but the reason those new beliefs were attractive to many was because they were felt to embody the heroism of ancient heroes. Courage to defy a tryant, for example, was the inspiring ideal that had once been associated with, say, a pagan god (but who was now seen to be associated with the State powers), but now with a Christian god.

      Or the values of pietas, family, etc — the values expressed most strongly in the Pastoral epistles — are very traditional Roman ideals. It was not for these values that they were being persecuted, but such values (being promoted heavily by the Christians) presumably did attract people to the religion despite the risk of persecution.

      As for polytheism and monoheism, this was not such a strident divide as is sometimes thought. I have posted a on the emergence of monotheism in late antiauity a few times such as at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2008/04/27/how-polytheism-morphed-into-monotheism-a-first-step/ and http://vridar.wordpress.com/2008/05/25/how-polytheism-morphed-into-monotheism-philosophical-moves-1/

      Even Second Temple Jewish “monotheism” was scarcely recognizable as “monotheism” by modern standards. The Logos could be referred to as a “second god” by the Jewish philosopher Philo. Some modern scholars who have written about this seem to me to end up straining to redefine the word monotheism in order to persist in arguing that pre-rabbinic Second Temple Jews were monotheistic as understood in later times.

      Interesting questions that I have attempted to think through myself from time to time. Don’t know if what I say here is persuasive, though.

      1. And those powers were not “persecuting” Christians per se but what were seen as political troublemakers/dissidents. Witness the kerfuffle between the Donatists and Orthodox in North Africa over whether those that had accommodated the state rather than be martyred should get their church appointments back; or have to be rebaptised and start over.

  7. There was nothing so remarkable about the growth rate of Christianity; it about equaled the rate of growth for the contemporary Mormon church. As for becoming a majority view, I’ve never seen any support for that. Someone have a reference? It was a growing religion with a strong central power structure, and when Constantine won a battle ‘under the sign of Christ’ it became politically wise for cities to become Christian, and gave Christians leave to raid pagan temples. How many people on the street knew anything about the new religion is debatable.

  8. Well Neil you revived this thread by linking it, so 🙂

    Anyway, what a lot of the book I’m currently working on is about is how and why Christianity rose to dominance, and the case I put forward is that it had little to do with any ideas or martyrdom or values or anything. The primary thing that drove the rise of Christianity was the belief in prophecy fulfillment. What we see is that the religion had a virtually non-existent footprint prior to the Gospels. What really got the religion going was when scholars in the 2nd century started studying the Gospels and came to the conclusion that they provided the most credible evidence for significant prophecy fulfillment ever seen. At this time the Romans believes very heavily in the power and important of prophecy.

    At was when the religion gained traction among the educated elite due to its prophetic bonafides that it really started to grow, because that’s when it started getting legislative backing to support its spread through policy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading