A recent historian observed that, since Augustine’s death (430 AD), no culture in the Western world has been so similar to ours as ancient Rome. Many Christians share the sense that we are becoming like Rome. Unfortunately, a gloomy inference usually follows: Because we are like Rome, they say, our fate is sealed. Our children will sink in the moral morass as the ruling class suppresses the truth. Best to huddle up and await our inevitable demise. Thankfully, Jesus’ first followers did not share that outlook. If they did, the way of Christ would have expired before ever leaving Judea.
There is no denying that Rome scorned, oppressed, and persecuted Christ’s followers. But there is another part to the story. From within the domineering Roman Empire, the Christian movement exploded with incredible vitality. How did it happen? Why did the Christian movement thrive in such hostile surroundings?
Martyrdom is the customary answer. Roman emperors abused the Christians until the Roman public felt compassion enough to spare them. But this routine answer only solves part of the puzzle. It does not explain how or why the Christian church grew large enough to warrant persecution. This essay fills in pieces of that puzzle, beginning with some notable similarities between modern America and first-century Rome.
Both the Roman Empire and contemporary America are urban. Large cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles dominate the ideas, commerce, and power of today. Likewise, bustling cosmopolitan cities like Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch shaped the early Roman Empire. Early Christianity thrived because it was an urban movement. Based on the Gospels, one might get the opposite impression. After all, Jesus’ parables are populated by farmers, vineyards, and olive trees. But first-century Christians were overwhelmingly city-dwellers. Historian Wayne Meeks writes that “within a decade of the crucifixion of Jesus, the village culture of Palestine had been left far behind, and the Greco-Roman city became the dominant environment of the Christian movement” (Meeks, 11).
Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora prepared the way for Christianity’s urban growth. These Jews, scattered from Judea during previous centuries, established synagogues in major Mediterranean cities. Recent scholarship indicates that Christianity took root more quickly where Jewish communities already existed (Stark, 135-140). Indeed, Jewish synagogues “formed the most important presupposition for the rise and growth of Christian communities throughout the empire” (Harnack, Chapter 1). Upon arriving in a city, Christian teachers (most notably, the Apostle Paul) would visit a synagogue. From these urban synagogues, Christianity found a culture prepared for learning about the Jewish Messiah.
Paul himself was an urban man. He planted churches in the largest cities around the Mediterranean and described himself as a Jew from Tarsus, “a citizen of no mean city” (Acts 21:39). Even if we did not know Paul’s origin, we could assume he was urban. Whereas Jesus talked of sowers and crops, Paul snatches his metaphors from city classrooms, Greek rhetoricians, and urban workshops.
There is another reason why early Christianity probably took root in cities. During the first century, Christianity would have been considered a deviant religious movement. Only major cities could conceal a faith at odds with conventional religion. In other words, early Christianity was weird, and cities provided a cover for weirdness.
Christianity did not remain weird for long. But before explaining how Christians spread the message, let me explain what the early Christian message was and why it spread so rapidly. Historians, who have offered many answers about why first-century Christianity attracted so many followers, generally agree upon the following:
1. The promise of eternal life. Christianity was not the only religion that promised eternal life, but it rapidly became the most popular. Unlike the Roman mystery cults that promised eternal life, Christians asserted that their savior was no myth. The mystery cults worshiped mythological savior-gods like Isis and Mithra. But, unlike the mythological Isis and Mithra, Jesus’ followers believed he was a real historical person who ate broiled fish, walked cobblestones, and suffered pain. His promise of eternal life seemed, unlike the mythological Isis, to have deeper roots in reality.
2. Equality and significant roles for women. A remarkably high number of females converted to Christianity in the first century. The reason seems to be the Christian teaching on the equality of the sexes (unheard of at the time). Moreover, the teaching was reinforced within Christian communities that gave women significant roles within the church. The New Testament mentions some of these female ministers and church leaders: Phoebe of Corinth; Priscilla, a Jewish convert who lived near Rome; and Lydia, who hosted a house church in Thyatira. These women probably enjoyed a far higher status than women in the Roman world. This changed as men took positions of leadership in the second century, compelling women to accept secondary roles.
3. A merciful God who instructed his followers to practice mercy. How strange Christian teachings about mercy must have sounded in the Roman Empire! Pity and mercy were considered character defects, pathological emotions, within classical culture. The Romans admired Plato, who tossed beggars outside the borders of his ideal state (The Republic, 8:552). Romans believed that humans should “curb the impulse” toward pity and that “the cry of the undeserving for mercy” must go “unanswered” (Judge, 107). In the classical world, rationality demanded justice—not mercy.
Christian mercy would have sounded bizarre and unreasonable to an elite Roman. Yet a God of mercy was surely welcome in the urban trenches. Unlike romanticized accounts of Roman cities drawn by earlier historians, recent historians have revealed that Roman cities were crowded and dangerous. The population density of Antioch was roughly 117 per acre; compare that to Chicago (21 per acre) or Manhattan (37 per acre).
Moreover, city buildings were hardly stable. Historian Jérôme Carcopino reports that Rome “was constantly filled with the noise of buildings collapsing or being torn town to prevent it; and the tenants of an insula [apartment] lived in constant expectation of its coming down on their heads” (Carcopino, 31-32). And not only were buildings dangerous, so were the streets. Carcopino describes nighttime in a typical city:
Night fell over the city like the shadow of a great danger, diffused, sinister, and menacing. Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance. The shops fell silent, safety chains were drawn behind the leaves of the doors.… If the rich had to sally forth, they were accompanied by slaves who carried torches to light and protect them on their way.… Juvenal [a Roman poet] sighs that to go out to supper without having made your will was to expose yourself to reproach of carelessness. (Carcopino, 47)
Given these conditions, it is no surprise that the Christian message of a merciful God spread rapidly. Moreover, Christian communities dedicated to the practice of mercy must have been profoundly attractive.
The Christian message also spread quickly for a very practical reason: The Roman Empire was global. Roman roads stretched from England to India and were unified by a common language. Open borders permitted travel freely between countries. While Roman travel was not so speedy as it is today, when a traveler can buy a ticket in San Francisco and deplane hours later in Tokyo, it was certainly extensive. Meeks writes that Romans “traveled more extensively and more easily than anyone before them did or would again until the nineteenth century” (Meeks, 16).
Based on estimates from the book of Acts, Paul traveled nearly ten thousand miles during his career. His travels put him on roads busy with traders, pilgrims, government officers, letter-carriers, tourists, the sick, runaway slaves, fugitives, artisans, athletes, teachers, and students (Hock, 27). And he probably shared a common language with his fellow travelers: Koiné Greek.
Koiné was spoken across Rome thanks to Alexander the Great who, three hundred years earlier, hoped the world would share Greek culture, science, and language. Even after Alexander’s empire dissolved, Greek continued to be spoken across the Mediterranean. Romans spoke Latin but used Greek for commerce, diplomacy, and some scholarship.
Early Christians used Koiné Greek to spread Jesus Christ’s message. Even though Jesus spoke Aramaic, the writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, presumably to ease the spread of the Gospel. Most of the early church fathers wrote in Koiné.
English today functions as Koiné Greek did in Rome. Just as Greek became prevalent through Alexander’s empire-building, so did English became prevalent because of empire-building. The British Empire, at its height in 1922, was the largest in history. Although Mandarin Chinese has more native speakers, English is spoken by more people around the world, often as a second or third language; it is the common language for diplomacy, software development, international diplomacy, and business relations.
Like the early Christians, today’s translators use a common language to spread Jesus’ message. When translating the Bible into tribal languages, Bible translators find a native speaker who also speaks a common language (often English) and then collaborate on translating the New Testament into a new language.
So then, with relative ease of travel and a common language, the gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean world. And as it did, Christians developed shorthand statements (creeds) of “global” or basic Christianity. The earliest creed was probably the simplest: “Jesus is Lord.” But other more extensive creeds developed during the first century. Some biblical scholars believe that Paul is quoting an early creed in I Timothy 3:16 when he wrote,
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
Later Christians would formulate longer statements like the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. These creeds not only articulated a common Christianity but also defined orthodox doctrine from unorthodox.
Ethnic and Religious Pluralism
Ethnic and religious pluralism is widespread in the United States as it was in ancient Rome. Just as national or geographic boundaries did not separate ethnic groups in Rome, neither do they today in America, where ethnicities mix together in the big melting pot of American democracy. In the ancient world, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Gauls all blended together under the Roman banner. Historian Ramsay MacMullen describes the incredible “diversity of tongues, cults, traditions, and levels of education” encompassed within the Roman Empire (Ramsey, xi).
The early church embraced ethnic pluralism. In fact, the racial diversity of the early church was so remarkable that some Romans called Christians “the third race.” This remarkable diversity centered on the worship of Jesus:
And [you] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all” (Colossians 3:10-11).
Today most Americans commend cultural diversity and its fruits. But while the United States, at its best, offers civil rights to all ethnicities and welcomes the resultant smorgasbord of tastes and custom, ancient Rome offered no such civil rights. Nor did it welcome the fruits of ethnic diversity. Rome had created an economic and political empire but had also created cultural chaos. Historian Rodney Stark observes that the Roman Empire was a “crazy quilt of ethnic diversity and…blazing hatreds” and that “people of many cultures, speaking many languages, worshipping all manner of Gods, had been dumped together helter-skelter” (Stark, 213).
Christian churches provided a peaceful alternative to the cultural chaos outside church walls. Stark writes, “In my judgment, a major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity. All were welcome without need to dispense with ethnicities” (Stark, 213).
Not only was the Roman Empire ethnically pluralistic, it was also religiously pluralistic. Rome absorbed foreign people and foreign gods. In theory, Roman authorities did not esteem one god or religion above others and rarely banned particular religions.
While the early Christians embraced ethnic pluralism, they emphatically rejected religious pluralism. They did not participate in public festivals honoring popular deities and rejected Caesar’s self-appointed place among the gods. The church’s earliest creed (“Jesus is Lord”) affirmed Jesus’ spiritual rule in individual lives while rejecting Caesar’s claim to divinity, which eventually resulted in the Christians being persecuted. Roman emperors tolerated almost anything except threats to their power. Those Christians who would not sacrifice to Caesar were eventually scapegoated and killed.
Sympathy was never a Roman virtue, but the mistreatment of the Christians eventually roused a Roman compassion. Having witnessed plenty of bloodshed, Tertullian (an early Church Father, 160–225 AD) appealed for the legal toleration of Christians. From his writings (Apologeticus, Chapter 50) comes the famous phrase, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Like Rome, the United States is committed (in principle) to religious pluralism. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of a national religion and encourages “the free exercise” of religion. But American pluralism differs substantially from Rome’s. Unlike the Romans, early Americans did not absorb household gods; nor did American presidents erect an imperial cult. Most of the American founders practiced some form of Protestant Christianity; even the Deism of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin shared much more with Christian conceptions of God than with Roman conceptions.
Even though the United States was deeply influenced by the monotheism of the Christian religion, the United States is changing rapidly. Like the early Christians of Rome, we live in an urban, global, pluralistic world. In these ways and many more, we are drifting closer toward that place where the gospel emerged. We would do well to listen to those who preceded us.
Carcopino, Jérôme. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. (Yale University Press, 1940.)
Harnack, Adolf. The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (First published 1908. Reprint: Harper Torchbooks, 1962).
Hock, Ronald. The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry. (Fortress Press, 1980.)
Judge, E. A. “The Quest for Mercy in Late Antiquity.” In God Who is Rich in Mercy, edited by P. T. O’Brien and D. G. Peterson. (Baker Book House, 1986.)
MacMullen, Ramsay. Paganism in the Roman Empire. (Yale University, 1981.)
Meeks, Wayne. The First Urban Christians. (Yale University, 1983.)
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. (Princeton University Press, 1996.)