How did Christianity grow from a small sect in a corner of the Roman Empire in the first century to the religion the emperor converted to in the early fourth century? Its spread was greatly facilitated by the political unification of the empire and its extensive road network, as well as the belief of many Christians that the religion was something anyone could adopt, regardless of regional origin. or religious.
1. Ordinary citizens are spreading the word
Missionaries like Paul, a major figure in the New Testament of the Bible, traveled the empire with the intention of spreading Christianity. However, most people who helped spread the religion did so simply by talking about it with neighbors, friends and family members, says Edward Watts, a history professor at the University of California, San Diego and author of The Last Pagan Generation: Rome’s Unexpected Path to Christianity.
“Missionaries are part of the story, but most of the story is about ordinary Christians talking to ordinary people,” he says. “And that is, I think, the most important reason why Christianity emerges as it does in the Roman world. It is not so much the missionary activity of people like Paul as it is people whose names we do not know.
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2. Early on, Christianity coexisted with “paganism”
At the height of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century, it extended into Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. One of the main reasons Christianity was able to spread across this vast empire was that many people viewed the new religion as something they could easily adopt without having to alter their existing cultural and religious practices.
In the first and second centuries, most people in the Roman Empire worshiped multiple gods at once. When they heard about Christianity, they didn’t necessarily think that worshiping Jesus Christ meant they had to stop worshiping their other gods, like Jupiter, Apollo, and Venus. Instead, many embraced Christianity by adding Jesus to the group of gods they already worshiped, Watts says.
The belief that Christianity was compatible with what we now call paganism helped Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. Although some Christians argued that there was only one god and that Christians should not worship others, it was not the number of people in the Roman Empire who understood Christianity to the time, says Watts.
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3. Christianity did not present itself as an exclusive club
Christianity was also stimulated by the idea that it was a religion for everyone, not just people from a certain region with a specific religious background. Although some Christians debated this point, missionaries like Paul preached that a person did not have to obey Jewish laws regarding circumcision and kosher dietary practices to become a Christian.
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“This is a key change because it makes the entry bar much lower,” says Watts. “If you are a man who wants to convert to Christianity and it is assumed that you must first convert to Judaism, it is literally physically painful and dangerous for you to convert.”
Additionally, the translation of the Christian gospels from their original Aramaic into Greek made them accessible to more people in the empire. Unlike Aramaic, a regional language spoken in Judea, Greek was spoken throughout the Roman Empire.
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4. Early Persecution Was Not Widespread
During the first and second centuries, persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was sporadic and specific to the region rather than the whole empire. The persecution of Christian martyrs like Ignatius of Antioch, who died in the second century, did not represent the experiences of most Christians.
This did not change until the middle of the 3rd century, when the emperors Decius, who reigned from 249 to 251, and Valerian, who reigned from 253 to 260, launched campaigns to promote traditional Roman values and customs. like sacrificing animals to pagan gods. . Officials documented these sacrifices with papyrus receipts that people were required to keep as a record of their sacrifice. Those who did not have these receipts and refused to sacrifice themselves could be arrested and killed.
Decius’ campaign did not specifically target Christians, but rather anyone who did not practice pagan sacrifice. In contrast, Valerian’s campaign targeted Christians more directly. After this, the next major campaign against Christians was the Great Persecution. Beginning in 303 under Emperor Diocletian, it led to the death of many Christian religious leaders and the seizure of Christian property.
5. An emperor converted and officially recognized the faith
The Great Persecution was the most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, and also the last. Indeed, after this persecution, in 312, Emperor Constantine I became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. A year later, he helped enact the Edict of Milan, which ended government persecution of Christians and made Christianity a recognized legal religion within the empire.
Constantine’s reign did not mark an immediate change in the Roman Empire from pagan to Christian. However, “he begins a process which, by the end of the fourth century, will lead to the explicit restriction of pagan practices and the explicit promotion of Christian practices by the imperial government,” says Watts.
Christianity continued to spread in the territories of the Western Roman Empire after its fall in 476. Over the following centuries it became the dominant religion in the city of Rome as well as in the European regions over which the Roman Empire had reigned. The Roman Colosseum, once the site of deadly gladiator battles, even became a sacred Christian site where, in the 17th century, an artist painted a picture of ancient Jerusalem.