The Gospel in the Roman Empire
A number of factors helped the somewhat surprising spread of the Christian Faith across the Roman world which began in the first century.
1. The political unity of the Roman Empire did produce a certain economic and political stability, notwithstanding its many faults. This encouraged trade between large cities and regions
2. The military and trade routes meant relatively easy access to large numbers of people (both by land and sea). Joel Kotkin writes, ‘Rome allowed considerable self-government to individual cities; the empire itself, notes the historian Robert Lopez, functioned as a ‘confederation of urban cells.’ Europe would not again see such a proliferation of secure, and well-peopled cities until well into the nineteenth century. People, products, and ideas traveled quickly through the vast archipelago of ‘urban cells’ over secure sea-lanes and fifty-one thousand miles of paved roads stretching from Jerusalem to Boulogne…Christianity’s rapid growth could not have taken plave without the empire’s expansive urban infrastructure.’ [i]
3. The universal use of Greek as a result of former conquests aided communication
4. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Empire – mixed cultures – enabled easier cross-cultural evangelism e.g., Jews who were culturally Greek (Barnabus from Cyprus, Paul the Roman citizen) were able to bridge cultures
5. The very real and lasting impact of the ministry of Christ and the earliest apostles
To cite one illustration of the impact of the many miracles that Jesus and the early Christians performed, Quadratus, writing very early in the second century, says:
“Our Saviour’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Saviour was among us, but for a long time after His departure; in fact, some of them survived right up to my own time.” [ii]
Those healed in the gospel accounts, as well as others, continued to be witnesses of Christ’s power for many years. The spread of the gospel through the Empire was assisted by these various factors, but the central message was consistent, and centred on Jesus Christ, His compassion, His power and His Lordship.
Gibbon’s Top Five
Historian Edward Gibbon, in his classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, lists several characteristics of early Christianity that enabled this amazing expansion to take place (click the links for more info):
1. The zeal of the early Christians
2. The confidence they had in communicating their faith on account of the forgiveness of their sins.
This illustrated by Polycarp
3. The miraculous happenings that occurred wherever they went
This illustrated by Iraneaus
4. The good character of the Christians – their behaviour was attractive
5. The unity and discipline of the local churches – peoples’ lives got better as a result of believing in Christ
You can also read about the Roman Emperor Constantine and how his conversion both helped and hindered the health of the early church.
i. Joel Kotkin, The City, A Global History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005) p.33 & p.36
ii. Quoted in Eusebius, The History of the Church (Leicester: Penguin Classics, 1981) p.155
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