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How did Christianity succeed in becoming so widespread in the period up to Diocletian despite the Roman persecution of Christians?

It took Christianity a little under three hundred years to develop from a small, heretical Jewish cult based in the eastern provinces into the universal religion of the Roman Empire with churches and bishops ranging from Antioch and Edessa in the east to Lyons and Toledo in the west, and encompassing the North African cities of Carthage and Alexandria in the south. Just how an often persecuted sect managed to accomplish this is a complex issue that cannot be fully examined within the scope of this essay; rather it will focus on some aspects of early Christianity that allowed it to flourish and which could withstand the persecutions that took place from the second to the third centuries, concentrating on the eastern provinces, specifically Judaea, Phoenicia, Syria, Galatia and Bithynia-Pontus. (Chadwick, 1967)

It is impossible to know what percentage of the population of the Empire considered themselves Christian. One suggestion is ten percent but this is an estimate and, as Brown points out, it is more significant that during the third century Christian communities grew quickly (Brown, 2013). The early Christian sources cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate picture, as Lane Fox notes; Christian authors “were quite uncritical in their use of words like ‘all’ and ‘everywhere’” (Lane Fox, 1988, p. 269). Eusebius, for example, described how the Apostles had been sent across the globe to preach: Thomas was sent to Parthia, Andrew to Scythia, John to Asia and Peter was allotted the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire (Eusebius, 3:1).

In order to consider what impact persecution had on the spread of Christianity, it is necessary to consider the way Christianity spread; and in particular what was it about this religion that set it apart from the pagan cults (and Judaism) that could both attract followers and help it withstand persecution. There are a number of reasons why Christianity flourished in the period between the end of the first century and Diocletian’s Great Persecution at the start of the fourth. The nature of Christianity and its emphasis on charity and hospitality; a shared sacred text; the close-knit structure of the early Church; the way it appealed to all levels of society; the very act of persecution itself, the nature of the pagan cults it was competing with and the wide-ranging trade routes across the Empire, are just a few. (Chadwick, 1967; Lane Fox, 1988)

Christian groups shared a set of beliefs and ideals based around the preaching of salvation and it can be argued that this unity of beliefs is what strengthened Christianity and allowed it to flourish. Christians shared a meal recollecting the sacrifice of their saviour and were encouraged to regard themselves as a family, calling each other “brother” and “sister” and to greet each other with a kiss. Individual communities possessed similar structures, particularly during the late second and third centuries, which emphasised their unity. This was certainly the view of Origen when responding to the allegations of the second-century philosopher Celsus who acknowledged the unity of Christians but believed it to be based on “no trustworthy foundation” other than their “unity in revolt (…) and fear of outsiders” (3:14, Chadwick, 1953, p. 136).

Origen states that Christianity does have a firm foundation in divine doctrine and God’s law. (3:15, Chadwick, 1953). The message that everyone was subject to the same divine law and could achieve salvation through renunciation of sins was unique to Christianity. This was a message upon which persecution could have no impact; indeed persecution offered devout Christians the opportunity to emulate their saviour and make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith; persecution encouraged martyrdom.

Whilst elements of early Christian practice, such as the celebratory meal and offering practical support for fellow supporters, can be seen in some pagan cults at this time, what set Christianity apart was its shared sacred text. It must be acknowledged that Christianity and Judaism are very similar in this regard, however, the New Testament, works by Origen and other early Christian philosophers and those condemning the Gnostic practices of the Coptic Church as heresy show that different Christian groups were discussing and exchanging views on important topics. In this way early Christian thinkers, the ‘Church Fathers’ were formulating a common, orthodox canon of beliefs which were set down in documents that were shared amongst the communities. (Clark, 2004)

The early Christians did not worship in what we would recognise as churches; they held assemblies which acted as a family unit, providing not only spiritual but practical support to its members. (Chadwick, 1697; Brown, 2013) They met in the homes of individual Christians and these houses were extended to accommodate the growing community, as at Dura Europos in Mesopotamia, a private house which was extended at some point in the 240s to add a hall large enough to accommodate up to sixty people (Lane Fox, 1988). It is perhaps significant, therefore, that no Imperial edict against the Christians, even that of Decian, specifically mentioned destroying churches until the Great Persecution of Diocletian at the start of the fourth century. Whilst the community might consider itself a church, there was no physical building, like a synagogue, which pinpointed them within the landscape of the town or city. In effect the church was mobile and could relocate as and when persecution made it necessary and meant Christianity could spread easily.

One of the key principles of Christianity was its emphasis on acts of charity and supporting those in need, based around Matthew 25:38-40. (Clark 2004) No other religious group in the Empire held provision for the poor as a key doctrine, but Christians were duty-bound to offer not only spiritual but practical help to those less fortunate than themselves. (Chadwick, 1967) Eusebius quotes a letter of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, describing how Christians helped nurse the sick and dying of all religions during an outbreak of plague and helped to bury the dead, whereas the pagans abandoned the sick (even family members), to their fate. (Eusebius, 7: 22 7-10) As Clark (2004), following MacMullen, notes; nursing the sick might convince people that Christians had a special religious protection; their belief in suffering and salvation and stories of healing miracles could, perhaps, be more effective than doctrine in winning converts.

The notion of charity was not confined to offering comfort and solace; one of the ideas Christianity had inherited from Judaism was giving alms for “the remission of sin” (Brown, 2013, p. 69). The idea that money earned in this world, by whatever means, could help its owner earn their place in the next through the remission of his or her sins meant that churches were able to accumulate wealth. The pagan temples of the large cities depended on donations from the wealthy whereas the average Christians making donations for the salvation of their souls were tradesmen. This meant that during times of financial disaster, as in the third century, the Christian communities were better able to withstand a crisis. The church developed structures and systems to ensure this wealth was distributed to where it was needed and Christians acquired a reputation for taking care of their own; widows and orphans as well as the sick and the destitute were all embraced in this institutionalised alms giving. (Brown, 2013; Clark, 2004)Thus the knowledge that your community was duty bound to offer practical assistance in times of need could easily be argued as a contributing factor to the spread of Christianity, again one on which persecution would have little impact.

This did not mean that Christianity developed into a religion of the poor; rather it embraced all ranks from slaves and tradesmen up to the higher echelons of society: Marcia the concubine of Emperor Commodus was Christian, as were King Agbar VIII of Osrhoene and Julius Africanus from Palestine (Brown, 2013 and Clark 2004).

When considering the impact persecutions had on the spread of Christianity, the nature of these persecutions has to be taken into consideration. During the second and third centuries, there were two periods of persecution: the sporadic, isolated persecutions that were confined to specific areas during the second and early third centuries; and the Emperor led persecutions of Decian and Valerian which culminated in the Great Persecutions under Diocletian and Galerius.

Our best evidence for the nature of these earlier persecutions comes from Pliny’s letter to Trajan, written c. 112 (Ep. 10:96, Radice, 1969, p. 293). Pliny, governor of Bithynia-Pontus, wrote to the Emperor asking for guidance on how to treat Christians arrested in his province. The letter describes how he had tortured two female slaves to obtain information about the activities of Christians and asks for advice on how he should conduct trials of suspected Christians who were brought before him as a result of anonymous allegations. Trajan’s reply makes it clear that only known Christians should be prosecuted and anonymous allegations should not be considered and those simply suspected of being Christian should not be sought out. This shows that during this time there was no clear policy of persecution coming from the Roman authorities. Similarly, Eusebius includes a letter from Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, written to Pliny’s successor, Minicius Fundanus, reaffirming this position; Christians should not be sought out directly, but those correctly accused under Roman law, should be punished (Eusebius, 4:9).

Once again Eusebius’ evidence must be approached with caution; as with any Christian author he cannot be considered a reliable witness to the persecution of his own kind. When taken together, however, the evidence of both the pagan Roman official Pliny and the Christian Eusebius does indicate that there was no official policy of widespread persecution of Christians during the second century. Moreover, as St Croix (1963), illustrates, accusations against individuals were not likely to be made falsely as the person making the allegation had to carry out the prosecution, rendering themselves liable for a charge of calumnia (malicious prosecution) if they could not make a satisfactory case against the alleged Christian.

Decian’s edict of 250 represents the changing situations of both the Empire and the Christian church. By this period Christianity had spread across the whole Empire; an empire which had been suffering from years of civil war and was in something of a crisis and in need of assistance from its gods (Clark, 2004). The edict issued by Decian in 249-250 did not specifically target Christianity, though Christian writers chose to interpret it as a direct attack; rather it required all citizens to make sacrifices to the gods and obtain proof of this in the form of a special certificate. It is clear that many Christians did suffer as a result of this edict; Babylas of Antioch and Alexander of Jerusalem were amongst many notable church leaders who lost their lives. Others, however, preferred to go into hiding or buy certificates from friendly magistrates. The impact of this edict was, therefore, twofold: it created a new generation of martyrs from those who refused to sacrifice and were punished for it; and caused schism within the church regarding what to do about those (mainly in the east) who fled or bought their certificates. Neither had any detrimental effect on the spread of Christianity; martyrs were admired and acted as inspiration for the faithful and the debate regarding those who went into hiding helped to develop Church doctrine.

As noted above, persecution created martyrs who were held up as examples to be followed: men and women who had endured physical pain and suffering like Jesus on the cross. Christian writers praised their bravery and courage, recording their heroic suffering in Acts and Passions which were copied and disseminated throughout the Christian world, raising them to the status of saint. Martyrdom and the development of the cult of saints are other key topics to consider when looking at the spread of Christianity and its reaction to persecution, but ones which cannot be discussed here. The ideas discussed above: the nature of Christianity, the unity provided by shared sacred texts and church organisation, the emphasis on charity and personal redemption; are just a few of the reasons this fledging cult was able to flourish and spread throughout the Roman Empire, covering not only the Eastern Provinces but also those in the west. There has been little room here to give them the full discussion they deserve, or to consider other factors such as the wide-ranging trade routes across the Empire that allowed Christians to travel and spread their faith; or to consider the way families were converted. What can be seen, however, is that Christianity was a religion with a unified belief structure that appealed to a wide cross-section of society and which offered practical help for those in need, including members of society that were often marginalised. Persecution did not stop the spread of Christianity, nor did it drive it underground. In the face of persecution most Christians remained steadfast; secure in the knowledge that their physical pain and suffering in this life would lead to reward in the next.

Reference List:

Primary Sources:

Eusebius, Church History [online] Available from: Christian Classics Ethereal Library [online] [Accessed 14 February 2015]

Chadwick, H. (1953) Origen, Contra Celsum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Radice, B. (1969) The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Secondary Works:

Brown, P. (2013) The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D 200-1000. 10th Anniversary Revised Ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Chadwick, H. (1967) The Early Church. London: Penguin.

Clark, G. (2004) Christianity and Roman Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lane Fox, R. (1988) Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean world from the second century AD to the conversion of Constantine. London: Penguin.

MacMullen, R. (1984) Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

St Croix, G.E.M de (1963) Why Were Early Christians Persecuted? Past and Present. 26. P. 6-38.

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