A New Religion: The Spread and Survival of Early Christianity

The Roots of Medieval Civilization

The form of Christianity that evolved under Paul's influence spread steadily throughout the Roman Empire. There was an urgency among the faithful to bring the Gospel ("good news") of Jesus to as many people as possible, for these early Christians believed that the earthly world would end soon, and only those who had been saved by their belief in the new Lord would enter heaven.

Evangelists would travel from city to city, preaching, and once a community of faithful had been established, they would leave the new flock in the care of a leader and move on.

These leaders were often members of the community who had long been respected by their neighbors. Early Christians had no plans to build churches; services were held in private homes, where they were unlikely to attract the attention of the authorities. It was not unusual for these meetings to be hosted by women, who were considered to be in charge of their domestic domains in ancient society; however, there is no evidence that women were ever priests.

From urban areas, the religion filtered outward -- slowly -- to the countryside. This was an erratic process, and for a long time most country-dwellers retained their beliefs in the old Roman gods. For this reason the term paganus (Latin for "inhabitant of the country" or "villager") came to be associated with non-Christians generally and followers of the old polytheistic religions specifically.

It is important to note that the term Pagan referred to followers of any of a dozen different belief systems, and did not indicate members of a single, cohesive religion.

The Survival of the New Way

In the past, many religious movements and cults that had burst forth in Roman society had fractured and died out in a matter of decades. Christianity, which also saw many alternate interpretations, avoided this fate. Reasons for its survival include:

  • Christianity's foundation in the ancient religion of Judaism.
    Unlike the multitude of mystery religions of the first few centuries C.E., Christianity was founded on an ancient, well-established religion, with holy texts that included an explanation for the origin of the world and a code of ethics. As the apostolic age passed with the death of the original disciples, Christians relied on oral tradition and the Jewish Bible -- which was adopted by Christians as their Old Testament -- as authority, and interpretations of Christianity that differed radically from its Judaic origins did not flourish for long.
  • The focus on a historical individual.
    Christianity was based on an actual historical figure who had lived among them. Followers of the religion could identify with Jesus on a number of levels, and many people knew someone who knew someone that had heard him or one of the apostles preach. This historical immediacy made Christianity more potent than the cults whose origins were obscure or distant in time and place.
  • The new religion's communication network.
    The apostles and their followers established a well-maintained network of leaders who kept in constant touch with each other and consulted each other on matters of doctrine. While they didn't want to attract the hostile attention of the authorities, Christians were nevertheless openly Christian so that they might find and communicate with one another regularly.
  • Christians' care and support of one another.
    Christians followed a long-standing Jewish custom: they took care of each other, be it financially, physically, or spiritually. A Christian traveler could always find a place to sleep and a meal with friendly fellow Christians. A sick man could find comfort and medical assistance in the Christian community. Christians helped their fellow men find employment. They freely gave alms to the poor and the lame, visited prisoners with food as well as spiritual sustenance, and provided for the widows and orphans of their fellow followers of Jesus. The charity and kindness of Christians did not go unnoticed by other residents of the Roman Empire.
  • The steadfast faith of Christians in the face of adversity.
    Jesus had died a martyr, and in the early centuries of Christianity, many Christians shared his fate. The followers of Jesus believe in life after death, and keeping in mind the great pain and suffering their founder had endured for the sake of their souls, some were willing and even eager to sacrifice themselves for Jesus and their fellow believers. This noble behavior did not fail to make an impression.

Thus, as time passed, Christianity not only failed to crumble, it grew stronger and more popular.

Next: Part 3: Divisions and Conflict in Early Christianity


The Roots of Medieval Civilization - A New Religion
   Part 1: The Founders of Christianity
   Part 2: The Spread and Survival of Early Christianity
   Part 3: Divisions and Conflict in Early Christianity
   Part 4: Reversal of Fortune
   Part 5: The Consolidation of Christian Thought
   Part 6: The Establishment of the Papacy


Sources and Suggested Reading

The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.

(The Penguin History of the Church)
by Henry Chadwick

The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine
(Penguin Classics) 
by Eusebius; edited and with an introduction by Andrew Louth; translated by G. A. Williamson

by J. N. D. Kelly

(Library of Christian Classics)
by Cyril Richardson

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