Excerpt from Chapter 1
Christianity in Its Social Environment
Fergus Millar recently prefaced his important monograph on the Roman Near East with the categorical assertion, "The spread of Christianity must indeed be taken as the single most important development which occurred in the period from the reign of Augustus to the death of Constantine." The marked expansion of the Jesus movement during the pre-Constantinian period ranks among the more perplexing problems confronting specialists in ancient history. How could a small Judean sect, arising in a province located at the easternmost fringes of the Roman Empire, expand its ranks steadily for more than two centuries in the face of often sporadic and local, sometimes consistently legislated, opposition? Robin Lane Fox, who persuasively contends that we have overestimated the numerical growth of early Christianity, nevertheless concludes his survey of the evidence with a striking observation: "Christians spread and increased: no other cult in the Empire grew at anything like the same speed, and even as a minority, the Christians' success raises serious questions about the blind spots in pagan cult and society." The issue is not whether the early Christians grew in number and influence. Rather, the challenge is to explain the marked growth of the early Christian movement.
Explaining the Expansion of Early Christianity
Eric R. Dodds provides us with a helpful survey of various explanations for the striking success of the early Christian movement. Scholars have traditionally sought solutions in the spheres of imperial politics and ideology. The transition during the Hellenistic period from polis to kosmos—from the relatively isolated Greek city-states in the West (and temple-states in the East) into what were to become the Greek and Roman Empires—was truly a world-changing development. Subject peoples were faced with tremendous challenges along with great opportunities. Among the former was the daunting task of choosing from among a plethora of religious options. Although Roman authorities took an initially conservative stance toward the westward expansion of Near Eastern cults, the official position was ultimately one of tolerance. The success and stability of an ever-expanding empire depended upon maintaining the religious cults of the various conquered peoples.
So much for public policy. For the individual, this proliferation of religious options proved more frightening than encouraging. For how could one guarantee that all these gods, goddesses, and other supernatural forces would act in one's favor?
There were too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from: you could pile one religious insurance on another, yet not feel safe. Christianity made a clean sweep. It lifted the burden of freedom from the shoulders of the individual: one choice, one irrevocable choice, and the road to salvation was clear.
Recent studies of magic and the demonic among peoples of Greco-Roman antiquity reinforce Dodd's contention that the ancient peoples did not feel "safe" in the face of so many gods and goddesses. The publication of Hans Dieter Betz's English translation of the Greek magical papyri has generated a variety of monographs from historians of early Christianity. Common to most is the assumption that the unseen world of malevolent supernatural beings posed a pervasive conscious threat to the people of antiquity—thus the proliferation of magic, and the alternative appeal of the Jesus movement. The victory won by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth guaranteed for his followers "the demise of the devil," as one writer entitles her recent interpretation of Luke-Acts.
To the fear of the supernatural in this life Dodds adds the fear of death and perplexity about the afterlife as concerns addressed by the belief system of early Christianity. Preoccupation with life after death, reflected in writers from Plato (Resp. 330d) to Seneca (Ep. Mor. 4, 24), is graphically evidenced by the popularity of mystery cults during the Hellenistic era. To be sure, we can no longer maintain that the promise of a blessed afterlife is central to all the mysteries. Nevertheless, such hope certainly plays an important role in the Eleusinian cult, the Dionysiac mysteries, and, most likely, in the worship of Isis. As Plutarch asserts, many people "think that some sort of initiations and purifications will help: once purified, they believe, they will go on playing and dancing in Hades in places full of brightness, pure air and light" (Non posse 1105b). In such an environment, the Christian message understandably found great appeal: "Christianity held out to the disinherited the conditional promise of a better inheritance in another world."