The rapid rise of Christianity has often been considered to be a remarkable event in itself, and the fact that it acquired so many adherents so quickly is often held to be a miracle in its own right that further confirms the truth of the message. Recent calculations are a bit more sober. Prior to its official adoption growth was impressive but far from unbelievable. In fact it is in line with and if anything even a bit slower than the the much better documented recent growth of Mormonism.
If the numbers of followers increased by about 3 percent a year from an assumed 250 starting point, the rules of exponential growth predict about two and a half million by the time of the Edict of Milan. And they make clear why Christians were so obscure in the early years after the death of Christ but seem suddenly to be everywhere by the middle of the third century. But even so, it was a cracking pace of conversion. Although we can dismiss divine intervention the rapid rise does need some explanation.
Obviously it is very difficult to assess accurately just how many Christians there were at any particular time, but they do seem to have been very thin on the ground at first. There are very few references to them in the literature of the early empire. If anyone was going to talk about Christians it would be the arch conservative satirist Juvenal. His trademark was finding fault with whatever was new in his society, but writing between 100 and 128AD the new sect simply did not figure. Had he been writing a hundred and fifty years later they would no doubt have attracted his scorn.
By this time, in the reign of Decius they were numerous enough to be worth some serious persecution. They had become a significant if still small section of society. Their distinctive features were well known enough for the authorities to be able to come up with a test to trap believers. Decius required his subjects to carry out a sacrifice to the Gods for the well being of the empire by a certain day. Carry it out and you got a certificate recognising your patriotic contribution. Failure to comply with what for most people would have been a simple enough civic duty got you into trouble. And by trouble this meant confiscation and/or torture. Law and order was very much one of the things the Romans held close to their hearts.
This provided the Church with some of its early stories of martyrdom . It also naturally produced a set of Christians who decided that this was probably one of those render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s moments. There aren’t any statistics but I imagine this was quite a large group and more than likely a majority. Tension between people who stood up to oppression and those that backed down was later to serve as yet another source of the internal disputes that were a prevailing characteristic of the early church – but that was still a long way off.
The obvious question is why did Decius, and later emperors, devote scarce resources to the persecution of an apparently harmless if slightly barmy sect? The general approach to religion was, as we have seen, pretty tolerant. It is very unlikely that it was the beliefs themselves that were the problem. There was nothing in Christianity that the cosmopolitan Romans wouldn’t have heard before.
Rather than answer this question the persecutions are often portrayed as irrational and slightly disreputable activities that blighted the names of the emperors involved. But I can’t help thinking that by doing so we are falling into the easy trap of thinking we know better than the people at the time. It wasn’t at all obvious that Christianity was soon destined to take over the empire. I think there was something that the emperors would have been quite right to be bothered by. The the thing about the Christians that alarmed those in authority was their organisation. The empire itself was becoming steadily more bureaucratic and centralised – especially during and after the reign of the control freak’s control freak Diocletian. The Christians too were highly organised, but they were outside state control. This was bound to cause trouble sooner or later. Autocratic states are usually suspicious of power structures outside their control, and from their point of view they are wise to be so.
So let’s look at the organisation of the Church. Its basic unit hasn’t changed from the earliest days so we still recognise it today. Believers joined together in congregations for a range of activities but in particular to worship together in designated buildings on Sunday. Each congregation would either select a leading figure, or more likely be set up by a particular individual. I think of a lot of the liturgical paraphernalia that has survived to this day must have worked at first a bit like a fast food company franchise. My suspicion is that the basic origin of many individual early churches was someone spotting an opportunity and setting themselves up with all the kit. They then went out and found themselves some followers. This would have been the origin of the first line of pastors.
There was a natural tendency for congregations to have contact with other like minded groups. The pastors of large congregations in big cities naturally tended to become leading figures. And so bishops came into existence. As the movement grew these eminent positions became more lucrative and more appealing. It wasn’t long before the doctrinal differences became mixed up with political intrigues – if indeed the doctrinal differences were ever more than pretexts for individual ambition. So the church acquired both leaders and heretics.
The competition between factions probably helped considerably. It gave a personal motivation to the general injunction to spread the word. Later in history we see conscious efforts by rival factions to get to potential converts first – it must have happened on a smaller scale more locally earlier. We see a similar effect today where the decline in church attendance is much less precipitous in the United States than it is in Europe. Most European churches have, at least historically, been supported by the state. The Church of England was even set up by an act of Parliament. They have therefore tended to be near monopolies and have been quite centralised. They have also always been able to tap the government for funds.
In the US the separation of Church and state has meant that there is a lot more free enterprise in the world of worship. There has not been the option of raising cash from the public purse. This has meant that individual pastors have had to tailor their message to their local congregations’ needs in order to survive. They haven’t been able to cosy up to the people in power, and so haven’t been tainted by association with failed governments.
With this spirit of competition to spur them on, it wasn’t long before Christians were operating in most of the more populous parts of the empire and even beyond it. Estimates of the total numbers of adherents have to be very sketchy, but it seems very likely that in one of its earliest outposts, Antioch, the Christians must have been at least 20% of the population by around the time of Constantine. They were certainly a force to be reckoned with in Rome and particularly Carthage.
As the influence of Christianity grew the rewards for landing a plum job in the hierarchy grew. Conflict wasn’t far behind. It wasn’t long before the patriarchs of the larger cities became significant figures in their own right, and inevitably jostled for position. Five became unquestionably more significant and tended to be regarded as having special influence: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople.
Needless to say there was jockeying for position and prestige. Rome emerged as the overall leader, a position it still holds today in the west. But there was plenty of history behind how it got there – much of which will be documented in future volumes of Decline and Fall.
Gibbon was writing at a time when the role of the Church was still central to everyday life and had no need to explain it to his readers. But in the modern world where so much is available from the market and the government, it is easy to let slip from our minds just how big an impact organised religion used to have. There was no mass media. Information came from only a handful of sources. Books were rare, newspapers non-existent. The ability to spread news and views quickly that the early Church possessed made it formidable. Additionally it had a social welfare role. In a world with no services provided by the government the mutual support network provided by the congregation was no doubt highly appealing, especially in a world where the prosperity of earlier times was fading. Many supporters of the Church were also supported by the Church.
But it was definitely more than a support network. The Christians adopted particular ways of behaving. They were notably well behaved and law abiding – apart from when someone like Decius was trying to catch them out. This was all the more remarkable because they tended to draw support from the less affluent sections of society. When they did get an adherent who was wealthy, he or she or their family would often end up less affluent by the time the Church had finished with them. There are complaints of people losing their inheritances when new converts bequeathed their money to the Church rather than their family. The world was going to end soon after all. In the meantime, it increased the wealth, power and prestige of the faith on Earth.
There were restrictions on what believers could and couldn’t do, some of which seem quite eccentric. Beards could not be shaved – that was trying to improve on the work of the Almighty apparently. It was just as well the circumcision issue had already been resolved. Music was to be avoided. Over luxurious furniture was suspect as well. The whole issue was one of isolating themselves from the influence of the world and creating a separate society.
One aspect of society that the more zealous Christians were opposed to was philosophy. Philosophy covered a wide range of things that we would think of as being quite separate. It certainly included what we would think of as science. But it was also influential in the way people lived their lives. As such it was in direct competition for the role Christianity sought to take as a guide to everyday actions.
The study of philosophy was deep rooted though, and one of the early fathers complains that it is diverting Christianity from its true irrational roots.
They presume to alter the Holy Scriptures, to abandon the ancient rule of faith, and to form their opinions according to the subtile precepts of logic. The science of the church is neglected for the study of geometry, and they lose sight of heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth. Euclid is perpetually in their hands. Aristotle and Theophrastus are the objects of their admiration; and they express an uncommon reverence for the works of Galen. Their errors are derived from the abuse of the arts and sciences of the infidels, and they corrupt the simplicity of the gospel by the refinements of human reason.
The tendency to reject the realities of the world continued in later times and would later turn into fully fledged monasticism. In the meantime there was an unworldly quality to some of the adherents of the new religion. They would refuse to serve in the army, heedless of the need for somebody to fight off the barbarians. It doesn’t seem like it made much practical difference to the ability of the empire to keep an army in the field. The professed pacifism of Christianity has rarely been strong enough to prevent war. And when I say rarely, I mean rarely.
But while the new sect did not have enough influence to actually deplete the ranks of the armed forces, it may well have still had an effect. Rather than join the army or the administration, it was now possible to devote your life to ecclesiastical affairs. As time went on, this became the route to power, prestige and even riches. By diverting people of talent into a non-productive activity it may well have weakened the empire.
It is often said that Gibbon blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire. He never makes the connection as clear as some commentators seem to suggest, but I think that in so far as he does make that accusation this is the means by which it had that effect. Some very able men devoted themselves to matters of interest to the Church but which did not benefit the empire at all. Maybe, just maybe, had they not been distracted then the final catastrophe that engulfed the Western Empire might have been avoided.
But that has to be pure speculation. That the empire was likely to regard this organised and increasingly numerous and wealthy sect as a threat was much more predictable. Indeed given the threat it could pose to its well being and given the numerous external enemies the empire faced, it is perhaps surprising that the level of persecution was not more robust. The Church was winning. It steadily acquired wealth and power and diverted resources away from the central government. Some kind of response was needed, and that is what we will look at in the next show.