Growth of Christianity

How Christianity grew

The initial impetus given by St Paul was clearly very successful, and in the following two centuries, Christianity continued to spread in the eastern empire. The best evidence for the extent of the spread comes from a letter written by Pliny the Younger in the years 111 to 113 to the emperor Trajan. Pliny was the governor of Bithynia, the province just to the east of what would later become Constantinople and in his letter he described how a number of Christians had been reported to him and he had examined them as to their religion which, he said, seemed innocent enough, but that because of their stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy they deserved to be punished for forming an illegal political association. The emperor replied with his usual brevity that it was not possible to lay down any general rule, but that he did not approve of anonymous denunciations, and that any who repented should be pardoned. It was their obstinacy and stubbornness that was objectionable, rather than any part of their actual creed.

Why did Christianity spread? In the second century, the spread was slow. The second century was the height of the Roman Empire, when three great emperors spread peace and prosperity over most of the Mediterranean. But Roman religion was changing: the old gods were dying out, and instead statues and inscriptions tended to be erected to what might be called the ‘abstract noun’ gods, such as Peace, Prosperity, and above all Good Fortune. The only one of the old gods to flourish was Venus, and little figurines of naked Venus are found everywhere and were clearly very popular: but then in the Romans world, sex was always popular.

New gods were coming in too. The Egyptian gods, Isis and Osiris were very popular and Mithraism, a religion that sprang from Persia was also popular among the soldiers. Judaism also had great appeal but it had one very big disadvantage in that anyone who wanted to become a full convert had to undergo circumcision, which was a somewhat painful process and proved to be a strong deterrent.

Among these, Christianity was a strong contender. It had many advantages. It was an intellectual, or at least semi-intellectual, philosophy combing all the allure of Greek philosophy with the mysticism of the Jews. It was egalitarian and open to all. It grew strongly among the artisan classes, what might be called the lower middle classes. Women of all ranks were conspicuous and there was a notable presence of women of high status. In the early 4th century we have the records of an interrogation of church officers in the north African city of Cirta preserved in Optatus. The church included a teacher of Latin literature, a woman of the highest status, a worker of coloured stones or decorations, an undifferentiated body of simple laymen and Christian grave diggers. There was also apparently a preponderance of women. When the church property was seized, only sixteen men’s tunics were found, whereas there were 38 veils, 82 ladies’ tunics and 47 pairs of female slippers.

Christianity spread rather more rapidly in the third century. One of the main underlying causes of this was inflation. In the third century, a malaise came over society, a malaise caused by inflation. Money is one of the big regulators of our lives and we believe inherently in its value. But if money is constantly losing value, then our whole system of morality loses one of its firmest props and people begin to jump to extremes and to do things that they would not do if they had not lost their set of values.

As the 3rd century wore on, so inflation increased, and Christianity grew stronger. And as it grew stronger, it began to be persecuted more and more so that the third century became the time of the great persecutions. It is always difficult to know the extent of the persecution, because our sources are virtually all Christian. Certainly, reading between the lines, one gets the impression that the Christians were always given the opportunity to escape – it was jolly difficult to become a martyr, and it was necessary to really bate Roman officialdom in order to force them to conclude that you really were determined to be a martyr.

The Persecutions

Faithful unto death: Christians waiting to be eaten by the lion, painting by Herbert Schmalz

An early persecution came under Maximinus Thrax, or Maximinus the Thracian, the first of the soldier emperors (235-8). Gibbon recounts a story of how he began as a barbarian strongman, challenging the Roman soldiers in wrestling matches. But having become a Roman soldier himself, he rose rapidly in the ranks till eventually he became emperor. Being a soldier-emperor, he doubled the pay of the soldiers, not realising that this would thereby increase inflation yet further. But he also decided that what the Roman Empire really needed was a good stiffening of the backbone, and since the people who were doing most to weaken the Roman backbone were clearly the Christians, the Christians should clearly be persecuted. However, he only lasted three years until he was assassinated: the persecution ceased, but the inflation roared on.

The first really major persecution was under Decius (249-51), a distinguished senator who came to power determined to restore the strength of the state: the first priority was to restore public piety by renovating the state religion. In January 250 he issued an edict requiring all inhabitants of the Empire to sacrifice for the safety of the Empire and to produce a certificate to show that they had done so. Many Christians refused and some were imprisoned and a few were even executed and it went down as being the first of the great of the Christian persecutions. This was at a time when inflation was at its height.

Further persecutions followed under Valentinian (emperor 253 – 260), until he was captured by the Persians and ceased to be an effective emperor. There followed the Little Peace of the church (260 – 302), when Christianity spread steadily. There was a class struggle between Christianity and the old religion. The traditional aristocrats, particularly in Rome, pursued an elevated Platonic or Stoic philosophy which tended to be rather too intellectual for general consumption. Christianity however penetrated strongly among the middle classes – it was a ‘cockney’ religion in Peter Brown’s famous term.

It offered a strong intellectual background, stronger than that of Mithraism or the Egyptian cults, but at the same time it was less theoretical than the upper class Platonic or Stoic philosophies so it fitted nicely between the two extremes: furthermore it was firmly based round an account of a living person who had been sacrificed for his beliefs. But Christianity was an egalitarian religion, preaching and at its best practicing love in a world of widespread brutality. It offered certainty and conviction where the great venture of Greek philosophy was widely perceived to have argued itself into the ground.

But the great strength, and also the great weakness of Christianity was what Gibbon called its ‘inflexible, and indeed intolerant zeal’. This was something derived from Judaism – but it gave them strength and cohesion. It also brought them persecution.

How inflation stoked the flames

In the inflation of the second half of the third century, it was not just the middle classes, the artisans, suffered, but the upper echelons of Roman society were affected too. And one of the major effects of inflation is that it pushes people to extremes. There are many examples of this in history. An early example is that of the great Tudor inflation set in train by the excesses of Henry VIII in his final years. He was very successful in dissolving the monasteries and receiving all their treasures. But it was his successors, Edward VI and ‘Bloody’ Mary who suffered the results, and it was only by the genius of Elizabeth who revalued the coinage in 1560-1 that inflation to some extent abated. But while it existed, passions ran high, and those of the ‘wrong’ religion were burnt at the stake.

A similar occasion was the French Revolution, which began as a not unreasonable revolution against an oppressive monarchy. But the introduction of the assignats led to inflation, and the revolution turned into terror, and the guillotine gave the revolution a bad name, and it was left to a sound money man, Napoleon, to restore France to stability. More recently the rise of Hitler, the horrors of the Vietnam war and the dissolution of Yugoslavia are all cases where the effects of inflation were lurking in the background.

But the greatest of all the persecutions came immediately before Constantine’s dramatic Edict of Toleration in the reign of Diocletian. Diocletian by this time had divided the Empire into four, and it was his co-emperor, Galerius who was most concerned about the damage done to Roman morals by the rise of Christianity, and the persecution was particularly fierce in provinces of the east, over which he had direct control. By contrast Constantius, the father of Constantine who was Caesar in the west, was extremely reluctant to persecute the Christians. Diocletian himself was only half convinced that Christianity was the cause of all Rome’s troubles and thus was only a moderate persecutor. He also tried to suppress inflation through his Edict of Prices, but in this too he was notably unsuccessful. But it is tempting to believe that it was the moral uncertainty introduced by inflation that was one of the major reasons for the persecution of the Christians.

The church built up to a remarkably strong social structure. Unlike Mithraism, it accepted men and women alike— indeed in numbers, women appeared to exceed the men. There was greatest social diversity: all were equal, and the wealthy Christian might find himself sitting next to a slave. At a time when civic cohesion was declining in the cities, Christianity offered a sense of belonging. It became a state within a state. This cohesion meant that at times of emergency, they were often the only group who could organise food supplies, or bury the dead, and by 250, the church in Rome was supporting 1500 poor and widows: it was a welfare state in operation.

It also had an unusual social structure, with leaders called bishops, who had wide powers, which lasted for life. The major qualification for a bishop was that they had to be someone with keen discernment: one of their main tasks was arbitration and reconciliation, to reconcile any quarrels among their flock. But they could offer a leadership that was often lacking in civic life.

But they were inflexible: Gibbon refers to ‘the inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians’. This had both strengths and weaknesses. They offered a threat to the authority, establishing themselves as an apparently rival organisation and one which challenged the sanctity of the Emperor, on whom the safety of the Empire was thought to depend.
But this intolerance was a source of strength, and this is what Constantine realised when he formally announced his Edict of Toleration and began to favour the Christians.

And it was not just tolerance. He exempted the clergy from the burdens of civic office, so that many big taxpayers sought to become clergy in order to evade tax. He built many churches at his own expense, and bequests to the church were made legal, even if they were made on a deathbed. But having given prestige and status to the church he was awarded by the loyalty and strength of the church, which was now put into the service of the Roman state. As Peter Brown has pointed out, in the first half of the fourth century, it was in many ways Christianity that made the big conversion, converted itself from being hostile to authority to being in the service of Rome, so that the Christians could now claim that they were the true supporters of the traditions and prestige of Rome.


This brings to an end our story of the Jewish background to Christianity, and how Christianity developed and grew.

Now follow the story of Christianity in the Roman Empire and its adoption by Constantine.