Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Growth of Christianity in Roman Empire

Constantine's monogram
made with the first two letters
 of "Christ" in Greek
A religious movement that started at a remote corner of the Roman Empire eventually became the official religion of the empire in a matter of three centuries. What exactly was the secret of this movement that made it so successful? If we can find the secret, that will be a lesson to all such movements of our own times.

Christianity started as a reform movement within Judaism. The Jews had settled in all the major cities of the empire, and Christianity was taken to them by the end of the first century by apostles like Paul. It is understandable that a lot of Jews found this movement attractive and joined it. But how about all those non-Jews who joined this movement? What did Christianity offer them that made it worth social estrangement, hostility from neighbors, and possible persecution? This question was asked in a PBS program and it was answered by several eminent theologians and historians. Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton, summarized their views stating that this movement’s secret lay in its new vision of God and of man, and in the way of life built upon this new vision.

“The gods of the ancient world, if you look at them, their images, if you read about them in the Iliad, and the poetry of Sophocles..., the gods looked like no one more than the aristocrats, the emperor and his court. They looked like the courtiers.” After stating the condition of the popular gods of the time, Pagels explains how the god presented by this new movement is different. “God is made manifest in a peasant, probably a man who didn't write, a man who came from the people, a man who was completely unimpressive in worldly terms and much more like the vast majority of people.” The God of Christianity was someone like them, and they could relate more easily with that God. As Mark presents in his gospel, this was a God who suffered intense pain as humans normally do, and not a god who makes people suffer.

The gods of the ancient world looked like the emperor—very different from the common people. But the creation story of Christianity asserts that human beings were created in the very image of God. Pagels says, “And it would have been enormous news to many people who never saw their lives having value. I think that is a powerful appeal of this religion.... The Christian movement seemed to convey a sense of human worth ….. it conveys royal status on every person.”

Based on this new vision of God and man, Christianity developed a way of life that was very much appealing to others. They made a community in which people took care for each other. Pagels says, “We know that when people joined the Christian communities in Rome, for example, they would be buried. This is not something anyone could take for granted in the ancient world. And this society was one in which people took care of one another.”

As Pagels rightly says, this was a powerful and dynamic cultural movement that provided meaning to human existence. This movement was very different from what we see in our world today in the same name. The Christianity in our world is the corpse of the Christianity in the Roman Empire. It is no more a dynamic movement. That is why people are no more attracted to it. How this dynamic movement died out is another question worth considering. It looks like the death happened as soon as this movement occupied the throne of the imperial religion in Rome.

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