The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

by Adolph (von) Harnack
translated and edited by James Moffatt
Second, enlarged and revised English edition;
London: Williams and Norgate / New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908 (from the 2nd German edition)..
Theological Translation Library, volumes 19-20

From the German, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924)

[[being updated (also consulting the 4th German edition) and adapted by RAK for use in 2004 America;
Greek needs to be inserted, using side by side format?]]




It is only in a series of headings, as it were, that I would summarize the external conditions which either made it possible for Christianity to spread rapidly and widely during the imperial age, or actually promoted its advance. One of the most important has been mentioned in the previous chapter, viz., the spread of Judaism, which anticipated and prepared the way for that of Christianity. Besides this, the following considerations\1/ are especially to be noted :-

\1/ The number of works at our disposal for such a survey is legion. One of the most recent is Gruppe's Kulturgeschichte der romischen Kaiserzeit (2 vols., 1903, 1904).

(1) The Hellenizing of the East and (in part also) of the West, which had gone on steadily since Alexander the Great: or, the comparative unity of language and ideas which this Hellenizing had produced. Not until the close of the second century CE does this Hellenizing process appear to have exhausted itself,\2/ [[20]] while in the fourth century, when the seat of empire was shifted to the East, the movement acquired a still further impetus in several important directions. As Christianity allied itself very quickly though incompletely to the speech and spirit of Hellenism, it was in a position to avail itself of a great deal in the success of the latter. In return it furthered the advance of Hellenism and put a check to its retreat.

\2/ I know no investigations as to the precise period when the advance of Hellenism, more particularly of the Greek language, subsided and ceased at Rome and throughout the West. From my limited knowledge of the subject, I should incline to make the close of the second century the limit. Marcus Aurelius still wrote his confessions in Greek, but no indication of a similar kind can be discovered later. In the West, Greek was checked by the deterioration of culture as well as by the circumstances of the situation; the tidal wave grows shallower as it spreads. During the third century Rome began to shed off Greek, and in the course of the fourth century she became once more a purely Latin city. So too with the Western provinces as far as they had assimilated the Greek element; so with Southern Italy and Gaul even, though the process took longer in these regions. During the second century people could still make themselves understood apparently by means of Greek, in any of the larger Western cities; by the third century, a stranger who did not know Latin was sometimes in difficulties, though not often; by the fourth, no traveller in the West could dispense with Latin any longer, and it was only in Southern Gaul and Lower Italy that Greek sufficed.

(2) The world-empire of Rome and the political unity which it secured for the nations bordering on the Mediterranean; the comparative unity secured by this world-state for the methods and conditions of outward existence, and also the comparative stability of social life. Throughout many provinces of the East, people felt the emperor really stood for peace, after all the dreadful storms and wars; they hailed his law as a shelter and a safeguard.\3/ Furthermore, the earthly monarchy of the world; was a fact which at once favoured the conception of the heavenly monarchy and conditioned the origin of a catholic or universal church.

\3/ After Melito, Origen (c. Celsum 2.30) correctly estimated the significance of this for the Christian propaganda. "In the days of Jesus, righteousness arose and fulness of peace; it began with his birth. God prepared the nations for his teaching, by causing the Roman emperor to rule over all the world; there was no longer to be a plurality of kingdoms, else would the nations have been strangers to one another, and so the apostles would have found it harder to carry out the task laid on them by Jesus, when he said, 'Go and teach all nations.' It is well known that the birth of Jesus took place in the reign of Augustus, who fused and federated the numerous peoples upon earth into a single empire. A plurality of kingdoms would have been an obstacle to the spread of the doctrine of Jesus throughout all the world, not merely for the reasons already mentioned, but also because the nations would in that event have been obliged to go to war in defence of their native lands. .... How, then, could this doctrine of peace, which does not even permit vengeance upon an enemy, have prevailed throughout the world, had not the circumstances of the world passed everywhere into a milder phase at the advent of Jesus?"

(3) The exceptional facilities, growth, and security of international traffic:\4/ the admirable-roads; the blending of different nationalities;\5/ the interchange of wares and of ideas; the [[21]] personal intercourse ; the ubiquitous merchant and soldier -- one may add, the ubiquitous professor, who was to be encountered from Antioch to Cadiz, from Alexandria to Bordeaux. The church thus found the way paved for expansion: the means were prepared; and the population of the large towns was as heterogeneous and devoid of a past as could be desired.

\4/ Cp. Stephan in Raumer's Histor, Taschenbuch (1868), pp. 1f., and Zahn's Weltverkehr und Kirche wahrend der drei ersten Jahrhunderte (1877). That one Phrygian merchant voyaged to Rome (according to the inscription on a tomb) no fewer than seventy-two times in the course of his life, is itself a fact which must never be lost sight of.

\5/ It is surprising to notice this blending of nationalities, whenever any inscription bears a considerable number of names (soldiers, pages, martyrs, etc.), and at the same time mentions their origin.

(4) The practical and theoretical conviction of the essential unity of mankind, and of human rights and duties, which was produced, or at any rate intensfied, by the fact of the "orbis Romanus" [Roman world] on the one side and the development of philosophy upon the other, and confirmed by the truly enlightened system of Roman jurisprudence, particularly between Nerva and Alexander Severus. On all essential questions the church had no reason to oppose, but rather to assent to, Roman law, that grandest and most durable product of the empire.\6/

\6/ At this point (in order to illustrate these four paragraphs) Renan's well-known summary may be cited {Les Apotres, ch. xvi.): " The unity of the empire was the essential presupposition of any comprehensive proselytizing movement which should transcend the limits of nationality. In the fourth century the empire realised this: it became Christian; it perceived that Christianity was the religion which it had matured involuntarily; it recognized in Christianity the religion whose limits were the same as its own, the religion which was identified with itself and capable of infusing new life into its being. The church, for her part, became thoroughly Roman, and to this day has remained a survival of the old Roman empire. Had anyone told Paul that Claudius was his main coadjutor, had anyone told Claudius that this Jew, starting from Antioch, was preparing the ground for the most enduring part of the imperial system, both Paul and Claudius would have been mightily astonished. Nevertheless both sayings would have been true."

(5) The decomposition of ancient society into a democracy: the gradual equalizing of the "cives Romani" [Roman citizens] and the provincials, of the Greeks and the barbarians; the comparative equalizing of classes in society; the elevation of the slave-class -- in short, a soil prepared for the growth of new formations by the decomposition of the old.

(6) The religious policy of Rome, which furthered the interchange of religions by its toleration, hardly presenting any obstacles to their natural increase or transformation or decay, although it would not stand any practical expression of contempt for the ceremonial of the State-religion. The liberty guaranteed by Rome's religious policy on all other points was an ample compensation for the rough check imposed on the spread of Christianity by her vindication of the State-religion. [[22]]

(7) The existence of associations, as well as of municipal and provincial organizations. In several respects the former had prepared the soil for the reception of Christianity, whilst in some cases they probably served as a shelter for it. The latter actually suggested the most important forms of organization in the church, and thus saved her the onerous task of first devising such forms and then requiring to commend them.

(8) The irruption of the Syrian and Persian religions into the empire, dating especially from the reign of Antoninus Pius. These had certain traits in common with Christianity, and although the spread of the church was at first handicapped by them, any such loss was amply made up for by the new religious cravings which they stirred within the minds of men -- cravings which could not finally be satisfied apart from Christianity.

(9) The decline of the exact sciences, a phenomenon due to the democratic tendency of society and the simultaneous popularizing of knowledge, as well as to other unknown causes: also the rising vogue of a mystical philosophy of religion with a craving for some form of revelation and a thirst for miracle.

All these outward conditions (of which the two latter might have been previously included among the inward) brought about a great revolution in the whole of human existence under the empire, a revolution which must have been highly conducive to the spread of the Christian religion. The narrow world had become a wide world; the rent world had become a unity; the barbarian world had become Greek and Roman: one empire, one universal language, one civilization, a common development towards monotheism, and a common yearning for saviors! \7/

\7/ As Uhlhorn remarks very truly {Die christliche Liebesthatigkeit in der alten Kirche, 1882, p. 37; Eng. trans. pp. 40-42): "From the time of the emperors onwards a new influence made itself felt, and unless we notice this influence, we cannot understand the first centuries of the early Christian church, we cannot understand its rapid extension and its relatively rapid triumph. .... Had the stream of new life issuing from Christ encountered ancient life when the latter was still unbroken, it would have recoiled impotent from the shock. But ancient life had by this time begun to break up; its solid foundations had begun to weaken; and, besides, the Christian stream fell in with a previous and cognate [[23]] current of Jewish opinion. In the Roman empire there had already appeared a universalism foreign to the ancient world. Nationalities had been effaced. The idea of universal humanity had disengaged itself from that of nationality. The Stoics had passed the word that all men were equal, and had spoken of brotherhood as well as of the duties of man towards man. Hitherto despised, the lower classes had asserted their position. The treatment of slaves became milder. If Cato had compared them to cattle, Pliny sees in them his 'serving friends.' The position of the artizan improved, and freedmen worked their way up, for the guilds provided them not simply with a centre of social life, but also with the means of bettering their social position. Women, hitherto without any legal rights, received such in increasing numbers. Children were looked after. The distribution of grain, originally a political institution and nothing more, became a sort of poor-relief system, and we meet with a growing number of generous deeds, gifts, and endowments, which already exhibit a more humane spirit," etc.

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