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?]]




In subsequent sections of this book we shall notice a series of the more important inner conditions which determined the universal spread of the Christian religion. It was by preaching to the poor, the burdened, and the outcast, by the preaching and practice of love, that Christianity turned the stony, sterile world into a fruitful field for the church. Where no other religion could sow and reap, this religion was enabled to scatter its seed and to secure a harvest.

The condition, however, which determined more than anything else the propaganda of the religion, lay in the general religious situation during the imperial age. It is impossible to attempt here to depict that situation, and unluckily we cannot refer to any standard work which does justice to such a colossal undertaking, despite the admirable studies and sketches (such as those of Tzschirner, Friedlander, Boissier, Reville, and Wissowa)\1/ which we possess. This being so, we must content ourselves with throwing out a few hints along two main lines.

\1/ Add the sketch of the history of Greek religion by Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Jahrb. des Freien deutschen Hochstifts, 1904).

(1) In spite of the inner evolution of polytheism towards monotheism, the relations between Christianity and paganism simply meant the opposition of monotheism and polytheism -- of polytheism, too, in the first instance, as political religion (the imperial cultus). Here Christianity and paganism were absolutely opposed. The former burned what the latter adored, and the latter burned Christians as guilty of high treason. [[25]] Christian apologists and martyrs were perfectly right in often ignoring every other topic when they opened their lips, and in reducing everything to this simple alternative.

Judaism shared with Christianity this attitude towards polytheism. But then, Judaism was a national religion; hence its monotheism was widely tolerated simply because it was largely unintelligible. Furthermore, it usually evaded any conflict with the State-authorities, and it did not make martyrdom obligatory. That a man had to become a Jew in order to be a monotheist, was utterly absurd: it degraded the creator of heaven and earth to the level of a national god. Besides, if he was a national god, he was not the only one. No doubt, up and down the empire there were whispers about the atheism of the Jews, thanks to their lack of images; but the charge was never levelled in real earnest -- or rather, opinion was in such a state of oscillation that the usual political result obtained: in dubio pro reo.

It was otherwise with Christianity. Here the polytheists could have no hesitation: deprived of any basis in a nation or a State, destitute alike of images and temples, Christianity was simple atheism. The contrast between polytheism and monotheism was in this field clear and keen. From the second century onwards, the conflict between these two forms of religion was waged by Christianity and not by Judaism. The former was aggressive, while as a rule the latter had really ceased to fight at all -- it devoted itself to capturing proselytes.

From the very outset it was no hopeless struggle. When Christianity came upon the scene, the polytheism of the State-religion was not yet eradicated, indeed, nor was it eradicated for some time to come; \2/ but there were ample forces at hand which were already compassing its ruin. It had survived the critical epoch during which the republic had changed into a dual control and a monarchy; but as for the fresh swarm of religions which were invading and displacing it, polytheism could no more exorcise them with the magic wand of the imperial cultus than it could dissolve them under the rays of a protean cultus of the sun, which sought to bring everything [[26]] within its sweep. Nevertheless polytheism would still have been destined to a long career, had it not been attacked secretly or openly by the forces of general knowledge, philosophy, and ethics; had it not also been saddled with arrears of mythology which excited ridicule and resentment. Statesmen, poets, and philosophers might disregard all this, since each of these groups devised some method of preserving their continuity with the past. But once the common people realized it, or were made to realize it, the conclusion they drew in such cases was ruthless. The onset against deities feathered and scaly, deities adulterous and infested with vice, and on the other hand against idols of wood and stone, formed the most impressive and effective factor in Christian preaching for wide circles, circles which in all ranks of society down to the lowest classes (where indeed they were most numerous) had, owing to experience and circumstances, reached a point at which the burning denunciations of the abomination of idolatry could not fail to arrest them and bring them over to monotheism. The very position of polytheism as the State-religion was in favour of the Christian propaganda. Religion faced religion; but whilst the one was new and living, the other was old -- that is, with the exception of the imperial cultus, in which once more it gathered up its forces. No one could tell exactly what had come over it. Was it merely equivalent to what was lawful in politics? Or did it represent the vast, complicated mass of religiones licitae throughout the empire? Who could say?

\2/ Successful attempts to revive it were not awanting; see under (2) in this section.

(2) This, however, is to touch on merely one side of the matter. The religious situation in the imperial age, with the tendencies it cherished and the formations it produced -- all this was complicated in the extreme. Weighty as were the simple antitheses of " monotheism versus polytheism" and " strict morality versus laxity and vice'' these cannot be taken as a complete summary of the whole position. The posture of affairs throughout the empire is no more adequately described by the term " polytheism'' than is Christianity, as it was then preached, by the bare term " monotheism." It was not a case of vice and virtue simply facing one another. Here, in fact, we must enter into some detail and definition. [[27]]

Anyone who considers that the domination of the inner life over external empiricism and politics is an illusion and perversion, must date the disintegration of the ancient world from Socrates and Plato. Here the two tempers stand apart! On the other hand, anyone who regards this domination as the supreme advance of man, is not obliged to accompany its development down as far as Neo-Platonism. 'He will not, indeed, be unaware that, even to the last, in the time of Augustine, genuine advances were made along this line, but he will allow that they were gained at great expense -- too great expense. This erroneous development began when introspection commenced to despise and neglect its correlative in natural science, and to woo mysticism, theurgy, astrology, or magic. For more than a century previous to the Christian era, this had been going on. At the threshold of the transition stands Posidonius, like a second Janus. Looking in one direction, he favours a rational idealism; but, in another, he combines this with irrational and mystic elements. The sad thing is that these elements had to be devised and employed in order to express new emotional values which his rational idealism could not manage to guarantee, because it lay spell-bound and impotent in intellectualism. Language itself declined to fix the value of anything which was not intellectual by nature. Hence the <g> 'Y7repvoi] </g> emerged, a conception which continued to attract and appropriate what ever was mythical and preposterous, allowing it to pass in unchallenged. Myth now ceased to be a mere symbol. It became the organic means of expression for those higher needs of sentiment and religion whose real nature was a closed book to thinkers of the day. On this line of development, Posidonius was followed by Philo.

The inevitable result of all this was a relapse to lower levels; but it was a relapse which, as usual, bore all the signs of an innovation. The signs pointed to life, but the innovation was ominous. For, while the older mythology had been either naive or political, dwelling in the world of ceremony, the new mythology became a confession: it was philosophical, or pseudo-philosophical, and to this it owed its sway over the mind, beguiling the human spirit until it gradually succeeded in [[28]] destroying the sense of reality and in crippling the proper functions of all the senses within man. His eyes grew dim, his ears could hear no longer. At the same time, these untoward effects were accompanied by a revival and resuscitation of the religious feeling -- as a result of the philosophical development. This took place about the close of the first century. Ere long it permeated all classes in society, and it appears to have increased with every decade subsequently to the middle of the second century. This came out in two ways, on the principle of that dual development in which a religious upheaval always manifests itself. The first was a series of not unsuccessful attempts to revivify and inculcate the old religions, by carefully observing traditional customs, and by restoring the sites of the oracles and the places of worship. Such attempts, however, were partly superficial and artificial. They offered no strong or clear expression for the new religious cravings of the age. And Christianity held entirely aloof from all this restoration of religion. They came into contact merely to collide -- this pair of alien magnitudes; neither understood the other, and each was driven to compass the extermination of its rival (see above).

The second way in which the resuscitation of religion came about, however, was far more potent. Ever since Alexander the Great and his successors, ever since Augustus in a later age, the nations upon whose development the advance of humanity depended had been living under new auspices. The great revolution in the external conditions of their existence has been already emphasized; but corresponding to this, and partly in consequence of it, a revolution took place in the inner world of religion, which was due in some degree to the blending of religions, but pre-eminently to the progress of culture and to man's experience inward and outward. No period can be specified at which this blending process commenced among the nations lying between Egypt and the Euphrates, the Tigris, or Persia;\3/ for, so far as we are in a position to trace back their history, their religions were, like themselves, exposed to constant [[29]] interchange, whilst their religious theories were a matter of give and take. But now the Greek world fell to be added, with all the store of knowledge and ideas which it had gained by dint of ardent, willing toil, a world lying open to any contribution from the East, and in its turn subjecting every element of Eastern origin to the test of its own lore and speculation.

\3/ It is still a moot point of controversy whether India had any share in this, and if so to what extent; some connection with India, however, does seem probable.

The results already produced by the interchange of Oriental religions, including that of Israel, were technically termed, a century ago, " the Oriental philosophy of religion," a term which denoted the broad complex of ritual and theory connected with the respective cults, their religious ideas, and also scientific speculations such as those of astronomy or of any other branch of knowledge which was elevated into the province of religion. All this was as indefinite as the title which was meant to comprehend it, nor even at present have we made any great progress in this field of research.\4/ Still, we have a more definite grasp of the complex itself; and -- although it seems paradoxical to say so -- this is a result which we owe chiefly to Christian gnosticism. Nowhere else are these vague and various conceptions worked out for us so clearly and coherently.

\4/ The origin of the separate elements, in particular, is frequently obscure -- whether Indian, Persian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Asiatic, etc.

In what follows I shall attempt to bring out the salient features of this "Orientalism." Naturally it was no rigid entity. At every facet it presented elements and ideas of the most varied hue. The general characteristic was this that people still retained or renewed their belief in sections of the traditional mythology presented in realistic form. To these they did attach ideas. It is not possible, as a rule, to ascertain in every case at what point and to what extent such ideas overflowed and overpowered the realistic element in any given symbol -- a fact which makes our knowledge of " Orientalism " look extremely defective ; for what is the use of fixing down a piece of mythology to some definite period and circle, if we cannot be sure of its exact value ? Was it held literally? Was it transformed into an idea? Was it taken metaphorically? Was it the creed of unenlightened piety? Was it merely ornamental? And what [[30]] was its meaning? Theological or cosmological? Ethical or historical? Did it embody some event in the remote past, or something still in existence, or something only to be realized in the future? Or did these various meanings and values flow in and out of one another? And was the myth in question felt to be some sacred, undefined magnitude, something that could unite with every conceivable coefficient, serving as the starting-point for any interpretation whatsoever that one chose to put before the world ? This last question is to be answered, I think, in the affirmative, nor must we forget that in one and the same circle the most diverse coefficients were simultaneously attached to any piece of mythology.

Further, we must not lose sight of the varied origin of the myths. The earliest spring from the primitive view of nature, in which the clouds were in conflict with the light and the night devoured the sun, whilst thunderstorms were the most awful revelation of the deity. Or they arose from the dream-world of the soul, from that separation of soul and body suggested by the dream, and from the cult of the human soul. The next stratum may have arisen out of ancient historical reminiscences, fantastically exaggerated and elevated into something supernatural. Then came the precipitate of primitive attempts at " science" which had gone no further, viz., observations of heaven and earth, leading to the knowledge of certain regular sequences, which were bound up with religious conceptions. All this the soul of man informed with life, endowing it with the powers of human consciousness. It was upon this stratum that the great Oriental religions rose, as we know them in history, with their special mythologies and ritual theories. Then came another stratum, namely, religion in its abstract development and alliance with a robust philosophic culture. One half of it was apologetic, and the other critical. Yet even there myths still took shape. Finally, the last stratum was laid down, viz., the glaciation of ancient imaginative fancies and religions produced by a new conception of the universe, which the circumstances and experience of mankind had set in motion. Under the pressure of this, all existing materials were fused together, elements that lay far apart were solidified into a unity, and all previous constructions [[31]] were shattered, while the surface of the movement was covered by broken fragments thrown out in a broad moraine, in which the debris of all earlier strata were to be found. This is the meaning of "syncretism". Viewed from a distance, it looks like a unity, though the unity seems heterogeneous. The forces which have shaped it do not meet the eye. What one really sees is the ancient element in its composition ; the new lies buried under all that catches the eye upon the surface.

This new element consisted in the political and social experience, and in speculations of the inner life. It would appear that even before the period of its contact with the Greek spirit, "Orientalism" had reached this stage; but one of the most unfortunate gaps in our knowledge of the history of religion is our inability to determine to what extent "Orientalism " had developed on its own lines, independent of this Greek spirit. We must be content to ascertain what actually took place, viz., the rise of new ideas and emotions which meet us on the soil of Hellenism -- that Hellenism which, with its philosophy of a matured Platonism and its development of the ancient mysteries, coalesced with Orientalism.\5/ These new features \6/ are somewhat as follows:-

\5/ The convergence of these lines of development in the various nations of antiquity during the age of Hellenism is among the best-established facts of history. Contemporary ideas of a cognate or similar nature were not simply the result of mutual interaction, but also of an independent development along parallel lines. This makes it difficult, and indeed impossible in many cases, to decide on which branch any given growth sprang up. The similarity of the development on parallel lines embraced not only the ideas, but frequently their very method of expression and the form under which they were conceived. The bounds of human fancy in this province are narrower than is commonly supposed.

\6/Cp. further the essay of Loofs on "The Crisis of Christianity in the Second Century" {Deutsch-evang, Blatter, 1904, Heft 7), which depicts the problem occasioned by the meeting of Christianity and syncretism. Also, the penetrating remarks of WernIe in his Anfangen unserer Religion (2nd ed., 1904 ; Eng. trans., The Beginnings of Christianity, in this library).

(1) There is the sharp division between the soul (or spirit) and the body : the more or less exclusive importance attached to the spirit, and the notion that the spirit comes from some other, upper world and is either possessed or capable of life eternal: also the individualism involved in all this.

(2) There is the sharp division between God and the world, with [[32]] the subversion of the naive idea that they formed a homogeneous unity.

(3) In consequence of these distinctions we have the sublimation of the Godhead, "via negationis et eminentiae." The Godhead now becomes for the first time incomprehensible and indescribable; yet it is also great and good. Furthermore, it is the basis of all things; but the ultimate basis, which is simply posited yet cannot be actually grasped.

(4) As a further result of these distinctions and of the exclusive importance attached to the spirit, we have the depreciation of the world, the contention that it were better never to have existed, that it was the result of a blunder, and that it was a prison or at best a penitentiary for the spirit.

(5) There is the conviction that the connection with the flesh (" that soiled robe ") depreciated and stained the spirit; in fact, that the latter would inevitably be ruined unless the connection were broken or its influence counteracted.

(6) There is the yearning for redemption, as a redemption from the world, the flesh, mortality, and death.

(7) There is the conviction that all redemption is redemption to life eternal, and that it is dependent on knowledge and expiation: that only the soul that knows (knows itself, the Godhead, and the nature and value of being) and is pure (i.e., purged from sin) can be saved.

(8) There is the certainty that the redemption of the soul as a return to God is effected through a series of stages, just as the soul once upon a time departed from God by stages, till it ended in the present vale of tears. All instruction upon redemption is therefore instruction upon " the return and road'" to God. The consummation of redemption is simply a graduated ascent.

(9) There is the belief (naturally a wavering belief) that the anticipated redemption or redeemer was already present, needing only to be sought out: present, that is, either in some ancient creed which simply required to be placed in a proper light, or in one of the mysteries which had only to be made more generally accessible, or in some personality whose power and commands had to be followed, or even in the spirit, if only it would turn inward on itself. [[33]]

(10) There is the conviction that whilst knowledge is indispensable to all the media of redemption, it cannot be adequate; on the contrary, they must ultimately furnish and transmit an actual power divine. It is the " initiation" (the mystery or sacrament) which is combined with the impartation of knowledge, by which alone the spirit is subdued, by which it is actually redeemed and delivered from the bondage of mortality and sin by means of mystic rapture.

(11) There is the prevalent, indeed the fundamental opinion that knowledge of the universe, religion, and the strict management of the individual's conduct, must form a compact unity; they must constitute an independent unity, which has nothing whatever to do with the State, society, the family, or one's daily calling, and must therefore maintain an attitude of negation (i.e. in the sense of asceticism) towards all these spheres.

The soul, God, knowledge, expiation, asceticism, redemption, eternal life, with individualism and with humanity substituted for nationality -- these were the sublime thoughts which were living and operative, partly as the precipitate of deep inward and outward movements, partly as the outcome of great souls and their toil, partly as one result of the sublimation of all cults which took place during the imperial age. Wherever vital religion existed, it was in this circle of thought and experience that it drew breath. The actual number of those who lived within the circle is a matter of no moment. " All men have not faith." And the history of religion, so far as it is really a history of vital religion, runs always in a very narrow groove.

The remarkable thing is the number of different guises in which such thoughts were circulating. Like all religious accounts of the universe which aim at reconciling monistic and dualistic theories, they required a large apparatus for their intrinsic needs; but the tendency was to elaborate this still further, partly in order to provide accommodation for whatever might be time-honoured or of any service, partly because isolated details had an appearance of weakness which made people hope to achieve their end by dint of accumulation. Owing to the heterogeneous character of their apparatus, these syncretistic [[34]] formations seem often to be totally incongruous. But this is a superficial estimate. A glance at their motives and aims reveals the presence of a unity, and indeed of simplicity, which is truly remarkable. The final motives, in fact, are simple and powerful, inasmuch as they have sprung from simple but powerful experiences of the inner life, and it was due to them that the development of religion advanced, so far as any such advance took place apart from Christianity.

Christianity had to settle with this "syncretism'" or final form of Hellenism. But we can see at once how inadequate it would be to describe the contrast between Christianity and" paganism" simply as the contrast between monotheism and polytheism. No doubt, any form of syncretism was perfectly capable of blending with polytheism; the one even demanded and could not but intensify the other. To explain the origin of the world and also to describe the soul's " return," the " apparatus " of the system required aeons, intermediate beings, semi-gods, and deliverers; the highest deity was not the highest or most perfect, if it stood by itself. Yet all this way of thinking was monotheistic at bottom; it elevated the highest God to the position of primal God, high above all gods, linking the soul to this primal God and to him alone (not to any subordinate deities).\7/ Polytheism was relegated to a lower level [[35]] from the supremacy which once it had enjoyed. Further, as soon as Christianity itself began to be reflective, it took an interest in this " syncretism,'" borrowing ideas from it, and using them, in fact, to promote its own development. Christianity was not originally syncretistic itself, for Jesus Christ did not belong to this circle of ideas, and it was his disciples who were responsible for the primitive shaping of Christianity. But whenever Christianity came to formulate ideas of God, Jesus, sin, redemption, and life, it drew upon the materials acquired in the general process of religious evolution, availing itself of all the forms which these had taken.

\7/ The difference between the Christian God and the God of syncretistic Hellenism is put by the pagan (Porphyry) in Macarius Magnes, iv. 20, with admirable lucidity : <g> rb /te'VTOi irepi TTJS iiovap^ias TOV ft^vov Seiiv Kal Tijt voKvaff^ias rur ffefSofievuv ffewv Siapp^STJv ^T'fia'ap.ev, &v OVK olSas ovSe r7fs f^ovap^ias T^V \oyoy alpi/ifSiiraaBai. Movdp^iis fdp e'Trly oiy o fibres &y a\\' & ft/ivus &p^av ' &pyti S' Sfi.oiivhav 5i)AnS^ fcal oftaiay, otov 'ASptavis a fiaa't\eiis ftovdp^vis yeyorev, ovJi ^T* fi&yos ^v ovS1 '^Tt fSowv teal TrpofSiirwv ^tp^fv, Ssv &p\ovffi Troifieves ^ f3ovK^\ot, a.A\9 Sri avffpsoTTUv ef3a(J'i\eva'e rwy op.o'yevwv TT?V avr^v ^vfftp e^vruv ' wavrws ffebs ovie &v /toydp^l5 KVflas ficA'llOi), (i /t^ 9eSv flpT(.c. TOVTO oyap orpeire ry Bci(p iitfcSti Kal Ty cvfiaviif Kal n-o^Ay a^i^aTi </g> (" Let us, however, proceed to inquire explicitly about the monarchy of the one God alone and the joint-rule of those deities who are worshipped, but of whom, as of divine monarchy, you cannot give any account. A monarch is not one who is alone but one who rules alone, ruling subjects of kindred nature like himself -- such as the emperor Hadrian, for example, who was a monarch not because he stood alone or because he ruled sheep and cattle, which are commanded by shepherds and herdsmen, hut because he was king over human beings whose nature was like his own. Even so, it would not have been accurate to term God a monarch, if he did not rule over gods. For such a position befitted the dignity of God and the high honour of heaven "). Here the contrast between the Christian and the Greek monarchianism is clearly denned. Only, it should be added that many philosophic Christians (even in the second century) did not share this severely monotheistic idea of God; in fact, as early as the first century we come across modifications of it. Tertullian (in adv. Prax, iii.), even in recapitulating the view of God which passed for orthodox at that period, comes dangerously near to Porphyry in the remark : <g>" Nullam dico dominationem ita unius esse, ita singularem, ita monarchiam, ut non etiam per alias proxima's personas administretur, quas ipsa prospexerit officiates sibi" </g> ("No dominion, I hold, belongs to any one person in such a way, or is in such a sense singular, or in such a sense a monarchy, as not also to be administered through other persons who are closely related to it, and with whom it has provided itself as its officials "). The school of Origen went still further in their reception of syncretistic monotheism, and the movement was not checked until the Nicene creed came with its irrational doctrine of the Trinity, causing the Logos and the Spirit to be conceived as persons within the Godhead. But although the pagan monarchical idea was routed on this field, it had already entrenched itself in the doctrine of angels. The latter, as indeed Porphyry (iv. 20) observed, is thoroughly Hellenic, since it let in polytheism through a back-door. In iv. 23 Porphyry tries to show Christians that as their scriptures taught a plurality of gods, they consequently contained the conception of God's monarchy which the Greeks taught. He refers to Exod. xxii. 28, Jerem. vii. 6, Deut. xii. 30, Josh. xxiv. 14, I Cor. viii. 5.

Christian preaching thus found itself confronted with the old polytheism at its height in the imperial cultus, and with this syncretism which represented the final stage of Hellenism. These constituted the inner conditions under which the young religion carried on its mission. From its opposition to polytheism it drew that power of antithesis and exclusiveness which is a force at once needed and intensified by any independent religion. In syncretism, again, i.e., in all that as a rule deserved the title of " religion " in contemporary life, it possessed unconsciously a secret ally. All it had to do with syncretism was to cleanse and simplify -- and complicate -- it.

//end of bk1ch3//