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)

Book 4, chapter 3, 1-2 (AK)



In this chapter I shall keep strictly within the limits indicated by the title, excluding any place which cannot actually be verified until after 325 A.D. Owing to the fortuitous character of the traditions at our disposal, it is indubitable that many, indeed very many, places at which it is impossible to prove that a Christian community existed previous to the council of Nicea, may nevertheless have contained such a community, and even a bishopric. But no one can tell with any certainty what such places were. Besides, although unquestionably the age of Constantine was not an era, so far as regards the East, during which a very large number of new bishoprics were created­ -- since in not a few provinces the network of the ecclesiastical hierarchy appears to have been already knit so fast and firm that what was required was not the addition of new meshes but actually, in several cases, the removal of one or two\1/ -- despite all this, it is certain that a large number of new Christian communities did originate at that time. In the West a very large number of bishoprics, as well as of churches, were founded during the fourth century, and the Christianizing of not a few provinces now commenced upon a large scale (cp. Sulp. Severus, Chron., ii. 33: "Hoc temporum tractu mirum est quantum invaluerit religio Christiana" = during this period the Christian religion increased at an astonishing rate).

\1/ I should hold it proven, with regard to the provinces of Asia Minor, that the network there was firm and fast by the time of Constantine. There were about four hundred local bishoprics by the end of the fourth century, so that if we can prove, despite the scantiness and fortuitous nature of the sources, close upon one hundred and fifty for the period before 325 A. D., it is highly probable that the majority of these four hundred were in existence by that time. This calcula­tion is corroborated by the fact that during the fourth century Asia Minor yields evidence of the chor-episcopate being vigorously repressed and dissolved, but rarely of new bishoprics being founded.

As for the extent to which Christianity spread throughout the various provinces, while the following pages exhibit all that really can be established on this point, no evidence available upon the number of the individual churches (or bishoprics) would make it possible to draw up any accurate outline of the general situation; our information is better regarding some provinces, inferior in quantity as regards others, and first-rate as regards none. Had I drawn the limit at 381 A.D., or even at 343 A.D., a much more complete conspectus could be furnished. But in that case we would have had to abandon our self-imposed task of determining how far Christianity had spread by the time that Constantine granted it toleration and special privileges. \1/ the purpose of surveying the localities where Christian communities can be shown to have existed before 325 A.D., I shall begin by printing two lists of the places where there were Christian communities before Trajan (or Commodus). \2/

\1/ One of the most important aids to this task is the list of signatures to the council of Nicaa in 325 A.D., an excellent critical edition of which has recently appeared (Patrum Nicrenorum nomina latine, grcece, coplice, syriace, arahice, armeniace, by H. Gelzer, Hilgenfeld, and O. Cuntz; Leipzig, 1898; cp. also C.H. Turner's edition based on independent researches, Eal. occidentalis ntonu­menta inris anliyuissimi. Cauorutnt et eonciliortan Gisecorunt inte,pretationes Latio,e, Oxford, 1899). For a critical estimate of the list in its bearings upon the metropolitan parish, cp. Lubeck's Reichseinteilung and Iircltliche ILierarchie (1901). The Nicene list is to be compared also with the documents dating from the rise of the Arian controversy (cp. Schwartz, Zur Gesch. des Alhanasi'us, v., vi., 1905). Schwartz (pp. 265 f,) has translated into Greek the Syriac excerpt from the <g> rl zos </g> of Alexander (Pitra, Anal. Sacra, iv. 196 f.). The following are the provinces on the list: Egypt, Thebais, Libya, Pentapolis <g> 6vw Tu,rm </g>, Palestine, Arabia, Achaia, Thrace, the Hellespont, Asia, Caria, Lycia, Lydia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Galatia, Pisidia, Pontus Polemoniacus, Cappadocia, and Armenia. Schwartz is perhaps right in regarding the additional provinces of Mesopotamia, Augustoeuphratesia, Clicia, Isauria, and Phoenicia as interpolations. Another even more important piece of evidence which he adduces (pp. 271 f.) is the record (which he has discovered) of an Antiochene synod of 324 A.D., containing a number of Episcopal names, which may for the most part be identified by aid of the Nicene list. Seven, however, representing seven bishoprics, unfortunately remain unexplained. The number of bishops in attendance at Nicea (which, according to Eusebius, our best witness, Vit. Const., iii. 8, exceeded two hundred and fifty) gives no clue to the spread of the episcopate, let alone the Christian religion, for extremely few bishops were present from Europe and North Africa, and a large number even from the East failed to put in an appearance (The Antiochene list agrees remarkably with the Nicene so far; but even this gives no sure clue to the number of bishops in the respective provinces.) The assertion made by the Eastern sources that over two thousand clergy were present, is credible, but immaterial. One is strongly tempted to bring in the extant signatures of the synod of Sardica, which prove the existence of many bishoprics hitherto unattested. But as it is certain that several bishoprics were founded in the twenty years between Nicaa and Sardica, we must regretfully put the Sardica list aside.­ Cumont's remark upon the Christian inscriptions of the East is unfortunately to the point: "Je ne sais s'il existe une categoric de testes epigraphiques, qui soil plus mal connue aujourd'hui que les inscriptions chrtiennes de 1'empire d'Orient" (Les Inscr. Chret. De l’Asie mineure, Rome, 1895, p. 5). For learned classifica­tions of early Christian cemeteries, cp. Nik. Muller's article (1901) s.v. in Protest. Real-Enc. x. pp. 794-877, and C. M. Kaufmann's Ilandbuch d. christl. Archaologie (1905), pp. 74-107 ("Topographic d. altchristl. enkmaler "). For the topographical materials, cp. also Lubeck (op. cit.), and Bruders, Verfassung der Kirche in den zweiten ersten Jahrhund. (1904). 

\2/ I content myself with a mere enumeration, as the subsequent section, arranged according to provinces, gives a sketch of the spread and increase of Christianity in the respective provinces. In this chapter I have not entered, of course, into the special details of the history of Christianity throughout the provinces, a task for which we need the combined labors of specialists, arche­ologists, and architects, while every large province requires a staff of scholars to itself, such as Africa has found among the French savants. This will remain for years, no doubt, a pious hope. Yet even investigations conducted by individuals have already done splendid service for the history of provincial and local churches in antiquity. Beside de Rossi stand Le Blant and Ramsay, Duchesne, Wilpert, Nik. Mitller, etc. The modest pages which follow, and which I almost hesitate to publish, will serve their purpose if they sketch the general contour accurately in the main.


I. Places in which Christian communities or Christians can be traced as early as the first century (previous to Trajan).\1/

\1/ Cp. on Map I.-Note how not only Acts but also Paul at an earlier period groups together the Christians of individual provinces, showing that several churches or Christian groups must have already existed in each of the following provinces : Judaea, Samaria, Syria, Cilicia, Galatia, Asia, \Macedonia, and Achaia.
\2/ Here Paul labored after his conversion (Gal. i. r7), we do not know for how long; the "three years" of Gal. i. 18 include his residence at Damascus as well as his stay in Arabia. Holsten's view is that Paul in Arabia was simply reflecting on the relation of the gospel to the Old Testament, but the inevitable inference to be drawn from Gal, i. 16 is that Paul had already preached to pagans in Arabia. Still, this is not quite certain. Luke, at any rate, does not hold that the Gentile mission had now begun (Acts ix. 19-29, xi. 20 f.). It is likely that Paul was referring primarily to Arabia when he spoke (Rom. xv. I9) of his preaching <g>IEpouoraXi1g cal ,chc w-for KuKXa, </g> in spite of all that the excellent Antiochcne expositors urge, can hardly mean " in a circle as far as Illyria." Jerusalem he neither could nor would ignore as his starting-point; but as he really never labored there in the role of a missionary, he adds <g> Ev KiKXw, </g> which may quite well denote Arabia, whose boundaries (viewed from a geographical elevation) adjoined Jerusalem and which included Jews among its population.
\3/ Ramsay (Church in the Roman Empire, 1893, pp. 211, 235) shows the likeli­hood of Amisus having contained Christians at this period.
\4/ Acts xix. 10; Paul labored here for two years, g> d0-T6 ,raVTas'roes KaTOuKouvTas T7fv 'Ao'iav &#7936;KOU"aac T&#8056;v Xs'yov TOO Kupfov, 'Iov5afous TE Kal "EXXgvas. " </g> It May therefore be regarded as practically certain that the great cities which lay on the important roads connecting those seven leading cities [i.e., of the Apocalypse] with one another had all `heard the word,' and that most of them were the seats of churches whirl these seven letters were written " (Ramsay on " The Seven Churches of Asia," Expositor, vol. ix. p. 22).
\5/ This is not quite certain; <g> oxoi&avov EXOECv rpds ye El's Nped,rOXiv' &#7952;K(&#8150; -yapKEKpi!a srapaXElga(ra1. </g> An early note appended to the epistle to Titus runs <g> Eyp'Qq &#7936;76 Noco,rdxEws 'u s MaKESovfas. </g>
\6/ It is disputed whether Paul carried out his design (Rom. xv. 24, 28) of doing missionary work in Spain. To judge from Clem. Rom. v. and the Muratorian fragment, I think it probable that he did. See also Acta Petri (Vercell. ), vi. We should have to include Gaul here, if <g> raAAtav </g> (Sinait., C. minuscc. and Latt. ) were the true reading in 2 Tim. iv. 10, or if <g> PaAarfa </g> were European Gaul (so Euseb., Epiph., Theod., and Theodoret). But the reading is uncertain. Cp, Lightfoot's edition of Galatians (5th ed.), P. 31.

\7/ Some well-known scholars, like Pearson and Vitringa, would take "Babylon" (in 1 Pet. v.) as the Egyptian town of that name. But, in spite of the tradition that Mark labored in Egypt (he is mentioned with Babylon in I Peter), this hypothesis is quite baseless.

\8/ Grand-nephews of Jesus (grandchildren of his brother Judas), whom Domitian wanted to punish (according to the tale of Hegesippus), lived in
Palestine as peasants. Relatives of Jesus presided over several of the Palestinian churches (for Mesopotamia, see below).
\9/ We do not know when Paul reached Illyria; probably it was during a visit to Macedonia, or during his long residence at Corinth. It is not even certain that he visited Illyria at all, for the passage admits of being read in such a way as to mean that he reached the borders of Illyria by his presence in Macedonia. Besides, <g> 'IXXupucdv, </g> as Renan points out (St Paul, PP. 492 f., Germ. Ed (I., p. 417), is a very general geographical term.

\10/ Titus went to Dalmatia on his own initiative, against Paul's wishes. It is not said whether his errand was connected with the gospel; the previous allusion to Demas, in fact, practically excludes this. 

\11/ Babylon (i Pet. v. 13) is probably Rome.

\12/ The trace of Christianity said to have been found at Pompeii on a mutilated and illegible inscription (HRICTIAN?) is to be left out of account. "The read­ing is quite uncertain. Even if the word ' Christian ' actually did occur, it would simply prove that Christians were known to people at Pompeii, not that there were Christians in the city." This is the opinion of Mau, who also notices (Pompeii in Leben und Kunst, 1900, p. 15) the inscription, first deciphered by himself in 1885, which is scratched upon a wall in a small house (ix. 1, 26) "Sodoma Gomora" (cp. Bull. dell Instit, 1885, p. 97). "Only a Jew or a Christian could have written this; it sounds like a prophecy of the end." Is this the stern judgment of a Jew or a Christian on the city? Or did some Jew or Christian write it when the shower of ashes had begun to rain ruin on the city (cp. Herrlich's statement of his interpretation in Berliner philol. Wochensclzrift, 1903, pp. 1151 f.)? Or are we to think of Matt. x. 15 in this connection (so Nestle, Zeits. f neatest. Wiss., 1904, pp. 167 f.)? The existence of Christians at Pompeii cannot therefore be maintained. But, on the other hand, it is deferring too much to Tertullian to infer from Apol. xl. that there were no Christians in Campania and Etruria previous to 73 A.D. Tertullian does affirm this, but simply because it suits his convenience; he can hardly have had any information on the subject, for Africa possessed no knowledge of Christians in these provinces in Tertullian's day. -A terra-cotta lamp has recently been dug up at Pompeii with the "Christ" monogram. Sogliano's account of it has been reproduced in many journals. But Labanca (Il Giornale d' Italia, 14th Oct. 1905) and others have justly expressed their skepticism on the discovery. In my judgment, it simply corroborates the old suspicion that this monogram was of pagan origin. -It is impossible to prove that there were Christians at this period in the towns mentioned in Acts (Ashdod in Philistia, Seleucia, Attalia in Pamphylia, Amphipolis, Apollonia, Assus, Malta, Mitylene, Miletus, etc.) which have been omitted from the above list. Domitilla was banished to the island of Pontia (or Pandataria ?).-I ignore, as uncertain, all the place-names which occur only in apocryphal Acts, together with all provinces and countries described there and nowhere else as districts in which missions are said to have existed as early as the apostolic age.

During Trajan's reign, then, Christianity had spread as far as the shores of the Tyrrhenian sea, perhaps even as far as Spain itself. Its headquarters lay in Antioch, on the western and north-western shores of Asia Minor, and at Rome, where, as in Bithynia, it had already attracted the attention of the authorities. "Cognitiones de Christianis," judicial proceedings against Chris­tians, were afoot in the metropolis; Nero, Domitian, and Trajan had taken action with reference to the new movement. Apropos of Rome in Nero's reign, Tacitus speaks of a "inultitudo ingens," while Pliny employs still stronger terms in reference to Bithynia, and Ignatius (ad Ephes. iii.) describes the Christian bishops as <g> Karcc -ru -repara optaecvref, </g> "settled on the outskirts of the earth." Decades ago the new religion had also penetrated the imperial court, and even the Flavian house itself.

II. Places where Christian communities can be traced before 180 A.D. (i.e., before the death of Marcus Aurelius).\1/

To those noted under I., the following have to be added:
A number of churches in the environs of Syrian Antioch (Ignat., ad Philad., 10), whose names are unknown, though one thinks of Seleucia in particular (cp, Acta Pauli) :
number of churches in the environs of Smyrna (Irenaeus, in Eus, H.E., v. 20. 8), and many Asiatic churches (ibid., v.24).
Edessa (Julius Africanus, Bardesanes, etc.).
Churches in Mesopotamia or on the Tigris (see below, under III.).
Ardabau =  <g> Kap3a/3a ?] iv r3) Kara ra v cbpuylav Mucrica, </g> (Anti-Mon­tanist, in Eus., H.E., v, 16; see Ramsay's Phrygia, p. ,573. Only known to us as the birthplace of Montanus).
Apamea in Phrygia (Eus., v. 16).
Cumane, a village in Phrygia (Eus., v. 16).
Caesarea in Cappadocia (Alex­ander the local bishop, Clem. Alex.).
Melitene (where the local legion,
the "Thundering," contained a large number of Christians, as is proved by the miracle of the rain, narrated by Eus. v. 7, in the reign of M. Aurelius).
Laranda in Isauria. \2/
Philomelium in Pisidia (Mart. Polyc.).
Parium in Mysia (probably, acc to the Acta Onesiphori).
Nicomedia (Dionys. Cor., in Eus., H.E. , iv. 23).
Otrus in Phrygia (anti-Mon­tanist, in Eus., H.E., v. 16). \3/
Hieropolis in Phrygia (probably, acc. to the inscriptions of Abercisu).
Pepuza in
Phrygia (Apollonius, in Eus., H.E., v. 18).
Tymion (=Dumanli?) in
Phrygia (ibid.).
Same in Cephallenia (Clem. Alex., Strom, III. ii. 5).
A number of churches in
Egypt (cp. Iren, i. 10, the activity of Basilides and Valentinus there, and retrospective inferences: details in III).
Naples (catacombs of St. Gennaro).
Churches in Greater
Greece. \4/
(catacombs, but not absolutely certain).
Ardabau = Kap3a/3a
?] iv r3) Kara ra v cbpuylav Mucrica, (Anti-Mon­tanist, in Eus., H.E., v, 16; see Ramsay's Phrygia, p. ,573.

Only known to us as the birthplace of Montanus).
Apautea in Phrygia (Eus., v. 16).
Cuniane, a village in Phrygia (Eus., v. 16).
Eumenea in
Phrygia (Eus., v,16).
Synnada in
in Galatia \6/  (Eus., vi. 16).
Sinope (Hippol., in Epiph., flier.,x1ii. I).
Amastris in
Pontus (Dionys.Cor., in Eus.,  iv. 23).\7/
Debeltum in
Thrace (Serapion, in Ens., v. 19).
Anchialus in
Thrace (ibid.).\8/
Larissa in Thessaly (Melito, ill Eus., iv. 26).
Lacedmnson (Dionys. Cor., in
Eus., H.E., iv. 23).
Cnossus in
Crete (ibid.).
Gortyna in
Crete (ibid.).\9/

(epistle of local church in Eus. V. 1 f.; Irenaeus).
(Eus., v. 1 f.)
(certain inferences retrospectively from Tertullian).
Maduara in
Numidia (martyrs).
Scilium (Scili) \10/ in
North Africa (martyrs).
Churches in
Gaul (among the Celts; Iren.). \11/
Churches in
Germany (Iren). \12/
Churches in
Spain (Iren).

\1/ Cp. below, on Map I.

\2/ The proximity of Derbe and Lystra, as well as the remarks of Eusebius (H E., vi. 19), make it highly probable that a Christian community existed here before 180 A. D.

\3/  Ramsay(St Paul the Traveler, etc., third ed., 1897, pp. vii. f.): ''Christi­anity spread with marvelous rapidity at the end of the first and in the second century in the parts of Phrygia that lay along the road from Pisidian Antioch to Ephesus, and in the neighborhood of Iconium, whereas it did not become power­ful in those parts of Phrygia that adjoined North Galatia till the fourth century."

\4/ In greater Greece, Clement of Alexandria (c. 16o?) met a Christian teacher from Syria and another from Egypt (Strom., I, i. ii). Hence there must have been Christians in one or two of the coast towns of Lower Italy, otherwise no Christian teachers would have stayed there.

\5/ Though this church is not mentioned till afterwards (Alexander in Eus., H.E., vi. 19), our information about it, together with the size of the town, justify its position as above. Cp. also the remarks of Dionysius in Eus„ H.E., vii. 7.

\6/ Myrra in Lycia perhaps had a Christian community (cp. Acta Pauli).

\7/ <g> 'H EKKAr7oia f1 1rapoLKovea"Aµaorpty 2µa 'rays Sara novrov [EK,CA77oiats]. </g> Thus Dionysius proves that several Pontic churches were in existence by 170 A.D.

\8/ Byzantium, too, had probably a church of its own (cp. Hippol., Philos., vii. 35 ; perhaps one should also refer to Tert., ad Scap., iii.).

\9/ <g> 7 'H EKKAr7oia i aapoucou"oa Popruvav `2'µa rays Aotaays Kara Kpi7r?7v aapobaats­ </g> - evidently there were a number of churches in Crete by this time. It is highly probable also that Christian churches existed in Cyrenaica before 180 A.D. (cp. below, under "Cyrenaica "). <g> Kvpii[nrl] </g> occurs in the Acta Pauli (Coptic, K. Schmidt's ed., p. 65) beside Syria, but the context is in too bad a state to permit of any inferences being drawn from it.

\10/ It is extremely probable that Uthina, Lambese, Hadrumetum, and Thysdrus should also be included, since Tertullian (de Monog. xii., ad Scap. iii.-iv.) implies that there were churches there. Cirta, too, would have to be added to their number.

\11/ Renan (Marc. Aurele, p. 452) declares: " Le Bretagne avait sans doute deja [i.e., before iso A. o. ] vu des missionnaires de Jesus." But his evidence, the Quarto­deciman controversy, is quite insufficient. " Sans doute " has a " possible," like itself. " Il est possible que les premieres eglises de Bretagne aient dil leer origine iu des Phrygiens, a des Asiates, comme ceux qui fonderent les eglises de Lyon, de Vienne." "Possible”! Why not? One needs to be a Breton to lay any stress on such an abstract possibility.

 \12/ So that perhaps Cologne (possibly Mainz also?) had a church.


Already there were Christians in all the Roman provinces, and in fact beyond the limits of the Roman Empire. And already the majority of these Christians comprised a great federation, which assumed a consolidated shape and polity about the year 180.

III. A list of places where Christian communities can be shown to have existed previous to 325 A.D. (the council of Nicaea); together with some brief account of the spread of Christianity throughout the various provinces.