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]]

[[Book 4, page 324 -- notes are missing]]



Do the materials thus amassed permit of any conclusions being drawn from them with reference to the statistics of Christianity? Can we get any idea, even approximately, of what was the number of Christians at the period when Constantine ventured on the extraordinary step of recognizing the religion of the church and of granting privileges to the church itself?\2/



Definite figures are, of course, out of the question. It is highly precarious to form any estimate of how large was the population in the separate provinces of the empire and throughout the empire as a whole about the beginning of the fourth century, and how much harder, it may be argued, would it be to calculate, even approximately, the number of Christians? Despite all this, however, we need not give up all attempts at statistics as hopeless. For a relative method of calculation promises to yield important results,\3/ if only one is careful to distinguish one province from another. To form wholesale calculations by lumping everything together, is no manner of [[325]] use. Thus Gibbon thought he could estimate the number of Christians in the reign of Decius at about a twentieth of the entire population. Friedlander only raises this figure very slightly, even for the reign of Constantine, while La Bastie and Burckhardt calculate about a twelfth for the same period. Chastel's total for the East is about a tenth, for the West a fifteenth, thus leaving on an average a twelfth as well. Matter thought of a fifth, Staudlin even of a half.\4/



The last named estimate is decidedly to be rejected. Beyond all question, the number of Christians, even in the East, never amounted to half the population. Even at the opening of the fourth century, Lucian speaks of Christians as constituting "by this time almost a majority in the world" ("pars paene mundi iam maior"); that is, even a Christian of Antioch, who was surveying one section of Asia Minor, did not dream of asserting that Christians already formed half of the local population.

On the other hand, as we shall see, it is highly probable that in one or two provinces Christianity did embrace a half, or very nearly a half, of the population by the opening of the fourth century, while in several cities Christians already formed the majority, and in fact the large majority, of the inhabitants. Furthermore, Eusebius, who is not much given to exaggeration, describes Christians as "the most populous of peoples" (see above, p. 21), evidently under the impression that there was no people of equal numbers. One Roman writer (see above, p. 4), not long after the middle of the second century, declares that they outnumbered the Jews; and although this statement may have originally applied to Rome and Italy alone, it was undoubtedly true of the whole empire,\5/ ere a century and a half [[326]] had passed. Christianity must therefore have exceeded its first million long ago.


One important fact must not be overlooked, viz., that as late as the reign of Philip the Arabian the far-travelled Origen found the number of Christians upon the whole extremely small compared to the total population (see above, p. 28). Such is the opinion of a level-headed observer. It is corroborated by the evidence of Cyprian, and it serves to check all those exaggerated outbursts of an earlier age (e.g., in Tertullian) which frequently depict the external, geographical spread of Christianity as if it involved a corresponding increase in numbers. It would be unwise, therefore, to raise any question at all about what percentage of the population was Christian, circa 245 A.D.\6/ But when seventy or eighty years had passed, the council of Nicaea was held. Now it was during these seventy or eighty years (or during the fifty or sixty years previous to Diocletian's persecution) that the first considerable expansion of the church took place. By the end of this period Christianity had at all events ceased to be of small account. Thanks to its very numbers, it now constituted a weighty factor in the Roman empire.


The precise weight of this factor I propose to try and indicate, in the following pages, by means of a brief survey of the various provinces. It must be borne in mind, however, that numerical strength and real influence need not coincide in every case; quite a small circle may exercise a very powerful influence if its members are largely drawn from the leading classes, just as a large number may represent quite an inferior [[327]] amount of influence if it is recruited from the lower classes or in the main from the country districts. Christianity was a religion of towns and cities; the larger the town or city, the larger (even relatively, it is probable) was the number of the Christians. This gave it an extraordinary advantage. But besides this, Christianity had already pushed far into the country districts throughout a large number of the provinces, as we know definitely with regard to the majority of the provinces in Asia Minor, no less than as regards Armenia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Northern Africa (with its country towns). Wherever we possess sources bearing on the inner history of the churches in a given province, we light upon a series of small places, otherwise unknown, with Christian inhabitants, or villages which either contain Christians or are themselves entirely Christian. Compare, for example, the history of Montanism in Phrygia, the "Sententiae lxxxvii episcoporum" in the works of Cyprian, the treatise of Eusebius upon the Palestinian martyrs, the Testament of the Forty Martyrs in Armenia, and the Meletian Acts (for Egypt). All this shows how deeply Christianity had penetrated the country districts in a number of provinces during the course of the third century, while at the same time it warns us to multiply considerably the number of such places as we happen to know of, if we want to get any idea of the extent to which Christianity bad diffused itself locally.

Instead of attempting to give actual percentages, I shall rather try to draw up four categories or classes of provinces and districts:

The first of these categories includes (1) the entire extent of [[328]] our modern Asia Minor--with the exception of some out-of-the-way districts, which were then, as they still are of small account in the matter of civilization. The process of Christianizing went on apace in the west, the north-west, and certain districts of the interior; at an earlier period than in the east, north-east, and south, the local conditions varying here and there; but by the opening of the fourth centur the latter districts appear to have equalled the former, and to have become almost entirely Christian. The proofs of this have been collected above, on pp. 182 f. In Phrygia, Bithynia, and Pontus there were districts which by this time were practically Christian through and through; also there were now towns and villages which contained few if any pagans. Furthermore, as the numerous chorepiscopi indicate, the Lowlands far and wide had been extensively Christianized. Most probably the network of the episcopal organization throughout all the Asiatic provinces was almost complete by circa 300 A.D., and in these provinces the reaction under Julian was unable to make any headway. (2) It includes the region of Thrace opposite Bithynia, i.e., Europe (so called); and (3) Armenia. It baffles us to estimate the actual diffusion of Christianity in this country; all we can say is that the Christian religion had by this time become the official religion, and that the royal household was Christian. Eusebius treats the country as a Christian land, and regards the war waged by Maximinus Daza against the Armenians as a religious conflict. (4) Cyprus. (5) Finally, there is Edessa, a city which, according to Eusebius, was entirely Christian. I do not venture to group any other places under this category.

The second category includes (1) Antioch and Coele-Syria--not merely the maritime towns of Syria and the Greek cities, observe, for by this time Christianity must have also penetrated deep into the Syriac population. Also (2) Alexandria, together with Egypt and the Thebais. The episcopal organization of Egypt as a whole, which did not start till the close of the second century, was substantially finished by the opening of the fourth century, when the new religion had also penetrated far into the lower non-Hellenic classes, as is proved by the origin [[329]] and extraordinary spread of monasticism in these circles after the close of the third century, no less than by the production of the Coptic Bible and the ecclesiastical dialect. (3) Then came Rome, Lower Italy, and certain parts of Middle Italy (i.e., the coasts). In Rome itself the majority of the upper classes still held aloof, and the events of the next sixty years show that we must not overestimate the Christianization of the city by the opening of the fourth century. On the other hand, it is a well-established fact that Christianity was widely represented among the upper and even the highest ranks of society. Thus Eusebius was able to describe how Maxentius began by assuming the mask of friendship towards the Christians (though, of course, be soon changed his tactics), "in order to flatter the people of Rome," while the subsequent elevation of the cross by Constantine within the capital itself met with no opposition. Furthermore, the large number of churches in Rome, and the way in which the city was divided up for ecclesiastical purposes show how thoroughly it was interspersed with Chirstians. By 250 A.D. the number of Christians in Rome cannot well have been less than 80,000 (see. above, p. 247) Subsequently, by the beginning of the fourth century it was probably doubled, perhaps quadrupled. As for Lower Italy and the districts of Middle Italy which adjoined Rome, the fact that sixty Italian bishops could be got together as early as 261 A.D.--bishops who resided in out-of-the-way districts--enables us to argue the existence of quite a considerable Christian population circa 300 A.D. This population would be denser wherever Greeks formed an appreciable percentage of the inhabitants, i.e., in the maritime towns of Lower Italy and Sicily, although the Latin-speaking population would still remain for the most part pagan. The fact that the Christian church of Rome was predominantly Greek till shortly before the middle of the third century, is proof positive that up till then the Christianizing of the Latin population in Middle and Lower Italy must have been still in an inchoate stage, although it certainly made rapid strides between 250 and 320. (4) Africa proconsularis and Numidia--We may unhesitatingly reckon these provinces in the present category, since the facts prove that the majority [[330]] of these towns contained Christian communities by the opening of the fourth century, and that the whole country was divided over the Donatist controversy. One might even be disposed to add these provinces to those of the first category, were it not for the inscriptions, which warn us against over-estimatiing the amount of Christianity in individual towns during the third century. True, the inscriptions are no reliable guide even here. How much Christianity, nay, how much early Christianity even, may lie hid in them! Only, we are no longer able to lay hands on it. (5) Spain.--The canons of the synod of Elvira, together with the lists of that synod, justify us (though upon this point I am not quite certain) in including the Spanish provinces within this category, since these canons show the extent to which Spanish Christianity had become mixed up with local civilization by the year 300, and also how deeply it had made its way into all the relationships of life. (6) The overwhelming probability is--to judge from the situation as we find it in the fourth century--that certain (i.e., the maritime) parts of Achaia, Thessaly, Macedonia, and the islands are similarly to be reckoned in this category, as well as the southern coast of Gaul.

Our third category will embrace (1) Palestine, where some Greek towns like Caesarea had a considerable number of Christians, as well as one or two purely Christian localities. Upon the whole, however, the country offered a stout resistance to Christianity. (2) Phoenicia, where the Greek cities on the coast had Christian communities, while the interior, dominated by a powerful and hostile religion, continued to be but slightly affected by Christianity. (3) Arabia, where Christianity of a kind unfolded itself amid the Greco-Latin cities with their distinctive civilization. (4) Certain districts in Mesopotamia, (5-12) the interior of Achaia, of Macedonia, and of Thessaly, with Epirus, Dardania, Dalmatia, Moesia, and Pannonia. The two last-named large provinces adopted Christianity at a comparatively late period (see above, pp. 236 f), but it must have shot up rapidly once it entered them. (13) The northern districts of Middle Italy and the eastern region of Upper Italy. (14) and (15), Mauretania and Tripolitana. [[331]]

Finally, our fourth category includes--apart from the regions outside the empire such as Persia, India, and Scythia (though Western Persia at the opening of the fourth century may be included more accurately, perhaps, in our third category)--(1) the towns of ancient Philistia; (2) the north and north-west coasts of the Black Sea; (3) western Upper Italy--Piedmont having no ecclesiastical organization even by the opening of the fourth century; (4) Middle and Upper Gaul; (5) Belgica; (6)Germany; and (7) Rhoeia.\7/ To get some idea of the sparsness of Christianity in Belgica, and consequently in Middle and Upper Gaull, as well as in Germany and Rhaetia, one only has to recollect what has been said upon the church of Treves (p. 268), and also to compare the facts noted with regard to the church of Cologne. But let me at this point set a small problem in arithmetic. Treves was the most important city in all these provinces, and yet the sole church there certainly cannot have included more than from 500 to 1000 members. Probably an even smaller total is to be fixed. Now, if we assume that twelve bishops, at the very outside, may br counted in Middle and Northern Gaul, Germany, Belgica, and Rhaetia put together, and if we multiply this number by 500-700, adding also soldiers and some natives to our total, we get a membership of not more than 10,000 Christians for all these provinces. From which it follows that in a statistical account of the church for the opening of the fourth century, these provinces, together with the rest of those grouped under our fourth category, might be omitted altogether, without any serious loss.


The radical difference between the eastern and the western sections of the empire is particularly striking. Indeed, if one makes the ernployment of Greek or Latin a principle of dfferentiation, the relative percentage of Christians in the former case becomes higher still. And the explanation is simple enough. While a Greek Chrisitianty had been in existence since the apostolic age, any Latin Christianity worth mentioning dated probably from the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Since the days when the adherents of the Christian faith had got their [[332]] name in Antioch, Christianity had ceased to be a Jewish body. Strictly speaking, it had never been such, for it was rooted in what was a counter-movement to the Jewish church, being Hellenistic from the outset. It never divested itself entirely of this Hellenism, neither on Latin nor on Syrian soil. Wherever it went, until the close of the second century at any rate, it tended to promote the Hellenizing movement, and even at a later period it retained a strongly marked Hellenistic element which clung to it and urged it on. The transference of the empire's headquarters to the East also preserved and accentuated the Greek character of the church as an influence telling upon the western section of the empire--and that at a time when East and West already stood apart and when a distinctive Latin Christianity had already begun to develop with vigour.\8/ But it was the Hellenism of Asia Minor, not that of Egypt, which now dominated the situation, a Hellenism with elements and associations strecthing as far back as the civilization of Persia. There lay the headquarters of the Christian church at the opening of the fourth century.


There is ample evidence (from inscriptions, lists of names, connection of most western provincial churches with Rome) to show that the church operated as a Romanizing force in the West, just as she proved a Hellenizing force in the East; so that, in this light, the state and the Greco-Roman civilization were really waging an internecine war against each other when [[333]] they attacked a church which, so far from checking,\9/ rather accentuated and accelerated the process of Hellenizing and Romanizing the provincials.


We cannot procure any rough and ready figures giving the total percentages of Christians for the eastern and the western divisions of the empire; and even were such figures available, they would be valueless, for the separate provinces or groups of provinces are far too varied. More weight attaches to such proofs as we have already led. From these we find that Asia Minor was the most Christian country (with Armenia and Edessa), that, in short, it was practically Christianized; that, in the second place, it is closely followed by Coele-Syria with Antioch, Egypt (and Alexandria), Rome (and Lower Italy), Africa proconsularis and Numidia, and lastly, the maritime districts of Southern Gaul (perhaps Spain too)--as regards the strength of their Christian element. The resultant picture tells its own tale to the historical expert. If Christianity in these influential provinces not merely existed, but in large numbers, and existed as a power (which, as we have seen, was actually the case); if it had already become the dominant power in Asia Minor especially, and if it had already (as has been shown) made its way into the very heart of the army, then a matter of almost entire indifference how it fared in the other provinces, or how vigorous was the Christian element in these districts. Moreover, the church was international. Consequently, it was latent, so to speak, as a powerful force even in provinces that were but thinly Christianized. Behind the tiniest and most isolated church stood the church collective; [[334]] and this, so far from being a fanciful idea, was a supreme reality.

For a number of years previous to his epoch-making "flight" to Gaul, Constantine stayed at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia. In our sense of the term, he was no longer a youth when he lived there. He kept his eyes open in a city and a province in which he was confronted everywhere with a church, with her episcopate, and with her sway over the minds of men. His Asiatic impressions accompanied him to Gaul, where they reappeared in the form of political considerations which led to his decisive resolve.\10/ His chief opponent, Maximinus Daza, the Augustus of the East, was unteachable; but that very fact made him the most useful tutor Constantine could have had. For the career of Daza showed Constantine in capital letters what were the methods which could not, and therefore must not, any longer be employed in dealing with Christianity.


It is idle, to ask whether the church would have triumphed even apart from Constantine. Some Constantine or other would have had to come upon the scene. Only, as one decade succeeded another, it would be all the easier for anyone to be that Constantine. Throughout Asia Minor, at any rate, the victory of Christianity was achieved before Constantine came on the scene at all, whilst it was assured throughout the countries mentioned in our second class. It is quite enough to know these facts relgarding the spread of Christianity. It [[335]] required no special illumination and no celestial army-chaplain (to quote the saying of Lactantius about him) to disclose this, or to realize what was already in existence. All that was needed was an acute and forceful statesman, and one who at the same time had a vital interest in the religious situation. Such a man was Constantine. His genius lay in the fact that he clearly recognized and firmly grasped what was inevitable. It was not by any artificial or arbitrary means that he laid down the basal principles of his imperial state church; he simply allowed the leading provinces to have the religion they desired.\11/ Whereupon other provinces had to follow suit.


Was there anything remarkable, it may be asked, in the rapidity with which the Christian religion spread? We have only, it is true, a small amount of parallel material relating to the other religions in the empire, which might serve the purpose of such a comparison; still, my reply to such a question would be in the affirmative. The facts of the case do justify the impression of the church-fathers in the fourth century, of men like Arnobius and Eusebius and Augustine--the impression that their faith had spread from generation to generation with inconceivable rapidity.\12/ Seventy years after the foundation of the very first Gentile Christian church in Syrian Antioch, Pliny wrote in the strongest terms about the spread of Christianity throughout remote Bithynia; in his view it already threatened the stability of the other cults throughout the province. Seventy [[336]] years later still, the Paschal controversy reveals the existence of a Christian federation of churches, stretching from Lyons to Edessa with its headquarters at Rome. Seventy years later, again, the emperor Decius declared he would sooner have a rival emperor in Rome than a Christian bishop [vol. i. p. 277]. And ere another seventy years had passed, the cross was attached to the Roman colours.


It has been our task to decipher the reasons for this astonishing expansion. These reasons, on the one hand, were native to the very essence of the new religion (as vital monotheism and as evangel). On the other hand, they lay in its versatility and amazing powers of adaptation. To say that the victory of Christianity was a victory of Christ is true; but it is also true to say that Christianity simply supplied the form in which syncretistic monotheism won the day. It baffles us to determine the relative amount of impetus lent by each of the forces which charecterized Christianity. We cannot ascertain, e.g., how much was due to its spiritual monotheism, to its preaching of Jesus Christ, to its consciousness of redemption and its hope of immortality, to its active charity and system of social aid, to its discipline and organization, to its syncretistic capacity and contour, or to the skill which it showed during the third century in surpassing the fascinations of any contemporary superstition. Christianity was a religion which proclaimed the living God, for whom man was made. It searched and shook the human conscience. It also brought men life and knowledge, unity and multiplicity, the known and the unknown. It allied itself to Greek philosophy, knowing how to criticize it and also how to complete it. It was able (in an age of decline, of course) to assume command of the intellectual movement and to subdue Platonism. Born of the spirit, it soon learnt to consecrate the earthly. To the simple it was simple; to the sublime, sublime. It was a universal religion, in the sense that it imposed precepts which were binding upon all men, and also in the sense that it brought men what each individual specially craved. Christianity became a church, and a church for the world; thereby it secured every possible means of authority, under the sword itself. It continued to be exclusive, and yet it drew to itself any outside [[337]] factor of any vlaue. By this sign it conquered; for on all things human, on what was eternal and on what was transient alike, Christianity had set the cross, and thereby subdued all to the world to come.

The question may be asked, however, how did it actually influence the course of things on earth? What share is to be assigned to it in the protracted changes which revolutionized the ranks and classes of society, labour and workmen, organizations and the various social groups?\13/ It is impossible to answer this query for the pre-Constantine age. Down to the close of the second century, the church was too small numerically to exert any influence worth mentioning upon the main currents of life, while the task of adjusting itself to the world claimed all its energy during the third century. Only after it had broken down the party-wall which it had itself raised, and which separated itself from "the world," could it become a factor in civilization. Hence the entire pre-Constantine period is the embryonic phase of the church. Thanks to Constantine, it was born into the world for the first time. Now, it was in the world; now, it was in possession and power. It took possession of the world, and it exercised its power, by proclaiming a spiritual authority which had hitherto been undreamt of, and at the same time by promulgating monasticism. Such were the standards under which it led the nations forward into the Middle Ages.


1 Cp. Map II.