Jesus Christ lived the most consequential life in human history. As Christian theologian Michael Green notes, “His coming split history into two: everything is dated before or after this man.”1 But the religion that bears his name started small and slow in the backwater of the Roman Empire. What factors contributed to its subsequent rapid spread?
In this series we’ll briefly look at 10 reasons for Christianity’s rapid spread during its first few centuries. As a Christian, I believe that God’s historical providence directed the events that led to Christianity’s development. Nevertheless, understanding the social, cultural, and religious factors that influenced the spread of the faith doesn’t make the ultimate cause of the movement any less supernatural in nature. A natural implication of God’s historical providence is that he specifically prepared the world for the coming of Jesus Christ and that this divine arrangement led to Christianity’s subsequent growth and success.
A third of the way through the first century AD, the early Jesus movement consisted initially of the Nazarene teacher and his small band of disciples. By the end of the first century the Christian movement had spread through so much of the Roman Empire that government officials were commenting on the new religion.2 By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had been recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world with approximately one third of the people on the planet subscribing to the faith (at least 2 billion people).3
In part one of this series, we’ll examine three social factors that significantly helped the spread of Christianity.4
- The Peace of Rome
The powerful Roman army’s ability to keep peace within the empire meant that the message of Christianity could be spread far and wide without the physical danger and information blackout that so often accompanies war. Imagine the difficulties that would arise in attempting to communicate a new faith in such contemporary war-torn countries as Afghanistan or Syria. Early Christians therefore took advantage of Rome’s famous pax Romana to spread their faith about the coming of the Messiah Jesus.
- Easy Travel
Rome’s advancements in technology allowed them to build a reliable system of roads throughout the Empire. Christian missionaries like the Apostle Paul were able to utilize these roads in spreading the gospel message and founding new churches throughout the Roman world. These Roman roads made travel easy and that accessibility allowed new ideas to spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean world.
- Common Language
The Mediterranean world had two basic languages: Latin in the west and Greek in the east. But the language of trade or commerce was Koine Greek (or common Greek). This was the same language that was used to write the New Testament. Thus, in a sense, the language of the New Testament was functioning like the universal language of the Mediterranean world. Consider how advantageous it was to be able to communicate the gospel message without a language barrier. Virtually the entire Mediterranean world was able to converse in the very language of the Christian Scriptures.
Clearly the stability of the Mediterranean world in general and the Roman Empire in particular helped the Christian message to spread far, wide and rapidly. As we continue this series, we will look at other historical factors that were key to Christianity’s rise to the most populous religion of the world.
For more information on the spread of Christianity, please see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World, or check out How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt and The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark.
1. Michael Green, Who Is This Jesus? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 7.
2. Three Roman authors mention Jesus Christ and Christians: Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger. See Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
3. “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” Pew Research Center, published December 19, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/.
4. Lawrence Cunningham and John Reich, Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities, vol. 1 (Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1992), 179–80.