9/3/08 - the spread of christianity

In today's excerpt - in a Roman empire that was ruled by a small number of elites, heavily populated by slaves and the poor, and possessed of a flaccid paganism, Christianity grew from ten thousand believers in 100 CE to six million in 300 CE. It was the fastest spread of a religion in history, until the rise of Islam in the sixth century CE. And it spread in spite of the difficulty of maintaining uniform beliefs given poor communication, poor literacy, and wide geographical dispersion:

"Early Christianity was tiny and scattered. No precise figures survive, but best estimates suggest that there were considerably fewer than ten thousand Christians in 100 CE, and only about two hundred thousand Christians in 200 CE, dispersed among several hundred towns. The late-second-century figure equals only 0.3 percent of the total population of the Roman empire (which was about 60 million). ... The rapidity of its growth ... helps explain why coded statements of belief, rather than complex rules of practice, were the passport to full membership. The very small size of Christianity helps explain why the Roman state paid so little attention to suppressing it effectively. ...

"In the early stages of Christianity, at any one time, perhaps only a few dozen Christians could read or write fluently. On the numbers which I have just cited, and even if we allow for a significantly higher rate of literacy among Christians than among pagans (outside of the ruling elite), by the end of the first century all Christianity is likely to have included, at any one time, less than fifty adult men who could write or read biblical texts fluently. ...

"Religion was not a frontier along which the Roman elite considered it needed to defend itself with vigor, at least not until the middle of the third century. And when the state did attack the Christian church on a massive scale ... the number of Christians, in spite of temporary setbacks, continued to grow. ... By the end of the third century, perhaps 10 percent of the empire's population—6 million out of 60 million people—were Christians. The emperor Constantine openly converted to Christianity in 312, and the emperors who succeeded him were also Christian. ... It is difficult to decide whether this [turn of events] which had so much influence on the future course of western culture, should be called a triumph of the Christian church or the triumph of the Roman state. ...

"What is amazing is that in spite of the practical difficulties of size, dispersion, rapid growth, and illegality, and in spite of the startling variety of early Christian beliefs, Christian leaders actively pursued and preserved the ideal of unity and orthodoxy."


Keith Hopkins


A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity


PLUME, Published by Penguin Group


Copyright 1999 by Keith Hopkins 2001


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