Christianity began as a small Messianic movement in Galilee during the middle 20's of the first century (AD). Around Jesus there gathered a group of sociologically low-status men. Thus for example, the Gospel records that the first disciples called by Jesus (i.e. the Apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John) were all fishermen before becoming "fishers of men" (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11). None of the Twelve appears to have held an influential of prestigious position in Greco-Roman Judean or Galilean society; none was significantly wealthy; none had any special education. Indeed among the Twelve, we even find a tax collector (the Apostle Matthew) and a political revolutionary (Simon the Zealot). It should be noted that tax collecting was one of the most despised professions among the Jews of first-century Roman controlled Palestine. Clearly in the original context the followers of the Founder of Christianity, were for the most part either social outcasts, rebels or men of low social standing. These are not the ingredients out of which popular success is guaranteed nor even permitted to emerge.
Yet, here is the grand paradox of history. From such humble social beginnings, within a period of about 350 years, Christianity would not only manage to supplant the traditional Greco-Roman pagan pantheon, by becoming the most popular religion of the Roman-Byzantine Empire, but at the same time completely conquer the empire in terms of its influence over it. The empire had now become a subject to the Christian Commonwealth. When only sometime before bishops were being persecuted by the Roman state, and even martyred for their allegiance to Christ, now, especially after 324 AD, bishops would be advising the emperor on imperial policy. Indeed the establishment and inauguration of a new imperial capital city, New Rome (Constantinople) by Constantine 1 in 330 AD, was in part a symbolic gesture to build the empire on a new Christian and non-pagan religious basis.
In addition to its phenomenal popularity among the citizens of the Roman Empire, Christianity now became the religion of emperors, princes, and princesses. Thus it was not surprising to find emperors sitting in on episcopal theological discussions (e.g. Constantine 1 at the Council of Nicea, 325 AD). >From a persecuted Church to an all-conquering religious movement, such was the power of Christianity. It had come a long way from its birth when only a handful of uninfluential Galilean fishermen were invited to inaugurate a new era of history. How then can we explain this amazing growth and spread of Christianity in such a short time? How did Christianity, a new religion, at first labelled as a "superstition" by the Roman intelligentsia, manage to supplant the long established and firmly entrenched Greco-Roman pagan religions? To what can we attribute its popularity? What was it that caused a religious movement, which began with fishermen to soon become a faith defended by purple-robed emperors?
Clearly, the answer is that such was God's will. Yet, we can ask a further question - what "synergetic" instruments did Christ use in this process of the conversion of the Roman Empire? These questions have aroused much academic interest in modern times. Indeed many learned books have been written and are still being written on the subject (e.g. by A. Von Harnack, R. MacMullen, E.A. Judge, etc).
Obviously many reasons contributed towards the rapid conversion of Europe:
Nevertheless, the above factors do not fully explain the phenomenon of the conversion of the Roman Empire. Christians did not possess a monopoly over courage or martyrdom, no matter how impressive it was. Nor were the Christian apologists' intellectual argumentation so widely read in the empire as to stimulate mass conversions. Though they were effective, they were so, largely, among the intellectual classes. Furthermore, Christianity was only one among many religious or philosophical movements in late antiquity, to write its sacred texts in (Koine) Greek. As such while there is no question that the vehicle of Greek acted as an effective catalyst in the growing acceptability of Christianity, it cannot be isolated as the most significant factor. Finally, the conversion of an emperor to Christianity, while an influential factor, cannot in itself satisfactorily explain the mass conversion of the empire. Indeed during the period of the pagan revivalist imperial principate (Julian 1, 361-363 AD), even the prestige of the imperial throne could not redirect the empire back to paganism.
While there is no question that all these above factors and events were instrumental towards the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, particularly the example of the holy martyrs, as we have seen, nevertheless they are not necessarily unique to Christianity. In seeking to find the one reason, which above all convinced the Greco-Roman world of the superiority of Christianity above paganism, we need to seek for a unique feature of Christianity not found in the religions of the pagan world. One such aspect of Christianity, which was unique, was offered and displayed by early Christians, par excellence. This specific attribute rendered Christianity magnetically appealing and perhaps even irresistible to the late antique Roman world. The exclusive early Christian characteristic, not found to the same degree in Greco-Roman religion or philosophical systems, was the preaching and practice of the Gospel of love and charity. In a very real sense, we may attribute the conversion of Europe to Christianity, to a most significant degree, though not exclusively, as a function of the practice and power of Christ's Gospel of love and philanthropy.
It is generally agreed by scholars and saints that the teaching of "love" and charity represent one of the essential dimensions of the Gospel of Jesus and the Gospel of Paul. Accordingly, from the extant words and parables of Jesus many concern themselves with the message of love. For example on the Sunday of Meat Fare, from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear Jesus identifying Himself and in solidarity with the destitute, the suffering, the rejected and the oppressed, calling for and rewarding altruistic philanthropy:
Such words and similar others had a profound impact upon the life and thought of the early Church. Indeed as the Gospel reading on the Second Sunday of Luke affirms, this exhortation to love receives its most unqualified and sublime expression in the demand to:
These high and noble demands expected from anyone who considered himself a Christian, that is, the exhortation for mercy, philanthropy and love, flowed naturally from Jesus' revelation that His Heavenly Father Himself was merciful and compassionate (Luke 6:35-36). Or, as the first Johannine epistle would later explain this pre-eminent theological truth - "God Is Love." (1 John 4:16).
Indeed St. Paul's poetic praise of love served further to re-enforce the already influential position of love in early Christian thinking. For the Apostle Paul, love represented the excellent gift of all - more exalted than the gift of prophecy or the possession of knowledge; higher than the gift of healing and thaumaturgy; nobler than the desire for martyrdom; more profitable than the capacity for angelic language:
The reason for the efficacy and superiority of love, as St. Paul explains, is that unlike other gifts, love is whole and everlasting:
Yet, even among those gifts that eternally abide, faith and hope, for St Paul love is the supreme gift:
The Apostle Paul concludes his eulogy and oratory on love by the simple yet most difficult imperative:
In variant degrees, it appears from our extant historical evidence, that the early Church genuinely attempted to apply this Gospel of love in its life and witness. How then was it expressed in praxis during the first four centuries of the Church's existence?
Christians undertook a great deal of almsgiving to the poor not only to fellow believers but to pagans as well. So amazed was the anti-Christian pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363 AD), with the sheer benevolence and excellence of Christian philanthropy that he was forced to admit in wonder their superiority over paganism in matters of charity:
Widows and orphans in particular became the recipients of special financial support and respect. This created a most favourable impression upon the pagan world. The sick, the infirm and the disabled also became an integral part, wherever possible, of the Church's obedience to Christ's commandment to love (Matt 25:35-36). Indeed in times of contagious epidemics raging through the cities of the Mediterranean world, ancient documentary evidence suggests that Christians were more likely to stay on to care and visit the stricken rather than attempt to flee as the pagans were often inclined to d0. Indeed it is recorded that at the time of the great plague which struck the empire during the reign of Maximinus (235-38 AD), Christians practiced the Gospel of love perfectly by taking care of pagans as well as Christians:
When this became known, people glorified the God of the Christians, and, convinced by the deeds themselves, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and God-fearing" (Eusebius, Ecc. Hist. 9.8.13-14).
When burial could not be afforded by a poor Christian this was undertaken by means of the common fund or private charity (Aristides Apologia, 15). Indeed one of the early functions of the diaconate was to secure that the dead was properly buried. In addition, wherever possible the Church sought to also give decent burial to pagans as well, whose families could not afford it:
This Christian attention to the needs of poor families unable to bury their dead must have seemed very formidable in the eyes of the surrounding pagan world. Indeed the pagan and anti-Christian emperor Julian writes:
It is also true to say that the early Church's treatment of slaves was undoubtedly one of, if not the most humanitarian within Hellenistic and Greco-Roman society. A slave in pagan society had no rights, no sense of human dignity. A slave was simply an implement of labour, his life at the mercy of his master. Aristotle the philosopher expressed this ancient attitude in the following blunt way:
Some two centuries later, Varro the Roman literary expert on agriculture nonchalantly re-formulated the Aristotelian attitude towards slaves, categorising them as one of the three groups of agricultural tools.
Within this harsh climate of opinion, Christians driven and motivated by the Gospel of love, treated converted slaves as full members of the Christian community. Male slaves could become deacons, presbyters and even bishops... Christian masters were also exhorted to treat their pagan slaves humanely. Such attitudes to the institution of slavery were a clearly remarkable and most impressive witness of the Christian message of "philanthropia" to the Roman pagan world.
Beside hospitality shown to strangers, a further demonstration of Christian love was the visitation and consolation of fellow Christians who might find themselves in prison, arising out of persecution. Thus it is said by the fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, that the young Origen, that:
Whether imprisoned for their faith or even on civil counts, whether of high repute or simply an unknown, Christian prisoners in their lonely predicament found themselves consoled by the gifts of food and company provided by members of the local Church: particularly deacons, since it was their duty to perform this charitable mission. So impressive was this gesture of charity, to the eyes of pagan Romans, that, according to Eusebius, the anti-Christian emperor Licinius issued a special edict prohibiting such visitations:
As we have seen, scholars have set forth several factors as explication for the sensationally rapid conversion of Europe to Christianity - the use of the Greek language, the Apostle Paul's Gentile mission, the intellectual labours of apologists such as St Justin Martyr, the most courageous example of the holy martyrs, or he conversion of the Emperor Constantine 1. Yet as we have argued previously, these elements were not necessarily unique to Christianity and hence while being instrumental catalysts in the process of the rapid Christianisation of the Roman Empire, cannot totally explain the singular attraction of the pagan psyche towards Christianity.
What we have sought to isolate is a unique feature within the Christian kerygma and praxis, a distinctive characteristic unshared by any other religion, cult or philosophical school in the Greco-Roman world, which might best account for the unique attraction of Christianity to pagan eyes. We conclude with the suggestion that it is precisely in the early Christian affirmation and application of Christ's (and St. Paul's) Gospel of love, that such a distinctively unique Christian characteristic may be located. While God is of course the ultimate author of the Christianisation process, it appears that He chose to use the vehicle of love in synergy with the Christian Church, more fully, though not exclusively, than any other means.
In an age where no constitutional guarantees of human rights existed; where by and large the lot of widows, orphans, prisoners, the sick or slaves looked pessimistic; where the opportunity for a poor family to bury their dead with dignity seemed bleak; where hospitality for strangers in large metropolitan centres was rare; or where no elaborate system of social welfare was operative, so impressive did the early Church's philanthropic system and sense of benevolence seem to the Romans, that it must have given the simultaneous impression of a revolutionary newness (in a world which only esteemed ancient tradition) yet like a necessary breath of fresh air. Accordingly, we find that the most consistent praise, amazement and admiration for Christianity emanating from pagan circles, was precisely over the Christian application of their Gospel of love. This appears to have been the early Church's most appealing and distinctive feature. Indeed the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate attempted to even institute an exact replication of it within a pagan framework. Surely, imitation is the most sincere form of admiration.
It is evidently the magnificent obedience which the early Christians demonstrated to the Gospel of love, more than anything else, that finally convinced the pagan Roman world of Christianity's superiority over their own paganism. As Tertullian explains, the pagans were quick to recognize this unique Christian feature, a feature which pre-eminently and in combination with the other factors referred to above, eventually brought about the downfall of paganism and the triumph of Christianity:
from Voice of Orthodoxy, October and
November 1988, v. 9(10-11)
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia