Why Did Christianity Become So Popular

Life and Death in Ephesus is a collection of short stories. As such, it is episodic, and my research when writing it was episodic. The first three stories take place in Pagan Ephesus, when the gods were Greek and Roman (BCE). The three stories are ‘Herostratus,’ about the destruction of the Temple of Artemis, ‘The Flood,’ about the population shift that moved the settlement called Ephesus to its current location, and ‘Arsinoe’s Story,’ about the imprisonment and death of Cleopatra’s younger sister. Then comes ‘The Sons of Sceva,’ about St. Paul’s sojourn in Ephesus, ending with his hasty departure. From then on, Ephesus is Christian (CE)                   

The Legend of the Seven Sleepers

Those three stories span a period of 360 years, a lot of time about which I know very little. I’m a bit like the Seven Sleepers, who fell asleep when Christians were being persecuted and woke up when Christianity was the state religion. What happened in between? Why did Christianity become so popular (I won’t say ‘all of a sudden’). Quite a lot has been written about those times, I have since discovered, most of which had eluded my episodic research. Now, at least, I have skimmed the surface.

Christianity offered life after death. All you had to do was believe in Jesus and you’d enjoy eternal bliss in the presence of a loving god in Heaven. Jesus, God’s son, during his lifetime on earth was crucified, and his body laid to rest in a sealed tomb, yet after three days he rose from the dead and revealed himself to his disciples. That, surely, was convincing evidence that life after death was not only possible but eminently available. Early Christians believed that Jesus would soon return and take his believers with him into Heaven.

Roman society was decidedly hierarchical. The emperor was supreme in all things, and power of all types, civic, military, and religious, went to members of a wealthy elite, who, in turn, were descended from a wealthy elite. Christianity, in contrast, offered an egalitarian community. God’s son while on earth was the son of a carpenter. His disciples were ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. The initiation ritual of baptism was simple and swift. It didn’t matter if you were a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman, a citizen or a slave, you were welcomed into the fold. In the scriptures that served to define the religion, one finds abundant examples of ordinary people, poor, infirm, oppressed, whose actions were worthy of emulation.

Map of the Roman Empire in 1st Century CE
In term of modern geography, the Roman Empire stretched from Great Britain to Egypt, from Spain to Iraq. Its vast expanse of territory encompassed as much ethnic and cultural diversity as it does today. Although the Empire grew through military conquest, peace within the Empire, the pax romana, relied on a policy of religious and cultural tolerance. However, anything that challenged the wellbeing of the Empire or supremacy of the Emperor was not tolerated. Jesus was not crucified for claiming to be the son of God, he was convicted of treason and crucified because he allowed himself to be called King of the Jews.

The definition of treason, of course, could be manipulated at will by the emperor and punished by a merciless legal system. A common form of treason for which thousands of Christians were executed was refusal to sacrifice to the Roman gods, most notably to emperors who claimed to be gods. Polytheistic believers who comfortably accepted the divinity of many gods had no problem making such a sacrifice, but for Christians, who believed in only one god, it was impossible. Most infamously, the emperors who mandated the sacrifice test for all inhabitants and perpetrated the worst of the persecutions were Nero, Decius, and Diocletian. As a means of stamping out Christianity, however, mass persecutions were a failure. Christian martyrs were admired for their calm acquiesence when subjected to unspeakable torture in prison and  horribly cruel death in the claws of wild animals. Their fortitude must have conveyed the certainty of their rewards in Heaven.

Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome
In an exchange of letters with the governor of a Roman province, the emperor Trajan recorded his approval of a very different practice (which I represent in the story ‘Father Dis’): Christians were free to follow their religion, but once brought to trial for any crime or misdemeanor, they were required to offer a sacrifice to a Roman god. If they refused, they were executed. Most of the emperors between the birth of Jesus and the Edict of Milan practiced this sort of lax tolerance. In spite of the persecutions and heroic martyrdoms found in popular fiction, tolerance over long periods of time resulted in phenomenal growth of a Christian population.

The emperor Constantine’s mother was a Christian. From 306 – 337 CE, he ruled over an empire in which Christians were deeply embedded at all levels of civic society. Consistent with the principle of charity, they developed hospitals, opened schools, and raised money for the protection and well-being of widows. Constantine was a wily politician and a supremely competent military commander. He decided in his civil war against would-be emperors, that the Christian god was the most powerful of all the gods available to him, and he had the Christian symbol ‘Chi Rho,’ the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, displayed on the shields of all his soldiers. And they won. Constantine and Licinius, with whom he shared the empire, issued the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire. Before he died in 337 CE, he allowed himself to be baptized, and he died a Christian.