from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Great Appeal

What did Christianity offer its believers that made it worth social estrangement, hostility from neighbors, and possible persecution?

 

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School

A NEW COMMUNITY

Why was the Christian community something that people wanted to join? I think that only because at least certain parts of the early Christian mission were intent in creating new community, that only for that reason this movement was successful. Now what does it mean "new community?" Let me talk about this in two different levels. One was certainly that the message that was preached here promised gifts, spiritual gifts, to people that went beyond the everyday life experience and promised also immortality, a future life which would be liberation from sickness and from disease and from poverty, and individual isolation. There is a future for the individual. And the message of the possibility for a human being to be related to something that is beyond the powers of this world was certainly one great attraction. But that alone would not have been enough. I think it's a very important spiritual-religious factor. But it would not have been enough, because, in spite of all the glories of the Roman Empire, people lived in the world in which there was inequality, there was great poverty on the one hand and immense wealth in the hands of a very few people. There were sickness and disease and there were no public health services, and doctors were expensive.

Now here's also the question of the inequality which Rome really reinforced through the Augustan system. Rome is a very strict hierarchical system, in which the emperor is at the pinnacle, all the way up and then all the blessings in the world that come to people come down from above. The emperor is the conduit to the divine world. And if you're at the bottom of that social pyramid, not a whole lot of things are coming down to you anymore. Slavery slowly diminished, but continued to exist.

Now the Christian community, as we have it particularly in the letters of Paul, begins with a formula that is a baptismal formula, which says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. This is a sociological formula that defines a new community. Here is a community that invites you, which makes you an equal with all other members of that community. Which does not give you any disadvantages. On the contrary, it gives even the lowliest slave personal dignity and status. Moreover, the commandment of love is decisive. That is, the care for each other becomes very important. People are taken out of an isolation. If they are hungry, they know where to go. If they are sick, there is an elder who will lay on hands to them to heal them.

WELFARE INSTITUTIONS

Now we have increasingly in the Christian churches, in the time up to Constantine, the establishment of hospitals, of some kind of health service, we have a clear establishment of social service - everything from soup kitchens to money for the poor if they need it. We have the very important establishment of the institution of widows, because a widow in the Roman society who had lost her husband and did not have money of her own was at the very bottom of the social ladder. One of the first welfare institutions we find in the church was all the widows who were recognized as virgins of the church, considered particularly precious possessions of the church; they were paid by the church and therefore were rescued from utter poverty in most instances.

Christianity really established a realm of mutual social support for the members that joined the church. And I think that this was probably in the long run an enormously important factor for the success of the Christian mission. And it was for that very reason that Constantine saw that the only thing that would rescue the empire is to take over the institutions that the Christians had already built up, [including], by that time, institutions of education in reading and writing, because Christians wanted to have their members knowledgeable and capable of reading the Bible.... We find that in administration of the last pagan emperors, before Constantine, at the very end of the third century, a large number of the people in the imperial administration are Christians, because they could read and write. Which constituted a big problem with the persecution of the Christians because they were thrown out of their office first when the persecution began, and suddenly the government didn't work anymore.

One should not see the success of Christianity simply on the level of a great religious message; one has to see it also in the consistent and very well thought out establishment of institutions to serve the needs of the community.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

Given the intersection between religion and politics that we find so characteristically in the Hellenistic Roman world and especially within these major cities, it does seem incongruous that Christianity could have survived, much less have grown to be the prominent force that it would become by the early fourth century when the Emperor Constantine would make it one of his official religions of the empire. But I think we can see several factors that contribute to that growth and development.

For one thing the Roman world was not uniform in its religious beliefs. There were lots of new religions that had come in between the time of the conquest of the Alexander the Great down to the time of the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian, when the Christians become a prominent issue. Within this period we find new religions coming from all over the Eastern Mediterranean world. There are the cults of the Egyptian gods, Isis and Serapis. There is the great mother goddess... from Eastern Turkey....

All of these traditional forms of Mediterranean national religions also come in to the Roman world and have cultic followings. So from the Roman perspective, new cults aren't necessarily a problem. The Romans begin to get concerned about these religious groups, however, precisely when it seems they become subversive or when they will not participate in the public religious life of the empire. Anything that looks like disloyalty to the state raises the concern of governors and magistrates like Pliny the Younger.

What is it that is making Christianity prominent in this time? Does it have anything to do with the kind of a sense of belonging?

From a historical perspective, the growth of Christianity in the second and third centuries really is a phenomenon to be reckoned with, both socially and religiously. What made it grow? What made it succeed in ways that even other new religious groups of the time did not is a very important question. Now traditionally at least the answer to that question of why did Christianity triumph in the Roman world was answered very simply. It was God's will, of course, but I think we can probably find some other answers as well.

Sometimes it's been suggested that Christianity appealed to a kind of higher moral plane. A better form of religiosity than their Roman neighbors, and that's what made people convert to Christianity. I'm not really convinced of that. What we really see in the second and the third centuries is that Christianity is defining its identity precisely in terms of the values of Roman society at large. They say "We're just as ethical as you, or better but in terms of what you Romans think are the ideal virtues of society. We Christians are practicing Roman family values just like you."So there not really holding themselves apart from Roman society in quite the same way as we might have expected.

MASSIVE DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES

So why do they succeed? Why do people become Christians? I think there are some important historical observations to make here. One is that we have to realize that the Roman Empire itself was going through some massive demographic changes at this time. Now let's think about it this way... cities are growing but the population itself, at least within cities, was probably not growing easily. There's more people dying than are being born in most major cities. In other words, the old pagan aristocracy is shrinking, not growing. Where are they coming from, these new people in the cities? Probably they're immigrating from the countryside or moving from other countries, but then again that's exactly what we hear about the Christians. They're on the move. They travel to the cities. They're the new population along with a lot of other people, so I think from a kind of social perspective we have to see the growth of Christianity as a product of the changing face of the city life in the Roman world....

On top of all that there are plagues and famine, and it's been suggested by demographers now that if you've got a survival rate of only one tenth more among one part of the population than another segment of population when you have a massive die off... the result will be that at the end of this process [there will be] far more members of that one group relative to the total population. In other words, in a very short period of time you can have a group that was at one point a very small minority seemingly become miraculously now the majority, and I think in part that's what happens to the Christians. That through this period of very turbulent times in the second and third century, the Christians now become a significant proportion of the leading citizens of some of the major cities of the Roman world.

A SENSE OF BELONGING

Now what are they offering? It's very simple. With new immigrant groups, all of them trying to find their way into Roman society -- to make it in the Roman world, to be a part of the mainstream, to march up the ladder of success -- belonging is one of the key issues, and what I think the Christians offer probably as well or better than anybody else in the Roman world is a sense of belonging. To be part of the Christian community... to be part of the church, is to belong to a society of closely knit friends, brothers and sisters and Christ, and it may be something as simple as that that spells the [basis] of the success of Christianity in the Roman world....

Christianity was beginning to grow in substantial ways by the late second and early third century precisely because it was responding to some basic, deeply felt human needs. It really was probably beginning to answer the questions that people were asking, and we can see that growth in a variety of ways. For one thing, there really is no empire wide persecution of Christianity throughout the entire second century and into the first half of the third century. It was always sporadic; it was always local concerns. The first time the empire as a whole says "We have to eradicate Christianity," is not until the year 249, 50, the persecution of Decius, ... but by that time, the Christians are so numerous that they can't possibly be eradicated; they've already grown that much.

So, in the sense, the persecution really doesn't catch up until it's already too late. We have some indication of the basic growth of Christianity at this time, especially in the cities, in terms of the records of the city of Rome. In the year 251, right at the time of the persecution of Decius, we have a register of the church at Rome, which says that they had 46 presbyters and 56 exorcists and doorkeepers and a number of other people that they catalogued; seven of this and seven of that; quite a lot of people are in this catalog. And at the end, it says over 1,500 widows [and needy persons] on the roster of the church at Rome; that is, people, women who are being taken care of by the church. The church becomes, in a lot of ways, a new kind of social welfare agency in the Roman Empire. The leaders of the church are the patrons of society. By the end of the third century, Christian bishops in many places will have taken over the role of the old civic patrons that had led the processions at Ephesus and Corinth and Rome. They've made it into society.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University

HUMAN APPEAL OF CHRISTIANITY

In the final analysis, after we've answered all the questions that the historian has tools to answer, there still remain fundamental mysteries about religious change. Why among all of the movements following prophets in Rome and Palestine did this one survive? Why among all of the varieties of Judaism in the first century did only two survive as world religions? One, the religion of the Rabbis -- the other, the religion of Christianity. And, hidden [in] this is something which we finally don't have the tools, I think, to analyze, and that is that this new message, [this] rather improbable message that the Son of God has come to earth and been crucified, in human form, and risen from the dead ... appealed to a lot of perfectly ordinary people, or so they appear to us, in such a way that they were willing to change their lives and to become initiated into a group which brought them only hostility, estrangement from their families and neighbors, and the possibility of persection to the point of death.

What was there about this movement which could make that kind of appeal to people? ...In the final analysis, I think we don't know. We can speculate, we can say it offers a kind of community, which is rare in any society and certainly rare in antiquity. It offers a closeness, it offers a powerful ideology which explains the evil in the world, or at least it provides powerful symbols for understanding that evil, it offers you a sense of the moral structure of the universe.... It has an ideology of justice, which will be guaranteed by God, finally. It offers a community which shapes the basic moral intuitions of its members, which brings that kind of moral admonition, which otherwise, in the Roman world, we find... only in the schools of philosophers, which after all, is an elite phenomenon, limited to a very small stratum of highly educated people. [Christianity] makes this [morality] available to perfectly ordinary folk.

So, we can talk about a lot of these factors, which we say must have entered into this, and yet finally there is hidden behind the difficulties of our sources, but hidden more behind, I think our final inability to penetrate the deepest structures of the human personality, there is the fact that countless individual decisions were made that added up to a profound cultural change in the whole Empire....

CHRISTIANS ON LOVE

Was love a part of the message or the appeal?

One of the key words which we find in many varieties of the earliest literature of the Christians is the word "love" and, okay, people have always talked about love and that's no surprise, but they talk about love in a very strange way. They talk about a God who loves, a God who loves enough that he would send his very son into the world -- never mind how odd the notion of God having a son was to the Jews, who began this movement, but there it is -- and who calls upon people to exercise a similar kind of love, a love which is manifested in this death, of the Son of God.

How did Christians write about , talk about, think about [love]? Is it strange?

One of the oddest things about Christianity, of course, is that it begins with having to explain a paradox. The one that they think of as Savior, the one whom they come quickly to speak of as the Son of God..., is also the one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. How do you put that together? One of the ways they do this, is by saying, "What a remarkable thing is this, that the Son of God comes not to conquer the Romans, not to establish a political state in Israel, but he comes to demonstrate the love that the Creator of the universe has for all people?" So that this shaming act that Pontius Pilate used to try to wipe out this little group, is turned about, in the Christian mentality... [into a] manifestation which demonstrates God's approach to us, and therefore sets a kind of model, by which people ought to relate to one another.

One of the things that runs through the Pauline letters, is his conviction that what he calls the Word of the Cross, or the reasoning of the Cross, ought to pervade the whole lives of the congregations which he has founded. So, that... the way in which one exercises leadership or authority in the congregation... must somehow tally with the notion that the power of God is manifested in this reversal of things, in which the powerful one comes to be crucified in the most shameful form, that the one who is equal with God, gives that up to take on the form of a slave. This becomes the model of what love is. Or in the Johannine literature and the Johannine letters, you have similar kinds of language, "We love because he first loved us." So that love is in some sense being re-defined as this other-regarding sacrificial act, [choosing] to put oneself on the line for the sake of the good of the other, and this is grounded in the claim about the way the ultimate power and structure of the universe manifests itself in in human society. I think this must have had a very powerful, emotional appeal to people.

Elizabeth Clark:

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University

DIFFERENT DEGREES OF DEVOTION

What was the appeal of Christianity as opposed to [the appeal] of paganism?

Christianity probably appealed to people in several ways. First of all, it did have a very high moral standard that it set forth.... Of course some philosophical sects and groups would also put forth rather similar ways of life for their practitioners. Christianity had an institution that provided material benefits but also had a whole sacramental system that offered to its practitioners, supposedly, repentance from sins and overcoming sin and overcoming death... As the church developed, it allowed for different degrees of Christian devotion. So, that if you wanted to give yourself up to a highly ascetic life and renounce practically everything, you would be much glorified for doing that, but you could be married and have a position in worldly life and have a family, career and so on and that was all right, too. So, Christianity could adjust itself to different types of people, just as it could adjust itself to the highest class of intellectuals but also adjust itself to common people whom the church writers always remind the theologians that Christ died for the lowly, as well as, for the educated.

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY

If it weren't for the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek, and if it weren't for Diaspora Jewish communities living in synagogues, rimming the edge of the Mediterranean, Christianity could not have spread. But Christianity [is] an interpretation of the idea of Israel. And the way Christianity is able to spread as it does is through the lifelines of these Diaspora synagogues. The language of the movement, as soon as we have actual evidence from [it], is Greek. The Bible it refers to is the Greek Bible. The communities that serve as the matrix for the message are synagogue communities, and we get stories in Matthew or stories in John about this particular community being kicked out of the other synagogues. So what do they do? They form their own group. Business as usual, again.

But I think it's really because there is an international population that resonates with these great religious ideas of God as the Creator, of righteousness pouring down like waters, of a Kingdom of God and what that would mean in terms of the way a community socially constitutes itself ... it's because of that, because of Diaspora Judaism, which is extremely well established, that Christianity itself, as a new and constantly improvising form of Judaism, is able to spread as it does throughout the Roman world.

But doesn't belief have anything to do with it? Why are people attracted? There were so many religious options. I guess I want to know what Christianity offered... Why did people become Christians?

Why do people join the movement? Jews joined the movement because it is a particular articulation of Jewish religious hope seen through this one figure of a redeemer. But it's certainly consistent within what we know as the different options of Judaism. The intriguing thing is why did gentiles join? And, here we have, again, the evidence of Paul's letters in 50. He thought it was miracle. These are gentiles, who are going in and out voluntarily from the synagogue, who, on the basis of the message they're getting about the Son of God being on the verge of coming back, are suddenly enabled -- Paul says, through the Holy Spirit -- [to] abandon idol worship. They make a commitment to this particular community.

If you look at the way the movement spreads sociologically, as opposed to theologically, if you look [at] what distinguishes Christianity from all the other religious options in the Mediterranean, it doesn't distinguish it from Judaism. Both groups meet at least once a week. Both groups have very articulate ethical norms. Both groups have a tremendous ethic of community charity. Both groups have revealed ethical patterns of behavior.... No promiscuity. Don't kill the kids. Don't worship idols. Don't go to whore houses. This whole thing that serves to build up community and create a kind of support system. Also, there's this tremendous religious prestige, thanks to the antiquity of the Jewish Bible, which by entering into the church, these Christians enter into that history as well. That's tremendously prestigious and important. Judaism itself is, for all its peculiarities, considered prestigious because of its antiquity. And so there are lots of reasons, sociologically and practically, why Christianity would appeal.

Elaine H. Pagels:

The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University

Most people who study the origins of Christianity are curious about how this unlikely movement would have succeeded in such a powerful and dramatic way. And it's not an easy question to answer, why this movement succeeded when others did not. One thing that I always think about is that the gods of the ancient world, if you look at them, their images, if you read about them in the Iliad, and the poetry of Sophocles..., the gods looked like no one more than the aristocrats, the emperor and his court. They looked like the courtiers. But here is a religion which claims that God is made manifest in a peasant, probably a man who didn't write, a man who came from the people, a man who was completely unimpressive in worldly terms and much more like the vast majority of people. And in this astonishingly unexpected place, this movement said, God is revealed to be with us. I think that's a powerful statement in itself....

The Gospel of Mark most people think is the earliest of the gospels of the New Testament. And that book is extraordinary and strange.... If you read it apart from the others, it's a story of this country teacher coming from nowhere with incredible power descending upon him, healing people, exorcising people, speaking strange, bold astonishing things, and startling everyone. And then the end of the story, from Chapter 9 on, moves toward his agonizing and humiliating death. And there's the suggestion of the end of the original book that he will rise from the dead, but the way Mark was originally written, the story of the resurrection isn't told. So it's a devastating story of human pain. And I think that must have deeply appealed to many people then, as it does now, for one thing.

When I was working on the book, "Adam, Eve and the Serpent," I was thinking a great deal about why this movement succeeded, and I thought it may have had a lot to do, as well, with the story they told about the creation. Because they told the story about how human beings were made in the image of God.... Now if you think about the gods of the ancient world and you think about what they looked like they looked like the emperor and his court. So those gods looked very different. But this religion is saying that every person, man, woman, child, slave, barbarian, no matter who, is made in the image of God and is therefore of enormous value in the eyes of God.... That's an extraordinary message. And it would have been enormous news to many people who never saw their lives having value. I think that is a powerful appeal of this religion.... The Christian movement seemed to convey a sense of human worth in two ways. Both by the story of Jesus and his simplicity and his humility in terms of social status, in terms of achievement, in terms of recognition during his lifetime. And also in the story of creation; it conveys royal status on every person....

When we think about the appeal of this movement to many people it's certainly clear that some were drawn by the way that this community would take care of people. For example, like other elements of the Jewish community, the followers of Jesus tended to feed the destitute, take care of people who were widowed so that they wouldn't become prostitutes and orphans and so forth. That was a primary obligation of Jewish piety. And Jesus' followers certainly understood that. We know that when people joined the Christian communities in Rome, for example, they would be buried. This is not something anyone could take for granted in the ancient world. And this society was one in which people took care of one another. So that is an enormous element of the appeal of this movement.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS