How Did Christianity Prevail in Ancient Rome and What Can We Learn from It?
What was unique about Christian practices and teachings in the first three centuries of the church? And how did such a minority faith—which was considered irrelevant, extreme, and at odd with the role “religion” is supposed to play in a pagan society—ultimately prevail? In his recent book Destroyer of the gods, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado focuses on the first of these questions. But his book also has powerful implications for the second.
Hurtado explains how Christianity was viewed by pagans in ancient Rome: “In the eyes of many of that time, early Christianity was odd, bizarre, and in some ways even dangerous. For one thing, it did not fit with what ‘religion’ was for people then. Indicative of this, Roman-era critics designated it as a perverse ‘superstition.’”
Interestingly, this is not too dissimilar from charges that are increasingly being raised against Christians today who refuse to embrace the progressive sexual agenda.
Although Christians in the early church aimed to be good citizens, and to show due respect and care for both their neighbors and the State (as Christians do today), their beliefs in Jesus as the one true God put them at odds with the prevailing culture (as Christian beliefs and practices increasingly do in our secular culture today).
In fact, as Hurtado observes, Christian beliefs were even considered more problematic to Rome than Jewish beliefs. How so? While Jews also refused to honor pagan deities, there is little evidence Roman-era Jews aimed to persuade the masses to abandon their gods. And yet this is exactly what Christians did. In other words, Christians were often allowed to hold Christian beliefs in private, but should expect to sacrifice those beliefs when they enter the public arena. Sound familiar? Chuck Colson saw this coming years ago.
Roman authorities had little problem that Christians worshipped Jesus as God. Their problem, however, was that Christians refused to worship other deities. While Christians considered worshipping pagan deities idolatry, Romans considered such behavior defiance to the state. Jews were often excused since their behavior could be “chalked up” as a matter of national peculiarity. But Christians could not appeal to any such ethnic privilege. As a result of their refusal to worship the pagan deities, Christians experienced popular abuse, intellectual condemnation, and persecution on a local and (eventually) statewide level. And yet, amazingly, Christianity prevailed.
There are many factors that can help explain the growth of Christianity. But as Hurtado points out in Destroyer of the gods, Christian distinctives must be taken into consideration as a piece of the puzzle. Consider a few Christian distinctives, which are often taken for granted today:
- When people worship God, Christians claimed they should withdraw from worshipping the gods of their families, cities, and peoples. The exclusivist stance of Christianity was so offensive that Christians were often labeled “atheists.”
- Christians emphasized that there is one transcendent God who passionately loves his people and can be related to personally. Pagans often spoke of the love of gods toward humans in terms of philia, which indicates friendship. But Christians spoke of God with the Greek term agapē, which connotes a deep love and firm commitment to the one loved.
- Christianity was a “bookish” religion. Like Jews, Christians read Scripture publicly, produced voluminous numbers of texts, and committed remarkable resources to copying and disseminating them widely. In fact, in their eagerness to disseminate Scripture, Christians were at the leading edge of book technology of the second and third centuries.
- Christianity uniquely linked religious beliefs with ethical living. As a result, Christians were on the leading edge of overturning popular practices in ancient Rome such as infant exposure, gladiator battles, sexual abuse of children, and sexual perversity. Christians uniquely called men to the same kind of sexual loyalty demanded of women.
- Christianity was uniquely diverse. In ancient Rome, there was social stratification between men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor. But Christians began with assemblies that were diverse in gender, age, and social status. Even the least important members of Roman society, such as women and slaves, were considered equal members in the church.
There are many other Christian distinctives in the first century, but if you want to read them, you’re going to have to check out Destroyer of the gods. If you are interested in comparative religion or the ancient roots of Christianity, and how this may apply to the Christian faith today, you will thoroughly enjoy the book.
In particular, there are two aspects that I most appreciated about Destroyer of the gods. First, Hurtado shows Christianity is not just like any other religion. There are unique beliefs and practices that we can proudly embrace as modern Christians. In an age when Christianity is often condemned as harmful and poisonous, Destroyer of the gods is a reminder that Christianity was on the positive edge of cultural change in ancient times.
Second, Christianity ultimately prevailed over the pagan culture that it was birthed in. Modern critics often claim that Christians are on the “wrong side of history” for not embracing modern sexual norms. Undoubtedly, these critics would make the same charge if they were writing in the first couple centuries of the church. And yet they could not have been more wrong. Christian teachings are not only true, but they are in the best interest of individuals, families, and the state.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D.is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
 Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 2-3.