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Christianity in the Roman empire

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Why did Christianity spread in the Roman empire?

Miracles, money, and military force.


Miracles! That's right, Christianity had flashy miracleworkers who traveled from town to town performing magic and preaching. The miracles these itinerant preachers performed proved to bystanders that the traditional Roman gods weren't as powerful as the One True God of Christianity. Note: The Christians weren't saying Jupiter and Venus didn't exist, they were saying they were demons who should not be worshipped. The fact that these Christian miracles were the product of flimflam, coincidence, and mass delusion doesn't matter. They were impressive and created instant belief.


Money! Once influential nobles began converting -- perhaps as the result of a Christian miracleworker "healing" a sick slave or child -- it became socially and economic advantageous to convert. When the Emperor finally converted to Christianity (by this time the Empire was already roughly 50% Christian) the dam burst. Converting to Christianity unlocked doors to government posts which now slammed shut to pagans.

Military force

Military force! Yes, once the Christians got hold of the coercive force of the Roman government they unleashed it on unbelievers. Whereas the pagans allowed people to believe whatever they wanted -- Christians included -- the Christians had no such qualms. If some people in a town refused to convert, the army came out and began "killing in the name of".

Some sources and interesting quotes

The unique force of Christian wonder-working that does indeed need emphasis lies in the fact that it destroyed belief as well as creating it--that is, if you credited it, you then had to credit the view that went with it, denying the character of god to all other divine powers whatsoever.... It was this result, destruction, that non-Christians of the time perceived as uniquely Christian; and it was this result which in turn gave so grave a meaning, from the pagan point of view as well as the Christian, to the successive waves of persecution.[1]
From the very beginning, Jesus' disciples followed him instantly, without instruction; new adherents, by supernatural actions, were won to instantaneous belief, or trust (pistis, commonly translated, 'Your faith' ...) with implications of doctrine, as has been pointed out.[2]
A question is raised about those "who had not left their mistaken ways of their free will but in fear and terror of the emperors" (SS73), to which Porphyry answers "as the Apostle had: Whether falsely or truly, Christ is preached, and I rejoiced in that.'" (Phil. 1:18).... But beyond miracles and money, the element presented to readers as essential to the final solution--the element on which I now wish to focus--is evidently force. Without that, pagan intransigence simply could not be overcome.[3]

Amusing quote from a discussion of traditional Roman religion:

Do not therefore permit anyone to be an atheist or a sorcerer. [Dio Cassius 52.36.2][4]

Galen, while not a Christian himself, admired the way Christians were able to coax moral behavior out of peasants:

Most people are unable to follow any demonstrative argument consecutively; hence they need parables, and benefit from them just as we now see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables and miracles, and yet sometimes acting in the same way as those who practice philosophy. For their contempt of death and of its sequel is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophy.[5]

Possibly the awesomest objection to Christianity ever

Celsus assumes, as would most people of his culture, that food, especially animal flesh, is corruptible matter, made up of "filth." After all, the body that is composed of meat is also the body that defecates. If Jesus really did each such matter, as the Gospels admit, then he must not have been a god, or else the Christian god is "shit-eating" (skatophagein, 7.13).[6]

Summarizes the views of ancient pagans vs Christians:

The traditional view, to review briefly, was that the gods act like human begins do: they generally are predictable, but not always, they may be good or bad or both. They may help if they are friends, or they may hurt if they are enemies. People should stay out of their way when they are likely to be in a bad mood; people may learn which ones are likely to be for or against them; and people may win them over with gifts and appropriate behavior. Evil may indeed come from the gods, just as it may come from one's neighbors. That is a simple fact of social life: life with humans and gods.
The philosophical view labeled the traditional beliefs "superstition" and taught, on the contrary, that divine beings, as superior to humans, also act in a superior manner. They are necessarily good and benevolent. They do not harm00execpt on occasion to benefit, like a father or a physician. Worship of them is not done to change their inclinations, but to show appropriate gratitude and to join in their essence as much as possible. Evil is simply what we experience as the limits of necessity, the constraints of the possible, the necessary hard edges of reality.
The Christian view, at least as represented by Origen, teaches that the supreme God and all those angels and powers subservient to him are good and benevolent. Any harm from them is for our betterment. There are also some experiences we have that seem evil but are attributable to the constraints of reality. But there is also evil directly attributable to an entire force of the universe in temporary opposition to God--daimons and those under their influence. Daimons, which include the gods of the nations, are completely evil; they are fallen angels exercising their wills against God. Christians must choose either the protection of the latter or the destruction of the former.[7]


  1. . MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale university Press. 1984. (page 108-109)
  2. . MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale university Press. 1984. (page 4)
  3. . MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale university Press. 1984. (page 89)
  4. . Wiliken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans saw them. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1984. (page 63)
  5. . Wiliken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans saw them. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1984. [Galen (Ibid, 15)] (page 79)
  6. . Martin, Dale B. Inventing superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. (page 145)
  7. . Martin, Dale B. Inventing superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. (page 184-185)

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