History of Missions Lecture 2: Roman Empire 100-500

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THE FOLLOWING ARE NOTES FOR LECTURES GIVEN AT NEW COLLEGE, BIRMINGHAM. I AM NOT AN EXPERT AND BOOKS WILL BE CREDITED TO SHOW WHERE MY INFORMATION IS COMING FROM. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, COMMENT ON THIS POST AND I WILL TRY MY BEST TO ANSWER.

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We are going place by place this lesson. This should show you exactly how quickly the spread of Christianity was in the first 400 years. The Roman Empire had made mission much easier as they had built roads which were paved and straight, running over hill and dale.

Language was also an important skill. Whereas the church in the beginning used Aramaic, Greek was necessary. If you knew Greek you could go anywhere and find people to talk to.

In the Roman Empire there were also a high number of Jews, around 7% of the total population. Despite them being seen as grumpy and unfriendly, they held some influence. The Greeks held a passion for the quest of wisdom, and loved finding something new. The Jewish synagogues offered wisdom older than that of the Greeks. Monotheism, the belief in one God, rather than many, was becoming fashionable. The Old Testament was purer, more radical, and more personal than any other system of religion or philosophy.

Some converted and were circumcised. Others were just called “God-fearers”. They were interested but did not want to be circumcised as the Greeks and Romans felt it was repulsive. So when Christianity offered all that Judaism had to offer, plus one step more with faith in Jesus Christ, without circumcision many accepted.

This meant that there were many people trained in the Old Testament who then gained understanding and discipline to become leaders to the Christian congregations.

First, we must understand that although Paul has become the most well-known missionary, the picture is far more complex.

- We have full-time missionaries moving rapidly in many different directions

- We have unprofessional missionaries witnessing all over the place
– these are unorganised
– independent
– very aware of being the new Israel and fellowship with other believers

Paul was systematic, he moved with a plan. He tended to go into the great cities of the empire and with younger helpers radiate out into smaller cities around them. As soon as a church had taken root with local leaders he moved onto the next place, aiming to tell all Gentiles the word of the Lord. The Roman Empire was full of cities so it made sense, the cities controlled the economy, so the church moved slowly to the country rural locations.

We have proof that this worked because in 110 AD Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writes seven letters:

- 5 to churches in Asia
– 1 to Rome
– 1 to Smyrna

On the other hand, Pliny writes that he has seen the rapid spread of Christianity in the country too. This worried him as the shrines to the gods might be deserted.

Important areas for the church quickly included:

  • Antioch, Syria
  • Asia Minor
  • Rome (particularly after believers were killed in the persecution by Nero)

In Rome the church was mainly made up of poorer people, but some were from the higher classes. In 96 AD the emperor’s cousin is banished due to “sacrilege”, and this has been believed to mean that she had a Christian faith. By 166 AD there were approximately 30,000 Christians in Rome.

More Places:

SPAIN & GAUL (France)

The mission in Spain was slow, mainly because unlike the Roman empire, the celtic language was also required, and the culture was very different. The Christian influence seems to have been largely in the southern tribes of Gaul.

However, by the 4th century 36 dioceses were represented. This would seem to suggest the missionaries were successful.

BRITAIN

Tertullian, Church father of North Africa, tells us in 208 AD that Christians were on the far side of the Roman wall (Hadrians wall), but this might not be accurate. It is certain that in 314 Britain was represented at the Council of Arles by the bishops of York and London. We can assume that the Christians were of Romano-British people from the villas rather than Celtic inhabitants.

EGYPT

As Simon of Cyrene carried the cross of Jesus, Mark’s Gospel was written for his two sons, and Cyrenians were there at Pentecost it seems they most likely carried the gospel into the gentile world. By 410 AD there were 6 bishops in Cyrene, Egypt.

NORTH AFRICA

In Tunisia and Algeria the gospel moved quickly. These areas had the first Latin-speaking churches. The Church of North Africa was a church of bishops. Every town and almost every village had its bishop. A provincial council in the 3rd century could be attended by up to 80 bishops.

Famous church leaders in North Africa include:

Tertulian
Cyprian
Augustine of Hippo

The Church had to wrestle with the language. At certain times knowledge of Punic was required in order to be a priest. There was also the Berber language but we cant be certain how much this was taken seriously.

All this means that by the end of the 3rd century there was no part of the Roman Empire which had not been penetrated by the gospel message. The church for most part still spoke Greek and Latin and village people were still largely untouched by the changing religion.

What caused this has got to be largely put down to the burning conviction of the early Christians. They knew the world had to be redeemed, and they could not keep this to themselves.

This also included Christian faith & love in practice. Persecution in the 3rd century proved that every Christian knew one day he would have to testify his faith and lose his life. The impression made by young men & women who were martyred was deep. There are even cases of pagans converting the very moment they witnessed the death of Christians, far more would follow over time.

By the 4th century, with favor being shown to Christians by the Emperor Constantine, and the evidence of Christian numbers still growing and still treating all with love, changed the situation. Christianity was suddenly popular. It was at the very least convenient to claim being Christian even if it made little difference to you. Faith became superficial for many. Even so great leaps were made in doctrine and liturgies

Here to keep your interest, here are some stories about more growth in the church.

Thomas, sold as a slave to an Indian merchant and taken to India. He is asked to build a palace for the king, but instead of this he decides to build a spiritual home in heaven and gives out the kings money to the poor and vulnerable. He is of course thrown in jail but this all eventually gets to the king himself being baptised.

Although this sounds a little odd, there has been some interesting evidence given showing this could have actually been possible and the ancient church of the “Thomas Christians” still exists.

Then in Ethiopia two young Christian men travelling down the Red Sea were shipwrecked on the coast. The sailors were killed but they were spared and taken to the King at Axum. They earned the favor of the king, were given a high office and preached the gospel. One of the sons, Frumentius, years later went to Alexandria to ask for priests to be sent to help, but instead Athanasius (Church Father in Alexandria) said: “Who could be found more suitable than you?” made him a bishop and sent him back.

Then a man called Ulfilas was made bishop for the Gothic race (those in Northern Europe) and began to work there. He managed to put the Gothic language into writing and translated the Bible into it.

Patrick, born in Britain, was 16 when he was carried off by Irish marauders. After 6 years he escaped and became a monk in France.
But he decided to return to Ireland (QUOTE)

Despite opposition from leaders of the old religion, raiders who massacred his converts, he gradually wore down the opposition. By the time of his death Ireland was mainly a Christian country.

Then there’s the story of Clovis king of the Franks. He married a Christian princess but when their first born died he remarked “My gods would have saved him; yours let him die”. However, when threatened by the Alemanni, a German people, he swore that if victory was his, he would become a servant of the Christian God. On Christmas Day 496 he was baptized with 3000 warriors.

By the year 500 the Church could look back at miraculous success. It had even survived the collapse of the Roman Empire. It had defined the limits of scripture, had great councils who settled matters of doctrine, and developed a system of worship. There was a sense of Church unity where every Christian felt themselves to be one with all other Christians.

  • Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions (Penguins Books, Great Britain, 1964).
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