The Main Causes Contributing to the Spread of Christianity

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

For many years, Christianity was an obscure religion of which very few people had heard. Jesus Christ spent most of his life preaching to people and spreading his message of love and morality. It was years after his crucifixion that his ideas gradually began to spread.

A painting by Valentin de Boulogne showing Saint Paul writing his epistles.
Saint Paul wrote letters depicting Jesus’s message and his experiences.
(Image: Valentin de Boulogne/Public domain)

The Role of Disciple Paul in Spreading Christianity

The most influential person in spreading Christianity was the disciple Paul. He is fascinating in that he had a combination of several main cultural features of that time. He was a Greek who held Roman citizenship. Originally a Jew, he converted to Christianity. So, he had a combination of several cultural movements of the time.

Following his conversion, he widely traveled around the Mediterranean, preached to people, and tried to convert them to Christianity. At first, he went to Greek cities, visited the synagogue, and talked to other Jews in the hope of converting them.  

But after some time, he changed his method and made his scope of addresses broader. He traveled by Roman grain freighters to the western part of the empire. In every city that he arrived, he would preach to anyone willing to listen. This broader scope of addressees led to a giant leap in the number of Christians.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Disciple Paul’s Letters

Another remarkable action that he took was writing a series of letters that set the trend for other apostles. In those letters, he described his beliefs, his take on what had happened to Jesus, and what he understood of Jesus’s message. When other Christian leaders took the same approach, numerous copies of these documents were made and exchanged among those early Christian communities. This was another action that led to the spread of Christianity among a broader scope of audiences. These letters were collected and laid the foundation of Christianity’s unique holy script, the New Testament.

Despite those efforts, the spread of Christianity was very slow. It was most welcome among urban populations and in regions where the Roman Empire had a strong presence and where the Roman culture was prevalent. To describe Jesus and God, Christianity made free use of Roman religious terms and icons. That is why God and Jesus were pictured with a halo of the sun god. Also, Christians borrowed “Dominus” or “The Lord”, which were used to address emperors, to refer to God.

Learn more about ancient Roman ancestor worship.

Appealing Features of Christianity

More converts gradually joined this new religion. From a historical point of view, the new religion was particularly appealing in many aspects.

One of the most significant focuses of Christianity was morality and benevolence toward other human beings. This aspect was especially appealing to the weak and the oppressed. For example, according to a source, by the mid-third century, 1,500 widows and poor people were receiving aids from the Bishop of Rome.

Another significant promise of Christianity was the heavenly rewards in the afterlife in exchange for earthly good deeds. This was obviously different from most pagan religions that had not covered the notion of an afterlife. As opposed to turning to dust or a wandering ghost after death, Christianity promised immortality in heaven.

Photograph showing a Roman tauroctony relief from Aquileia (c. 175 CE; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
Pagan religions didn’t have a notion of life after death.
(Image: CristianChirita/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Last but not least, Christianity removed the legal and social boundaries that separated human beings into categories. These were central notions in Roman culture, but for the Christian God, all people were equal. There were no distinctions between non-citizens and citizens, women and men, or slaves and free people. Precisely for this reason, a majority of the first converts belonged to members of the lowest layers of society: slaves and women. Indeed, women enjoyed high positions in early Christian communities.

Christianity, from the very beginning, offered positions of authority to those who had no place in the social hierarchy. For instance, less than a hundred years after Jesus was crucified, the Roman governor Pliny wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan. He stated in the letter that he is investigating a congregation led by a group of slave women called deaconesses.

Learn more about cults and mystery religions.

Romans’ Resistance Against Christianity

When it came to other religions, Romans were quite tolerant. But they couldn’t understand the secrecy that was associated with Christianity and Judaism. The idea of slaves, women, and non-citizens being equal to male citizens was particularly disturbing for them. Besides, the idea of monotheism was beyond their grasp. Above all, being tolerant themselves, they couldn’t see why Jews and Christians would not acknowledge other gods and stubbornly insisted that there was only one god. However, these differences would not be important issues, except for one matter.

All people were expected to say a prayer on an emperor’s birthday. They had to direct that prayer toward that aspect of him that might become divine. If someone didn’t participate, they would be viewed as treasonous or revolutionary. But Christians and Jews saw this as a violation of the first commandment, not to worship others. This violation of religious beliefs could lead to their persecution and death, although for a Roman, it was a political act.  

Common Questions about the Main Causes Contributing to the Spread of Christianity

Q: What is the New Testament in the Bible?

The New Testament is the collection of letters from the apostles. Starting from Paul, they wrote about the experiences of Jesus and his message.

Q: Why did Christianity become popular?

Christianity had a lot of appealing features like the promise of an afterlife in heaven. It also preached morality and caring for others.

Q: Why did the Romans resist Christianity?

They resisted Christianity because they couldn’t understand why all people were equal. Christians also refused to worship the emperor as they believed in one god.

Q: Who spread Christianity?

After the death of Jesus, the disciple Paul had the most significant role in the spread of Christianity. He traveled to many places and preached to people to convert them.

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