The New Testament is a missionary story. Capturing the life, earthly ministry, and passion of our Lord, the Gospels offer an up-close look at Jesus, the Sent One. In the book of Acts, Luke chronicles the church on mission as it crossed the geographical and cultural boundaries of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, toward the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The rest of the New Testament writings—letters from Paul and other apostles to young churches—were also forged in a context of mission. On one hand, mission is the impetus for the New Testament writings; on the other, the New Testament (along with the Old) serves as a record of God’s mission.
Luke remembers the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost and lists some of the people groups who were present, hearing and believing the good news: “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9–11). Churches emerged in these regions in the late first and early second centuries, in part because of the witness of these Pentecost worshipers who returned home and shared what they had experienced in Jerusalem.
The Christian community Antioch of Syria was planted in the first century. It quickly became the sending church for Paul and his companions (Acts 11:19–27; 13:1–3). Paul and his co-laborers proclaimed the gospel on the islands of Cyprus, Malta, and Crete; in Asia Minor and Asia between Tarsus and Macedonia; in Greece, Italy, and Rome; and probably as far as Spain. About half of the book of Acts focuses on Paul’s ends-of-the-earth mission, which largely flowed westward from Antioch.
In this opening chapter, we will follow in the footsteps of Paul and the early Pentecost believers and examine where the gospel spread and how it took root in the first eight and a half centuries. We’ll begin by journeying west and describing the church’s missionary encounter within the Roman Empire. We’ll also consider several places of mission (Ireland, Scotland, Germania) on the fringes of the empire. Then we’ll continue east and explore how the Christian movement expanded east from Syria across Asia toward China.
A number of contextual realities facilitated the mission of the church in the first-century
Structurally, finely engineered and well-maintained Roman roads enabled evangelists such as Paul to travel easily within a network of cities in the empire. Politically, in the first century
the Roman Empire experienced its famed Pax Romana
or period of peace. Although Roman emperors were at times toppled, and foreign armies positioned themselves around the outskirts of the empire, overall Rome knew an unprecedented period of peace. Along with good roads, this meant that early Christians could travel safely, cover vast amounts of territory, and encounter diverse cultural groups all within the boundaries of the empire.
Although the Roman Empire was made up of many diverse cultural groups, the Greek language united the empire linguistically. While this lingua franca facilitated oral communication for conducting business and preaching, common, everyday Greek (koine) also served as the language for the New Testament Scriptures. So, the teachings of an Aramaic-speaking Messiah were translated and rendered in Greek for maximum transmission around the Roman world. Paul, a native Cilician speaker from Tarsus (Asia Minor), wrote a letter in Greek that was read by Latin speakers in Rome. This widespread use of Greek in the empire proved to be a strategic vehicle for spreading the gospel.
Greek philosophy and religions also provided a bridge of understanding for Christian teaching. The two greatest Greek philosophers, Plato (d. 348 bc
) and Aristotle (c. 384–322 bc
), were avowed monotheists who were quite critical of polytheism. Greek mystery religions, which were assimilated into Greek and Roman paganism, raised questions about forgiveness, cleansing, unity with the divine, and immortality. The early Christians’ gospel provided a response to these questions. As Christianity took root in this Greco-Roman milieu, most early Christian thinkers, including Justin Martyr (d. 165
) and Origen of Alexandria (185–254
), constructed their theologies within Greek philosophical frameworks.
A final factor that aided the spread of the gospel in Rome was the presence and spiritual influence of the Jews, who comprised about 7 percent of the Roman population. This figure included ethnic Jews, who had been dispersed throughout the empire, and also Hellenistic Jews, who had joined the faith through conversion. Jewish belief in one God, its emphasis on a Messiah, and its value on Scriptures and worship gatherings provided a logical foundation for Christian preaching. Michael Green
aptly notes, “The Christian faith grew best and fastest on Jewish soil, or at least soil that had been prepared by Judaism.”2
The Romans accused the Christians of general impiety toward pagan belief and practice. In failing to honor the many deities of the Roman pantheon, which often included the emperor, Christians were accused of atheism—worshiping a god that they could not see. The Romans believed that this lack of devotion would anger the gods, who would then remove their protection from Rome. On this point, Tertullian
of Carthage (c. 160–c. 220
) remarked: “They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’ ”3
Though sarcastic, Tertullian’s remarks capture the motivations
of pagan mobs and some emperors whose religion was tied to the empire’s economic, political, and military health. In the mind-set of many Romans, being Roman meant honoring the gods of the Roman pantheon. And not doing this was considered dangerous impiety.
Figure 1. Map of the Roman Empire c. 116
Building on this religious underpinning, the Roman government condemned Christianity in a legal sense for being an unlawful sect (religio illicita). This was due to both the church’s exclusive faith claims about Christ and the rejection of the Roman pantheon’s plurality of gods. Again, because Christians worshiped a god they could not see, the Romans considered them atheists. Because of Roman misunderstandings about the Eucharist and agape feasts, they also charged the Christians with cannibalism and sexual immorality. Finally, Christians were deemed unlawful because they were a new religion. Though the Jews were not always appreciated, they never received this illegal status because of their antiquity.
The early church endured sporadic periods of discrimination and suffering from its beginnings until the early fourth century
Beginning around 64
, Emperor Nero (r. 54–68
) persecuted Christians in Rome, while Domitian (r. 81–96
) did the same toward the end of the first century
. This pattern of discrimination, which at times included violence, continued until just before Constantine came to power in the early fourth century
Most anti-Christian actions were carried out on a local level. In many cases, angry pagan mobs initiated proceedings against Christians before local governors, frustrated at the so-called Christian impiety that divided families and threatened society. Because most Roman governors oversaw vast territories, they often made hasty judgments largely in the interest of maintaining order. This scenario describes the famous trials of Polycarp in Smyrna in 156
and the martyrs of Lyons in 177
. It also provides a context for understanding the Bithynian (Asia Minor) governor Pliny’s (r. 111–113
) appeal in 112
to Emperor Trajan (r. 98–117
) for advice in dealing with accused Christians. His questions included: Should people be treated
differently according to age? Does recanting constitute a pardon? Is merely professing to be a Christian a crime? Trajan
famously responded: “You have adopted the proper course … in your examination of the cases of those who were accused to you as Christians, for indeed nothing can be laid down as a general ruling involving something like a set form of procedure. They are not to be sought out; but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished.”5
If Christians were not to be pursued, how could they be convicted and punished? Trajan’s crafty, ambiguous response, which became the official imperial policy for a century and a half, contributed to further mob-instigated discrimination and violence.
Though anti-Christian actions occurred largely on a local level, some Roman emperors took action against the church from the highest level. In 202, Septimius Severus (r. 193–211), the first Roman emperor from Africa, enacted a law forbidding conversion to Judaism and Christianity. Later, in 249, Decius (r. 249–251) launched an empire-wide campaign to revive traditional Roman religion. Part of his strategy included rooting out anti-Roman, atheistic sects such as the Christians. In 249, the government issued an initial decree, ordering all church leaders to offer sacrifices to the Roman deities and to lead their congregations to do the same. The following year, administrators were dispatched to every Roman province to enforce an order for a universal sacrifice to the Roman gods. Many Christians obeyed the order and received a certificate (libellus) for being sacrificati (“sacrificers”). Some managed to secure a certificate by bribing the officials, while others, including some church leaders, refused altogether and paid with their lives. The Decian persecution ended in 251, when the emperor was killed in battle.
Beginning in 257
, Valerian (r. 253–260
) initiated a similar campaign. The government initially demanded a sacrifice from all Roman citizens and particularly targeted church leaders. Christian worship assemblies and funerals were also banned. Unhappy with the response, the emperor ordered the execution of resistant clergy and laymen, confiscated church members’ property, and purged the Roman Senate of all Christians. In 260
, Valerian was killed in battle against the Persians, and the following year,
his son and successor, Gallienus (r. 260–268
), issued an edict of toleration, beginning forty years of peace for Christians in the empire.
Also desiring to revive Roman paganism, in 303 Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) launched what has been called the Great Persecution. In the first of four edicts, the government ordered churches closed, banned worship services, seized Scriptures, and targeted influential Christians in society. In the second edict, clergy were forced to sacrifice or face imprisonment; in the third, they were threatened with torture and execution. In a final act, all citizens in the empire were commanded to sacrifice or face death. Ironically, in this last stage, some members of Diocletian’s family and his counselors—professing Christians—were arrested and executed. Following Diocletian’s abdication in 305, Galerius (r. 305–311) continued suppressing Christians in the eastern part of the empire until 311. Constantius (r. 293–306), the western emperor and Constantine’s father, chose not to enforce the suppressing edicts in his domain.
CONSTANTINE AND IMPERIAL CHRISTIANITY
Christianity in Rome took a drastic turn on the eve of Constantine’s battle with Maxentius at Milvian Bridge in 312
According to conflicting reports from Eusebius (263–339
) and Lactantius (240–320
), Constantine saw a sign in the sky (either the chi-rho labarum
symbol or a cross), which he interpreted as a promise for victory in battle. Emerging victorious, Constantine embraced the god of the Christians, though he put off baptism until shortly before his death in 337
Initially granting peace to the Christians 312
, Constantine elevated the movement to favored status in 324
once he gained complete control of the empire. Some of the benefits extended to the church included tax-exempt status for clergy as well as funds to construct new church buildings and to carry out church ministry. Although Christians had already been meeting for worship on the first day of the week since the first century
, Constantine supported this practice by closing the markets on Sunday.
Christians also beg...