How did a small Jewish faith group become the largest world religion?
Several times I have asked myself what might have prompted people in the first centuries to profess Christianity. Although the Greek and Roman cults of the gods had lost a lot of their prestige, there were more interesting and intellectually more demanding worldview alternatives in Neoplatonism or Gnosticism. (Cf. "Gods and oracles - old hat? under "Strange Stories").
Why become a Christian at that time?
“There is the level of belief and there is the level of mind and experience. Both are to be respected and both have their dignity. "
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
"Religion is the place where a people gives themselves the definition of what they consider to be true."
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)
In the first centuries, converting to the Christian religion was by no means without risk. There was a statutory state cult that Christians did not want to practice. They did not make the sacrifices prescribed for the gods and the emperor, refused to do military service, prophesied the end of the Roman Empire and thereby proved to be enemies of the state.
It is hardly surprising that the Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, when barbarians threatened the empire from outside, suffered as internal enemies of the state under pogroms and state persecution[i]. But especially in times of persecution, the Christian communities grew the fastest, according to the motto "Sanguis martyrum semen christianorum" (the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity)[ii].
So what was the rousing power of the new religion, which - despite fierce opposition - became a determining force in the Roman Empire within a few centuries?
Perhaps an answer can be found in the Bible.
Paul on the Areopagus
In Athens to the west of the Acropolis is the "Ares hill", the Areopagus. The city's high council and the supreme court once met here. According to ancient Greek folklore, the seat of the Erinyes, the winged goddesses of vengeance, was on the rock that rises behind the court. In the first century AD Athens had lost its political importance, but was still one of the most prestigious cities in the western world. Every citizen of the Roman Empire had heard of this city, and many were able to get an idea of its temples, streets and squares.
The Areopagus shines Lukas, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, as the appropriate place for the first traditional discussion between contemporary philosophy and the new doctrine of salvation.
If we follow the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17: 19-34), then preached at 54 Paul on the Areopagus. Some of his listeners were persuaded and became Christians.
Paul started from the worship of gods widespread at the time and mentioned an altar dedicated to the "unknown god". He wanted to tell of this unknown, omnipresent God. Because people should no longer worship images created by human art, but worship the One God who was denounced by a man from Galilee. Then spoke Paul of the coming judgment of the world and the resurrection of the dead. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to mock; But the others said: We want to hear you about it another time. " (Acts 17.32).
Religious scholars doubt that the Areopagus speech in the form of Paul was held. Because this speech is decades ahead of its time. It represents a milder direction of Jewish-Hellenistic Christianity than we encounter in the Pauline letters. But that doesn't have to concern us any further. Because we are less interested in the various branches of early Christianity, some of which are at odds with one another[iii], rather than the clashes between ancient philosophy and Christian doctrine. Apologists had to do it for centuries[iv] Defend their Christian religion against numerous counter-arguments from pagans, Neoplatonists and Gnostics.
How did people believe before Jesus?
Since the 6th century BC, many religions, from Asia to the Mediterranean, had undergone such a profound change that one can speak of Reformation movements. Much has been made from this time that has influenced our attitude towards life to this day: a de-concretization of religious attitudes. The repression of the pictorial over the conceptual and abstract, as a prerequisite for pure logic and science. A higher valuation of the individual. The gods (or god) are no longer national or tribal gods who dwell among people, but are raptured into heavenly distances. (6).
There was also widespread anxiety about the afterlife, the hope of salvation, and the expectation of a redeeming figure as a mediator between God and man. Was the occidental world prepared for the appearance of a messenger from God?
Classical philosophy also questioned traditional ideas. Many people must have become aware that oracle interpretations, sacrifices, prayers, rituals, incantations are not enough, and that another, a new way to the knowledge of the divinity must be sought. This is exemplified by the shock of the Gilgameshwhen he becomes aware of the finiteness of his earthly existence ("The search for immortality"). The Ancient Egyptians ("Life for Death?"), the Buddha's religions ("On the Paths of the Enlightened One") and Zarathustras ("A Persian Bringer of Truth"), the Mithraic cult ("The Mithras Mystery"), the Mysteries and Gnosis ("The greatest of all heretics"), they all sought liberation and redemption that none of the traditional cults knew how to promise.
The classical religions of the Greeks and Romans focused on their worship. They hardly concerned themselves with the afterlife, had only vague ideas about "Hades" (realm of shadows), and could not promise a happy life after death [v].
Even the old Jewish religion knows little of a paradisiacal existence after death "In Abraham's bosom" (Luk. 16,22), but threatens all the more with hell[vi]. The descriptions of the afterlife in the Old Testament are consistently extremely unpleasant[vii].
At the beginning of the first century, the ancient Jews were split up into several groups that were mutually hostile. They hoped for the Messiah to deliver the people (not individuals) who would drive the Romans out of the country. Before it came out, they had many complicated rules to follow[viii]. A frozen Jewish priestly caste jealously defended their privileges and strictly watched over the external forms of a cult which had lost its spiritual content. Hence the destructive fear of the Sanhedrin[ix] before the success of the living teaching of Jesus.
Liberation from superstition
In ancient Rome at the turn of the ages all possible - more or less superstitious - doctrines, cults, philosophies, religions, mysteries from Europe and the Orient romped about. It wasn't easy for anyone who wanted to find their way around.
In this time of inner uncertainty, charismatic preachers proclaimed the Gentile mission - go ahead Paul - something new:
Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and his act of redemption for all.
No idol worship. No subtle philosophical claims. Not a jumble of rules that hardly anybody can follow. No sacrifices for the many gods who were subjected to questionable behavior. No circumcision and no complicated food and hygiene rules. No racial prejudices that limit God's help to a people or a tribe. Not a narrow-minded priesthood that believes they are in sole possession of the truth.
But simply the belief in the God of love and light, from whom only good proceeds and who forgives. Then charity ("You shall love your next like yourself"; Matth. 19:19), and the inner change brought about by faith ("The Kingdom of God is within you"; Luk. 17.21). In addition, as a special kick Jesus attributed miracles, and most of all the imminent end time with the Last Judgment (Paul counted on the return of Christ during his lifetime, 1st Thess. 4.15-18).
Was that a convincing program?
The religion of the poor and the uneducated
New followers of Christianity were found particularly in uncertain, economically, politically and militarily difficult times. The new faith is accessible to everyone, regardless of origin and gender; because before the Christian God all people are equal, whether emperors or slaves. A revolutionary concept! A simple profession of faith becomes a Christian, and receiving baptism is the promise of salvation.
As far as we know, has Paul the teaching of Jesus changed, and the old Jewish scapegoat thinking built into his theology: Redemption through death on the cross (or more recently through the blood shed on the cross[x]) from Jesus. But only those who believe in the Son of God can participate in this redemption and rise from the dead.
And here at the latest, at the (physical) "Resurrection of the Dead" are probably already closed Paul'Times Christian preaching and pagan philosophy collide. For philosophically trained thinkers there was one at that time "Resurrection in the flesh" just as unacceptable as it is today for scientists. The dialogue was over.
Another stumbling block was the question, which is still disputed today, whether faith alone saves or - as e.g. Gnostics taught - the corresponding good works are also indispensable. (Cf. "The first steps in the Otherworldt")
In the European cultural area of the first centuries, the concept of a creator god was well known, who controls the world from a heavenly paradise. But in Greco-Roman philosophy, reason is the most important means of knowing God, the world and man. Hence the Christian mission, in which miracles replace argument, prophecy replace evidence, and martyrdom replace philosophy, found little favor with educated contemporaries.
Missionaries, conscious of their mission, preferred to avoid the “intellectuals”, the philosophically educated, and turned to the masses of the poor and oppressed: to the urban proletariat, landless peasants, released soldiers, released slaves. This target group can be recognized to this day in the Christian preaching, and in the Bible the apostles and the first Christians are described as ignorant, simple people. (Acts 4,13 and 1 Cor. 1,26-29).
The more difficult the times, the faster the new popular religion grew. After all, the Christians were so numerous[xi] become that Emperor Constantine I. (280-337) assured their support in the civil war - probably for political reasons - and in the "Edict of Tolerance" of 313 granted every citizen the free choice of religion[xii].
The absurd and basic Christian values
Apparently people have since Paul ' Times not changed much. Then as now, religions demand that the illogical, contradicting all experiences, be believed. And then as now there are believers who seem to accept religious teachings precisely because of their absurdity.
However, the focus has shifted. Were there too Paul ' In times of philosophers, today it is natural scientists who ask theologians unpleasant questions. Ancient philosophy was speculative; it offered little more than ideas that had little evidential value. The modern natural sciences are different. These can show to a large extent that their theories are not just imaginary assumptions, but that they prove themselves in practice.
It is of little help if one dismisses everything that can be experienced with scientific methods as mere "factualities"; for the highly praised "religious truths" have often enough failed in practice to elevate humanity and its culture. For an enlightened scientist it therefore remains inexplicable why churches and other religious communities - often still entangled in ideas contrary to natural law - are still able to hold on to this day and even win new followers.
When we speak of "basic Christian values" today, we are primarily referring to the ideas of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. These ideas probably arose in the Christian environment, under the influence of the teachings of Jesus and ancient and modern philosophy. The principles of the Enlightenment, however, have long been bitterly opposed by the churches: human rights, religious freedom, civil liberties, separation of church and state, separation of powers, equality before the law, democracy, civil marriage, etc.
The denominations of all varieties have largely failed in their pursuit of earthly power, however true religiosity lives!
The word of Jesus that stands above everything
Above all of our petty discussions - far beyond science, philosophy, art, creeds, denominational regulations, belief in miracles, church claims to power, disputes between the parties, economic dogmas - there are great religious ideas, the truth of which is felt by many people.
It worked and also does the charisma of the personality of Jesus, with its unheard-of sense of mission and its attraction, which has barely weakened after two millennia. The many religions that emerged in the West after the turn of the century were inevitably - more or less - under the influence of Christian ideas. Even in the Koran will Jesus assigned an important role.
Personally, the prophet from Nazareth left next to nothing directly tangible. Written documents about his teaching and work are only available from second and third hand. Much of it has been falsified for theological reasons and is just as contestable as that for good reasons Jesus and miracles attributed to the first apostles.
But in the higher, in the spiritual realm, the radiant power of his denunciations, the all-compelling force of his word seem unbroken. Anyone who feels a breath of his spirit believes that Jesus was a messenger of light. This then gives rise to a faint premonition of the eternal greatness of His Father and his mighty creation with its holy laws. Then doubts also disappear like fog in front of the breaking sun, and earthly problems take on the importance they deserve.
Were early Christian missionaries able to pass on this experience, the feeling of Jesus awaken mediated eternity values? Did a spiritual enthusiasm develop on this basis, which many even made martyrdom undergo? Were there spiritual experiences that we can no longer relive because preachers and listeners alike lack “faith”, that is, inner openness and spiritual quality?
The way back to early Christianity, which was not free from error, is blocked for us. Even the sermons of the first apostles - even if they had been handed down correctly - could hardly tell us much today in their form at that time. For revelations too have to adapt their forms to the times. The preaching must be done in a way that takes into account the changing environment and the timely understanding of the listeners.
So all we can do is look ahead and try to find the obstacles that separate us from the religious experience possible at all times. This goal is not a return to the outdated superstition from which many religious communities suffer. No relapse into the mystical worldview. No demonization of the natural sciences. No dogmatism and no enthusiasm. But a self-determined, liberating step of the self-confident person.
Read about it too "The view over the threshold" under "History of Religion".
(1) Drehsen Volker et al., Dictionary of Christianity, Orbis, Munich, 1995.
(2) Hagl Siegfried, Chaff and Wheat, Gralsverlag, Eggersdorf, 2003.
(3) Langbein Walter-Jörg, The Secrets of the Seven World Religions, Rütten & Loening, Berlin, 2005.
(4) Minois George, Die Hölle, Diederichs, Munich, 1984.
(5) Pleticha Heinrich, Panorama der Weltgeschichte Vol. 1, Bertelsmann, Gütersloh, 2002.
(6) Randa Alexander, Handbuch der Weltgeschichte, Walter, Olten, 1954.
(7) Strohm Leo, 2000 years of Christianity, Pattloch, Munich, 2000.
[i] In the 1st century there were also persecutions, but these were more sporadic, not systematic. (See “Brief, terse, curious” on page 282 “A classic slander”).
[ii] One thinks very similarly in Islam. During the Iraq / Iran war (1980-1988), Ayatollah Khomeini (1900-1989) said: "The tree of Islam can only grow if it is constantly soaked in the blood of the martyrs."
[iii] Soon after the crucifixion, Christianity split. The Jerusalem community, with the first apostles and relatives of Jesus, wanted to adhere to the Jewish law, e.g. circumcision, and preach the message of Jesus only to Jews. A Greek speaking group, with Stephen as spokesman, advocated the Gentile mission and rejected ancient Jewish law. Stephen became (around 33) the first Christian martyr. At the apostolic council in Jerusalem in the year 48 or 49, which is embellished in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15, 6-19), there was a heated argument between Jewish and Gentile Christians about it.
[iv] Apologists are writers, especially of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, who defended Christianity.
[v] Hesiod and Homer describe Hades as an ominous, dark, foggy place. (4, p. 32).
[vi] The Hebrew word "Sheol" (the imperceptible) is either adopted (New World Translation), or as "Hell" (Luther), "Underworld" (uniform translation), "Kingdom of the Dead" (H. Quantity ) etc. translated.
[vii] Eg Job 10:22; 17.13-16; Isaiah 14.11.
[viii] There were 613 do's and don'ts (3, p. 37).
[ix] Sanhedrin (Synedrium) = the highest Jewish state authority. It consisted primarily of the Sadducee priestly nobility, who derived their leadership role from the books of Leviticus and Numbers.
[x] Apparently some theologians are no longer sure that Jesus died on the cross. As a precaution, they are already rebuilding their theology in such a way that it will endure even if it turns out that Jesus survived the crucifixion. (Cf. “Brief, terse, curious” page 416 “The most mysterious of all relics”).
[xi] At that time there were about 5 % Christians in the western empire, and around 15 % in the eastern empire.
[xii] Christianity only became the state religion in 384 under Theodosius.