Why Did Christianity Grow?

Source: Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 22.

“But the fact that the Christians were a closely united body, fresh, vigorous, hopeful, and daily increasing, while the heathen were for the most part a loose aggregation, daily diminishing, made the true prospective strength of the church much greater.”

Schaff is addressing the question of how Christianity grew so quickly in the first three centuries C.E. Most of the time, he gets into preaching mode: Christianity grew because of its miracles, or because of its inherent beauty as a belief system. I’m not going to rule out those explanations, since the New Testament attests to the power of miracles in bringing people to Christ. But there were others who did miracles in those days, plus the beauty of a belief system is in the eye of the beholder. So why was Christianity so special?

Liberal scholars like to argue that Christianity borrowed its beliefs from other religions: mystery religions, paganism, etc., etc. But why did Christianity grow so rapidly, if people could easily get the same sorts of beliefs in another creed?

Some have argued that Gentiles liked Judaism, but they joined Christianity because it lacked Judaism’s painful circumcision requirement. But, as Krister Stendahl has pointed out, that doesn’t exactly match what we see in the New Testament. Galatians makes clear that there were Gentiles who actually wanted to be circumcised and keep the law. According to Stendahl, this was because Gentiles were drawn to the mysterious customs of the orient. So why did they become Christians and not Jews? I don’t know.

What I like about the Schaff quote is not that it satisfactorily answers the question, but that it may give us a lead. Why did Christianity grow, whereas other religions with similar beliefs did not? Maybe because Christianity was an active, organized movement that sought converts, something which was not really true of travelling miracle-workers, mystery religions, and Judaism.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Why Did Christianity Grow?

  1. Dennis says:

    Christianity grew because unlike it’s predecessor and competator, Mithraism, was taken over by the State. Few religions can compete with the Priest-State, which Christianity under the Catholic model had become.

    It grew simply because it didn’t pay to buck the system and the price for non-compliance could be rather high.

    Mithraism also had no historical founder as was found in Jesus “who really lived,” as had to be argued early in the game. Even in the NT we see that one of the heresies that had to be dealt with that many were saying Jesus did not come in the flesh. How on earth that idea arouse so soon after “Jesus really lived,” is a bit of a mystery. But the litralism of God on earth allowed Christianity to grow and gave the Church something powerful to goad the common folks into compliance with.

    Christianity was a hodge podge of practices and beliefs from the moment the tomb was sealed.


  2. Byker Bob says:

    James, like yourself, I have a keen interest in the works which are not today a part of the Protestant Canon. I don’t call my daily worship “quiet time”, although that’s a mighty good name for it. This morning during my study session, I had finished Song of Songs, which of course is a supreme example or description of God’s love for His people, spousal love, or a preview of the love Jesus Christ has for Christians.

    Guess what? My study Bible is the New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition. So the book following Song of Songs is the Book of Wisdom, a book which we most certainly did not study as WCG members. Written a hundred years before Christ, this book was partially devoted to the edification of Jewish people who had suffered and been oppressed by apostate Jews, the same type of situation which had existed during the time of the Maccabees a century earlier.

    I was smitten by some of the verbiage in the first chapter of the book of Wisdom, because I know that it described me, in my earlier attempts to deal with the Armstrong problem.

    Wis. 1:1 “Love justice, you who judge the earth; think of the Lord in goodness, and seek him in integrity of heart;
    2. Because he is found by those who test him not, and he manifests himself to those who do not disbelieve him.
    3. For perverse counsels separate a man from God, and his power, put to the proof, rebukes the foolhardy.
    4. Because into a soul that plots evil wisdom enters not, nor dwells she in a body under debt of sin.
    5. For the holy spirit of discipline flees deceit and withdraws from senseless counsels; and when injustice occurs it is rebuked.”

    I have no idea whether I would have been open to this back in 1975. In fact, I probably would not have. As far as I was concerned, my efforts to have a relationship with God had failed, due largely to a bogus church organization. And, I simply began to look for answers and evidence which supported doing as I pleased. No God, no mandates on conduct. Too bad that I never thought to read the Deuterocanonicals in those days.



  3. Doug Ward says:

    Have you read Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” ? It makes some interesting hypotheses.


  4. James Pate says:

    Hi Dennis,

    I wonder how Christianity grew before Constantine took it over. Another issue that crops up in my readings is how tolerant Constantine was. I keep coming across the edict of toleration. Was there some level of religious freedom under Constantine?

    Hi Byker Bob,

    I love my New American Bible! It’s great for pleasure reading. I can’t really pin down why, but I just like the way it reads.

    The opening verses of Wisdom did not sink in for me the first time that I read them. I have reread them in French and German, as I study those languages. Most of what stuck out for me was wisdom leading to immortality, idolatry leading to immorality, wisdom being with the characters of the Bible (as if it’s an emanation from God), God blessing eunuchs rather than those who have bad children, the wicked wanting lots of goodies in this life, and God punishing the Jews’ Egyptian oppressors, just as he did at the Exodus.

    Part of me right now is where you were then, in a sense. I acknowledge the validity of biblical morality, but there are things about Christianity that I find so unappealing. It seems so black and white in its mindset, for example. I’m not saying you’re like that, but that’s kind of what I encounter in the Bible.

    Hi Doug,

    I think I own that book. The trick is finding it!


  5. steph says:

    Even though it’s so slim, Rodney Stark’s book is worth the hunt of a needle in a haystack if you haven’t read it. James Crossley’s book (sorry to preach his work again, but both his and Maurice’s work overlaps my thesis so they’re always in my head space) ‘Why Christianity Happened: A Socio-Historical Account of Christian Origins 26-50 CE’ is well worth the read.


  6. James Pate says:

    I’ll be making a trip to the library tomorrow. I noticed Crossley’s book was there. It may help my faith, and also detract from it. I liked what I read in the summary about Crossley’s focus on conversion stories and Jesus reaching out to sinners. I may not like him seeking a naturalistic explanation for Christian origins, since I’d prefer the “God dunnit” approach. But, if those sorts of explanations are out there, I should take a look at them.


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