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The Spread of Christianity.

The expansion of Christianity was not simply an example of another successful cult within the Graeco-Roman world, but a development that ultimately entailed the fundamental transformation of that world.

An important factor in the spread of early Christianity is the concept that by joining the faith one became a member of a family, in other words defining “race” by ideology rather than genealogy. Christians called themselves ‘a new race’.Accepting Christian belief brought converts into a new family. Math 12:46-50, ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’

The Romans only tolerated religions that had been authorized by the state. Actually the concept of “religion” as we know it today, was unknown. Permission to follow a particular religion referred to permission to follow the beliefs and practices of various Gods. The Gods were authorized to be worshipped and all of these were Gods of countries, such as the Gods of Egypt or the God of the Jews (the people of the country Judea). Judaism, as a religion was unknown, but the God worshipped by the inhabitants of Judea was certainly acceptable as were all the beliefs and customs attached to Him.

In other words, only those religions that were accepted state religions could be followed. So for example Jews were encouraged to practice their religion because it was the religion of the Jewish state.

Christianity’s problem as an unauthorized religion, because it didn’t belong to any country, was solved by Constantine the Great, who in the 4th century AD declared Jesus a Roman God because he had risen from the dead.

The effect of Constantine’s approval of Christianity as a religion of the Roman Empire, was, that It became permissible, even advisable to be a Christian.

This situation left Judaism in a precarious situation. It found itself in competition with Christianity.

As Christianity spread and its beliefs and practices became more defined, antagonism against Judaism increased. In fact, one could say that Christian attacks against Judaism brought about an increase in adherents to Christianity and an ever-increasing process of delegitimization of Judaism. In fact, Judaism’s existence came to be seen as a threat to Christianity.

The delegitimization of Judaism began in the 1st century AD, with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem and the end of Jewish nationality. The God of the Jews also then starts to become delegitimized, He’s a god without a country.

This situation is clearly reflected in Hadrian’s prohibition of Judaism, already in 135 AD. Judaism’s predicament worsened with Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as a state religion.

Rapid growth was mainly by conversion, but converts carried many new beliefs with them, and this led to an increased call for conformity, which may be seen as intolerance. The process of defining Christianity by standardized beliefs and practices lead to the declaration of certain practices and beliefs as heretical.

Polytheists accuse Christians and Jews of atheism because they reject the gods. Christianity inherited the rejection of idols from Judaism. Judaism rejects idolatry but explains the tendency of people to worship idols as an error. Christianity sees idolatry as an expression of cosmic evil; to participate in the worship of idols, was not simply an error of judgment but to become subservient to the powers that opposed God.

People were impressed with the demonstrations of divine power that Christians attributed to their God;He rose from the dead,

Christian characterization of the traditional cult as the worship of evil demons entailed not only avoidance of that cult but ultimately hostility towards it.

Paganism did not die of natural causes but was deliberately murdered.

For Irenaeus, adherence to Christianity could take one form only. Consequently, Christian leaders who offered alternative interpretations were, by definition deviating from the truth. Irenaeus set out to refute their errors and at the same time classify their different forms. In so doing, he in effect not only created the distinctively Christian literary genre that we now call heresiology but also helped crystalize the distinctively Christian notion of heresy as a wicked deviation from correct belief and practice.

Christian leaders who condemned deviations did so in the harshest terms: those who accepted other interpretations were not simply mistaken or foolish, but wicked and godless and deadly and were shunned by all true Christians.

This kind of extremism has its origin in Jewish sectarian arguments between the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. For example according to the Qumran community rule, ‘those born of truth spring from a fountain of light, but those born of injustice spring from a source of darkness

Polycarp: everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist. And whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross is of the devil.’

The cross as a symbol of redemption changed into a symbol of triumph.

Theodosius I in 380 declared Christianity the state religion. This changed Christianity into an institutional religion from being originally a religious movement uniting individuals and changed the cross from a symbol of redemption to a symbol of triumph..


Buell D.K.2002 Race and universalism in Early Christianity. JECS 10:429-68

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