Diffusion of Christianity
Diffusion of Christianity

The Ancient Age of the Church is presented as the Age of struggle, triumph and organization. In its struggle, the Church had to overcome, first, the difficulties that the Jews opposed, in whose environment it had been born and where it had its first development. Then it had to maintain a battle of life or death with the powers of the State that dealt with its immense power to drown the nascent organization. The third enemy was the conjuration of ancient philosophy along with the pagan religion, which upon seeing their prestige disappear, tried to reorganize and raised all kinds of obstacles to the advance of Christianity. Finally the fourth enemy, the most dangerous of all, came from its own bosom. They were dissident sons, heretics or schismatics, who tried to twist the way of the Church by giving false interpretations to the doctrine of Christ or by denying submission to hierarchical authority.

Facing all these enemies, the Church not only emerged victorious, but grew steadily, while opposing to the weapons of violence the constancy of its confessors and martyrs, to the intellectual weapons of the pagan philosophers those of its theologians and apologists, and to the heretics the strength and clairvoyance of its Pontiffs and Doctors.

With its triumph in the Edict of Milan (313) a new period begins in the life of the Church. The State, defeated by Christianity, declares itself Christian, and little by little introduces in its legislation a series of measures that mean the elimination of paganism from public life and the declaration of Christianity as the official religion. This led to the deepening Christianization of social institutions and of all public life.


Christ came to the world in the fullness of time, that is, when the world had reached the fullness of preparation. We can consider this preparation both from the Roman world, which was then the civilized world, and from the Jewish world, which is the one that most closely surrounded Christ.

I.- Roman world:

This preparation can be negative (consisting of the fundamental deficiencies of their situation) or positive (due to some circumstances that favored the spread of Christianity).

a.- Negative preparation of the Roman world

The negative preparation of the Roman world appears under four aspects: religious, philosophical, social and moral.

Religious: The official cult of the capitoline triad: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, had replaced in Rome to the primitive cults of the Manes, Penates and Geniuses. But this did not satisfy the people and thus, shortly before the Christian era, the cult of Rome and the Emperor was introduced, which became the official form of the religion of the State. However, although welcomed with applause, it did not respond to the true needs of people, so that at the appearance of Christianity the educated classes of Rome were completely irreligious; the people were disoriented and felt more attraction for Oriental cults.

Philosophical: Philosophy was also in frank bankruptcy, which was of grave consequences, because it is called to replace in the ethical life of many people the lack of religious ideas. To the great speculations of the Greek philosophers: Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, practical systems had followed. While they had reached a certain knowledge of divinity, the tendency of Roman philosophy presents a pessimistic and skeptical character.

Social: The descriptions that have been preserved about the social and moral state of the Greco-Roman world bear a stamp of marked pessimism, and although we must remove something of what is due to exaggeration, they give an approximate idea of ​​the deplorable state of Rome under this appearance. The oppressed classes are indicative of the social state of Rome. There was a radical opposition between the nobles and the rich, and the immense crowd of parasites. The noble class, was given to the most refined vices, typical of their social position. The institution of the slaves and the way they were treated is one of the scourges of the Roman world. The slave was considered as a thing, which the owner could dispose at will.

Martyrial Basilica of Saint Eulalia. Merida
Martyrial Basilica of Saint Eulalia. Merida

Moral: The moral state of Roman society appears extremely low. Tacitus, Seneca and Juvenal describe us with colors no less black than St. Paul the corruption of the society of their time, especially by the excessive luxury (ease of bathing, sybaritism of banquets) and amusements, especially the games of the amphitheatre, the great vice of the free Romans, which the emperors encouraged and which lasted many days and sometimes months. The spectacle that most amused the people was the bloody fight between men; they howled with joy when a gladiator fell mortally wounded. With great enthusiasm they attended to a struggle of a platoon of men, women and even children, many times innocent Christians, against a considerable number of wild beasts, for the crime of being Christians.

b.- Positive preparation of the Roman world

In front of all these negative circumstances that we have exposed, there were also a series of favorable circumstances that imply a positive preparation.

Unity of the empire and the known world: This, together with the unity of language, placed in the hands of the Apostles of Christianity an incomparable weapon to be able to work in immense territories.

The oriental religions and mysteries: The different Eastern religions and cults had managed to promote in the people a certain religious feeling.

General tendency to Monotheism: Despite the multitude of gods and mysteries, all of them implicitly implied the confession of a Supreme Being, who must be placated, satisfied and adored through rites and ceremonies.

Elements of truth in Philosophy: Philosophy itself, especially the classical Greek and the one that best represents it among the Romans, the Stoic school, contained many elements of truth. Plato deduced from the order of the world the existence of a God, and Aristotle, in his metaphysics, came to the knowledge of the first motor or Absolute Being. Thus it is explained that some Christian theologians and some thinkers of the school of Alexandria, Clement and Origen, came to the conviction that Hellenism had been a precursor of Christianity.

Basilica of Saint Peter. Rome
Basilica of Saint Peter. Rome

II.- Jewish world:

a.- Historical data: The people of Israel had been separated from others by the God Himself, to entrust them the deposit of Revelation. With the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon it reaches the peak of its material greatness (about 1,000 BC) making the Philistines, Moabites and Idumeans its vassals. Broken its unity the year 962 BC it followed a period of infidelities that ended in 721 BC with the captivity of Israel by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser and with that of Judah in 587 BC by Nebuchadnezzar. Returned from exile the year 563 BC and after long years of subjection to strange powers, the glorious struggles of the Maccabees for the liberation of their country took place, until the year 37 BC when Pompey definitely subjugated them. From that year Herod the Great ruled with the title of king but with absolute submission to the Romans. In the year 6 AD Judea and Samaria were ruled directly by Rome. Pontius Pilate was their governor from 26 AD to 36 AD.

Mosaic of the Good Shepherd. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Ravenna
Mosaic of the Good Shepherd. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Ravenna

b.- Institutions and parties: Through so many vicissitudes and calamities, the hope of a future liberator or Messiah was always kept alive in Israel. Despite their infidelities, many prophets constantly maintained and enlivened the faith of the people. To maintain it in this state the following institutions and parties contributed: First the SANHEDRIN, instituted after the captivity, was a senate of 71 members that watched over the Jewish law. The SADDUCEES, eminently political party, imbued with the Hellenistic ideas of its time, half rationalist and half pagan. The PHARISEES, who were the opposite pole, defended the law to the letter, but together they let themselves be carried away by the greatest passion and the lowest hypocrisy. Another important group was that of the ESSENES, who were dissident Jews, of whom Josephus and Philo tell us that they formed large colonies. The documents of Qumran, discovered in the Dead Sea, give abundant light on them. These documents are the Commentary of Habakkuk, the Manual of Discipline and many others, more or less complete. At the same time there was an ELITE of faithful Israelites, who kept the spirit of the law with all its purity. Among these elements the living expectation of the Messiah was preserved.

c.- The Jews of the dispersion: On the occasion of the captivity of Nineveh and Babylon, the Jews came into contact with other peoples, and thus, even after freedom was granted, many continued there forming Jewish colonies. These colonies of Mesopotamia were consolidated and increasing, so in the time of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Diadochi (their generals), spread to Egypt, especially to Alexandria, founded in 332 BC, where they formed a very large nucleus, so that at the coming of Christ this city had about 200,000, who had a wealth that made them owners of the entire industry and possessed an extraordinary culture. Such colonies existed in Damascus, Smyrna, Corinth and in the most important cities of the East. Something similar can be said about the West. In Rome, under Tiberius, there were about 150,000 Jews who formed a special ghetto on the other side of the Tiber. We also know that there were Jewish colonies in Gaul and Hispania. All this had two effects: on the one hand in Alexandria a special ideology was formed, a mixture of Judaism and Hellenism, where its spokesman was Philo, a contemporary Jew of Christ. From the ideas of Plato and the Stoics a concept of a God was formed, incapable of any contact with matter. Hence the need for intermediaries, of which the main one is the Logos. The second effect of this situation was the influence it had on the pagan world that surrounded it, with which a circle of admirers and neophytes of the Jewish religion, proselytes, was created everywhere, of which two categories were distinguished: “Proselytes of the door” who admitted monotheism but without submitting to circumcision and the “proselytes of justice” who did admit it and these were fully recognized as Jews. Its importance for Christianity was extraordinary, because among them the Apostles recruited most of the early Christians.

Sarcophagus. Museum of Arles
Sarcophagus. Museum of Arles


Christianity managed in a short time to expand in a portentous way. The following circumstances, among other things, contributed to this:

First.- “The strength itself of the truth” against the myths and fables of paganism. The elevation and beauty of the solutions to the great questions that agitated Humanity, gave Christianity a special attraction.

Second.- “The elevated morality of the Christians” not only in their private and public life, but above all in that quality, so unusual among the Gentiles, of the intimate love for others, which impelled them to sacrifice themselves for them. Even Julian the Apostate believed that Christianity owed its growth to the example of its works of charity.

Third.- “Series of moral and doctrinal principles” such as the recognition of human dignity, respect and elevation of the poor and the slave, of women and of all the weak and oppressed by pagan morality. Also the moral doctrine about the forgiveness of sins.

Fourth.- The intervention of Providence through “charisms and miracles”.

Fifth.- “The irresistible force of the heroic example of the martyrs”.


First.- On the part of the Jews for supposing it contrary to the traditional idea of ​​the Messiah and to the law of Moses.

Second.- Among the Gentiles, conspired against Christianity all the fanatical worshipers of the gods, the priests and priestesses of the false deities, who saw their prestige and personal progress threatened.

Third.- The philosophers and enlightened people, the rich and worldly people were equally annoyed by the austerity of Christianity, by the doctrine of the cross and of fraternal charity. They were the ones who contributed most with their slanders against Christians to create an atmosphere of popular hatred against Christianity.


After a short time of existence Christianity clashed with the Roman powers, which led to the persecutions, that filled the first three centuries.


1.- The nature of Christianity, which rejected the gods and the Roman cult on principle, influenced the persecutions. Christians were presented as persons without conscience and as enemies of the human race.

2.- We must bear in mind the activity of the Jews, which, either to throw off the hatred they were subjected to, or because of their antipathy against Christianity, encouraged by all means that hostile environment.

3.- Later the reason of State was added, that is, to consider Christians as incompatible with the Roman State.

Emperor Nero
Emperor Nero
Emperor Vespasian
Emperor Vespasian

Legal basis:

Being the Roman state eminently legal, it must be admitted that it did not take that attitude against Christians without a legal basis, without a law or laws that would justify it, creating them if necessary. On the other hand, it is a fact that the existing laws did not give enough weapons, since there was none that prohibited a strange religion, since all were legally tolerated. For this, a special law was made against Christians. Likewise, the existing penal laws such as sacrilege, magic, betrayal, the lex laesae Maiestatis or law of lese majesty, which meant that Christians for refusing to participate in the cult of the Emperor and in the national sacrifices fell squarely under the weight of this law, for which they were persecuted.

First period: Beginning of persecutions

NERO: He started these with the pretext of the fire in Rome, apparently, by order of Nero himself. Assuming the atmosphere that existed against the Christians, it was easy to convince the people that they were the cause of this immense catastrophe. Indeed, the Christians were cruelly persecuted, they were afflicted with unprecedented torment and there were many martyrs. Among the most illustrious victims stand out Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

DOMITIAN: The emperors Galba, Vespasian and Titus left the Christians in peace. On the other hand, Domitian renewed the persecution, in which much blood was shed. His main victim was Saint John the Evangelist.

Second period: Punishment of people and singular groups

TRAJAN: The position taken by Trajan against Christians is very clear in the matter of Pliny the Younger (then governor of Bithynia). The emperor’s response to the question of how to treat those accused of Christians marks a new line of conduct: “conquirendi non sunt; if deferantur et arguantur, puniendi sunt “(they should not be hunted; if they are reported and it is well proven, the guilty should be punished).

HADRIAN: During this reign the same policy of Trajan was followed. The persecution of Christians depended on the zeal of the plebs or local governors. Tertullian puts Hadrian among the emperors who did not urge the anti-Christian laws.

ANTONINUS PIUS: This Emperor later brought benevolence to the Christians. He did not lift the existing provisions against them but clearly expressed his desire not to shed Christian blood. He urged that no tumult against Christians were tolerated.

MARCUS AURELIUS: Christianity, favored in this period of relative peace, increased rapidly. Marcus Aurelius, great philosopher of the Stoic school, did not modify the persecution system but at the same time urged compliance with existing laws.

COMMODUS: The same legislation persisted, although it was not urged as in the time of Marcus Aurelius, which was due to the light character of this Emperor. In this could influence his concubine Marcia that some assume Christian. However, there were sporadic persecutions since the laws persisted.

Emperor Commodus
Emperor Commodus

Third period: General persecution not systematized

This stage started when the emperors began to form the principle that Christians were dangerous to the State. Then the formula of Trajan “conquirendi non sunt” is abandoned and it move over to a direct persecution.

Emperor Severus Alexander
Emperor Severus Alexander

SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS: He published an edict, mainly against the Jews, which he later extended against the Christians. With another edict he forbade illicit associations, being mainly against Christians. With this began a bloody persecution of a general nature.

CARACALLA: At the end of the Empire of Severus, a favorable change began to the Christians, which later became secured in the time of Caracalla, although the persecution in Africa continued due to the proconsul Scapula.

SEVERUS ALEXANDER: He was the one who further led the favour to the Christians before Constantine. It seems that it was due to his mother Julia Mamaea. Christianity was gaining great dominance in the court and enjoyed long peace.

MAXIMINUS THRAX: He changed the policy regarding the Christians trying to throw them out of the court. Although it is believed that it was against the directors or heads, it was not carried out with rigor.

PHILIP THE ARAB: At the death of Maximinus Thrax turned to tolerance, so that this period is considered as a lasting peace.

General persecutions

DECIUS: One of the things he tried to restore was the cult of the Emperor as a state religion. As Christianity, already very developed, opposed it, he considered it an obstacle to his plans, for which it swore its destruction.

VALERIAN: At first he was rather favorable, but he published an edict against the clerics, which was soon followed by another against all the Christians. The reason given was the political danger. It is believed that in the change of Valerian influenced a certain Macrinus, very given to the magical arts.

AURELIAN: In front of the Christians he was tolerant but in the last year of his reign he published an edict of persecution.

Last persecution. Edict of Milan

DIOCLETIAN AND MAXIMIAN: Diocletian was proposed to give to the Empire an extraordinary splendor for which he reorganized it completely and he was associated as Augustus in the East to Maximian, Augustus in the West. Peace was general during most of Diocletian’s government so it is a fact that Christians came to acquire great prestige, but suddenly the persecution began. It seems that Galerius was the one who induced him to wage war against Christianity by convincing him that they were the greatest obstacle to his plans for the reconstruction of the empire.

CONSTANTINE: Finally, Constantine became the sole owner of the entire West. It was enacted in the year 313 AD the “Edict of Milan” with which Christians were allowed freedom of worship and assembly, and with it in the West the persecution is ended. In the East, however, they still continued for some time.

Emperor Diocletian with the other three tetrarchs
Emperor Diocletian with the other three tetrarchs

Author: Valentín Ortiz Juez