Christianity begins to overflow the borders of the Empire

Well before the end of the third century Christianity had begun to gain adherents among peoples beyond the Roman Empire. As was to be expected, this was through contacts with Christians in the Roman Empire and was largely along the trade routes, which irradiated from the chief commercial cities of that realm. Close commercial and cultural relations existed between the cities of Syria, such as Antioch and Damascus, where strong churches sprang up in the first century, and the Tigris Euphrates Valley. It is not surprising, therefore, that by the end of the first quarter of the third century more than twenty bishoprics are known to have existed in the latter region and on the borders of Persia. They were found almost as far north as the Caspian Sea and as far south as the Bahrein Islands in the Persian Gulf. At Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates, on the great road between Antioch and Ctesiphon, twentieth century excavation has revealed a building, which was used as a church at least as far back as the year 232. From the inscriptions on its walls it appears that the congregation was Greek-using. Syriac, however, became the major medium for the spread of Christianity in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

It was probably late in the third century that the mass conversion of Armenia was accomplished. A land the details of whose boundaries have varied with the vicissitudes of the years, Armenia is on the south slopes of the Caucasus and on the mountainous tableland north of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Although its independence has been partially guarded by its topography, Armenia has had the disadvantage of being on the borders of much larger realms and has had to fight for its existence. In the first centuries of the Christian era it was a buffer state between the chronic rivals, the Roman and Persian Empires.

The precise course of the conversion of Armenia has been hopelessly beclouded by legend. The great missionary was one Gregory, to whom the designation Illuminator was added because of his successful labours. Gregory seems to have been of the Armenian aristocracy and to have become a Christian while in exile in Ceasarea in Cappadocia, a region in which Christianity early made marked progress. Returning to Armenia and seeking to propagate his new faith, Gregory encountered persecution. Then he won the king, Tradt, Tirdat, or Tiridates by name. Why the king became a Christian we can only conjecture, but with the consent of his nobles he supported Gregory. The compliant population rapidly moved over to the new faith. Many of the shrines of the pre-Christian paganism were transferred, together with their endowments, to the service of Christianity, and numbers of pagan priests or their sons passed over into the body of Christian clergy. Some were made bishops. Gregory, obtaining episcopal consecration at C^sarea, became the head of the Armenian Church and was followed in that post by his lineal descendants. To this day the Armenian Church has been known by his name and has been a symbol and bond of Armenian nationalism. Here was an instance of what was to be seen again and again, a group adoption of the Christian faith engineered by the accepted leaders and issuing in an ecclesiastical structure which became identified with a particular people, state, or nation.

By the end of the third century Christian communities may have been found on the northern and eastern shores of the Euxine, or Black Sea. This would be expected from the long-standing commerce of Hellenistic cities with that region and from the strength of Christianity in these cities.

Long before the end of the third century Christianity had gained adherents in Arabia. Some of them were in the parts of Arabia on the eastern borders of the Roman Empire and were presumably the fruits of commercial and cultural contacts. There were probably others in the South of Arabia, a region which had commercial intercourse with the Mediterranean world, especially through Alexandria, a city where, as we have seen, Christians were numerous.

Insistent tradition ascribes the introduction of Christianity to India to the Apostle Thomas, one of the original Twelve. Thus far this has been neither satisfactorily proved or disproved. Long before the time of Christ commerce was carried on between India and the Hellenistic world. Alexander invaded India's North-west and active Greek traders were familiar with the routes to that land. It may well have been that through some of the latter Christianity was carried to India before the end of the third century. It may even have made its way to one or more of the cities in Central Asia which had arisen in the wake of the conquests of Alexander and which were centres of semi-Hellenistic culture.

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