Our fragmentary knowledge

The complete story of the spread of Christianity in its first five centuries cannot be told, for we do not possess sufficient data to write it. Especially is our information for the early part of the period provokingly fragmentary. That need not surprise us. What should amaze us is that so much information has come down to us. Christianity began as one of the numerically smallest of the religions which, stemming from the Orient, were being carried across the Empire. Our knowledge of many aspects and persons of these centuries, even of those, which loomed large in the eyes of their contemporaries and so would be prominently noticed, is notoriously imperfect. Most of such records as were made have long since disappeared. The circumstance that Christianity survived the Empire accounts for much of such information about its history as has remained, for some Christians treasured the memory of those of their faith who had gone before them and handed it on to posterity. Yet so small were the first Christian groups that most of them escaped the notice of those who were commenting on their times and all but a few of such documents and inscriptions as they themselves left have perished. Even he who would only sketch the main outlines of the history of the expansion of Christianity in and beyond the Roman Empire in these years again and again finds himself baffled.

The gaps in our knowledge are made the more tantalizing by hints that are given us of what a complete record would reveal. In the accounts of Jesus' life in the Gospels we are given glimpses of hundreds, perhaps thousands of followers in Galilee, yet we have only cursory mention of the early presence of Christians there which would give us ground for inferring that from the early disciples of Jesus there arose continuing Christian communities in that region. We are informed that throngs from Tyre, Sidon, and beyond the Jordan came to hear Jesus, and we hear of churches in these areas, but we do not know that they were founded by natives who had been born during the lifetime of Jesus. Through Paul's Letters to the Romans and what we read in The Acts of the Apostles we are aware of the existence of a strong Christian community in Rome within less than a generation after the resurrection. Precisely how it came to be we are not told. It was notorious that to Rome, the political centre and the largest city in the Mediterranean world in that day, came representatives of many cults and faiths, but who first brought Christianity to the Eternal City we cannot tell, and until shortly before the end of the first century we hear almost nothing about the church there. Yet Paul declared in his Letter to the Romans, written between twenty-five and thirty-five years after the crucifixion, that the faith of that church "is spoken of throughout the whole world," words which seem to mean that Christianity had been long enough in the capital for the fact to become very widely known. From the travel diary of a companion of Paul which has been incorporated in The Acts of the Apostles we learn that there were Christians at Puteoli, on the Bay of Naples, who greeted Paul on his fateful journey to Rome, between thirty and forty years after the resurrection. We may guess that they came there, as did Paul, by one of the most traveled of the trade routes, but as to who they were and when they first arrived we are not informed. There may have been Christians in Herculaneum and in Pompeii, not far from Puteoli, before the destruction of those cities in A.D. 79 by an eruption of Vesuvius, but we can only guess at the means by which, if it was present, the faith was brought to them. Although Mark is cautiously named as the Christian pioneer in Alexandria in Egypt and we know of a strong church there by the end of the second century, we cannot be sure of the date or the source of the Christian community in that great Hellenistic metropolis.

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