Second and third century spread

We know even less of the spread of Christianity in the second century than we do of its propagation in the first century. Yet it is clear that it continued to grow in numbers of adherents and that before A.D. 200 Christians were found not only in all of the provinces of the Empire but also outside the Empire in Mesopotamia.

In the third century the expansion of Christianity was still more marked. It was gathering momentum. Moreover, in that century the illnesses of society which were later to bring about the disintegration of the Graco-Roman world were becoming palpable. Many, conscious of their insecurity, were seeking refuge in religion. Especially were those religions growing which stemmed from the Orient. Among them was Christianity.

By the close of the third century the chief numerical strength of Christianity was in the eastern part of the Empire. For reasons, which will appear later, the church in Rome early took a leading position in the Christian fellowship, but most of the other main centres of the faith were in the eastern portions of the basin of the Mediterranean. Christianity was especially prominent in what we now term Asia Minor. Here Paul had spent many of his missionary years. Here were Greek cities and from them Hellenistic culture was permeating the countryside. Christianity, with a vital foothold in that culture, was spreading with it.

Through the accounts and writings of one of the leading Christians of Asia Minor of the third century, Gregory, later known as Thaumaturgos, or Worker of Wonders, we learn something of the propagation of the faith in Pontus, one portion of Asia Minor. A native of Pontus, born and reared a pagan, Gregory was from a wealthy and prominent family. Seeking an education to fit him for the duties of his station, in Palestine he came in touch with Origen, of whom we are to hear more in the next chapter. It was as a distinguished teacher of philosophy that Origen was sought out by the young Gregory. But Origen was more than a great teacher: he was also on fire with the Christian faith. Through him Gregory became a Christian. Returning to Pontus, Gregory was made bishop of his native city, somewhat against his will. This was about the year 240. He gave himself to completing the conversion of the populace of his diocese. When he died, about thirty years later, the overwhelming majority had accepted the Christian faith. It is said, somewhat rhetorically, that when he became bishop he found only seventeen Christians in his see and that at his death only seventeen remained pagan. In achieving this mass conversion, Gregory made the transition as easy as possible, substituting festivals in honour of the Christian martyrs for the feasts of the old gods.

In the great cities of the eastern part of the Mediterranean Basin, major centres as they were of Hellenistic culture, Christians became especially numerous. Antioch and Alexandria were notable for their strong Christian communities. Such smaller and yet important cities as Ephesus were also prominent m the early annals of the faith.

Most of those portions of the populations in the East which had been less penetrated by Hellenistic life were slow in adopting Christianity. Although, because of its historic importance, the church in Jerusalem was accorded respect in the Christian fellowship, the progress of Christianity in Palestine lagged. In Egypt Christianity was late in winning many adherents among the non-Greek-speaking elements of the population, the country folk whose tongue was the native Egyptian. Yet by the beginning of the fourth century parts of the Scriptures had been translated into more than one of the non-Greek vernaculars and the foundations had been laid of a native Egyptian (Coptic) church.

Although churches were found in some of its cities, especially in cosmopolitan Corinth, Greece as a whole delayed in becoming Christian. Athens especially, as the traditional centre for the study of Greek philosophy, long held to the old cults.

The northern shores of Africa, particularly in and around Carthage in the modern Tunis and Algeria, early had vigorous Christian churches. Here was produced the earliest extensive Latin Christian literature. It may be that the reasons are to be found partly in the conditions in that region. The Italians were immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Carthage had been a Punic or Phoenician city, the great rival of Rome. In a series of wars Rome had come out victor and Carthage had been destroyed. On the heels of the Roman conquest, Italians moved into the country, Carthage was rebuilt, largely as a Latin city, and a large Latin-speaking element came into being. Uprooted from their Italian environment, traditional Italian customs and religions may have had less hold on the immigrants and their children than in Italy and there may have been greater open-minded ness to the Christian message. Whatever the reason, Christianity became firmly planted in the Latin-using portions of the population and the church in Carthage was prominent in the Christian fellowship, With it were associated the names of such early prominent Latin writers as Tertullian and Cyprian, of whom we are to hear more later. Christianity also spread among the Punic elements, but probably more slowly, and still more slowly among the pre-Italian, pre-Punic elements, the Berber stock. This fact was to have tragic significance for the subsequent course of the faith in North Africa.

We know little of the details of the spread of Christianity in Italy outside of Rome, but by the middle of the third century the peninsula seems to have had about one hundred bishoprics, and, with the rapid growth of the faith in the second half of the third century, by A.D. 300 the number of dioceses must have greatly increased. Growth was more rapid in the Centre and the South than in the North, in the valley of the Po. Sicily had Christians in the third century and possibly in the second.

Almost nothing has survived about the planting of Christianity in Spain, but as early as the beginning of the third century the faith was well established in the South. Unfortunately some of our first pictures of Spanish Christianity are distinctly unfavourable — of bishops who absented themselves from their dioceses to engage in commerce, and of a Christian community which compromised with idolatry, homicide, and adultery. Yet, imperfect though it was, Spanish Christianity displayed more vitality than did its North African counterpart in surviving the Arab Moslem conquest of the eighth century.

In Gaul Christianity probably first entered directly from the East. In the Rhone Valley there were cities, which long before the time of Christ, possessed commercial connexions with Syria and the Hellenistic Orient. They were Greek colonies from Ionia, on the west coast of Asia Minor. In the second half of the second century, when we first catch authentic glimpses of it in that area, Christianity was fairly strong in the Greek-speaking communities in Lyons and Vienne. Iren^us, of whom we are to say more in a later chapter, and who nourished in the second half of the second century, was the first churchman in Gaul to achieve prominence. He was from Smyrna, in Asia Minor, where as a boy he had received instruction in the oral tradition, which came to him only a generation removed from the original apostles. In Lyons, where he spent most of his working life, Iren^us learned the local vernacular and may have employed it to preach to the non-Hellenistic population. Before the end of the third century there were bishoprics in the northern parts of Gaul and in cities along the Rhine. Before that time, too, Christianity had won footholds in the Roman province of Britain, and early in the fourth century three bishops from Britain attended a council in Arles, in the south of Gaul.

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  • julia grant
    Who were the poleminists during the second and third centuries?
    3 years ago

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