How Was Christianity Received in the Ancient World?

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I just began re-reading Paley’s Evidences of Christianity today, and in chapter one he discusses what we ought to believe about the origins of Christianity just by the “nature of the case.” In other words, given what we know about the first century Roman and Jewish cultures, how could we expect a religion like Christianity to be met by the culture around it, and what was it like for the original Christians?

Paley makes several inferences. The first is that the Christians must have labored extensively, and we know this to be true simply because Christianity is here today. If the original Christians had not gone to extreme lengths to preserve and grow their religion, it would not have lasted long. With this fact alone, we have to ask ourselves what it is that could inspire such great undertakings.

Secondly, we conclude that the Christians were likely met with “difficulty and danger.” The new religion began in Jewish culture, but it undermined (though it didn’t entirely discard) some of the most important Hebrew traditions. The very fact that the Jewish authorities worked so hard to kill Jesus should tell us something about how Jesus’ followers were received.

We cannot expect the Romans to have been of much aid to the Christians either. The Romans were quick to take new gods into their Pantheon, but the Christians made claims to religious exclusivity and had many customs that the Romans did not understand. This is why we have letters like the one of Trajan telling the governor of Asia Minor to persecute Christians whenever someone dragged them in front of him.

Nor can we expect the skeptical ancient philosophers to have been receptive to Christianity. Paley quotes Gibbon in saying that the people of the ancient world accepted all methods of worship, the philosophers condemned them all as false, and the magistrates saw them all as useful — but the magistrates could not readily even use Christianity given that it subverted all of the other religions.

This summary hardly does the first chapter of Paley’s masterpiece justice, but it should give you an idea of the argument which is that we can expect the New Testament accounts to be accurate because the New Testament tells us what we would have expected to happen if a religion like Christianity entered the world of the Mediterranean in the first century. The Christians would have needed to labor extensively (which they must have done for the religion to be handed down to us today), were met with significant resistance, and finally the Christians exhibited noticeable changes in their lives.

It would have taken a radically different lifestyle to support and spread a religion that was so radically different from the religions surrounding it.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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