Five Historical Reasons Why Christianity Spread So Quickly

FiveChristians can explain the rapid spread of Christianity with theological reasons. Related but distinct from that are the historical reasons why Christianity was able to be successful.

I see five reasons that helped Christianity to ultimately take over the Roman Empire.

  1. Jewish Diaspora – During the Second Temple period, Jews were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world. This meant that not only were there Jewish synagogues, there were also Gentiles who were somewhat aware of the Jewish God and Scriptures.
  2. Greek Language – Alexander the Great spread Hellenism (Greek culture) across his empire, ultimately leading to the widespread use of the Greek language. This allowed both the Old Testament (Septuagint) and New Testament to be read by as many people as possible.
  3. Greek Philosophy – Greek religion was very anthropomorphic, not just in how the gods looked but how they acted. Philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, helped develop the concept of God into something more praiseworthy. That doesn’t mean that the God of the philosophers was exactly like the God of the Bible, but it was far closer than the traditional Greek pantheon.
  4. Roman Roads – We take for granted how easy it is travel from one place to another. It was not always so in the ancient world. The well made Roman roads made the journeys of Christian missionaries much easier.
  5. Pax Romana – The Roman peace was a harsh peace. Peoples that would have liked to fight each other were forced to be peaceful or face the punishment of the Romans. This, along with the roads, helped the spread of Christianity because travelling was the safest it had ever been.

A Short Introduction to John Calvin

One of the most important figures in church history is John Calvin. Calvin didn’t start the Reformation but he put his stamp on it. Today, many people use Reformed theology and Calvinism as synonyms.

In this short video, John Piper shares some background of John Calvin. Piper is obviously passionate about Calvin’s ministry. It is worth taking a few minutes to watch this interesting video.

The Dirty Little Secret About Dating the Gospels

CalendarThere is some debate when it comes to the dating of the Gospels. Some would like to date the Gospels in the 50s or 60s. There are others who will argue vehemently that the earliest Gospel must have been written after 70 AD.

The most popular dating of the Gospels puts Mark (as the earliest Gospel) at 70 AD or slightly before, Matthew and Luke in the mid-80s and John in the 90s. But let me tell you a secret.

We don’t really know.

So where do these dates come from?

The early dating of the Gospels is based on some backward calculating from events in Acts. Acts ends with Paul in Rome but still alive. Paul was executed around 65 AD during Nero’s reign. Assuming that Luke (who wrote Acts) would have described Paul’s death if it had already happen, Acts is then dated before 65. Luke’s Gospel is then dated before that. Since most scholars assume that Luke used Mark, that puts Mark fairly early.

However, we don’t know why Luke didn’t describe Paul’s death. It may be because it had not yet happened or he may have had some other literary or theological reason not to mention it. We don’t know.

The later dating of the Gospels revolves around a historical event in Jerusalem. It was in 70 AD that the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. The Synoptic Gospels include a prediction by Jesus of the destruction of this temple. Since it is impossible for people to predict the future, the Gospels must have been written after the destruction in 70 AD. Some scholars will let Mark be slightly before the event, when it was obvious that something like this would probably be happening.

Would the Gospels have to be dated after 70 AD? Since I’m a Christian, I don’t see it as impossible that Jesus could have made such a prophecy.

However, from a historical perspective I don’t think that the Gospels have to be dated after the destruction. From a purely human point-of-view, it is possible that Jesus could have successfully predicted the destruction of the temple. The tensions that led to the Jewish War of 67-70 were already present in Jesus’ day and it would not require divine sonship to predict that something was coming. In terms of the details of the prediction, Roman military practice was not a secret. Jerusalem was not the first rebellious city that the Romans destroyed. Jesus could have easily described what would happen to Jerusalem.

I appreciate the honesty of New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in his commentary on Mark:

“For our purposes, we shall allow for the writing of Mark any time between A.D. 50 and 75, as I see no compelling basis for being more precise here.” (p. 8)

The truth is that we don’t know when the Gospels were written. We can place a beginning point as the last event described (death and resurrection around 30-33 AD) and an ending with our earliest manuscripts or quotations from these Gospels in other writings.

What is Multiple Attestation?

Multiple Attestation

One of the tools that historians use is something called multiple attestation. Multiple attestation simply means that something is more likely to be historical if it is attested in multiple sources. It is often used to examine the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels.

In general (not just when applied to the Gospels), multiple attestation is not perfect. It is possible that something historical was only mentioned once and there could by multiple records of something that was not historical.

Still, multiple attestation is a helpful tool when looking at historical documents.

However, there are some misconceptions. It is not enough to see an event found in Matthew, Mark and Luke (Synoptic Gospels). If an event is first mentioned in Mark and the version shared by Matthew and Luke is based on copying that report, that is considered only single attestation.

If a story is found in Mark and a separate tradition is found in Matthew and Luke (common tradition between Matthew and Luke not found in Mark is often called Q), that is considered two sources.

Things get complicated when people attempt to throw in the Gospel of Thomas. What is the relation between Thomas and the Synoptics? If Thomas used the Synoptics (which is likely), then Thomas doesn’t help.

Historians love when a tradition is also found in John or Paul. Sometimes, stories such as the arrest of John the Baptist by Herod is found in a non-biblical source such as Josephus. There are a number of overlaps between Acts and Josephus, which is also good.

Multiple attestation is not perfect but it is a helpful tool for historians.

Is the Telephone Game a Good Analogy for the Jesus Oral Traditions?

telephone gameMost scholars are agreed that the traditions about Jesus were passed along as an oral tradition before being written down in the four Gospels. But what does that mean for their historical reliability?

Some people have compared this oral period to the telephone game. The telephone game is a fun activity that children (used to) play. One person starts with a message, whispers it in another child’s ear, who whispers it in another and so on. At the end of the game, the final version of the message is very different from the original, and it is in that difference that the fun is experienced.

If that is the case, could not something similar happened with the oral tradition? Perhaps the oral tradition that was written down by the evangelists was world’s apart from what Jesus actually said and did.

I see a number of problems with this analogy.

One is that we do not live in an oral culture, while the people who heard Jesus and wrote down his life did live in an oral culture. We should expect greater accuracy within that culture.

Another is that the people who were involved were neither children, nor did they consider it a game. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah and they took that very seriously.

Part of the fun of the telephone game was to deliberately distort the message. It is no fun if the message is passed on accurately. There is no reason why the early Christians would choose to change the message.

The oral traditions were passed on within communities. While there was room to adjust style and colour, it was expected that the basic content would remain the same. The community enforced accuracy.

The Gospels were written down during the lifetime of people who had heard Jesus and there would have been opportunities to challenge false reporting.

Finally, we find in our written Gospels a number of independent traditions, and yet there is remarkable agreement among these traditions.

This is not my attempt to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. I’m simply saying that the telephone game is a very inaccurate comparison to what was happening during the oral period.

5 Books on the New Testament That I Recommend

BookAlthough I love history, my formal training is in the area of the New Testament. I have come across some very helpful books over the years and I thought I would share what I think are the top five. Please note that I’m an Amazon affiliate and if you purchase any of these, you are supporting my work here.

What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (The Biblical Resource Series)

Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message

Martin Luther – PBS Documentary

One of the most influential figures in all of Christian history is Martin Luther. Love him or hate him, we must admit that he had a great impact and his legacy lives on.

PBS put out a documentary on Martin Luther that you might find interesting.

How Did Oneness Pentecostalism Start?

DovePentecostalism became a major Christian movement early in the twentieth century and continues to have an impact worldwide. Although many Pentecostals are trintarian, there is also segment that are Oneness or Jesus Only Pentecostals.

Oneness Pentecostals deny the trinity but still affirm the divinity of Jesus. It is related to an early division within the church called modalism. Modalism taught that God appeared in different modes, such as the Father or the Son, but not at the same time.

One of the theological origins of this movement came from reflection on baptismal formulas. Here are two passages that were influential:

  • Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
  • Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

So which is it? Are Christians to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit or in the name of Jesus? What if the name (notice it doesn’t say names) of the Father, Son of the Holy Spirit was actually Jesus?

Some early Pentecostals began to get rebaptized in the name of Jesus, since their previous baptism had been in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. What began as a desire for a correct baptism formula developed into a new understanding of the nature of God. There was one God and his name was Jesus.

This was an influential movement within Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada became Oneness for a time and only returned to trinitarianism under influence from the American Assemblies of God. Although the PAOC is now strongly trinitarian, I used to attend a PAOC church and one of the older pastors would use both the Matthew and Acts formula when baptizing.

Oneness Pentecostals are still around, such as in organizations like the United Pentecostal Church. In addition to a rejection of the trinity, they also believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, marked by speaking in tongues, is a requirement for salvation.

If you are interested in learning more about Pentecostalism, I recommend this book:

Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements

5 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Apostle Paul

Apostle PaulThe Apostle Paul is one of the most influential thinkers and writers in the history of Christianity. It could be argued that his impact is second only to Jesus.

But how well do we really know him?

Here are five things you may or may not have known about the Apostle Paul.

  1. Paul never mentions his original name of Saul or his hometown of Tarsus in his letters.
  2. Paul’s letters were written earlier than the Gospels.
  3. Paul was not the first to preach to the Gentiles. It was actually Peter.
  4. Paul’s letters are not arranged chronologically in the New Testament but from longest to shortest.
  5. Paul never mentions hell in his letters. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t believe in some sort of judgment, but he never calls it hell.

What Do We Mean When We Say the Gospels Were Originally Anonymous?

GospelsAlthough many Christians accept that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the Gospels attributed to them, scholars will state emphatically that the Gospels were originally anonymous.

But what does that even mean?

When we hear that the Gospels were originally anonymous, very specific thoughts come to mind. It sounds as if no one knew who wrote the Gospels and that the church had to later pick some names to go with these writings.

While some scholars might believe that, that is not exactly what is meant by anonymous Gospels. All that scholars are saying is that no where in the text of the Gospel does it say who wrote it.

Let me illustrate by giving an example of a Gospel that is not anonymous. The first verse of the Gospel of Thomas says this: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.”

I don’t know of any scholar who really believes that Thomas wrote that Gospel, but at least an author is identified. The same is not true for the canonical Gospels. The text itself is silent about the author (other than John being by the unidentified Beloved Disciple).

Does this mean that no one in the first century knew who wrote these Gospels? I’m not so sure about that.

Read carefully the preface to Luke:

“Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know for certain the things you were taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

Does that sound like someone who was trying to hide their identity? This author is dedicating his work to a named individual. Presumably Theophilus knew who wrote the book. Perhaps others did as well.

It is true that the earliest Christian writers don’t give the names of the authors. But from my reading of them, it seems that they saw the authority not in the authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but in the words being spoken by Jesus. It was only later as competing Gospels were being written that the apostolic authorship needed to be asserted.

Am I arguing that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John absolutely wrote those Gospels, without a doubt? While I lean toward that interpretation, my goal is much more modest. I simply want to state that the anonymity of the Gospels is saying that the authors are not identified within the text and that is all.