Here’s an important question I have received, along with an answer a lot of people think is counter-intuitive. It has to do with why Christianity proved so attractive in the ancient world as they were desperately trying to attract converts.
Please help me understand – didn’t first-century Christians offer more than stories of Jesus and a god to pray to? Didn’t they also offer the care and support of a community? Weren’t they actually supporting and providing for each other’s needs? And if so, wouldn’t this make their religion attractive to others in need?
As it turns out, my view of the matter is that the answer to the first three questions is a resounding YES; but the answer to the final question – that is, the one that this reader is most interested in and (I would guess) thinks depends entirely on the preceding three – is MAYBE but the implication that this is why they grew and expanded is probably NO. History is like that sometimes.
In my book The Triumph of Christianity I talk about reasons people have given over the years for the remarkable success of the early Christians in spreading their religion, from their start as a tiny band of illiterate unknowns from a rural no-place in a completely unpromising province of the Roman empire to becoming the dominant religion of the entire Mediterranean world, converting most of the Roman Empire in less than four hundred years. How’d they do that? It’s a really interesting question!
But I do not think that their success at first or even in the following two centuries was because of their community’s’ commitment to helping and supporting one another. Here is what I say about it in my book.
The Attractions of the Christian Community
It is often thought and widely claimed that one of the main reasons pagans converted to Christianity was because of the inherent attractiveness of the church community. Pagan civic cults did not involve much of any community. They did entail ceremonies performed in public in the presence of others. But there were no weekly community meetings, opportunities for fellowship, or planned times of discussion, reflection, and sharing of concerns.
That was different within Christianity. Much like the Jewish synagogues out of which they grew, Christian churches entailed regularly scheduled weekly meetings. Converting to become Christian was not an isolated individualistic affair, a matter of private spirituality. It meant joining the church. The church was not a place – there were no buildings for Christian gatherings until the middle of the third century, so far as we know. Prior to then, and probably for a good while afterward, most churches met in private homes and in outdoor areas such as cemeteries. Rather than being a place, the church was a community. A tightly-knit community. A community as tightly knit as the nuclear family. In fact, Christians were often encouraged to replace their families with the members of their new community. The founder or leader of the church was a “father”; fellow believers were “brothers” and “sisters” in one big family. Moreover, these were self-consciously communities of mutual love and respect. They provided material support for their needy members. They provided moral support for everyone who came.
Such, at least, were the claims of Christians who wrote about the church. Whether all this was entirely true is another question. But numerous scholars have maintained that …
It is mind-deadingly easy to see the rest of this post. Join the Blog! It doesn’t cost much, and every thin dime you pay (about five of them a week) goes to charities helping those in need. And if you can’t afford a membership just now, check out this offer: https://ehrmanblog.org/would-you-like-a-free-three-month-membership-to-the-blog/! In either event: join. And tell others to join. Why leave anyone out of the fun?