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Was Christianity a Missionary Religion with No Missionaries?

Early Christians were bound and determined to convert others to their faith, as I indicated in my previous post.  Or at least that’s what their literature suggests; I very much doubt if *everyone* was!  But they certainly did convert people – within four hundred years a tiny handful of the disciples of Jesus’ uneducated and unimpressive disciples had become the official religion of the entire western world.

The interest in making converts made this religion unlike anything else in the Roman empire (or outside of it).  Now *that’s* interesting, and different from what we could expect.   But what is also odd to modern eyes is that even though Christianity was evangelistic, there were almost no evangelists.  That is to say, hardly anyone – so far as we know – went on a mission to other places to convert people, with one notable exception.  So how did the Christians manage to convert millions of people?  That’s the subject of this post, again taken from my book Triumph of Christianity.


Christians then, starting at least with Paul, came to be missionary, convinced they had to convert the world.  Goodman maintains it was Paul himself who came up with the idea.  He was the innovator, “the single apostle who invented the whole idea of a systematic conversion of the world, area by geographical area.”[i]   At the same time, this is what makes it so striking and unexpected that outside of Paul’s work itself, we do not know of any organized Christian missionary work – not just for the first century, but for any century prior to the conversion of most of the Empire.  As MacMullen has succinctly put it: “After Saint Paul, the Church had no mission.”[ii]

That may be hard to believe, but in fact, if you were to count every Christian missionary about whom even a single story is told, from the period after the New Testament up through the first four centuries, you would not …

This is one of those weird facts about early Christianity.  Wanna see how they spread then?  Join the blog and you’ll find out all about it.  It won’t cost much and the money all goes to charitable causes, so joining will make you and the entire universe better!

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Why Do Christians Try to Convert People?



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 4, 2020

    I suppose in the early Church everyone could play “Seven Degrees of Paul the Missionary” to see how far they were from the one really energetic missionary.

  2. Avatar
    thelad2  January 4, 2020

    Hello Bart. What about the other missionaries referenced by Paul in his letters like Apollos or the brothers of Jesus, also mentioned, but unnamed, by Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      We know of other Christians who called themselves “apostles” coming to the churches that were already established, but I don’t know of other references to evangelists starting churches (or maybe I’m just not remembering at the moment?). The apostles were certainly strating churches in Judea, it appears. But apart from them, my claim is we don’t know any other actual missionaries by name.

  3. Avatar
    JBarruso  January 4, 2020

    Please help me understand – didn’t 1st 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 others needs? And if so, wouldn’t this make their religion attractive to others in need?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      That’s often argued! I explain why I don’t think that was a major factor in the spread of the church in my book Triumph of Christianity. Maybe I’ll repost on it here.

      • Avatar
        JBarruso  January 5, 2020

        I’m interested to hear what you have to say about this. I’ll be sure to read Triumph of Christianity next after I finish Did Jesus Exit? The thought occurred to me that when a post on Facebook “goes viral” it’s because it touches some universal chord inside of people. It seems to me the rapid spread of Christianity in the first century via “social networks” is like that. The message spread rapidly because it must have somehow touched a universal chord, or met some universal need, inside of people. Do you agree?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2020

          In a *way*, but not the way most people are thinking….

  4. Avatar
    fishician  January 4, 2020

    Now we have social media, which expands connections all over the world. I wonder how that will affect worldviews, but I think it will tend toward secular non-religious viewpoints. However, armies and weapons in favor of religion are a formidable obstacle.

  5. Avatar
    saavoss  January 4, 2020

    Dr Ehrman, I’ve been wondering about the development of liturgical styles, both Christian and Jewish. How/when did the ancient people, and their religious leaders, decide what to include in their worship services? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      It’s a huge question, and unfortunately, for the early periods (say the first two Christian centuries), we don’t have any reliable information or evidence!

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 4, 2020

    The point about Christianity being exclusive, leading to slowly phasing out other religions, makes sense. One thing I would ask though is, what stopped people from abandoning Christianity and going back to their pagan ways? Surely many people went back to being pagan the way lots stop going to the gym in February.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      Yes, nothing stopped people, and many people did just that — thought they are obviously not much talked about by the Christian sources that want to emphasize the amazing success of the church!

      • Avatar
        tteichma  January 5, 2020

        After awhile Christianity became an officially accepted religion, and then the preferred religion of the Empire, and finally Pagans were officially suppressed. All of which helped Christianity along.

        Do I have that right?

  7. fefferdan
    fefferdan  January 4, 2020

    “Outside of Paul’s work itself, we do not know of any organized Christian missionary work.” This means we have to discount Acts’ account of Phillip’s mission to the Samaritans, and also the accounts in the NT apocrypha regarding various apostles and saints: from John’s mission to Asia Minor, to Thomas’ work in India, Peter’s in Rome, Thecla’s preaching in Seleucia and others. Admittedly these are of dubious historical value, but should they be discounted altogether?

    A minor point: by “Paul’s work” I guess you include the work of those who cooperated with him, and maybe even some of those who traveled in the empire teaching a “different gospel” from him? He clearly didn’t found some of the churches he wrote to.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      I’m not sure how “organized” Philip’s mission was, and am not sure we have a historical record. But I am of the definite opinion that the missionary work of John in Asia Minor, Thomas in India, Peter in Rome, and Thecla *anywhere* is completely legendary. But the accounts about them are amazing and very much worth studying. They appear in the legendary accounts from the second century and later called the Apocryphal Acts. Fantastic books. In every sense of the term! (We don’t have earlier records of these activities — no mention in the NT or earliest church writings, e.g.)

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  January 6, 2020

        I agree that the accounts in question are legendary, but “completely” bothers me. ”Essentially” or ”basically” yes. In other words I would agree we can’t consider any detail in their reports historically reliable. With Acts, it’s a bit different. Since some details harmonize with details in Paul’s letters, it’s at least partly historical IMO. It also makes sense to me logically that the earliest church would send a missionary or two to Samara, whose people read the Torah and had messianic expectations of their own. But, as to “organized,” well… I guess for Luke any mission blessed by the Holy Spirit was “organized.” A modern historian understandably needs better grounds than that.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 4, 2020

    “No Missionaries” – Really fascinating growth with so few missionaries.

  9. Avatar
    Matt2239  January 4, 2020

    If you found a dinosaur skeleton in Tours, France, and a dinosaur skeleton in rural Turkey, and a dinosaur skeleton in Gaza, you would conclude that there were dinosaurs all over the region. Yet you find three examples of missionaries and conclude they are a rare occurrence. Seems unscientific to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      Sorry, you lost me. Who are the three missionaries in different regions? Are you referring to three over several centuries? I’m not sure that’s the same as dinosaurs!

      • Avatar
        Duke12  January 7, 2020

        Presumably the missionaries being referred to are the ones you mentioned: Pontus, Martin, and Porphyry. The analogy appears to be that if you found 3 dinosaur fossils in 3 separate regions then likely the larger area supported more than just these 3 specimens. Therefore, if there are 3 named missionaries, maybe there were many other unnamed missionaries at work as well. It may not be the best analogy since single dinosaur specimens come from a breeding population of like dinosaur species. Missionaries can produce other missionaries in the same way, but not necessarily :-). But still, the possibility that there are more missionaries than just these 3 (and the others mentioned in your footnote), could be entertained.

  10. Avatar
    bothstillplaying  January 4, 2020

    Who exactly is the third missionary listed, Porphyry? …..not Porphyry of Tyre, I would guess?

  11. Avatar
    tteichma  January 5, 2020

    RE: One reason Christianity grows is that it is the only religion like this: the others are not missionary and they are not exclusive.[v] These two features make Christianity unlike anything else on offer. The people who become Christian are turning their backs on their pagan pasts, their pagan customs, and their pagan gods.

    Bart, I heard you say this in one of your lectures with the Great Courses. Love it.

    In the years that have followed, and also based on your books or lectures, I’ve also come to the realization that Christianity in may ways reflects the pagan practices of the society in which it it grew. Ideas which are not fully flushed out in the scripture, like the idea that Jesus is God, come from heaven to save humans in some way, then returning to the heavens. This seems very similar to Pagan stories – more Pagan than Jewish. Many of the current teachings of the church seem like they could have been lifted directly from Pagan practices and teachings.

    Does it seem that perhaps (just perhaps) Pauline Christianity – what we ended up with – was custom tailored for Pagans by Paul, focusing on themes that would specifically appeal to Pagans?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2020

      In many respects, yes — especially the idea that gentiles don’t need to become Jewish. But the major idea that it is Christ’s death and resurrection are what brings salvation was around before Paul.

  12. fefferdan
    fefferdan  January 6, 2020

    Bart, what is your view of the role of the “men from James” in Galatians and the Letter from James supposedly preserved in Acts, etc. in terms of organized missionary activity?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2020

      Both appear to have come to communities that had already been established (mainly of gentiles), so they were not connected with actually *converting* non-belieivers, but with dealing with those who had already converted.

  13. Avatar
    godspell  January 7, 2020

    Coming in late to this, I was reading about Dr. David Livingstone, the famed explorer and evangelist, who spent much of his life in a part of Africa few if any white men had ever seen before, more or less by himself. Trying to convert the Africans to Christianity, and largely failing–but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t liked and respected by many people he met there.

    He did manage to gain one convert–an influential chieftain. This man basically decided Christianity was compatible with polygamy (to Livingstone’s dismay), and if there were any converts at that time, he was making them–word of mouth.

    Livingstone’s mission to the heathen was, by any ordinary standard, a failure–but he did pave the way for Christianity in Africa (without ever utilizing the slightest compulsion), and it’s interesting to note that while place names and monuments to later white colonizers have largely been erased (good riddance), their names largely forgotten–people there still remember him kindly, as a good man, who tended to the sick, shared what he knew with them, and always was honest, humble, and forthright. There’s still a city called Livingstone in Zambia.

    Let’s not forget, in all of this, the influence that good character can have on people. Christians were trying to live as Jesus taught them, even as Livingstone did, many centuries later. That had a power of its own, to persuade over time. Or so I presume. 😉

  14. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 14, 2020

    Professor Ehrman,

    Do you think they’re right? They seem to reduce the importance of 1 Cor. 15:2, don’t they? e.g. what about Paul’s clear claim that to be saved the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection must be accepted?

    Q.: For the early apostles such as Peter and James, did they go from believing that salvation came via Jewish customs to believing that salvation came from Jesus Christ alone like Paul espouses, or did they believe that they had to now continue with the Jewish customs as well as accept Jesus as messiah in order to be saved?

    Prof. 1: “Jews did not think that following Torah ‘earned’ salvation; they are already part of the covenant community. Torah observance is what one does in response to the gift of the Torah. Paul is writing entirely to gentles, and his concern is to keep them from converting to Judaism, since if they were to convert, then G-d would not be the G-d of the gentiles. Jewish tradition typically expected gentiles to be righteous (e.g., give up worshiping pagan gods; behave morally) without expecting them to convert. For Paul, Jews remain Jews and gentiles remain gentiles or, better, ex-pagan pagans.”

    Prof. 2: “Jesus’s message was about God’s timetable: the Kingdom was at hand. The apostles’ experience of Jesus as raised reinforced this prophecy: his own resurrection meant that the general resurrection—the signature miracle of the Kingdom—was at hand, expected, says Paul, within Paul’s own lifetime. That’s why Jesus was important to the early apostles.”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Not sure what your first question is asking: I don’t have the thread when you ask a new question. The earliest diesciples continued to think that being a follower of the Jewish messiah of course meant being Jewish.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  January 15, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,

        I think this will sum it up better:

        The focus is on: 1 Corinthians 15:2ff:
        “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain….”

        1) The gospel for salvation that Paul goes on to outline here applies to the Gentiles and Jews alike. Is that correct?

        2) Presuming you said yes to #1: Paul (as well as the earlier apostles for that matter) believed that Jews too needed to accept Jesus Christ for salvation. So I don’t know why those scholars were indicating that being “part of the covenant community” was enough? Or the remark “Jesus was important” to the early apostles because his resurrection meant theirs was soon on the way…Again, wasn’t the most important thing that he was a means of salvation?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 16, 2020

          1. Yes; 2. I don’t know whom you mean by “those scholars”. The scholar who think being part of the covenant community was “enough” would answer no to question #1.

  15. Avatar
    Klas  March 29, 2020

    I find it puzzling that a group of 11 to 15 devout, but not especially charismatic or efficient preachers would, directly after Jesus death, start a movement that was so big within a year or two, that the farisees appointed one man, Saul, to spend his full time persecuting them.

    Hundreds and thousands of jews must have been impressed by listing to or hearing about this new preacher who came with a different message and a message that people did not know they liked until they heard of it.
    (can’t help comparing with the Beatles who went popular quickly because we did not know that we liked that kind of music. Or Greta, a timid teenager, who has a way of saying things that we reluctantly admit are true and appeal to our inner feelings)

    And I am puzzled by that fact that this movement was big enough thirty years later to be accused of starting the fire of Rome. Nero must have launched that rumor knowing that the romans knew about this group.

    Sorry, this is not really a question…perhaps I write this because, as a teenager, I was convinced as a devout Jehovas Wittness that we in fact were the only ones doing exactly as the first Christians did, preaching door to door. And now the historians tell me that that was not the way Christianity was spread, instead it was with a slow family to family process…

    PS. Jw were quite successful in the 60 ‘s with their door to door tactic, but then there was a real Armageddon scare to exploit with the Cuba crisis and a looming Third world War.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2020

      You may want to read my book Triumph of Christianity on this point. I show that the early Christian group was not large at all. There’s really very convincing proof of this. We are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people who had heard of it; when Paul was persecuting it, there probably weren’t even *hundreds* of them, at least not many hundreds. (BTW, nowhere does it say Pharisees appointed Paul to persecute Christians; the account in Acts that the high priest of the Jews in Jerusalem did [these, by the way, were not Pharisees] does not make historical sense; the high priest in Jerusalem had no jurisdiction over Jews outside of Jerusalem)

  16. Avatar
    Ferrante83  April 29, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, two questions:
    A- Were there any christians in Pompeii and Herculaneum?
    B- Were there any Jews in Pompeii and Herculaneum?

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