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Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?

April 13, 2016


Just returned from my trip to Milwaukee to give the 2016 Pere Marquette Lecture in Marquette University.   A good turnout (my local host estimated a crowd approaching 300), and very hospitable colleagues, who made my brief stay very comfortable.

The 50 minute lecture was based on the larger written discussion of the same question that I was asked to produce, and which is now published as a small book:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries (Milwaukee:  Marquette University Press, 2016), ISBN 13: 978-1-62600-504-4.  (The book was published in such a rush to make copies available for the lecture that as of this a.m. it’s not yet listed on the press web-site!  But it’s been pointed out that it’s listed on Amazon here.)

I give a brief overview of the growth of Christianity across those early centuries, which makes the question appropriate.  But the question I frame is a bit different from the one usually put:  not why did Christianity as a movement grow, but why did individuals commit to Christian faith?

Scholars have tended to focus on putative features that may have attracted individuals, such as social bonding in Christian circles, or their charity toward fellow believers, etc.  But such discussions often leave out an equally important feature:  There were also strong reasons not to become a Christian then.  I discuss what I term “judicial/political” consequences, and also “social” consequences of becoming a Christian that we know served as disincentives for identifying yourself as a Christian then.

So the more pointed question that I try to underscore is why, in light of these negative costs/consequences did people continue to align themselves with the early Christian movement.  Assuming that they weren’t stupid or insane, they must have judged there to be positive factors that outweighed the negative consequences.

I don’t claim to provide a full answer in my small Marquette volume.  My purpose instead is to draw attention to this way of putting the question, exploring the growth of adherents to early Christianity specifically in the context of those costs/consequences.

I think it helps us to put a human face on the phenomenon.  Whereas most scholars have focused on the growth of Christianity as a social movement (a subject that I don’t in any way disparage), my question is intended to get down to the level of individuals and the consequences of their religious choices.

The consequences of becoming a Christian in that period also set apart that move from any other religious affiliation.  You could become a Mithraist or Isiac or whatever, and it made no difference to your previous religious activities and loyalties.  You continued to take part in the worship of your inherited deities of household, city, nation.  But if you became a Christian you were expected to desist from worship of all other deities.

And the ubiquitous place of the gods in all spheres of social and political activity made that difficult, and made for potentially serious consequences if you did desist.  Indeed, it made it difficult to know how you could function socially and politically (to use our terminology).

So, I hope that the lecture and the little book on which it was based will contribute to our continued investigation of what must surely be one of the most intriguing phenomena of history:  that all across this early period people became adherents of Christianity in the face of the costs and consequences of doing so.

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  1. I don’t know who taught you or where they got the nonsense that you mention, but it’s . . . nonsense, Donald. Try reading a bit more!

  2. Hugh Scott permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    Thank you for examining this most interesting topic.

    I hope that I have correctly understood that your emphasis is on the conversion of individuals, and on the socio/economic consequences for the individuals (and their families?) in the pagan ambience.

    However, I would have liked to see an explicit – however brief – answer to the question you pose and deal with: “Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?”.

    Surely it must have been because the converts believed that the Christian message was true: as it was preached (1) by Peter, to the Jews in the early chapters of Acts, and (2) by Paul, to the Athenian pagans on the Areopagus in Acts 17.22-31. Both preach that [the Christian] God is the sole creator of everything that exists, and that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God and rose/was raised from the dead.

    • Hugh: You’re missing the point, which is that allegiance to Christian faith (uniquely in the Roman setting) involved costs/consequences. So, however interesting this or that belief, people had to weigh up the costs of allegiance. Sure, the messages of early Christians were important, and in my book/lecture I engage the matter. But my point is that there had to be a “cost-benefit analysis”, and what was it that outweighed the costs? Probably different things for different people

      • Perhaps part of the benefit was the vindication of the resurrection: no matter how unjust the oppressors, no matter the cruel acts of powerful Romans, in the end God has the last say and vindicates his people with resurrection and eternal life.

        A complete reversal of social status and order is a heavy weight in the cost/benefit analysis.

      • Could I suggest that you read my lecture? Speculation without grounding in the data isn’t really worth much.

  3. It almost seems here that only the immensely dynamic presence and message of Jesus could account for so many people following Christianity. When the immediate worldly consequences were often so negative.

  4. Mikie Catanzaro permalink

    Though not an in depth analysis on a scholar’s level, I found D.Boin’s “Coming Out Christian in the Roman World’ to be very well done and quite fascinating. It approaches the same question germane to the ‘common’ individual in Roman times and how or why Christianity was a viable alternative to the various polytheistic choices at that time.

    • Don’t know this Boin or his book. My own is sufficiently documented to be of use to serious students and, hopefully, to pass muster with scholars, but is written to be accessible to anyone interested enough to read a small book (133pp.) on the subject. So, naturally, I recommend my book!

      • I’ve read Doug’s book. It’s interesting but it’s aim, as the title hints in the first two words, has more to do with modern culture than ancient.

  5. Mark Mathur permalink

    I have been asking myself that same question. What attracted people to this strange version of Judaism? Assuming the converts experienced some kind of empowering to live more virtuous lives (considering texts such as Eph 2:1-10), could it be the striving for honor that motivated them? Was there such a culture in the Greco-Roman society where one wanted to become virtuous “at any cost” that could motivate, even in the face of death?

  6. Mel Smith permalink

    How and when can I get hold of the Marquette book, please? Re their hospitality – I stayed in the town on a short visit to the Diocese of Upper Michigan some years ago and also enjoyed great hospitality.

    • I’ve emailed the Press to point out that the book isn’t yet listed on their web site, and to suggest that they might be able to sell a few copies if they corrected the matter!

  7. Sounds like a fascinating subject, cannot wait to hear your conclusions.

  8. Dr Hurtado that it very interesting. How do your comments dovetail with Rodney Stark’s analysis (e.g. in The Rise of Christianity), particularly on the logic of martyrdom? Although he is a sociologist, he does comment on the motivations of individuals.

    • I personally value Stark’s foray into early Christianity. It is flawed, largely through his not being an expert in the subject; but it is also heuristically valuable, as he brings to his topic his abundant competence in modern religious movements, and his shrewd analysis of matters. My own focus is not on martyrdom, which has been a preoccupation with many scholars. It was a matter of relevance, of course. But I emphasize the far more frequent and more important “social” consequences/costs. Stark speculates, yes, on motivations, but (as with most scholars) doesn’t really factor in the disincentives.

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