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