Around the 1st century AD, the three biggest religions in the Roman empire were the Roman pantheon, Judaism, and Christianity.

Why was Christianity so much more successful in gaining and keeping followers compared to the other two that by the end of the 4th century AD, it had become the Roman state religion?

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    There is a book that answers this exact question. – Dan Jul 30 '13 at 19:26
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    @Sid do keep in mind that Stark is a professor of sociology at Baylor University. I can understand if his science is bad (although making anti-evolution comments doesn't necessarily mean this is the case, as macro-evolution is as of yet a largely unproven theory concerning the origins of species), but I would give his sociology a chance. – Dan Jul 30 '13 at 19:44
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    Don't forget Mithraism, which was popular in the 2d - 3d century AD. – please delete me Jul 30 '13 at 20:03
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    @Sid - Judaisim at the time was as much a racial construct as a religous one. As such, it wasn't nearly as open to conversions. – T.E.D. Jul 30 '13 at 20:30
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    1) This question is assertions without research or references. Who said these were the three most populous? I doubt the claim (I suspect there were more people in the provinice of Asia than there were Jews). 2) The religions are not commensurate; one is political, one ethnographic and the third is syncretic. (3) as others have said, there are books on this, which make it out of scope for H:SE. (4) the answer is either subjective or a list. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 31 '13 at 11:19

Traditionally, Judaism was not an evangelistic religion (and so it remains among 'mainstream Jews') - Jews did not believe it was their mission to spread their faith to the world, nor is there any mention of such a mission in the Hebrew Bible according to the traditional Hebrew rendering. "And you shall be a Holy People for Me" Shemot 22:30 (one of many)

To paraphrase the language of the Talmud:

Do we not have enough problems with the Jews we already have?

Moreover, the Talmud and Maimonides specifically enumerate certain commandments specifically for non-Jews to follow and non-Jews are promised heavenly reward for obeying those commandments. They are not required to embrace Judaism to achieve "salvation". See: According to Judaism, as expressed in the Talmud, the Noachide Laws apply to all humanity through humankind's descent from one paternal ancestor, the head of the only family to survive The Flood, who in Hebrew tradition is called Noah. In Judaism, בני נח B'nei Noah (Hebrew, "Descendants of Noah", "Children of Noah") refers to all of humankind.[11] The Talmud also states: "Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come"

As for converting to Judaism:

Yevamot 47a:

Our Rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: ‘What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions’? If he replies, ‘I know and yet am unworthy’, he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments.

Maimonides: Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:2:

We inform him of the fundamentals of the faith, i.e., the unity of God and the prohibition against the worship of false deities. We elaborate on this matter. We inform him about some of the easy mitzvot and some of the more severe ones. We do not elaborate on this matter.

In addition, circumcision is required - Talmud, Maimonides, Supra - obviously no simple matter for an adult male, particularly before modern anesthetic techniques had been developed. Thus it provided a good reason not to convert to Judaism.

Christianity, on the other hand, was evangelistic from its very early days: The Gospel of John then points out that Jesus' disciples were baptizing more people than John (John 4:2).

So it's no surprise that Christianity "won" when it came to converts.

As far as the Roman pantheon is concerned, I have little knowledge from primary sources. But from both Talmudic and historical sources that I am familiar with, it appears to me that there was no formally organized religion or movement of "The Roman Pantheon", whose mission it was "to spread the faith", etc, but simply a collection/hierarchy of various deities and their accompanying customs and forms of worship that became part of the cultural fabric of Rome. So, as classical Roman culture faded, so did the Roman Pantheon.

In short, there really was no competition to gain converts. Christianity won by default.

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    Your answer contains many good observations (especially about Judaism not being a proselytizing religion), however a bit more context is necessary. First, about the proselytizing - actually, it's not that simple. It is well-known that there was a sizeable movement of "Judaizers", that is Graeco-Roman people, usually rather well-to-do ones, who took a keen interest in Judaism and adopted a few of its customs (presumably, some of the dietary laws and some observation of the Shabbat). Thex exact scope and character of this movement is very much debated by historians (we'll never know for sure – Felix Goldberg Aug 7 '13 at 8:01
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    because of the paucity of the sources) but what I wrote above is I think a sort of minimum synthesis that can be taken for granted, as the Judaizers left a certain paper trail in Roman writers and also a vaguer one in the Talmud (remeber all these stories about Roman matrons asking Rabbis questions on religion?). I personally think that these people represented some sort of "New Age" mentality that was seeking new answers to the perennial questions of life and not finding them in the traditional Roman religion (a good and separate quesiton why that was so, one I am not qualified to answer) – Felix Goldberg Aug 7 '13 at 8:03
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    Indeed, the same period (say, from end of 1st to 3rd century CE) witnessed a rise in mysticism, Eastern religions of all stripes (Mithraism, sun-worship, Egyptian cults etc) and also a philosophical Neo-Platonism which at its higher levels was a cogent existential philosophy and at the lower ones descended into primitive astrology. So there was a great demand for new religious ideas and I think the rise of Christianity was not obvious at all - the market was up for grabs, so to speak. – Felix Goldberg Aug 7 '13 at 8:07
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    This is where the relative closeness of Judaism and the great openness of Christianity came into play. I think (just my guess) that the great mass of Judaizers eventually gravitated towards the Church (in fact, Origen in the 3rd century CE was still militating against people who had a foot in each doorstep, without firmly committing to either). The simplicity of the Christian observation is another point you've rightly emphasized (no circumcision, no dietary laws - much easier to join and to stay). To return to the subject of Jewish proselytizing, though: in a large degree the unwillingness – Felix Goldberg Aug 7 '13 at 8:10
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    to seek converts was conditioned by the Roman laws that explicitly forbid conversion to Judaism. I think the Yevamot passage you quoted is direct evidence for that - it does not posit any principled opposition to conversion, focusing rather on persecutions (an overzealous preacher who attracted the authorities' attention could get the whole congregation in trouble so it was expedient to avoid this sort of acitivities altogether). So it stands to reason that in a different political climate Judaism might have been much more active in acquiring converts. – Felix Goldberg Aug 7 '13 at 8:13

My Understanding of the Factors that Led to the Rapid Rise and Eventual Success of Christianity:

I think there were several factors that predisposed Christianity1 to rapid, widespread growth.

  1. It began near the nexus of 3 continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

  2. It began during the Roman Empire, while the Empire was still relatively strong and robust, and controlled much of Europe and the Mediterranean, including North Africa. It had access to an extensive network of roads, and it had never been so easy to travel great distances. In Paul's letter to the Romans, he says he is planning a trip to Spain. He traveled throughout Asia Minor, Palestine, Greece, Macedonia, etc. By our modern standards, this wouldn't be very impressive, but this was happening 2,000 years ago, when the closest thing to an airplane was a horse,

  3. After the message was altered to make it less Jewish in nature, it became fairly inclusive.

  4. It was relatively unique in that it was a religion of belief rather than mere observance.

  5. It was also relatively unique in that it made promises of eternal rewards for the people who had been denied rewards in life.

  6. It was evangelical, and some of the apostles were brilliant PR men.

  7. Shortly after Jesus died, the new movement began to alter his message. This process has continued to this day, although at a much less drastic rate after the first couple of centuries. This is a huge benefit because it allowed the early church to become whatever its congregants needed it to be.

    • For example, the religion is based on a devout Jewish itinerant preacher who lived under Roman occupation and wasn't very happy about it. The Romans brutally murdered him in an unimaginably horrible way, and as his followers attracted new converts, the Romans persecuted them. Yet the church leaders in the second, third, and fourth centuries were able to take this faith based on an outspoken critic (and victim) of Rome, and turn it into the official religion of the Roman Empire. Later, beginning in the Middle Ages, this religion based on a Jewish preacher became the biggest contributor to the spread of virulent anti-Semitism throughout Europe. These are remarkable transformations, and they demonstrate just how adaptable Christianity was.
  8. It became a religion of the book very early on in its history.

A More In-Depth Explanation:

Jesus probably died around the year 35 CE. Paul was writing his letters, epistles, and homilies only 20 years later. Unfortunately, he never actually met Jesus, and his letters tell us almost nothing about the living Jesus, whom Paul describes almost dismissively as "Jesus-in-the-flesh". If you go through all of the letters known or widely believed to be written by Paul, and write down everything he says about Jesus' life, you will be shocked to find that all the relevant passages will fit on a single index card.

Still, there are few people as important to the rise of Christianity as Paul. He was apparently quite charismatic, and people paid attention to him. He had previously been a Pharisee, or a devout, zealous, almost militant Jew, and had been an active participant (and according to his own testimony, a leader) in the persecution of Jesus followers in Jerusalem after Jesus' death. After his famous conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he did a complete about face. Rather bizarrely, he now preached of the redundancy of Judaism, and urged his flock not to become Jews in order to follow Jesus. This didn't go over well with the disciples, who were well aware that Jesus was an extremely Jewish man, and had preached almost exclusively to Jews. Paul came into conflict with the disciples many times, and he wrote surprisingly hostile things about them in his letters. But despite the fact that he almost certainly turned Christianity into something totally different from what Jesus had in mind, he set the stage for its later success.

Paul would go to a new town, set up a shop (he is believed to have been a leatherworker of some sort), and talk to his customers as he worked. After a few weeks, he would leave for the next town, but he would also check in with the churches he had already created, usually by writing a letter, but if he heard something that worried him, he would send a trusted assistant to set things straight. If that didn't work, he would go back himself and read his congregation the riot act. Eventually, his constant clashes with the disciples, and their attempts to go behind his back to dissuade the Pauline churches of Paul's bizarre form of Jesus following, led Paul to go somewhere far enough away from Jerusalem that the disciples would not be able to interfere with his self proclaimed mission. He went to Rome, and after that we hear nothing about him, except that he was apparently crucified some years after he arrived. But his letters lived on, as did his influence on the Christian faith.

After Paul wrote the earliest letter which is still extant today, it was another 15 to 20 years before anyone wrote anything about Jesus. Fortunately, this time someone wrote his life story. The first gospel to be written was the one we know as *The Gospel According to Mark*2, which most scholars date to 65-70 CE. Matthew and Luke were probably written between 85-95 CE. In fact, Matthew and Luke may have been writing at the same time as one another, and it is clear that both had access to the Gospel of Mark, but Matthew and Luke didn't know each other and neither had seen the other's gospel before writing his own. John was written much later; scholars usually date it to between 90-110 CE. Although none of these men ever met Jesus, and aside from Paul, they may not have met anyone who had met Jesus; John almost certainly didn't meet anyone who knew Jesus.

Still, the crucial fact remains: within 80 years (at most) of Jesus' death, all four gospels and the genuine Pauline Epistles, Homilies, and Letters had been written. Even better, the religion was still a small sect within Judaism, which meant that people who decided to follow the "Jesus Movement" (as modern scholars have dubbed it) also had access to the Jewish bible, (or at least most of it). From the beginning of Christianity's rise, it enjoyed the benefits of having written scriptures to make sure everyone was on the same page, so to speak, and this made it much easier to spread the word. In all honesty, the Christian church owes all the credit for this to Judaism - unlike the vast majority of religions in the ancient world, Judaism had a book, long revered, set in stone, orthodox and canonical, and they passed this blessing on to the Jesus Movement.

It is remarkable that, as Christianity slowly spread, and people began to write their own versions of the Jesus story, the gospels we know from the "NT" of the Christian bible were widely recognized as superior to most of the other Christian texts. There were many exceptions, of course, and nebulous forms of the faith, such as Christian Gnosticism, rejected some or all of the gospels which ended up being canonized. But still, on the whole, the most popular scriptures seem to have been the one that made it into the final compilation we call the bible. This was a tremendous asset, because as more time passed after Jesus' death, and everyone who knew him died as well, the leaders of the nascent church were able to point to the gospels and demonstrate the authenticity of the creeds and dogmas which had begun to spring up.

The church grew, but slowly. As the number of Christians increased, the pagans among whom they lived became suspicious. These people don't make the proper sacrifices to the gods of the Roman Pantheon! They don't offer incense and meat to Jupiter on the day of his festival! They worship in private and keep apart from us! They must be doing something deviant and awful! The pagans would go to their local procurator, governor, or proconsul, and insist that something be done to deal with this menace. The politicians were only interested in securing their own positions, so if allowing a massacre of Christians would keep the majority of the population happy, so be it!

Only much later did persecution of Christians become a policy of the Empire, and even then, it was carried out in a piecemeal, sporadic fashion. In most cases, it was not the government, but the common people who instigated violence against Christians. But then came Constantine. He converted to Christianity (probably as much from political self interest as from genuine devotion), and although he didn't make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, he did abolish several laws which had persecuted Christians, confiscated their property, and made life miserable for them. A later Emperor reinstated the laws, but they were abolished permanently soon afterward, and Christianity finally became the religion of the Roman Empire.

This was arguably the most significant event in the early history of the Christian church. The bulk of the continent of Europe was now Christian, and in future centuries, Europe would come to dominate the globe in terms of political, economic, trade, and military power. From this base, Christianity would spread around the world, and become the most popular religion in human history.

At first, there was no homogeneity among Christians. For this reason, the Biblical scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, and many of his colleagues, prefer to talk of "early Christianities", not "early Christianity". It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that each Christian during the first century had their own version of the faith. This was dangerous, since a cohesive movement is more likely to persist than a nebulous, incoherent one. Some shrewd political minds began to realize that the movement(s) needed someone at the helm, to figure out the right way to be a Christian. So began the Christian church.

By the third century, the group scholars refer to as the Proto-orthodox Christians had taken command, marginalizing and eradicating sects they deemed heretical. The Gnostics, Ebionites, Marcionites, Arians, and many other sects were effectively destroyed by the manipulations of the self described "Church Fathers". Their scriptures were burned, and our only copies of these texts come from impossibly lucky finds in caves, garbage pits, graves, and the ruins of ancient monasteries.

This narrowing of Christianity is lamented by curious scholars, because so much was lost forever; however, it probably played a significant role in ensuring that Christianity would become the most popular religion in human history. By closing the door on every other form of the faith, they made Christianity a monolithic entity, with people in positions of power to steer the course and keep it on track. The proto-orthodox Christians became the Orthodox Christians, but later split into three distinct factions: Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Every extant form of Christianity can trace its roots back to the proto-orthodox.

Just How Fast Did Christianity Grow?

The sociologist Rodney Stark wrote a book called The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, or How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. He found that during the first three and a half centuries of its existence, Christianity grew at a steady rate of 40% per decade, or 3.42% per year3. This trend ran out of steam shortly after the death of Emperor Constantine, but only because there weren't enough people to continue the trend.

Constantine became Emperor in the year 306 CE. His conversion began in 312 CE, and he died in 337 CE; during his reign, the population of the Empire was roughly 60 million people. According to Stark, in 300 CE, the Christian population of the Empire was about 6.3 million, or roughly 10.5% of the total population. By 350 CE, only 13 years after Constantine's death, there were nearly 34 million Christians in the Empire, accounting for 56.5% of the total population.

enter image description here
The Rise of Christianity, Chapter I: Conversion and Christian Growth' Rodney Stark, p. 13

The 40% per decade trend ended around 350 CE, because there simply weren't enough people for the trend to continue - if it had, there would have been nearly 190 million Christians in the Empire by the year 400 CE, which would be more than three times the total population of the Empire. Suffice to say that by 400, or 450 at the latest, virtually everyone in the Empire was Christian.

Today, there are well over a billion Christians in the world, and no religion has ever been so influential in shaping the course of human events, for better or worse.

From Wikipedia:

Stark points to a number of advantages that Christianity had over paganism to explain its growth:

  • While others fled cities, Christians stayed in urban areas during plague, ministering and caring for the sick.

  • Christian populations grew faster because of the prohibition of birth control, abortion and infanticide. Since infanticide tended to affect female newborn more frequently, early Christians had a more even sex ratio and therefore a higher percentage of childbearing women than pagans.

  • To the same effect: Women were valued higher and allowed to participate in worship leading to a high rate of female converts.

  • In a time of two epidemics (165 and 251) which killed up to a third of the whole population of the Roman Empire each time, the Christian message of redemption through sacrifice offered a more satisfactory explanation of why bad things happen to innocent people. Further, the tighter social cohesion and mutual help made them able to better cope with the disasters, leaving them with less casualties than the general population. This would also be attractive to outsiders, who would want to convert. Lastly, the epidemics left many non-Christians with a reduced number of interpersonal bonds, making the forming of new one both necessary and easier.

  • Christians did not fight against their persecutors by open violence or guerrilla warfare but willingly went to their martyrdom while praying for their captors, which added credibility to their evangelism.

Stark's basic thesis is that, ultimately, Christianity triumphed over paganism because it improved the quality of life of its adherents at that time.


1 In the beginning, people who followed Jesus weren't called Christians. In fact, we don't know if they were called anything in particular. During Jesus' lifetime, he and his followers were simply Jews. This was still the case for all of his followers for another couple of decades at the least, and most of them probably consider themselves exclusively Jewish as long as they lived. It was only in the second and third generations of Jesus followers that the slow but steady drift away from Judaism began. Some small sects of Jewish Jesus followers remained active until perhaps the fifth century or later. This situation cause problems for scholars, who like to have specific names for things. Therefore, the most popular term for the first followers of Jesus are now known as "The Jesus Movement". It bears repeating that these people were completely Jewish in belief, practice, and self identification. Furthermore, non-Jews also considered these people to be Jewish. It isn't clear when the Roman government began to notice the difference between regular Jews and Jesus Jews, but it is known that they had begun to single out Christians (who were by this time really Christians) by about a hundred years after Jesus died.

2 As far as modern scholarship has been able to determine, there is probably no reason to believe that the authors of the gospels were named Matthew, Mark, or Luke. There is a possibility that the author of some sections of John was actually named John, but the traditional claim that this was John the Beloved Disciple is not taken seriously by most impartial scholars. The earliest manuscripts of the gospels don't have any names attached, and there is no evidence that they were called by the names we know until a century or more after they were written. These names were attributed to them by the early leaders of the church, and some records remain of some of these leaders expressing their doubts about the issue of authorship.

3 Interestingly, the Mormon church has grown at a rate of 43% per decade for the last century.

  • ++1 although I find the "slow growth" not aligned with a known fact. A minor sect of a minor religion appeared in a very backward province; and about 35 years later the number of believers living in the distant capital, and the recognition by public over there, was enough to blame them of setting fire to the city. They were no nomads, they had no printing, no Internet. Just a plain face-to-face communication of actual sedentary people. The initial spread was amazing, and - to me - yet unexplained. – kubanczyk Aug 15 '15 at 21:11
  • @kubanczyk - I don't disagree, but in terms of absolute numbers, the initial growth was relatively slow for a few decades. In terms of percentage of the population,it was even slower - 170 years before it hits 1% of the total population. – Wad Cheber Aug 15 '15 at 21:13
  • @kubanczyk - My central argument is that the growth was actually quite fast. – Wad Cheber Aug 15 '15 at 21:19
  • I dont' know of any historical fact between 30 and 64 C.E. to warrant such numerical projection. Otherwise, your answer is more than correct. – kubanczyk Aug 15 '15 at 21:21

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