Why did Christianity thrive in the days of the apostles?

Why did Christianity thrive in the days of the apostles? April 16, 2018


At Sunday’s deacon convocation in the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio referenced this column in The Wall Street Journal. (I’d seen it Friday and meant to post, but life intervened.) Using the new movie “Paul, Apostle of Christ” as a springboard, writer Charlotte Allen explores what it was that made Christianity flourish in the first centuries after Christ.

There’s some great homily material here, folks—and challenging insight into evangelization for us all. As the bishop explained—and as Bishop Caggiano also noted at one point in his keynote—we deacons can be great evangelizers by not only proclaiming the Gospel, but by witnessing to it with our lives. We need to walk the walk.

An excerpt (subscription required to read it all):

In A.D. 67, when Paul met his death, historians have estimated that there were only about 2,500 Christians scattered in small communities throughout the Roman Empire. By the year 350 there were nearly 34 million of them, a majority of the empire’s population. Why did these early Christians thrive, despite being universally despised?

[Writer-Producer Andrew] Hyatt could have used as his guidebook Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” (1996). Mr. Stark used social-science methodology, such as statistical arithmetic and the study of social networks, to argue that this explosive growth was owing neither to God’s miraculous favor nor to the heavy hand of Christian emperors such as Constantine. Christians took care of each other and, when possible, their pagan neighbors. They took seriously Jesus ’ injunction to feed the hungry and visit the sick, Mr. Stark argued. This made a huge difference in ancient cities, including Rome.

Once you got away from the impressive monuments, Rome was essentially a hellhole of filth, stench, cultural chaos and casual cruelty. Most people were crammed into rickety tenements that were breeding grounds for disease. But as Mr. Stark points out, simply nursing and feeding the sick increased Christians’ survival odds and gave them a demographic edge over their pagan neighbors, who typically fled epidemics and often abandoned sick relatives to die.

As Mr. Stark also pointed out, women enjoyed higher status in early Christian circles than elsewhere in classical society, which made them ready converts. As Paul’s letters showed, they were leaders and benefactors of churches, especially when it came to dispensing charity. Furthermore, Christian husbands were enjoined to love their wives and be faithful to them.

Christian prohibitions against abortion and infanticide encouraged the survival of baby girls and dramatically increased Christian fertility over the long term once those girls grew up and married. Many took pagan husbands, whom they sometimes converted, and then raised their children as Christians—another demographic boost.

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