Early Christians in the first 300 years after Jesus’ crucifixion weren’t, as is widely assumed today, universally persecuted and fed to lions for entertainment in the Roman Coliseum.
History indicates they certainly were periodically harassed and mistreated over centuries in scattered parts of the sprawling Roman Empire, but as the empire slowly edged toward its imminent doom, the faith steadily if slowly strengthened due to gradual official government acceptance, conversions of common people to the faith (and sometimes the elite), and wars won by rulers favorable toward the faith.
A 1,700-year-old letter from one Christian man, Arrianus, to his brother, Paulus, as early as approximately 230 AD indicates that even some elite, well-connected members of societies in the empire were unapologetic Christians at the time. The letter is the oldest extant Christian writing outside the Bible.
“The earliest Christians in the Roman Empire are usually portrayed as eccentrics who withdrew from the world and were threatened by persecution. This is countered by the contents of the Basel papyrus letter,” said Sabine Huebner, professor of ancient history at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where the letter has been stored for more than a century.
The rare document, identified in academe as P.Bas 2.43, originated in Theadelphia, a village in central Egypt. It reveals the brothers as Christian because of several apparent references to Jesus, most notably including the use of a known Christian abbreviation, a nomen sacrum, meaning “I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”
“The use of this abbreviation – known as a nomen sacrum in this context – leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer,” Huebner said. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.”
Also indicative was that the letter’s receiver was named “Paulus,” likely after Jesus’ apostle Paul, because Huebner said the name was “extremely rare” at the time.
Here’s the full text of Arrianus’ letter:
“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus. I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as well as possible in your life.
“[Since] Menibios was going to you, I thought it necessary to salute you as well as our lord father. Now, I remind you about the gymnasiarchy, so that we are not troubled here. For Heracleides would be unable to take care of it: he has been named to the city council. Find thus an opportunity that you buy the two [–] arouras.
“But send me the fish liver sauce too, whichever you think is good. Our lady mother is well and salutes you as well as your wives and sweetest children and our brothers and all our people. Salute our brothers [-]genes and Xydes. All our people salute you.
“I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”
The road to the Christianization of Europe and parts of the Middle East was a long one. According to the website Medievalists.net:
“Starting with the first followers of Jesus Christ, Christianity spread out into the Middle East and along the Mediterranean Sea to other parts of the Roman Empire. Although believers faced periodic Roman persecutions, the religion would grow, with some scholars suggesting that its idea about the resurrection of the dead and immortality of the spirit were appealing theological ideas, while others believe that the practical efforts of the church to help the poor was important in its increasing popularity.”
It began to reach critical mass in 301 AD, when evangelical Christian St. Gregory the Illuminator convinced Armenian king Tiridates III to endorse Christianity as his state religion. When Roman Emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity early in the 4th century as an authorized religion in his empire, the faith began to soar.
By the time the empire finally imploded in 476 AD when barbarian Germanic leader Odoacer ousted Emperor Romulus, Christianity was already ascendant throughout the empire.
Then, nearly a millennia of severe intellectual erosion began as most of the literate, educated elite fled the failing empire because government officials were no longer needed in the chaos.
Most of the people remaining after the fall of Rome did not speak or read the languages of classical scholarship and knowledge (Greek and Latin); indeed, most couldn’t read at all. Endless scrolls of Greek and Roman classic treatises, containing most of the accumulated knowledge of Western civilization to that time, lay unread and gathering dust on their shelves in private libraries and monasteries, and monks and other Christian prelates became virtually the only literate citizens remaining.
For centuries hence, the “Word of God” was virtually the only “knowledge” remaining that citizens of the lost empire would be exposed to. During this period is when Christianity became not only a spiritual superpower but also, intermittently, a temporal one as well.
It wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance of the 13th and 14th centuries that classical knowledge, including some of the works of Aristotle and Plato, began to broadly re-emerge in Western Europe, brought from the Eastern Empire and environs by Muslim conquerors of Spain.
But the endorsement of Christianity by the Armenian and Roman rulers in the 4th century had cast the die for the faith’s spectacular rise to European dominance—and its eventual deep embedding in the New World enclave of colonial America.
This is why separation of church and state is essential today.