No statistics or accurate statements, but only scattered hints in
Pliny (107): Ep. x. 96 sq. (the letter to Trajan). Ignatius (about 110): Ad Magnes. c. 10. Ep. ad Diogn. (about 120) c. 6.
Justin Martyr (about 140): Dial. 117; Apol. I. 53.
Irenaeus (about 170): Adv. Haer. I. 10; III. 3, 4; V. 20, etc.
Tertullian (about 200): Apol. I. 21, 37, 41, 42; Ad Nat. I. 7; Ad Scap. c. 2, 5; Adv. Jud. 7, 12, 13.
Origen (d. 254): Contr. Cels. I, 7, 27; II. 13, 46; III. 10, 30; De Princ. l. IV. c. 1, § 2; Com. in Matth. p. 857, ed. Delarue.
Eusebius (d. 340): Hist. Eccl III. 1; v. 1; vii, 1; viii. 1, also books ix. and x.
Rufinus: Hist. Eccles. ix. 6.
Augustin (d. 430): De Civitate Dei. Eng. translation by M. Dods, Edinburgh, 1871; new ed. (in Schaff’s “Nicene and Post-Nicene Library”), N. York, 1887.
Mich. Le Quien (a learned Dominican, d. 1733): Oriens Christianus. Par. 1740. 3 vols. fol. A complete ecclesiastical geography of the East, divided into the four patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
Mosheim: Historical Commentaries, etc. (ed. Murdock) I. 259-290.
Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chap. xv.
A. Beugnot: Histoire de la destruction du paganisme en Occident. Paris 1835, 2 vols. Crowned by the Académie des inscriptions et belles-letters.
Etienne Chastel: Histoire de la destruction du paganisme dans I’ empire d’ Orient. Paris 1850. Prize essay of the Académie.
Neander: History of the Christian Relig. and Church (trans. of Torrey), I. 68-79
Wiltsch: Handbuch der kirchl. Geographie u. Statistik. Berlin 1846. I. p. 32 sqq.
Chs. Merivale: Conversion of the Roman Empire (Boyle Lectures for 1864), republ. N. York 1865. Comp. also his History of the Romans under the Empire, which goes from Julius Caesar to Marcus Aurelius, Lond. & N. York, 7 vols.
Edward A. Freeman: The Historical Geography of Europe. Lond. & N. York 1881. 2 vols. (vol. I. chs. II. & III. pp. 18-71.)
Comp. Friedländer, Sittengesch. Roms. III. 517 sqq.; and Renan: Marc-Aurèle. Paris 1882, ch. xxv. pp. 447-464 (Statistique et extension géographique du Christianisme).
V. Schultze: Geschichte des Untergangs des griech-römischen Heidenthums. Jena, 1887.
4. Hindrances and Helps
For the first three centuries Christianity was placed in the most unfavorable circumstances, that it might display its moral power, and gain its victory over the world by spiritual weapons alone. Until the reign of Constantine it had not even a legal existence in the Roman empire, but was first ignored as a Jewish sect, then slandered, proscribed, and persecuted, as a treasonable innovation, and the adoption of it made punishable with confiscation and death. Besides, it offered not the slightest favor, as Mohammedanism afterwards did, to the corrupt inclinations of the heart, but against the current ideas of Jews and heathen it so presented its inexorable demand of repentance and conversion, renunciation of self and the world, that more, according to Tertullian, were kept out of the new sect by love of pleasure than by love of life. The Jewish origin of Christianity also, and the poverty and obscurity of a majority of its professors particularly offended the pride of the Greeks, and Romans. Celsus, exaggerating this fact, and ignoring the many exceptions, scoffingly remarked, that “weavers, cobblers, and fullers, the most illiterate persons” preached the “irrational faith,” and knew how to commend it especially “to women and children.”
But in spite of these extraordinary difficulties Christianity made a progress which furnished striking evidence of its divine origin and adaptation to the deeper wants of man, and was employed as such by Irenaeus, Justin, Tertullian, and other fathers of that day. Nay, the very hindrances became, in the hands of Providence, means of promotion. Persecution led to martyrdom, and martyrdom had not terrors alone, but also attractions, and stimulated the noblest and most unselfish form of ambition. Every genuine martyr was a living proof of the truth and holiness of the Christian religion. Tertullian could exclaim to the heathen: “All your ingenious cruelties can accomplish nothing; they are only a lure to this sect. Our number increases the more you destroy us. The blood of the Christians is their seed.” The moral earnestness of the Christians contrasted powerfully with the prevailing corruption of the age, and while it repelled the frivolous and voluptuous, it could not fail to impress most strongly the deepest and noblest minds. The predilection of the poor and oppressed for the gospel attested its comforting and redeeming power. But others also, though not many, from the higher and educated classes, were from the first attracted to the new religion; such men as Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathaea, the apostle Paul, the proconsul Sergius Paulus, Dionysius of Athens, Erastus of Corinth, and some members of the imperial household. Among the sufferers in Domitian’s persecution were his own near kinswoman Flavia Domitilla and her husband Flavius Clemens. In the oldest part of the Catacomb of Callistus, which is named after St. Lucina, members of the illustrious gens Pomponia, and perhaps also of the Flavian house, are interred. The senatorial and equestrian orders furnished several converts open or concealed. Pliny laments, that in Asia Minor men of every rank (omnis ordinis) go over to the Christians. Tertullian asserts that the tenth part of Carthage, and among them senators and ladies of the noblest descent and the nearest relatives of the proconsul of Africa professed Christianity. The numerous church fathers from the middle of the second century, a Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, excelled, or at least equalled in talent and culture, their most eminent heathen contemporaries.
Nor was this progress confined to any particular localities. It extended alike over all parts of the empire. “We are a people of yesterday,” says Tertullian in his Apology, “and yet we have filled every place belonging to you — cities, islands, castles, towns, assemblies, your very camp, your tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum! We leave you your temples only. We can count your armies; our numbers in a single province will be greater.” All these facts expose the injustice of the odious charge of Celsus, repeated by a modern sceptic, that the new sect was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace — of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves.
5. Causes of the Success of Christianity
The chief positive cause of the rapid spread and ultimate triumph of Christianity is to be found in its own absolute intrinsic worth, as the universal religion of salvation, and in the perfect teaching and example of its divine-human Founder, who proves himself to every believing heart a Saviour from sin and a giver of eternal life. Christianity is adapted to all classes, conditions, and relations among men, to all nationalities and races, to all grades of culture, to every soul that longs for redemption from sin, and for holiness of life. Its value could be seen in the truth and self-evidencing power of its doctrines; in the purity and sublimity of its precepts; in its regenerating and sanctifying effects on heart and life; in the elevation of woman and of home life over which she presides; in the amelioration of the condition of the poor and suffering; in the faith, the brotherly love, the beneficence, and the triumphant death of its confessors.
To this internal moral and spiritual testimony were added the powerful outward proof of its divine origin in the prophecies and types of the Old Testament, so strikingly fulfilled in the New; and finally, the testimony of the miracles, which, according to the express statements of Quadratus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and others, continued in this period to accompany the preaching of missionaries from time to time, for the conversion of the heathen.
Particularly favorable outward circumstances were the extent, order, and unity of the Roman empire, and the prevalence of the Greek language and culture.
In addition to these positive causes, Christianity had a powerful negative advantage in the hopeless condition of the Jewish and heathen world. Since the fearful judgment of the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism wandered restless and accursed, without national existence. Heathenism outwardly held sway, but was inwardly rotten and in process of inevitable decay. The popular religion and public morality were undermined by a sceptical and materialistic philosophy; Grecian science and art had lost their creative energy; the Roman empire rested only on the power of the sword and of temporal interests; the moral bonds of society were sundered; unbounded avarice and vice of every kind, even by the confession of a Seneca and a Tacitus, reigned in Rome and in the provinces, from the throne to the hovel. Virtuous emperors, like Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, were the exception, not the rule, and could not prevent the progress of moral decay. Nothing, that classic antiquity in its fairest days had produced, could heal the fatal wounds of the age, or even give transient relief. The only star of hope in the gathering night was the young, the fresh, the dauntless religion of Jesus, fearless of death, strong in faith, glowing with love, and destined to commend itself more and more to all reflecting minds as the only living religion of the present and the future. While the world was continually agitated by wars, and revolutions, and public calamities, while systems of philosophy, and dynasties were rising and passing away, the new religion, in spite of fearful opposition from without and danger from within, was silently and steadily progressing with the irresistible force of truth, and worked itself gradually into the very bone and blood of the race.
“Christ appeared,” says the great Augustin, “to the men of the decrepit, decaying world, that while all around them was withering away, they might through Him receive new, youthful life.”
Gibbon, in his famous fifteenth chapter, traces the rapid progress of Christianity in the Roman empire to five causes: the zeal of the early Christians, the belief in future rewards and punishment, the power of miracles, the austere (pure) morals of the Christian, and the compact church organization. But these causes are themselves the effects of a cause which Gibbon ignores, namely, the divine truth of Christianity, the perfection of Christ’s teaching and Christ’s example. See the strictures of Dr. John Henry Newman, Grammar of Assent, 445 sq., and Dr. George P. Fisher, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 543 sqq. “The zeal” [of the early Christians], says Fisher, “was zeal for a person, and for a cause identified with Him; the belief in the future life sprang out of faith in Him who had died and risen again, and ascended to Heaven; the miraculous powers of the early disciples were consciously connected with the same source; the purification of morals, and the fraternal unity, which lay at the basis of ecclesiastical association among the early Christians, were likewise the fruit of their relation to Christ, and their common love to Him. The victory of Christianity in the Roman world was the victory of Christ, who was lifted up that He might draw all men unto Him.”
Lecky (Hist. of Europ. Morals, I. 412) goes deeper than Gibbon, and accounts for the success of early Christianity by its intrinsic excellency and remarkable adaptation to the wants of the times in the old Roman empire. “In the midst of this movement,” he says, “Christianity gained its ascendancy, and we can be at no loss to discover the cause of its triumph. No other religion, under such circumstances, had ever combined so many distinct elements of power and attraction. Unlike the Jewish religion, it was bound by no local ties, and was equally adapted for every nation and for every class. Unlike Stoicism, it appealed in the strongest manner to the affections, and offered all the charm of a sympathetic worship. Unlike the Egyptian religion, it united with its distinctive teaching a pure and noble system of ethics, and proved itself capable of realizing it in action. It proclaimed, amid a vast movement of social and national amalgamation, the universal brotherhood of mankind. Amid the softening influence of philosophy and civilization, it taught the supreme sanctity of love. To the slave, who had never before exercised so large an influence over Roman religious life, it was the religion of the suffering and the oppressed. To the philosopher it was at once the echo of the highest ethics of the later Stoics, and the expansion of the best teaching of the school of Plato. To a world thirsting for prodigy, it offered a history replete with wonders more strange than those of Apollonius; while the Jew and the Chaldean could scarcely rival its exorcists, and the legends of continual miracles circulated among its followers. To a world deeply conscious of political dissolution, and prying eagerly and anxiously into the future, it proclaimed with a thrilling power the immediate destruction of the globe — the glory of all its friends, and the damnation of all its foes. To a world that had grown very weary gazing on the cold passionless grandeur which Cato realized, and which Lucan sung, it presented an ideal of compassion and of love — an ideal destined for centuries to draw around it all that was greatest, as well as all that was noblest upon earth — a Teacher who could weep by the sepulchre of His friend, who was touched with the feeling of our infirmities. To a world, in fine, distracted by hostile creeds and colliding philosophies, it taught its doctrines, not as a human speculation, but as a Divine revelation, authenticated much less by reason than by faith. ‘With the heart man believeth unto righteousness;’ ‘He that doeth the will of my Father will know the doctrine, whether it be of God;’ ‘Unless you believe you cannot understand;’ ‘A heart naturally Christian;’ ‘The heart makes the theologian,’ are the phrases which best express the first action of Christianity upon the world. Like all great religions, it was more concerned with modes of feeling than with modes of thought. The chief cause of its success was the congruity of its teaching with the spiritual nature of mankind. It was because it was true of the moral sentiments of the age, because it represented faithfully the supreme type of excellence to which men were then tending, because it corresponded with their religious wants, aims, and emotions, because the whole spiritual being could then expand and expatiate under its influence that it planted its roots so deeply in the hearts of men.”
Merivale (Convers. of the Rom. Emp., Preface) traces the conversion of the Roman empire chiefly to four causes: 1) the external evidence of the apparent fulfilment of recorded prophecy and miracles to the truth of Christianity; 2) the internal evidence of satisfying the acknowledged need of a redeemer and sanctifier; 3) the goodness and holiness manifested in the lives and deaths of the primitive believers; 4) the temporal success of Christianity under Constantine, which “turned the mass of mankind, as with a sweeping revolution, to the rising sun of revealed truth in Christ Jesus.”
Renan discusses the reasons for the victory of Christianity in the 31st chapter of his Marc-Aurèle (Paris 1882), pp. 561-588. He attributes it chiefly “to the new discipline of life,” and “the moral reform,” which the world required, which neither philosophy nor any of the established religions could give. The Jews indeed rose high above the corruptions of the times. “Glorie éternelle et unique, qui doit faire oublier bien des folies et des violence! Les Juifs sont les révolutionnaires du 1er et du 2e siècle de notre ère.” They gave to the world Christianity. “Les populations se précipitèrent, par une sorte du mouvement instinctif, dans une secte qui satisfaisait leur aspirations les plus intimes et ouvrait des ésperances infinies.” Renan makes much account of the belief in immortality and the offer of complete pardon to every sinner, as allurements to Christianity; and, like Gibbon, he ignores its real power as a religion of salvation. This accounts for its success not only in the old Roman empire, but in every country and nation where it has found a home.
6. Means of Propagation
It is a remarkable fact that after the days of the Apostles no names of great missionaries are mentioned till the opening of the middle ages, when the conversion of nations was effected or introduced by a few individuals as St. Patrick in Ireland, St. Columba in Scotland, St. Augustine in England, St. Boniface in Germany, St. Ansgar in Scandinavia, St. Cyril and Methodius among the Slavonic races. There were no missionary societies, no missionary institutions, no organized efforts in the ante-Nicene age; and yet in less than 300 years from the death of St. John the whole population of the Roman empire which then represented the civilized world was nominally Christianized.
To understand this astonishing fact, we must remember that the foundation was laid strong and deep by the apostles themselves. The seed scattered by them from Jerusalem to Rome, and fertilized by their blood, sprung up as a bountiful harvest. The word of our Lord was again fulfilled on a larger scale: “One soweth, and another reapeth. I sent you to reap that whereon ye have not labored; others have labored, and ye are entered into their labor” (Joh_4:38).
Christianity once established was its own best missionary. It grew naturally from within. It attracted people by its very presence. It was a light shining in darkness and illuminating the darkness. And while there were no professional missionaries devoting their whole life to this specific work, every congregation was a missionary society, and every Christian believer a missionary, inflamed by the love of Christ to convert his fellow-men. The example had been set by Jerusalem and Antioch, and by those brethren who, after the martyrdom of Stephen, “were scattered abroad and went about preaching the Word.” (Act_8:4; Act_11:19) Justin Martyr was converted by a venerable old man whom he met “walking on the shore of the sea.” Every Christian laborer, says Tertullian, “both finds out God and manifests him, though Plato affirms that it is not easy to discover the Creator, and difficult when he is found to make him known to all.” Celsus scoffingly remarks that fullers, and workers in wool and leather, rustic and ignorant persons, were the most zealous propagators of Christianity, and brought it first to women and children. Women and slaves introduced it into the home-circle, it is the glory of the gospel that it is preached to the poor and by the poor to make them rich. Origen informs us that the city churches sent their missionaries to the villages. The seed grew up while men slept, and brought forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. Every Christian told his neighbor, the laborer to his fellow-laborer, the slave to his fellow-slave, the servant to his master and mistress, the story of his conversion, as a mariner tells the story of the rescue from shipwreck.
The gospel was propagated chiefly by living preaching and by personal intercourse; to a considerable extent also through the sacred Scriptures, which were early propagated and translated into various tongues, the Latin (North African and Italian), the Syriac (the Curetonian and the Peshito), and the Egyptian (in three dialects, the Memphitic, the Thebaic, and the Bashmuric). Communication among the different parts of the Roman empire from Damascus to Britain was comparatively easy and safe. The highways built for commerce and for the Roman legions, served also the messengers of peace and the silent conquests of the cross. Commerce itself at that time, as well as now, was a powerful agency in carrying the gospel and the seeds of Christian civilization to the remotest parts of the Roman empire.
The particular mode, as well as the precise time, of the introduction of Christianity into the several countries during this period is for the most part uncertain, and we know not much more than the fact itself. No doubt much more was done by the apostles and their immediate disciples, than the New Testament informs us of. But on the other hand the mediaeval tradition assigns an apostolic origin to many national and local churches which cannot have arisen before the second or third century. Even Joseph of Arimathaea, Nicodemus, Dionysius the Areopagite, Lazarus, Martha and Mary were turned by the legend into missionaries to foreign lands.
7. Extent of Christianity in the Roman Empire
Justin Martyr says, about the middle of the second century: “There is no people, Greek or barbarian, or of any other race, by whatsoever appellation or manners they may be distinguished, however ignorant of arts or agriculture, whether they dwell in tents or wander about in covered wagons — among whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered in the name of the crucified Jesus to the Father and Creator of all things.” Half a century later, Tertullian addresses the heathen defiantly: “We are but of yesterday, and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palace, senate and forum; we have left to you only your temples.” These, and similar passages of Irenaeus and Arnobius, are evidently rhetorical exaggerations. Origen is more cautious and moderate in his statements. But it may be fairly asserted, that about the end of the third century the name of Christ was known, revered, and persecuted in every province and every city of the empire. Maximian, in one of his edicts, says that “almost all” had abandoned the worship of their ancestors for the new sect.
In the absence of statistics, the number of the Christians must be purely a matter of conjecture. In all probability it amounted at the close of the third and the beginning of the fourth century to nearly one-tenth or one-twelfth of the subjects of Rome, that is to about ten millions of souls.
But the fact, that the Christians were a closely united body, fresh, vigorous, hopeful, and daily increasing, while the heathen were for the most part a loose aggregation, daily diminishing, made the true prospective strength of the church much greater.
The propagation of Christianity among the barbarians in the provinces of Asia and the north-west of Europe beyond the Roman empire, was at first, of course, too remote from the current of history to be of any great immediate importance. But it prepared the way for the civilization of those regions, and their subsequent position in the world.
Gibbon and Friedländer (III. 531) estimate the number of Christians at the accession of Constantine (306) probably too low at one-twentieth; Matter and Robertson too high at one-fifth of his subjects. Some older writers, misled by the hyperbolical statements of the early Apologists, even represent the Christians as having at least equalled if not exceeded the number of the heathen worshippers in the empire. In this case common prudence would have dictated a policy of toleration long before Constantine. Mosheim, in his Hist. Commentaries, etc. (Murdock’s translation I. p. 274 sqq.) discusses at length the number of Christians in the second century without arriving at definite conclusions. Chastel estimates the number at the time of Constantine at 1/15 in the West, 1/10 in the East, 1/12 on an average (Hist. de la destruct. du paganisme, p. 36). According to Chrysostom, the Christian population of Antioch in his day (380) was about 100,000, or one-half of the whole.
8. Christianity in Asia
Asia was the cradle of Christianity, as it was of humanity and civilization. The apostles themselves had spread the new religion over Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. According to the younger Pliny, under Trajan, the temples of the gods in Asia Minor were almost forsaken, and animals of sacrifice found hardly any purchasers. In the second century Christianity penetrated to Edessa in Mesopotamia, and some distance into Persia, Media, Bactria, and Parthia; and in the third, into Armenia and Arabia. Paul himself had, indeed, spent three years in Arabia, but probably in contemplative retirement preparing for his apostolic ministry. There is a legend, that the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew carried the gospel to India. But a more credible statement is, that the Christian teacher Pantaeus of Alexandria journeyed to that country about 190, and that in the fourth century churches were found there.
The transfer of the seat of power from Rome to Constantinople, and the founding of the East Roman empire under Constantine I. gave to Asia Minor, and especially to Constantinople, a commanding importance in the history of the Church for several centuries. The seven Ecumenical Councils from 325 to 787 were all held in that city or its neighborhood, and the doctrinal controversies on the Trinity and the person of Christ were carried on chiefly in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.
In the mysterious providence of God those lands of the Bible and the early church have been conquered by the prophet of Mecca, the Bible replaced by the Koran, and the Greek church reduced to a condition of bondage and stagnation; but the time is not far distant when the East will be regenerated by the undying spirit of Christianity. A peaceful crusade of devoted missionaries preaching the pure gospel and leading holy lives will reconquer the holy land and settle the Eastern question.
9. Christianity in Egypt
In Africa Christianity gained firm foothold first in Egypt, and there probably as early as the apostolic age. The land of the Pharaohs, of the pyramids and sphinxes, of temples and tombs, of hieroglyphics and mummies, of sacred bulls and crocodiles, of despotism and slavery, is closely interwoven with sacred history from the patriarchal times, and even imbedded in the Decalogue as “the house of bondage.” It was the home of Joseph and his brethren, and the cradle of Israel. In Egypt the Jewish Scriptures were translated more than two hundred years before our era, and this Greek version used even by Christ and the apostles, spread Hebrew ideas throughout the Roman world, and is the mother of the peculiar idiom of the New Testament. Alexandria was full of Jews, the literary as well as commercial centre of the East, and the connecting link between the East and the West. There the largest libraries were collected; there the Jewish mind came into close contact with the Greek, and the religion of Moses with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. There Philo wrote, while Christ taught in Jerusalem and Galilee, and his works were destined to exert a great influence on Christian exegesis through the Alexandrian fathers.
Mark, the evangelist, according to ancient tradition, laid the foundation of the church of Alexandria. The Copts in old Cairo, the Babylon of Egypt, claim this to be the place from which Peter wrote his first epistle (1Pe_5:13); but he must mean either the Babylon on the Euphrates, or the mystic Babylon of Rome. Eusebius names, as the first bishops of Alexandria, Annianos (a.d. 62-85), Abilios (to 98), and Kerdon (to 110). This see naturally grew up to metropolitan and patriarchal importance and dignity. As early as the second century a theological school flourished in Alexandria, in which Clement and Origen taught as pioneers in biblical learning and Christian philosophy. From Lower Egypt the gospel spread to Middle and Upper Egypt and the adjacent provinces, perhaps (in the fourth century) as far as Nubia, Ethiopia, and Abyssinia. At a council of Alexandria in the year 235, twenty bishops were present from the different parts of the land of the Nile.
During the fourth century Egypt gave to the church the Arian heresy, the Athanasian orthodoxy, and the monastic piety of St. Antony and St. Pachomius, which spread with irresistible force over Christendom.
The theological literature of Egypt was chiefly Greek. Most of the early manuscripts of the Greek Scriptures — including probably the invaluable Sinaitic and Vatican MSS. — were written in Alexandria. But already in the second century the Scriptures were translated into the vernacular language, in three different dialects. What remains of these versions is of considerable weight in ascertaining the earliest text of the Greek Testament.
The Christian Egyptians are the descendants of the Pharaonic Egyptians, but largely mixed with negro and Arab blood. Christianity never fully penetrated the nation, and was almost swept away by the Mohammedan conquest under the Caliph Omar (640), who burned the magnificent libraries of Alexandria under the plea that if the books agreed with the Koran, they were useless, if not, they were pernicious and fit for destruction. Since that time Egypt almost disappears from church history, and is still groaning, a house of bondage under new masters. The great mass of the people are Moslems, but the Copts — about half a million of five and a half millions — perpetuate the nominal Christianity of their ancestors, and form a mission field for the more active churches of the West.
10. Christianity in North Africa
Böttiger: Geschichte der Carthager. Berlin, 1827.
Movers: Die Phönizier. 1840-56, 4 vols. (A standard work.)
Th. Mommsen: Röm. Geschichte, I. 489 sqq. (Book III. chs. 1-7, 5th ed.)
N. Davis: Carthage and her Remains. London & N. York, 1861.
R. Bosworth Smith: Carthage and the Carthaginians. Lond. 2nd ed. 1879. By the same: Rome and Carthage. N. York, 1880.
Otto Meltzer: Geschichte der Karthager. Berlin, vol. I. 1879.
These books treat of the secular history of the ancient Carthaginians, but help to understand the situation and antecedents.
Julius Lloyd; The North African Church. London, 1880. Comes down to the Moslem Conquest.
The inhabitants of the provinces of Northern Africa were of Semitic origin, with a language similar to the Hebrew, but became Latinized in customs, laws, and language under the Roman rule. The church in that region therefore belongs to Latin Christianity, and plays a leading part in its early history.
The Phoenicians, a remnant of the Canaanites, were the English of ancient history. They carried on the commerce of the world; while the Israelites prepared the religion, and the Greeks the civilization of the world. Three small nations, in small countries, accomplished a more important work than the colossal empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, or even Rome. Occupying a narrow strip of territory on the Syrian coast, between Mount Lebanon and the sea, the Phoenicians sent their merchant vessels from Tyre and Sidon to all parts of the old world from India to the Baltic, rounded the Cape of Good Hope two thousand years before Vasco de Gama, and brought back sandal wood from Malabar, spices from Arabia, ostrich plumes from Nubia, silver from Spain, gold from the Niger, iron from Elba, tin from England, and amber from the Baltic. They furnished Solomon with cedars from Lebanon, and helped him to build his palace and the temple. They founded on the northernmost coast of Africa, more than eight hundred years before Christ, the colony of Carthage. From that favorable position they acquired the control over the northern coast of Africa from the pillars of Hercules to the Great Syrtes, over Southern Spain, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, and the whole Mediterranean sea. Hence the inevitable rivalry between Rome and Carthage, divided only by three days’ sail; hence the three Punic wars which, in spite of the brilliant military genius of Hannibal, ended in the utter destruction of the capital of North Africa (b.c. 146). “Delenda est Carthago,” was the narrow and cruel policy of the elder Cato. But under Augustus, who carried out the wiser plan of Julius Caesar, there arose a new Carthage on the ruins of the old, and became a rich and prosperous city, first heathen, then Christian, until it was captured by the barbarous Vandals (a.d. 439), and finally destroyed by a race cognate to its original founders, the Mohammedan Arabs (647). Since that time “a mournful and solitary silence” once more brooded over its ruins.
Christianity reached proconsular Africa in the second, perhaps already at the close of the first century, we do not know when and how. There was constant intercourse with Italy. It spread very rapidly over the fertile fields and burning sands of Mauritania and Numidia. Cyprian could assemble in 258 a synod of eighty-seven bishops, and in 308 the schismatical Donatists held a council of two hundred and seventy bishops at Carthage. The dioceses, of course, were small in those days.
The oldest Latin translation of the Bible, miscalled “Itala” (the basis of Jerome’s “Vulgata”), was made probably in Africa and for Africa, not in Rome and for Rome, where at that time the Greek language prevailed among Christians. Latin theology, too, was not born in Rome, but in Carthage. Tertullian is its father. Minutius Felix, Arnobius, and Cyprian bear witness to the activity and prosperity of African Christianity and theology in the third century. It reached its highest perfection during the first quarter of the fifth century in the sublime intellect and burning heart of St. Augustin, the greatest among the fathers, but soon after his death (430) it was buried first beneath the Vandal barbarism, and in the seventh century by the Mohammedan conquest. Yet his writings led Christian thought in the Latin church throughout the dark ages, stimulated the Reformers, and are a vital force to this day.
11. Christianity in Europe
“Westward the course of Empire takes its way.”
This law of history is also the law of Christianity. From Jerusalem to Rome was the march of the apostolic church. Further and further West has been the progress of missions ever since.
The church of Rome was by far the most important one for all the West. According to Eusebius, it had in the middle of the third century one bishop, forty-six presbyters, seven deacons with as many sub-deacons, forty-two acolyths, fifty readers, exorcists, and door-keepers, and fifteen hundred widows and poor persons under its care. From this we might estimate the number of members at some fifty or sixty thousand, i.e. about one-twentieth of the population of the city, which cannot be accurately determined indeed, but must have exceeded one million during the reign of the Antonines. The strength of Christianity in Rome is also confirmed by the enormous extent of the catacombs where the Christians were buried.
From Rome the church spread to all the cities of Italy. The first Roman provincial synod, of which we have information, numbered twelve bishops under the presidency of Telesphorus (142-154). In the middle of the third century (255) Cornelius of Rome held a council of sixty bishops.
The persecution of the year 177 shows the church already planted in the south of Gaul in the second century. Christianity came hither probably from the East; for the churches of Lyons and Vienne were intimately connected with those of Asia Minor, to which they sent a report of the persecution, and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna. Gregory of Tours states, that in the middle of the third century seven missionaries were sent from Rome to Gaul. One of these, Dionysius, founded the first church of Paris, died a martyr at Montmartre, and became the patron saint of France. Popular superstition afterwards confounded him with Dionysius the Areopagite, who was converted by Paul at Athens.
Spain probably became acquainted with Christianity likewise in the second century, though no clear traces of churches and bishops there meet us till the middle of the third. The council of Elvira in 306 numbered nineteen bishops. The apostle Paul once formed the plan of a missionary journey to Spain, and according to Clement of Rome he preached there, if we understand that country to be meant by “the limit of the West,” to which he says that Paul carried the gospel. But there is no trace of his labors in Spain on record. The legend, in defiance of all chronology, derives Christianity in that country from James the Elder, who was executed in Jerusalem in 44, and is said to be buried at Campostella, the famous place of pilgrimage, where his bones were first discovered under Alphonse II, towards the close of the eighth century.
When Irenaeus speaks of the preaching of the gospel among the Germans and other barbarians, who, “without paper and ink, have salvation written in their hearts by the Holy Spirit,” he can refer only to the parts of Germany belonging to the Roman empire (Germania cisrhenana).
According to Tertullian Britain also was brought under the power of the cross towards the end of the second century. The Celtic church existed in England, Ireland, and Scotland, independently of Rome, long before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons by the Roman mission of Augustine; it continued for some time after that event and sent offshoots to Germany, France, and the Low Countries, but was ultimately at different dates incorporated with the Roman church. It took its origin probably from Gaul, and afterwards from Italy also. The legend traces it to St. Paul and other apostolic founders. The venerable Bede († 735) says, that the British king Lucius (about 167) applied to the Roman bishop Eleutherus for missionaries. At the council of Arles, in Gaul (Arelate), in 314, three British bishops, of Eboracum (York), Londinum (London), and Colonia Londinensium (i.e. either Lincoln or more probably Colchester), were present.
The conversion of the barbarians of Northern and Western Europe did not begin in earnest before the fifth and sixth centuries, and will claim our attention in the history of the Middle Ages.