1500 year old fresco showing Jesus blessing apostles with halos

The Role of Culture in Facilitating the Spread of Christianity

“Culture” is a broad term––one that can have many different meanings when referencing a collective group of people. For this blog post, I will narrow that definition down to the religion(s), language, social rules, and methods of travel prevalent in the Roman Empire during the first century CE. How and why did these four aspects of culture specifically have such a large impact? Firstly, the Jewish Diaspora set the stage for Christianity to flourish throughout the Empire through proselytization. Second, the widespread use of Greek made understanding the message of Christianity much easier. Thirdly, the Apostle Paul used his right as a Roman citizen to go places he otherwise couldn’t have, and fourth, the Roman road and sea systems were protected by the Pax Romana, thus protecting Christian missionaries.

Prior to the spread of Christianity, this was the Jewish Diaspora around 1 CE. Jewish areas of settlement are purple and blue around the Mediterranean Sea.
Jewish Diaspora in the first century. Credit: PBS.org

Jewish Diaspora

The dispersion of the Jews throughout the Mediterranean and beyond established communities where the Apostle Paul would travel to first to preach the Gospel. Egypt was the first area Jews settled in after King Nebuchadnezzar deported them from Judah in the 590s-580s BCE. At Alexandria, the Jewish community quickly expanded, including Jews from all walks of life: peasants, shippers, merchants, generals, and wealthy political officials. The Roman Empire’s various conquests in Judea resulted in many Jews being brought to Rome as slaves. As the trading routes around the Mediterranean grew more and more popular, Jews began flourishing in coastal towns along Asia Minor, Greece, and even southern France. This set the stage for Jesus’s Jewish disciples-turned-missionaries to spread the teachings of Christianity.

Converting the Jews

As the Bible tells us, Paul the Apostle always went to a Jewish synagogue first when visiting a new city. While many Jews held out hope on a messiah and sought to persecute Paul and his fellow missionary Barnabas, others were intrigued by the Christian message and became believers. “At Iconium [modern day Turkey] Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1). Oftentimes, the cities Paul preached in became divided over these new teachings. The traditional Jewish community felt threatened by the newcomers, but the more modern Jews embraced Christianity with open arms. As tensions arose, violence ensued, forcing Paul and Barnabas to move on. However, Paul would later return to many of the same cities he first preached the Gospel to, strengthening the churches he helped found.

One practical reason that Jews became Christians nearby or in the Jewish temples was their proximity to baptismal pools. During Pentecost Jerusalem (the Jewish festival of Shavuot), “Pious pilgrims would ritually immerse in baptismal pools and ascend the steps to the platform, where they could enter through the Hulda gates into the portico of the temple” (Young, 2012, p. 55). Peter and the apostles baptized three thousand people after preaching to them on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). The ritual pools that were once used by the Jewish people as part of a cleansing ritual became a stepping stone to a new way of life for believers. This is a prime example of how one part of Jewish culture led to the growth of Christianity.

Greek letters on a stone monument.
Greek inscription on a monument at Ephesus. Credit: Abby Dorland

Greek Language

Alexander the Great’s conquests in the 330s and 320s BCE spread Greek language and customs wherever he went. By the time the first century CE rolled around, Greek was the “lingua franca of the Mediterranean world,” and it was spoken exclusively in some Jewish communities. These groups became known as Hellenistic Jews. A problem arose for the early disciples when these Hellenists saw their widows being ignored in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1 ). Seven disciples were chosen to focus on the Hellenists’ needs, while the rest continued in prayer and ministry. As this situation shows, the Greek language was important to reach multiple groups of people, even within the Jewish community.

The entirety of the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, albeit from the perspective of bilingual/multilingual authors. “Koine” means “common” in English. First used for government messages, the Greek language was eventually adopted by commoners living around the Mediterranean. The New Testament authors chose this form of Greek for its universal appeal. Choosing Hebrew or Aramaic would have alienated a large portion of the growing Jewish Diaspora, not to mention the wider pagan population.

Bilingual in the First Century

The Apostle Paul was fluent in both Greek and Hebrew. He was born in Tarsus and raised in Jerusalem. Paul learned Hebrew by studying with Gamaliel, a leading elder in the Sanhedrin, a Jewish assembly. Paul utilized his bilingual skills in Jerusalem when he addressed a Roman commander in Greek and the crowds in Hebrew when they accused him of defiling the temple (Acts 21). Paul’s role as a Jewish Christian was crucial in relating to the Jews in Jerusalem and other Jewish communities around the Mediterranean with his knowledge of Hebrew and the Torah. His knowledge of Greek also served him well in addressing the broader Gentile population through his letters to the churches. Christianity would not have spread as quickly as it did if Greek was not commonly spoken in the regions Paul travelled through.

Frescoe of Apostle Paul, the first major missionary of Christianity, wearing blue clothes with a red cloak in front of a golden background.
Fresco of Saint Paul. Credit: Bethesda Lutheran Church

Apostle Paul

Although his fellow missionary companions were likely bilingual, Paul had another advantage in travelling throughout the region­­––he was most likely a Roman citizen. New Testament scholarship does not accept Paul’s Roman citizenship as pure historical fact, but the Bible suggests plenty of evidence. Paul mentions his citizenship explicitly in situations where he is in jail. In Acts 16:37, he says, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans…” and in Acts 22:25, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” The commander responsible for him in the latter instance remarks on acquiring his Roman citizenship through lots of money. Paul responds, “But I was born a citizen” (Acts 22:28).

Roman citizenship could be obtained in three ways: bestowed upon the elite, earned through slavery, or passed down from parents who were citizens. Since Paul is suggesting the last option, his parents were likely freed slaves with Tarsus citizenship. Being a Roman citizen meant having privileges and rights that others could only dream of. One could appeal to the emperor in Rome (as Paul did) if you thought you were being treated unfairly. You garnered respect from government officials and better protection while travelling. For people living in newly conquered lands, the status of “ally” was as close as they could get. The government afforded them protection from invaders, but they still had to pay tribute to Rome and provide soldiers for the army. Paul’s citizenship, on the other hand, was essentially a “get out of jail free” card and critical to his mission in spreading Christianity.

Roman road with paved stones leading off into the distance. There are pine trees lining the right side of the road.
Paved Roman road. Credit: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons

Roman Road System

Whether they travelled by road or sea, Paul and the apostles relied on the Roman government to get themselves from one place to another quickly and without harm. The first of the great Roman roads was the Via Appia, “the queen of roads,” built-in 312 BCE, from Rome to Brindisi––a length of approximately 348 miles. Roman roads were constructed in four steps. First, a level surface. Second, mortar and stones over top. Third, add gravel. And fourth: a large, interlocking placed on top for a (mostly) smooth surface. These roads were made to last, which has proven true 2000+ years later! By the end of the second century BCE, Roman highways crisscrossed the Italian peninsula. Asia Minor already had roads built by the Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks. Roman engineers improved upon them, connecting the East and the West by an extensive, well-maintained road system (Casson, 1994, p. 165).

Christianity on the Roads

The roads were built primarily for the Roman army and government officials, but wealthy elites sent servants bearing messages to and from cities, the sick travelled to healing centres or oracles, and merchants/tradesmen found a year-round alternative to sea travel for transporting their goods. As a professional tentmaker (Acts 18:3), Apostle Paul fell into the tradesmen category. In Corinth, he worked during the day and preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath (v. 4). He lived with fellow Jews and tentmakers, Priscilla and Aquila. During the Pax Romana (27 BCE to 180 CE), the roads were usually safe to travel alone on. Paul showed an example of this in Acts 20:13-14 when he walked twenty-five miles by himself from Troas to Assos to meet up with fellow disciples. The Roman government oversaw the upkeep of roads and dispatched highway robbers quickly, providing protection for travelers such as Paul.

Black and white sketch of a Roman merchant ship on water with a sail and cabin.
Sketch of a Roman merchant ship. Credit: Julian Whitewright

Pax Romana at Sea

Nevertheless, Roman roads were not the only mode of transportation available to new Christians ready to share the Gospel. Sea routes were charted across the Mediterranean hundreds of years before road travel. But violent storms, a six-month sailing window during the summer, and pirates were major concerns of seafarers. However, “Rome’s efficient administration, at least during the first two centuries A.D., had swept the seas clear of pirates and chased away most of the bandits from the main highways” (Casson, 1994, p. 149). While nature’s storms could not be avoided (Paul got shipwrecked at Malta on the way to Rome), the timing of the Pax Romana fit perfectly with the beginnings of Christianity. Had the Roman Empire not been in place during the time of Jesus and his apostles, Christianity would not have spread as quickly as it did.

During those crucial years, the Roman Empire extended from England south to Morocco and east to modern-day Iraq. This was the point at which the Roman Empire was its largest. The estimated population was close to 70 million people. Emperor Augustus started the Pax Romana after the Senate appointed him “first citizen,” and the period of relative peace lasted until Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE. With the Mediterranean at the centre of this enormous empire, an already impressive trade network grew exponentially during the peace. Trade routes reached as far as Germany, Egypt, and China. Coastal destinations included Carthage, Alexandria, Damascus, Byzantium (Istanbul), and Gades in Spain. Grain, wine, ceramics, oil, fish, and marble were the top exports from around the Mediterranean. Rome was by far the centre for commerce, as six major routes converged at the city.

The symbol of Christianity, a cross, and the symbol of Judaism, a menorah, carved into a stone pillar.
Menorah and cross carved into a pillar at Laodicea. Credit: Abby Dorland

Religion in the First Century

Paul and the apostles encountered a whole range of beliefs when they travelled around the Mediterranean. Within the Jewish faith, there existed devout Jewish communities on one end, and exclusive Greek-speaking Hellenized Jews on the other. Slightly outside of being considered Jewish were the “God-fearers.” This group of people were interested in and practised many Jewish customs but did not fully convert. Then there were the pagans, or “idol worshipers” of Greek/Roman gods, which was the most common form of religion. Temples to Greco-Roman gods and goddesses were in every major city along the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. The majority culture meant worshipping and paying homage to the honoured gods of that particular city. Those who chose to worship the Jewish God were looked down upon and excluded from events, guilds, and more.

For the Roman Empire in the first century, atheism hardly existed. The Greeks and Romans were very religious, and it would have been highly unusual to not worship some god(s). Syncretism––a mixture of faiths––was very common. Sometimes philosophy became the new religion. When Paul visited Athens (Acts 17:16-34), he came across an inscription on an altar: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Paul took the opportunity to introduce the Christian God, but he tailored his message with their beliefs in mind. The first Christian missionaries had their hands full when it came to ministering to their Mediterranean neighbours.

Culture and Christianity

Paul certainly benefited from being a citizen during the Pax Romana, but this doesn’t mean he supported the Empire wholeheartedly. Among scholars of Pauline theology, there is a debate about the subliminal messaging Paul wrote against the Roman Empire in his letters to the churches. However, what is important for our understanding of the spread of Christianity, is “Paul did not forge his gospel in conscious antithesis to the Roman imperial order, but saw the empire as potentially good––since its stabilizing rule provided the political infrastructure for Paul to travel safely and preach Christ” (Lee). From the Jewish communities spread throughout the Mediterranean, to the universality of the Greek language, to the protection afforded Paul as a Roman citizen, to the development of Roman roads and the effects of the Pax Romana at sea, the role of culture played a critical part in the spread of Christianity.

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