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1st - 3rd century
     The spread of Christianity
     A widespread church
     Christian murals
     A persecuted sect

4th century
5th century
6th - 10th century
11th-13th century
14th - 15th century
16th century
17th - 18th century
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The spread of Christianity: 1st - 3rd century AD

It is significant that Christians are now sufficiently numerous in the capital of the empire to attract persecution. Only about forty years have passed since the reported death and resurrection of Jesus.

During that time missionaries for the new faith, among them Paul, have been carrying the message along the well-worn trading routes of the Roman empire. They repeat to each new audience the sayings and miracles of Jesus, in an oral tradition which will soon be captured in written form as the Gospels. And among the everyday bustle and traffic of the empire, this 'good news' continues to spread.


The early Christians are intensely aware of being different from others. Like the Jews, they are chosen. The fourth pope, St Clement, writes in about AD 100: 'God chose our Lord Jesus Christ, and us through him to be a special people.' They are a tight and supportive group. Indeed the charity given to poorer members is part of their appeal. An early Christian writer, Tertullian, claims that pagans often make the comment 'See how these Christians love one another'.

But most of the comments from Roman writers, heard from early in the 2nd century onwards, are Decidedly hostile.


As a group inclined to secrecy, for fear of attracting hostility, the first Christians leave little physical trace of themselves. Indeed what traces they have left are mainly hidden signs. A mysterious arrangement of letters, the ROTAS square, suggests that there are already Christians in Pompeii when disaster strikes in AD 79. And the fish, in its Greek form of ichthys, is another treasured secret (see Ichthys and ROTAS).

But if the early spread of the faith is largely invisible, its success can be judged by the extensive structure of authority which the church has in place by the 3rd century.


A widespread church: 3rd century AD

By the mid-3rd century there are about 100 bishops spread throughout Italy, each in his own see. The most important see is Rome, for which precise figures survive.

In the year 251 the church in Rome has on its books the bishop (in other words the pope), 46 priests, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, 52 exorcists, readers and doorkeepers, and the very large number of 1500 widows and paupers being 'fed by the grace and kindness of the Lord'.


There are flourishing sees, too, in other parts of the empire. Carthage, famous already in Christian circles as the home of the writer Tertullian, now has another distinguished Christian author in a position of prominence; Cyprian, a convert in about 246 from a rich pagan family, is chosen to be bishop of Carthage in 249. He dies for his faith in 258, half a century after Carthage's most poignant pair of early martyrs - Perpetua and Felicity.

Alexandria is another important see in north Africa. It too produces an important early theologian and biblical scholar, Origen.


In Europe, Lyons is a major centre from early times. The Christians of Lyons feature in history sooner than most because they are savagely persecuted (the precise reason is not clear) in 177 by Marcus Aurelius, who orders them to be tortured to death.

Even Britain, further removed from both the Christian and imperial centres of power, is becoming organized by the middle of the 3rd century. When a council at Arles is called, in 314, three British bishops attend - one from London, another from York, and the third either from Colchester or Lincoln.


Christian murals: 3rd century AD

By the 3rd century the Christians are also leaving extensive physical evidence, not only of their presence but also of their ideas and practices. One example is in the eastern extremity of the empire, at Doura-Europos. Here there has been unearthed the earliest known house adapted for Christian worship.

The building, a simple one from the 1st century AD, is adapted for Christian use in 232. Only fragments of the murals survive, but they include such Gospel images as Christ carrying a sheep (the Good Shepherd), the paralytic taking up his bed and walking, and St Peter walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee.


More detailed evidence of Christian ritual survives in Rome's famous catacombs. These are underground burial chambers, used by members of the various communities of the capital - pagan Romans as well as Jews and Christians.

In the first half of the 3rd century the Christians decorate the walls of their tomb chambers with New Testament scenes and with depictions of the Eucharist, the ritual communal meal at the centre of the faith. Members of the Christian community are shown sitting round a table together to break bread, and to share their food and drink, much like later Christian representations of the Last Supper.


A persecuted sect: AD 64-303

Persecution has been an intermittent danger to Christians ever since Nero and the fire of Rome in 64. Later it often occurs without warning in localized areas - Lyons in 177, or Carthage in 203. But it is never a policy of state until the mid-3rd century, when the emperor Decius - attempting to restore to the crumbling Roman state something of its earlier confidence - decrees that everyone shall publicly sacrifice to the Roman gods.

This represents a major threat to the Christian communities. The edict costs them many of their best leaders (the bishops of Rome, Antioch and Jerusalem are martyred for refusing to comply), while morale is equally eroded by the example of those who cave in to this pagan demand.


A few years later the emperor Valerian intensifies this policy of persecution, outlawing any assembly of Christians for worship and executing many bishops and senior clergy. In 258 another pope is martyred; so is Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage.

But Gallienus restores religious toleration in 260. For nearly half a century the church enjoys a period of calm in which it can grow in strength and in numbers. The calm is shattered in 303.


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