1b - The Roman Age: 0-500 AD
- Apostolic Church (c.30-70 AD)
- Tradition says Peter preached throughout Asia Minor before being crucified upside down in the Neronian persecution (c.67-68). Andrew worked among the Scythians, north of the Black Sea, and Philip evangelized the Scythians, south of the Black Sea, as well as the Phrygians, before traveling to Carthage where he is known for converting the proconsul’s wife. Bartholomew also labored in Phrygia before moving to Armenia and onto India, this side of the Ganges. Matthew is said to have worked in Persia and Arabia before ending up in Ethiopia, and Simon the Zealot traveled throughout North Africa before going to Persia, where he was executed for not worshiping the sun god. Much tradition surrounds Thomas’ travels to India, and he is said to have gone to China before returning to India. Jude worked in Greece and Asia Minor, where John also was bishop of Ephesus, the only apostle to escape martyrdom.
- Tradition also holds that Paul was released from Roman imprisonment (cf. Acts 28) and traveled to Spain, France (Gaul), and Britain, before returning to Rome and being beheaded by Nero (c.67-68).
- Western Europe
- Accounts of Christian communities in Spain and southern Gaul begin to emerge by the end of the second century, most notably a local persecution in Lyons in 177 instigated by Marcus Aurelius, which Irenaeus (c.130-202) survived before being elected bishop.
- Several bishops in Spain are noted as martyrs in the middle of the third century, and by the time of the Council of Elvira in Spain (c.305), 36 dioceses were present, which represents a substantial and seasoned infrastructure.
- Little is known about early Christianity in Britain, except that Tertullian accounts for followers there (c.208). By the Council of Arles in southern France in 314, there are only three sees represented. However, this is the birthplace of Patrick (c.387-493), who went on to evangelize the entire island of Ireland.
- Born the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders at 16 and enslaved as a shepherd for 6 years. He escaped and returned to Britain in 411 and spent some time on the continent developing a ministerial career, i.e. the “Black Years” (c.411-32). Around 432, he returned to Ireland as a missionary bishop (with no see) after hearing the voice of an Irishman in a dream pleading with him to return to Ireland to share the gospel (though the Romans saw the Irish as “barbarians” who were unable to be evangelized).
- Patrick traveled to Ireland with an entourage of 12, and labored there for over 50 years. After gaining approval from the king of the tribal chieftains, Loigaire, Patrick began systematically moving throughout the island, preaching the gospel and performing miracles without number. By the end of his life, various sources attribute to Patrick the consecration of 350-700 bishops and 3000-5000 priests.
- Northern Europe – At the end of the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons claimed that Christianity had reached the Germans on the other side of the Roman border of Gaul. However, for the most part Northern Germanic tribes remained unreached until the fall of the Roman Empire.
- Eastern Europe
- In 251, Gothic armies under king Cniva raided the Roman provinces of Moesia and Thrace, taking a large number of predominately female prisoners, many of whom were Christian. Numerous raids followed and Gothic conversion to Christianity was relatively swift.
- The Scriptures were translated into the Gothic language by the grandson, Ulfilas (c.311-383), of one such female Christian captive from Sadagolthina in Cappadocia. Ulfilas later spent time in the Roman Empire before being consecrated bishop of the Gothic race by Eusebius of Nicomedia (c.341).
- He evangelized among the Goths for 7 years, in present day Romania, before fleeing from severe persecution with a community of his disciples to the Roman province of Moesia. There he spent the rest of his life training missionaries, reducing the Gothic language to writing, and translating the Scriptures.
- Large numbers of Goths converted with the conversion of Gothic chieftain Fritigern (d.380), and after the Council of Constantinople in 381, many Arians (including disciples and successors of Ulfilas) were forced to become missionaries under the “Theodosian decrees.” They converted many leaders who reappeared in Europe with the fall of Rome.
- Although initially a scattered minority, Christianity “was unquestionably spreading across the great continent of the East as vigorously as it moved westward into Europe.” During the first few centuries of Christianity, the most extensive dissemination of the gospel was not in the West but in the East, as the Parthian Empire (250 BC–AD 226) and those surrounding it were in many ways more favorable for the growth of the church than in the Roman world.
- The kingdom of Osrhoene (c.132 BC–AD 216) was established after the disintegration of the Seleucid monarchy. Its capital, Edessa, was strategically located on the main trade routes of the Fertile Crescent and was easily accessible from Antioch (capital of the Roman province of Syria, third largest city in the Mediterranean world, and the original launching point for the mission to the Gentiles). Thus, Edessa became the hub of a missionary movement that gradually spread throughout Mesopotamia, Persia, Central Asia and China.
- Eusebius (quoting the Doctrine of Addai, which he reports to have found in public archives in Edessa) recounts St. Addai, one of the Seventy Apostles sent by Jesus in Luke 10:1, and his disciple Mari. King Abgar V of Edessa (c.4 BC–AD 50) was sick and sent for Jesus to come and heal him. After the resurrection, the Apostle Thomas sent Addai (Gk. Thaddaeus) to preach the gospel and heal the king, with the result that the city, and eventually the whole kingdom, was won to the Christian faith.
- Armenia was won to Christ by missionaries from Cappadocia, which itself was won by evangelists such as Gregory the Wonderworker (c.213-270), renowned for their signs and wonders.
- Gregory the Illuminator (c.257-331) is known as the father of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which remains one of the oldest state churches in the world. Gregory was born in Armenia but was raised and educated in Roman Cappadocia. He returned to his own country to preach the gospel when he was about 30, and after a time of imprisonment, he healed the king of Armenia, Tiridates III, who immediately declared Armenia to be a Christian nation (c.301).
- Eusebius, Jerome, Rufinus and Gregory of Nazianzus all state that Thomas was the father of the church in Syria, Persia and India. Like Paul, this rapid early expansion was made possible because of the extensive synagogue system throughout Mesopotamia (synagogues having originated during the Babylonian captivity).
- One of the great apostles of Persia was St. Mari, the convert and disciple of St. Addai. From Edessa, Mari was reportedly sent as a missionary to Seleucia-Ctesiphon (on the Tigris River near modern day Baghdad, later to become the capital of the Parthian Empire), which in turn became a center of missionary outreach (and later the patriarchal seat of the Assyrian Church, c.310). From Seleucia, Mari and others pioneered work throughout the region of Adiabene to the north, including its capital Arbela, which would become another major hub of learning and monasticism in Eastern Christianity.
- The Chronicle of Arbela reports bishops in Arbela from 104 AD, and by 225 there were more than twenty bishops throughout Persia. Moreover, it says that Christians had already penetrated Arabia and Central Asia, stretching as far as northern Afghanistan. Bardaisan of Edessa (c.154-222) also wrote in his Book of the Laws of Countries that Christians could be found as far east as Pakistan and India.
- When the Roman Empire became Christian, its arch-enemy, Persia, began to systematically persecute Christians, moving them to segregated areas, heavily taxing them and martyring tens of thousands. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, networks of monasteries preserved Christian life and provided the primary agents of mission across Asia.
- According to Syriac text Acts of Thomas (c.200) and oral tradition in India, the Apostle Thomas took the sea route to India, arrived in Kodungallur (on the Malabar Coast) in 52 AD, and traveled north to the Kingdom of Gudnaphar, where he eventually converted and baptized the king. From there he moved throughout India performing many signs and wonders before his martyrdom in Madras.
- The Mar Thoma Church (among the Nasranis people) continued on as a small minority in the sea of Hinduism in southern India, but their being treated as a separate caste by Indian rulers (and their continued use of Syriac liturgy) greatly hindered their ability to evangelize those around them.
- According to The Travancore State Manual (Trivandrum, 1906), Thomas of Cana, a merchant and missionary from Edessa, brought over 400 Persian Christians to Kodungallur in 345 to escape the persecutions of Shapur II.
- Alexandria was an economic and intellectual hub in the Roman Empire, boasting a population of around 300,000 during the time of the apostles and one of the largest libraries in the known world. It was also home to the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine (cf. Septuagint, c.250 BC), and it was to here that the apostle Mark is said to have traveled after the execution of Peter in Rome, establishing a church and enduring martyrdom in 68 AD. By the 3rd century, the Bible was translated into the Egyptian language, Coptic, as the deserts began to be filled with monks and hermits.
- According to the Scriptures, Cyrene, west of Egypt, was a home of many Jews and early Christians. However, little else is known about Cyrenian Christianity (other than a bishop, Zopyros, who was present at the Nicene Council) until the bishop of Ptolemais, Synesius (c.373-414), accounts for 6 bishoprics in the area in 410.
- Northwest Africa (modern day Tunisia and Algeria) was the cradle of the Latin-speaking Church with its center in Carthage, established centuries earlier by Phoenician traders. It is known as the “church of bishops” because every town and village sported its own bishop, with over 70 in attendance at a regional council in Carthage around 230 AD.
- Roman Africa produced three major theologians that, more than any others, determined the trajectory of the Western theological tradition, Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-230), bishop Cyprian of Carthage (c.210-258), and bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430).
- Carthage is also known for its history of martyrdom, which began in 180 under the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. In 203, under Septimus Severus, the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas occurred, and their inspiring account (likely recorded by Tertullian) began to spread throughout the Empire.
- Church historians Socrates Scholasticus, Sozemius and Rufinus of Tyre all say that the Ethiopian eunich Phillip converted (cf. Acts 8:26-38) was a member of the royal court and in turn converted the queen of Ethiopia, Candace.
- Little else is known about the church in Ethiopia until the brothers Aedsius and Frumentius (c.320-383) shipwrecked in the Red Sea and were brought as slaves to king Ella Amida. They gradually gained favor with the king and queen and their son, Ezana, who greatly encouraged the spread of Christianity throughout Ethiopia. Frumentius went on to be appointed bishop of the Ethiopian church in 341 by Athanasius (c.296-373).