How It Grew

The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000

by Peter Brown
Blackwell, 353 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Peter Brown
Peter Brown; drawing by David Levine

When Jesus died, only 120 people, we are told, continued to meet in his memory. There is no good evidence that in his lifetime Jesus had expected his message to be preached to Gentiles. When they began to be accepted as Christians, their presence caused fierce arguments and divided his apostles. Plainly, Jesus had never spoken clearly about the mission to the Gentiles to which modern Christians are now heirs.

Within two lifetimes of his death the wide geographic spread of Christianity seemed a miracle to Christians themselves. It was proof that their faith was from God. As it spread, however, the religion changed its center of gravity. The belief that, in Jesus, the Messiah had come had been the one distinction between his disciples and their fellow Jews. Lacking roots in Jewish tradition, Gentile Christians had no clear understanding of what a Messiah was even supposed to be. Christ was styled “the Anointed,” but some of them connected this title with the anointing practiced by athletes who exercised in their city gymnasiums.

The missionary impulse of the first Christians differed in degree, perhaps also in kind, from that of their Jewish contemporaries. By the second century, Christian missionary activity had spanned the Mediterranean and was reaching out to the frontiers of the Roman Empire. In 312 the Emperor Constantine converted to the worship of Christ; in his great history Mission and Expansion of Christianity, Adolf Harnack was inclined to bring the story of the early Church to a close in 325, the year in which Constantine convened the first worldwide Christian Council of bishops, at Nicaea.1 Yet Christian missionaries showed no sign of stopping. By the 450s the faith had reached Ireland, where Patrick preached it, he tells us, “to the point beyond which there is no one.”

As Christianity spread, quarrels between Christians added to its momentum. Their schisms and heresies caused aggrieved participants to found yet more churches of their own. The sixth century saw a surge of missionary energy among the Monophysites, who had broken away from many of their fellow Christians because they firmly believed that Jesus Christ had had a single, divine “nature” and was an indissoluble whole. In 635, members of a different wing of Christian opinion, the Nestorians, were making an open statement of their faith before the Emperor of China. In sharp contrast to the Monophysites, they denied Christ’s single, divine nature and held that he “must be thought of as a man,” as Peter Brown puts it, “who became progressively linked to God.” Heirs of the Nestorians survived for centuries along the Silk Road to China, still attracting members (primarily women) among the Mongol ruling families in the age of Genghis Khan.

Northward and westward Christianity’s diffusion was no less remarkable. In 565, it reached the remote island of Iona off the northwest coast of Scotland. On June 5, 754,…

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