Introduction: The Background

TO UNDERSTAND the first Christians one must first understand the broad outlines of the world into which Christianity was born. It was geographical, no less than political factors that determined the direction and rate of spread of the new religion from its original home in the Roman province of Judaea, and geography too that gave rise to such diversity in its outward expression, particularly in the field of architecture and art.

The world of the first century A.D. was a new world and an old world. The monolithic uniformity imposed by Imperial Rome on the Mediterranean litoral from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Levant was an unprecedented phenomenon, and so obscured the old order of things that it comes almost as a shock that the conditions following the sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths in 410 marked not a break with, but a return to the past. Outside the imperial frontiers lay the old world, represented on the one hand by the civilized communities of the Near East, and on the other by the Scyths of the Russian steppes and the barbarians of Central and Northern Europe.

The pre-eminence of Rome in so much of Europe, North Africa and the Near East during the early and formative centuries of Christianity is, of course, a factor of great importance, but because it tends to be over-emphasized, it may be useful to consider the background to the exceptional circumstances in which the first Christians practised their religion. In Europe they were due to the existence of the Roman Empire itself which, while it provided means of communication whereby missionaries could travel with more ease and speed than at any other time in history, impeded the spread of the Gospel by intermittent repression and by the tight military control which

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