When we read the story of the phenomenal expansion of the early Church, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, we are tempted to assume that somehow conditions were easier then than now. This is a comfortable assumption, for it helps to excuse our complacency and failure, but it will not stand up to historical scrutiny. The world of the first and second centuries was as full of rivals to Christianity as is the world of the twentieth century; this we can prove, both from the pages of the New Testament and from the writings of contemporary historians. Not only so, but many of the rivals were surprisingly similar to their modern counterparts, especially in Asia today. This disposes of a second error—the error of thinking that, though conditions may not have been easier in the first century, they were so different from ours that any comparison is useless. Differences there certainly are, especially in communication and travel; but in both these areas the changes greatly facilitate the spread of the Gospel in our day.

The major obstacles that the early Christians faced as they preached the good news were various religions, philosophies, and currents of thought that competed with their message. Some of the following information on these is drawn from non-biblical writers; yet the careful reader of the Bible will be able to see clear evidence for most of them in Scripture itself.

First of the rivals to Christianity was Judaism, a noble monotheism with a high ethical system, a sacred book, a dignified worship, and a long and proud history. Judaism as a religious system had almost everything—except a Saviour, and a faith that justified. Whatever might be said of Judaism in the high flowering of Old Testament days, by New Testament times the Jewish hope of salvation was largely this-worldly and nationalistic, while the Messianic hope was the hope of a holy war on unbelievers. In religious circles (as can be seen from the autobiography of the Pharisee Saul), the Law had become an intolerable, crushing burden. Whatever the experience of Abraham had been, to his descendants the only way to salvation seemed to lie in a careful attention to the minutiae of the Law.

Misunderstood in this way, Judaism could hardly be distinguished as a religious system from many of the non-Christian religions we know today. Individual salvation was won by an accumulation of self-acquired merits. Even alms-giving and prayer thus became means to an end. The beggar presented an opportunity for the rich man to show his charity and so win merit, not an opportunity to demonstrate the love of God. Man was using his fellow man selfishly, as a means to his own salvation; this was no longer the warm faith of Deuteronomy, or the broken heart of Hosea, or the pleading of Jeremiah. Even the passionate prayers of the Psalmist had become the complex anthems of Levitical guilds of temple-singers, beautifully rendered by immaculately robed choirs at great liturgical occasions in the Temple of Jerusalem. Combined with external beauty of worship was an unreality at the heart. Anna and Simeon might worship in the Temple, but so did the greedy Annas and Caiaphas, while the Temple was also the stronghold of the unbelieving Sadducean priestly aristocracy. So strongly did some pietistic Jewish sects (like the Essenes, not mentioned in the Bible) feel this that they no longer worshipped in the Temple, though they were impeccably orthodox in other ways.

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The other less lovely aspect of Judaism in the first century was its strongly nationalistic and ethnological flavor. A Jew was to be a Jew not only by blood but also by religion. For a Jew to leave the religion of his fathers was regarded as unpatriotic treachery, as well as folly; where else could they find Law and Temple to compare with Israel’s? If we look at the Epistle to the Hebrews, we see something of subtle pull backwards to which every Hebrew convert was subjected. And if we read the life of Paul, we glimpse the virulence with which the Jews resisted Christian preaching either to their members or to the converts they had gained from non-Jewish people round about. Converts or half-converts Israel had in plenty, principally those attracted by her pure monotheism and noble ethics (though the demand for circumcision and observance of food laws usually kept such converts from entering fully into the family of Israel). Stephen’s speech in Jerusalem and Paul’s sermon at Pisidian Antioch are good examples of the early Christians’ approach to the Jews. Judaism caused many difficulties for the early Church, and Stephen was not the only early martyr who gave his life to win the Jews to Christ.

Besides orthodox Judaism, there were also a swarm of heretical Jewish sects, well known to us from secular history and represented in the Bible by Bar Jesus, the Jew of Cyprus, and Sceva’s sons, the wandering exorcists of Acts. These were exciting but unstable amalgams of Jewish truth and Gentile error, and provide a very close parallel to sub-Christian cults of many lands today (Mormons, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the like). The chief danger to the Church was that such sects confused the issue. The bitterest pill to swallow was that orthodox Judaism classed “the Galileans” or “the Nazarenes” as just another such disreputable sect. Protestants today who find themselves classed by a government with Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons may be comforted to know that the early Church tasted this indignity to the full, and bore it patiently. But these sects that rivaled Christianity did not martyr Christian missionaries; to that extent at least they were harmless foes.

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One rare, unanalytical, and merry day,

Untidy wildflower blots, crimson clover, all

Conspire to mask.…

O, do not ask

The typical unsolvable

Cadaverous questions.… One bold day can heal

Awhile, or, well, at least allay.

The graybeards know

It’s fatuous; but go

And let the scorner scorn

From his numb seat—

And go to greet,

Grandly infantile, what now’s new born,

And see the given glow

One rare, unanalytical, and merry day!


If the disciples of John the Baptist are to be numbered among this group (as the Essenes certainly are), then many such “sectaries” later became converts to Christianity, as we see in the New Testament. Perhaps it is not unfair, from the Jewish point of view at least, to class the Samaritan religion among these sects, though the Samaritans would have protested strenuously. This religion became a seed-bed for Christianity, as we can see both from the recorded visit of Christ to a Samaritan village and from the missionary activity of Philip in Samaria, recorded in Acts. Many leaders like Apollos came from such groups; and Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian thinkers, was a man of Samaria. These groups were fertile ground for Christian witness.

There is a danger of course, that such converts will introduce into Christianity the thought-patterns and morals of the old cults. The problem is one that is familiar to many missionaries today.

If Judaism was a proud monotheism, the religions of Greece and Rome were proud polytheisms. Polytheism was seen there at its most brilliant point, supported by all the art and literature of the ancient classical culture, where there was nothing that was not also religious. A city like Athens was the supreme expression of the spirit of paganism; but Paul speaks nothing of the faded glories of her art and architecture. To him, Athens was a city full of idols, and his heart burned within him. The numerous temples might indeed show a people interested in religions, but the one thing that gave Paul hope was a little altar in a forgotten corner, dedicated to the Unknown God. This became the focus of his preaching.

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This older polytheism was a spent force in the first century. No matter how hard later Roman emperors tried to revive it, it was never a serious rival to Christianity, except in the hands of a few fanatics. A cynical historian has said that, to the populace, all religions were equally true; to the philosopher, all were equally false; to the politician, all were equally useful. Even this attitude has parallels in many of our Asian countries, where the older religions have become simply part of the culture, no longer commanding the spiritual allegiance of the younger generation, especially students. True, the pagan priest, the old-fashioned Greek, and the Roman aristocrat administrator were often bitter enemies of the new Christian faith; but this was mostly because they resented its novelty or its disruptive nature. Like all conservatives, they hated and distrusted anything new and foreign. Many of us today have known the sting of having our evangelists classed with Communist agitators as disturbers of the peace, those who shatter the established order. Paul’s preaching progress across the Mediterranean world was marked by a string of riots that must have been the despair of local police authorities, though no one tried more strenuously than he to avoid such conflict. While we in the East today may suffer for preaching a so-called Western religion, Paul suffered for preaching an Eastern faith in the West. The court case against Paul at Philippi is a good example of this charge.

Even if the official polytheisms were not a dangerous foe, local paganism could be virulent in its opposition, as we can see from the story in Acts of the riots at Ephesus. Artemis of Ephesus was just one manifestation of the great Oriental mother-goddess, who had been worshiped at Ephesus long before the Greeks came and is still worshiped in many parts of Asia. This indeed was a fertility cult, which originally had nothing to do with the worship of the staid Greek goddess whose name was borrowed. But while in many ways the riot at Ephesus was typical of the reactions of an ignorant and fanatical mob, the Bible makes it clear that the root of the opposition was economic; the guild of silversmiths felt their whole livelihood was at stake. Luke’s dry sense of humor is evident in this passage, where religious sentiments are mixed with economic considerations. Vested interests in Ephesus were concerned to keep heathen religions alive, whether as a tourist attraction or as a simple means of livelihood; no man willingly breaks his own rice bowl. As late as the time of Pliny, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor early in the second century, we learn that the market for sacrificial animal victims, and the fodder to feed them, had dropped alarmingly because of the spread of Christianity. Pliny himself was a Roman noble; if he condescended to punish these Christian upstarts, it is because they stubbornly refused to obey imperial decrees, and because they seemed a potential danger as a virtual secret society. But the numerous anonymous accusations against Christians that Pliny received (and on which he refused to act) probably had an economic basis.

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Exactly the same could be said for the persecution at Philippi. As Luke drily observes, when the owners of a demon-possessed girl found they could no longer make any money from her fortune-telling, they opposed Paul bitterly. Naturally they would not admit this as the reason. They attacked him on purely patriotic and nationalistic grounds, which sounded far better in court. This sort of economic motivation, concealed behind high-sounding motives, is only too familiar to us, and we should be encouraged to see how in the early Church, it only contributed to the spread of the Gospel.

More serious was the opposition of the philosophy that was the true religion of the more thoughtful section of the ancient world. If the Jews looked for a sign, the Greeks were forever hunting for wisdom and rational consistency. Face to face with this, Christianity preached a Christ who died on the Cross, which was weakness to the Jew and utter folly to the Greek philosopher. Paul’s brush with the Epicureans and Stoics at Athens is well known, though they were only the tattered remnants of the famous schools of the past, for by Paul’s day most of the old creative philosophical schools were dead.

Pessimism and nihilism were the prevailing tones of the philosophy of the first century, as is true among many young people today. Where philosophy escaped these dangers, it did so because neo-Platonism, with its strange blend of philosophy, religion, and mysticism, had taken over.

But whatever his system, constructive or destructive or mystical, the philosopher despised Christianity as a religion of brainless slaves and women, the uneducated and the unreflecting. To him, the idea of bringing his thought-life into obedience to Christ was a scandal, a stumbling block, an intellectual affront. This attitude we know well in Asian universities today, where young men and women, emancipated from the superstitions and religions of their ancestors, regard Christianity as a new religious bondage to be avoided at all costs. True, as Paul reminds us, there is a wisdom, an intellectual consistency, in the Cross; indeed, to the Christian, Christ is the very personification of God’s wisdom. But this makes sense only to the man who has made the initial surrender of faith; otherwise the Cross remains folly.

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This attack of the philosophers the Christian Church could not avoid; it had to be met head-on, since it involved the fundamental nature of the Gospel. In Paul’s speech at Athens we can see how the infant Church grappled with this problem, as in his speech at Lycaonia we see how the churches preached the Gospel in simpler terms understandable to local pagans. But, except for the few people whose hearts the Spirit touched at Athens, it was in vain; at the mention of resurrection and judgment, the philosophers would no longer even give Paul a hearing.

One of the great struggles of the Church in the next few centuries was to meet and beat the pagan philosophers on their own ground. This movement was represented by the apologists (culminating in Origen, the greatest of them all) who attempted to make Christianity intellectually acceptable to the philosophical and educated world of their day. To the degree that this “dialogue” was a clarification of misunderstandings, and an expression of Christian truth in language understood by their opponents, it was doubtless good. When it is seen as an attempt to make Christianity intellectually respectable, however, opinions will differ as to its wisdom and success. A fair summary of the position of the intellectuals is found in one sentence scrawled on a Roman wall. It shows a crude caricature of a figure with an ass’s head, nailed to a cross; underneath is the inscription, “Alexamenes worships his god.” This helps to explain why an emperor who was as great a philosopher as Marcus Aurelius was also a persecutor of the Church. Tolerant in most respects, he was bitterly intolerant of what he considered the intolerance of Christianity, with the exclusive nature of its claims. To him, Christianity was intellectual suicide; to the Christian, it is the death to self that leads to new life in Christ, for the intellect as for every other part of the human personality.

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