While I was waiting for a prescription to be filled, my eye caught the cover of the March issue of National Geographic, with the cover story, “In the Footsteps of the Apostles“, which looks at the first century spread of Christianity, some of the legends concerning the Apostles, and their contemporary significance in those places the Apostles are believed to have trod.
There some odd statements throughout, like this one:
In the first years after the Crucifixion, Christianity was only the seed of a new religion, lacking a developed liturgy, a method of worship, and a name—the earliest followers called it simply “the way.” It was not even a formal sect of Judaism.
So, historical Christianity’s key identifier is liturgy and a name? The assumption here is that Christianity had to develop as religion over time. While Christianity has changed and evolved over almost 2000 years, the idea that it is the liturgy which makes it what is, is frankly fallacious. Jesus’ purpose was never to create a liturgy, to brand himself and his followers under a title, or create a “system”. Religious systems are what people do to structure something bigger than themselves. Religion properly understood, according the James is the outpouring of God’s love through care for the vulnerable and pursuit of godly character (James 1:27). Liturgies are not the substance of Christian faith.
However, what really perplexed me was the map provided (not in the online version) depicting the spread of Christianity in the first 2 centuries. The 1st century spread included the Middle East, Egypt, Asia Minor, the Balkan Peninsula, and Southern Italy. However, in the article describing the exploits of the Apostles, the author speaks of Thomas heading to India, Andrew in the Black Sea region (Ukraine), and Simon the Zealot in Persia (Iran), and Mary Magdalene in Gaul (modern day France), Bartholomew in Armenia. Yet, these regions are depicted either as second century regions of evangelism, or not even that much.
We also have significant reason to believe that Christian missionaries were at work in Ethiopia. In Acts 2, we also read of the languages used to preach the gospel; on the first day of the Church, the Apostles preach to “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Now whether these travellers heeded the call or not isn’t clear, nor is it stated whether or not they took the gospel back to their homelands. But the possibility remains that Lybia, Arabia, Media, Parthia, etc. had heard the message of Jesus in the first century.
How far the Church went is debatable. How much of the information we have concerning the Apostles is correct is challenged by many, and there’s probably some inaccuracies there. But realistically, from what I see in the evidence, we can reasonably conclude that Christianity had reached far beyond the area depicted there. We know that there are Bishops posted in Lyons, France by the mid second century, indicating Gaul had a significant Church presence, which likely goes back before the turn of the century, and Paul himself articulates a desire to go church planting in Spain (Romans 15:24, 28). There is no evidence he did in fact make it that far, there is reason to believe someone from his entourage may very well have. So this would mean that Christians were at work from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ganges River within 70 years.
Now obviously there can be considerable debate as to how we evaluate whether Christianity can be considered “present” in a region. One small house church in a large geographic area may not constitute an actual presence. The Church was certainly more numerous in the Middle East, Egypt, Asia Minor and the Peloponnesian Peninsula than in Ehtiopia, India and the Black Sea region. Jerusalem, Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Rome and Alexandria certainly stand out as being the central locations for the Church’s growth. However, we should never discount the efforts of those venturing outside the Roman Empire. Our evidence is scant, and the earliest sources are hagiography, which many discount entirely. However we understand the stories in hagiographies like the Acts of Andrew, or the Acts of Phillip, and the rest, there are at least kernels of truth, here, tales of churches planted, and cities visited. The dogged determination of the early church is indisputable, something even National Geographic is saying.