The emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire was based on many factors, and its spread was an indication of massive social upheaval and changing environments. This article is intended to be a look at the history of the Christian religion, and not an ideological exploration of its mystical foundation. The concept of the historical Jesus Christ and the accuracy of the Bible's 'New Testament' (only from a mystical persepective as its recognition as a historical source is generally well accepted), can be considered irrelevant in understanding Christian history. Despite the written evidence for a historical Jesus, the mystical nature of the story of the Christ has led to a timeless debate. Whether one argues for or against the divinity of Jesus, one cannot argue the impact or rapid spread of the 'Mystery Cult' that eventually came to dominate the western world. Biblical and Theologian Scholars have long debated the ancient texts and Christian theory with Archaeologists or Scholars of alternative thought on this matter. That debate will rage timelessly, but the history of the religion can be examined even without dwelling on its divine beginnings, various historical components or conversely, the roles men may have played in arranging early doctrine.
While the debate regarding the mystical portion of the story of Jesus (Yeshua means savior in Hebrew) Christ (Christos means anointed in Greek) of Nazareth can be debated on many fronts from either side of the equation, the belief in his existence became the focal point of Christianity's missionary spread. While even a date of birth is subject to great debate, and a rather confusing interpretation of the calendar, Biblical sources place his birth in a 10 year period somewhere between 4 BC and 6 AD. As for the calendar, the birth of Jesus created an interesting alteration of the dating system used in the western world to this day. The change in the Roman (or Julian) calendar counting forward from the founding of Rome (Ab Urbe Conditum or AUC) to a date counting forward from the estimated birth of Christ was established in the 6th century by Dionysius Exiguus. The creation of AD (Anno Domini for Year of our Lord in Latin) was added much later in the 12th century and BC (Before Christ in English) centuries after that (explaining the use of English words rather than Latin). While not necessarily important in the context of Christian history, the complete alteration of the calendar does show the great influence of the Church in the late Roman Empire and beyond.
Jesus the man is as shrouded in mystery as his birth, but the general theories and teachings of his adult life are well known. Because of the relationship between Jesus' crucifixion and the known dates of Pontius Pilate serving as Prefect of Judea (26 - 36 AD), his death is generally ascribed as occurring between the years 30 and 35 AD. This period in Roman history is important for the foundation this new fledgling cult, because of social conditions where it all originated. Judea and the Palestine were governed by Rome, and the people in their zeal for religious freedom, of their own ideology, were often openly hostile to foreign rule (especially Pagan or polytheistic faiths). Indeed many were resistant to their own King Herod, for a multitude of reasons, but in part for what was deemed to be an oppressive government. Jesus' teachings, under the concepts of Jewish law, taught of social equality, harmony and the freedom of men to decide their own fate. These ideas led to a small, yet slowly growing following for a new hope and idea, in a time when the appearance of oppression and inequality from Rome, their own governing authorities, and spiritual leaders was front and center in the Jewish public eye.
It is certainly difficult to determine the effect of Jesus' death on his following immediately afterwards, but the rising popularity of anti establishment theory certainly played a part. One might think the death of its leader would stop the concept cold, but Jesus' death became a rallying cry for martyrdom that dominated the early religion. The Jewish Christians spread slowly in the general region, and established themselves in Syria, but real advancement occurred under the work of the early missionaries. James the Just (sometimes referred to as the brother of Jesus) remained in Palestine and is understood to be the earliest leader of the Jewish Christian sect. Thaddeus went east to Armenia which would eventually (4th century) become the first official Christian state. Peter went to Rome, where later Catholic leaders attributed the founding of the Catholic Church to him and recognized him as the Church's first Pope, while other early apostles spread the word elsewhere. Perhaps the most important of all the early missionaries, though, was Paul of Tarsus. His tireless efforts in Greece, Asia Minor and throughout those provinces which make up modern Turkey, helped establish pockets of Christians all over the east. His writings are the source for much of the early Church doctrines and they paint a vivid portrait of its early struggles and strategies.
It is impossible to determine the number of Christians throughout the empire in this earliest formative period or how quickly it caught hold, but Paul's missions changed the scope from one of a Jewish sect to a Gentile cult. While the Jewish sect was markedly different from the Gentile persuasion that followed, many of the basic principles in conducting one's life remained similar enough to allow a cross-cultural conversion (discussing the differences requires an in-depth study of the historical Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God and other early monotheistic theories and will not be done here). As Paul's mission spread, its most likely appealing teachings were the messages of equality in the eyes of God and eternal life in his kingdom. The poor, the slaves, women and any who felt disenfranchised with the Roman social system, that offered very limited upward mobility, gravitated eagerly to this new idea of hope after death. The early Christians were more easily converted in places far from the central Roman authority, and the religion took root in the east. Though it would later become a much more urban practice, in which cities were largely Christian and rural Paganism would survive for centuries, Rome was slow to acknowledge its spread. It would not be long, however, before Rome did take notice of this subversive, counter-culture cult, and the early Christians were forced to practice their faith in secrecy.