Long before the Roman Empire was established, polytheism had imprinted itself on human culture. Many former societies, including the Greeks and the Egyptians, had worshipped an assortment of gods. In contrast to modern society, the belief in one and only one deity was usual; so much so that when Christianity grew in recognition, it was greeted with suspicion and apprehension. Over the past several centuries, Christianity has grown to become the largest religion in the world by almost five hundred million people. However, it did not become what it is today without serious initial doubts and questions.
As foreigners to Judaism and to the rising religion of Christianity, the Romans saw the spread of monotheism as a threat to their culture and way of life. The Roman gods had been an intricate factor to everything that Rome was and stood for. Witnessing the arrival of a new group of people who believed differently and who were incredibly vocal about their disagreement with the currently established practices would have been alarming.
In a letter to Trajan, the Roman emperor at the time, Pliny, the governor of Pontus, wrote, “For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.” Pliny writes how many of the Christians he interrogated and then tortured would not deny their faith or accept the Roman gods. This alone would have been terrifying for someone unfamiliar with Christian principles. If the members of this apparent insurrection were willing to be tortured and die before renouncing their beliefs, then this religion would have been a serious force to deal with. Pliny also states how much the religion had spread and how it had extended past the cities and into the outstretches of civilization.
At the time, Christianity was different than Roman mythology in many ways in addition to worshipping one god versus several. The Christians believed that they were saved by a god who loved them and forgave them for their transgressions while the Romans believed that they had to continually please the gods in order to earn their favor. Another difference was that the Christians were encouraged to spread the news of Jesus and the salvation he brought to the people and to the nonbelievers. This desire to grow the religion led to a dramatic increase in the number of Christians in a few short years. This sudden rise would have also been frightening to Romans who could have been forgiven for assuming they were witnessing an uprising among the people.
While in western culture today, we may view polytheism as a pagan practice, Christianity was once viewed in a similar manner. Any group of people that grows in masses and contradicts established principles would be threatening to those not familiar with their beliefs. One can only imagine what the Romans felt when they saw the rise of Christianity, and again wondered what they thought when they heard its message.
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