Early Christianity burst fast and far across the ancient world, changing lives and centuries-old customs.
The dynamic new religion was carried over Roman roads and mail systems, and along trade routes to send its first foreign roots among the widely dispersed House of Israel. These expatriated Israelites at the time of the Savior outnumbered their Israelitish cousins in the Holy Land.Dr. C. Wilfred Griggs, BYU professor of ancient scriptures and well-known Egyptologist, believes that scholars should re-evaluate conclusions that a century or two passed after the resurrection of the Savior before Christianity was introduced into other countries.
And the premise of a fast-growing Christianity holds amazing parallels to the expansion of the restored Church, said Brother Griggs. A careful study of the New Testament is most valuable and insightful of the present times as well, said the scholar, who is himself a Gospel Doctrine teacher.
Brother Griggs is well-known for his excavation work at an ancient Christian burial ground, Fag El Gamous, near Seila, Egypt, where he and others discovered a gold-covered mummy on Feb. 20, 1989.
"I am convinced by my study, which matches what I feel in my heart, that Christianity really did spread much more rapidly and much more widely than I would have thought, say 20 years ago," he said in a recent interview with the Church News.
"The impression is that there was a veritable explosion of Christianity throughout the ancient world."
He said "a very strong and viable Christian faith" made its presence in many distant places, such as in the areas now called Iraq and Iran, the Black Sea Area, southern Russia, West India, and Egypt.
Early Legends recorded in third and fourth century documents say the Savior actually called each of the apostles to a specific country. While these legends have generally been discounted by scholars, some may hold bits of validity, said Brother Griggs. Many old writings discovered recently seem to corroborate some aspects of such legends.
Based on extensive study of the Egyptian burial ground, Brother Griggs and others on the BYU archeological team have concluded that Christianity in Egypt appears to have arrived as early as A.D. 50.
The arrival brought profound changes to centuries-old customs. Among these changes are that burials began facing east instead of facing west, a radical departure, he said. Also, family members who died together, such as a mother and baby, are buried with more physical intimacy than previously, indicating a stronger family relationship and perhaps beliefs of eternal relationships. Christians were buried in many layers of new clothing. Some of the clothing contained "symbolism that indicates a ritual or ordinance passing into the next life," said the professor.
Developments paved way
Centuries before the coming of Christ, said Brother Griggs, at least three major developments helped prepare the way for this rapidly growing faith to take root:
1. The dispersion of the House of Israel by conquering armies. This created pockets of Israelites in countries throughout the ancient world.
"This dispersion grew and multiplied so that by the time of Jesus, there were by far more people of the House of Israel living outside of Palestine than in Palestine. And they retained their Old Testament culture, so that no matter how well they fit into other cultures, they stood out because of the God they worshipped, the scriptures they read and their dietary habits."
2. The translation of the Old Testament into Greek about 250 B.C. This made the scriptures more universally readable throughout the ancient world. At this time, much of this world practiced Greek culture. "This speaks of Judaism giving leaven to the loaf of humanity throughout the ancient world," Brother Griggs observed.
3. The establishment of the Roman Empire, fostering travel and communication with safety and relative speediness.
"Travel was easy in the Roman world," said Brother Griggs. "There were lots of roads. Virtually every day during the sailing season from April to October, grain ships would have departed from Egypt and arrived in Rome.
"My suspicion is that frankly it would have been easier to travel around the Mediterranean in Roman times than to cross the United States in Brigham Young's day."
He added that ample evidence indicates that letters were sent throughout the ancient world. Some are from boys in boarding school writing home for more money while others are friendship letters. Graffiti in ancient Egypt indicates that many tourists visited the land of the Pharaohs.
The people at the time of the Savior were cosmopolitans who spoke three or four languages. They were in tune with current affairs. And, they were caught up in a myriad of religious beliefs.
"When one looks at the variegated landscape of religious activity, one sees everything from the cults to the basic beliefs of the time, from arising new religious beliefs to lots of superstition and cynicism. There was a great deal of religious hope. Christianity didn't exist in a vacuum or religious belief; it grew up having to stand as one of a number of competing faiths."
Jerusalem - crossroads of world
And, surrounded by these conditions, the Israelites were active participants in their world, continued Brother Griggs.
"When I put Jesus into this picture, I am rather impressed that He would certainly have been as capable as others of His times in possibly speaking three or four languages. Even if He didn't travel widely, He would have known a great deal of the world around Him because it would have been passing before His eyes with travelers coming by from different directions.
"Every year Jerusalem became something of a huge mob. The city grew to a population of 2.5 million during the Passover feast. Israelites gathered from virtually every part of the known world as they made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem once a year.
"Certainly during Jesus' ministry, they would have heard of the Miracle-worker, by those for whom He was either popular or despised. The travelers would have taken back to their local culture whatever they heard and understood of the Christian faith."
Following the resurrection of the Savior, said Brother Griggs, "the apostles had a wonderful opportunity to fill in the messages taken back home by the people at Passover feasts."
The ancient apostles were dedicated men who took very seriously the commission to go to all the world, he said.
"The apostles were not hesitant to go into the world where Jewish communities had been established and preach the gospel," he said. "They had a common culture that had been established all over the ancient world."
He pointed out the Apostle Paul as a "wonderful example of a Greek-speaking missionary, Jewish by culture, with a testimony of Jesus. Multiply him by any number of others, and you see how the Church was able to spread rapidly.
"This picture of a cosmopolitan world, so difficult for modern people to understand, accounts, I think, for the rapid widespread Christian faith within a few years after the resurrection."
Problems of rapid growth
The rapid growth of the gospel posed serious immediate problems, noted Brother Griggs.
"There is no question that when Christianity spread, the spread soon threatened to outstrip the ability of the people to keep the faith pure. Quite clearly, when someone is converted, it doesn't mean he suddenly blanks out everything he had as part of his cultural life before conversion. If the Church grew too rapidly, it could take on hues and colors that would make it unrecognizable to Church members of other countries."
This struggle to keep the faith pure while assimilating new members of many cultures "was one of the most fundamental struggles.
"One can see in an ancient world without technology and the communications we enjoy today that the Church could be swamped with those kinds of struggles. Regional differences and competition could grow up over certain issues. This was in fact a very great problem."
Parallels of restored gospel
He said that modern parallels are readily drawn with the ancient Church. As in ancient times, developments foreshadowed the spread of the gospel in our day. These early developments include:
1. People from Christian nations conquered and claimed much of the world. While this was not done in a particularly enlightened manner, it did serve to make the Savior and God known.
2. The invention of the printing press and further translation of the Bible led to the book being carried by monks and friars throughout the world. This established an awareness of the covenant relationship of the Lord to His followers.
3. The more-recent establishment of a strong economic and political base in America from which missionaries could be sent to all the world.
This modern base served the same purpose as the ancient Roman empire, said Brother Griggs. "If missionaries then were able to move with safety and ease throughout the world, certainly we in this century are able to travel with the American passport and the strength of the American dollar. We are privileged to see how missionary work can move throughout the world."
Without trying to make the parallel perfect, he observed, one can appreciate how seriously modern apostles, along with the apostles of the 1840s and 1850s, took the commission of the Savior to spread the gospel throughout the world.
And, he said, the success of their effort has brought the Church into an increasingly international setting. In fact, the Church today is struggling with some of the same problems it did in the time of the ancient apostles.
"It is difficult for Americans to realize that we don't have to export Americanism to teach the gospel," he said. "When there is no conflict between their cultures and the gospel, converts should feel very comfortable in their culture.
"Thank heavens for prophets! If you don't have revelation to help settle those kinds of issues, we would by now be so fragmented.
"The parallels between their time and ours in so many fundamental ways make the study of the ancient gospel exciting and fun, and also a bit of a warning for us. That would be one good reason to study the New Testament - to help us understand our own international growth."
Study of the scriptures, like excavating ancient burial grounds, lends incredible insights and builds brotherhood, not just across cultures, but across time, said Brother Griggs.
"We all have felt a very special kinship with these ancient people," he said. "We almost feel responsible to them as though we are their link to the present and they are our link to the past.
"My hope is that when I study the New Testament, that when Jesus performs a miracle, I can feel I am participating as a witness and can sense the reality of the miracle and rejoice with the person who is the recipient of the miracle."