The height of Christian expansion
From an historical perspective, Christianity is not a European religion. In fact, it was not even a primarily European religion until the end of the first millennium.
17 JANUARY 2021 · 15:00 CET
Many people —both Christians and non-Christians alike— think of Christianity as a “European religion”.
From a certain perspective this is true: since about the 15th century, when travel and commerce made the world seem much less small, the primary center of Christianity and of its expansion into other places of the world was Europe.
However, from another perspective, this is adamantly false: for the first 600 years, Christianity spread equally to all three continents —Europe, Africa, and Asia— and with astounding success.
It was not until the Muslim conquest of the 7th–8th centuries that Christendom was reduced to being a “European religion”.
In this article, I would like to illustrate just how vast Christendom was before the rise of Islam. I have chosen the date of 635 as the height of Christian expansion since it coincides with the official entrance of Christianity into China, and falls just three years after Muhammad’s death in 632, just before Islam will begin its conquest of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Spain.
2. The height of Christian expansion
In this section, I will list the portions of the Europe, Africa, and Asia that had been reached with the Gospel.
For convenience, I will be referring to these territories by their modern country names, and the list will follow a roughly west to east direction (beginning in Ireland and ending in Indonesia).
By saying that a part of the world was “reached” by the Gospel does not mean that everyone identified themselves as Christian (although sometimes it does!), but rather that there was a significant Christian presence there.
Sometimes we have firm historical records of Christians in certain countries, and at other times we have only small artifacts, such as Christian crosses, paintings, and references in historical works.
Finally, I am well-aware of the division of Christendom in the 5th cent. brought about by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Thus, my usage of “Christian” should be understood in a broad sense that includes Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian Christians alike.1
Ireland was reached by Patrick in the 5th cent.
Scotland was reached by Columba in the 6th cent.
England had been reached by unknown Christians in the 2nd or 3rd cent., and then was re-evangelized by Augustine of Canterbury in the late 6th–early 7th cent.
The Roman Empire had been reached, at the latest, by the 4th cent. This included most of southern Europe, northern Africa, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.
Sudan was reached by unknown Christians in the 1st–2nd cent.
Northern Ethiopia was reached by Frumentius in the 4th cent.
Arabia (including Yemen) was reached by unknown Christians in the 3rd cent.
Iraq and Iran were reached by unknown Christians in the 5th cent.
Turkmenistan and Afghanistan were reached by unknown Christians in the 5th cent.
India was reached either by Thomas in the 1st cent. or Pantaenus in the 2nd cent. Pakistan was probably reached during or shortly after this time.
Sri Lanka was reached by unknown Christians by the 4th cent. at the latest.
China was reached officially by Alopen (meaning “Abraham” or “Rabban”) in 635, but it is almost certain that other Christians were in China before this date. Christians may have been in Japan and Korea at this time, although the evidence is less certain.
Myanmar (Burma) was reached by unknown Christians in the 4th cent.
Malaysia was reached by unknown Christians by the 7th cent. at the latest, by possibly by as early as the 3rd cent.
Indonesia was reached by unknown Christians by the 7th cent. at the latest.
I hope that readers have grasped the enormity of the Christian faith by the year c. 635. Its size dwarfed the Roman Empire, or any other empire before or since then. I would like to make three comments by way of conclusion.
First, from an historical perspective, Christianity is not a European religion. In fact, it was not even a primarily European religion until the end of the first millennium.
During the first several hundred years, the majority of Christians were in places such as Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, and it has been estimated that during the time of Catholicos Timothy I (c. 780–823), the largest Christian tradition in the world was the Church of the East, with some ten million members.
Second, and building off the previous point, the information presented above highlights a historical irony. Today, much is made of the need for Christians to “evangelize” the 10/40 window, as if it had never been reached by the Gospel.
But the 10/40 window coincides almost exactly with the expansion of Christianity by the year c. 635. Thus, perhaps we should begin to speak of a “reevangelization” of the 10/40 window.
This may help some Christians in justifying their conversion to Christianity in Muslim countries, for example. They are merely returning to the religion that was there before Islam.
Third, the expansion recorded above was achieved by peaceful evangelism. In the British Isles, Patrick and Columba were wondering monks who had no power at all. Augustine of Canterbury was a monk sent from Rome to re-evangelize Britain.
In the Roman Empire, Christians were persecuted, and yet their faith continued to spread. The Church of the East never had the official support of any government, but rather evangelized “as they went” (cf. Mt 28:19) and set up churches along the trade routes of the Silk Road.
If there ever was bloodshed, it was Christian blood being shed. This stands in stark contrast to other major world religions, for example Islam, who have grown almost solely thanks to conquest and war.2
1 Both sides fully subscribed to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which is the most ecumenical creed in all of Christendom.
2 It is a sad that at times force was used in Christian mission at later dates, but this was not coherent with either the Christian faith or traditional Christian mission methodology.