The brutality of Roman rule made martyrs of many of the earliest Christians. But it also created a fertile climate for the spread of the emerging faith among scattered peoples looking forward to a new "kingdom" ruled by God.
In a study of archaeological findings throughout the ancient world where Christianity began, Neil Asher Silberman and Richard Horsley found that the earliest Christians were affected by far-reaching economic and political changes, as Rome brought formerly autonomous regions - from Spain to the Euphrates and from Britain to Upper Egypt - under centralized control.
While Roman authorities promoted universal allegiance to the empire, Dr. Silberman writes in the latest issue of Archaeology magazine, the early apostles gave voice to an alternative vision that appealed to a restless generation which had lost homes and even ethnic identities in the upheavals of imperial rule.
Nowhere was this more evident than with Paul, who was not a typical traveling evangelist in bringing Christianity to the non-Jewish world.
"Rather than being this very abstract missionary and theologian, Paul was a very perceptive organizer of communities," Dr. Silberman said in an interview.
Dr. Silberman, a contributing editor to Archaeology, and Dr. Horsley, a biblical scholar at the University of Massachusetts, are working on a book about the social history of early Christianity - Inheriting the Kingdom - which Putnam plans to publish next fall.
In trying to provide a broader context for the remarkable growth of Christianity from a handful of people to a worldwide religion, they studied the impact of Roman rule from evidence found in archaeological excavations in the cities of the Roman provinces of Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia; salvage excavations in modern Mediterranean cites; and regional survey projects in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel and Jordan.
The excavations indicate a tremendous cost in displaced peasants, villagers and townspeople as regions were incorporated into the Roman Empire, according to Dr. Silberman.
Cities rose and fell according to the empire's trade and administrative needs. Heavy taxation and conscription of peasants led to shifts in rural settlement patterns from farmsteads to plantation-like estates. Widespread confiscation and redistribution of lands to Roman veterans and officials contributed to a social system that served the rich over the poor.
In this social context, Christianity would be particularly appealing.
While Paul and the early apostles traveled through a world of imperial power, Dr. Silberman writes, "they gave voice to an alternative vision, one in which scattered, self-supporting communities looked forward to the imminent end of earthly status, privilege and violence in a new kind of `kingdom' ruled by God."
Looking back over Paul's letters in the Bible, Dr. Silberman says, one could see the apostle addressing the specific tensions and pressures each group of his earliest followers dealt with.
For example, the letter to the Galatians uses language that would be familiar to rural people: "God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." Meanwhile, letters to the community in Corinth spoke about more urban issues, such as lawsuits.
The movement begun by earliest Christians 2,000 years ago in Galilee was not only a unique event in Western religious history, according to Dr. Silberman.
"Their wide-ranging quest for the Kingdom of God may well have been both a spiritual journey and an evolving social response to the changes wrought by Roman rule," he writes.