In researching for this series, I've realized that this topic is a tad gargantuan and it's going to be nearly impossible to survey every single religion at the time of the Incarnation and then comprehensively fit it into a blog, but I think we can at least take a gander at the biggies. (Feel free to add your own insight and thoughts. It is a learning experience for me and like all good nerds, I live to learn.)
At the time of the Lord's coming there were three religions of significance. Each religion was primed and ready and contributed to the rapid spread of the Gospel afterwards. The three dominant religions of the time were Egyptian, Greek and Judaism. (There were many, many others, but these are the three critical to the Gospel's unfurling.) Judaism was no where near as large or as the other two, but it was most certainly as strong and rich in tradition. The first I'll tackle will be the Egyptians. By the time of the Incarnation, Egypt was a Roman state, but the religion still held its people.
To understand Egyptian religion is to understand the importance of two things: The afterlife, and priests. Sounds pretty similar to us huh? Not really.
For the Egyptians, death was paramount in all their thinking, daily life and religion. All Egyptian art is centered around death and the fear of death. It's pretty cool to look at now, but it must have been a pretty miserable existence to live during that time. The amount of suffering that went in to building that civilization is unimaginable. It wasn't just the slaves who lived on a narrow margin of safety either. There is a famous epitaph of an Egyptian noble that boasts that he had never been beaten or whipped in front of the local magistrate. It was pretty common for everyone to be whacked or smacked, publicly in Egypt. If you made it through your short life (30-45) without being whipped, you were really something. Little value was placed upon the living. In such conditions, men, seeing little hope in the suffering of their present state, turned to the afterlife.
As a result, there were no great works of philosophy coming out of Egypt at the time. Why would they turn to their reasoning if it gave them no relief from the pain of their present? The mind and spirit of the Egyptian was enslaved.
In Egypt, the domain of the reasoning belonged to the priests alone. Today, popular movies depict the Pharaohs as the most powerful men in Egypt. But it was the priests who held the real power, and their power was tremendous. Kings were subject to it. And as you might guess, the priests guarded that power jealously. To the Egyptian priests, the notion of a people thinking for themselves was nothing less than catastrophic. For to be ignorant was to be afraid, and the only way to ever really rule or control man was through fear. There was only one Pharaoh who ever challenged their authority. His name was Akhenaton. Astoundingly, Akhenaton tried to turn Egypt into a monotheistic religion. But after he died, the priests took possession of his successor and wiped his name from the monuments.
So even though the Egyptian religion has been popularized in our film culture by fun summer movies, it was no joke to the everyday Egyptian. To live in Egypt was to live in a virtual misery and fear. The afterlife was the only hope you had, and the afterlife was carefully guarded by the Priests, who just happened to be the ones at the top causing all the suffering.
In short, life in Egypt sucked. No sense in romanticizing it. It sucked. Bigtime. Period. (Compared to the way we think and live today.) Unless of course, you were a priest. It is no wonder Christianity spread like a wind across its conquered remains. The wikipedia's only explanation for Christianity's rapid spread is to say the Christ resembled one of their gods and that Christ himself was a mythical person. I was astounded to read this in the Wikipedia. Christ as a mythical person is a theory that no noted historian takes seriously. It is nothing short of conspiracy theory. But somehow, it seems to be the author's only explanation:
"Egyptian mythology put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity, sometimes explained by claiming that Jesus was originally a syncretism based predominantly on Horus, with Isis and her worship becoming Mary and veneration (see Jesus as myth)."
Nice try. I have a different take on why Christianity spread.
Next up: The Greeks.