The rise of Christianity to AD 451
Christianity arose as a splinter faction of Judaism in the first half of the first century, centred around a Galilean Jew named Jesus (Aramaic: ישוע, Yeshua; Greek: Ἰησοῦς, Iesous). Understanding the birth of Christianity first of all requires a basic understanding of Judaism itself, the religion of the Jewish people. Judaism developed from an initial phase of polytheism and subsequent henotheism (worship of one god without denying the existence of others) to arrive at a radicalised monotheism somewhere in the sixth century BC. Yahweh thus emerged as the one and only existent god to the Jewish people. Moreover, the Jews considered themselves Yahweh’s ‘chosen people’ and awaited the coming of a saviour – the Messiah or ‘anointed one’ (Hebrew: מָשִׁיחַ, Mashiah; Greek: Χριστός, Christos) – who would liberate them from foreign tyranny and establish the Kingdom of God. These ideas were deeply rooted in first-century Judea, a hotbed of unrest and dissent under the yoke of the Roman Empire, which was indeed perceived as the ‘foreign tyranny’ from which the Jews sought to liberate themselves. Judaism had also been infiltrated by the Zoroastrian ideas of an ethereal battle between good and evil and a final judgement of the dead. However, these ideas were not yet widely accepted at the dawn of the first century.
The crucial event in the birth of what would become Christianity was the crucifixion of Jesus around AD 30, followed by some of his associates becoming convinced that he had risen from death. Although – or more likely because – Jesus became the central character of the Christian faith, very little is known about his actual life, deeds or teachings. Only two non-Christian ancient historians make a reliable mention of him. The Roman historian Tacitus writes in his Annales that “Christ [...] suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate”. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus briefly mentions Jesus in his Antiquitates Judaicae when asserting the execution of one Jacob (Hebrew: יעקב, Ya'akov; Greek: Ἰάκωβος, Iákōbos) in AD 62, “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ”. From this stem the only real historical certainties about Jesus: he was executed under Pontius Pilate and had a brother named Jacob. It can be assumed that Jesus was indeed a Jewish preacher of some sorts, like there were many in Judea at that time, whose message possibly stirred enough people to unsettle both the Jewish religious elite and the Roman authorities, against whom his message must have been directed. A fraud to the former and a possible dissenter to the latter, he was ultimately executed. Some additional but hardly reliable information about the person of Jesus can be derived from the oldest Christian writings: the authentic Letters of Paul (written in AD 50 – 55), the four canonical Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
The foundations of Christianity were ultimately not the work of Jesus, but of Paul. The execution of Jesus led his group of followers to believe that he had not really died, but had awakened from death and ascended to heaven. Different ideas immediately arose on how this story was to be interpreted and how the new movement was to relate to Judaism, but Paul’s interpretation ultimately won the plight. Though he had not known Jesus, Paul declared himself a devout follower and went on to claim that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah, whose death was a sacrifice to win divine grace for the sins of humankind and to pave the way for the Kingdom of God. This kingdom, Paul said, would be an eternally blissful realm inhabited only by the righteous, whom Jesus had offered salvation by his death. None of the early Christian writings therefore actually address anything that Jesus might have taught or preached while alive and no accounts of his actions or sayings survived him. Paul and the early Christians did not build and promote Christianity as ‘teachings of Jesus’ but rather as ‘teachings about Jesus’, and more specifically about his death and supposed resurrection.
The final step to deification was logically a small one to take and Jesus was soon made into ‘the Son of God’, or even God himself in human form, who rose from death after three days and ascended to heaven after forty. Moreover, it was told he would soon return to the world, heralding the end of times and the beginning of the promised Kingdom of God. Thus the foundation of early Christianity was laid in the ideas of Paul, which began to spread widely throughout the second and third centuries. The masses would be attracted by Christianity’s promise of salvation and eternal bliss beyond this life, something which the polytheist potpourri and complex Hellenic philosophies did not really offer.
Initially though, Christianity enjoyed little success in Judea, dismissed as a sham by the Jewish religious elite and largely ignored by the Roman authorities. But once it started spreading across the Levant, the Christian message rapidly gained a considerable number of followers. Paul’s leadership, ideas, journeys and preaching were instrumental in this: he denied the notion that one had to be a Jew to become a Christian, he elevated the ritual of baptism over circumcision and rejected much of Jewish law and tradition altogether. This gave Christianity the opportunity to present itself as an independent religious movement and the successor of some sorts to the now ‘misguided’ Jewish doctrines (which after all refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah). Having deified Jesus, Paul successfully managed to convince most of the Christians once more, breaking the movement away from Judaism and paving the way for Pauline Christianity to continue spreading its message and gaining converts. Paul himself was definitely a man on a mission, someone who preached tirelessly as he travelled from town to town in Asia Minor and Greece, ultimately arriving in the beating heart of the Roman Empire: Rome itself. The faith he and his followers advocated was indeed largely an urban movement and people in the rural areas largely remained outside the reach of the Christian message until the first half of the fourth century. Yet in many cities and towns across the empire, Christians flocked together and founded communities in which all levels of society were represented, save for the highest ranks of the Roman elite. Early Christianity was largely defined by these wide-spread small communities and Christians generally chose not to propagate their faith aggressively, meeting instead in seclusion in the belief that Jesus would soon return to establish the Kingdom of God. Nonetheless, the early Christians quickly invoked suspicion because of their radical monotheism and refusal to participate in the polytheist Greco-Roman religion with its many traditions, rites and festivals which affected most aspects of daily life. The polytheists consequently developed a more than unfriendly attitude towards known Christians because their refusal to help appease the gods could bring harm to local communities and the empire in general. Additionally, the Jews across the empire also began to view Christians as dangerous heretics. Thus, within three decades of Jesus’ death, Christianity had gained many followers, but also many powerful enemies. Before long, this hostility came to the attention of the Roman authorities, with deadly consequences.
The Roman regime had initially viewed the Christian movement as Jewish and of little or no importance in the big picture of anti-Roman sentiment in the hotbed of Judea. This indifference quickly faded as Christianity began to gain converts across the Levant. The Romans realised that Christians were no ethno-religious group like the Jews which could be given a special status and privileges, but rather a movement which could appeal to literally every person in the empire. Early Christians believed the world was about to go down in fiery destruction and rise anew as the Kingdom of God in which only the righteous – the followers of Jesus Christ – had a place. To the Romans however, the ‘world’ was the Orbis Terrarum, the circle of lands around the Mediterranean Sea which they had made into their empire and which the Christians claimed to be near annihilation – an unforgivable insult to Rome. Adding to this was Christianity’s rejection of the Greco-Roman religion and the increasingly deified personality cult around the Roman emperors.
The combination of these elements led the Romans to the alarming conclusion that pretty much every person, including Roman officials and soldiers, could secretly be a Christian plotting to sabotage the empire. To a conservative Roman, any Christian refusing to abandon his or her faith deserved death simply for that, regardless of whether this person had actually committed any crimes. This was also the guiding principle of the anti-Christian decree issued by emperor Trajan in AD 112. However, he commanded that Christians should only be arrested on grounds of a citizen’s accusation and those who willingly abandoned their faith were to be pardoned.
As mentioned before, the polytheistic masses viewed Christians as treacherous elements which could invoke the gods’ wrath through their refusal to participate in the Greco-Roman religion. More than once this would lead to spontaneous outbursts of anti-Christian sentiment, particularly in the empire’s most important cities during religious festivals or after some kind of natural disaster. The Roman authorities typically took such events as their cue to arrest scores of Christians and execute them publicly for the entertainment of the masses. The most infamous of these spectacles was undoubtedly the killing of Christians in the arena of the Roman amphitheatres. However, such ruthlessness ultimately backfired because it helped to create the notion of martyrdom. Christians dying for God under extremely cruel conditions took comfort in the idea that their salvation was guaranteed. Furthermore, forsaking the faith for fear of torture and threats by pagan persecutors would result in eternal damnation, which was far worse than the prospect of a horrible physical death. Alongside martyrdom also emerged less violent ways of trying to attain immediate salvation. Already in the late third century, some Christians decided to forego any worldly desires and focus on a life of extreme austerity and isolation in the deserts of Egypt and the Middle East. These people became known as hermits (Greek: ἐρημίτης, erēmitēs; Latin: eremita). Simultaneously, some Christians in Egypt flocked together to form communities focused on prayer, study, meditation and charity cut off from public life. These were the first monasteries, which soon spread across the Middle East and Asia Minor. By the second half of the fourth century, the appeal of monasticism had reached to Italy and Gaul.
Despite the general hostility of the polytheistic majority towards Christians, persecutions remained a local phenomenon until AD 250. Most Christians had only heard the dreadful tales of torture and martyrdom, rather than having witnessed them. More importantly, anti-Christian sentiment did not really threaten the continued expansion of the new faith throughout the second century. Christianity at last gained some converts among the empire’s equestrian and senatorial elite by the early third century, though these remained an isolated minority. But as Christianity trickled into the highest ranks of Roman society, the Christian viewpoint of the empire began to shift: instead of the opposing force, Rome became an important part of God’s plan. After all, the Romans had united the peoples of the world – that is, the Orbis Terrarum – and it seemed therefore obvious that the next phase in God’s plan was the empire’s ultimate conversion to the one true faith. Simultaneously, Christianity’s attitude towards Judaism radicalised. The Jews stubbornly refused any Christian teachings, making them wilful heretics to Christian eyes. Christians furthermore saw themselves as the new ‘chosen people’ of God, a status claimed by the Jews which the Christians believed was now rightfully theirs. Throughout the third century, a number of Christian writings (the four Gospels, the Letters of Paul and other apostles, the Acts and the Book of Revelation) were gathered to form a ‘New Testament’ which aimed to stress Christianity’s status as God’s new chosen faith.
Despite an obvious rise, the actual size and power of the Christian Church at the dawn of the third century remains debatable and the number of Christians varied significantly from area to area. More importantly, Christianity and the Roman Empire were far from coming together yet. The third century was a time of great turmoil as civil wars, economic troubles and foreign invasions were shaking Rome’s foundations. This caused the Roman government to become increasingly autocratic, dropping the semi-republican facade of the Principate and re-emerging as the totalitarian Dominate. The emperor, formerly the princeps (first citizen), now became the deified dominus (lord) around whom an extensive personality cult was built. These policies obviously clashed with Christian beliefs and would be the cause of an intensified conflict between the Church and the hard-pressed empire.
Around AD 250, emperor Decius issued a decree which called on the Roman people to reaffirm their loyalty to the gods and beg for divine help in overcoming the crises tormenting the empire. Christians who refused to comply were automatically considered traitors, thus sparking the first state-orchestrated persecutions which resulted in an unknown number of executions. Decius’ death in AD 251 temporarily relieved the pressure on Christians but in AD 257, emperor Valerian continued along the lines of Decius. The wave of persecutions ended abruptly when Valerian was captured by Rome’s eastern nemesis, the equally anti-Christian Sassanid Empire. This gave Christianity much-needed breathing space for the next forty years, during which the Church gained de facto (though not yet de jure) recognition from local Roman authorities and began penetrating the rural areas of the empire. Around AD 300, the Roman Empire chose the path of merciless repression one more time under emperor Diocletian, who was firmly determined to hold on to the ancient Greco-Roman traditions. Anti-Christian decrees were issued in AD 303 and Diocletian’s forces conducted the greatest anti-Christian persecutions yet, aiming to crush the Church once and for all. However, the empire’s hard-pressed frontiers in the north and east, as well as the relative independence of Diocletian’s co-rulers in his new administrative organisation (the Tetrarchy) helped to safeguard the Christians from major persecutions in most of the western provinces. The focal point of Diocletian’s rule was in the east, where a great number of Christians were liquidated. Diocletian abdicated in AD 305, but the persecutions continued under Diocletian’s successor Galerius. However, Galerius ultimately realised that all this brutality had become pointless: the number of Christians was by now too great to be eliminated entirely.
The Roman regime then decided that if the Church and its followers could not be destroyed, cooperation might be a better solution. Though Galerius gave the Christian faith the right to exist at his death in AD 311, the real architect of this new policy was Constantine, who issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313 and made Christianity's new acceptance a formal fact. Once he became the sole emperor in AD 324 (after yet another civil war), Constantine began to wield the Church as his most important weapon in strengthening imperial power and keeping the empire together. The pagan rituals, festivals and sacrifices were restricted and the treasures of the empire’s countless temples were openly confiscated. Simultaneously, the Church amassed extraordinary wealth as the government constantly granted it new assets, estates and palaces which were all declared free from taxation. The Church thus became a very powerful institution and initiated an unprecedented campaign of charity to help the empire’s impoverished masses, gaining Christianity a myriad of new followers and further alienating the Greco-Roman polytheism. By the second half of the fourth century, the majority of the Roman people had converted and by the end of it, the polytheists had become a feeble minority, especially in the cities. Christianity’s dominance was ultimately secured in AD 380 when emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the sole religion of the empire, purged the imperial court of any remaining anti-Christian elements, closed any still active pagan temples or sanctuaries and banned the pantheon of the old gods altogether.
Although Christianity stood victorious by the end of the fourth century, its doctrines had also been undergoing considerable developments and disagreements. During the second century, the lack of a truly uniform organisation or message sparked three major heresies: Montanism (encouragement of martyrdom and the notion of complete equality among believers), Gnosticism (distinction between God and the creator of the material world, which is evil and therefore not really of God’s making) and Marcionism (rejection of the Old Testament and assumption that Yahweh is not the Christian God). In response to this, Christians began to unite their fledgling communities and develop a single leadership of hierarchical constitution: the early Catholic Church. However, the Church soon faced renewed trouble as controversy arose over such issues as the importance of the Trinity, the sacraments and the Church itself. These gave way to several new heresies during the third century: Adoptionism (the humanity of Jesus is more important than his divinity), Monarchianism (God is ‘one’ and not a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and Novatianism (Christians who abandon their faith can never be pardoned). The dispute over the connection between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Trinity intensified in the early fourth century. The new heresy of Arianism claimed that the Son had been created by the Father and was therefore of lesser stature. In response, emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, where Arianism was rejected and a creed declared the Son “of one substance with the Father”. Arianism nevertheless continued to exist and was again condemned at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, which also expanded the Nicene Creed by affirming that the Holy Spirit stemmed from the Son and the Father and was therefore of the same divine substance. Arianism subsequently all but disappeared from the Roman Empire but found converts among several Germanic tribes living along the Danube. The fifth century saw new disputes over the doctrine of the Incarnation and the relationship between the humanity and divinity of Jesus. New heresies followed, most notably Nestorianism (the divine Son of God dwelled in the human Jesus), Eutychianism (the distinction between the human and divine Jesus is non-existent) and Pelagianism (people are not born in sin and are free to follow the righteous path first taken by Jesus). The Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 rejected both Nestorianism (which nevertheless went on to gain converts in the Middle East, Central Asia and even China) and Eutychianism, and confirmed that both a human and divine nature were somehow united in Jesus Christ. The Councils attempted – not without success – to impose the greatest possible degree of uniformity on Christianity’s adherents, doctrines and organisational structure. These would nevertheless continue to face many alterations, controversies and divisions of differing nature as the Middle Ages dawned. In hindsight, it is safe to say that the supposed ‘one true faith’ was never one, let alone true, and will quite likely never be as much…
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