Christ as a Sun God, 3rd century Christianity began as a small movement. When Jesus died his immediate followers perhaps numbered no more than a hundred. In the years after the crucifixion these followers stayed close to Jerusalem, where they were led by Jesus’s brother James and had success winning converts among Jews. Jewish leaders regarded them as a threat and forced them move from Jerusalem to Samaria, Damascus and Antioch, where there were large Jewish communities.
The first Christians were Jews and thought of themselves as Jews. Christianity emerged as a distinct sect in the second half of the A.D. 1st century and its followers were first called Christians in Antioch around the same time. As Christianity spread it absorbed some elements of the cultures around it. Orpheus and Hercules became the good shepherd and a metaphor of Christ.
The appeal of Christianity to many early converts was the promise of an afterlife. The burial rite and safekeeping of the tomb for early Christians was important because it was believed the soul would rise to heaven just as Jesus's had done during resurrection. The doctrine of humility and compassion found a receptive audience among the poor and oppressed.
Websites and Resources: Britannica on Christianity britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/115240/Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Historical Jesus Theories http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Britannica britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303091/Jesus-Christ ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ;
Websites and Resources with Christian art and images: Princeton Index of Christian Art ica.princeton.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Art arthist.umn.edu ; Early Christian Art University of Oklahoma ou.edu/class ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Space and Motion Article spaceandmotion.com/christianity-christian-jesus-christ. ; Online Icons MIT mit.edu:8001/activities/ocf/icons
Book: History of Christianity by Owen Chadwick; The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brian Moynahan
Proto-Christians After Jesus’s Death
The Good shepherd, 3rd century After his death, Jesus was seen by Jews as a failure as a Messiah, who by definition was supposed to conquer the oppressors of the Jews and created a Holy Jewish Empire. It was only after his death that the definition of a messiah for Christians would change from a victorious fighter to a peaceful, moralizing savior.
A central prophecy of early Christianity was a Second Coming of “clouds of glory” that was supposed to happen soon after Jesus’s death. In Mark Jesus told his disciples “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” But that didn’t happen at least in any kind of obvious way. As for an explanation the early Christians took a different tact: that salvation had arrived in the form of the church and sacraments and eternal life was available to anyone through salvation.
Some scholars said that the transformation of the perception of Jesus from a militant rebel rouser to a prince of peace took place after A.D. 70 when Jewish insurgent movements were crushed, the Jewish Temple was destroyed and Jewish people fled from Israel to various points around the world. At that point in time Jews realized there was little hope of establishing a Holy Jewish Empire through violent means, while the teachings of Christ showed that personal salvation was possible by following the peaceful teaching of Christ as told by St. Paul and other missionaries.
The Roman writers Josephus (A.D. 37 – 100),Tacitus (A.D. 56 – 117) and Suetonis (A.D. 69/75 – after 130) refer to Jesus in their discussions of the new Christian sects.
First Christian Communities and Judaism
Christ with a beard, 4th century Christianity was first regarded by the Romans as sect within Judaism while the Jewish community viewed it as the “Jesus cult.” Most of the first Christians were Jews who saw themselves as Jews and as followers of a Jewish sect and didn’t see themselves as Christians. They worshiped at the Temple and followed the laws of Moses and were circumcised. Gentiles were required to become Jews before the could become Christians.
Over time the Jewish community became the disillusioned with members of the Jesus cult as it recruited Gentiles and neglected Jewish law, particularly the rules of circumcision. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Judaism was dealt and near fatal blow and Christianity emerged as a religion in its own right. Jewish authorities severed ties with Christians at the council in Jamnia in A.D. 83, where it was also decided that Hebrew cannon of scriptures was closed and that no Christian writing would be accepted as sacred texts.
Even so for many centuries Passover and Easter were celebrated together and many Christians attended synagogues. As the religion won more non-Jewish Roman converts it began to take on more of a Roman character. Only after several centuries did they begin to view themselves as Christians. For centuries after the Constantine’s conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century many Jews called themselves Christians.
Spread of Christianity
Early Christians Worship in
the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus It is widely believed that Christianity spread the way it did because it was regarded as a minority religion of such little importance than it didn’t seem worth the effort to reign in, regulate or persecute. In response to accusations that their religion was second rate, Christians responded that it was a fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures.
Basing his conclusions on history, studies of modern cults and modern sociological studies, Rodney Stark of the University of Washington, argued persuasively in his book: The Rise of Christianity that Christianity went from being a fringe sect in the Roman Empire to dominate religion of Western Civilization through the efforts women and the educated classes in the same way that religion the Unification Church of Rev. Moon attracts followers today.
Stark argued that Constantine did not introduce Christianity to Rome but rather reacted to rapid growth of Christianity within the empire. Stark believed that Christianity grew in the Roman Empire at a rate of 40 percent a decade, growing from around 1,000 (0.0017 percent of the population) in A.D. 40 to nearly 34 million (56.5 percent of the population) in A.D. 350, when it reached "a critical mass” of at least 10 percent of the Roman Empire.
Stark said conversions did not take place with rallies in marketplace but rather quietly through relatives and friend. Basing this claim on the fact that Mormon missionaries convert only one of 1,000 by cold house calls but covert one of every two people they meet through friends and relatives, wrote "conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal relations.” He said that by not requiring “converts to observe the [Jewish] law, they created a religion free of ethnicity.”
Book: The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark (Princeton, 1996).
Early Spread of Christianity
Roman-era Christian Funerary inscription After the destruction of the Jewish temple, Jews and some Christians were driven out of Jerusalem. Christianity spread outside of Israel throughout the Roman Empire. Early Christian communities were set up in Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, Carthage and Alexandria. By the end of the A.D. 2nd century, the faith had spread to Egypt, North Africa and Gaul. As the religion spread many of the converts were Jewish merchants, artisans and scholars that had settled in the major cities of the Roman Empire.
As the new sect attracted more Gentiles leaders decided they no longer had to convert to the Jewish religion; they only had to abandon all forms of idolatry. After the destruction of the Temple it became more politically advantageous for Christianity to distance itself from its Jewish roots to escape the persecution experienced by the Jews. The Gospels were written during this period, which explains why the Jews sometimes get bad rap in the New Testament.
As Christianity became distanced from its Jewish roots it began to incorporate elements of other cultures and ways of thinking. It was especially influenced by Greek philosophy and Roman concepts of organization. Christianity also influenced other institutions. Roman paganism was influenced by Christianity and Christian hermits.
By the end of the A.D. 1st century there were Christians throughout Asia Minor. Biblical papyri and parchment codices found in Egypt provide evidence of the deep penetration of Christianity by the early 2nd century.
At the beginning of the A.D. 2nd century, it is estimated that there still were only around 10,000 Christians in the entire world. By A.D. 150, there were Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire and in places as far away as Arabia, Persia and India. By A.D. 250 missionaries had carried Christianity up the Rhine and Danube and to Britain.
Women and the Spread of Christianity
Christian catacombs in Rome
with Christ the teacher Stark suggests that women played a major role in the spread of Christianity because Christian doctrine "promoted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family" given them higher status than in Roman and Jewish society.
Christianity outlawed infanticide and abortion, gruesome practices common in the Roman Empire that produced a disproportionally large male population. Women also benefitted from Christianity's sanction of marriage and opposition to divorce.
Roman men held marriage in low regard and when they married produced few children. This kept the population of the Romans relatively low while the population of Christians grew. The Church encouraged women to marry pagan husbands, even Senators. This allowed Christianity to penetrate the aristocracy through conversion of spouses and children. The ban on abortion and female infanticide allowed more Christian women to give birth to Christian children.
By the 2nd century as the “orthodox church” was consolidating itself women were increasingly being looked upon with scorn and shunted aside as beings associated with sin, namely sex.
Spread of Christianity from Cities to the Countryside
Christian catacombs with the Virgin and Child Christianity began as an urban religion and spread slowly to countryside. In many cases the process involved wealthy landowners, who often were converted through contacts in cities, and then encouraged their rural tenant farmers to accept the faith. Early Christian churches and communities also set up social services for the poor and disenfranchised and their message of a compassionate God was better received than the scripted devotion expected to be expressed towards Roman gods.
Stark also said that many of the new converts were Jews dispersed from their homeland who felt a conflict by their traditional laws and their new surroundings. He argued that once influential leaders decided it was okay to break Jewish law less devout Jews found the transition to Christianity easy.
Christians drawn from the lower classes, began to associate in monasteries first in Egypt, then in the East and later the West. Popular devotion to saints and particularly the Virgin Mary spread.
Early Monks and Monasteries
Gallarus Oratory Ascetic sects also arose in early days of Christianity. They made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and headed to the deserts of Egypt to seek solitude and communion with God. Some lived for years in caves on nothing but bread and water. The most famous of these hermits was Paul of Thebes who reportedly lived for 112 years in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The word “hermit” is derived from the Greek word cremeites , meaning “desert dweller.”
The “desert fathers.” who lived hermetic lives in caves of Egypt in the early centuries of Christianity laid the ground work for monks and nuns with their vows of celibacy and poverty. Modern studies of self-inflicted suffering in religious observances suggests there are two main purposes: 1) to gain mastery over some perceived weakness or fault, such as lust and desire; and 2) induce a trance-like state that is believed to bring one closer to the divine.
Saint Anthony is credited with launching the greatest monastic movement in religious history. A healer, sufferer, pioneer of monasticism in Christianity, he promulgated celibacy and asceticism and spent most of his life praying and fasting in the desert, where it was said he was tempted many times by the devil, who often appeared dressed as a woman. There is now an Anonite order of monks.
St. Anthony was born in Egypt in 251. Following the admonitions of Matthew, he sold all of his possession, gave his money to the poor so the at he could find the treasure of heaven. He fled to the deserts of Egypt, where he took up an austere life. Others followed his example and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the mountains. Since the Middle Age St. Anthony has been acknowledged as the patron saint of domestic animals. The day of the saint is celebrated with bonfires in communities across Spain.
Pachomius founded first true monastery on Tabenna, an island in Nile, in A.D. 340. The difference between the monks here and their predecessors is that the monks associated with one another and performed daily chores and work in the fields in addition to praying, reading the scriptures and meditating.
From Egypt monasticism spread to Syria and Asia Minor. Around 360, St. Basil established a great monastery near Neo-Caesarea , in Pontus. St. Basil (358-64) composed monastic rule and is regarded as founder of the Christian monastic movement. He established the creed that a monk must not only live for himself but must also help his fellow man. He discouraged extreme asterism and established schools, hospitals, hospices and orphanages in conjunction with his monasteries.
From Egypt and Asia Minor monasticism spread to Italy and then parts of the European continent and Britain and Ireland
Trevi Clitumno, a Roman Temple
turned into a church Early Christian communities gathered in a private homes and huts to sing hymns, listen to readings of the scriptures, conduct all night prayer sessions and commemorate events like the Last Supper. There was often a lot of noise and animals walking around. Early congregations had an urban and plebeian character.
The building of churches was largely forbidden until Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire. The first churches were rather plain. They were built of heavy stones, had few windows and consequently were very dark. The were no columns or friezes like Greek and Roman temples, the main object it seems was to create a space large enough for worship.
In the early Christian era, churches were usually small rooms with an altar on the east side. Because they were sometimes attacked, towers were often added to act as look out points and defensive positions.
The earliest known example of a church was built in the late A.D. 3rd century at the Jordanian port town of Aila (now called Al Aqabah). The building was 85 feet long, 52 feet wide and 13 feet high. It had a central nave, two side aisles, a chancel with an altar table and rectangular apse. It was destroyed by a 4th century earthquake. Until it was found the oldest known churches were in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, dated to around A.D. 325.
In November 2005, archaeologists claimed they had found the “oldest church” in the Holy Land. Dated to the A.D. 3rd or 4th century, it was unearthed in Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) inside a high security prison where Hamas and Israeli Jihad prisoners are kept by Israelis. Prisoners from other Israeli prisons helped excavate the site. The church features a large floor mosaic with the name Jesus Christ written in ancient Greek.
The ancient church building in Megiddo measures 10 meters by five meters and was dated through jugs of wine and cooking pots found at the site and is thought to pre-date the Byzantine period because no distinctive Byzantine crosses were found. The mosaic has been dated to the late 3rd century. The site was discovered b workers preparing to build a new wing for the prison.
Early Christian Scholarship
Philo of Alexandria In the early years of Christianity, the basic tenets of the religion were often in a state of flux, and positions on key issues such as the nature of salvation and the resurrection often changed from generation to generation. Without the novelty of the resurrection and it bearing on human kind it has been argued that Christianity could not have endured for very long.
Alexandria is where many of the doctrines of Christianity were defined. School for priests were established in the city in A.D. 2nd century. In A.D. 313, Alexandria became the seat of Christian theological studies and it was there that the doctrines of Christianity—when the religion was unified—were shaped into a systematic theology.
Much of the early scholarly Christian work was defining Christian doctrine in Old Testament terms and concepts with new terminology and ideas and writing these doctrines in such a way that were understandable to those educated in the Greco-Roman traditional. Many early Christian scholarly works resembled Greek-style philosophical works and many of the early debates were shaped by Greek-style reasoning and rationality applied to Christian concepts. The scholar Origen of Alexandria said, “It is far better to accept teachings with reason and wisdom than with mere faith.”
By A.D. 180 the power of the Catholic bishop's was established and the New Testament was canonized.Saint John Chrysostom, who lived in the early 4th century, is the father of the liturgy that is still used in both the Catholic and the Orthodox church.
Early Christian Theology
Basilica of Paleopolis
a 5th century Church in Greece Theology according to historian Daniel Boorstein was "a Western creation nurtured in Hellenist Alexandria" and was "both a producer and a by-product of Christianity." Whereas the myth of the Gods and philosophy were separated under the Greeks. They were united in theology as Moses was made into a philosopher as well religious leader.
Philo of Alexandria (late first century B.C. to first century A.D.) is considered the father of theology. A rich Jewish nobleman, who was regarded a quite a fun-loving guy, he was one of the first to scrutinize Jewish-Christian doctrine using Platonic philosophical reasoning.
Another influential thinker was Origen (185?-254), an Alexandrian Greek who castrated himself to ensure his purity and became head of the leading Christ theological academy at the age of 18. He is credited with giving Christianity some analytical credibility by incorporating elements of Greek philosophy but was unsuccessful making it hold up to the scrutiny of history.
Alexandria was a center of Christian and Jewish learning as well Greek learning. One of the greatest achievements of the Alexandria Library and learning center was The creation of the Old Testament by seventy-two Jewish scholars, brought together by Ptolemy, to translate the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), "which from its beginning was enshrouded in legend and folklore," into Greek. According to a Jewish legend, Ptolemy asked each of the Jewish scholars to individually to translate the whole Hebrew bible, and miraculously, the result, was 72 identical versions. Modern copies of the Bible are all based on the Greek translation.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Symbols of Catholicism by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Newsweek, Time and National Geographic articles about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011