Christianity in the Classical World
Christianity spread very fast in the Roman Empire,
partly because the first and second centuries were a time of political stability
and prosperity. The roads and shipping routes were relatively safe from highwaymen
and pirates, thus allowing Christian preachers to travel freely and to dispatch
messengers and letters easily. Travel was costly, but the Christian communities,
particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, had the money to support it because
they shared in the empire's prosperity. The empire had relative freedom of religion;
as long as a citizen was loyal to Rome, was willing to swear an oath of allegiance
to the emperor as a god, and did not disturb the social order, he or she was not
disturbed in religious matters.
Christianity was not the only religion with missionaries.
There were hundreds of wandering philosophers who offered their brand of peace
of mind and happiness to whoever would listen, and preferably to whoever would
pay. Dozens of mystery religions sprang up that, through secret rites and ceremonies,
claimed to offer salvation or the secret of life. The ancient world was very much
like modern America, where one can investigate thousands of philosophies, forms
of meditation, and religions. If anything, the Greco-Roman world was too pluralistic;
there were so many religious choices people became religiously cynical.
The most successful missionaries of all were the Jews.
Hellenistic culture had a tendency toward monotheism, and only one people firmly
believed in one God. Jewish missionaries, like modern Christian evangelists, were
self-appointed and itinerant. They preached in synagogues and in the marketplaces.
A group o f
people, called God fearers, came into existence who read the Hebrew Bible
(in its standard Greek translation), who often attended synagogue, who did not
work on the Sabbath, yet who did not desire to undergo the pains of circumcision,
the rigors of the Jewish dietary laws, or the inconvenience of following all the
moral principles. Nor did they think highly of the Jerusalem Temple, which to
them was a symbol of an ethnic group rather than a religion. But sometimes the
children of God-fearers became Jews. No one knows what fraction of the diaspora
Jews were converts, but it is known that of the Roman Empire's approximately sixty
million people, between four and six million were Jews. Most cities in the eastern
Roman Empire had significant Jewish populations; Alexandria, Egypt was reported
to be one third Jewish.
For those God-fearers who hesitated to join Judaism
because of its laws and its ethnicity, Christianity represented an ideal alternative.
As a result they joined Christianity in great numbers; Jewish missionaries had
unconsciously laid the foundation for Christian growth. Christian missionaries
followed the same approaches used by Jewish missionaries; they spoke at synagogues,
gave speeches in the marketplace, and met with fellow members of their ethnic
group or profession. According to the Book of Acts (16:13), on the Sabbath Paul
visited a "place of prayer," probably a synagogue. By attending synagogue services,
early Christian missionaries would have made contact with those sympathetic to
the new religion such as the God-fearers. The early American Bahá'ís acted similarly;
they often taught their Faith by attending a local church.
What sort of people became Christians? The evidence
is scanty, but has been assembled. Ancient cities did not have upper, middle,
and lower economic classes like the modern west. On top was a hereditary aristocracy
made of a relative small number of familiesperhaps a hundredwho ran the city
and controlled much of its land and wealth. Beneath them were various groups.
Merchants often were wealthy, but did not have aristocratic status or its attendant
privileges. Artisans made most of the goods the city neededclothing, pottery,
metal goods, glass, furniture, etc.but were heavily taxed and often were as
impoverished as rural peasants. Slaves and an urban proletariat performed the
menial tasksunloading ships, building houses, slaughtering animals, and providing
muscle power, since there was no machine power. A certain fraction of the proletariat
was permanently unemployed, and the aristocracy distributed free grain to prevent
them from rioting. Street gangs were often well organized and in the pay of aristocrats,
who used them to exert political power. Finally, peasant farmers or slaves on
large estates raised most of the city's food. Smaller cities were largely self
sufficient, raising most of the food they needed on local lands, farmed by peasants
living in villages outside of the city. The few very large cities in the empire,
like Rome, had to import food, usually from Egypt, and thus were dependent on
the maintenance of safe trade.
From the beginning, Christianity seems to have attracted
individuals from many classes, but especially from the merchant and artisan classes.
The aristocracy and proletariat were little represented in the new faith, although
the few aristocrats often became prominent Christian leaders.
At first Christianity did not spread in the countryside at all, so peasants were
rarely Christians. Paul himself was a tentmaker, according to Acts 18:3; Paul
himself says (I Thes. 2:9) that he worked for a living so as not to burden the
local Christian community. Probably whenever Paul visited a new city he would
find the tent maker's guild, make friends there, acquire employment from them,
and teach them about Jesus.
Social scientists have also debated the techniques
used to spread Christianity. The Book of Acts speaks of Paul and other apostles
preaching to large crowds, resulting in mass acceptance of the new Faith. Sociologists
are skeptical, however, because preaching to crowds is easier to dramatize than
one-on-one instruction, but is far less effective in producing committed followers.
Most likely, the bulk of the successful evangelism involved individual Christians
teaching their friends by word and deed. If Christianity grew in membership by
about 3.5% a year40% per decadethe numbers increase from about 1,000 in the
year 40 C.E. to 7,500 by 100 C.E., 218,000 by 200 C.E., 6,300,000 by 300 C.E.,
and 34,000,000 by 350 C.E. In this manner, an insignificant religious group could
have become more than 50% of the Empire's population in a bit over 300 years.
In addition to its early diversity of ethnicity and
social class, Christianity also contained considerable diversity of belief, and
as the churches grew the different understandings of Christianity became an increasingly
serious problem for some. Paul expended much of his literary effort in arguing
against Judaizers and gnostics. While Jewish Christianity faded as a threat, gnosticism
grew stronger as a competing interpretation of Christianity.
Gnosticism was not just a religion, but a broad
philosophical and spiritual movement, rather like Existentialism, New Thought,
or Transcendental Meditation in nineteenth and twentieth-century America. Christians
apparently became interested in gnosticism from the beginning of the Jesus movement;
in Christianity, gnosticism became highly developed.
Gnosticism stressed dualism, the idea that
the world was divided into paired opposites: matter and spirit, light and darkness,
good and evil, God and the devil, angels and demons, heaven and hell. It believed
that the human spirit was an emanation from God, a "divine spark" that must be
reunited with its Creator. This spark was trapped in the world of matter in a
body. Gnosticism saw the body and physical existence as the cause of sin and evil.
Salvation was escape from the physical world and reunion with God; it was achieved
not through faith, but through knowledge of one's condition. For example, the
non-Christian gnostic devotees of the god Hermes Trismegistus believed that the
soul, after its creation, had to pass from the starry sphere (which was the highest
heaven) through the lower levels of heaven (each of which corresponded to a planet)
to the earth, which was the lowest, dirtiest, and most corrupt level of existence.
This gnosticism thus combined religion with the most advanced science and astronomy
of the day (which was astrology, in modern terms). The journey of the soul resulted
in accretions to the soul at each level:
As the souls descend, they draw with them the torpor of Saturn, the wrathfulness
of Mars, the concupiscence of Venus, the greed for gain of Mercury, the lust for
power of Jupiter; which things effect a confusion in the souls, so that they can
no longer make use of their own power and their proper facilities.
The qualities one acquired were appropriate to each planet: Saturn is the slowest
of the planets in its orbit and Mercury is the fastest; Venus was the goddess
of love and therefore of lust; Mars was the god of war and therefore of anger;
Jupiter was the king of the gods and therefore the god of power. Knowledge of
one's condition as it was shaped by astrology was seen as half the struggle to
obtain salvation. Some non-Christian groups claimed to give to the devotee the
"passwords" that he or she would need after death to pass back through
each heavenly sphere, shedding the accretions he or she acquired at each, and
thus enabling him or her to reach the highest heaven successfully.
Christian gnostics avoided detailed astrology and
favored a mythological interpretation of Genesis to describe the universe. They
believed that creation began when the Fore-Father produced a series of twenty-nine
emanations from Himself, who were progressively more remote from Him; together
these constituted a kind of Godhead that was called the pleuroma. Some
gnostics believed that the physical universe represented the solidified or crystallized
passions for the Fore-Father produced by His most distant emanation, named Sophia
(Wisdom). Each passion became a different element (Greek science believed there
were four elements, earth, water, air, and fire). A semi-divine being, the Demiurge,
was formed from them and he shaped creation out of them, including the starry
and planetary spheres, the earth, and humanity. He also was the God who created
Judaism. In contrast, Christ was a special emanation of the Fore-Father, sent
by Him to the earth in order to lead the divine spark in humans back to union
in the pleuroma. Because of the belief that Judaism and Christianity had different
ultimate sources, Christian gnostics often argued that the two religions and their
scriptures were incompatible.
Since matter and the body were seen as evil, often
these groups denied that Jesus ever had had a body. They refused to recognize
the fact that He was born, ate food, and really suffered on the cross. Bodily
resurrection, to them, was not only absurd but disgusting; it would maintain ones
entrapment in matter and therefore would be a form of hell.
Since the body was the source of evil, these groups
had unusual beliefs about sexuality. Some advocated complete celibacy, for sex
was seen as the embodiment of evil and a trick by the devil to continue his rule
on earth. Marcion, one of the greatest of the Christian thinkers influenced by
gnosticism, forbade his followers to marry. Other gnostic groups went to the opposite
extreme and said that since the body was not reality, it didn't matter what you
did with it. These groups were accused of tremendous sexual licentiousness.
Gnosticism and the Development of
The existence of gnostic groups impelled the early
church to define many of its basic beliefs. Gnosticism offered significantly different
doctrines in several areas: in christology (the nature of Christ); soteriology
(the nature of salvation, how Christ saves, and from what); and anthropology
(the basic nature of human beings). The church defined its teachings on the Trinity,
original sin, and the nature of Christ's mission partly in reaction to gnosticism
and other heretical movements.
Gnosticism also gave impetus to the creation of the
Christian canon. Until the mid second century the Christian movement considered
the Hebrew Bible to be its sacred scripture; all references to "the scriptures"
in the New Testament refer to the Old. But by the mid second century, Christianity
had produced a large corpus of writings. Some, such as the four gospels and the
letters of Paul, were read very widely and were venerated. Others had a more restricted
usage; gnostic groups, for example, had written their own special works since
the late first century. Today these are popularly known as the "gnostic gospels."
In Christian worship it became customary to read not only passages from the Hebrew
Bible, but from Christian writings as well (which Christian writings were read,
however, depended on the beliefs of the man who organized the service).
This custom was upset by Marcion (c. 100 - c. 150),
who rejected the Hebrew Bible; borrowing from gnostic beliefs, he argued that
it had been created by the god of the Jews, who was the petty and legalistic Demiurge,
and not by the Creator God who had sent Jesus to the world. Having rejected the
only works that Christians believed were sacred scripture, Marcion felt the need
to create a new Christian canon. Since there could be only one gospelthat is,
only one good news, one Christian messagehis scripture could only include one
gospel book. He chose Luke because its theology was closest to his own. He also
included the genuine letters of Paul and the deuteropauline epistles in his sacred
writings. However, Marcion was dissatisfied with the texts as they existed because
they seemed to show signs of tampering by the Demiurge; for example, they often
quoted, or alluded to, the Hebrew Bible. Marcion solved the problem by editing
the texts in order to remove all signs of "tampering." In this fashion Marcion
acquired a text that he believed was the original Christian message.
Most Christians were angered that Marcion had altered
their oldest and most venerable writings, but his idea that Christianity should
have a scripture of its own was accepted, partly because the best way to fight
Marcion's canon was to create a rival canon. Between 150 and 200 C.E., the idea
of a New Testament emerged, especially as a result of the writings of the mid
second-century theologian and pastor Irenaeus. He argued that the canon should
be as broad and inclusive as possible, as long as the works included in it were
not gnostic. He especially sought to overcome the attitude that since there could
be only one gospel message, there could only be one gospel book. He favored the
inclusion of the four gospels that circulated the mostMatthew, Mark, Luke, and
Johnin spite of the fact that they occasionally seem to contradict each other.
Until the late second century, some of the four were favored in some regions,
and others had circulated little in other areas.
By the year 200 C.E., most of the books included in
the New Testament were those found in it today. However, no Christian council
has ever officially defined the content of the Christian sacred writings, and
Christian churches outside the Roman empire evolved their own canons, which were
slightly different from the canon that came to be accepted inside the Roman empire.
One way the churches battled gnosticism was to establish
a systematized, professional leadership. The Christian churches, like all other
groups in the Roman empire (including the empire itself) were only loosely organized,
especially when the churches were first formed. The need to define correct belief,
and the need to carry out that belief in acts of Christian charity, gradually
resulted in a detailed church structure.
The Establishment of Church Structure
When people became Christians they joined a new
community of people, one called an ekklesia. In Greek the word literally
means "calling out" and refers to a gathering where one can speak; it roughly
translates as "meeting" or "assembly."
The first Christian groups were "house churches," that is, they consisted of the
members of a household who met at home. Wealthier Christians would invite other
Christians to worship with them in their large houses. Christianity spread through
ties of family and patronage. The head of the family was often the head of the
Churches were not the only voluntary associations
in the Hellenistic cities. A typical Greek city had burial societies, to which
one periodically contributed money and which provided a large funeral when one
died. There were eating clubs, which held meals weekly or monthly; some pagan
temples had outbuildings that included kitchens and dining facilities for their
use. There were ethnic organizations, which one could join when one moved to a
new city and where one could associate with one's countrymen; and mystery cults,
which provided their members with religious experience and sometimes religious
community. Finally there were Jewish synagogues, which maintained an extensive
system of private welfare in addition to their religious services and social opportunities.
From the beginning, a major focus of many Christian
churches was the care of widows, orphans, the sick, and the aged. This effort
alone required considerable organization, and as Christianity expanded the welfare
systems of local churches soon grew larger than those of synagogues. The Roman
empire had no welfare, unemployment relief, hospitals, or orphanages; furthermore,
pagan temples provided few services. The ultimate success of Christianity had
a lot to do with the fact that Christians took care of each other.
One sociologist has dramatically demonstrated the
impact that Christian values would have had during the plagues of 165-80 and 250-60
(which probably represent, respectively, the first-time arrival of smallpox and
measles to the Empire).
Each plague killed between one quarter and one third of the entire population.
Entire cities became deserted as the population fled, taking the disease with
them to the countryside. But basic nursing care can reduce the death rate to about
ten percent. Thus if Christians nursed each other, far fewer would have died,
which in the ancient world would have looked like a miracle. If Christians nursed
their pagan neighbors, the latter would have been strongly impressed by Christian
virtue and possibly attracted to the faith. Other disastershuge fires, earthquakes,
riotsstruck ancient cities about once every decade or two, giving the Christians
plenty of opportunities to practice their beliefs.
From the first, Christian charity was both an individual
and a collective effort. The latter required some sort of organizational system.
Christian churches were concerned about both spiritual powerthrough such activities
as speaking in tongues and experiencing divine inspirationand with creation
of at least a minimal amount of ecclesiastical authority. In I Cor. 12:28 the
Apostle Paul speaks of a hierarchy in the body of Christ consisting of "first
apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then healers, helpers, administrators,
[and] speakers in various kinds of tongues." Initially the principle of charismatic
authority ("apostles, prophets, teachers") was more important than administrative
authority. In the churches founded by Paul administration seems to have been rudimentary;
each local church had one or more "overseers" (Greek episcopos, from which
comes the English word "bishop") and a series of assistants, servants, or messengers
(Greek diakonos, "deacons.") Presumably Paul was alluding to them when
he referred to "administrators" and "helpers."
While this organizational structure apparently became
standard among the gentile churches, Jewish Christians seemed to have followed
the model of the synagogue more closely. Synagogues were governed by a council
of elders. The Greek term used by the Christians for the elders was presbyteros,
from which come the English words "presbyter" and "priest." Within a generation
or two the gentile and Jewish Christian churches merged, as did their organizational
systems. When a gentile church originally had more than one overseer, they came
to be considered elders, and these elders or presbyters became priests; above
them was an overseer or bishop; below them were the deacons. This created three
levels of local church officers.
Only gradually, during the second and third centuries,
did the administrative positions surpass the charismatic positions as the most
important in the churches. The office of apostle died out because only the Christians
who had met Jesus were entitled to that title. The teaching function became a
task of the bishops and priests. The prophetic function gradually disappeared;
when the New Testament became codified the guidance of the first generation of
Christians became readily available, and as local churches became better organized
"prophecy" proved a common source of disruption, especially since it came to be
dominated more and more by gnostics and other heretics.
Since the gnostics favored a speculative and personal
religion, and apparently did not engage in extensive charity, they favored charismatic
offices over administrative ones; hence when a city's Christians organized, gnostics
usually did not seek to become bishop or presbyter. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch,
writing about 115 C.E., was a tireless champion of the monarchal episcopate,
that is, the principle that each city should have one Christian bishop who was
exclusively in charge of all Christian activities in that locality. He stressed
the monarchal episcopate mainly as an instrument to fight gnosticism and other
heresies, and this became one of its principal functions.
Gradually, the office of bishop became the dominant
one in the local Christian churches. Originally deacons and presbyters were chosen
by the local church and were not under the bishop's authority; but gradually they
became subordinates to him. The disciplining of Christians who committed immoral
acts, such as adultery, became the bishop's task; in Paul's day disciplining was
carried out by the entire congregation (I Cor. 1:1-5). A ritual for ordaining
the bishop became defined, orders of widows were created, and rules for Christian
community life were formulated. Since Christianity had no organization at all
beyond the local levelthere were no archbishops, no pope, and, until the third
century, no councils of bishopsinnovations in one city only gradually spread
to another. Letters written by bishops to churches in other cities became an important
means for exchanging ideas and allowed a bishop to become influential in his region.
Rome was one of the first churches to establish an
episcopate; its bishop possessed authority over the Roman Christian community
by the mid second century. By the end of the second century the monarchal episcopate
was firmly established everywhere. In many cities the appointment of a bishop
marked the beginning of an "orthodox" Christian community; for example, Christians
in Alexandria seems to have first chosen a bishop in 189 C.E. Before that, gnostic
Christianity dominated the city and the rest of Egypt.
To legitimize themselves further in their fight against
gnostics, bishops claimed that their office had been established by the apostles
themselves. Many bishops codified the history of Christianity in their city for
the first time and claimed a series of venerable local church leaders as previous
bishops in order to show that their own office had been created by an apostle,
and that they were the most recent of an unbroken succession of bishops. This
claim that the bishops were the successors of the apostles is called apostolic
succession. The idea was not new; gnostics claimed apostolic succession as
well, possibly before bishops did. Rome claimed the most elaborate apostolic succession,
with Peter as the city's first bishop and Paul as the cofounder of the Roman church.
When the great church historian Eusebius wrote his Ecclesiastical History,
about the year 300, he published many cities' bishop lists, thereby legitimizing
With the establishment of the office of bishop in
most cities, bishops began to meet together to discuss regional affairs, and the
bishop of a region's capital city gradually acquired prestige and influence over
the bishops of smaller cities. Carthage, Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria emerged
as important Christian centers; since Rome was the capital of the empire, the
bishop of Rome emerged as a particularly influential bishop.
The Rise of Christian Scholarship
Christians have always done theology, in the sense
of thinking about the nature of God and Christ, but until about 150 C.E. their
theology was done without any systematic use of Greek philosophy. In the early
second century the waning of the emphasis on Christ's immediate return made the
study of Greek philosophy more acceptable, and its use by gnostics (who had never
had an apocalyptic perspective) made knowledge of Greek philosophy necessary in
the fight against heresy. Further, Christianity's growing size and strength made
its lack of legal status a concern for many church leaders. Several Christian
writers, called apologists, wrote essays addressed to the emperor in which
they defended the legitimacy of Christianity and called for its recognition. One
of the most famous apologists was Justin Martyr (c. 100 - c. 167), who had some
familiarity with Greek philosophy. He wrote several works that defended Christianity
from external attacksone of which addressed objections raised by Jewsand started
a Christian school in Rome. He was one of the first to elaborate on the idea that
Christ was God's logos ("word," an idea from Greek philosophy) in order
to define the relationship between God and Christ. He also wrote about how Christ's
death established salvation, about the eucharist and baptism, and about the role
of demons (spirits) in creating Greek mythology and philosophy. The quality of
his thinking and writing was not high, but it helped to lay a theological foundation
for Christian thought.
A little later, Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 180) wrote a
work against heresies and defined a Christian position on such matters as original
sin, redemption, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the canon, and church structure.
He has been called the "first consciously literary theologian of the Christian
Tertullian (c. 155 - c. 222) wrote the first Christian
theology in Latin; though some of the other theologians had lived in the western
Roman Empire, they had written in Greek. Tertullian coined the term trinitas
(trinity) and first defined the concept of God having three personae, three
aspects or modes of being. He also coined the Christian terms Old Testament
and New Testament.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c. 215) became the
first Christian philosopher and wrote extensively, though not systematically,
on Christian questions. Having been influenced by gnosticism, he argued that Christianity
was based on knowledge (gnosis), not faith. He made the Christian teacher extremely
important in a Christian's spiritual development. He also described the universe
hierarchically, although he rejected both the basics and the details of the gnostic
concept of creation.
His successor in Alexandria, Origen (c. 185 - 254)
was one of the greatest Christian thinkers who ever lived and was a philosopher
as great as any who lived during his day. He was highly respected by non-Christians
for his learning, the first Christian to be so treated. He was Christianity's
first systematic Bible scholar; he produced an edition of the Old Testament with
eight parallel versions, so that the various alternate readings could be compared
easily. He wrote commentaries on many biblical books, some of which have survived
to this day. He questioned some commonly held assumptions about the New Testament,
such as the belief that Paul authored the Book of Hebrews. He was without a doubt
the most prolific writer in classical Christianity. His theology, however, was
tinged by gnosticism. His christology was especially speculative. After his death,
as Christian doctrine became more clearly and rigidly defined, his popularity
waned. Eventually many of his works were declared heretical and were altered or
destroyed, making it difficult for modern scholars to study his thought.
The growth of Christianity also produced one nearly
fatal problem, the reaction of the Roman government. One of the first serious
persecutions occurred in Bithynia, a province in northwestern Asia Minor, in 112-113
C.E. Christianity had spread so much in that region, in the countryside as well
as in the cities, that temples had become empty and were unable to sell the meat
of sacrificed animals (Christians generally refused to buy it, because it was
a product of paganism). The Roman governor of the province, Pliny the Younger,
began to arrest Christians and order them to sacrifice to the emperor as a god.
Since Christians could not consider the emperor a god, they refused to sacrificean
act equivalent to refusing to salute the flag, or refusing to repeat the pledge
of allegiance. Consequently, they were executed for disloyalty to the Roman state.
However, Pliny soon realized that those who were revealing
the names of Christians had their own ulterior motives. He decided to stop searching
out Christians, but if any were arrested for other reasons they would be required
to sacrifice to the emperor or be executed. He wrote to the emperor to state his
policy, and the emperor concurred. Since Pliny was an excellent writer he eventually
published a collection of his letters, for they were beautiful examples of Latin
style, and among them was his letter to the emperor about the Christians.
Anti-Christian edicts were occasionally promulgated
by an emperor; Marcus Aurelius issued one in 164-68 and Lucius Verus announced
another in 176-78 C.E. But they were enforced only in Asia Minor and Gaul respectively.
Pliny's persecution was the standard type that Christians had to endure in the
late first and second centuries: localized attacks, authorized by a local governor,
which lasted a short time and which produced a few martyrs. Usually the bishop
was one of the first to be martyred; Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and the great bishop,
Polycarp (c. 70 - c. 166) were all executed for their beliefs in this way. The
rank and file of ordinary Christians were often undisturbed because Greco-Roman
religions did not expect any loyalty of their followers, and Roman officials assumed
that Christianity was the same. From their perspective it was only necessary to
kill a religion's leaders to debilitate the religious community, and they did
not understand that Christianity was different from pagan religious groups until
it had grown substantially.
Hence, generally Christianity was left alone by officials.
By the late second and early third centuries the Christian communities had become
large enough in many cities to build impressive church buildings and pay for full-time
bishops. Intellectual attacks were not absent, however; the first systematic anti-Christian
work, produced by the philosopher Celsus, was published about 178 C.E. It was
followed by others.
Christianity's social environment changed greatly
after 200 C.E. Its growth led to an intellectual revival of paganism, probably
as a reaction against the religion of Christ. Furthermore, the empire's two centuries
of political stability and prosperity had come to an end. The Roman frontiers
became very difficult and expensive to defend, and to raise the money necessary
to maintain the armies, coins with less than the correct amount of silver were
issued. This debasement of the currency caused inflation and led to serious economic
problems. Plagues ravaged the empire and drastically decreased its population
(which was shrinking naturally anyway, because of infanticide and low marriage
rates). The quality of the emperors declined.
The empire's increased difficulties had to be blamed
on someone, and the Christians were a convenient scapegoat; their refusal to sacrifice
to the gods was said to have made the gods angry. Since the society believed in
many gods and the Christians did not, they were accused of atheism. Earlier chargesthat
the eucharist was cannibalism and the love feast an orgysurfaced again.
The first coordinated, empire-wide persecution of
Christians was initiated by the emperor Septimus Severus in 202-03 C.E. It resulted
in perhaps several hundred martyrs from all over the empire, mainly educated Christians
and ecclesiastical leaders, such as most of the pupils of Clement of Alexandria,
and Origen's father. Among the martyred was a remarkable young woman in Carthage
named Perpetua; the account of her imprisonment includes a portion probably composed
by her, one of the earliest Christian works by a woman.
The next emperor, Alexander Severus, tolerated Christianity; his mother was said
to be a Christian. A generation and a half of tolerance followed.
In 248 C.E. the Roman empire suffered a major invasion
by the Goths, then a plague, and popular hostility against Christianity again
increased sharply. In 250 the new emperor, Decius, suddenly decided to initiate
an imperial persecution of Christians by ordering everyone to sacrifice to the
gods. Many Christians, even many bishops, recanted their faith and sacrificed.
Others refused and were martyred. In 251 the persecution ended when Decius was
killed in a battle with the Goths. Many lapsed Christians then sought readmission
into the church, sparking an enormous controversy about their status. A few lapsed
Christians even became bishops; others, who had suffered for the Faith, refused
to recognize them. Carthage and Rome, for a time, had two rival Christian communities
and two rival bishops.
Peace proved short-lived; in 257 C.E. the emperor
Valerian initiated another wave of persecutions. This time the churches were prepared;
their organizational structures remained strong and most Christians and their
bishops stood firm. Many bishops were exiled, then martyred. In 260 Valerian died
fighting the Persians and the persecution ended.
The Christians enjoyed relative peace until 303, by
which time some eastern provinces were heavily Christian, and the entire empire
was perhaps ten percent Christian. In that year the Emperor Diocletian (reigned
284 - 304) sought to reform the empire radically in order to increase its religious
and social unity and thus ensure its survival, and the Christians were seen as
a potentially divisive factor. When a pagan priest in the imperial court claimed
he could not divine the future because of the presence of Christians, in 303,
the emperor decided to act. He ordered all churches destroyed, all Bibles and
sacred vessels confiscated, and all Christian meetings banned. Later that year
he ordered all priests and bishops arrested. Finally, in 304, he required all
citizens in the empire to sacrifice or be executed. His orders were enforced only
to a limited degreethe Roman empire was not a totalitarian state, and its bureaucracy
and police powers were limitedbut nevertheless hundreds, perhaps as many as
a thousand, Christians were martyred. Only in Gaul, Britain, and Spain were Diocletian's
orders mostly ignored; the caesar in charge of the region, who was named Constantine,
limited the persecution to the destruction of church buildings.
In 304 Diocletian retired, but his successor in the
eastern Roman empire, Gallerius, was even more anti-Christian. Only when he was
on his death bed in 312 did Gallerius order the persecution of Christians to stop.
It has been estimated that as many as 3,000 Christians were martyred between the
years 303 and 313. In Asia Minor an entire town that had been completely Christian
was massacred. In Egypt, where the persecution was the most systematic, the most
number of martyrs occurred, and the province almost lapsed into civil war.
But one spiritual result of the sacrifice was the
conversion of the first Christian emperor. Constantine's mother and sister had
been Christians and he had always been favorable to the religion. In October 312,
on the eve of a battle that would make him sole emperor of the western Roman empire,
Constantine reportedly had a vision of a cross with the legend under it, "by
this sign conquer." He ordered crosses painted on the shields of his soldiers,
and his army won the battle. Later that year he and the new emperor of the eastern
empire granted religious freedom to Christians and all other religions. In 324
Constantine, as a result of several civil wars, emerged as the sole emperor of
the Roman Empire. He extended the protection and financial support of the state
to the church throughout the empire.
One result was a flood of converts, for being a Christian
was no longer dangerous; indeed, it could be advantageous if one were seeking
a job in the army or civil service. When Constantine died in 327 his sons, all
of whom were Christians, split the empire among themselves. After the last one
died a new emperor for the entire empire was selected named Julian who had been
raised Christian and who had a Christian wife but who loved Greek philosophy.
He became sole emperor in 360 C.E.; in 361 he renounced Christianity and attempted
to revive paganism. All pagan temples were converted into temples of the one god,
Helios (the sun); state money was given to them so that they could inaugurate
works of charity, such as those the churches were running. Christians were not
persecuted, but were placed under grave restrictions; they were not allowed to
become teachers, for example, and all teachers were required to teach the old
pagan values. When pagan crowds rioted and destroyed churches, the emperor did
not interfere; when Christians attacked each other as heretics, Julian did not
seek to impose one form of Christianity on them.
Julian's reforms are particularly noteworthy because
they sought to modify paganism so that it could compete against Christianity.
His effort to make paganism monotheistic and to make pagan temples the center
of social services are noteworthy imitations of Christianity. But it was too late;
the temples did not know how to organize social services, their attendance had
declined too sharply for them to be revived, their facilities were in such poor
shape the money had to be spent on repairs, and Christianity was too strong to
be rivaled. A year and a half later, in 363, Julian died in a battle with the
Persians; his successor was a Christian, and his reforms were easily swept away.
Paganism continued to exist in the Roman Empire, but it was confined to two groups:
peasants in the remote countryside and many of the old aristocratic class. In
Rome, the Senate was a bastion of paganism until the fifth century; in Athens,
the philosophical schools led a losing struggle against Christianity until the
Christian emperor Justinian closed them in 529.
The Trinitarian and Christological
Christianity's victory against paganism, and the
gradual end of persecution of the church, allowed theological differences to become
expressed in politics, both ecclesiastical and imperial. The church's intellectual
victory over paganism also necessitated clearer definition of many basic Christian
ideas, especially the nature of Christ, His relation to the father, and how He
saves. The result was the eventual creation of the classical definition of the
trinity and the nature of Christ.
Christ's nature had been a subject of Christian thinking
from the beginning. The biblical terms Son of God and Son of Man/Human Being show
that the thinking about Jesus was a concern of the first generation. Greek philosophers,
especially the Stoics, had developed the concept of the logos or "word"
as the divine principle that gave the world its order and shape. The first century
Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria used the idea of the logos as the
agent for bringing creation into being, and as the intermediary between the biblical
God and creation. Thus it was natural to utilize the logos to define the
nature of Christ. It was the first christological formulation in early Christianity
and is found in John 1:1.
But the logos doctrine had several problems. If Christ
was understood as an emanation from God, as a logos naturally would be, then Christ
was subordinate to God. If, on the other hand, the logos was viewed as the creative
force in the universe, Christ could be set up as a rival God. This became a problem
as theories of soteriology, or how Christ saves, were defined more clearly. In
order for Christ's death on the cross to save humanity from sin, Christ had to
be fully human, in order to represent humans fully; yet He also had to be fully
God, in order to be a worthy sacrifice. Efforts by some Christian thinkers to
subordinate Christ to God (notably Arius, c.250-326) were consistently rejected
by the mainstream as heretical. The logos doctrine risked either subordinationism,
where Jesus was less than God, or polytheism, when there was more than one Christian
Further complicating the picture was an apostolic
baptismal formula where one baptized in the name "of the father, and of the
son, and of the holy spirit" (Matt. 28:19). No one knew what the formula
meant, but it became a formula on which the relationship between Jesus and God
was understood. Apparently it was not originally meant to be a trinitarian statement;
rather, the idea of the trinity developed from the baptismal formula. Thus the
role of the spirit was added to those of the father and son to constitute the
essential problem in formulating a definition of the Godhead.
The problem was how to develop imagery and language
that made the father, son, and spirit different, but not too different; if they
were too different one risked either tritheismthree separate, different and
equal godsor subordinationismthree separate, different, but unequal beings.
One had to create distinctions that were worthy of the three members of the trinity,
but distinctions that did not make one member of the trinity better than another.
It took the finest minds in Christianity, using the most powerful intellectual
tool of the dayGreek philosophyalmost the entire fourth century to accomplish
the task. Because of the history of philosophical speculation in the Hellenistic
east, the question of the nature of Christ assumed great importance in church
culture there, and became emmeshed in ecclesiastical as well as imperial politics.
Hence the trinitarian controversy was the ostensible motive for the deposing of
many bishops, the smearing of lives and careers, the violent clashes of personalities,
and some shedding of Christian blood by Christian hands.
The first stage of the controversy was fought over
the question of whether the three members of the trinity were homoousion,
"of the same substance," or homoiousion,
"of similar substance." The only
difference between the words was a single letter (the Greek letter iota). If the
three members of the trinity were understood to be of the same substance, some
theologians feared that no distinction would remain between them; but if they
were merely of similar substance then the Son and Holy Spirit could be seen as
subordinate to the Father, and some church fathers, led by Arius, strongly favored
such a view. The controversy grew so fierce that the emperor Constantine called
a council in 325 to resolve the issue; held in Nicea, it was the first universal
council of the Catholic church. The council formulated the Nicene Creed, which
declared the members of the trinity to be homoousion,
the party of Arius, who strongly emphasized Jesus Christ's greatness, but denied
He was equal to the Father. Several subsequent councils were held, however, and
depending on which side was in the majority, one side or the other was declared
In the late fourth century three young theologians
from eastern Asia Minor finally developed workable language that everyone could
accept. They took another word, hypostasis
(usually translated into Latin
"substance") originally used by Greek philosophers as
a synonym for ousia
(usually translated into Latin as essentia,
"essence")and developed trinitarian distinctions between the two terms. The
trinity, they said, consisted of three hypostases
but only one ousia.
This allowed homoousion
to be used by all, because it no longer implied
subordinationism or tritheism. One difficulty with this solution was that neither
was found in the New Testament, hence the solution
had a certain non-Christian quality to it. However, the three theologians wrote
extensively about the persons of the trinity and through imagery and analogy developed
workable distinctions that infused meaning into the distinction between hypostasis
The relationship between the father and the son was
resolved to the satisfaction of most Greek Christians by 400, but soon a new question
arose: what was the relationship between Christ's divine nature and His human
nature? How could two natures exist in the same person? There was again the tendency
either to subordinate Christ's divine nature to His human side or vice-versa.
The first phase of the controversy developed in the
420s, as a result of a personality clash between the bishops of Alexandria and
Constantinople. In sermons the former bishop referred to the virgin Mary as theotokos,
"bearer of God," but the latter bishop preferred the term christotokos,
"bearer of Christ," and saw the former term as heretical. Both men had extensive
networks of friends in high church and government positions and drew them into
the fight; both also misrepresented the position of the other. In 431 a church
council was called; as the bishops slowly arrived to participate in the council
the strength of the two sides fluctuated, and the decision of the council shifted
back and forth. The emperor was appealed to and he initially deposed both bishops,
but eventually favored the term theotokos
and confirmed the deposition
of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople. He was exiled to Egypt where he eventually
died, a seemingly forgotten man.
The second phase focused on a new issue: did Christ
have two separate natures existing in one body and personality, or one only? Those
who maintained that Christ could only have one nature were called monophysites
Greek for one; physis,
Greek for nature). The majority maintained
that Christ had to have a fully human nature and a fully divine nature in order
to save humanity. They excommunicated the Monophysites. Christ's nature was the
major issue discussed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which declared Christ
to be "truly God and truly man, of rational soul and body, of the same substance
] with the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same
] with us according to the manhood."
However, Monophysitism did not die out. It eventually
came to dominate the Christian churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Syria, thereby
permanently splitting the eastern churches. Some Monophysites entered the Persian
realms as well, where their ideas were attributed to Bishop Nestorius and became
the nucleus of the Nestorian
church. Because Nestorianism was considered
heretical in the Roman realms the Persian kings were willing to let it spread;
they had been suspicious of orthodox Christianity because it was associated with
Rome, Persia's greatest enemy.
The third phase of the controversy over the nature
of Christ did not occur until the rise of Islam in the 620s and 630s, which necessitated
new efforts to heal the split among the eastern churches. A compromise formula
was offered: that Christ, regardless of his nature, had only one will. This seemed
intuitively correct, for how could one argue that a person had two wills? Other
Christians, however, replied that in order to be fully divine, Christ had to have
a divine will, and to be fully human He had to have a human will; hence Christ
had to have two wills, which presumably always operated together and in perfect
agreement with each other. This view eventually carried the day and the monotheletists
who said Christ had one willwere excommunicated by the sixth and last church
council, held in Constantinople in 680-81. While many of the previous heresies
persisted, and new ones arose, the mainstream of Christians had now reached a
consensus about the trinity and Christ's nature, so the controversy died down.
Furthermore, the eastern churches were now fighting for their very existence against
the spread of Islam and had no time for theological speculation.
Latin Christianity in the Third,
Fourth, and Fifth Centuries
While Greek Christian theology focused on the nature
of Christ, Latin theology focused on the nature of human beings and the world
they lived in. The difference reflected the philosophical, speculative tendency
of Greek culture and the legalistic, practical, organizational tendency of Roman
culture respectively. The acute social crises engendered by the collapse of the
western Roman Empire also demanded the urgent consideration of Latin theologians.
The west was spared some of the controversy over the
trinity and the nature of Christ because the Greek theological terms did not translate
well into Latin. In the early third century Tertullian had used Latin legal terminology
to define the trinity as three personae (masks; persons; parties in a legal
action) in one substantia (substance or presence), distinctions that worked
well and did not lead to the problems that the Greek terms had created. The chief
difficulties over trinitarian doctrine arose later, when some barbarian invaders
were converted to the Arian version of Christianity.
Instead, Latin theology focused on the nature of the church. The bishop of
Carthage, Cyprian (c. 200 - 258), devoted much of his writing to the question
of the nature of the church; he is the author of the famous statement "there
is no salvation outside the church."
Cyprian also argued that meetings of bishops were an important part of the church
structure and that while all bishops were equal, the Bishop of Rome was the first
among equals. In this way Cyprian laid the foundation for the establishment of
the papacy. Since the western Empire had no cities of the size, age, and prestige
of Rome, and no churches that could compete with the church of Rome, Rome acquired
an importance over the western church that had no parallel in the east.
In fourth century the Latin church benefited from
several important theologians. Ambrose (339 - 97), bishop of Milanwhich at that
time was the administrative center of the western empirewas a tireless administrator
and promoter of the church, a wise counsel for western emperors, and an active
disseminator of Greek theology. Jerome (c. 341 - 420), learned in Hebrew and Greek,
edited and retranslated the Bible into Latin, thereby creating the Latin text
that was standard for a thousand years. He also translated many Greek theological
works into Latin.
But without question the supreme Latin theologian
of the day was Augustine (354 - 430), who ranks with Origen, Thomas Aquinas, Martin
Luther, and John Calvin as one of the greatest thinkers in Christendom. Augustine
was born to a Christian mother (Saint Monica) and a pagan father and was raised
Christian, but as a young man he turned to philosophy. After extensive reading
he became, for a time, a Manichaean; the Manichaeans were followers of Mani (219
- c. 277), a Babylonian-born Persian who claimed to be a divine revelator and
successor to Christ, Zoroaster, and Buddha and who established a religion based
on gnostic conceptions of the world. Moving to Milan, Augustine met Bishop Ambrose,
was very impressed, and studied Christianity; he was baptized in 386. Two years
later he permanently returned to Africa, where he had been born, and became bishop
of the Mediterranean city of Hippo.
Augustine wrote extensively on a wide range of topics;
113 books, over 200 letters, and over 500 sermons have survived. His De Trinitatae
(On the Trinity) became one of the standard works on the trinity in the
Latin church. His Confessions, which described his spiritual journey to
Christianity and his meditations on the meaning of the journey immediately became
a classic on the Christian spiritual life, and remains widely read today. But
most significant was his masterpiece De Civitate Dei, "On the City of God,"
which was written over a fourteen-year period to make sense of the sacking of
Rome by the Goths in 410 and of the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was a
profoundly disturbing phenomenon to the intellectuals of Augustine's generation.
Pagans argued that Rome had been sacked because the gods were angered by the spread
of Christianity. Augustine replied that there had always been two cities, the
city of God and the city of this world; Rome was part of the latter. Drawing from
his own vast knowledge of Roman philosophers, poets, and essayists, he pointed
out how checkered the history of the city of Rome had always been. But the City
of God was the true city; it was dominated by the love of God; all good persons,
Christian or not, were members of it; as Christianity spread, it was growing in
the world, regardless of the economic and social state of the world around it.
In this way Augustine set the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the framework
of eternity, and thus minimized its theological importance. His thinking became
central to the understanding of society in medieval Christian Europe. Because
he wrote in Latin, his thought had little influence on the Greek-speaking east,
and thus helped to widen the gap growing between the two halves of the church.
National and Cultural Divisions
Throughout its first four centuries, mainstream
Christianity had to wage a fierce battle against ethnic and cultural differences
as well as heresy. As the church grew in size and strength, cultural differences
began to produce regional variants of Christianity. Since the vast majority of
Christians lived in the Roman Empire, the church there was called the universal
(catholic, in Greek) church. But in semi-independent areas on the border
of the Roman Empire, such as Armenia, Iraq, eastern Syria, north Africa, and southern
Egypt, churches developed that had their own national hierarchies and used their
own native languages. These churches were never completely a part of the catholic
church. Thus Christian sects began to form along national and cultural lines.
In Egypt, a Coptic church emerged; in Armenia, an Armenian church; in Mesopotamia,
a Syriac church; in southern Tunisia and Algeria, a Donatist church. Beyond the
Roman Empire, churches formed in Ethiopia, Georgia, Iran, and even southern India.
The eastern part of the Roman Empire spoke and wrote
Greek, the western part Latin. As has been noted, as Christian theology developed
in both the Latin and Greek languages, divergent understandings of the nature
of Christianity began to grow between the eastern and the western churches. When
military and administrative realities necessitated the splitting of the Roman
Empire into eastern and western halves, the two halves of the church were psychologically
divorced from each other as well. The growing power of the Bishop of Rome over
Latin Christianityhis rise to the status of Popeand the growing status of
the Bishop of Constantinople among the churches in the eastern half of the empire
split the administration of the church. Consequently, the Latin and Greek halves
of the catholic church grew farther and farther apart. In the 800s serious theological
differences emerged between the "Catholics" and the "Orthodox." Finally in 1054
Pope Justinian excommunicated the Eastern Orthodox, and the bishop of Constantinople
replied by excommunicating the Catholics; thus the largest pat of the body of
Christ was formally rent in half. After the collapse of Rome a distinctive form
of Catholic Christianity emerged in the west, as the church accommodated itself
to the social and cultural conditions of the early middle ages.
Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth,
ed. trans. John H. Schútz (Philadephia: Fortress, 1982), 72.
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), 7.
Quoted in Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and
the Beginnings of Christianity, 2d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 157.
It is interesting to note that the word ma
hfil, the Arabic-Persian
word for "assembly" (as in "spiritual assembly") originally had a similar range
of meanings, and was translated variously as "gathering," "meeting," and "assembly"
in early translations of the Bahá'í scriptures into English. The English word
"assembly" also possesses a wide range of meanings. In the early days of the Bahá'í
Faith in the Occident the word for a Bahá'í community was "assembly," there being
no standard term yet for the community's governing body.
Stark, The Rise of Christianity, chapter 4.
Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 160.
Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church, trans. Stanley
Godman (New York: Pantheon, 1959), 26.
To read the account of the martyrdoms of Perpetua and Felicitas, see Herbert Musurillo,
ed., trans., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press,
Clarendon Press, 1972), 106-131.
Quoted in Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I: to
A.D. 1500, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1975). 171.
Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought from its Judaic and Hellenistic
Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon and Schuster,