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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 6

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 families—perhaps a hundred—who 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 needed—clothing, 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 tasks—unloading 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.[1] 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 year—40% per decade—the 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.[2]

      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.[3]

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 Christian Doctrine

      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 gospel—that is, only one good news, one Christian message—his 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 most—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—in 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."[4] 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 house church.

      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).[5] 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 disasters—huge fires, earthquakes, riots—struck ancient cities about once every decade or two, giving the Christians plenty of opportunities to practice their beliefs.[6]

      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 power—through such activities as speaking in tongues and experiencing divine inspiration—and 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 level—there were no archbishops, no pope, and, until the third century, no councils of bishops—innovations 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 them.

      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 and Theology

      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 attacks—one of which addressed objections raised by Jews—and 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 church."[7]

      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 sacrifice—an 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 charges—that the eucharist was cannibalism and the love feast an orgy—surfaced 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.[8] 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 degree—the Roman empire was not a totalitarian state, and its bureaucracy and police powers were limited—but 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 Controversies

      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 god.

      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 tritheism—three separate, different and equal gods—or subordinationism—three 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 day—Greek philosophy—almost 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, and excommunicated 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 unchristian.

      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 as substantia, "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 ousia nor hypostasis 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 and ousia.

      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 (mono, 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 [homoousion] with the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same substance [homoousion] with us according to the manhood."[9]

      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—those who said Christ had one will—were 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."[10] 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 Milan—which at that time was the administrative center of the western empire—was 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 Christianity—his rise to the status of Pope—and 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.


[1] Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. trans. John H. Schútz (Philadephia: Fortress, 1982), 72.

[2] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), 7.

[3] 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.

[4] It is interesting to note that the word mahfil, 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.

[5] Stark, The Rise of Christianity, chapter 4.

[6] Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 160.

[7] Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church, trans. Stanley Godman (New York: Pantheon, 1959), 26.

[8] 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.

[9] Quoted in Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I: to A.D. 1500, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1975). 171.

[10] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought from its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 100.

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