Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Rise of Christianity

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History of early Christianity[edit]

Funerary stele from the area of the Vatican necropolis. One of the most ancient Christian inscriptions. Early 3rd century CE, Rome, Italy.

The history of early Christianity covers Christianity before the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and the promotion of Christianity by Emperor Constantine I in the Roman Empire, which commonly used to mark the end of early Christianity, beginning the era of the first seven Ecumenical Councils.

The first part of the period, during the lifetimes of the Twelve Apostles, is traditionally believed to have been initiated by the Great Commission of Jesus (though some scholars dispute its historicity), and is called the Apostolic Age. The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic, Second Temple Jewish sect, which historians refer to as Jewish Christianity. Though Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other New Testament author, the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism is still disputed today. Early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism during the first two centuries and established itself as a predominantly gentile religion in the Roman Empire.

In the Ante-Nicene Period (literally before the First Council of Nicaea in 325), following the Apostolic Age, both incredible diversity and unifying characteristics lacking in the apostolic period emerged simultaneously. Part of the unifying trend was an increasingly harsh rejection of Judaism and Jewish practices. By the beginning of the Nicene period, the Christian faith had spread throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, and to North Africa and the East.

Origins[edit]

Background[edit]

Jewish messianism has its root in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd century BCE to 1st century BCE. The doctrine of apocalypticism developed from oppression by foreign kingdoms during the Hellenistic period. The notion that the Hebrew God would send an "anointed one," or a messiah, to overcome the oppressors and reward the righeous in the final judgment was at the core of this belief. This idea grew in strength and corresponded with the Maccabean Revolt directed against the Seleucids. Following the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom, it was directed against the Roman administration of Judea Province, which, according to Josephus, began with the formation of the Zealots during the Census of Quirinius of 6 CE, though full scale open revolt did not occur till the First Jewish–Roman War in 66 CE. Historian H. H. Ben-Sasson has proposed that the "Crisis under Caligula" (37-41) was the "first open break" between Rome and the Jews.

Judaism at this time was divided into antagonistic factions. The main camps were the Pharisees, legal experts dedicated to strict Jewish ritual who wanted Judea free from Roman control but did not advocate violence; the Saducees, who advocated rigid adherence to Jewish law and favored cooperation with the Romans; and the Zealots, who were militant extremists and advocated violent overthrow of Roman control. Among these main camps were other less influential sects. This led to further unrest, and the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of Rabbinic Judaism, including Yochanan ben Zakai and Hanina Ben Dosa.

Ministry of Jesus[edit]

Jesus commissioning the Twelve Apostles depicted by Ghirlandaio, 1481.

In the Christian gospels, the ministry of Jesus begins with his baptism in the countryside of Roman Judea and Transjordan, near the river Jordan, and ends in Jerusalem, following the Last Supper with his disciples. The Gospel of Luke (3:23), which like the other books of the New Testament was composed around 70-90 CE, states that Jesus was "about 30 years of age" at the start of his ministry. A chronology of Jesus typically has the date of the start of his ministry estimated at around 27-29 CE and the end in the range 30-36 CE.

Jesus' Early Galilean ministry begins after his Baptism by John the Baptist, a man who preached repentance and his belief that the end judgment was near. After this and his time in the Judean desert, Jesus went back to Galilee. In this early period he preaches around Galilee and recruits his first disciples who begin to travel with him and eventually form the core of the early Church as it is believed that the Apostles dispersed from Jerusalem to found the Apostolic Sees. The Major Galilean ministry which begins in Matthew 8 includes the commissioning of the Twelve Apostles, and covers most of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee. The Final Galilean ministry begins after the death of John the Baptist as Jesus prepares to go to Jerusalem.

Jesus taught through parables in his earliest followers saw him as a rabbi. He preached about the coming of the kingdom of God, urging those who listened to prepare for it. Social status did not matter in the kingdom of which Jesus spoke. After traveling through the countryside, Jesus and his early followers went to Jerusalem where a recounting of his miracles and exorcisms gained him popularity. It also brought him to the attention of Jewish leaders in the city, who feared the message of Jesus and his followers would inspire revolt. For this reason, Jewish leaders turned Jesus in to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who tried and convicted him.

The Cenacle on Mount Zion, claimed to be the location of the Last Supper and Pentecost.

In the Later Judean ministry, Jesus starts his final journey to Jerusalem through Judea. As Jesus travels towards Jerusalem, in the Later Perean ministry, about one third the way down from the Sea of Galilee (actually a fresh water lake) along the River Jordan, he returns to the area where he was baptized.

The Final ministry in Jerusalem is sometimes called the Passion Week and begins with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The gospels provide more details about the final ministry than the other periods, devoting about one third of their text to the last week of the life of Jesus in Jerusalem.

Apostolic Age[edit]

The Christian Church sees "the Apostolic Age" as the foundation upon which its whole history is established. This period, roughly dated between the years 30 and 100 CE, produced writings traditionally attributed to the direct followers of Jesus Christ (the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers collections) and is thus associated with the apostles and their contemporaries.

Earliest Christianity took the form of a Jewish eschatological faith. The apostles traveled to Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Sea, and attracted Jewish converts. Within 10 years of the death of Jesus, apostles had spread Christianity from Jerusalem to Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Cyprus, Crete, and Rome. The book of Acts reports that the early followers continued daily Temple attendance and traditional Jewish home prayer. Other passages in the canonical gospels reflect a similar observance of traditional Jewish piety such as fasting, reverence for the Torah (generally translated as "the Law" in English translations of the Bible) and observance of Jewish holy days. In the mid-1st century, in Antioch, Paul of Tarsus began preaching to Gentiles. The new converts did not follow all "Jewish Law" (generally understood to mean Mosaic Law as the Halakha was still being formalized at the time) and refused to be circumcised, as circumcision was considered repulsive in Hellenistic culture. The resulting circumcision controversy was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem about the year 50. Paul, who was vocally supported by Peter, argued that circumcision was not a necessary practice. The council agreed that converts could forgo circumcision, but other aspects of "Jewish Law" were deemed necessary. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. According to Professor Alister McGrath, Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3.

The rift between Christianity and Judaism continued to grow and the relationship between Paul of Tarsus and Judaism and the topic of Biblical law in Christianity is still disputed today. The Council of Jamnia c. 85 is often stated to have condemned all who claimed the Messiah had already come, and Christianity in particular. However, the formulated prayer in question (birkat ha-minim) is considered by other scholars to be unremarkable in the history of Jewish and Christian relations. There is a paucity of evidence for Jewish persecution of "heretics" in general, or Christians in particular, in the period between 70 and 135. It is probable that the condemnation of Jamnia included many groups, of which the Christians were but one, and did not necessarily mean excommunication. That some of the later church fathers only recommended against synagogue attendance makes it improbable that an anti-Christian prayer was a common part of the synagogue liturgy. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries.

Judaism and Christianity[edit]

In 37 BCE the Roman Senate appointed Herod the Great (r. 37-4 BCE) as "king of the Jews." When Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Then in 6 CE the Roman emperor Augustus annexed Judea, the largest of these territories, bringing Jerusalem directly under Roman control. Governors often ruled in the name of Rome poorly and Judea and the spiritual center of Judaism, Jerusalem, suffered economic difficulty, which was exasperated by famine. Divisions emerged among Jews in these circumstances, including groups who believed Roman power and presence was causing the downfall of traditional Jewish values, life, and beliefs.

During the late 1st century, Judaism was a legal religion with the protection of Roman law, worked out in compromise with the Roman state over two centuries. In contrast, Christianity was not legalized till the 313 Edict of Milan. Observant Jews had special rights, including the privilege of abstaining from civic pagan rites. Christians were initially identified with the Jewish religion by the Romans, but as they became more distinct, Christianity became a problem for Roman rulers. About 98 the emperor Nerva decreed that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax upon the Jews, effectively recognizing them as distinct from Rabbinic Judaism. This opened the way to Christians being persecuted for disobedience to the emperor, as they refused to worship the state pantheon.

James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the decree of Acts 15:19-29, c. 50 CE.

Jewish Christians were among the earliest followers of Jesus and an important part of Judean society during the mid- to late 1st century. This movement was centered in Jerusalem (possibly in the Cenacle) and led by James the Just. They held faithfully to the Torah and Jewish law (which was still somewhat fluid in this time period), including acceptance of Gentile converts possibly based on a version of the Noachide laws (Acts 15 and Acts 21).

Disputes over the Mosaic law generated intense controversy in early Christianity. This is particularly notable in the mid-1st century, when the circumcision controversy came to the fore. The issue was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem where Paul made an argument that circumcision was not a necessary practice, vocally supported by Peter, as documented in Acts 15. This position received widespread support and was summarized in a letter circulated in Antioch. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. According to Professor Alister McGrath, Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3.

There was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews, rather than a sudden split. However, certain events are perceived as pivotal in the growing rift between Christianity and Judaism. The Council of Jamnia c. 85 is often stated to have condemned all who claimed the Messiah had already come, and Christianity in particular. However, the formulated prayer in question (birkat ha-minim) is considered by other scholars to be unremarkable in the history of Jewish and Christian relations. There is a paucity of evidence for Jewish persecution of "heretics" in general, or Christians in particular, in the period between 70 and 135. It is probable that the condemnation of Jamnia included many groups, of which the Christians were but one, and did not necessarily mean excommunication. That some of the later church fathers only recommended against synagogue attendance makes it improbable that an anti-Christian prayer was a common part of the synagogue liturgy. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries. The true end of ancient Jewish Christianity occurred only in the 5th century. Gentile Christianity remained the sole strand of orthodoxy and imposed itself on the previously Jewish Christian sanctuaries, taking full control of those houses of worship by the end of the 5th century.

Post-apostolic period[edit]

Christianity throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries have generally been less studied than the periods that came before and after it. This is reflected in that it is usually referred to in terms of the adjacent periods with names as such "post-apostolic" (after the period of 1st century formative Christianity) and "ante-Nicene" (before the First Council of Nicaea). However, the 2nd and 3rd centuries are quite important in the development of Christianity.

Origen, one of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

There is a relative lack of material for this period, compared with the later Church Father period. For example, a widely used collection (Ante-Nicene Fathers) includes most 2nd- and 3rd-century writings in nine volumes. This includes the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria and the New Testament Apocrypha, among others. In contrast, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (consisting mainly of Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom) fills twenty-eight volumes.

The developments of this time are "multidirectional and not easily mapped". While the preceding and following periods were diverse, they possessed unifying characteristics lacking in this period. 1st-century Christianity possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character, and self-identification as a messianic movement. The 2nd and 3rd centuries saw a sharp divorce from its early roots. There was an explicit rejection of then-modern Judaism and Jewish culture by the end of the 2nd century, with a growing body of adversus Judaeos literature. 4th- and 5th-century Christianity experienced imperial pressure and developed strong episcopal and unifying structure. The ante-Nicene period was without such authority and was more diverse. Many variations in this time defy neat categorizations, as various forms of Christianity interacted in a complex fashion to form the dynamic character of Christianity in this era.

By the early 2nd century, Christians had agreed on a basic list of writings that would serve as their canon, but interpretations of these works differed, often wildly. In part to ensure a greater consistency in their teachings, by the end of the 1st century many Christian communities evolved a more structured hierarchy, with a central bishop, whose opinion held more weight in that city. By 160, most communities had a bishop, who based his authority on the chain of succession from the apostles to himself.

Bishops still had a freedom of interpretation. The competing versions of Christianity led many bishops who subscribed to what is now the mainstream version of Christianity to rally more closely together. Bishops would call synods to discuss problems or doctrinal differences in certain regions; the first of these to be documented occurred in Roman Asia in about 160. Some bishops began to take on a more authoritative role for a region; in many cases, the bishop of the church located in the capital city of a province became the central authority for all churches in that province. These more centralized authorities were known as metropolitan churches headed by a Metropolitan bishop. The churches in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome exerted authority over groups of these metropolitan churches.

Spread of Christianity[edit]

Dark blue = Spread of Christianity in Europe to 325 CE; light blue = spread of Christianity in Europe to 600 CE. Remember that this map does not accurately reflect the conversion of the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia to Christianity in 301 CE.

Early Christianity spread from Roman Judaea in Western Asia throughout the Roman Empire and beyond (i.e. East Africa and South Asia), reaching as far as India. Originally, this progression was closely connected to already established centers of Hebrew faith, in the Holy Land and the Jewish diaspora. The first followers of Christianity were Jews or biblical proselytes, commonly referred to as Jewish Christians and Godfearers. The Apostolic Sees claim to have been founded by one or more of the Apostles of Jesus, who are said to have dispersed from Jerusalem sometime after the Crucifixion of Jesus, c. 26–36, perhaps following the Great Commission. Early Christians gathered in small private homes, known as house churches, but a city's whole Christian community would also be called a church – the Greek noun εκκλησια (or Ecclesia) literally means assembly, gathering, or congregation but is translated as church in most English translations of the New Testament.

Many of these early Christians were merchants and others who had practical reasons for traveling to northern Africa, Asia Minor, Arabia, Greece, and other places. Despite sporadic incidents of local persecution and a few periods of persecution on an empire-wide scale, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin. There is no agreement as for how Christianity managed to spread so successfully prior to the Edict of Milan and Constantine favoring the creed and it is probably not possible not identify a single cause for this. Traditionally this has not been the subject of much research, as from a theological point of view the success was simply the natural consequence of people meeting the what theologians considered the truth. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Professor Rodney Stark argues that various sociological factors which made Christianity improving the quality of life of its adherents were crucial for its triumph over paganism. Another factor that may have contributed to the success of Christianity was how the Christian promise of a general resurrection of the dead combined the traditional Greek belief that true immortality depended on the survival of the body with practical explanations of how this was going to actually happen at the end of times.

Over 40 Christian communities were established by the year 100, many in Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor, such as the Seven churches of Asia. By the end of the first century, Christianity had already spread to Rome, India, and major cities in Armenia, Greece and Syria, serving as foundations for the expansive spread of Christianity, eventually throughout the world.

Attribution[edit]

"History of Early Christianity" (Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_early_Christianity