Apostles

Anti-Papal Movement

Aryanism

Augustine

Bible

Catholic Church

Christian Church in the Middle Ages

Christian Church, Separation of

Christianity

Conversion of Constantine

Development of World Religions

Jesus Christ

Origins of Christianity

Paul/Saul

Persecutions of the Christians in Gaul

Reformed Churches

Rise and Triumph of Christianity

Rise of Christianity

Roman Church

A History Christianity

Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi

The Origins Of Christianity

 

 

In the initial decades of the Roman Empire, at the eastern end of the

Mediterranean, a new religion, Christianity, emerged. Much of the impetus for this new religion rested in issues in the Jewish religion, including a

long-standing belief in the coming of a Messiah and rigidities that had

developed in the Jewish priesthood. Whether or not Christianity was created by God, as Christians believe, the early stages of the religion focused on

cleansing the Jewish religion of stiff rituals and haughty leaders. It had

little at first to do with Roman culture. Christianity arose in a remote

province and appealed particularly to the poorer classes. It is not easy, as a

result, to fit Christianity neatly into the patterns of Roman history: It was

deliberately separate, and only gradually had wider impact.

 

Christianity originated with Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet and

teacher who probably came to believe he was the Son of God and certainly was regarded as such by his disciples. Jesus preached in Israel during the time of Augustus, urging a purification of the Jewish religion that would free Israel and establish the kingdom of God on earth. He urged a moral code based on love, charity, and humility, and he asked the faithful to follow his lessons, abandoning worldly concern. Many disciples believed that a Final Judgment day was near at hand, on which God would reward the righteous with immortality and condemn sinners to everlasting hell.

 

Jesus won many followers among the poor. He also roused suspicion among

the upper classes and the leaders of the Jewish religion. These helped

persuade the Roman governor, already concerned about unrest among the Jews, that Jesus was a dangerous agitator. Jesus was put to death as a result, crucified like a common criminal, about A.D. 30. His fo lowers believed that he was resurrected on the third day after his death, a proof that he was the Son of God. This belief helped the religion spread farther among Jewish communities in the Middle East, both within the Roman Empire and beyond. As they realized that the Messiah was not immediately returning to earth to set up the Kingdom of God, the disciples of Jesus began to fan out, particularly around the eastern Mediterranean, to spread the new Christian message.

 

Initially, Christian converts were Jewish by birth and followed the basic

Jewish law. Their belief that Christ was divine as well as human, however,

roused hostility among other Jews. When one early convert, Stephen, was stoned to death, many disciples left Israel and traveled throughout western Asia.

 

Christianity Gains Converts And Religious Structure

 

Gradually over the next 250 years, Christianity won a growing number of

converts. By the 4th century A.D., about 10 percent of the residents of the

Roman Empire were Christian, and the new religion had also made converts

elsewhere in the Middle East and Ethiopia. As it spread, Christianity

connected increasingly with larger themes in Roman history.

 

With its particularly great appeal to some of the poor, Christianity was

well positioned to reflect social grievances in an empire increasingly marked by inequality. Slaves, dispossessed farmers and impoverished city dwellers found hope in a religion that promised rewards after death. Christianity also answered cultural and spiritual needs - especially but not exclusively among the poor - left untended by mainstream Roman religion and culture. Roman values had stressed political goals and ethics suitable for life in this world. They did not join peoples of the empire in more spiritual loyalties, and they did not offer many emotionally satisfying rituals. As the empire consolidated, reducing direct political participation, a number of mystery religions spread from the Middle East and Egypt, religions that offered emotionally charged rituals. Worship of gods such as Mithra or Isis, derived from earlier Mesopotamian or Egyptian beliefs, attracted some Roman soldiers and others with rites of sacrifice and a strong sense of religious community. Christianity, though far more than a mystery religion, had some of these qualities and won converts on this basis as well. Christianity, in sum, gained ground in part because of features of Roman political and cultural life.

 

The spread of Christianity also benefited from some of the positive

qualities of Rome's great empire. Political stability and communications over a wide area aided missionary efforts, while the Roman example helped inspire the government forms of the growing Christian church. Early Christian communities regulated themselves, but with expansion more formal government was introduced, with bishops playing a role not unlike Rome's provincial governors. Bishops headed churches in regional centers and supervised the activities of other churches in the area. Bishops in politically powerful cities, including Rome, gained particular authority. Roman principles also helped move what initially had been a religion among Jews to a genuinely cosmopolitan stance. Under the leadership of Paul, converted to Christianity about A.D. 35, Christian missionaries began to move away from insistence that adherents of the new religion must follow Jewish law. Rather, in the spirit of Rome and of Hellenism, the new faith was seen as universal, open to all whether or not they followed Jewish practices in diet, male circumcision, and so on.

 

Paul's conversion to Christianity proved vital. Paul was Jewish, but he

had been born in a Greek city and was familiar with Greco-Roman culture. He helped explain basic Christian beliefs in terms other adherents of this

culture could grasp, and he preached in Greece and Italy as well as the Middle East. Paul essentially created Christian theology, as a set of intellectual principles that followed from, but generalized, the message of Jesus. Paul also modified certain initial Christian impulses. Jesus himself had drawn a large number of women followers, but Paul emphasized women's subordination to men and the dangers of sexuality. It was Paul's stress on Christianity as a universal religion, requiring abandonment of other religious beliefs, and his related use of Greek - the dominant language of the day throughout the eastern Mediterranean - that particularly transformed the new faith.

 

Relations With The Roman Empire

 

Gradually, Christian theological leaders made further contact with

Greco-Roman intellectual life. They began to develop a body of Christian

writings beyond the Bible messages written by the disciples of Jesus. By the

4th century A.D., Christian writings became the only creative cultural

expressions in the Roman Empire, as theologians sought not only to explain

issues in the new religion but also to relate it to Greek philosophy and Roman ethics. Ironically, as the Roman Empire was in most respects declining, Christianity produced an outpouring of complex thought and often elegant use of language. In this effort, Christianity redirected Roman culture (never known for abundant religious subtlety) but also preserved many earlier literary and philosophical achievements.

 

Adherents of the new religion clashed with Roman authorities, to be sure.

Christians, who put their duties to God first, would not honor the emperor as

a divinity and might seem to reject the authority of the state in other

spheres. Several early emperors, including the mad Nero, persecuted

Christians, killing some and driving their worship underground. Persecution

was not constant, however, which helps explain why the religion continued to spread. It resumed only in the 4th century, when several emperors sought to use religious conformity and new claims to divinity as a way of cementing

loyalties to a declining state. Roman beliefs, including periodic tolerance,

helped shape a Christian view that the state had a legitimately separate if

subordinate sphere; Western Christians would often cite Christ as saying

"Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's."

 

The full story of early Christianity goes beyond the history of Rome.

Christianity had more to do with opening a new era in the history of the

Mediterranean region than with shaping the later Roman Empire. Yet important connections did exist that explain features of Christianity and of later Roman history. Though not a Roman product and though benefiting in part from the empire's decline, Christianity in some of its qualities can be counted as part of the Greco-Roman legacy.

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