Dictionary and Thesaurus
1. Christianity first arose historically as a reform movement within Judaism.
The apostle Paul forced it open to non-Jews and gave it the Greek flavor that
allowed it to flourish in the eastern Mediterranean. The significant question
is how it became the official religion of the Roman empire and an agency of
the Roman imperial government.
2. Roman religion did not provide a moral base or message of hope.
The Romans had an elaborate religious system with many groups and types of
There were alternate systems of belief for those dissatisfied with the
chaotic traditional religious forms:
- The Pantheon: the gods and goddesses of mythology.
- The old gods -- Chronos, Uranus, and others overthrown by the Olympian
- The Titans - defeated allies of the old gods -- friends of
humanity -- Prometheus, the fire-bringer was a titan.
- The demi-gods -- the "almost gods" -- like Ganymede, chosen as
servants by the Olympians
- The heroes -- humans who achieved divine status -- Hercules was the most
famous example. Note that the gap between god and human was not so great as
to be uncrossable.
- Local deities -- each region, city, town, and village had its own tutelary
gods, and their were gods who protected field boundaries, storehouses, and
every other imaginable thing of value.
- Nature spirits -- each tree, stream, hill, and other natural feature had its
in-dwelling spirit. Dryads in trees, hydrads in springs and
streams, oreads in hills and mountains.
- lares and penates -- the early Romans were ancestor
and each family and family home had its "household gods."
- Genii -- in addition, each individual had his or her own
"genius," a tutelary deity transformed by the early Christians into the "guardian
- Magic and superstition -- people needed to believe that they had
protecting spirits, because they were very superstitious and that they were
always in danger of "bad luck" on Fridays, the 13th of the month, after
having broken a mirror, when their stars were not in a good alignment, and so
forth. They also believed in witches, vampires, the evil eye, and other
Greek philosophical systems (Skepticism, Epicurianism, Stoicism that offered
moral bases but no hope.
Nevertheless, some of these systems, particularly Stoicism with its belief in
universal brotherhood and justice exerted an important influence on
Mystery cults (Isis, Mithra, Orpheus, and many others) that offered hope,
and sometimes a moral basis for human action. The mystery cults (so-called
because members had to undergo an initiation -- such as a purifying bath of
the eating and drinking of the symbolic body and blood of the cult's founder)
and the nature cults (exemplified in the shepherd's god, Pan, and the
fishermen's god, Neptune, who were combined into the Christian image of the
devil and given Prometheus' name of Lucifer -- "the fire-bringer") provided
Christianity's major competition for converts and supporters.
3. Christianity's advantages:
Its founder was an actual person
It had the Jewish legal code and tradition of morality
It had the ability to adopt and adapt: Christmas was taken from the cult of
Mithra, the Madonna from that of Isis, and many other Christian traditions
were borrowed from other religions
The early Christians were extreme bigots, filled with zeal and commanded to
evangelize; expansion was built into Christianity.
Christianity appealed to the downtrodden masses. Women, low-skilled
workers, prostitutes, the uneducated, slaves, fishermen, tax collectors,
and so forth were the companions and "beloved" of Jesus, and a growing
class of the oppressed and despised saw Christianity as the only faith
that viewed them without contempt - as "the salt of the Earth - and that
offered them the hope a better life --- sometime.
Christianity attracted only the committed, since becoming a Christian was
like signing one's own death warrant, and the sect's numbers were
periodically purged in a wave of Roman persecution. Those of weak faith
did not stay long
It is said that "the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church," and
this was true in many respects. The Christians met horrible deaths with
equanimity and even joy, impressing all who watched with the fact that the
Christians seemed to have something worth dying for. Christianity's
ability to survive persecutions impressed those who possessed little faith
of their own.
THE EARLY CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES
4. The History of Christianity, AD 33-63
5Although not often viewed as such, the
Gospel according to Luke and the
Acts of the Apostles are in fact a two-part history of early
Christianity written by Luke for the edification of a certain Theophilus
- about whom little or nothing else is known. Taken together, the books
trace the process of the faith from a few followers of a faith healer from the
back-country of Judaea to the arrival, some thirty years later, of
evangelists in Rome. Thus Luke and Acts outline the first
great stage in the history of Christianity, the process by which the
personal and charismatic leadership of Jesus of Nazareth was
institutionalized and by which is developed an evangelistic dynamic. The
account contained in these books comes to a close at the beginning of a
fitful but bloody three and a half centuries of persecution by the
government of imperial Rome.
5. The Development of Christianity, AD 63-313
After the Jewish rebellion in 89-90, the Jews were scattered throughout
the empire in what is called the diaspora. As a Jewish reform
movement, early Christianity first spread through the Jewish communities
in the cities of the empire. The Jews made their way at the less
attractive industries such as tanning, leather tent making, "bottling"
olive oil and similar things, shoe and sandal-making, and the like. They
lived in crowded and smelly industrial sections of the city, and that is
where the first Christian communities arose. Christianity was more than
just an urban religion (residents of the surrounding countryside, or
pagus were called "pagans"), it was a ghetto religion. Its members
were of the lowest classes, and today's college students would probably
not have wanted to sit next to Peter, James, or any of the early
Christians because of their smell, if for no other reason.
The early Christians were quite intolerant. They believed that their God
was the only God and that their Savior was the only savior. "Except
through me you shall not see my Father," as they believed Jesus had said.
More than that, they also believed that Jesus had commanded them to spread
the faith by converting others. As a consequence, Christians were not
willing to let others follow their own faiths, but condemned the beliefs
of others and tried to convert them to their own belief. This was quite
contrary to Roman imperial policy, which attempted to respect all other
religions and even to integrate them into official state religious
observances. The Christians refused to accept this attitude and so were
continually flouting imperial authority. The faith was illegal, and its
members often persecuted by the government.
In order to steer as clear as possible of the government, they formed
inner city groups (ecclesiae) with their own internal governments
under spiritual and secular overseers (episkopos > piscop > biscop >
bishop), aided by the heads of households. The bishops stayed in touch
with each other through letters (epistles), secret meetings
(councils), and by keeping the records of the faith in secret books
(bible means simply "book"). The members developed secret signs and
symbols by which to recognize each other, the cross in various forms, the
outline of a fish, variations on the Roman numeral three, and so forth.
Christianity grew slowly, and even began to penetrate the urban middle
class and some elements of the army.
THE LEGALIZATION OF CHRISTIANITY
5. Its Recognition AD 313
In a crucial battle to gain control of the Roman empire, Constantine used
a Christian symbol as his banner and so gained the support of the
Christians among the warriors drawn up to fight at the Milvian Bridge,
Constantine won the battle and rewarded his supporters by decreeing that
Christianity would henceforth be tolerated.
Constantine soon saw that it would be to the empire's advantage if it could
harness the zeal of the Christians and turn it to support of the imperial
government. After centuries in hiding, however, the Christians had developed
various local forms of worship and belief. Constantine set about imposing
some structure upon the faith and turning it from a movement into an
institution. One could argue that Jesus may have founded the Christian Faith,
but that Constantine founded the Christian Church.
In 325, Constantine called a council of all bishops for them to agree on a
basic formula of the Christian faith. The result was the
Creed. He then required them to regularize the practice of their
faith according to this formulation. In 330, he established the eastern
Roman capital at Constantinople, a new city without the pagan traditions of
Rome. In the same year, he ordered the Christian leaders to decide which
of their secret books were to be accepted as representing the true faith.
The result of their work was the canon, the Bible in essentially
its present form
Constantine died shortly after, and the legend is that he was baptized a
Christian on his deathbed. Whether that is true or not, he had turned a
disorganized and persecuted ghetto faith into a respected institution, had
seen that it triumphed over its competitors, and had shaped it into an
eminently Roman institution.
The common picture of Christianity as a persecuted sect was true only of
the early empire, the Principate. In the late empire, the Dominate -
sometimes called by historians "Late Antiquity - Christianity was the
state religion and an official government agency. The medieval Church was
simply a continuation of a part of the Roman government, and its political
aspect had been made a part of its structure by Constantine and his