===================The Extent of Christianity (AD 451)
Christianity arose as a splinter faction of Judaism in the first half of the first century AD, centred around one Jesus (Aramaic:
, Yeshua, Greek: Ἰησοῦς
), a Galilean Jew. Understanding the birth of Christianity first of all requires a basic understanding of Judaism itself, the religion of the Jewish people. Judaism developed from an initial phase of polytheism and subsequent henotheism (worship of one god, without denying the existence of others) to arrive at a radicalised monotheism somewhere in the sixth century BC. Jahweh thus emerged as the one and only existent god to the Jewish people. Moreover, the Jews supposedly were Jahweh’s ‘chosen people’, and awaited the coming of a saviour – the Messiah or ‘anointed one’ (Hebrew: מָשִׁיחַ, Mashiah
, Greek: Χριστός, Christos
) – who would liberate them from foreign tyranny and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. These ideas were deeply rooted in the Iudaea of the first century AD, a hotbed of unrest and dissent under the iron heel of the Roman Empire, which was indeed perceived as the ‘foreign tyranny’ from which the Jews sought to liberate themselves. Furthermore, Zoroastrian ideas of some ethereal battle between good and evil had steadily infiltrated Judaism, though these were not yet widely accepted at the dawn of the first century AD.
The crucial event in the birth of what would become Christianity was the crucifixion and death of a Galilean Jew named Jesus (c. AD 30), followed by some of his adherents becoming convinced that he had risen from death. Though (or more likely because) Jesus was to become the central character in the Christian faith, very little is known about his actual life and teachings. Only two non-Christian ancient historians make a reliable mention of him. The Roman historian Tacitus writes that “Christus [...] suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus”. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his Antiquitates Judaicae
, most prominently in asserting the execution of one Jacobus in AD 62, “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christus”. From this stem the only real historical certainties about Jesus: he was executed under Pontius Pilatus and had a brother named Jacobus. It can be safely assumed that he was indeed a Jewish preacher of some sorts, like there were many in Iudaea at that time, whose message possibly stirred enough people to unsettle both the Jewish elite and the Roman authorities, against whom his message must have been directed. A fraud to the former and a possible dissenter to the latter, he was ultimately executed. Some additional, though hardly reliable information about the person of Jesus can be derived from the oldest Christian writings: the authentic Letters of Paulus (written AD 50 – 55), the four canonical Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
The foundations of Christianity are ultimately not the work of Jesus, but of Paulus. The execution of Jesus stirred among his group of followers the idea that he had not really died, but rose from death to heaven. Different interpretations of this, as well as of the new movement’s ties to Judaism, existed from the outset but it was the interpretation of Paulus which ultimately won over the others. Though he never knew Jesus, Paulus proclaimed himself one of his most devoted followers and went on to claim that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah, whose death was a sacrifice to win divine grace for the sins of humankind and to pave the way for the Kingdom of God. This kingdom, Paulus said, would be an eternally blissful realm inhabited only by the righteous, whom Jesus had offered salvation by his death. None of the Christian writings therefore actually address anything that Jesus might have taught or preached himself and no accounts of his actions or sayings survived him. Paulus and the early Christians did not build and promote Christianity as ‘teachings of Jesus’, but rather as ‘teachings about Jesus’, and more specifically about his death and supposed resurrection.
The final step to deification was logically a very small one to take and Jesus was soon made into ‘the Son of God’, or even God himself in human form, who rose from death after three days and ascended to heaven after fourty. Moreover, it was told he would soon return to the world, heralding the end of times and the beginning of the promised Kingdom of God. Thus the foundation of early Christianity was laid in the ideas of Paulus, which would become wide-spread throughout the second and third century AD.
Initially though, Christianity enjoyed very little success in Iudaea, dismissed as a sham by the Jewish religious elite and largely ignored by the Roman authorities. As it spread beyond Iudaea across the Levant, the Christian message nonetheless began to gain a significant number of followers. Paulus’ leadership, ideas, journeys and preaching were instrumental in this: he denied the notion that one had to be a Jew in order to become a Christian, he elevated the ritual of baptism over circumcision and rejected much of Jewish law and tradition altogether. This gave Christianity the opportunity to present itself as an independent religious movement and the successor of some sorts to the now ‘misguided’ Jewish doctrines (which, after all, refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah). Having deified Jesus, Paulus successfully managed to convince most of the Christians once more, breaking the movement away from Judaism and paving the way for Pauline Christianity to continue spreading its message and gaining converts. Paulus himself was definitely a man on a mission, someone who preached tirelessly as he went from town to town around Asia Minor and Greece, ultimately arriving in the beating heart of the Roman Empire – Rome itself. The faith he and his followers promoted was indeed largely an urban movement: people living in the rural areas would remain outside the reach of the Christian message until the first half of the fourth century. Yet in many cities and towns across the empire, Christians began to group together and founded communities in which practically all levels of society were represented, save for the highest ranks of the Roman elite. Early Christianity was largely defined by these wide-spread small communities and Christians generally chose not to propagate their faith aggressively, meeting instead in seclusion, in the belief that Jesus would soon return to establish the Kingdom of God. Nonetheless, the early Christians quickly invoked suspicion and hostility because of their radical monotheism and refusal to participate in the polytheist Greco-Roman religion with its many traditions, rites and festivals which affected most aspects of daily life. The polytheists consequently developed a more than unfriendly attitude towards known Christians, because their refusal to help appease the gods could bring harm to local communities and the empire in general. Additionally, the Jews across the empire equally viewed the Christians as dangerous heretics. Thus, within three decades of Jesus’ death, Christianity had gained many followers, but also many powerful enemies. Before long, this hostility came to the attention of the Roman authorities, with deadly consequences.
The Roman regime had initially viewed the Christian movement as Jewish and of little or no importance in the big picture of anti-Roman sentiment in the hotbed of Iudaea. This indifference quickly changed as Christianity began to gain adherents across the Levant. The Romans realised that Christians were no ethno-religious group like the Jews which could be given a special status and privileges, but rather a movement which could appeal to literally every person in the empire. Christians believed the world was about to go down in fiery destruction and rise anew as the Kingdom of God in which only the righteous – that is, the followers of Jesus Christ – had a place. To the Romans, however, the ‘world’ was the Orbis Terrarum
, the circle of lands around the Mediterranean Sea which they had made into their empire and which the Christians claimed to be near complete annihilation: an unforgivable insult to Rome. Christianity moreover rejected the existing Greco-Roman religion and the increasingly deified personality cult around the Roman emperor (princeps
The combination of these elements led the Romans to the alarming conclusion that pretty much every person – including Roman officials – could secretly be a Christian engaging in backstage sabotage of the Roman Empire. To a conservative Roman, any Christian refusing to abandon his or her faith deserved nothing less than death simply for that, regardless of whether this person had actually committed any crimes. This was also the guiding principle under which emperor Traianus in AD 112 issued his decrees in how to deal with Christians. However, he commanded that Christians should not be actively hunted down by the government, but rather arrested on grounds of a citizen’s accusation (accusatio
). Furthermore, Christians whom abandoned their faith willingly were to be pardoned.
As mentioned before, the polytheistic masses considered the Christians to be dangerous elements which could invoke the gods’ wrath through their refusal to participate in the Greco-Roman religion. More than once this would lead to spontaneous bursts of anti-Christian sentiment, particularly in the empire’s most important cities during religious festivals or after some kind of natural calamity (cf. earthquakes). The Roman regime typically seized these opportunities with great enthusiasm, arresting as many Christians as possible and executing them publicly for the entertainment of the masses. The most infamous of these spectacles was undoubtedly the killing of Christians in the arena of the Roman amphitheatres. However, the polytheistic brutality in attempting to stamp out the Christian movement backfired in the long run because it sparked the notion of ‘martyrs’: Christians dying willingly for God and often under extremely cruel conditions. The Christians thus took great comfort in the assumption that their salvation was guaranteed if they died for their faith, rather than being intimidated into forsaking it out of fear. In fact, whomsoever yielded to the torture and threats of the pagan persecutors would be damned eternally – a doom which far outclassed the prospect of a cruel physical death.
The extent and effect of anti-Christian persecutions should not be overestimated. Until AD 250, persecutions were a local phenomenon and were never organised by the highest Roman elite around the emperor. Most Christians had only heard of persecutions taking place, rather than actually having witnessed one. More importantly, anti-Christian sentiments did not really threaten the continued expansion of the new faith throughout the second and third century. By the early third century, Christianity at last gained some adherents among the empire’s equestrian and senatorial elite, though these remained an isolated minority. As Christianity made its entry into the highest ranks of Roman power, the Christian viewpoint of the empire began to shift: instead of an opposing force, the Roman Empire became an important part in God’s plan. After all, Rome had united the people of the world – that is, the Orbis Terrarum
– and it seemed therefore obvious that the next phase in God’s plan was the empire’s ultimate conversion to the ‘one true faith’. Simultaneously, Christianity’s attitude towards the Jews radicalised as its influence grew: the Jews stubbornly refused any Christian teachings, making them wilful heretics to Christian eyes. Furthermore, the Christians saw themselves as the new ‘chosen people’ of God, a status claimed by the Jews which the Christians believed was now rightfully theirs. Throughout the third century, a number of Christian writings (the four Gospels, the Letters of Paulus and other apostles, the Acts and the Book of Revelation) were gathered to form the ‘New Testament’, meant to stress Christianity’s status as God's new ‘chosen faith’.
Despite an obvious rise, the actual size and power of the Christian Church by the third century remains debatable and the number of Christians could vary significantly from area to area. More importantly, Christianity and the Roman Empire were far from coming together yet. The third century was a time of great peril and turmoil, caused by economical troubles and foreign invasions. With the empire shaking on its very foundations, the Roman government became increasingly radical and autocratic, at last dropping the semi-republican facade of the Principate entirely and re-emerging as the totalitarian Dominate. The emperor, formerly the princeps
(first citizen), now became the deified dominus
around whom the Roman propaganda machine built an extensive personality cult. These policies obviously clashed with the Christian beliefs and would be the cause of an intensified conflict between the Church and the hard-pressed empire.
Around AD 250, emperor Decius issued a decree which called on the Roman people to reaffirm their loyalty to the gods and beg for their help in overcoming the crisis the empire faced. Christians who refused to comply were automatically considered traitors, thereby bringing the full weight of the Roman government down on the Church. Decius commanded the first state-orchestrated persecutions of Christians, resulting in an unknown number of executions. Decius’ death in AD 251 temporarily relieved the pressure upon the Christians, but in AD 259, emperor Valerianus continued along the lines of Decius. The wave of persecutions ended abruptly when Valerianus was captured by Rome’s eastern nemesis, the equally anti-Christian Sassanid Empire. This allowed the Christians much-needed breathing space for the next fourty years, during which the Church gained de facto
(though not yet de jure
) recognition from the Roman state and began penetrating the rural areas of the empire. Around AD 300, the Roman Empire once again chose the path of brutal anti-Christian repression under emperor Diocletianus, who was firmly determined to hold on to the ancient Greco-Roman traditions. In line with this, he issued anti-Christian decrees in AD 303 – 304, aimed at crushing the Church for good. Under Diocletianus’ leadership, the Romans conducted the greatest anti-Christian persecutions yet. However, the hard-pressed frontiers in the north and east, as well as the relative independence of Diocletianus’ co-rulers under his new administrative organisation (the Tetrarchy) helped to safeguard the Christians from major persecutions in most of the western provinces. The focus of Diocletianus’ rule lay in the east, however, where a staggering number of Christians were murdered as traitors. Diocletianus abdicated in AD 305, but the Romans stubbornly continued hunting down Christians on a massive scale under Diocletianus’ successor Galerius. However, Galerius ultimately realised that all this brutality was in vain; the number of Christians was simply too great to be exterminated entirely and the Romans lacked both time and resources to accomplish this, as a result of being engaged in a bitter war on multiple fronts.
Ultimately, the Romans decided that if they could not destroy the Christian Church and its followers (many of which were in fact Roman officials at this point), cooperation might be a better solution. Though Galerius gave the Christian faith the right to exist (AD 311), the real architect of this new policy was Constantinus, who issued the Edict of Milan (AD 313) to formalise Christianity's new acceptance. Once he became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in AD 324 (after yet another civil war), he began to wield the Christian Church as his most important weapon in strengthening imperial power and keeping the Roman Empire together. In doing so, he was careful to avoid offending the imperial elite too much, the majority of which still clung to the Greco-Roman polytheism and deeply loathed the Christian faith. Constantinus successfully incorporated the Christian Church into the Roman Empire, becoming the first Christian emperor, albeit out of little more than blunt political opportunism. The emperor became God’s chosen representative on earth – a half-god in truth – enhancing the Dominate and the imperial personality cult. The Church in turn accepted this – for now – and throughout the fourth century, its resources, power and adherents rose dramatically, quickly becoming the most powerful institution in the empire after the Roman government itself. Indeed, by the second half of the fourth century, the majority of the Roman people had been converted and by the end of it, the ancient Greco-Roman polytheism had been reduced to near-marginal proportions, especially in the cities. In the end, Christianity’s dominance was secured when emperor Theodosius (the last emperor of a united Roman Empire) officially banned all forms of pagan worship in AD 380, making Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Pagan traditions, customs and rituals would nonetheless survive in one form or another for a very long time to come.© 2012 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com