Robert C. Daniels
Author / Adjunct History Professor
- 1220 Days: the story of U.S. Marine Edmond Babler and his experiences in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps during World War II
- World War II in Mid-America: Experiences from rural Mid-American during the Second World War
- Several published military history articles at www.militaryhistoryonline.com.
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The Birth and Rise of Christianity – c. 27-550 C.E. (A.D.)
The following is written by Robert Daniels in November 2021
(The Birth and Rise of Christianity - c. 27-550 C.E. [A.D.] Article by Robert Daniels is licensed under CC BY 4.0.)
Christianity has its roots in Judaism. Around 5 or 4 B.C.E. (Before Common Era, a more modern, non-sectarian term for B.C. – Before Christ), per the New Testament of the Christian Bible, a baby was born a few miles south of modern-day Jerusalem in the state of Israel in the small village of Bethlehem. The child was born to a Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph, who came from and lived in Galilee, a region in the northern part of Israel. In accordance to the angel Gabriel, who, per the New Testament, had earlier appeared to Mary announcing the coming of her immaculate birth of the baby – she being a virgin – the baby would be named Jesus.
Although known by many theologians as Jesus of Nazareth, this is most likely a misnomer. Nazareth, although today a city in the southern parts of what was then Galilee, may not have actually been a town or even a village during the times of Jesus. The actual town of Nazareth is not mentioned in extant historical texts until years after the First Jewish Revolt of 66–70 C.E. (much like B.C.E., C.E, or Common Area, is a more modern, non-sectarian term for A.D. – Anno Domini, “Year of our Lord”), which led to the Jewish Diaspora, or dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire, again, years after the death of Jesus. Nazareth as a town is mentioned in the Christian New Testament Gospel books of both Matthew and Luke as the home of Mary, the mother of Jesus, but, as we will see, these books of the Bible will not be written until over 100 years after the death of Jesus and nearly as long after the First Jewish Revolt. However, a sect of Jews, possibly part of the Essenes (a somewhat mystical sect of Judaism that practiced poverty, daily immersion – a bath to achieve ritual purity – and asceticism, which included celibacy), called the Nazarenes lived in Galilee at the time. Most likely, Jesus and his parents were Nazarenes. Therefore, the more correct term might be that of Jesus the Nazarene. Regardless, per the New Testament accounts, soon after Jesus’ birth, three wise men, commonly called magi, came from the east bearing expensive gifts for the child. Not knowing where the baby Jesus and his parents were, the three magi went to King Herod – who had years earlier been proclaimed the King of the Jews by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus – to inquire of the king the whereabouts of the family, stating that they came to pay homage to the infant, which they referred to as the King of the Jews. Herod, who had never been well liked by his Jewish subjects, and concerned that he would be ousted by this new baby labeled King of the Jews, sent his royal troops to murder all infant males, causing Mary and Joseph to take Jesus and flee to Egypt. Since Jesus is not mentioned in any historical texts, but only in the Christian Bible, the Biblical mention of Herod and the magi is important in dating the actual birth of Jesus, at least the year he was born. Extant historical documents state that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E., so this would place Jesus’ birth at least in 4 B.C.E., if not a bit earlier, predating his birth by several years of that which would later be referred to by Christian theologians.
Not much is said in the New Testament about Jesus’ early life (his travels and life during these years is up to debate), but at about age 30 (about 25 or 26 C.E.), Jesus began preaching a doctrine differing from the Jewish doctrine and law of the times. In doing so he collected fellow Jews as his followers, including 12 main followers or disciples. According to the Gospels – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the first four books of the New Testament, which tell the story of Jesus’s life and his teachings - he, accompanied by his disciples, traveledthe next three years throughout Palestine (the ancient term for areas of the Levant [the eastern shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea] that included modern-day Israel) preaching to anyone who would listen, urging men and women to join together in God’s Kingdom before the imminent end of the world. In doing so, he gained numerous additional followers. His followers believed him to be The Messiah. Like many other Jews, they awaited a messiah, an important figure in Jewish prophetic writings, who would save Israel from oppression, usher in the kingdom of God, and establish a paradise on earth. The term Messiah, or messias, refers to a savior or liberator of a group of people. The concepts of messianism, moshiach, and of a Messianic Age originated in Judaism, and in the Hebrew Bible – the books of the Hebrew Bible would eventually be adopted by the Christian faith as the books of the Old Testament. The term moshiach relates to a king or high priest traditionally anointed with holy anointing oils. The Greek term for Messiah, meaning “the. anointed one,” “the anticipated,” is Christ. Hence the term Jesus Christ or Jesus the Christ. Not all of the Jewish people, however, considered Jesus as the messiah, but saw him as a false messiah and an usurper.
Somewhere around 28 or 29 C.E., Jesus, accompanied by his 12 disciples, entered Jerusalem to preach his message. Roman authorities, in collusion with Jewish Pharisees (what amounted to a political sect of mostly wealthy Jews who favored good relations with the Romans), convicted Jesus as a revolutionary and crucified him – Jesus being a non-Roman citizen, and crucification being the normal form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire for non-Roman citizens. Jesus’s disciples and other followers insisted that he, Jesus, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. His followers were eventually called Christians, or followers of Christ, Christ again being the Greek term for messiah or the anointed one, which his followers believed him to be.
One of Jesus’s tenets was for his disciples to spread his, Jesus’s teachings to not only the Jews but also non-Jews alike, the latter called Gentiles by the Jews. Teaching Jesus’s word to the Gentiles soon became a point of dissention among some of the disciples as well as other followers of Jesus. After all, Jesus’s followers had been Jewish, who, through their Jewish faith and beliefs, considered themselves to be the chosen people of Yahweh, the Jewish god, and many of them saw Jesus as simply modifying Yahweh’s commands to his people. As such, spreading Jesus’s new teachings to non-Jews was a rather radical concept even to them. So one of the first debates among Jesus’s followers after his death was over whether or not to spread the belief to non-Jews, with some believing that the Gentiles first had to convert to Judaism, then practice Jesus’s revised form of Judaism. Nonetheless, the disciples, often accompanied with other followers of Christ, began to spread out across Palestine, Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), Egypt, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Greece, and Italy, preaching the teachings of Jesus to anyone who would listen.
During the life of Jesus, including the three years he was preaching, he, nor any of his followers, were known to have recorded in writing any of Jesus’s teachings. What would eventually become the Gospels, the only books of the Christian Bible that related directly to the life and actual teachings of Jesus, were written over 100 years after the death of Christ, and years after the death of his 12 original disciples. It is to this day in dispute as to exactly both when they were written and who the actual authors of these four books were, but it is agreed upon by most scholars that the disciples with the four respective names – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were not the authors of these books. Other books that would make up the New Testament of the Christian Bible were also not written until years after the death of Christ, many most likely not until the second and even third century (the 100’s and 200’s C.E.). In addition, the actual Christian Bible itself, as it is known today, would not be formalized and authorized as canon or canonical (literally meaning “rule,” but later also meaning 'standard,' 'archetypal,' 'typical,' or 'unique distinguished exempla,' basically meaning the books that are authorized by church officials to be part of the Christian Bible or Church doctrine/dogma) until roughly 367 years after the death of Christ. This canonization of the Christian Bible will be discussed a bit later in this article.
Therefore, upon Jesus’s death, there was no form of organized written dogma of what Christians should or should not believe or what it was to be a Christian. The disciples and other followers of Christ were forced to rely upon their memories of what Jesus had preached and taught them. As most people today know, if 12 people listen to the same person talk or lecture, they will come away with 12 very similar yet somewhat different versions of what was said. Hence, each team of disciple and their followers would preach their version of what they remembered hearing Jesus teach as they moved from one city to another. This soon resulted in Christian communities in various cities hearing varying versions of Christ’s word and what it was to be a Christian. As the original disciples moved on from one newly organized Christian community to form another in different a city, others from the congregations would assume a leadership role in that Christian community. Without written dogma to fall back on, these new, local Christian leaders would have to rely upon their memories of what the original disciple had just taught them about Jesus’s teachings and what it was to be a Christian, which, invariably, added to the growth of variations of the differences from one Christian community to another. So, as Christianity slowly spread, it spread in somewhat differing forms, with at times even the 12 original disciples debating on what the true Christian faith was or should be.
Among other teachings, Jesus had taught his followers to share their possessions in common, which was a shocking violation of both the Roman and Jewish emphasis on traditional family life, and it down-played family and social ties. The emerging Christian communities also tended to hold their services behind closed doors, which Romans found alarming, believing anyone gathering behind closed doors as possibly scheming rebellion against the empire. Additionally, Jesus had taught his followers to eat his body (bread) and drink his blood (wine) in remembrance of him, today collectively called the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, and the Lord’s Supper. As the conservative Romans began hearing of this sacrament, and not being able to view the actual services, the gatherings being held behind closed doors, they took alarm at this practice as possibly a form of cannibalism. Christians, as monotheists (the worshipping of only one god, vice polytheists, or the worshipping of many gods, the latter of which as most Romans were) did not accept other gods as real and similarly refused to make the normal sacrifices to the emperor – all Roman citizens were expected to fully worship the emperor, regardless of what other god one normally worshipped. Christians also had an impulse to convert others, called proselytizing, to their religious beliefs. All of these Christian customs – sharing their possessions in common, worshiping behind closed doors, celebrating the Eucharist, refusing to accept the existence of other gods, not giving the emperor his due, and proselytizing – would gain Roman animosity towards the newly converted Christians. So, the Romans did not necessarily dislike the Christians because of their god – after all, all gods were welcomed in the Roman society. Instead, they saw the Christians themselves, not so much their religion or god, as a threat to the Roman social norms, hence, a threat to the Roman Empire as a whole. At the same time, the Christian insistence that Jesus was the messiah, brought persecutions upon them by the more conservative of the Jews.
Between 15 and 20 years after the death of Christ, with the Christian faith and its various churches still struggling to grow if not just exist, although Roman suspicion existed and some persecutions occurred by local Roman rulers and governors (Roman empire-wide Christian persecution would not be realized for years to come), conservative Jews were the fledgling Christian church’s main threat. Over-zealous Jews, such as Saul of Tarsus, hunted down Christians throughout Palestine, which was still the seat of Judaism, bringing the Christians to Jerusalem for trial and sometimes death. Saul was an over-zealous Jew. He was also an educated Roman citizen with an ingrained hatred for anything and everything Christian. Not believed to have known or even seen Jesus in person, all Saul knew of Christ and Christ’s teachings was what he, Saul, had heard. Therefore, he had only second- and third-hand knowledge at best of Christian teachings. Yet he was a dedicated anti-Christian.
While on a journey to Damascus to hunt down and persecute Christians, Saul and his companions travelling with him encountered either a sudden bright light or a bolt of lightning, depending upon the various versions of the story. Although his companions also saw the flash of light and possibly the loud thunder that went with it, only Saul heard a voice asking him why he was persecuting me (me, being, according to Saul, Jesus). At the same time, Saul was stricken blind. His companions led the blinded Saul on to Damascus, where Saul fell in with Christian leaders of the city. After hearing the Christian leaders preach to him about Jesus and Jesus’s teachings, Saul’s eyesight suddenly returned. He then changed from an ardent anti-Christian to a zealous Christian, even changing his name from Saul to Paul, and would become known in Christianity variously as Paul of Tarsus and Saint Paul.
Of importance, as stated, Paul never met nor heard Jesus preach. Therefore, his only frame of reference for Christian thought and dogma was from second- or third-hand knowledge at best. Yet he too, as the 12 disciples before him, began to travel through Anatolia, Greece, and Italy preaching Jesus’ word to whomever would listen to him, founding and developing Christian communities in various cities as he went, preaching his concept of Christianity, what he had learned from the Christian leaders in Damascus. At least once, during his travels, he ventured to Jerusalem, where he ran afoul of the Christian leadership in that city, including John, the brother of Jesus who was what amounted to the Bishop of Jerusalem, over his, Paul’s, version of Christianity. Paul also at times ran afoul of some of the disciples he came across over the differences of his teachings to theirs.
As time went on, Paul would write letters, or epistles (the Greek term for letters), to the various Christian communities he had either sat up or visited in his travels. In these letters/epistles he would at times chastise the churches for not worshipping or living properly…, or, in the way that Paul preached and taught…, instructing them instead of the correct way to worship and live. These epistles – for instance to the Philippians (the people of Philippi, a city in northern Greece), Thessalonians (peoples from Thessalonica, a city not far from Philippi), Ephesians (peoples from Ephesus, a city on the Anatolia western coast), Galatians (the people of Galatia in Anatolia), Corinthians (the people of the city of Corinth in Greece), Romans (the people of Rome), etc., written in the 50’s C.E., over 20 years after the death of Christ, would be the first known writings on Christianity. These letters were relatively quickly copied and sent and read throughout early Christian communities, spreading Paul’s version of Christian teachings. In his Epistles, Paul taught that Jesus was not just the Jewish messiah, but also the Son of God who died on the cross as part of a divine plan, that Jesus died for the remission of sins. He claimed that a person was made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by doing the works of the Jewish law, in other words, not in the works of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). These letters would make such an impact on Christianity that they would eventually be included in the Christian New Testament as the numerous Epistles of Paul and the basis for many of the Christian doctrine that would become canon.
Although Christianity would have a slow start, and at times even subject to persecutions, it was steadily to spread throughout the Roman Empire, especially, with the various Epistles of Paul, Paul’s version of the religion. It drew many of its first converts from the urban middle-classes – merchants, business owners, and artisans – but also appealed to women and slaves due to its sense of equality towards all. The earliest Christians, especially those who had actually known and heard Jesus preach, expected that he, Jesus, would soon return and launch a new age of righteousness. But as decades passed without Jesus’ return, these early Christians turned to focusing on building their communities and preserving their distinctive faith.
While many early Christians began to adhere to Paul’s version of Jesus’ teachings as the right belief or orthodox (the Greek term for right belief) form of Christianity, without an agreed upon, i.e., authorized, dogma (the New Testament would not be formalized until around the year 393 C.E.) various other Christian communities believed in the other various forms of Christianity that emerged from the differing teachings of the many early Christian leaders, including some of the disciples and others who, as we have seen, taught from their memories of what Christ had preached, actually creating, by the mid-third century (the mid-200’s C.E.) rifts in the early Christian Church. As more and more writings began to appear that would eventually become part of the Christian New Testament during the second and third centuries (100’s-200’s C.E.), including the four Gospels, other Christian writings also began to emerge, many of which contradicted Paul’s Epistles and teachings. Some of these would be known today as The Apocrypha – which was made up of, among others tomes, The (2) Books of Esdras, The Book of Tobit, The Book of Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon, and The (2) Books of the Maccabees. Others were The Secret Scriptures of Jesus, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gnostic Gospels, to name just a few, which were either adopted or spurned by the various Christian communities as orthodox or heretical – from the term heresy from the Greek term for ‘choice,’ meaning that the person committed a heresy or was heretical by making the wrong choice in choosing their personal Christian belief.
Among other issues in the faith, these rifts grew out of the divinity of Christ. Was/is Christ true God, all God, true man, not God but all man, all God and at the same time all man, partially God and at the same time partially man, etc. Adding to this debate, and even somewhat confusing the matter, was the relationship of God the Father, God the Jesus, and God the Holy Ghost/Spirit of the Gospels. As a monotheistic religion, how could there be three god-heads? Would it not make them three separate gods? During the second and third centuries, Christian theologians, struggling to answer this question, developed the Doctrine of the Trinity, which would effectively state that there is one God who has eternally existed, and hence exists as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost/Spirit. In other words, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost/Spirit is one in essence and three in person.
Out of these rifts emerged separate divisions or sects in the faith, including the Adoptionists, the Docetics, the Ebionites, the Gnostics, and the Orthodox. All of these sects dutifully believed their beliefs to be the right belief or orthodox form of Christianity, and anyone who believed different would face charges of heresy. So, what did these differing sects of Christianity believe?
Adoptionist Christians believed Jesus was fully human – not god – but a man that God adopted to be his special son and carry out his mission. One of the more infamous of these were Theodotus, sometimes referred to at Theodotus the Cobbler, Theodotus the Tanner, Theododus the Fuller, and/or Theodotus of Byzantium. He flourished in Rome during the late second century (the late 100’s C.E.). He maintained that Jesus was a mere man, born of the sexual union of Joseph and Mary, but chosen by God upon Jesus’ baptism to be the savior of the world. Theodotus acquired quite a large following in Rome, especially among Roman intellectuals. He also stated that this belief had been passed down by the disciples of Jesus. He would be excommunicated in 190 C.E. by Victor I, the fourteenth Bishop of Rome. Theodotus continued to acquire followers, who called themselves the Theodotians, or followers of Theodotus. This sect would last into the third century.
Docetic Christians believed Jesus only appeared to possess a material body, but in fact was not human at all – he was fully God. There were several sects of Docetics. One of the more well-known sects was the Marcionites, the followers of Marcion, who was born in the city of Sinope on the southern shores of the Black Sea around 100 C.E. Marcion followed Paul’s teachings, especially those about not following the Hebrew Laws, i.e., the Hebrew Bible/the Christian Old Testament, but took it a step further. He believed that the Hebrew god was a separate god than Jesus, therefore, there were actually two gods, Yahweh (the Hebrew god) and Jesus, the Christian god. As such, he believed that Yahweh was an evil god that made the world and mankind, and insisted his, Yahweh’s, chosen people, the Hebrews (Jews), keep his rules and penalized them if they did not. The god Jesus came to save mankind from this vengeful god of the Jews, and before he, Jesus, came to earth Jesus was unknown. Marcinon also believed that Jesus did not have a flesh-and-blood body, that he was not actually human, but only appeared to be human, therefore, Jesus was all God. Marcionites were also solely Gentiles.
Ebionites were a Jewish-Christian movement during the early Christian era. They regarded Jesus of Nazareth/the Nazarene as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and insisting on the necessity of following both the Jewish law and the Jewish rites. Rejecting the virgin birth of Jesus, they held that he was born the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but was sent by Yahweh – the Jewish god – to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. Believing in and following the Hebrew Bible and its laws, as well as Yahweh as the one true God, they believed that to be people of God one needed to actually be Jewish, including following the Jewish laws. They did, however, reject portions of the Hebrew Bible and its laws as mere interpolations in order to endorse their own teachings, teachings such as those of poverty, rejection of animal sacrifices, vegetarianism, and ritual ablutions (cleansings). It is not sure where the name Ebionite came from, with at least one early church father stating it came from a man named Ebion, while others stating it most likely came from the Greek word Ebionaioi, for the Hebrew word ebyon, meaning “poor” or “poor ones.” Either way, by the second century C.E. (100’s), none of even them reportedly know where the name Ebionite came from. After the First Jewish Revolt and its resulting Jewish Diaspora, the Ebionite movement faded away as many of its followers were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.
Gnostics (Greek for “knowledge”) taught that only a few men and women possess secret knowledge that will allow them to escape the evil of this world and return to their rightful spiritual world. They believed the human spirit was trapped in an inherently evil person and body, and that Jesus came to save not the world, but just his chosen few – those with the secret knowledge, i.e., the Gnostics - from the world. Like Docetics, there were several different sects of Gnostics. Some sects of Gnostics survived in the periphery of main-stream Christianity up since their inception up to modern times.
Orthodox Christians believed Jesus was fully man while at the same time fully God. They adhered to the Trinity of God, as well as Paul’s teachings.
Prior to the mid-third century (300’s C.E.), Roman persecutions of Christians tended to be only local affairs, sparked by the hostility of a city magistrate or provincial governor, not empire-wide. Those that were killed in these persecutions were labeled martyrs, or witnesses for their faith.
Just why were Christians persecuted? Was it because of their god? To answer this we must look at the Roman culture at the time. The Romans were and had been from their beginnings polytheistic, believing in many gods. Many of these gods were the same gods the Greeks had worshipped, the Romans having been greatly influenced by the Greeks via the Etruscans who lived just north of Rome – the Etruscans having traded with the Greeks for centuries, adopting many of the Greek gods as well as architecture and passing these cultural attributes to their neighbors, the Romans. Later, as the Romans rose to prominence and began conquering others, they simply adopted the gods of the conquered, adding these gods to their own, the Romans’, pantheon of gods. Therefore, the Romans were very tolerant of all religions…as long as these religions conformed to normal Roman morals and standards. These state-wide morals were established by the office of the Censors, which office came into effect during the early days of the Roman Republic. The duty of the censors were two-fold; first to conduct a census of the male population to ascertain who and how many males were eligible for service in the Roman army, and secondly to stipulate these Roman morals, along with having the power to enforce these morality laws. All Roman citizens were expected to live up to these moral laws.
In addition, by the time of the Emperors, beginning with Caesar Augustus (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, also known as Octavian), whose reign began in 31 B.C.E. and would last until his death in 41 C.E., all Romans were expected to at least give the Emperor his due, if not actually worshipping him on special days throughout the year. Not doing so went against the Roman norm. Romans were also concerned about anything being conducted behind closed doors, conservative Romans having long suspected such secret gatherings as a potential source of sedition. In addition, since all citizens were welcomed to worship the god or gods they personally chose to, proselytizing, or seeking out others to join a religion, also went against the Roman norms. Hence, in the Roman society, one could worship as he or she wished, as long as they did so openly (in public or in open temples), at least gave the emperor his due on sacred days, did not attempt to coerce others to join their chosen religion, and did not go against the standard Roman morality norms in their worship.
Conversely, Christianity firmly rejected the idea of multiple gods, therefore, rejected all other gods, including all other Roman gods, hence they were intolerant of other gods and their respective religions as well as worshipping or even giving the Emperor his due. Christians also met in small groups behind closed doors. In addition, Christians had an impulse to proselytize, wanting to convert others to their religion; and most seriously, it was rumored that as part of their services they ‘ate the body and drank the blood’ of their god (known collectively as the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, which, not surprisingly, was thought to be a form of cannibalism by the conservative Romans, therefore, violated Roman morality norms. It was these acts, and not that they worshipped a new god, that brought on suspicion and even contempt by the Romans, sometimes leading to death.
The Roman empire had recently gone through 50 years of anarchy, where more than four dozen emperors and would be emperors reigned, most for only a few months, before being assassinated or killed in battle by or against their ultimate successor. In 284 C.E., Diocletian assassinated his predecessor and became the new emperor. In attempts to prevent himself from being assassinated, Diocletian, who would reign from 284-305 C.E., made radical reforms throughout the empire, including splitting the empire first into two equal parts, one part under himself and the other half under a co-ruler. He and his co-ruler then further split the realm into fourths, sharing their control with two junior co-rulers, a junior co-ruler under each of the two senior co-rulers. Each of these four co-rulers would be effectively emperors of their own portion of the empire, each having their own armies. Having just lived through much of the previous years of anarchy, Diocletian believed that failure to worship the traditional Roman gods had angered those gods and brought hardships to the empire. Therefore, in 303, he and his junior co-emperor, Galerius, of the eastern part of the realm, which was under their rule, initiated an attack on Christians in their eastern part of the empire. This would be known as the Great Persecution, which forbad Christians to assemble for worship and ordered the destruction of all churches and their sacred books. Several thousand Christians – men and women – that refused to cooperate were executed. This only occurred in the eastern part of the empire, Christian persecution in the western parts of the empire were local affairs only, led by the whim of a hostile city magistrate or provincial governor.
Diocletian and his co-emperor (senior co-emperor) Maximian would voluntarily step down from being the senior co-emperors (a title known as augustus) two years later in 305. Their junior co-emperors (called to be only local affairs, sparked by the hostility of a city magistrate or provincial governor,), Galerius and Constantius I, were then promoted and assumed the posts of Augusti and elected two new junior co-emperors or caesars just as Diocletian had planned. All went well until one year later when Constantius I died. Upon his death, his son, Constantine I, who was a Roman general in Britain, was proclaimed by his own troops not as the respective junior co-emperor or caesar, but the co-emperor or agustus to fill his father’s old post. This effectively eventually resulted in what amounted to a war for supremacy among the four Roman emperors – the two augusti and the ceasars.
In 212, the day before what would be called the Battle of Milvian Bridge, just outside of Rome, between Constantine I and his forces and the forces of his rival, Augustus Maxentius, Constantine and his troops saw a vision in the clouds of the cross on which Jesus had been crucified accompanied by words stating, “In this sign you will conquer.” The next day, during the battle, Maxentius drowned in the river, being weighed down by his heavy armor, as he attempted to flee, and his troops were routed, giving Constantine a great victory. After his triumph that day, Constantine interpreted his vision of the day before as a sign from the Christian god who brought him victory. Prior to this, although Constantine’s mother was a Christian, Constantine had worshipped the god Apollo. Although it is disputed whether Constantine fully converted to during his lifetime – it is said he was only baptized on his deathbed – the next year, 313, he issued the Edit of Milan, which changed Christianity from a persecuted to an officially favored religion in the Roman Empire. It did not forbid the worship of other gods, but encouraged the worship of the Christian faith, even the looting of the treasuries of the various temples of the traditional Roman gods to build Christian churches. Now Christians, who in many places had previously worshipped secretly in private and were at times persecuted, could openly hold public religious services in ever grander churches.
As we have seen, prior to the fourth century C.E. (300’s), Christianity spread through missionaries who would establish congregations, much like Paul of Tarsus had done. After Constantine’s issuance of the Edict of Milan, however, cities began to become Christianized through the building churches and, with Christians becoming ever more emboldened by the emperor’s favoritism towards their religion, actually began attacking Polytheistic temples. Many of these attacks would be organized and led by the Church leadership, the local bishops. With this, it is important to differentiate between the differing roles of those who professed to be Christians.
In early Christianity, a distinction had already developed between the laity (ordinary worshipers) and the priests (those who were ordained and who led the worship services, administered the sacraments, and acted as pastors to the laity). The diverse Christian communities quickly modeled the Roman society in developing their own form of administrative hierarchy, including using such terms as diocese and vicar, both terms earlier coming into use under Emperor Diocletian’s reforms – diocese (from the Greek word diǒi̯kɛsis, collectively meaning housekeeping, control, government, and administration) was a Roman administrative unit containing roughly 8.33 Roman provinces, which a vicar (a representative, substitute, or deputy of the emperor) oversaw. So, what made up the early Christian administrative hierarchy and what was considered a diocese? Let’s discuss these:
Laity were and still are today all of the none-ordained members of a church, the masses of the people who were Christian.
Deacons, derived from the Greek word diákonos, meaning servant, waiting-man, minister, or messenger, were members of the laity (they were not ordained) who were responsible for charitable works and arranging church meetings. Basically, they assisted the priests in a church. Today, some sects of Christianity have ordained deacons.
Priests, from the Greek term presbyter, meaning "elder," were the lowest level of the ordained. They ministered to the laity in the various churches, leading the worship services, administering the sacraments, and acting as religious counsellors to their congregations.
Bishops, from the Greek term epískopos, meaning "overseer," originally was the eldest of the priests in a city and its surrounding villages and agricultural regions. His office would be called a bishopric, a diocese, or a see (see being short of diocese), with these terms used interchangeably even today. The bishop was responsible for the religious life of his see, including overseeing the bishopric’s/diocese’s priests and deacons. Most bishops were initially called pope, from the Latin papa and Greek pappas¸ both meaning ‘father,’ as a term of endearment, being the fathers of their bishoprics or fathers of their flocks.
Later, as the Christianity grew in preeminence throughout the Roman Empire, the office of the Metropolitan Bishops and Archbishops were established. They were bishops who supervised several Bishoprics. Their area of responsibility, usually a province, were normally called an Archdiocese. Those in the eastern part of the Empire tended to take the title of Metropolitan Bishop or simply Metropolitan, while those in the west tended to take the title of archbishop.
Patriarchs, from the Greek word Patriarches, meaning leader of a clan or family, would eventually become the highest of the Christian priestly hierarchy in their respective regions of the Roman Empire. There would be four Patriarchies, or offices of the Patriarchs, in the Roman Empire, each in a major city of the realm, to include Rome; Constantinople; Alexandria, Egypt; Antioch (at what is now Antakya, Turkey); and Jerusalem. Those of Rome and Constantinople would eventually become the most prominent of the four, both cities, as we will see, being the two co-capitals of the Roman Empire. The offices of the various patriarchs were normally only titular offices, holding only a formal position without any real authority over the other bishops.
Therefore, priests, bishops, metropolitan bishops/archbishops, and patriarchs were all ordained priests of differing responsibility and levels of hierarchy (see figure 1 at the end of this article).
As the Christian Church grew in size and wealth, bishops also became responsible for helping the poor. They cared for the general welfare of orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, and travelers within their Bishoprics. Emperor Constantine allowed bishops to act as judges in civil courts, where the decisions of the bishops had the same legal authority as those rendered by actual secular civil judges, effectively making the bishops agents of the state. This entangled the bishops in secular politics – litigants could chose to go before a bishop vice a civil judge. Bishops soon also became advocates for their cities before the provincial secular governors. These steps effectively made the Christian Church officials nearly the same as government officials – setting a precedence for the power of the Church (Church with a capital C, referring to the Christian Church as a whole) for the future of European countries to come until The Reformation, some 1200 years later. Even after The Reformation, many countries would still be somewhat Theocratic, with a Theocracy (a state whose laws and legislature is based upon religious views) form of government. Constantine’s Empire would be the birth of what amount to Christian-based countries and empires – which could be argued to be Christian Theocracies – throughout what would be Western Civilization.
For defensive reasons, in 324, Constantine also founded a second capital in the eastern part of the Roman Empire on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. In doing so, he renamed Byzantium after himself, calling it Constantinople, or the “City of Constantine.” The site was a shrewd choice for a city. It stood at the junction of two military roads that linked Europe and Asia, and controlled the communication between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. With Christianity the favored religion of his empire and wanting to have more cohesion within his realm possibly under one religion vice multiple religions, he dedicated the new city on 11 May 330 “by the commandment of God,” referring to the Christian god. Soon more and more Christian churches would be constructed in the city and its surrounding villages, making Constantinople not only the capital city of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, but also the center of Christianity in the eastern part of the empire. As the eastern capital of the empire, Constantine would spend much of his time in the city. Soon, the Bishop of Constantinople would be recognized as the Patriarch of the Eastern part of the empire and his office would be known as the Patriarch of Constantinople. Around the same time, the Bishop of Rome would become the Patriarch of Rome.
With the emergence of Christianity, especially now as the favored religion in the Roman Empire, also came further divisions in the faith over which Christian beliefs were to be considered as right belief, or orthodox, as well as which of the mounting Christian writings and interpretations should be considered as canon. As will be remembered, there still was not, even nearly 300 years after the death of Christ, an agreed upon list of Christian scriptures considered standard or true amongst the various Christian communities, churches, priests, bishops, Archbishops/Metropolitans, and Patriarchs. These divisions in beliefs and scriptures led to disputes, especially amongst the various bishops and the higher Church hierarchy, as well as confusion within the empire-wide Church. As such, Christians became concerned about these church teachings, wanting to have a universal, or catholic, or universal, belief; the term catholic coming from the Greek term Katholikos, meaning ‘universal.’ In order to ensure they had one universal church with one universal belief, they understood that they needed one universal set of doctrines and scriptures that was canonical, or canon (again, literally meaning “rule”, but later also meaning 'standard', 'archetypal', 'typical', or 'unique distinguished exemplar,' canon would also later mean a cathedral priest). Debates would occur between differing groups of Christians over what books would be canon, i.e., placed in a Christian Bible, and which would not be. These debates often resulted in additional differing sects of Christians emerging throughout the Roman world.
Those Christians who would become known as Chalcedonians followed the teachings of Athanasius I, who was first a deacon, then the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt (he lived c. 298-373, with his episcopacy spanning 45 years from 328 to 373). As followers of Athanasius, they were also called Athanasians. Athanasius believed that Jesus was human but also truly God. As such, the Chalcedonians/Athanasians believed in the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost/Spirit.
The Christians that followed the teachings of Arius, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, at the same time that Athanasius was the Alexandria bishop (therefore, Athanasius was Arius’s bishop) would be referred to as Arianism. Arius, who was steeped in Greek philosophy began to teach concerning the Word of God (the Gosple of John chapter 1, verses 1 and 2, which he interpreted as stating that God begat him [Jesus], and before he was begotten, he (Jesus) did not exist. Therefore, Arius asserted that God the Father created Jesus, so Jesus could not be equal to or of the same essence as God the Father. As such, Arius argued that the Trinitarian idea that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human was illogical. Basically, he and his followers, which included Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260 – c. 340) – sometimes called Eusebius Pamphili ("Eusebius, son of Pamphilus"), the celebrated theologan historian who would write the famous, even today, Church History or Ecclesiastical History – refuted the concept of the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost/Spirit.
With the ever increasing influence within the Roman Empire of the Christian Church, in 325 C.E., just one year after establishing the city of Constantinople, Emperor Constantine, in attempts to ensure harmony within the Church, hence harmony within his Roman Empire, summoned an ecumenical (meaning the representation of the whole of a body of churches) meeting or council of all Christian bishops at Nicaea, a town roughly 53 direct miles southeast of Constantinople at what is now the city of Iznik, Turkey. The meeting, called the Council of Nicaea, was meant to reach an agreement about the relationship among the divine members of the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost/Spirit. The emperor did not really care which side won, with more and more of his subjects converting to Christianity, he just wanted harmony in the empire. Therefore, he instructed the bishops to come to an agreement amongst themselves. The Emperor would himself attend the proceedings from time to time, but it is not believed he had much real interaction with its proceedings. Many of the various bishops throughout the realm travelled to the council, which would be the first of many councils that would be called to discuss Christian theological issues over the next few centuries, many of which were also called be the various emperors. Meeting from May to August of 325, with attendance between 25 and 318 bishops (accounts vary), the council’s result was the Nicene Creed, which is still used today in many Christian churches, identifying God the Son to be identical in nature and essence as God the Father – Jesus was “one in being with the Father,” “coequal and coeternal.” In other words, the council upheld the Trinity of God, or the Chalcedonian/Athanasian form of teachings, which would be adopted by Constantine as the official Christian Church of the Roman Empire. Although the Ariansm form of Christianity lost the debate, Arianism did not cease to exist as a Christian faith. It would survive for several more centuries, well into the sixth century C.E. Many of the German tribes that would eventually invade and conquer most of the western Roman territories would initially chose Arianism as their form of Christianity.
It is not believed that the actual canon of the books of the Christian Bible were discussed at the Council of Nicaea, or at least not in great length. However, Athanasius is credited with first compiling the list of the current twenty-seven books that would make up the Christian New Testament Bible – as it is known today in most Christian sects – as canon in his in 367 annual letter to his Alexandria and the surrounding area churches. This did not fully settle the issue, however. Discussions would continue over what books would or would not become canon for another 26 years until, 393 at the Synod of Hippo (a synod being an assembly of clergy, Hippo Regius being a city in north Africa, not far from where ancient city of Carthage had stood) that the greatest of the orthodox theologians of antiquity, Augustine of Hippo/Saint Augustine, threw his weight behind Athanasius’ list of New Testament books that they finally became canon, hence, the Christian New Testament of today. Therefore, the Christian Bible would not become canon as is known today until 393, meaning that the Christian Church did not have an agreed upon, approved orthodox doctrine to form its dogma (meaning a set of authorized principles considered as incontrovertibly true) for roughly 360 or so years after the death of Christ.
Another rift in the Christian Church occurred during the patriarchate of Nestorius (ca. 386-ca.451), the patriarch, or bishop, of Constantinople. His doctrine stated that there are two separate persons, one human and one divine in the incarnate Christ. His followers called themselves Nestorians. Their belief challenged the Trinity of God, the Nicene Creed, and, hence, the official Chalcedonian/Athanasian form of Christianity of the Roman Empire. Emperor Theodosius II, like Constantine before him, wanting one cohesive Christian Church in his realm, called the ecumenical Council of Ephesus (a city near what is now Selçuk in Turkey), in 431, to deal with the Nestorian problem. At the council, Nestorius was condemned as a heretic, deposed as the Patriarch of Constantinople, and exiled to a monastery in Antioch. In effect, the council upheld the orthodoxy of the Chalcedonian/Athanasian form of Christianity. Nestorianism, however, like Arianism, did not simply cease to exist. Today a small Nestorian Church survives in Iraq.
Other Christian churches in Alexandria Egypt and Antioch centered upon the belief in Miaphysitism (a Greek term meaning ‘one-nature-ism’) of Christ, stating that Christ was both fully divine and fully human in one “nature.” The Chalcedonian/Athanasian form of Christianity states that Jesus is one "person" in two "natures," a divine nature and a human nature. Although these two statements may semantically not reflect any significant differences in belief about the nature of Christ, to the Chalcedonian/Athanasian bishops it, if nothing else, was a threat to the orthodoxy of the Church. The Coptic Church in Egypt (Coptic being the language spoken in Egypt at the time) was Miaphysitic. The Jacobite Church, which originated in Syria, was mildly Miaphysite. To deal with this new issue, in 451, Emperor Marcian called the Council of Chalcedon, a city located across the Bosporus Strait from Constantinople in what is today Kadıköy, Turkey. This council remains as the largest, with upwards of 450 bishops in attendance, and best documented of the early Church councils. It would last slightly less than a month, form early October to early November 451. The council defined Christ’s divine and human natures as equal but entirely distinct; God was both divine and man at the same time, but his divine and human natures did not mix. Basically, it again upheld the Chalcedonian/Athanasian position. It also agreed upon 30 disciplinary canons concerning the Church hierarchy, Church belief, and Church administration, many of the 30 promoted the authority of the bishops over the priests. Number 28 made the offices of the Bishop (Patriarch) of Rome and the Bishop (Patriarch) of Constantinople as equal, since both were bishops of the two most important cities of the Roman Empire, the empire’s two capitals, the eastern and western capitals. (This canon, however, would later be considered null and void by Pope Leo I when the office of the Pope – the Bishop/Patriarch of Rome – became the pre-eminent bishop of the eastern empire.) Although the Miaphysitic form of Christianity lost the debate during the Council of Chalcedon, like Arianism and Nestorians before them, Miaphysitic communities continued, the Coptic branch remaining in Egypt and the Jacobite branch spreading eastward into Mesopotamia.
After the Council of Chalcedon, two main sects of Christianity were to emerge as dominant, both were very similar – the Eastern and Western sects of the Chalcedonians/Athanasians – although the remaining sects – Arianism, Nestorians, and Miaphysitism (Coptics, and Jacobites) – survived. The main differences between these two main sects were the written and spoken languages of their texts and worshipers, and the locations of their religious centers.
The Eastern Chalcedonian/Athanasian churches were considered Orthodox Christians or Orthodox Christianity. The center of this sect was in Constantinople. The Church used the Greek language in its literature and ceremonies, and their Bible consisted of the Greek New Testament, originally written in Greek, and a version of the Old Testament call the Septuagint, which had earlier been a translation of the Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew language to the Greek language by Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt, during the early Hellenistic Era. Orthodox Christianity would eventually become the Eastern Orthodox Church, also known as the Greek Orthodox Church, with its various offshoots, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which would use the Old Church Slavonic liturgy, which would be translated from Orthodox Christianity’s Greek-language Bible and texts.
The Western Chalcedonians/Athanasians churches, became known as Latin Christendom, was centered in Rome and would eventual evolve into the Roman Catholic Church. It used Latin in their texts and services. About 410, a monk named Jerome finished a new Latin translation of the Bible that replaced earlier Latin versions. It was called the Vulgate (because it was the bible for the “people” [the Latin term for people is ‘vulgus’] who could read Latin). It contained the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Greek New Testament, basically being a Latin translation of the Greek version., and would became the standard Bible in Western European Christianity until the sixteenth century.
After Constantine, most of the emperors, including Theodosius II and Marcian, as we have seen, encouraged Christianity over other religions. The most influential Christian thinker after Saint Paul (Paul of Tarsus) was Augustine of Hippo, or Saint Augustine (354-430), as already mentioned. Augustine was born in North Africa to a pagan father and a Christian mother. His family, although of modest means, through great sacrifice arranged for him to receive the best education available. He became an ardent Christian, even a bishop, producing a torrent of writings, including chronicling his quest for truth and fulfillment in his work Confessions, which became a classic of Western literature. He preached that only by calling upon God’s grace could man be saved from the “original sin” of Adam and Eve. He stated that God only was perfect. He also wrote The City of God, a theology of history, in which he referred to “God’s plan,” which governs all human activity. In it he stated that history is the struggle between those who call on divine grace, who are redeemed, who are citizens of the City of God, and those who keep to the ways of the world, who persist to sin, who live in the earthly city. Augustine, however, refused to identify either the Roman Empire – although officially Christian – or even the Church and the City of God as the same. In his treatise entitled On Christian Doctrine, Augustine argued that everything a person needed to know to achieve salvation was contained in the Bible. He also believed, however, that to properly read and understand the Bible, one must obtain a proper education. Augustine was also important in establishing celibacy in the Christian Church. Many early Christians had seen celibacy, or the complete abstinence from sexual activity, as the surest way to holiness. Augustine also believed Christians should reject sex, but understood that many Christians could not do so. He held, though, that sex had to serve a purpose – the procreation of children. It was not, however, until ecumenical meetings of the Catholic Church at the First and Second Lateran Councils in 1123 C.E. and 1139 C.E., respectively, that priests were explicitly forbidden from marrying.
In the west (Latin Christendom), by the mid-fifth century, through the claim to preeminence over all other bishops, the Bishopric of Rome, hence the Bishop/Patriarch of Rome, had become the most important bishopric or see, effectively making the Bishop/Patrirach of Rome the Pope, and his bishopric, see, or diocese, the Holy See. Bishop Leo I (r. 440-461) was especially energetic in expounding this supremacy. As already stated, prior, all bishops were called “pope” as a term of endearment. This title would eventually refer only to the Bishop/Patriarch of Rome. Three factors were behind the Bishops of Rome evolving into the papacy, or the office of the Pope.
First, per the Christian scriptures, the Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus called his disciple Peter “the rock on which I will build my church,” effectively, at least to many Christians, making Peter the preeminent disciple of Christ. Second, together with Jerusalem, Rome was a site of powerful symbolism to Christians because both Peter – again, considered the first among Jesus’ disciples – and Paul of Tarsus, known as Saint Paul, died and were presumably buried as martyrs. Third, early Christians considered Peter to have been the first Bishop of Rome, who then passed his authority down to all subsequent bishops of Rome in what is called the Petrine Succession. Expounding this Petrine supremacy, the bishops of Rome, especially Leo I, claimed to be the chief bishop of all Christendom, or the Pope. Emperor Theodosius II, in 450 referred to the Bishop of Rome as the Patriarch of the West in a letter to Leo I. Leo I and his successors, therefore, insisted their spiritual authority took precedence over all others, including the Patriarch of Constantinople, effectively making Leo I the first Pope.
The Patriarchs of Constantinople, however, often quarreled bitterly with the Pope over matters of faith and politics. This quarrelling especially included the Patriarchs’ and other eastern bishops’ refusal to recognize the Pope as a supreme bishop. A division between east and west resulted from this tension, with the east – the Orthodox Christians, which church would later to be known as the Estern Orthodox Church or Greek Orthodox Church – with the Patriarch of Constantinople as their titular (unofficial) head, and those in the west – the Latin Christians, which church later known as the Roman Catholic Church – with the Pope considered the Vicar (representative) of Christ and preeminent bishop of the entire Christian Church, having full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church through divine authority. To add to this religious tension, the eastern regions of the Roman Empire, its capital at Constantinople, had also been ruled by the eastern co-emperors of Diocletian’s tetrarchy (rule by four) who had installed similar yet somewhat different secular administrations in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire from those of the western portions. Therefore, although all citizens of the Empire were considered Romans, and by the time of Calcedonian/Athanasian form of Christianity became the main form of Christianity in the realm, the Empire was ostensibly ruled by one emperor, the eastern part of the Roman Empire – its capital at Constantinople – and the western part of the Empire – its capital at Rome – had in fact their own somewhat mini-Roman cultures with somewhat differing secular rules and administrations: the East was more Greek in culture and the West was more Latin in culture. This led to some friction between eastern and western regions of the Roman Empire.
Even with this division, throughout the entire empire, both the eastern and western portions, through the authority of the popes, patriarchs, bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans, the Church would function almost as an administrative arm of the government. Public building projects began to decline, while the construction of Christian churches increased – some public buildings were even converted to churches. Even in the fourth century (300’s C.E.), not long after Constantine’s issuance of the Edit of Milan, as Christianity began to rise in prominence within the Roman Empire tolerance for non-Christian religions began to fade. Bishops, priests, and monks, often in collusion with the local administrations, led attacks on polytheistic shrines and holy places, basically conducting some of the same type of persecutions against non-Christians that earlier Roman polytheists had directed at Christians. Since polytheism did not represent a single organized religion, it could not and did not offer a systematic opposition, with temple after temple, religion after religion falling to the Christians. Soon, imperial laws began to appear actually forbidding non-Christian religious ceremonies. By the mid-fifth century (around 450 C.E.) and the rise of the preeminence of the Pope, the aristocracy in Rome had accepted Christianity, which for the most part sealed the deal, so to speak, since the average Roman would quickly attempt to emulate the aristocracy, making Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Eradicating polytheism meant far more than substituting one religion for another – polytheism had laid at the heart of every Roman community, influencing every activity and habit of social life prior to the rise of Christianity. As a result, Roman culture actually changed from a polytheistic culture to a monotheistic culture, with Christianity at the heart of the culture. As Christianity became the religion in the Roman World, and with the emperors granting bishops with more and more secular authority, the Empire and the various empires and countries that would rise from the Empire’s ruins in years to come soon became what amounted to a Christian Theocracy, with the power of the Church, especially that of the Pope literally reigning over the power of many if not all of the future kings and emperors of Christendom.
New Christian holidays were soon declared, such as the anniversaries of the martyrs. Within 250 years after Pope Leo I took the office of the first Pope, by the early sixth century (500’s C.E.), Christian holidays would supplant non-Christian holidays throughout Europe, such as:
Christmas – the celebration of Christ’s birth – now replaced the popular festival of the Unconquered Sun, the winter solstice, and the birth of the Sun God, as well as the birth of many other non-Christian gods who were traditionally believed to have occurred and celebrated to have been born on 25 December. It should be noted that nowhere in the Christian Bible does it state actually when Jesus of Nazareth/the Nazarene was born.
Easter – the traditional celebration of the Germanic (Anglo/Saxon) goddess of spring, Eostre, who is connected with renewal and fertility; eggs and rabbits are sacred to her, as is the full moon.
These traditional non-Christian holiday adoptions helped convert non-Christians to Christianity. They could still celebrate their traditional holidays, but now to the Christian god, not their old non-Christian god. Christians also began labeling all non-Christians, particularly polytheists, as pagans, a term which comes from the Latin word pagenus, meaning “hillbilly” or “country folk.” It was a term that had previously been used by many non-Christians as a term of endearment for themselves, but now became a derogatory term towards them. In 531, a new Christian-based dating system was developed based upon the birth of Christ. Now, all dating in the Christian world began with the birth of Jesus, creating the concept of A.D. – Anno Domini, or “in the year of our Lord” for all dates after the supposed date of his birth, and B.C. (Before Christ), relating for all dates prior to his birth.
As we have seen, the rise of Christianity had a slow, rocky start. At times the people called Christians were persecuted by others, not necessarily for their religious beliefs, but how the Christians worshipped those beliefs, since their services tended to go against the moral and state norms of the times. It would take over 300 years just to become a non-persecuted religion in the Roman Empire. Once the religion rose as not only a favored religion in the powerful Roman Empire, but eventually the only authorized religion in the Empire, they too, however, began to persecute others – those who were not Christians. They also split into two main sects of Christians that had nearly identical texts and beliefs, mainly differing over the preeminence of the Pope. The western church, the Latin Christians, would eventually become the Roman Catholic Church, which, with the sole exception of a spattering of Jewish communities, would become effectively the only church allowed in what would be Western Europe, the Judaism barely being tolerated. All other religions would be stamped out by the Church, many times violently. The Eastern Orthodox Church would become the preeminent Christian Church in the east, which at times, through the emperors of the Byzantium Empire, would mostly eradicate all other religions from their realms.
The split between these two preeminent Christian Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, would eventually morph into an actual rift over not only the preeminence of the Pope, but also dogma and cultures, including concerning the practice of Icons, or images of Christ. Theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church became concerned that Christians were actually worshipping icons as God, vice simply a representation of God – many Christians at the time had icons in their homes. Byzantine Emperor Leo III agreed, and in 726 C.E. prohibited icons and ordered all icons in his realm destroyed. This became known as iconoclasm, or image breaking. Revolts broke out over this in Greece and southern Italy, both of which areas were in the realm of Constantinople’s influence, but were populated by Roman Catholics, hence under the ecumenical authority of the Pope in Rome. Pope Gregory III, outraged by Leo’s prohibition, which he considered a heresy, excommunicated Leo. In return, Leo deprived the papacy of religious authority over southern Italy, Sicily, and the Balkan coast, authority the popes had held since the fourth century. With this loss of authority also came the loss of important sources of revenue to the papacy. This conflict resulted in the future, instead of seeking military aid from Byzantine, the Pope began to ally with the kingdoms in the west. Ironically, by 843 C.E., this veneration of icons had been reestablished in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but the damage between the two churches had been done. Later still, during the Crusades, Latin Christian knights – Roman Catholics – sacked the city of Constantinople, along with Easter Orthodox Churches, creating further fissures in the relationships between the two churches.
With the rise and prominence of the Christian Church, regardless of the sect of Christianity, religious toleration would literally cease to exist throughout Europe and much of Anatolia and other areas controlled by Christian rulers. Although, as we have seen, other, less powerful sects of Christianity also emerged, they would eventually lose out to the combined Latin and Orthodox Churches. Later, other sects would evolve throughout the years, such as the Waldensians and Albigensians (the latter also known as the Bogomils and the Cathars), many of which will be considered as heretical by one or both the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. While most of these minor sects would eventually cease to exist, some still exist today, as does, of course, the Roman Catholic and Eastern/Greek Orthodox Churches. Especially in Western Europe, no other church, Christian or other, would make any real headway until a German Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology by the name of Martin Luther, beginning in 1517 C.E., and then only with the strong backing by local secular rulers and the people of their realms, brought on The Reformation.
Last updated on 27 Jan 2022 .
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