The Early History of the Christian Religion

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The Early History of the Christian Religion.

The history of the Christian religion is not likely to be studied in public secondary schools. Some of the reasons for this is the lack of emphasis on world history in schools. In some schools there is little emphasis on history in general. Where history is taught it is often American history. In some schools there is a bias against teaching about the Christian religion.

The A&E Television Networks has produced a documentary on the early history of the Christian religion which is generally a fair presentation. You will find both liberal and conservative scholars commenting on historical events.

I have included additional information in the curriculum materials below. I use this as worksheet for students so blank spaces are filled in as we watch and discuss the documentary.

An important source of information for early Christian history is the book, How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001). I highly commend this book to you.

Christianity: the First 1000 Years”

(A&E Television Networks, 1998)

Part I. The early years of the Christian religion. Christianity grew from a small group of followers of Jesus Christ to become the most significant force in shaping Western Civilization. How did this come about?

1. Jerusalem, 30 AD. The Roman Empire controls the Jewish nation. Rome subjugates the Jews and enforces Roman law. The Jews hate and resent this pagan rule over their nation.

In 30 A.D., Jesus of Nazareth is crucified by the Roman authorities, under the leadership of Pontius Pilate, and with the approval and instigation of the Jewish leadership. The followers of Jesus are afraid because the same fate awaits those who believed in Jesus. They claim to have seen ____________________.

2. Pentecost – a small gathering of the followers of Jesus have assembled. This is 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the Jewish Feast of Weeks that they celebrate after the Passover. The New Testament records a supernatural event on that day when the Holy Spirit comes upon the believers. Peter preaches that Jesus is both Lord and Messiah. Peter preaches to the crowds and ____________ people are converted on that one day. The Christian church is born.

The Christians distinguished themselves as a close-knit community. With thousands of new believers who are away from home, the church seeks to provide food and housing for them. The believers share everything in common. Disciples bring their wealth to the apostles to help these needy believers.

3. Controversy with the Jews. Stephen is the first Christian martyr. Something new has been born, a new religion. The Apostle James becomes the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem. Stephen questions the Jewish ceremonial law and he wins debates against the Jews. The Jews stone him to death. Saul of Tarsus is at the stoning and approves.

4. Saul of Tarsus becomes the fierce enemy of the Christians, but he is converted and becomes one of the chief champions of the Christian faith. After the stoning of Stephen, Saul takes up the cause of crushing the Christians. He was highly educated and he was brought up in the strict Pharisee sect of the Jews. He is converted on the road to _________________ where he sees the risen Jesus. He begins to preach Jesus as Lord.

5. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews) and the pagan world. The Jews viewed the world as divided into two groups of people; the Jews who were God’s people and everyone else who worshiped false gods. The Jews wanted nothing to do with the pagan world which they despised. The pagan world was split into many competing religions. The so-called mystery religions of Egypt were popular at the time. Many pagans were tired of the old religions and they were looking for something new. Paul took the Gospel of Jesus to these people. Gentiles who were already attracted to Judaism were called God-_____________. Many of these people were open to hearing the new message about Jesus.

6. The spread of Christianity in the Roman empire is explosive. Paul brought the message of Christianity to the Gentiles and many of them readily accepted the message of Christ. The message of Christianity was going everywhere in the Roman Empire. His letters to these new churches become the first Christian Scriptures and later are joined together with the Gospels to form the New Testament.

At Antioch the believers are first called Christians. Paul tells the Gentiles that they do not have to first become Jews in order to believe in Christ. They can simply believe as Gentiles and they will be saved by Christ. This message to the Gentiles comes under attack by Jewish Christians in Palestine. Paul is accused of misrepresenting the Gospel. In Jerusalem, Paul defends his message and in the process certain Jews determine to take his life. He is placed in jail for his own protection, but languishes there for five years. He eventually appeals to _________for a hearing of his case. As a Roman citizen that is his privilege. So to Rome he is sent.

7. In 60 A.D. Paul arrived in Rome. Peter also came to Rome to preach the Gospel. By this time the Romans were beginning to become aware of the Christians and they did not like what they saw. The Romans accused the Christians of being atheists. They would not come to the feasts honoring the gods. They did not participate in public festivals and avoided other Roman practices. The Romans called them “haters of the human race.” There were also vicious rumors that Christians practiced cannibalism (drinking the blood and body of Christ), eating babies and incest (the “holy kiss”). There were a few practices that even the Romans could not stomach.

The Christians condemned and rejected Roman practices that were widespread; abortion, infanticide, abandoning infants, suicide, sexual promiscuity, homosexual sex and the degradation of women and gladiatorial contests.

8. Roman reactions to the Christian faith. Under Emperor ___________a terrible fire broke out which was blamed on the Emperor. The emperor in turn blamed the Christians for the fire and began a widespread persecution against them.

According to tradition Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified.

Nero was a sadistic criminal who happened to wear and emperor’s robe. He not only murdered Christians, but his own family and many Romans. He kicked to death one of his wives who was pregnant. He murdered his step-brother and molested boys and forced Romans to commit suicide. With his friends, Nero went into the dark streets and robbed and murdered innocent citizens.

The Roman Tacitus reported that Nero murdered an “immense multitude” of Christians and that he used the most cruel tortures. He had them covered with the skins of beasts and then attacked and devoured by vicious dogs and hungry lions. They were nailed to crosses and covered with oil and then set on fire.

9. Crisis in Jerusalem. Within the church there arose the question whether Gentiles had to follow Jewish customs and ceremonies in order to be a Christian.

James was murdered in 62 A.D. by King Herod in an effort to please the Jews.

10. Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In this year a full-scale Jewish rebellion against Roman rule broke out. Jesus had predicted this during his life and told his followers to flee the city. Thousands of Jews remained in the city as the Romans surrounded and besieged the capital.

The Jewish inhabitants suffered terribly from starvation, disease, cannibalism and violence between opposing factions. The city finally fell to the Romans who destroyed the city, burned the temple, murdered the inhabitants (many by crucifixion) and sent the survivors into exile.

11. Next 100 years. Rome engaged in sporadic persecutions against the Christians. There were times of peace for the Christians but times of persecution returned.

Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) called himself “Lord and God,” murdered numerous Christians and banned others, such as John the Apostle to the Isle of Patmos. Emperor Trajan (98-117) continued the persecutions. In 107 A.D. the Christian bishop Ignatius was thrown to wild beasts in the Colosseum.

Under Antonius Pius (138-161), there was renewed persecution. For only bearing the name Christian people were murdered. Marcus Aurelius (161-180), the philosopher-king, extended persecutions on a wide scale. He had Christians brutally tortured and murdered in the cities of Lyons and Vienne. He had their ashes thrown into the Rhone River as a mockery of their belief in the resurrection of the body.

By 180 A.D. the persecutions subsided, by they did not completely end.

During these years various factions arose among the Christians. Some of these groups departed from the teachings of the New Testament and so the church was faced with dealing with doctrinal errors.

12. By the year 200 A.D., Christianity had spread throughout the empire.

Remarkably, the persecutions could not stamp out the Christian church. One church commentator declared that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. Watching Christians patiently suffer for Christ amazed the Romans and many began to investigate Christianity and joined themselves to the faith that created such courage and peace of soul.

13. Early churches often met in houses. The teachings of the New Testament gave dignity to women that Roman culture denied.

14. Ignatius of Antioch was a key figure during this time period. He worked to centralize authority in the bishop.

15. Tertullian was one of the most important Christian theologians of this era. Christianity had emerged as a new religion. Christians believed God was living among them and this was expressed in truth and love.

Part II. Christianity, the First 1000 Years: Church and Empire. For almost 300 years the Christian church experienced persecution by the Roman Empire, but that changed in the early 300s when Christianity was granted legal status.

16. The first years of the 3rd century. There was crisis in the Roman Empire as chaos devoured portions of the Empire. There was a near collapse of the Empire.

During the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211) there were renewed persecutions. In 250, the Emperor Decius required all Christians to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Valerian (253-260) issued an edict that denied to Christians the right to ______________. He especially tried to eliminate Christianity from the upper class of Romans.

17. Diocletian (284-305)renewed empire-wide persecution of Christians. He required that all churches and copies of the ____________ be destroyed. He decreed that all leaders of churches be imprisoned. Christians were required to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods or face torture and execution. It is said that he so filled the jails with Christians that there was not enough room for the true criminals. 1

These were the most intense of the Roman persecutions. These were comprehensive and widespread. One town in Asia Minor was made up mostly of Christians. The town and its inhabitants were completely wiped.

Eusebius, the church historian, described the horrible tortures inflicted on the Christians. Some had legs torn off, noses and ears cut off, eyes gouged out, molten lead was poured down their back, and body parts were mutilated. Some turned into slaves to work in the Roman mines. Women were forced to become prostitutes before being executed.

Persecutions did not stop the growth of the Christian church. In many cases pagans were attracted to the faith when they witnessed the patient and trust of Christian martyrs. They asked themselves, “Why were these people willing to die for this Jesus?” Diocletian remarked, “As a rule the Christians are only too happy to die.” 2

18. The Roman power structure, 312 A.D. The Roman Empire was divided in East and West. There were two emperors (Caesars). ____________________was Emperor of the West. He marched from England to conquer the city of Rome. Just before reaching the city he saw a vision of the cross and heard the words, “conquer in this sign.” Constantine obeyed and he won the battle.

19. The Edict of Milan. After Constantine was converted to Christianity he issued the Edict of Milan which declared official toleration for the Christian religion. This is an important turning point in the history of Christianity. After almost 300 years of persecution the Christian religion now has legal status.

In 323 A.D. he defeated the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and united the Empire under his rule.

20 Unified Empire. Constantine believes there must be a united Roman Empire; One God, One Christ, One Emperor. He wants political and religious unity.

By this time the Christians numbered approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire of 60 million people. 3

21. Gnostics oppose the orthodox Christian faith. During the first three centuries of the Christian faith, various individuals and groups arose inside and outside the church to oppose the doctrines (teachings) of the apostles. These doctrines of the apostles came to be called the orthodox Christian faith. These doctrines were clarified and codified in various church pronouncements.

One group that arose to oppose Christian orthodoxy was the ___________ whose teachings included contributions from the Mother goddess, secret knowledge reserved for certain elite individuals, Greek philosophy, and Egyptian mysticism. Gnostics described creation by a tyrannical God who fought against a good God. They denied that Jesus died on the cross.

Most of our knowledge about the Gnostics came from Orthodox church fathers who wrote against them. In 1945, The Gospel of Thomas was discovered which was a Gnostic document.

Modern Gnosticism and politics of tyranny. Some political philosophers have pointed out the similarities of Gnostic ideas and the ideas of totalitarian political movements such as Fascism, Nazism and Socialism, Communism. Both systems sought special knowledge that would bring salvation to the world. Leaders who alone possessed this special knowledge were necessary. These saviors were placed on a par with God as they developed. Such knowledge would lead to a worldly utopia.

22. Council of Nicea, 325 A.D. This important church council meet to discuss the beliefs of the church concerning Christ. Controversy had developed over the nature of Christ. Was Jesus Christ true God? Or, was he a created being and not true God?

Arius was the proponent of the view that Jesus Christ was not true God. He was a man and created by God. Athanasius was the proponent that Jesus Christ was true man and true God. He was one person with two natures.

This was the debate over the Christian doctrine of the ________________. The orthodox view won the day and this became the fundamental Christian view of God.

The Council also voted to adopt the canon of the Bible. These were the accepted books that were considered New Testament.

23. Christianity becomes popular in the Roman Empire. But popularity dilutes this once vigorous faith.

Backlash – the ___________ movement. These Christians reacted against the growing number of church-goers who found the Christian faith fashionable.

Anthony of Egypt. He went into the desert of Egypt to practice his Christian faith alone. His example caused others to follow a monastic practice.

The Monastic ideal came to be considered the highest attainment of Christian spirituality. It highlighted self-sacrifice, battles with demons, and sexual abstinence. The monastic movement came to identify spiritual purity with sexual denial.

Monasticism sought spirituality be withdrawing from the world, something that Jesus had warned against. Jesus taught his disciples to be “in the world” but not “of the world.” This was the practice of the early Christians during the first three centuries of the church.

Jesus and the apostles had honored the sexual union of a man and woman in marriage. Jesus’ first miracle was performed at a wedding feast where he turned water into wine and so contributed to the celebration of marriage. 24.

Augustine (d. 430) of Hippo, North Africa (near Algeria). He became the greatest Christian theologian of the first 1000 years of the Christian church.

The Confessions (400 A.D.). In this book Augustine explained his life before becoming a Christian. He lived a dissolute life of drunkenness and sexual promiscuity. He was also an educated intellectual who dabbled in various philosophies and religions such as mysticism and Gnosticism.

Converted in Milan. His mother was a Christian who had long prayed for him. He heard the preacher Ambrose explain the Gospel of Jesus. He read the Bible where it said that he must not engage in sexual orgies and drunkenness. He was convicted and turned to Christ for forgiveness. He was baptized in 387 A.D.

Apologist – defender of the faith. Augustine became one of the foremost apologists of the Christian faith in the later Roman Empire. His book, The ____________ of _________ became a Christian classic, defending the faith against Roman, pagan writers.

Theologian. He was the most quoted theologian in Christian history. His theology captured the mainstream of the church. Both Medieval and Protestant Reformers returned to Augustine.

25. Rome faces disaster. Barbarian tribes threatened the Empire. Rome was facing decline. Roman was threatened by Goths, Vandals, Franks, Visogoths and Slavs. As these tribes pressed against the Empire, the Roman armies retreated east.

Constantinople, the new capital. In the 5th century, Constantine created a new capital for the Empire. Constantinople was his new city, located at the ‘Straights of the Dardanelles’, where Asia and Europe meet.

26. Visogoths sack Rome in 410 A.D. After the Visogoths attacked and defeated Rome, many other tribes began to attack the Roman capital. Roman citizens were raped, butchered and murdered. The city was looted and burned. The world was shocked.

Could anyone stand up to these barbarians? The most powerful person in the city of Rome was not a political or military figure, but the Bishop of the church.

27. In 440 A.D., Leo became the new Christian bishop of ___________. The Roman Empire had become two distinct nations; the Western, Latin nation and the Eastern, Greek nation.

Leo claimed to exercise authority over the entire church. He was called, Pope, meaning ‘father’ of the Christians. He claimed that the Roman bishop had primacy over all other bishops.

In the east, the Patriarch of Constantinople opposed this claim to primacy. The church in the east was as old or older than the western church and its bishop was centered in the new and real capital of the Empire, Constantinople. Furthermore, Constantinople was not being sacked by Barbarians.

The divided Empire was creating a divided church. There were both cultural and theological differences between the two churches.

28. Attila the appeared before the gates of Rome in 452 A.D. He was called the ‘scourge of God’, the most fearsome barbarian of all the eastern tribes. He laid waste all of eastern Europe and destroyed everything in his path.

Waiting outside the gates of Rome. Attila and his armies camped outside Rome waiting to attack the helpless city.

Leo approached Attila. Leo came alone to meet Attila. After their meeting, Attila renounced his threat to destroy the city. A few years later, Leo did the same thing when the Vandals threatened the city.

29. By 461 A.D., the Western Roman Empire is gone, but the Pope of Western Christianity remains. He is the only person holding the crumbling city of Rome together.

The Roman legions can no longer protect the city.

30. The last Roman Emperor is Romulus Augustus. He is an Emperor in name only. He has no power to protect Rome against its enemies. General Adavacar deposed him and claimed to be king, king of the Goths.

31. Christianity had conquered the Empire, but now the Empire in the West was gone. What had Christianity contributed to the Empire? 4 In general Roman civilization had a low view of the value of human life. Christians viewed human life as sacred because it belonged to God. Christians opposed practices that cheapened life or violated the laws of God.

Christian emperors began to institute Christian moral laws upon society so, for example, Constantine (306-337) outlawed the branding of slaves (usually on their faces), called for speedy trials of the accused and outlawed crucifixion as a punishment. His son, Constantius (337-361) had male and female prisoners segregated, in order to protect the females. 5

a. Infanticide. The Romans (along with the Greeks) practiced infanticide, killing new born babies, on a wide scale. Infants who were weak, deformed or who were female were often drowned. The Christians condemned this practice, calling it murder. The Christian Emperor Valentinian, outlawed infanticide in 374. 6

b. Abandoning infants. The Greco-Roman world practiced child abandonment when they did not directly kill infants. The elders of Sparta decided whether each child was to be kept or abandoned. In Rome abandoned children were placed at the base of the Columna Lactaria, where wet nurses fed some of the children. The Christians opposed this and took the abandoned children into their homes and adopted them. Emperor Valentinian also criminalized child abandonment in 374. Where Christianity had influence newborns were viewed as protected. This sanctity of life ethic prevailed in Europe and the Western world.

c. Abortion. Among the Greeks and Romans there was widespread use of abortion. Much of this had to do with women who engaged in adulteress sexual relations and wanted to get rid of the evidence. Among the wealthy classes of Romans it was also fashionable to be childless. Plato had argued that the city-state had the right to demand an abortion from a woman so that the population would not become too large.7 Some Roman philosophers and poets opposed abortion but the “culture of killing” was widespread and Emperors led the way in this. 8

The common manner of producing abortion was through drinking a chemical, a pharmakeia. The New Testament and early church fathers refer to the practice of pharmakeia (the use of potions to induce abortion) as a sin which Christians are to avoid. 9 Christians leaders and councils condemned abortion. The Synod of Elvira, Spain (ca. 305 or 306) called for the excommunication of women who had abortions. Emperor Valentinian also outlawed abortion in 374.

Christians placed value on the life of infants. In contrast to the sanctity of life given infants the Roman, pagan world provided no such protection. Schmidt comments, “The early church’s opposition to abortion, along with its condemnation of infanticide and child abandonment, was a major factor in institutionalizing the sanctity of human life in the Western world.” 10

d. Gladiatorial games. Roman Gladiatorial games had gone on for centuries. These graphically revealed the low view of human life among Romans. Gladiators were usually slaves, criminals or prisoners of war. These were doomed men who were trained to kill and put on a good show. The Romans wanted to see the flow of blood and killing. They wanted to see butchering and hear the screams of the dying. Thousands and thousands of men died during the centuries of the games.

Christians condemned and boycotted the games. It was a violation of God’s command to do no murder. 11 The church father Tertullian wrote against the games in his book, Spectaculis (Concerning Shows). Christian emperors eventually banned the games. Emperor Theodosius I (378-395) ended the games in the East and Emperor Honorius ended the games in the West in 404.

e. Suicide. Stoicism was a widely influential philosophy in the Roman Empire. The Stoics viewed suicide as a privilege of person who could rationally control their own destiny. Suicide was widely practiced among all economic and social levels of Roman society. “Open your veins” was a common phrase among the Romans and Emperors used it as counsel to their political enemies. 12

The Christians believed that only God should end human life. Human beings were made in the image of God, so taking innocent life was an insult to the image of God. At the Council of Elvira (ca. 305 or 306) the church condemned suicide as sin. This condemnation was repeated at subsequent councils.

f. Cremation. Roman society used cremation as a preferred way of dealing with a dead body. The early Christian opposed cremation because they wanted to remember the dead as those whose bodies would rise at the resurrection. The Roman pagans mocked this belief and often had the bodies of martyrs burned to show their contempt. On the other hand, the Christians spoke of their dead as being asleep, so they called their places of burial koimeterion, a Greek word referring to a place where people slumbered. This Greek word became the English word ‘cemetery’. 13

As the Christian influence spread the use of cremation gradually was abandoned. By the time of the Charlemagne (800 A.D.) cremation was viewed as a crime.

g. Sexual relations. The Romans engaged in widespread sexual promiscuity, so much so that the Emperor Augustus enacted a law to attempt to curb the practice, Lex Julia de adulteriis, named after his daughter whom he banished because of her sexual exploits. A chaste wife was viewed as a rarity. A wife was the property of her husband so adultery was a property crime for which only the woman could be guilty. Husbands were free to find sexual pleasure outside their marriage. Roman Emperors led the people in this debauchery. Emperor Commodus had 300 concubines. Other emperors engaged in incest and pedophilia. 14 Roman art and poetry was often pornographic and public.

Christians came with a completely different sexual ethic. Sex between a husband and wife was an expression of love and mutual respect. Sex had to be confined to marriage so that couples had to be totally faithful to one another. Adultery applied to the man as well as to the woman. Christians believed they were following the command of Christ their Lord in treating marriage with dignity and sanctity. This is why weddings became in the Christian tradition a solemn ceremony with witnesses and celebration.

Christianity introduced the idea of privacy for sexual relations between married couples. Christianity focused on sex as a God-given gift that was to be cherished and not publicly flaunted.

h. Homosexuality. The Greeks were noted for their homosexual behavior and much of this was with children, mostly boys between the ages of 12 and 16. Pedophilia was common among many Roman emperors. Roman poets, philosophers and artists celebrated sex with young boys. Commodus also had 300 young boys for his sexual pleasure. 15

Christians opposed homosexuality and pedophilia. Christian Scripture condemned this practice. 16The outlawing of homosexuality and pedophilia was the result of Christian ethical standards.

i. The status of women. Women had little freedom among the Greeks and Romans. A wife was the property of her husband. She was to be subservient to the husband who was her master. The Greeks viewed women as inferior to men and so they were not to speak in public. Women had little social value. At meal time Roman women were not permitted to be present if the husband had guests. Roman husbands had the power of life and death over their wives; he could beat his wife or even kill her. She had no property rights and could not speak in court. A wife was the bearer of children and the keeper of the home. For companionship and sexual pleasure the husband took a mistress.

Christians had a different view of women which came from the example of Jesus Christ who honored and dignified women. Contrary to Hebrew culture, Jesus surrounded himself with female disciples. He spoke to women and taught theology to women. After his resurrection he first appeared to women and told them to tell his male disciples. Women had an important place in the early church and received respect from other disciples. Women converts among the Romans far outnumbered the men.

The Christian religion elevated the status of women by declaring that they were equal with men in the eyes of God. Christian ethics taught that women were to be treated with dignity and respect.

1 Information on persecutions comes from: Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001.

2 Schmidt, p. 32.

3 Schmidt, p. 33.

4 Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001).

5 Schmidt, p. 65.

6 Codex Theodosius 9. 41. 1., in Schmidt, p. 51.

7 Republic, 5.461, in Schmidt, p. 56.

8 Schmidt, p. 57.

9 Galations 5: 20; Revelation 21: 8; the Didache, an early Christian document of teaching forbid abortion. See Schmidt, pp. 57-58.

10 Schmidt, p. 60.

11 Exodus 20: 13. The positive command was to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

12 Schmidt, p. 68.

13 Schmidt, p. 72.

14 Schmidt, p. 84.

15 Schmidt, p. 86.

16 Romans 1:27; Jude 7;

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