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Rise of Christianity



  According to the Biblical account, JESUS OF NAZARETH was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod (who died in 4 B.C.) rather than in the year that traditionally begins the Christian era.

After spending the first years of his life as a carpenter in the village of Nazareth, Jesus began his brief MISSION, preaching a gospel of love for one's fellow man and urging people to "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17).

The fame of Jesus' teaching and holiness spread among the Jews as he and his twelve disciples traveled from village to village in Palestine. When he came to Jerusalem to serve the feast of the Passover, he was welcomed triumphantly by huge crowds as the promised MESSIAH. But Jesus was concerned with a SPIRITUAL, NOT AN EARTHLY, KINGDOM, and when the people saw that he had no intention of leading a nationalistic movement against the Romans, they turned against him.

His ENEMIES then came forward:

The moneylenders whom he had denounced
The Pharisees who resented his repudiation of their minute regulations of daily behavior
The people who considered him a disturber of the status quo
Thos who saw him as a blasphemer of Yahweh.

Betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples, Jesus was condemned by the Sanhedrin for BLASPHEMY "because he claimed to be the Son of God" (John 19:7). Before the procurator Pontius Pilate, however, Jesus was charged with TREASON for claiming to be the king of Jews. Jesus was condemned to the death that Rome inflicted on criminals -- crucifixion.

With Jesus' death it seemed as though his cause had died. NO WRITTEN MESSAGE had been left behind, and his few loyal followers were disheartened. Yet in the wake of his martyrdom the Christian cause took on new impetus. REPORTS SOON SPREAD that Jesus had been seen after his crucifixion and had spoken to his disciples, giving them solace and inspiration.

At first there were few CONVERTS within Palestine itself, but the Hellenized Jews living in foreign lands, in contact with new ideas and modes of living, were less firmly committed to traditional Jewish doctrines. The new religion first made real headway among the Jewish communities in such cities as DAMASCUS, ANTIOCH, CORINTH, AND ROME.

PAUL'S MISSIONARY WORK   If followers of Jesus had been required to observe the Jewish Law, the new religion would have had no UNIVERSAL APPEAL. This obstacle was removed through the missionary efforts of Paul.

Born Saul, of strict Jewish ancestry, and raised in a Hellenistic city in Asia Minor, this Christian saint possessed a wide knowledge of Greek culture. Saul was also a strict Pharisee who considered Christians to be blasphemers against the Law and took an active part in their persecution. One day, ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS -- in Saul's own words:

And as I was traveling and coming near Damascus, about midday a bright light suddenly flashed from the sky around me.  I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, "Saul, Saul. Why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" I asked. "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you persecute," he said to me. The men with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, "What shall I do, Lord?" and the Lord said to me, "Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told everything that God has determined for you.

Saul, henceforth known as Paul, turned from being a persecutor into the greatest of Christian missionaries.

Paul taught that Jesus was the Christ (from CHRISTOS, Greek for Messiah), the Son of God, and that He had died to atone for the sins of mankind.

Acceptance of this belief guaranteed salvation to JEWS AND GENTILES alike. The Law, with its strict dietary regulations and other requirements that discouraged the conversion of gentiles, was unnecessary.
According to Paul, a man is put right with God only through FAITH in Jesus Christ, never by doing what the Law requires. . . .So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women: you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.

After covering 8,000 miles teaching and preaching, Paul was beheaded at Rome about 65 A.D. (as was also Peter, founder of the church at Rome) during the reign of Nero. By this time Christian communities had already been established in all important cities of the Roman Empire.

  The Roman government tolerated any religion that did not threaten the safety or tranquility of the Empire. Christianity, however, clearly appeared to be a subversive danger to society and the state and so Christian were persecuted.
Tolerance   In 311 the emperor Galerius recognized that persecution had failed and issued an EDICT OF TOLERATION making Christianity a legal religion in the East.
Legalization   In the following year, the emperor CONSTANTINE was swayed toward Christianity during a desperate battle with the army of a rival for the throne.
At the height of the conflict, tradition has it that he saw emblazoned across the sky a cross with the words "In hoc signo vinces" (By this sign thou shalt conquer).
Constantine won the battle, and in 313 he issued the EDICT OF MILAN, which legalized Christianity throughout the Empire and put it on a par with all the pagan cults.
Constantine favored Christianity by granting many privileges to the Church, but he waited until he was on his deathbed before receiving baptism. His successors, with one exception, were Christian.
Official Recognition   The final step in the triumph of Christianity was taken during the reign of Theodosius I (379-395), who made Christianity the OFFICIAL RELIGION of the Empire. Henceforth paganism was persecuted.


  Viewing the present world as something that would end quickly with the imminent Second Coming of their Lord, the earliest converts saw no necessity for organization. But after it became clear that the Second Coming had been postponed, a definite Church organization began to emerge.
At first, there was little or no distinction between LAITY AND CLERGY. Traveling teachers visited Christian communities, preaching and giving advice where needed.
Church Officials  
The steady growth in the number of Christians made necessary SPECIAL CHURCH OFFICIALS who could devote all their time to religious work, clarifying the body of Christian dogma, conducting services, and caring for the funds.
The earliest officials were called PRESBYTERS (elders) or BISHOPS (overseers).
The bishops were recognized as the SUCCESSORS OF THE APOSTLES and, like them, the guardians of Christian teaching and tradition.
Churches in the villages adjacent to the mother Church, which was usually located in a city, were administered by PRIESTS responsible to a bishop.
Territorial Divisions  
The DIOCESE  was a territorial division under the jurisdiction of a bishop.
A number of dioceses made up a PROVINCE. The bishop of the most important city in each province was known as an ARCHBISHOP.
The provinces were grouped into larger administrative divisions called PATRIARCHIES. The title of patriarch was applied to the bishop of such great cities as Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria.
Primacy of the Bishop of Rome   A development of outstanding importance was the rise of the bishop of Rome to a position of preeminence in the hierarchy of the Church.
At first only one of several patriarchs, the Roman bishop gradually became recognized as the leader of the Church in the West with the title of POPE -- from the Greek word meaning "father."
Many factors explain the emergence of the papacy at Rome.
As the largest city in the West and the capital of the Empire, Rome had a PRESTIGE  that was transferred to its bishop.
When the Empire in the West collapsed in the fifth century, the bishop of Rome emerged as a STABLE and dominant figure looked up to by all.

The primacy of Rome was fully evident during the pontificate of LEO I, called the Great (440-461).

Provided the LEADERSHIP that saved Italy from invasion by the Huns.
Formulated the major theoretical argument for papal supremacy in the Church -- the PETRINE THEORY.
This doctrine held that since PETER, whom Christ had made leader of the apostles, was the first bishop of Rome, his authority over all Christians was handed on to his successors at Rome.
The Church in the East, insisting on the equality of all the apostles, has never accepted the Petrine Theory.
Regular and Secular Clergy   There were two types of clergy.
The SECULAR CLERGY moved through the world (saeculum) administering the Church's services and communicating its teachings to the laity. 
The REGULAR CLERGY, so called because they lived by a rule (regula) within monasteries. These monks sought seclusion from the distractions of the world in order to prepare themselves for the next.
Monasticism   The monastic way of life was older than Christianity (e.g., the Essenes).
Christian ascetics, who had abandoned the worldly life and become HERMITS, could be found in the East as early as the third century A.D.
Some went to far as to denounce even beauty as evil and, in pursuit of spiritual perfection by SUBORDINATING THEIR FLESH, tortured themselves and fasted to excess.

As a more moderate expression of asceticism, Christians in Egypt developed the monastic life, wherein men seeking a common spiritual goal lived together under a common set of regulations.

ST. BASIL (330-379), a Greek bishop in Asia Minor, drew up a rule based on work, charity and a communal life in which, however, each month retained most of his independence.
The rule of St. Basil became the standard system in the eastern Church.

In western monasticism the work of ST. BENEDICT (c. 480-543) paralleled St. Basil's efforts.

About 529, St. Benedict led a band of followers to a hill between Rome and Naples, named Monte Cassino, where they erected a monastery on the site of an ancient pagan temple.
There he composed a rule which gave ORDER AND DISCIPLINE to western monasticism.
Benedictine monks took the three basic vows of POVERTY, CHASTITY, AND OBEDIENCE To the abbot, the head of the monastery.
Unlike eastern monks, the daily activities of the Benedictine monks were CLOSELY REGULATED: they participated in eight divine services, labored in field or workshop for six or seven hours, and spent about two hours studying and preserving the writings of Latin antiquity at a time when chaos and illiteracy had overtaken the western half of the Roman Empire.
Benedictine monasticism was to be the most dynamic CIVILIZING FORCE in western Europe between the sixth and the twelfth centuries.
FORMULATION OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE   While the administrative structure of the Church was being erected, Christian beliefs were being defined and systematized.
This process of fixing the dogma began with Paul, who stressed the DIVINITY OF JESUS and interpreted his death as an ATONEMENT for man's sins.
In time differences of option over doctrinal matters caused clashes. One of the most important controversies was over ARIANISM.
At issue was the relative position of the three persons of the Trinity -- God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
The view that the Father and the Son were equal was vigorously denied by Aires (256-336), a priest of Alexandria.
He believed that Christ was not fully God because he was not of a substance identical with God.
As a created being, the Son was not coeternal with the Father.
First Church Council



Nicene Creed

The controversy became so serious that in 325, the emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical Church council, the COUNCIL OF NICAEA, to resolve the problem:
With Constantine presiding, the council branded the Arian belief a heresy -- an opinion or doctrine contrary to the official teachings of the Church -- and Christ was declared to be of the same substance as God, uncreated, and coeternal with Him.
This mystical concept of the Trinity, without which the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation would be undermined, received official formulation in the NICENE CREED.
Despite persecution, Arianism continued to flourish throughout the fourth century.
Simple Liturgy  
The LITURGY in the early churches was plain and simple, consisting of prayer, Scripture, reading, hymns, and preaching. 
Church the Intermediary  
The early Christian worshipped God and sought salvation largely through his own efforts. Following the growth of Church organization and dogma, however, the Church was believed to be the indispensable INTERMEDIARY between God and man. Without the Church, the individual could not hope to approach God.
Church Fathers Define Dogma

Christianity and  Greek Philosophy Compatible

  The development of the Church's dogma owed much to the Church Fathers of the second through fifth centuries.
Since most of them were intellectuals who came to Christianity by way of Neo-Platonism and Stoicism, they maintained that Greek philosophy and Christianity were compatible.
Because reason (logos in Greek) and truth come from God, "philosophy was a preparation," wrote Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), paving the way towards perfection in Christ.
Thus Christianity was viewed as a superior philosophy which could supersede all pagan philosophies and religions.

In the West three Church Fathers stand out.

Vulgate Translation of Bible into Latin  
The scholarship of ST. JEROME (340-420) made possible the famous VULGATE TRANSLATION of the Bible into Latin. This is still the official translation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Church's Superiority Over the State

ST. AMBROSE (340-397) resigned his government post to become bishop of Milan, where he employed his great administrative skills to establish a model bishopric. By reproving the actions of the strong emperor Theodosius I and forcing him to do public penance, St. Ambrose was the first to assert the CHURCH'S SUPERIORITY OVER THE STATE in spiritual matters.


Foundation for Church Theology

St. Augustine (354-430) was probably the most important of all the Church Fathers.
At the Age of thirty-two, he found in Christianity the answer to his long search for meaning in life, as he relates in his Confessions, one of the world's great autobiographies.
As bishop of Hippo in North Africa, he wrote more than a hundred religious works which became the foundation FOR  Church theology.
Pliny on the Christians: Letters from Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan in the 1st century A.D. regarding his first encounter with Christians.
Diocletian: Edicts Against the Christians: Details of the events leading up to decrees, as well as of the cruelty involved in their  execution.
Edicts of Toleration: Galerius' and Constantine's 4th century A.D. edicts of toleration.
Leo I: The Petrine Doctrine: Statement indicating that St. Peter's work is carried on by his successors.
The Rule of St. Benedict: Excerpts from the Rule of St. Benedict giving details of monastic life.
Augustine: Account of His Own Conversion: Augustine's account of his search for truth which ended with God.
What characteristics of Christianity contributed to its success?
How did theological controversies contribute to establishing Christian dogma and order within the Church?
Why was monasticism an important institution? What were the characteristics of monasticism? Why was the Benedictine rule so important?


Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999