The soil in which Christianity came to flower was an amalgam of many local traditions. The Greco-Roman world was polytheistic, dominated by strongly secular values. Throughout the East Roman Empire, more mystical forms of worship—the mystery cults—honored a variety of gods and goddesses associated with fertility and regeneration. Finally, in the birthplace of Jesus himself, the Hebrews practiced an exclusive form of ethical monotheism. The faith that would come to be called Christianity had roots in these three major traditions: Greco-Roman, Near Eastern, and Jewish.
The Greco-Roman Background
Roman religion, like Roman culture itself, was a blend of native and borrowed traditions. Ancient pagan religious rituals marked seasonal change and celebrated seedtime and harvest. Augury, the interpretation of omens (a practice borrowed from the Etruscans), was important to Roman religious life as a means of predicting future events. As with the Greeks, Rome’s favorite deities were looked upon as protectors of the household, the marketplace, and the state. The Romans welcomed the gods of non-Roman peoples and honored them along with the greater and lesser Roman gods. This tolerance contributed to the lack of religious uniformity in the Empire, as well as to wide speculation concerning the possibility of life after death. Roman poets pictured a shadowy underworld in which the souls of the dead survived (similar to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol), but Roman religion promised neither retribution in the afterlife nor the reward of eternal life.
Throughout much of the Near East, agricultural societies celebrated seasonal change by way of symbolic performances of the birth, death, and rebirth of the gods. The cults of Isis in Egypt, Cybele in Phrygia, Dionysus in Greece, and Mithra in Persia are known collectively as “mystery cults,” because their initiation rituals were secret (mysterios). These cults embraced symbolic acts of spiritual death and rebirth, such as ritual baptism and a communal meal at which the flesh and blood of the god was consumed. Mithraism, the most widespread of the mystery cults, looked back to ancient Persia’s Zoroastrian belief in the rival forces of Light and Dark (Good and Evil) (see page 15). Devotees of Mithra, the god of light, anticipated spiritual deliverance and everlasting life. Mithraism required strict initiation rites, periods of fasting, ritual baptism, and a communal meal of bread and wine. Mithra’s followers celebrated his birth on December 25th, that is, at the winter solstice that marked the sun’s annual “rebirth.” The cult of Mithraism excluded women but was enormously popular among Roman soldiers, who identified with Mithra’s heroic prowess and self-discipline.
Judea Before Jesus
The young Jewish preacher and healer known as Joshua (Greek, Jesus ) was born in the city of Bethlehem during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. The territory in which he lived had become the Roman province of Judea in 63 B.C.E., when Pompey had captured Jerusalem. These were troubled times for the Jewish population—the Romans required imperial taxes and loyalty to the emperor, while monotheistic Judaism forbade the worship of Rome’s ruler and its gods. The spiritual values of a deeply religious community were now threatened by the militant forces of the most powerful secular empire in history. It is no wonder that the Roman presence in Judea stirred mutual animosity and discord, conditions that would culminate in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Second Temple in 70 C.E
There was discord as well within the Jewish community, as rabbis debated the meaning of certain parts of Scripture. Many awaited the arrival of a Messiah (Greek, Christos), the deliverer anticipated by the Hebrew prophets. The Sadducees, a group of Jews who followed a strict and literal interpretation of the Torah, envisioned the Messiah as a temporal leader who would rescue the Jews from political bondage to Rome. Others, whose beliefs reflected the religious traditions of the mystery cults of ancient Egypt and Persia, looked forward to deliverance in the form of liberation of the immortal soul from the earthly body. The Pharisees, a scribal class of rabbis, anticipated the advent of a spiritual redeemer who would usher the righteous to eternal salvation and the wicked to damnation. The Essenes, a minor religious all-male sect living in small monastic communities near the Dead Sea, renounced worldly possessions and practiced a life of strict self-denial. These ascetics may have been responsible for the preservation of 942 texts, including some of the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible—the Dead Sea Scrolls (so named for having been found in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea), fragments of which forecast an apocalyptic age marked by the coming of a Teacher of Truth. In Judea, then, the climate of religious expectation was altogether receptive to the appearance of a charismatic leader.
The Coming of Jesus
The historical Jesus is an elusive figure. His name is not mentioned in the non-Christian literature until almost the end of the first century C.E.. The Christian writings that describe his life and teaching, known as the Gospels (literally “Good News”), date from at least forty years after his death. And since the Gospel authors or evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—gave most of their attention to the last months of Jesus’ life, these books are not biographies in the full sense of the word. Nevertheless, the Gospels recount the revelations of God to Jesus, the first of which occurs after Jesus is baptized by John at the River Jordan in Galilee: “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water,” writes Matthew, “and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ ” (Matthew 3:16–17)
Written in Greek and Aramaic, the Gospels describe the life of an inspired teacher and healer—a charismatic reformer of Judaism, who proclaimed his mission to “complete” Hebrew law and the lessons of the prophets. While the message of Jesus embraced the ethical demands of traditional Judaism, it gave new emphasis to the virtues of pacifism and antimaterialism. It warned of the perils of wealth and the temptations of the secular world. In simple and direct language, embellished with parables (stories that illustrated a moral), Jesus urged the renunciation of material goods (“do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth”), not simply as a measure of freedom from temporal enslavement, but as preparation for eternal life and ultimate reward in “the kingdom of heaven.” Criticizing the Judaism of his day, with its emphasis on strict observance of ritual, Jesus stressed the fundamentals of faith and compassion that lay at the heart of the Hebrew covenant: love of God and love of one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:34–40). The God of this new revelation was stern but merciful, loving, and forgiving. In the landmark Sermon on the Mount, as recorded by Matthew, Jesus sets forth the injunctions of an uncompromising ethic: Love your neighbor as yourself, accept persecution with humility, pass no judgment on others, and treat others as you would have them treat you. This ideal, unconditional love is linked to an equally lofty directive: “You must . . . be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Word of the Jewish preacher from Nazareth, his family home, and stories of his miraculous acts of healing spread like wildfire throughout Judea. While the Roman authorities viewed his presence in Jerusalem as subversive, the Pharisees and the Sadducees accused Jesus of violating Jewish law. Many Jews also questioned his legitimacy as the biblical Messiah. Finally, the Romans condemned him as a threat to imperial stability. By the authority of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus was put to death by crucifixion, the humiliating and horrific public punishment dispensed to thieves and traitors to Rome. All four of the gospels report that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after his death, and that he appeared to his disciples before ascending into heaven. This event, the resurrection of Jesus, became fundamental to the Christian faith. In the earliest representations of Jesus, however, it is not his death on the Cross, nor the reports of his miraculous resurrection, but his role as redeemer and protector—hence as Good Shepherd—that is immortalized (see Figure 4.6).
Paul: Co-Founder of Christianity
The immediate followers of Jesus, a group of disciples or apostles, claimed not only that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, but also that this resurrection anticipated a Second Coming in which all who followed the Messiah would be delivered to the Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the missionary activities of the apostles, only a small part of the Judean population—scholars estimate between 10 and 15 percent—became “Christians,” that is, followers of Jesus, in the first hundred years after his death. However, through the efforts of the best known of the apostles, Paul (d. 65 C.E..), the view of Jesus as a reformer of Judaism gave way to an image of him as Redeemer and Son of God, and the fledgling sect of Christians was transformed into a new and vibrant faith.
THE SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY
The last great Roman emperors, Diocletian (245–316 C.E.) and Constantine (ca. 274–337 C.E.), made valiant efforts to restructure the Empire and reverse military and economic decline. Resolved to govern Rome’s sprawling territories more efficiently, Diocletian divided the Empire into western and eastern halves and appointed a coemperor to share the burden of administration and defense. After Diocletian retired, Constantine levied new taxes and made unsuccessful efforts to revive a money economy. However, in 330 C.E., having failed to breathe new life into the waning Empire, he moved the seat of power from the beleaguered city of Rome to the eastern capital of the Empire, Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople (modern Istanbul). This city Constantine envisioned as “the new Rome.”
A variety of historical factors contributed to the slow but growing receptivity to Christianity within the Roman Empire. The decline of the Roman Republic had left in its wake large gaps between the rich and the poor. Augustus’ efforts to restore the old Roman values of duty and civic pride had failed to offset increasing impersonalism and bureaucratic corruption. Furthermore, as early as the second century B.C.E., Germanic tribes had been migrating into the West and assaulting Rome’s borders. Repeatedly, these nomadic people put Rome on the defensive and added to the prevailing sense of insecurity. Amid widespread oppression and grinding poverty, Christianity promised redemption from sins, personal immortality, and a life to come from which material adversity was absent. The message of Jesus was easy to understand and free of cumbersome regulations (characteristic of Judaism) and costly rituals (characteristic of the mystery cults), and, in contrast to Mithraism, it was accessible to all—male and female, rich and poor, free and enslaved. The unique feature of the new faith, however, was its historical credibility, that is, the fact that Jesus—unlike the elusive gods of the mystery cults or the remote Hebrew god—had actually lived among men and women and had practiced the morality he preached. The spread of Christianity was helped by the evangelical fervor of the apostles, the common language of Greek in the eastern part of the Empire, and the fact that the Pax Romana facilitated safe travel by land and sea.
At the outset, however, the new religion failed to win official approval. While both Roman religion and the mystery cults were receptive to many gods, Christianity—like Judaism—professed monotheism. Christians not only refused to worship the emperor as divine but also denied the existence of the Roman gods. Even more threatening to the state was the Christian refusal to serve in the Roman army. While the Romans dealt with the Jews by destroying Jerusalem, how might they annihilate a people whose kingdom was in heaven? During the first century, Christian converts were simply expelled from the city of Rome, but during the late third century—a time of famine, plague, and war—Christians who refused to make sacrifices to the Roman gods of state suffered horrific forms of persecution: They were tortured, burned, beheaded, or thrown to wild beasts in the public amphitheaters. Christian martyrs astonished Roman audiences by going to their deaths joyously proclaiming their anticipation of a better life in the hereafter.
Not until 313 C.E., when the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, did the public persecution of Christians come to an end. The Edict, which proclaimed religious toleration in the West, not only liberated Christians from physical and political oppression, but also encouraged the development of Christianity as a legitimate faith. Christian leaders were free to establish a uniform doctrine of belief, an administrative hierarchy, guidelines for worship, and a symbolic vocabulary of religious expression. By the end of the fourth century C.E., the minor religious sect called Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The Christian Identity
In the first centuries after the death of Jesus, there was considerable diversity of belief and practice among those who called themselves Christians. But after the legalization of the faith in 313 C.E., the followers of Jesus moved toward resolving the issues of leadership, doctrine, and liturgy. In an effort to resolve disagreements on such issues, Constantine invited bishops throughout the empire to attend an ecumenical (worldwide) council, which met at Nicaea, near Constantinople, in 325 C.E. At the Council of Nicaea, a consensus of opinion among church members laid the basis for Christian doctrine in the landmark Nicene Creed—a statement of Christian belief in such miraculous phenomena as virgin birth, the resurrection of the dead, and a mystical Trinity (the union of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in a single divine Godhead)
The Latin Church Fathers
In the formation of Christian dogma (prescribed body of doctrines) and liturgy in the West, the most important figures were four Latin scholars who lived between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E.: Jerome, Ambrose, Gregory, and Augustine. Saint Jerome (ca. 347–420 C.E.), a Christian educated in Rome, translated into Latin both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek books of the New Testament. This mammoth task resulted in the Vulgate, the Latin edition of Scripture that became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Although Jerome considered pagan culture a distraction from the spiritual life, he admired the writers of Classical antiquity and did not hesitate to plunder the spoils of Classicism to build the edifice of a new faith.
Like Jerome, Ambrose (339–397 C.E.) fused Hebrew, Greek, and Southwest Asian traditions in formulating Christian doctrine and liturgy. A Roman aristocrat who became bishop of Milan, Ambrose wrote some of the earliest Christian hymns for congregational use.
The contribution of the Roman aristocrat Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604 C.E.) was vital to the development of early Church government. Elected as pope in 590 C.E., Gregory established the administrative machinery by which all subsequent popes would govern the Church of Rome. A born organizer, Gregory sent missionaries to convert England to Christianity, and he extended the temporal authority of the Roman Church throughout Western Europe. Despite a lack of historical evidence, Gregory’s name is associated with the codification of the body of chants that became the liturgical music of the early Church (see Figure 4.1).
The most profound and influential of all the Latin church fathers was Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.). A native of Roman Africa, Augustine converted to Christianity at the age of thirty-three. Intellectually, he came under the spell of both Paul and Plotinus, a third-century C.E. Egyptian-born Neoplatonist. His treatises on the nature of the soul, free will, and the meaning of evil made him the greatest philosopher of Christian antiquity. Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine had enjoyed a sensual and turbulent youth, marked by womanizing, gambling, and fathering an illegitimate child. Augustine’s lifelong conflict between his love of worldly pleasures, dominated by what he called his “lower self,” and his love of God, exercised by the “higher part of our nature,” is the focus of his fascinating and self-scrutinizing autobiography, known as the Confessions (ca. 400 C.E.) In the Confessions, Augustine makes a fundamental distinction between physical and spiritual modes of personal experience. His perception of the human being as the site of warring elements—the “unclean body” and the “purified soul”—drew heavily on the Neoplatonist duality of Matter and Spirit and on the Pauline promise that the sin of Adam might be cleansed by the sacrifice of Jesus. Augustine’s dualistic model—matter and spirit, body and soul, earth and heaven, Satan and God, state and Church—governed Western thought for centuries. The conception of the visible world (matter) as an imperfect reflection of the divine order (spirit) determined the allegorical character of Christian culture. According to this model, matter was the matrix in which God’s message was hidden. In Scripture, and in every natural and created thing, God’s invisible order might be discovered. For Augustine, the Hebrew Bible was a symbolic guide to Christian belief, and history itself was a cloaked message of divine revelation.