The Rise of Christianity (Article)
The rise of Christianity ultimately changed the face of western civilization. However, before it was embraced by both the emperor and citizens of the Roman Empire, it had to endure decades of persecution, even death. This would all begin to change with the acceptance and conversion of the 4th-century CE emperor Constantine I. However, Christianity only became the official religion of the empire under Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE).
The origin of Christianity
Three centuries before the rise of Christianity the Middle Eastern culture underwent a profound transformation with the arrival of Alexander the Great and the advent of Hellenism. Many within the Jewish community found these changes to be agreeable until the provinces fell under the auspices of Rome in the 1st century BCE. Inept and greedy provincial governors caused both cultural and religious controversy throughout the region. It was a time of emerging political rebellion and as stated by historian Norman Cantor, a period of “spiritual ferment” (36). This insurgence brought to the forefront a number of roaming ministers throughout Judea.
Although he was later to be beheaded by King Herod, one of these itinerant preachers was John the Baptist who foretold of the coming of “one greater than he was” (Cantor, 36). Jesus quickly came to the attention of the Roman authorities. In the minds of the Romans, Jesus Christ, a man who spoke of peace and was sensitive to the plight of the poor, fulfilled this prophecy. Among the many incompetent and ambitious governors was one Pontius Pilate who viewed Jesus as being subversive and fearing his potential impact on Judea had him crucified “like a common criminal” (Cantor, 37). Changes were not immediate and many of the new Christians, being viewed only as a small Jewish sect, remained loyal to the Torah. This was to change when an unconventional rabbi named Saul or Paul of Tarsus began to transform the beliefs and practices of these new Christians. This transformation would eventually cause a deep divide between Christianity and Judaism and as stated by Cantor “accounts for the intense anti-Semitism that became enshrined in Christianity by 200 AD” (38).
Paul remade Jesus into a savior, making Christianity “a universal religion” (Cantor, 37) open to all; Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), freedmen and slaves, as well as men and women. Like John the Baptist, his message angered those in Rome, and he was brought up on the charges of being subversive. Because he was a Roman citizen, he requested to be tried in Rome; this request could not be denied. However, the change in venue would not save him, and he was still found guilty, dying there in 66 CE, with the exact details of his death unknown. Over time, Christianity began to develop a separate identity, away from Judaism. This could be seen through two of its fundamental rites – baptism (as had been practiced by John the Baptist) and the Eucharist (the eating of a wafer and the drinking of wine, a practice symbolizing the flesh and blood of Jesus).
the religious landscape of the empire
After the death of Paul and with their numbers continuing to gradually increase, this new religion could not escape the full attention of Roman officials. While still being viewed as a cult – similar to that of Bacchus, Isis, or Cybele – Rome sought to forestall new converts by accusing Christians as practicing deviant, cannibalistic, and incestuous rites. Seen as a threat to the state and a challenge to the empire’s long-established customs, Christianity was the only religion Rome ever attempted to eradicate, and it backfired. Instead of exterminating Christianity, it caused the new religion to expand even further. The old state religion of Jupiter and his kindred which had not changed for decades was losing its appeal. In the past Rome had been fairly tolerant of the religious practices of those areas they conquered; however, the Christians were different. While other conquered people respected the ways of Rome, the Christians refused, and since Christians were visible throughout the empire, they were much harder to suppress or control.
Within the Christian community, there were the usual misfits; Gnosticism and Arianism were two of the more prominent. The Gnostics – a term used for several small sects – broke away from their fellow Christians in the 2nd century CE. Among their objections was a strong reaction to the concept of original sin. Furthermore, many of the followers did not believe one required the intermediation of a church for salvation. A form of Gnosticism, Manichaeism, founded in the 3rd century CE, was seen as subversive by Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE) and suppressed by legislation. Although popular with the Goths, Arianism, condemned in 325 CE, believed in the subordination of God the Son to God the father. Its founder was later exonerated in 335 CE but, after his death, pronounced a heretic again.
Lastly, while not associated with Christianity and seen as a rival, the followers of the Indo-Iranian god, Mithras, were a cult that flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Found throughout the empire, his male followers – the cult appealed to freedmen and slaves (as well as many in the military) – met in underground temples for fellowship. There were a number of initiation ceremonies where, according to Cantor, their followers were bathed in the blood of a bull.
Beneath the accusations of the Romans was the true reason for their fears, the Christians’ opposition to the imperial cult, which began after the death of Emperor Augustus in 14 CE. While he resisted the Senate’s early attempts to name him a god during his reign – although he always thought himself the son of a god, not a god – the Roman Senate rewarded him with deification posthumously. It was an honor that would be bestowed upon many of his successors with a few exceptions, notably Nero and Caligula. Many outspoken Christians ridiculed the divine status of the emperor, refusing to celebrate during the festivals or make sacrifices at the temples. With its opposition to the imperial cult and the continued attacks coming from Rome, Christianity became more and more attractive. In the eyes of many converts, Jesus had witnessed the suffering of the people and opposed established authority.
While there were some in Rome who saw no initial threat in the Christians because their numbers were still relatively small, the growing panic that this new ever-increasing cult brought eventually took a new direction and the persecution of Christians began. Roman emperor Nero (54 -68 CE), seeing his reign unraveling before his eyes, sought to eradicate them and declared the religion illegal, even blaming them for the burning of Rome in 64 CE. In his The Twelve Caesars Roman historian Suetonius only made a brief statement concerning Nero’s treatment of the Christians. While addressing the emperor’s suppression of public abuses, he added, “Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief” (217).
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace…Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired. (380–381)
Pliny the Younger, when he was the governor of Bythinia, grew alarmed at the increasing number of Christians within his province, viewing them as perverse. He sought the advice of the emperor Trajan (98–117 CE) asking if it was a crime to be a Christian. As Rome generally let the provincials run their own affairs, Pliny had already taken it upon himself to execute a number of Christians who refused to recant their beliefs. (Roman citizens who were Christian had to be sent to Rome for trial.) While the emperor did not authorize executions, he simply replied that they must not be “hunted down.” However, if they refused to recant, they must be punished.
There were many devoted followers who were more than willing to accept death for their faith, unwilling to recant their beliefs. Although some authors dispute the final numbers, most people have heard or seen depictions of Christians being sacrificed to the lions in the arenas across the empire. To be sure the audiences were not disappointed; the lions (sometimes bears, bulls, or leopards) would have been caged and starved before entering the arena. Although how many died in the arenas in unknown, there are countless instances where Christians were executed. A bishop in Nicomedia who rejected Diocletian’s edict was beheaded. In 111 CE 50 Christians in Lyon were sacrificed to wild beasts. The bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was burned at the stake for refusing to recant. Lastly, as in cities throughout the empire, in 180 CE in the North African city of Carthage, a relatively small group of Christians were condemned to die, unwilling to recant. In their minds, they were simply following the example of Jesus. And, with every other attempt made to discredit or eliminate Christianity, the Romans failed.
A major factor that contributed to the rise of Christianity was a gradual change in Roman paganism.
As Christianity continued to generate new converts, the persecutions persisted. In 250 CE Emperor Decius made an attempt to suppress the spread of Christianity when he ordered that all citizens of the Roman Empire must make sacrifices at the temples and obtain a certificate. Numerous attempts were made to enforce the edict and these orders remained in effect until the defeat and death of Emperor Valerian in 260 CE. Like his predecessor, the emperor had issued multiple edicts seizing church property and forcing Church clergy to make sacrifices at the temples or face either banishment or possible execution. Emperor Gallienus, Valerian’s son and successor, rescinded his father’s edicts, granting Christians the right to worship as they pleased. However, threats like those of Decius and Valerian only brought more converts to Christianity.
A major factor that contributed to the rise of Christianity was a gradual change in Roman paganism, their strict adherence to a pantheon of gods. By the mid-2nd century CE, during the reign of Antonius Pius, the old established Roman polytheism that had existed for centuries seemed to be in decline; the old gods meant little in an individual’s life. In an ever-expanding empire old temples became less a religious shrine and more a civic center. The empire was inching further and further away from many of the outdated ideas. However, this decline of the old would not necessarily bring an immediate acceptance of the new.
Under Diocletian’s reign (284-305 CE) Christianity was to take one giant step backward. Although he was initially neutral on the subject of this new religion, the emperor (his wife was Christian) wanted stability and that meant a return to the more traditional gods of Rome. From his capital of Nicomedia, he would put the entire weight of his throne behind the revival of the old pagan religion, outlawing what he viewed as a deviant cult. In 303 CE, all meetings were abolished, clergymen were imprisoned, books and treasures seized, and anyone who refused to cooperate and obey the edicts was executed. However, part of the problem stemmed from Diocletian’s belief that he considered himself a living god, demanding people prostrate themselves before him and kiss the hem of his robe.
Throughout what became known as the Great Persecution, most Christians refused to yield and sacrifice to the old Roman gods. Leading members of the clergy were arrested and ordered to sacrifice or die. Finally, any Christian who refused was tortured and killed. Cawthorne wrote about how cruel Diocletian was towards the Christians: “… one way or another, slow, painful, humiliating death was in store for them. They were hacked to pieces, burned to death, or perforated with a stake. Spikes, pincers, and iron claws would be used to tear the flesh… (22)” The Great Persecution would last until the final days of the reign of Emperor Galerius and his Edict of Toleration in 311 CE. There were some who recanted, but these people soon ran afoul of the clergy. The Donatists who emerged after a split with the African Church during the reign of Diocletian viewed them as traitors.
Despite the persecution or possibly because of it, the Church continued to grow. It would see its greatest advocate in Emperor Constantine I. At the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, the future emperor supposedly had a vision; in the sky above him appeared a simple cross with the words “In Hoc Signo Vinces” or “In this sign, you will conquer” beneath it. According to legend, Christ visited him in a dream telling him that he must carry the sign of the cross into battle. The following morning he sent his men with crosses on their shields, and they were victorious.
Upon his ascension to a unified throne – combining the east and west – he began to undo what Diocletian had done. After moving his capital to the more strategic Byzantium (it would later be renamed Constantinople after his death), he ordered confiscated property to be returned and while he aided in the construction of pagan temples, he rebuilt destroyed churches and ordered new ones constructed in both New Rome (his name for Byzantium) as well as old Rome. Oddly, his ornate palace was dedicated to the Roman gods of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
While he tolerated certain pagan practices, sacrifices were outlawed, gladiatorial contests ended, and crucifixions were abolished. His views on marriage and the family were also heavily influenced by Christian doctrine. Lastly, in 325 CE the emperor invited church clergy from across the empire to meet at Nicaea where he made a plea for unity. Although the issues would continue well into the reigns of his sons, the result of the meeting was a clarification on Church doctrine as well as the condemnation of Arianism and the creation of the Nicene Creed. Although his mother, Helena, was a Christian, most agree that he did not receive his conversion until he lay on his deathbed.
There were those who tried to get Christians to absorb the classical heritage of the Graeco-Roman culture. In the 3rd century CE, many Christians espoused the ideas of Neo-Platonism, where one could use reason to show a link between the invisible spiritual world and the visible material world. However, according to historian Peter Heather,
Christianity was in some sense a democratizing and equalizing force. It insisted that everybody, no matter what his economic or social status, had a soul and an equal stake in the cosmic drama of salvation… All of this ran contrary to the aristocratic values of Graeco-Roman culture, with its claim that true civilization could only be attained by the man with enough wealth and leisure… (121-122)
By the end of the 4th century CE, Christianity would triumph over Roman paganism. Despite the ascension of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor, Christianity was all but legally recognized as the religion of the empire. Emperor Theodosius I ordered the closure of all pagan temples and the removal of the statue of the goddess Victory from the Senate House. By the mid-5th century CE the Roman Senate was thoroughly Christian.
Christian Church in the Early Middle Ages
With the demise of the empire in the west and the loss of the emperor, the bishop of Rome became more and more powerful and would, for centuries, influence both the political, social, and religious life throughout Europe. Future rulers such as Charlemagne would owe their reign as the “Holy Roman Emperor” to the church in Rome. Charlemagne even led the massacre of 4,500 Saxon leaders in 782 CE. They were beheaded for practicing paganism after officially converting to Christianity and undergoing baptism because Charlemagne sought to demonstrate his authority and the seriousness of the offense.
In the east, however, the Byzantine emperor held rule over both the empire and the church. To these people, the emperor had been chosen by God. Eventually, in the 8th century CE, Leo III would outlaw the use of icons (religious images and pictures) as a form of idolatry. With the Roman pope opposing the idea, the concept of “iconoclasm” created a rift between east and west which would never be repaired; Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy became separate.
Christianity had grown from a small cult to the official religion of the Roman Empire. It withstood persecution and grew mostly due to its appeal to the common people who were unable to connect with the old Roman gods. Christianity served a vital role in the community with its belief in charity to the poor, especially widows and orphans. It appealed to people from all walks of life, men and women, slaves and freedmen. Unable to identify with Roman paganism, the average person could easily relate to a humble man who spoke of peace while rebelling against an oppressive authority. It affected the physical appearance of the cities with the building of its churches and shrines. Jerusalem became a wealthy and prominent city for pilgrimage and tourism as well as a site of war during the Crusades.
The decline of the western empire in the 5th century CE did not affect Christianity although there are some who believe the religion may have contributed to the empire’s decline. By the fall of Rome, Christianity had been fully entrenched in the east. In the west men such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Benedict (ushering in a new monastic lifestyle of sacrifice and obedience) and Boethius would appear to interpret church doctrine.