Studying Christianity historically brings with it three methodological problems. First, we have the problem of the historical Jesus. How can we separate Jesus as a person from two millennia of discussion and interpretation that see him as the Messiah? Second, we have the institutionalization of a canon. That is to ask, how do we separate Christianity’s moral impulse as a religion from its role as a social and political institution? Christians created their textual traditions, which shaped the story of Jesus’ life and death in important ways. Finally, how do we address historical Truth? There is sufficient evidence for believing that Jesus existed as a real person. However, whether he was truly the son of God is a question we cannot address in this class. We must, therefore, be aware of the constraints under which this discussion takes place. We will not be trying to prove or disprove any matters of the Truth. We will rather consider what we know historically about Christianity and what those things meant for world history.
Christianity’s story actually begins around 4 BC with the birth of a son to a young Jewish couple in Bethlehem. The baby was, of course, named Jesus, and he grew up rapidly, becoming one of those rare people whose personality and bearing drew others to him. Although he grew up within Judaic traditions, Jesus also became a powerful critic of what he came to see as an overly rule-bound faith. He was particularly harsh on one group of Jews called the Pharisees, who insisted that Judaism’s essence lay in rigid adherence to old forms. Jesus held, in contrast, that Jews needed to recapture their religion’s ethical impulse, and he went on to claim that he did not wish to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
Given that we know the outcome of this story, Jesus’ actions seem of world historical importance to us. It is important, however, to put this young Jewish critic into his historical world. It was once believed that Christianity was best understood as an offshoot of a long rabbinic tradition. That is, Judaism ran in a straight line from before Jesus until our own day, when Jesus founded a new religion that took its own, separate path. Historians of religions have changed this approach. Thanks in part to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, historians have uncovered a vibrant Jewish world of debate, in which different schools of religious thought competed for dominance. Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity were, therefore, different outcomes of a common process, and to that extent they are best understood as specific trajectories out of a particular period, rather than as mutually exclusive religious traditions. Hence, if anything, Judaism and Christianity comprise a fork in the road. We have already discussed how Judaism changed from a religion rooted in a particular place to a system of practices overseen by an elite. In this lecture we will consider how the son of a Jewish carpenter reworked these ancient traditions to form another religion.
We should begin by noting that Jesus’ message changed over the years, evolving from a critique of contemporary inequities to a message of consolation and liberation. Claiming to speak for the kingdom of the Lord, he preached that the poor would be rewarded in the next life if they believed in God. Although all his positions grew out of Jewish traditions, they also made him politically inconvenient to the leaders of his Jewish community. His emphasis on justice and his fame threatened both Jewish and Roman authorities. By claiming that God was inaugurating His rule on earth, Jesus opened himself to the charges of both blasphemy and sedition. Betrayed by one of his twelve disciples, Judas, Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed by the Romans probably in AD 30.
The crucifixion may have ended Jesus’ life, but for his disciples it was only the beginning. Although Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God, nor the Jewish Messiah, his followers believed that Jesus was God’s Son and had risen from the dead. Faith in Jesus, thus, supplanted traditional religious structures. The shift to belief and away from practice was significant. Whereas, Hebrew Scriptures taught that Jews were a separate people, Jesus’ followers believed that the Jewish God was universal and that Jesus’ death marked a new covenant not only with the Jews but with every human being. Moreover, for these people God had not merely anointed a Messiah, but had also sent his son to spread the good news (in Greek, euangelion). We have already discussed how important Greek culture was in both halves of the Roman Empire. The Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah is Christos, and thus those who believed Jesus was the world’s savior came to be known as Christians.
Having broken with the Jewish tradition, the early Christians confronted a series of problems. First, they had to determine Christianity’s relationship to Judaism’s laws. Three positions emerged. James, Jesus’ brother and head of the Christian church in Jerusalem, believed that Christians should follow traditional Jewish practices, including dietary restrictions and circumcision. Peter, one of Jesus’ most fervent followers, held that Christians should follow Jewish dietary laws, but that circumcision was not necessary. The most radical position, however, appeared later with a Hellenized Jew originally named Saul and now known as Paul of Tarsus. Paul was a Pharisee who had persecuted Christians. At some point, however, Paul had a conversion experience while traveling to Damascus, and thereafter he argued that non-Jewish believers could be Christians without following the Mosaic Law. It is this vision that spread beyond Jesus’ small band of followers and set Christianity on the path to becoming a world religion.
Paul’s break with the Mosaic Law created the second problem: how to understand the path to God. During the first century, new Christian prophets appeared who claimed to have direct knowledge of God. Called Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, these people combined oriental mysticism, astrology, classical mythology, and Jewish cabbalism to divide people into the few who had knowledge of God and the many who did not. The Gnostics, thus, undermined the early church’s universalistic theology.
The church responded by emphasizing Jesus’ death as an historical event. Faith in God came through the contemplation of real events. Thus, it became important for the young church to get its story straight, which made it a textual, or a “book” religion. This status as a book religion binds all three of the great Semitic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and it has fired the interest of peoples from among all three to study not only their religions’ respective laws but also their histories. During the early second century AD Christians wrote their stories on paper, a process that required determining which ones were “true.” This process of canonization was long and difficult, and Christians debated for centuries which stories were real. By the second century’s end, however, Christians had made a crucial conceptual transition, as commentators such as Cyprian, Origen, and Irenaeus began to speak of a single Holy Book that included both the Old Testament and the new one.
As the young church grappled with how to create a permanent memory of its holy events, it also confronted the third problem of institutional structure. Initially, Jesus’ apostles made the key decisions. As this first generation died, however, the young church needed permanent structures, and Christians created the familiar tripartite arrangement of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. During the second century certain religious leaders, called bishops, came to be recognized as preeminent in their regions. Their job was to care for their flocks and to represent them at regional meetings. Presbyters were learned men who advised bishops, and deacons were faithful workers. Bishops were originally chosen by their flocks, but the church hierarchy soon asserted itself: “elections” continued, but the choice had to be ratified by surrounding bishops. This process became the official practice at the Council of Nicea in 325, as the empire’s most important bishops in Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria gained the right to veto Episcopal elections in their areas. This veto right was later extended to Constantinople and to Jerusalem, creating the system of patriarchs that dominated eastern Christianity until the coming of Islam in the east.
Thus, during the third and fourth centuries AD a structure appeared within the Roman Empire that complemented the young church’s emerging doctrines. The most important city was, of course, Rome. As the center of the old empire and the place where Peter and Paul were executed, Rome enjoyed extraordinary prestige. Already by the end of the second century AD Rome’s Christian community had assumed leadership in religious matters: it was Romans who led the fight against the Gnostics, particularly a prophet named Montanus, who spoke in tongues and claimed that his messages were the Lord’s word. Nonetheless, Roman practices soon diverged from those in the East and North Africa. A good example was the celebration of Easter. Eastern churches celebrated Easter on the Jewish Passover, basing their calculation on the Gospel of St. John. The Roman church, however, put the Last Supper on the day of Passover, and celebrated Easter as the day after. We have already run across the problem of diversity of belief in the lecture on Byzantium. Things were no different for the Romans. Already in AD 190, Victor, the Bishop of Rome, threatened to excommunicate anyone that celebrated Easter on the wrong date. This is a troubling moment for those who know how the rest of the story goes. But the important point is that the papacy was founded on Roman preeminence. The reason we have a Pope is that the Romans had Rome.
At this point, we must consider the clergy’s social role in the early church. True to its Jewish roots, Christianity was an ethically-based religion whose message emphasized care for the poor. This impulse made itself felt with the Christian practice of giving money freely to the needy, as Christians set up food distribution networks and visited prisoners in jail. This spontaneous network of charity soon became the responsibility of local bishops. Rome was never a welfare state, and as the empire decayed public need became greater. Bishops filled the gap. By the mid-third century, the church in Rome was feeding 1500 poor people every day. In the late fourth century, the church in Antioch fed 3000 people per day. To take another example, in 252, Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, sent people to nurse the city’s sick and to bury its dead after a plague. Such public charity gave Christianity enormous prestige and served as a recruitment tool.
As the church became more prominent it burrowed into the public life and consciousness. People used the church as a bank, depositing their money in an institution they trusted. This pulled the church further into society, and it began to make loans that stimulated the local economy. Moral considerations meant that interest rates were kept low, 12% per year, which was very cheap for the time. Thus, what was, in effect, a religious pooling of resources made Christian communities rich and gave them the appearance of having God’s countenance. The more money Christians had and distributed the more converts they attracted.
Christians’ public prominence also brought persecution. Christians inherited from ancient Judaism the sense of difference, and this made them obnoxious to both Roman and Jewish authorities. Jews were threatened by Christians’ break with the Mosaic Law, since it undermined the political arrangements Jews had with the Empire. And, in some areas, this led to Jewish persecution of Christians. Christians, unfortunately, learned little from these experiences and behaved no better when they became powerful, more than returning the favor. Jewish fears of Christianity are explained largely by their tenuous position within the Empire. Rome was not a tolerant state and its clumsy policies provoked Jewish uprisings in AD 66, 116, and 132. After seeing Rome’s wrath visited on them multiple times, it seemed best for the Jews not to draw Rome’s notice. Unfortunately, Christians were not noted for their circumspection.
The Romans, for their part, could never figure out what to do with these strange people, who gave away all their money, visited criminals in jail, and refused to make offerings to the established deities. It is important to note that Rome’s state religion was hardly jealous. It did not require belief in Rome’s gods, merely public sacrifices. Hence, pagans could not understand why Christians simply would not do what the state required. Perplexity gave way to persecution under Nero, as Christians became universal scapegoats for all the empire’s problems. The persecution became progressively worse up through the Emperor Diocletian, because they refused traditional Roman virtues. Nonetheless, things were hardly as bad as they would be under the Inquisition. All anyone accused of being a Christian had to do was offer the proper sacrifice, and all was forgiven. Infused with religious fervor, however, Christians were a stubborn lot, refusing to sacrifice to the gods, or to venerate the Emperor. Roman persecution of Christians was never very efficient, tending to be symbolic rather than thorough. Ironically, however, this inefficiency was a boon for the Christians, as martyrdom became a recruiting tool. As the Christian theologian Tertullian noted, “The blood of martyrs is seed.” In fact, some Christians were so enthusiastic about dying for their faith that they deliberately smashed public statues, so that they would be executed. The otherworldliness that these people exuded drew many poor people to the church.
Martyrs did not, however, convince Rome’s upper classes to join the church. The church recruited people from this particular strata by incorporating classical culture. The first great example of this trend is Justin Martyr (100-165). Martyr had studied Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonism in Ephesus, but was converted to Christianity by an old man who spoke of eternal salvation. Martyr believed Christianity was basically rational and defended it with classical philosophy. He is important here, because he fought the Gnostics and was the first Christian to give the Father and the Son a philosophical foundation. Soon, the defense of Christianity via classical culture became a growth industry. Tertullian, whom I have already mentioned, provided the first defense in Latin in the Holy Trinity. (Martyr had written in Greek.) He first coined the term trinitas, which would have such a long career in Christian theology. He was also the first Christian to write extensively on the nature of the soul. Nonetheless, Tertullian also highlights a subtle counter current within Christianity. Although he used classical culture to defend the faith, he also emphasized its irrationality, arguing—more or less—that he believed in Christianity because it was absurd. In his words, “Credo quia absurdum est.” Given this starting point, classical logic could only ever coexist uneasily with Christian faith.
The defense of the faith via classical culture reached its apex in two men, Origen of Alexandria and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Origen was the son of Christian parents. His father had been martyred, so he was understandably cool to Rome. But he also recognized the need to use reason to refute the faith’s enemies. This included the Gnostics, against whom Origen argued that the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit had to be distinct entities. Borrowing the classic Platonic division of the universe into mind, matter, and soul, Origen sent Christianity on a long tradition of defending the Trinity as philosophically necessary.
The last Christian propagandist we will consider is Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Augustine began as a Manichean, but converted to Christianity. One of his most famous works is City of God, in which he defended the faith against charges that it brought on the sack of Rome in 410. Augustine integrated Christianity’s spiritual message into the Roman world by arguing that it had no immediate political message. He made this case with traditional Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy. Plato’s tripartite division of the universe and Plotinus’ great chain of being combined to justify a tri-partite God, who was distant from the universe, though remained accessible to it through contemplation. With this massive intellectual effort Augustine made Christianity respectable to an upper class that prized philosophy.
To this point, we have considered Christian culture broadly, without touching on Imperial politics. Now, we need to consider the intersection of Roman politics with the Christian world. The first thing to note is that even when politically unified, Rome was divided into two linguistic spheres, one Latin-speaking, the other Greek-speaking. Administrative divisions made the linguistic divergence even greater. The Romans, for instance, never liked Greek-speaking bureaucrats. Second, with the emperor situated in the East after the 4th century, Christianity there took a distinctive turn toward caesaropapism. That is, the Byzantine Emperors controlled the church in a way that was not possible in the West. This had important implications for both halves of the empire, as it exacerbated disagreements within the faith. Once political differences between the two halves became acute, the Christian faith split. This split became official with the great schism of 1054, in which the Roman Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other, but its roots go back to the time before Constantine. Finally, the empire’s western half absorbed many peoples with no connection to the Classical or Christian past. The Germanic tribes that inundated the Empire in the fifth century were warriors—fond of violence and not interested in religious contemplation or philosophy. Moreover, the first tribes to arrive converted to Arianism, which created problems until the Franks, who had converted to Catholicism, destroyed the heretical kingdoms. The integration of Germanic traditions and people into Rome’s remnants was a difficult, but fruitful process that we will discuss in another lecture.
Now, we will consider two results of the empire’s divisions, eastern monasticism and the papacy. Monasticism has a long history in the Orthodox Church. Its story begins around 270, when a Coptic Christian named St. Anthony entered the desert, in order to be closer to god. Anthony’s example was soon copied, as other hermits went into the desert to be near him. These hermits lived separately, but all pursued closeness to god. Their example became more popular as the Roman Empire collapsed. Communities of monks appeared in the Levant and Syria that were dedicated to contemplation and prayer. The coenobitic life was then exported to the western empire, though it took a different form there. In the western version monks entered the forests to build religious communities. The most famous such monk in the west was St. Benedict, who founded the monastery at Monte Cassino and first established rules for communal living. Western Monasticism played a significant political and social role in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The rise of the Papacy was crucial to the European history as well; without it, the medieval world would have looked quite different. As I have already mentioned, the Roman church enjoyed great prestige both because it was based in Rome and it possessed the Apostle St. Peter’s bones. During the fifth century, the church became a refuge in the west for Roman elites fleeing barbarian rule. The same people who detested Byzantine bureaucrats also disliked Germanic kings. As a wealthy see Rome had the resources both to feed the poor and to cultivate classical culture. In addition, the imperial record collection survived, giving the church tremendous resources in its battle for primacy. (Even today, no historical archives anywhere can compare to the Vatican’s). The papacy as an institution appeared in the fifth century with Leo the Great, the first to use consciously his power as Bishop of Rome. He was, for instance, the first pope to use the old Roman religious title pontifex maximus, by which he meant to assert his supremacy over all other religious figures.
The process that began with Leo the Great was in full swing by the sixth century’s end. Gregory the Great organized the government in the face of the Lombard invasion, negotiating with invaders and managing the city’s daily affairs. He was also the first Pope to organize missionary activities among the recently arrived barbarian tribes. It was he, for instance, who sent missionaries to England to convert the Angles and Saxons. This was a fateful decision, for it meant that the newly arrived tribes would join a Christian world and owe allegiance to the Pope. By Gregory’s death in 604, the papacy was firmly entrenched as the supreme religious office in the western world. And with that we have all the conditions in place for the Middle Ages in both east and west: in the west, barbarian tribes, monks, and the pope; in the east, the Byzantine Emperor, barbarian tribes, and the Patriarchs of Constantinople. We will consider one other condition another time and that is the rise of Islam.