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Lectures for A Medieval Survey
Lynn H. Nelson
THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY
1. Christianity first arose historically as a reform movement within Judaism. The apostle Paul forced it open to non-Jews and gave it the greek flavor that allowed it to flourish in the eastern mediterranean. The significant question is how it became the official religion of the Roman empire and an agency of the Roman imperial government.
2. Roman religion did not provide a moral base or message of hope.
The Romans had an elaborate religious system with many groups and types of deities.
The Pantheon: the gods and goddesses of mythology.
There were alternate systems of belief for those dissatisfied with the chaotic traditional religious forms:
Greek philosophical systems (Skepticism, Epicurianism, Stoicism that offered
moral bases but no hope.
Mystery cults (Isis, Mithra, Orpheus, and many others) that offered hope, and sometimes a moral basis for human action. The mystery cults (so-called because members had to undergo an initiation -- such as a purifying bath of the eating and drinking of the symbolic body and blood of the cult's founder) and the nature cults (exemplified in the shepherd's god, Pan, and the fishermen's god, Neptune, who were combined into the Christian image of the devil and given prometheus' name of Lucifer -- "the fire-bringer") provided Christianity's major competition for converts and supporters.
3. Christianity's advantages:
Its founder was an actual person
THE EARLY CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES
4. The Organization of Christianity, AD 33-313
After the Jewish rebellion in 89-90, the Jews were scattered throughout the empire in what is called the diaspora. As a jJwish reform movement, early Christianity first spread through the Jewish communities in the cities of the empire. The Jews made their way at the less attractive industries such as tanning, leather tent making, "bottling" olive oil and similar things, shoe and sandal-making, and the like. They lived in crowded and smelly industrial sections of the city, and that is where the first Christian communities arose. Christianity was more than an urban religion (residents of the surrounding countryside, or pagus were called "pagans"), it was a ghetto religion. Its members were of the lowest classes, and today's college students would probably not have wanted to sit next to Peter, James, or any of the early Christians because of their smell, if for no other reason.
Because of their intolerance, the faith was illegal, and its members often persecuted by the government. In order to steer as clear as possible of the government, they formed inner city groups (ecclesiae) with their own internal governments under spiritual and secular overseers (episkopos > piscop > biscop > bishop), aided by the heads of households. The bishops stayed in touch with each other through letters (epistles), secret meetings (councils), and by keeping the records of the faith in secret books (bible means simply "book"). The members developed secret signs and symbols by which to recognize each other, the cross in various forms, the outline of a fish, variations on the Roman numeral three, and so forth. Christianity grew slowly, and even began to penetrate the urban middle class and some elements of the army.
THE LEGALIZATION OF CHRISTIANITY5. Its Recognition AD 313
In a crucial battle to gain control of the Roman empire, Constantine used a
Christian symbol as his banner. Thus gaining the support of the Christians
among the warriors drawn up to fight at the milvian bridge, Constantine won
the battle and rewarded his supporters by decreeing that Christianity would
henceforth be tolerated.
The result was the Nicene Creed. He then required them to
regularize the practice of their faith according to this formulation. In 330,
he established the eastern Roman capital at Cnstantinople, a new city without
the pagan traditions of Rome. In the same year, he ordered the Christian
leaders to decide which of their secret books were to be accepted as
representing the true faith. The result of their work was the canon, the
bible in essentially its present form
The common picture of Christianity as a persecuted sect was true only of the early empire, the Principate. In the late empire, the Dominate, Christianity was the state religion and an official government agency. The medieval church was simply a continuation of a part of the Roman government, and its political aspect had been made a part of its structure by Constantine and his successors.
Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.