Christian views of God, humans and the world around them were radically different from the Greeks and Romans. Therefore to understand the rise of Christianity we must understand the world from which Christianity emerged.
The Religious world of Rome
The official religion of Rome was focused on the worship of the Greco-Roman pantheon. (Mars, Jupiter, Juno, etc.)
The Romans were very tolerant of other religions. They allowed the worship of many local and native gods.
There emerged an imperial cult where dead emperors were worshipped in order to reinforce support for the emperors.
The Romans also had household cults and rural spirits who were very popular with commoners.
Household cults and local gods provided people with more spiritual guidance than the official state religion which was concerned with security, peace and prosperity.
Roman cults failed to satisfy many of the religious needs of the people.
Many Romans began to turn to astrology and eastern “mystery” cults to satisfy their spiritual needs and quench their desire for knowledge of the supernatural world
The Mystery religions of the east offered secret teachings and supposedly brought special benefits.
Most of the Mystery religions promised a life after death which was superior to peoples current life.
These religions also featured an elaborate set of rituals that had a deep emotional appeal. They believed that they could achieve communion with the spirit world,
Some of the Mystery religions were the cults of Cybele or Great Mother, the Egyptian cult of Isis and Serapis, the most important cult was called Mithraism.
Mithraism spread rapidly throughout the empire and was especially favored by soldiers. It was a religion for men only and to become a member devotees had to be bathed in the blood of a sacrificed bull.
Mithraists worshipped on Sunday, celebrated the birth of the sun on Dec. 25 and celebrated numerous holy meals. All of which the Christians had parallels for.
In the Hellenistic world the Jews enjoyed considerable independence. Roman involvement with the Jews began in 63BC and by A.D. 6 Judaea had been made a Roman province and placed under the direction of a procurator.
The Jewish community was split into four separate sects
The Sadducces—they favored strict adherence to Hebrew law, did not believe in an afterlife and wanted to cooperate with the Romans.
The Pharisees—took a more liberal approach to Jewish law, believed in an afterlife, and wanted to liberate Judaea from Roman control.
The Essenes—A group who awaited a Messiah to usher in the kingdom of God and establish paradise on earth.
The Zealots—Military extremists who believed in the violent overthrow of Rome.
In the middle of all the confusion in Judaea a man named Jesus of Nazareth (6 BC—29 AD) began his public preaching.
Jesus grew up in Galilee, which was an important center of the militant zealots.
He did not attempt to threaten or overthrow the traditional religion or its prophesies, but to “fulfill them.”
According to Jesus what was important was not the strict adherence to the laws but the transformation of the inner self. In his Sermon on the Mount (read from source), Jesus presented the ethical concepts—humility, charity, and brotherly love—that would form the basis for all of the Medieval value system.
The Greco-Roman religious value system emphasized prosperity, heroism, and stability.
Part III Deification
While some people welcomed Jesus as the Messiah who lead the Jews in establishing God’s kingdom on earth, he said only “My kingdom is not of this world,” consequently, he disappointed the Zealots and other traditional messiah seekers.
Sadducce leaders thought that Jesus was trying to undermine traditional Jewish law.
Roman authorities of the province of Palestine felt that Jesus was a potential revolutionary who could possibly lead the Jews in an uprising and revolt against Rome.
Jesus was denounced on many sides and was given over to the Roman authorities.
Pontius Pilate ordered his crucifixion.
The problem continued however, because a few of Jesus’ loyal followers spread the story that Jesus had overcome death and had been resurrected.
Because of this he was labeled Christos “the anointed one” and hailed as the savior-God who had come to reveal the secrets of salvation and immortality.
The most important figure to early Christianity, after Jesus of course, was a man named Paul of Tarsus.
Paul who lived between 5 and 67 AD, was a Roman citizen, and also a Jew. Christianity at this time was strictly a Jewish sect.
Paul reached out to non-Jews because he believed that the message of Jesus was for all people not just Jewish people.
Paul was responsible for founding Christian communities throughout Asia Minor and along the shores of the Aegean.
Paul taught that Jesus was a savior God who came to earth to save all humans because humans were basically sinners due to Adam’s original sin.
Paul taught that in death Christ had atoned for all of the sins of humanity and made possible reconciliation with God and hence salvation.
Paul wrote a series of letters or epistles outlining Christian beliefs. He sent these letters to the various Christian organizations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In AD 70 Jewish Zealots rebelled against Rome. Rome, in turn, destroyed Jerusalem—the first center of Christianity—and dispersed the Christians. These Christians in turn founded numerous Christian Churches outside of the Holy Land.
Most early Christians were not of Latin or Roman decent but were Greek and Hellenistic peoples. In the late 100’s (2nd century) Latin translations of some of the early Christian works, including the letters of Paul and other historical accounts (the core of what became the New Testament) appeared.
These translations greatly increased the number of Latin-speaking followers.
Latin was the dominant language in Western Europe.
All of the educated peoples in the west spoke Latin.
Latin was the official language of the Empire.
Had there never been a Latin translation then Christianity would never have moved west or gained widespread appeal.
Persecution actually caused the Christians to gain in strength.
Christianity grew slowly in the first century. It took root in the second and gained widespread appeal in the third. In the fourth century Christianity became the official state religion of Rome. Historians have offered several reasons for this. Christians, of course, believe that Christianity grew because it is the Truth.
Christianity had much to offer the Roman world. Rome was full of injustice. There was a huge gap between rich and poor. There was a great dependence on slaves and other subjected peoples. Bloodthirsty spectacles in the coliseums and amphitheaters. And the use of institutionalized terror to maintain the order and peace that Rome is so highly praised for.
The promise of salvation and the promise of a better next life had a resounding impact on a world full of injustice.
Christianity promises an afterlife where justice exists. On judgment day all people will have to answer for their actions on earth. So it can be said that there is a revenge factor to its rise.
Christianity gave meaning and purpose to things beyond material goods and everyday life.
Christianity was similar to many of the Eastern Mystery religions which had been floating about for 200 years. (Offering immortality as the result of the sacrificial death of a savior-God.) However, one big difference was that Christ was human not mythological like Mithras or Isis.
Christianity did not require an expensive initiation rite such as bathing in the blood of a sacrificed bull (Mithraism). This allowed Christianity to gain appeal with the common and poor people. Initiation was and is baptism.
Christianity fulfilled the human need to belong. People could express there love by helping one another, offering assistance to the poor, elderly or sick.
Christianity appealed to all classes of people: rich, poor slaves, men, women.
In the fourth century Christianity really took off.
It took off largely because Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. Why and when he converted is not exactly known, but, it is known that his mother was a Christian.
There is a legend that tells how on the night before an important battle he saw the sign of the cross in the heavens and under it were the words “In this sign you will conquer.”
Constantine in the year 313 issued the Edict of Milan in which Rome officially recognized Christianity as a religion to be tolerated.
It was not until 378 under the Emperor Theodosius that Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Part VI—structure of the early church and papal supremacy
How was it that the pope became the supreme leader of the Catholic church?
There are two different stories as to the reason for Rome being the capital of Catholicism.
The first goes that Christ gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter, who was considered the chief apostle and the first bishop of Rome. All later bishops of Rome were considered Peter’s successors and later the “vicars of Christ” on earth. The fact that Rome was the traditional capital of the Empire served to reinforce this claim.
The second reason is somewhat more complicated.
After 200 AD the church became much better organized. For administrative purposes the church split into 5 districts called Bishoprics. Each Bishopric was headed by a Bishop. The Bishops appointed all of the priests in the various parishes.
The five largest Bishoprics were centered in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. These five bishops were called patriarchs (fathers of the church). These five patriarchs were the people who decided on all of church doctrine.
It came to pass that Constantinople and Jerusalem would often find themselves on the same side of an issue and were consistently opposed by the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch. So Rome always cast the tie-breaking vote on church doctrine.
Over a period of time these voting patterns became frozen. Rome therefore claimed that the bishop of Rome was faultless because he was touched by the hand of God. The reason that Rome would decide a certain way on any given issue was because the Bishop of Rome was guided by God.
Therefore over time the Bishop of Rome became the leader of the entire church.