Early Christianity

Sociology Essay

Christianity is one of the oldest religions of the world with more than 2 billion people professing it (Dohrmann & Reed, 2013). It is about 33% of the world population, which is the record number of believers even among the major religions of the world (Dohrmann & Reed, 2013). Christian faith originated more than two thousand years ago in the east of the huge Roman Empire – one of the largest and most powerful state formations in the history of humankind (Dohrmann & Reed, 2013). Being at first a religious sect, it quickly became stronger and spread through the territories of the Empire. Later, Christianity received the status of the state religion. In a short period, Christianity has played an integral role in many spheres of life of the ancient society and became one of the most widespread religion in the world.

Among the researchers, there is no consensus on the exact site of origin of Christianity. Some people believe that it happened in Palestine, which was then a part of the Roman Empire. However, others suggest that it occurred in the Jewish Diaspora in Greece. Nevertheless, it is known for sure that Christianity originated as one of the sects of Judaism in the I century CE (Dohrmann & Reed, 2013). In the book Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries, it is stated, “In Rome, Christianity became something separate with a clearly distinct identity” (Green, 2010, p. 1). This initial relationship with Judaism is extremely important for understanding the roots of the Christian religion. It is manifested in the fact that the first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, is the holy book for both Jews and Christians. However, the second part of the Bible, New Testament, is recognized only by Christians.

In the first decade of its existence, spreading among the Jews of Palestine and the Mediterranean, Christianity also gained followers among other nations. The history of the formation of Christianity covers the period from the middle of the I to the IV centuries CE. During this period, Christianity underwent several stages of development, which can be reduced to the following: the stage of actual eschatology (the second half of the I century), the stage of adaptation (the II century), and the stage of the struggle for supremacy in the Roman Empire (the III-IV centuries) (Hillerbrand, 2012). Through these stages, Christianity developed and spread through the Roman Empire.

The emergence and spread of Christianity occurred in a period of the profound crisis of the ancient civilization and the decline of its core values. The first century BCE and the first century CE were difficult times for Rome (Ferguson, 2003). On the one hand, it was a large area united by a single authority and languages – Latin and ancient Greek. On the other hand, a motley ethnic component of the empire led to a great number of different religious cults and traditions. The existence of various religions could not be useful for Rome, as many nations tried to conquer the Roman Empire. Moreover, for the empire, it was extremely difficult to resist them, which was associated with the fact that there were many contradictions and differences in the internal system of the state. Ruthlessness and cruelty of the situation generated by universal powerlessness led to the hope of salvation in religion. However, the old faith and the pagan gods were unable to help. Helplessness and growing doubts about the fairness and integrity of the temporal order resulted in the fact that the people of the Roman Empire no longer believed in the pagan gods. It was the most successful period of Christianity to break into the territory of the Empire. Christian teaching attracted many people disappointed by the Roman social system (Hillerbrand, 2012). It offered its adherents a path of inner salvation avoiding a damaged and sinful world, as well as rough carnal pleasures opposed to strict asceticism. People believed that a conscious humility and obedience will be rewarded after the kingdom of God on earth. However, the first Christian communities taught their members to think not only about themselves but also about the fate of the whole world and pray for the common salvation (Hillerbrand, 2012). The authors William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel (2008) affirm, “The rise of Christianity marked a fundamental break with the value system of the upper-class elites who dominated the world of classical antiquity” (p. 150). At that time, universalism characteristic to Christianity revealed. Despite the fact that communities were scattered through the vast space of the Roman Empire, they felt the unity.

During the first stage, Christianity has not yet allocated definitively out of Judaism (Hillerbrand, 2012). Thus, it can be called Judeo-Christian. Actual eschatology means that the followers of the new religion at that time were waiting for the arrival of the Savior in the near future. Enslaved and dispossessed people suffering from national and social oppression were the social basis of Christianity. In early Christianity, there was no single, centralized organization and no priests (Hillerbrand, 2012). The community was led by the believers able to perceive the charisma. Charismatic leaders united a group of believers. There were also people engaged in explaining doctrine. For the organization of the economic life of the community, special people were appointed. Initially, there were deacons performing simple technical duties. Later, there were bishops and elders (Hillerbrand, 2012). Over time, the bishops held a dominant position and the elders were their assistants.

During the second stage, in the II century, the situation changed (Hillerbrand, 2012). There was certain stabilization of the Roman society. The social and national composition of the community changed. The representatives of the wealthy and educated strata of the population inhabiting the Roman Empire started turning Christian (Hillerbrand, 2012). Accordingly, the doctrine of Christianity also changed and became more tolerant to wealth. The attitude of the authorities to the new religion depended on the political situation in the state. One emperor exercised persecutions while others showed humaneness if the internal political situation allowed it. The development of Christianity in the II century led to the complete break from Judaism (Lieu, North, & Rajak, 2013). Compared to other nationalities, Jews became fewer among Christians. It was necessary to solve the problems of practical and religious values, namely dietary restrictions, observance of the Sabbath, and circumcision (Lieu et al., 2013). As a result, circumcision was replaced by water baptism. Furthermore, a weekly observance of the Sabbath was rescheduled for Sunday. The feast of Easter and the feast of Pentecost were converted to Christianity under the same names; however, they filled with another mythological content. The influence of other peoples on the formation of the cult of Christianity manifested in the fact that there were borrowings of ceremonies or their elements such as baptism, administration of the Lord’s Supper as a symbol of sacrifice, a prayer, and some others (Hillerbrand, 2012). During the III century, there was the formation of large Christian centers in Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, in several cities of Asia Minor, and other areas (Hillerbrand, 2012). However, the church itself was not internally united. Among Christian teachers and preachers, there were discrepancies regarding the correct understanding of Christian truths. From within, Christianity was deeply divided by complex theological disputes. In such a way, it can be stated that Christianity was never an orthodox religion. There were many directions and different interpretations of the provisions of the new religion. These directions included Montanism, Docetism, Marcionism, and others (Hillerbrand, 2012).

During the third stage, the final adoption of Christianity as the state religion occurred. However, in 305, the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire activated. This period in the history of the church is known as the era of martyrs. Prior to the IV century, Christianization was mainly spontaneous (McManners, 2001). It flowed under the conditions of the semi-legal or illegal status of the Christian religion in the Roman state. The influence of Christianity on the various aspects and spheres of life of Roman society and the number of Christians were negligible. Moreover, prior to the IV century, the Christian church was not a strong organization (McManners, 2001). Its members were chased and killed. The persecutions against the Christians gave rise to the emergence of such a phenomenon as martyrdom. This phenomenon had an important role in building relations between the Christian Church and the Roman Empire, on the one hand, and ordinary Christians and pagans, on the other hand. The reason is that martyrdom was the product of these relations and, in turn, affected their development. It received its ideological foundation and its heroes (Hillerbrand, 2012). Because of the persecutions, the Church received its first saints who became the martyrs. Thus, in Rome, there were many martyrs, who devoted their life to the description of Jesus’ life (Ehrman, 2014). In fact, the martyrdom of Christians was a reaction to persecution. It was the so-called passive resistance to the attempts of the state to extirpate the new religion (McManners, 2001). However, martyrdom gradually became a goal for many Christians. In martyrdom, they saw the expiation of sins and the second baptism – baptism of blood. A martyr was a witness to the true faith and a soldier of Christ. Martyrs were preachers and missionaries. They visited different parts of the Roman Empire glorifying and praising Christ. Listening to their speeches, many pagans turned Christian, which was the background for the repressions of martyrs. Sufferings and death in the name of faith made such a strong impression that the audience imbued with sympathy and some of them turned Christian. In this way, there was the growth of the Christian Church. It was considered that only martyrs’ souls fell straight into heaven after their death (McManners, 2001). Their relics and blood were considered sacred. In the book A New History of Christianity, it is affirmed, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church” (Hillerbrand, 2012, p. 20).

During the II century, places of worship were closed and the church property was confiscated (Neusner, 2008). Books and sacred utensils were destroyed. Christians began to be persecuted. Many of them were thrown into prison and executed on false charges (Lynch, 2010). However, the measures taken by the authorities had no effect. Christianity strengthened sufficiently to provide decent resistance. In particular, the activity of Emperor Constantine was of particular importance. In the course of a bitter struggle for power before the decisive battle, Constantine saw the sign of Christ in a dream. It was a cross with the command to set out with this symbol against the enemy. By doing so, the Emperor won a decisive victory in the battle in 312. The Emperor gave this vision a very special meaning. According to Constantine, it was a sign of his election by Christ to perform the connection between God and the world by means of his imperial service (Neusner, 2008). As a result, already in 313, the Emperor Constantine accepted the decree of tolerance towards Christianity by issuing the Edict of Milan (Ferguson, 2013). According to it, Christians were under the protection of the state and received equal rights with the pagans. Neusner (2008) affirms, “About a tenth of the population of the Empire was Christian” (p. 15). The Christian church was not subject to harassment even during the reign of Emperor Julian, who was called a transgressor because of the restriction of the rights of the church and the proclamation of religious toleration towards heresy and paganism. In 391, during the rule of Emperor Theodosius, there was the final consolidation of Christianity as the state religion (Neusner, 2008). Paganism was finally banned (Ferguson, 2013). The further development and strengthening of Christianity were connected with the holding of councils, at which church dogma was worked and firmly established.

By the end of the IV century, Christianity was firmly established in almost all provinces of the Roman Empire (Ferguson, 2013). In the 340s, it penetrated into tribes. Goths embraced Christianity in the form of Arianism, which prevailed in the east of the Roman Empire (Ferguson, 2013). The Christianization of the barbarian peoples was conducted basically by the Emperors. Nevertheless, in the minds of the masses of the people, pagan ideas and images continued to live. The Church assimilated these images and adapted them to Christianity (Ferguson, 2013). In such a way, pagan rituals and celebrations were filled with new Christian content.

In conclusion, the emergence of Christianity was prepared not only by historical conditions but a good ideological foundation. The main source of ideas of Christianity was Judaism. The new religion rethought some ideas of Judaism. However, the Old Testament tradition did not lose its value but received a new interpretation. Christianity originated in the Roman Empire, during the time when it faced a threat of the complete collapse. The whole history of early Christianity was marked by the persecution. In such a way, it would be no exaggeration to say that the persecution was the natural state of a Christian. The persecutions had a decisive influence on the development of the early Church and predetermined many of its features. Because of the persecutions, the Christian Church received its first saints who became its martyrs.

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