The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire

In 313 AD, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire.  A religion developed on the belief in the coming of the Christ (Messiah in Judaism), Christianity started as a denomination in Judaism based on the teachings of Jesus, a young Jewish rabbi in Nazareth.  Rooted in both Jewish and Greek ideas and practices, Christianity was also influenced by Mithraism in the Roman Empire, an offshoot of the Persian religion Zoroastrianism.  After the death of Jesus, his disciples spread it to the non-Jewish populations in the Roman empire.  Especially in the hands of Paul of Tarsus, Christianity became a universal religion.


1. Religious background: ancient Roman religion

1. Christianity replaced the Roman religion and became the universal religion of Europe eventually.  Roman religion was very different: it was polytheistic, and initially it was primitive animism: with deities having names but not personalities, personal histories or myths. They simply had functions, e.g. Burner, Smasher, Carrier Away (in the process of cutting trees), cupboard (storage), harvest, ploughing, rust, granary. Each head of household had his own genius (guardian spirit) to maintain the familyís responsibilities with the divinities.

2. Greek religion had an indelible impact on Roman religion, giving the spirits personalities and myths. A lot of the original Roman deities took on Greek characteristics and functions.

a) Hellenized Roman deities: vesta: Roman goddess of the hearth-fire, center of the Roman house. Her temple at the Roman forum contained the holy fire, kept burning by six vesta virgins.  Janus: the two-faced door god.

        b) Greek and Roman deities in comparison (examples)

Greek                     Roman

Zeus                         Jupiter (Jove)       (supreme god)

Poseidon                  Neptune                (god of the sea)

Hera                         Juno                     (wife of Jupiter)

Ares                         Mars                    (god of war)

Athena                     Minerva                (goddess of war, wisdom, and crafts)

Apollo                     Apollo                  (god of light, sun, etc.) 

Haphaestus              Vulcan                  (god of fire)

Aphrodite                Venus                    (goddess of love)

             4. Foreign gods in Rome:

a) Introduction of foreign gods, e.g. Isis from Egypt, and Mithras from Persia, who had become the most important god of Persia in place of Ahura-Mazda.

b) Christianity first came as another foreign religion. Christians were sometimes persecuted because they refused to worship Jupiter, and because of the rumor that they ate "human flesh."

2. Development of Judaism after the Babylonian Exile

After the Babylonian exile, a monotheistic Judaism began to take root among the Jews in Jerusalem, as well as in the Diaspora.  Jews believed that they needed to keep their part of the covenant with God, i.e. obey the laws and commandments.  On the other hand, the lack of an independent kingdom and the Hellenistic and Persian cultural influences that the Jews were under also led to new developments of Judaism.  These changes served as a springboard for the later development of the denomination of Judaism under Jesus of Nazareth.

              a) Developing the idea of heaven in the Hellenistic world:

Until the Greeks destroyed the Jewish temple in 167 BC, the Jews had a largely inchoate idea of the hereafter: a kind of numb darkness, not an end, exactly, but not existence either.  But when the Greeks, with their many gods and decadent habits, began to threaten the Hebrew way of existence, Jewish leaders came up with a powerful incentive to stay faithful and fight back.  "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt," says a passage in the Book of Daniel, written around 165 BC.  "Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever."  This is the first full blown reference to resurrection in the Bible.  Over the centuries, the mainstream Jewish concept of an afterlife has evolved into something like a spiritual journey; Jews also believe that at the end of time, paradise will exist on earth and souls will be reunited with their bodies.

   b) Ideas of a messiah and the apocalypse

       The long subservience to foreign powers and the continued failure to "build a new Jerusalem" and a unified Jewish kingdom led to two new emphases related to the establishment of heaven on earth.  

  • Messianism: the Messiah, or "Anointed one" was any king sent by Yahweh to punish the enemies of the Jews.  He would come whenever the historical situation was too desperate for humans to handle.

  • The Apocalypse: an unorthodox movement influenced by Persian religion: the belief that the historical situation will be set right at a certain point in history for all time, a.k.a. judgment day.

  • These two ideas became popular among the Jews under the Roman Empire.

c) Development of Biblical interpretation and moral obligations of individuals.  

  • After the Babylonian exile, there was a greater emphasis on reading the Bible as moral history: the unfolding of God's rewards and punishments for the Jews' obedience or transgression of God's laws.  Therefore historical events took on moral significance, which required interpretation, hence the rise of the rabbis.

  • With the greater emphasis on observing the laws came also an emphasis of the moral responsibility to observe not just the "letter" of the law, but also its "spirit"--the rationale of the law.  

3. Jewish denominations at time of Jesus

There were primarily three Jewish denominations during the time of Jesus of Nazareth: 

  • Saducees: (the fundamentalists: a literal adherence to the Bible)
  • Pharisees: the interpretation of the Bible as well as adherence to laws.
  • Essenes: Godís final judgment and the ritual initiation of baptism to cleanse the initiate of their sins. 

Jesus came from a Pharisee background, but was also influenced by the Essenes. 

Jesus (6 BC-30 AD) did not preach anything new, but did not bury his teachings under legalistic reasoning, as many Jewish rabbi did. He was put to death because of fear that people would take him as the Messiah.

4. The teachings of Jesus

Against a background of growing Jewish radicalism against their Roman rulers, Jesus preached love and tolerance, and rewards from the Kingdom of Heaven, which required adherence to not just the letter, but also the spirit of the laws. 

[21] Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
[22] But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
[23] Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
[24] Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
[25] Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
[26] Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
[27] Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
[28] But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

[31] It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:
[32] But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
[43] Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
[44] But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
(Gospel of Matthew, chapt.5)

Jesus also emphasizes that ultimate justice is not carried out on earth, but in the Kingdom of Heaven.  

[1] And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
[2] And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
[3] Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
[4] Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
[5] Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
[6] Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
[7] Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
[8] Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
[9] Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
[10] Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
[11] Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
[12] Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
(Gospel of Matthew, chapt.5)

Jesus of Nazareth established a transcendental set of criteria in life, focusing on obeying truth and justice as meted out by a divine authority, which meant obeying the just laws on earth (which accorded with those by God) and ignoring the injustice on earth.

5. The Nazarethans after Jesus

After the death of Jesus by the Roman authorities on the cross on a Friday, it was said he went to heaven to join his heavenly father on Sunday.  His death and resurrection paralleled the death and resurrection in the story of Osiris (ancient Egypt) and especially Mithraism, when the Persian god Mithra came to earth to atone for human sins, was executed, and rose from the dead.  Jesus's desciples continued to spread his message, and in the process reinterpreted the laws of God from "eye for an eye" punishment for human sins to love and forgiveness of human sins by God through the sacrifice of his son Jesus.  

In the process, Jesus's disciples also interpreted Jesus's teachings not only to Jews in Palestine, but also Jews in the Diaspora who were immersed in Hellenistic culture.  The Hellenistic influence was obvious in the interpretation of his birth from a virgin mother, or as the child of God and a mortal (in this case God's presence was the Holy Spirit).  On the other hand, they also interpreted him as a descendant of King David from his father Joseph's side, thus fulfilling the prophecy in the Jewish Bible that the messiah would come from the House of David.

Jesus's emphasis on adherence to the spirit of the Judaic laws was elevated in the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, a Hellenistic Jew, who did away for the adherents of Jesus's teachings the need to adhere to Jewish dietary laws and circumcision.  Instead of law, Paul emphasized God's forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and humans' adherence to divine justice as represented by faith, hope, and love.

[19] Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
[20] Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
[21] But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
[22] Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
[23] For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
[24] Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
[25] Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
[26] To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
(Paul's letter to the Romans, chapt.3)
[1] Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
[2] And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
[3] And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
[4] Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
[5] Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
[6] Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
[7] Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
[8] Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
[9] For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
[10] But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
[11] When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
[12] For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
[13] And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

(Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapt.13)

Paul interpreted the teachings of the Messiah as adherence to faith in God and love for all fellow humans because of the love of God.  He also spread the teachings to the non-Jewish population of the Greeks and the Romans.  By the second half of the 1st century A.D., the followers of Jesus realized that they were no longer preaching Judaism, but their emphasis on a transcendence of this world and the adherence to the transcendental law of love through faith in God made them at variance from the Saducees and the Pharisees, and they were more and more made up of non-Jewish populations.  They started to call themselves Christians, after the Greek word Christ. The break from Judaism was never complete, as the Christians continued to regard themselves as following the Messiah promised in what now came to be called the Old Testament, to contrast the Jewish Bible with the writings of Jesus's disciples and other recorders of his disciples' deeds that made up the New Testament. 

6. Christianity taking root in the Roman Empire

After the Babylonian exile and the return of Jews to Babylon by the Persian rulers in the 6th B.C., Jews hoped for a Messiah who would come to build a new Jerusalem. But their hope was dashed when in 70, and again in 132 AD. under emperors Titus and Hadrian. After the Jews revolted, Romans encouraged gentiles to settle in Judaea.  

Thereafter, Christianity had no alternative but to become a religion immersed in Greek culture and language. In its Greek form, Christianity first appealed to those Jews of the Empire who themselves had at least linguistically become Hellenized.  

The destruction of Jerusalem also strengthened the followers of Christianity who did not believe a new kingdom would be built on earth but in a heavenly kingdom. 

7. Persecution of Christians

Although the persecutions of the Christians were numerous and severe, they occurred only at the local level until the middle of the 3rd century A.D. In 249 the Emperor Decius initiated the first Empire-wide persecution. He demanded that everyone sacrifice to the gods in order to restore divine favor to the teetering Empire. Those Christians who did not comply suffered imprisonment, and often execution. The last such general persecution was launched by the Emperor Diocletian in 303.