Christianity is a monotheistic, deontological, grass-roots, Jewish sectarian movement that focuses upon the life, teachings, and mission of Jesus of Nazareth (also known as Jesus the Christ). It began in Jerusalem in Judea in the 1st century CE, and moved northward and westward in the Mediterranean region through the efforts and activities of Jesus’ personally chosen disciples & apostles - Peter, Paul, James, and John (among others). Once a small, Messianic Jewish sect, by the 4th century CE, Christianity dominated all other religions in Greco-Roman society and spread throughout the Roman Empire even as far north as ancient Britain and possibly as far east as India. Unlike other Gnostic movements of the era, the Christian message was meant to be openly and honestly shared to anyone who would hear it - regardless of race, gender, economic, or social status. The narrative of Christianity is complex as are the early Christian doctrines, which are best understood in the cultural and historical contexts of the Christian movement and through the pivotal decisions and actions of its adherents.
The Traditional Jesus Story
Based upon traditional Christian Scripture, community creedal statements, and non-canonized historical writings of the Christian Church Fathers, primitive Christianity taught that Jesus of Nazareth (also known as Jesus Christ) was/is the Son of God who, fulfilling centuries-old Jewish prophecies of a coming Messiah to set God’s people free from bondage, was paradoxically incarnated as a fully-human being, living a sinless life in order to become the perfect sacrifice to reconcile all humanity to Yahweh, the Jewish creator God. In Jesus’ earthly mission, he ministered to the spiritually and physically hurting people of Israel (and nearby regions), he promoted a purist, personal faith based upon absolute love of God and neighbor, and he challenged the corruption/oppression of the political and religious elite.
Socially, this led to controversy and conflict with the ruling powers in Jerusalem, Judea, and Roman demesnes. Eventually, Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted by the Sanhedrin under Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, and for treason in the Roman courts under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea (although Jesus’ Jewish enemies wanted him convicted of blasphemy). Ironically, in both instances, the trial of Jesus violated traditional, official Jewish and Roman jurisprudence for capital crimes, procedures, and protocol, ending with an unlawful sentence and subsequent execution by crucifixion, which was carried out by Roman soldiers on what later came to be called, “Good Friday.”
According to multiple eyewitness testimonies in the region (as detailed in the Gospels and the Epistles), through a supernatural resurrection by God, Jesus -miraculously alive and well - appeared to a variety of people, having perfectly performed his father’s mission on earth. Somewhat ironic considering the Patriarchy of the era, Jesus’ first appearance was to a woman - Mary Magdalene - who immediately ran and told the other Disciples about what she had seen and heard. Later encounters of Jesus included Mary, the mother of James; Salome; Joanna; James, the half-brother of Jesus; the lead Disciple Peter and eventually all of the remaining eleven Disciples (except for Judas who had committed suicide, earlier); and the Apostle Paul (formerly known as Saul of Tarsus) who would be later so instrumental in establishing Christianity in Europe. In fact, in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, he records that over 500 people saw Jesus, the risen Christ, all at the same time, although some of them had already died by the time he wrote his second letter to Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:6, NASB).
After a 40-day period of visitation and confirmation that he had indeed risen from the dead as he said he would, Jesus left the earthly realm and ascended into Heaven, sending the Holy Spirit to guide and empower them, having already prepared and called his disciples to be teachers, guides, and proclaimers of a fulfilled Messianic promise of God’s loving plan for salvation that was to be shared from Judea to all the known Gentile (non-Jewish) world.
The Early Christian Movement
With the command of Jesus to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20, NASB), the followers of Jesus began sharing the good news of the resurrected Messiah (the Christ, gr.) - along with Jesus’ earlier ethical admonishments of perfect love of God and neighbor.
Although the Pharisees and Jewish leaders considered the dangerous influence of Jesus to be quelled with his execution (especially with the threat/warning of crucifixion for embracing such beliefs), the Christian message continued to be as appealing and inviting as ever, and the movement grew, exponentially. Moreover, whereas oppressive and politically controlling leaders of Judaism continued in their reactionary ways, the early Christians offered inclusivity and freedom to those who wished to join in “The Way” (as the movement was sometimes called).
In this period of great economic and social hardship, the Gospel writer, Luke, records in his church history work, The Acts of the Apostles,
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:44–47, NASB).
Not surprisingly, as the number of Jesus disciples rose, the Jewish leaders who had earlier been threatened by Jesus’ message and influence upon a society which they wanted full hegemony, worried the Jesus movement could reignite, and turned their criticisms and persecutions upon Jesus’ disciples and followers, many of whom fled the area to safer, more receptive areas (at least, initially). Still, many early Christian leaders bravely stayed in Jerusalem and Judea to speak their message of Christian love and salvation, leading to public abuse by authorities determined to extinguish this dangerous sect of Messianic Judaism. The Apostle Luke records,
. . . and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. . . And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (Acts 5: 40, 42, NASB).
This Christian zeal energized many to follow; however, it energized many on the other side of the argument to more serious efforts. Thus, the Apostle Stephen is the first recorded martyr of the Christian movement (Acts 7, NASB), and based upon extra-biblical accounts of the time, others soon thereafter followed Stephen’s demise. The Disciple Andrew was crucified on an ‘X’ in Greece; the Disciple Matthew was killed by the sword in Ethiopia; the Disciple Bartholomew (also known as Nathanael) was whipped to death in Armenia; the Disciple James Zebedee was beheaded in Jerusalem; the Disciple Thomas was stabbed by a spear in India; the Disciple Jude was killed by arrows during his missionary work; the replacement Disciple, Matthias was stoned and beheaded for his faith; the Apostle John (and Gospel writer) was boiled in oil but somehow survived; the Apostle Barnabas was stoned to death in Salonica; the Gospel writer, John Mark, was dragged to death by horses through the streets of an unnamed Egyptian city; James the Just was thrown over a cliff, somehow survived, but then was immediately clubbed to death; the leader of the Disciples, Peter, was crucified upside down in Rome under the Emperor Nero; and the Apostle Paul was beheaded under the persecutions of Nero.
As the early Christian movement spread, the early Jesus followers passed on their understanding of the new covenant between God and humanity with the Greco-Roman sub-cultures that they encountered. Even more so, they shared a new and affirming religious philosophy that ran counter-cultural to the superstitious, hedonistic, relativistic mores of the day. They spoke of the reality of the one, real God to polytheistic communities that had never known life without an ever–increasing (and very often unknowable) pantheon of gods. They encouraged people to live by the spirit and not the flesh, embracing chaste lifestyles that honored other people’s bodies (and their own) instead of exploiting and abusing sexuality for momentary pleasure. They exhorted people to take care of the weakest and neediest in society - the orphans, the widows, the poor - and to avoid activities like divorcing and suing that poisoned their relationships with each other. In the Greco–Roman world, ideas like these were radical, refreshing, but were sometimes considered quite subversive, if not perverse.
Such Christian activism did not go unnoticed, especially by the provincial leaders who disliked any civil unrest that interfered with the Pax Romana and monetary gain. With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and Diaspora (the forced dispersion of the Jews from Israel) that followed, after the 1st century CE, Christian castigation mostly came from Roman leadership who feared little, if any, reprisal or revenge from the Christians who were known for their passivity and peacefulness (and who had few political friends in the Senate). Thus, members of the Early Christian movement often became political targets and scapegoats for the social ills and political tensions of specific rulers and turbulent periods during the first three centuries CE; however, this persecution was sporadic and rarely empire-wide, but it was devastating, nonetheless.
The persecution of the Christians did not end with the deaths of the Disciples and the Apostles; their pupils and successors, the Church Fathers (ancient theologians, church leaders, and defenders of orthodox Christianity) also endured Roman hostility and maltreatment for their beliefs, as did other peripheral Christian men, women, and children (of all ages) who called themselves, “Christian.” The three main periods of persecution occurred from 64-95 CE (Emperor Nero to Emperor Domitian), 112-250 CE (Emperor Trajan to Emperor Decius), and 250-311 CE (Emperor Valerian to Diocletian).
Generally, people of all religious persuasions were tolerated within the Roman Empire; after all, polytheism was the norm for most Mediterranean societies at that time. Yet, for the Empire to operate, efficiently and profitably, social order had to be maintained at all costs. Submission to the Emperor was not an option, but Christians could not and would not say, “Lord, Lord,” to the enthroned emperor or make a divine offering in their deified honor. This caused frequent friction with Roman authorities, and who started a conflict was less important to the Roman governors than maintaining peace and acquiescence; therefore, the troublesome elements were eliminated as a warning to others about challenging the absolute rule of Rome.
Senator and Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 CE) recounts,
Nero set up as culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Nero’s scapegoats (the Christians) were the perfect choice because it temporarily relieved pressure of the various rumors going around Rome. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome...
Being so counter-cultural and morally provocative, many Christians found themselves to be entertainment (or a warning to all who would also create conflict or rebellion in Roman society) in the Roman Circus or at other various gladiatorial arenas in the Empire, wherein they could be crucified, burned alive, thrown to lions or other wild beasts without weapons of defense, beheaded, impaled on pikes or spears, hanged, drawn and quartered, or killed by gladiators (although such events were not very spectacular considering the peaceful non-resistance of the early Christians). How many Christians were killed during these Great Persecutions is unknown; however, many scholars believed it numbered in the thousands. Some martyrs (one who dies for the faith) were leaders in the still–growing church, but most others were mere grassroots followers in the Jesus movement.
Although not every Roman emperor was merciless in their treatment of Christians, several rulers stand out because of their severity or cruelty. Emperor Nero (r. 54-68 CE) was emotionally unstable, involved in several conspiracies, a poor administrator, and used the Christians as a distraction of his imperial failings and frustrations. Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 CE) was said to be “a thoroughly nasty person, rarely polite, insolent, arrogant, and cruel.” A black-and-white thinker, he introduced anti-Jewish and anti-Christian laws, and demanded Christians worship him as god (people were to refer to him as dominus et deus - —‘master and god’). Emperor Decius (r. 249-251 CE) also issued royal edicts to suppress Christianity, demanding that all Christian bishops offer sacrifices to him.
Despite the famous cruelty of Nero, perhaps the greatest persecutions of all happened during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305 CE). A zealot for Paganism, he called himself, “the Vicar of Jupiter,” and believed that the eclipsing of Roman power was more due to Christianity than bad governorship. Thus, he issued the strongest anti-Christian edicts of all the emperors, commanding that all Christian churches were to be burned, all Christians were to be deprived of political office, all Christian scriptures and bibles were to be burned, and all private and public worship of Jesus was to cease. Despite his austere measures, though, the Christian movement grew stronger.
One of the most famous Christian martyrs was Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna (Turkey), who was executed during or around the reign of Marcus Auerlius (r. 161-180 CE). One of the Apostle John’s disciples - the others being Papias of Hierapolis (c. 70-163 CE), Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35 CE – 108 CE), and Irenaeus of Lyons (early 2nd century – 202 CE) - Polycarp was a guardian of the faith and unyielding to the end of his days. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the (unknown) author writes,
Eighty and six years have I served Christ, nor has He ever done me any harm. How, then, could I blaspheme my King who saved me? You threaten the fire that burns for an hour and then is quenched; but you know not of the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of eternal punishment. Bring what you will.
Martyrdom was not limited to officials in the Christian movement or believers only from the male gender, either. In 203 CE, five Carthaginians defied the Imperial orders of Septimus Severus (145 -211 CE) prohibiting conversion to Christianity and were subsequently arrested, including Vibia Perpetua, a twenty-two-year-old Roman noblewoman and her servant/handmaiden, Felicitas. A young mother, Perpetua was allowed to breastfeed her young child in prison, and Felicitas was eight months pregnant, but both women still refused to recant their faith (despite the objections and pleading of Perpetua’s father). During their execution, they were first mauled by a mad cow, finally being dispatched by sword in the arena. The three other male slaves - Revocatus, Saturnius, and Secundulus - were whipped and then thrown into the arena to defend themselves against a wild boar, a bear, and a leopard.
The Canon of Scripture & Orthodoxy
Even with the aforementioned challenges to the Christian movement, from its earliest days through the centuries of development, Christianity’s focus stayed on its founder - Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The Apostolic and Church Fathers labored to preserve the authentic message of Jesus and his Disciples, rejecting works and ideas that were more than just unsubstantiated myth, personal biases, or incongruent teachings concerning theology on God and Jesus. Moreover, a majority rule or belief had to be accepted by the ecumenical councils from all areas of the Roman Empire - Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, etc.; before there was commitment, there had to be careful Christian consensus.
In determining the standard or canon for Christian scripture, the early Christian leaders used a four-part “rubric” and international community affirmation to approve or reject books and letters for biblical inclusion. First, the writings had to be Catholic, used universally all over the Mediterranean religion; second, the writings had to be Orthodox, or included correct truths of Jesus and his message; third, the writings had to be Apostolic, or written in the time of Jesus by his Disciples/Apostles; finally, the writings had to be Traditional, or used often and regularly by Christian churches. If a book or letter could place this “COAT” upon its back, it was worthy of inclusion in the biblical canon.
Moreover, because of their historical closeness to Jesus and his direct training of their authors, the Gospel accounts and letters (the Epistles) of the Disciples/Apostles were considered to be superior, authoritative sources in discerning authentic Christian doctrine. Contrary to some who claim these early Christian church fathers made their choices out of personal benefit, it is interesting to note that none of the Apostolic Fathers’ own writings (The Didache, 1 & 2 Clement, the Epistles of Ignatius, the Epistle of Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, etc.) made it into the biblical canon despite having great cultural value and influence.
Thus, despite regional differences and emphases, despite strong personalities and community dominance, the major tenets of Christianity were established for the church, using Scripture as the main guide, and only confirmed through ecumenical councils from all over the Mediterranean region. This was done both for unity within the Christian body, but also to protect against heretical ideas seeping into Christianity from various false teachers and movements (many of which are still held today by some people).
For instance, the Gnostics promoted a secret way to the divine that vilified the flesh and contradicted the theology of the Hebrew scriptures with its own pantheon of deities, demons, and spiritual beings. Docetism promoted the idea that Jesus only appeared to die on the Cross, as he was only spirit and never truly incarnated. Arianism contended that Jesus was a created being, not equal with God the Father. Nestorianism held that Jesus existed as two separate people, and that only the human Jesus suffered and died on the Cross. Pelagianism suggested the idea that Adam’s original sin did not carry on through him to all humanity, and that all human beings can effect their own salvation through the will and wise choices. All of these movements contradicted, in some way, scriptural evidence in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Therefore, utilizing biblical verification, early church leaders arduously strived to compose and communicate the supernatural relationship of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, which they eventually termed, “The Trinity” - the Latin word for “Three-ness.” Specifically, the Church Fathers concluded that God exists as a single deity with three separate but permanently connected persons in his ontology. So, though one God, he is also differentiated within himself to accomplish his divine will in Heaven, the universe, and on earth. He is not three separated entities or beings; nor is he a single person revealing himself in three forms (which the heresy, Modalism, contends). Paradoxically, God’s persons are simultaneous and not consecutive, and, via “Perichoresis,” they “dance around each other,” focusing on specific activities although still enveloping each other and each other’s work. Though not specifically referenced in the Bible by word, the reality of the Trinity can be observed in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, although it is more noticeable in the New Testament writers’ assertions and explanations.
To preserve the original message and meaning of Christianity, several Christian communities created creeds (a formal statement of religious belief) to help define and defend Christian doctrine and characteristics. Many consider Romans 10:8-9 to be the first Christian creed - “The word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Christian tradition suggests that, later on, the Jesus’ Disciples wrote the Apostles Creed (c. 150 CE) after Jesus’ crucifixion, although modern scholarship puts the date to be post 2nd century CE. In this ancient creed, it presents God as the creator, discusses Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. It also references the Holy Spirit and his communication with the World (although it omits an official discussion of the Trinity), and ends with an explanation of the Church, its saints, and the afterlife.
Under the supervision of Emperor Constantine I, the Nicene Creed (325 CE) was composed by an ecumenical council, which was and is accepted as authoritative by most Christian groups, but not by the Eastern Orthodox Church (at least, the second version in 381 CE is rejected for adding in the Filioque Clause—"And the Son"). It describes the pre-existence of Jesus Christ, his role in the future judgment of humanity, how Jesus is "homoousis" - of one substance with God, how/why the Holy Spirit is to be worshipped as part of the holy family, discusses the requirement of baptism, and minimizes the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, interestingly.
Although there are others, the Athanasian Creed (328 CE) is important as it deals mainly with the Trinity, and pushes back against the heresies of the day: Arianism, Docetism, Modalism, and Monophytism. It expands upon the Nicene Creed and promotes a more exclusive understanding of salvation and eternal rejection for non-believers.
Constantine the Great & the Establishment of Early Medieval Christianity
The followers of Jesus Christ would finally see a reprieve from their centuries-long struggles to worship Jesus Christ as their king and Lord in Roman society under Emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus, also known as Constantine I the Great (c. 280-337 CE). Contrary to his predecessors, and perhaps because of the havoc and weakening that ensued after Diocletian’s abdication of the Imperial throne in 305 CE, Constantine saw value (and possibly truth) in the Christian way and, once in power, took steps to remove all former legal restrictions on Christianity. Specifically, in the Edict of Milan, composed in 313 CE, Constantine offered citizens of the Empire new freedoms and protections from centuries-old bigoted edicts. No doubt, 4th-century CE Christians felt a peace like none before as they read (or heard) in the Edict of Milan,
When you see that this has been granted to [Christians] by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.
Although Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity is controversial (was it for personal or political reasons?), the future sole emperor later spoke of a dream that he had the night before his pivotal battle with Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312 CE) wherein God told him to have the Christian “Chi-Rho” monogram painted on his soldiers’ shields to ensure success. Considering that Maxentius’ forces were double that of Constantine’s, Constantine’s chances were slim, at best. Whether due to desperation or blind faith, he purportedly submitted to the instructions in his dream (although early reports of the battle omit the divine vision telling him, "In hoc signo vinces" - "In this sign conquer"), carried a new banner of allegiance into battle, and won the day.
His victory achieved, and with the drowning of Maxentius earlier in battle, Constantine went on to become sole emperor of an undivided empire in 324 CE. An apt and inspirational administrator, he set forth to reform the great Roman Empire that had been dwindling down for decades, with God at his back. More so, he became a patron of Christianity and its church, appointing Christians to high political office and giving them the same rights as other Pagan political officers, paving the way for Christianity to lead society - not be dragged down or crushed by it.
By the 5th century CE, Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, leading to a dramatic change in how the faith played out in greater society. This caused a shift in Christianity from private to public worship; from a distinctly Jewish character to one more aligned with the Gentiles; from an individual matter to more of a community affair; from a seeker-driven faith to an exclusively chosen body of believers; from a looser, more informal structure to that of distinct strata of operation and authority; and from gender empowering to more specific gender-specific limitations. Additionally, Christian leaders had to figure out how Christianity integrated with Roman law and government, dealt with barbarian peoples, and still maintained the essence of Jesus’ teachings and missions for his followers.
The next two centuries of Christianity would see the development of the episcopacy and the rise of a religious aristocracy - the clergy and laity, the papacy, the priesthood of some, not all, believers. Furthermore, where previously riches were a sign of greed and exploitation, once endorsed and involved with the emperor, now riches were seen in a more favorable light. An even greater juxtaposition was the shift from Christian pacifism to militarianism (also no doubt due to the syncretization of Christianity into secular society). Theologically, there was a move away from Millennialism and the Second Coming of Christ to a more practical, earthly understanding of the kingdom of God; the enforcement of clerical abstinence and the condemnation of simony; the addition of Purgatory to key medieval church dogma; the establishment of the Sacraments, which institutionally demonstrated the outward signs of God’s inward grace in the lives of his followers; and the evolution of Christian monasticism throughout Europe and Africa.
Some might consider such institutionalism contrary to the original Jesus movement; however, it is best to remember that, according to Christian scripture, Jesus was confirmed by Jewish scripture to be the prophesized Messiah, he taught regularly and enthusiastically in the Temple for years, he affirmed and participated in the numerous Jewish festivals and customs required of Judaism, and he became the perfect priest and sacrifice before God on humanity’s behalf. Moreover, Jesus also established his Twelve Disciples to be official ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, to act as heralds of the new covenant between God and humanity. He also promised them that at the Final Judgment, they would be the ones to judge the tribes of Israel.
Yet, Jesus was quite adroit at making the best of all situations, whether personal or public, private or institutional, turning every situation into an opportunity to love God with all his heart, soul, and mind; and to love his neighbor as himself. He also called upon his believers to follow his loving model in reaching the world for God. As the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians, which includes one of the oldest self-definitions of Christianity, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins so that he might rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever more. Amen" (Galatians 1:3-5, NASB).
In the 20-plus centuries since the ministry of Jesus, many Christians have willingly and sacrificially tried to reach the world for God, to continue the great commandment of Jesus Christ in their own complicated lives, changing cultures, and imperfect ways - sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. This was true in the 1st century, CE, and, century after century, it is still a reality for the Christian movement, 2,000 years later.