Christian History

Context of Christianity

The Christian religion was born in Palestine, a small stretch of land on the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Jews considered Palestine their Promised Land, but because of its desirable location it had been ruled by a succession of foreign powers for most of its history.

Egypt and Assyria fought over it for centuries, then Babylon conquered Assyria and Palestine with it. Next came the Persians led by Cyrus, who allowed the Jews to return to Palestine from exile, then the Greeks under Alexander the Great around 400 BC. Rome took Jerusalem in 63 BC, and Palestine was still under Roman rule at the time of Jesus' birth.

Despite the centuries of conflict in the region, Christianity developed in an atmosphere very conducive to the spread of religion. The earliest Christians noticed this, affirming that God had sent his Son "in the fullness of time." The Pax Romana initiated by Caesar Augustus quelled crime, allowed for the development of roads throughout the Empire, and gave citizens the leisure to think about religious matters.

Christianity entered an environment already rich with religious diversity. First-century Roman Palestine offered the ancient religion of Judaism, the political religion of the Roman state, the personal religion of the mystery cults, and the intellectual and ethical schools of Greek philosophy.

The immediate religious context of Christianity was Judaism. Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest converts to Christianity were Jews and their teachings were presented in a Jewish context. The Judaism of Jesus' time was characterized by strict monotheism, a gradual shift from temple ritual to personal ethics, restlessness under foreign domination, a strong sense of community, and expectations of the coming of a messiah.

Christianity began as a movement within Judaism at a period when the Jews had long been under foreign influence and rule and had found in their religion (rather than in their politics or cultural achievements) the linchpin of their community. In Palestinian Judaism the predominant note was separation and exclusiveness. {1} Several Jewish groups had formed by the time of Christ that held varying views on religious authority, certain theological issues, and the response to the Roman occupation. The Sadduccees were the most conservative group. They rejected the Oral Torah (the Talmud and other Jewish tradition and commentary) along with the doctrine of bodily resurrection, much of the beliefs about angels and demons held by other groups, and the doctrine of predestination. They focused on the temple ritual that had been practiced for centuries and tended to be on friendly terms with Roman authorities.

The Pharisees acknowledged the authority of both the Written and Oral Torah and focused on personal obedience of the Law over temple ritual. Though given a bad reputation due to Jesus' rebukes in the New Testament, the Pharisees were among the most observant and religious Jews of the time, and many were very pious.

The Essenes were a much smaller sect, but they have become well known since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that they are believed to have authored. The Essenes were an apocalyptic and ascetic group that emphasized extreme personal purity and remained separate from the rest of the Jewish community.

Various other small groups existed as well. Despite this diversity, however, the Judaism of Jesus' time was essentially unified by a devotion to one God, adherence to the Bible, emphasis on both Temple and Law, and eschatological hopes. {2}

Also highly significant to the religious context of Christianity were the pagan religions and philosophies of the Roman Empire. With the exception of Judaism, religion in the Greco-Roman world was marked by syncretism - that is, the easy exchange and borrowing of ideas and rituals between religious groups - so many of the pagan religions in existence in the time of Christ shared common characteristics with one another.

Nevertheless, distinct threads of pagan religious thought are clearly identifiable, the most prominent being the cults of the Roman state, the mystery religions, and the schools of Greek philosophy.

Cults of the Roman State The Roman state cults were adopted from the Eastern pattern of deifying emperors and honoring the gods of individual cities. The cult of the emperor, which began with Augustus, was organized by the state and used primarily to reinforce and test political loyalty. Statues of Augustus were erected and rituals were developed to honor him, but the cult generated little religious feeling or personal belief.

The primary significance of the state cult for early Christianity was in its political uses, for many Christians (and Jews) refused to offer a sacrifice in honor Caesar and were persecuted heavily for it. Although actual personal belief in the divinity of Caesar was of little to no importance to Roman authorities, the unwillingness of monotheists to go through the ritual motions was taken as evidence of disloyalty to the Roman Empire.

Mystery Religions The pagan mystery religions, named for their focus on secret knowledge and rituals available only to initiates, met the need for personal religious devotion that the state cult could not.

Mystery religions had become quite widespread by the time of Christ, but their characteristics are not entirely known due to their secretive nature and the lack of writings associated with them. What is known of the mystery religions has primarily been deduced from artwork, remains of temples and other archaeological discoveries.

A variety mystery religions were practiced throughout the Empire, but most of them held in common a heavy element of secrecy, the use of syncretism in their belief and practice, and a focus on the death and resurrection of a savior-god.

Though some similarities are clear between these religions and Christianity (death and resurrection of a god, a ceremonial meal, etc.), scholars differ as to the level of influence the mystery religions exerted on early Christianity. Part of the difficulty is that the bulk of our knowledge of these pagan religions dates from the second century onward, and the mystery religions may have been influenced by Christianity by then. {3} Also, the two religious movements flourished in the same cultural context, so it is possible their similarities are best explained not by dependence but in terms of parallel development. {4}

Greek Philosophy Especially as Christianity expanded beyond Palestine, it also came into contact with Greek philosophy, especially of the Platonic and Stoic varieties. Hellenistic thinking would become a significant influence on Christian thought, for most of the early church fathers were Greek-speaking Gentiles who had been trained in classical philosophy. Like the Hellenistic Jews before them, they believed classical philosophy to be compatible with the ancient teachings of Semitic monotheism, and even more with the teachings of Christianity.

Jesus of Nazareth

Christianity begins with Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who was born in a small corner of the Roman Empire. Little is known of his early life, but around the age of 30, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and had a vision in which he received the blessing of God.

After this event, he began a ministry of teaching, healing, and miracle-working. He spoke of the "kingdom of God," condemned religious hypocrites and interpreted the Mosaic law in new ways. He spoke before crowds of people, but also chose 12 disciples whom he taught privately. They eagerly followed him, believing him to be the long-awaited Messiah who would usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

After just a few years, however, opposition mounted against Jesus, and he was ultimately executed by crucifixion by the Romans. Most of Jesus' followers scattered, dismayed at such an unexpected outcome. But three days later, women who went to anoint his body reported that the tomb was empty and an angel told them Jesus had risen from the dead. The disciples were initially skeptical, but later came to believe. They reported that Jesus appeared to them on several occasions and then ascended into heaven before their eyes.

The Early Church

The remainder of the first century AD saw the number of Jesus' followers, who were soon called "Christians," grow rapidly. Instrumental in the spread of Christianity was a man named Paul, a zealous Jew who had persecuted Christians, then converted to the faith after experiencing a vision of the risen Jesus. Taking advantage of the extensive system of Roman roads and the time of peace, Paul went on numerous missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire. He started churches, then wrote letters back to them to offer further counsel and encouragement. Many of these letters would become part of the Christian scriptures, the "New Testament."

In the second and third centuries AD, Christians struggled with persecution from outside the church and doctrinal debates from within the church. Christian leaders, who are now called the "church fathers," wrote defenses of the false claims made against Christians (apologetics) as well as arguments against false teachings spreading within the church (polemics). Doctrines were explored, developed, and solidified, the canon of the New Testament was formed, and the notion of "apostolic succession" established a system of authority to guard against wrong interpretations of Christian teachings.

A major turning point in Christian history came in the early 4th century AD, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The Christian religion became legal, persecution ceased, and thousands of pagans now found it convenient to convert to the emperor's faith. Allied with the Roman Empire, Christianity gradually rose in power and hierarchy until it became the "Christendom" that would encompass the entire western world in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Emperor Constantine hoped Christianity would be the uniting force of his empire, so he was distressed to hear of a dispute over Arianism, which held that Christ was more than a man but less than God himself. In 325 AD, Constantine called the Council of Nicea so that the bishops could work out their differences. They condemned Arius and Arianism and declared the Son (Christ) to be of "one substance" with the Father. After the council, St. Athanasius of Alexandria continued to battle the Arians, but the orthodox view eventually won out for good. The church then turned to issues about Christ's divine and human natures, which were essentially resolved at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).

In the meantime, the considerable religious, cultural, and political differences between the Eastern and Western churches were becoming increasingly apparent. Religiously, the two parts of Christendom had different views on topics such as the use of icons, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the date on which Easter should be celebrated. Culturally, the Greek East has always tended to be more philosophical and abstract in its thinking, while the Latin West tended toward a more pragmatic and legal-minded approach.

As the old saying goes: "the Greeks built metaphysical systems; the Romans built roads." The political aspects of the split began with the Emperor Constantine, who moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (in modern Turkey). Upon his death, the empire was divided between his two sons, one of whom ruled the western half of the empire from Rome while the other ruled the eastern region from Constantinople.

1054 AD

These various factors finally came to a head in 1054 AD, when Pope Leo IX excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Eastern church. The Patriarch condemned the Pope in return, and the Christian church has been officially divided into West ("Roman Catholic") and East ("Greek Orthodox") ever since.

In the 1400s, some western Christians began to publicly challenge aspects of the church. They spoke against the abuse of authority and corruption in Christian leadership. They called for a return to the gospel and a stripping off of traditions and customs like purgatory, the cult of the saints and relics, and the withholding of the communion wine from non-clergy. They began to translate the Bible - then available only in Latin - into the common languages of the people.

However, these early reformers did not have widespread success, and most were executed for their teachings. Legend has it that when Jan Hus, a Czech reformer whose surname means "goose," was burned at the stake in 1415, he called out: "Today you roast a goose, but in 100 years, a swan will sing!"


In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther (who bore little resemblence to a swan) posted 97 complaints against the practice of selling indulgences on a church door. He had experienced a personal conversion to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and also shared many of the ideas of those early reformers. Growing German nationalism and the invention of the printing press ensured that Luther would have greater protection than his predecessors and his teachings would be spread quickly.

He was excommunicated and barely escaped with his life on more than one occasion, but Luther lived out his life spreading the Reformation, and died a natural death. His ideas had already spread throughout Germany, and similar reforming movements sprung up in England and Switzerland. Soon much of Europe was embroiled in a civil war, with Protestant nationalists fighting Catholic imperialists for religious and political freedom.

In the 17th century, Christians of many ideologies embarked on the hazardous journey across the Atlantic, to the promise of religious freedom and economic prosperity in the New World. Quakers came to Pennsylvania, Catholics to Maryland, and Dutch Reformed to New York. Later came Swedish Lutherans and French Huguenots, English Baptists and Scottish Presbyterians. With the exception of some Puritan communities, there was no attempt to impose religious uniformity in America.

The period from about 1648 to 1800 was an age in which reason (as opposed to revelation and dogma) became increasingly important, but so did religious revival. Benjamin Franklin exemplified his time's general attitude towards religious matters when he remarked, a few weeks before his death:

As to Jesus of Nazareth...I have...some doubts as to his Divinity, tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it.... I see no harm, however, it its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence...of making his doctrines more respected and better observed. At the same time that religious skepticism and toleration were growing in the west, so too were revival movements that sought to return to masses to genuine faith in Christ and the gospel of salvation. George Whitefield arrived in the colonies from England in 1739, and experienced wide success with his revival sermons. Jonathan Edwards was famous for his fiery sermons in which he described in detail the torments of those who do not have personal faith in Jesus Christ. John Wesley was revivalist preacher and a personal friend of Whitefield, but he differed strongly from his Presbyterian friend on the doctrine of predestination. Wesley founded a small group of preachers and bible students, who focused on holy living and came to be called the "Methodists."

Today, Christianity is the largest world religion, with about 2 billion adherents. It is the majority religion of Europe and the Americas, and there are churches in almost every nation in the world. There are perhaps thousands of Christian denominations, all of whom believe in the basic doctrines established at the Council of Nicea but differ in other matters of doctrine and practice. In recent years, there has been a growing movement among these denominations to work together in unity for the good of the world. In 1948, the World Council of Churches was founded to that end.

- "Christianity." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
- Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol 1, pp. 29-37.
- Gonzalez, pp. 55-58.
- "mystery religion." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
- Ramsay McMullen, Paganism and Christianity, 100-425 CE: A Sourcebook (1992).

Article Info

TitleChristian History
UpdatedNovember 10, 2015
MLA Citation“Christian History.” 10 Nov. 2015. Web. Accessed 26 Nov. 2015. <>