Spread of Christianity in the West, 300-600 AD, image cocc.edu
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The first Christians, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, were all Jewish. The early Gospel message was spread orally; probably in Aramaic. The New Testament's Book of Acts and Epistle to the Galatians (45 AD) record that the first Christian community was centered in Jerusalem and its leaders included the Apostels Peter, James, and John. Paul of Tarsus, after his conversion to Christianity (40 AD), became the "Apostle to the Gentiles". He argued that Gentile Christians did not need to become Jews, get circumcised, follow Jewish dietary restrictions, or otherwise observe Mosaic laws to be saved. Paul's influence on Christian thinking became more significant than any other New Testament writer. By the end of the 1st century, Christianity began to be recognized internally and externally as a separate religion from Rabbinic Judaism which itself was refined and developed further in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple (70 AD). Christianity spread from Jerusalem throughout the Near East, into Syria, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Jordan and Egypt. In the 4th century it was successively adopted as the state religion by Armenia in 301, Georgia in 319, the Aksumite Empire in 325, and after the conversion of Emperor Constantin I Nicene Christianity was declared the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Flavius Theodosius I in 380 AD.
From the beginning, Christians were subject to various persecutions.
This resulted in the death of such Christians as Stephen,
a deacon of the early church at Jerusalem (Acts 7:59), who was stoned
to death by a Jewish mob (34 AD) for predicting the destruction of
the Second Temple.
Larger-scale persecutions followed at the hands of the authorities of the Roman Empire, beginning with the year 64, when the Emperor Nero blamed them for that year's great Fire of Rome. According to Church tradition, it was under Nero that Peter and Paul (62 AD) were martyred in Rome. For 250 years Christians suffered from sporadic persecutions for their refusal to worship the Roman emperor, considered treasonous and punishable by execution.
The Phenomenal Expansion of
In spite of these at-times intense persecutions, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin.There is no agreement on an explanation of how Christianity managed to spread so fast prior to the Edict of Milan (313 AD) and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire (380 AD). Wikipedia
Edward Gibbon, in his classic "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," (1780) discusses the topic in considerable detail. In his famous Chapter Fifteen he summarized the historical causes of the early success of Christianity: "(1) The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and asocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. (2) The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth. (3) The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. (4) The pure and austere morals of the Christians. (5) The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire." And, may I add, the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin Mary
to Mary goes back to the 3rd century and predates the emergence
of a specific Marian liturgical cult (5th cent) following the First
Ephesus in 431. The Council itself was held at a church in
Ephesus which had been dedicated to Mary about a hundred years
before. In Egypt the veneration of Mary had started in the 3rd
century and the term Theotokos was used by the Alexandrian
AD) At Ephesus it was agreed that Jesus took divinity from God the
Father and humanity from his mother.....
According to the apocryphal Gospel of James (145 AD) Mary was the daughter of the elderly couple of Joachim and Anna. Mary was given into service as a consecrated virgin in the Temple in Jerusalem when she was three years. At the time of her betrothal to Joseph Mary was, as was the Jewish custom, 12 years old. Hyppolitus of Thebes claims that Mary lived for 11 years after the death of her Son, dying in 41 AD either in Jerusalem or Ephesus.
Bosch's painting is a late curiosity which shows the three Magi (Kings) Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – and a fourth “King” in the door looking on in great glee. He is Adam. The painting illustrates the apocryphal story connected with the visit of the Three Magi to Bethlehem. It connects Epiphany with Adam: Adam had saved Three Precious Things from Paradise: Gold, Incense, and Myrrh, the symbols of his Kingship, his position as High Priest, and of his magical powers of Healing. Noah's sons saved not only Adam's body but also the Three Precious Things. After the Flood they buried Adam's scull on the Hill of Golgotha as depicted on many medieval crucifixions. The Three Precious Things were brought to Bethlehem by the Magi to anoint the new-born Christ as the King, Priest, and Healer of the New Covenant, as the "New Adam."
Imperial Roman Christianity and its Dissident
With Christianity's origin in the Levant one cannot expect that the early Christians would have been all of the same mind. In the first two centuries AD the Near East was ripe for a “mystically” oriented new religion. Rooted in narrow-mided, legalistic, anti-artistic, tribal Judaism early Christianity had a hard stand against Helenistic Neoplatonism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, and Zoroastrian, even Buddhist influences. “Gnostic ideas” abound in the second century. If it had not been for St. Paul's sober, liberalizing influence among the Gentiles and Constantin I's imperial fist, Christianity might well have disappeared in the religious squabbles of the third and fourth century. Some of the internal Christian factitions have played a role in the Church to this day, some have left us with veritable miracles of artistic creativty, all have shaped the Imperial Roman Church. The initially most influential movements were Arianism, Nestorianism, and Manicheism.
Arianism was the theological teaching attributed to Arius (254–336 AD), a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. Concerned with the relationship of God the Father to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, Arius asserted that the Son of God was a subordinate entity to God the Father. Deemed a heretic by the Ecumenical First Council of Nicaea of 325, Arius was later exonerated in 335 at the regional First Synod of Tyre, and then, after his death, pronounced a heretic again at the Ecumenical First Council of Constantinople of 381. The Roman Emperors Constantius II (337–361) and Valens (364–378) were Arians or Semi-Arians.
The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by—and is therefore distinct from—God the Father. This belief is grounded in the Gospel passage “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I." (John 14:28).
By 325, the controversy had become significant enough that Emperor Constantine I called an assembly of bishops, the First Council of Nicaea, which condemned Arius' doctrine and formulated the original Nicene Creed of 325. The Nicene Creed's central term, used to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son as Homoousios (Ancient Greek: ὁμοούσιος), or Consubstantial, meaning "of the same substance" or "of one being".
During the time of Arianism's flowering in Constantinople, the Gothic convert Ulfilas was sent as a missionary to the Gothic tribes across the Danube, a mission favored for political reasons by emperor Constantius II. Ulfilas' initial success in converting this Germanic people to an Arian form of Christianity was strengthened by later events. When the Germanic peoples invaded the Roman Empire and founded successor-kingdoms in its western part, most had been Arian Christians for more than a century.
Ravenna the Ostrogoth capital in the 6th.century, under King Theodoric the Great (493-553) became an architectural treasure trove of Ostrogoth-Roman mosaics. The royal house was Arian, the people Nicene Christians. Theodoric kept the peace between the two factions by building two baptistries.
The conflict in the 4th century had seen Arian and Nicene factions struggling for control of the Church. In contrast, in the Arian Germanic kingdoms established on the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, there were entirely separate Arian and Nicene Churches with parallel hierarchies, each serving different sets of believers. The Germanic elites were Arians, and the majority population was Nicene. Many scholars see the persistence of Germanic Arianism as a strategy that was followed in order to differentiate the Germanic elite from the local inhabitants and their culture and also to maintain the Germanic elite's separate group identity.
Much of southeastern Europe and central Europe, including many of the
Goths and Vandals respectively, had embraced Arianism (the Visigoths
converted to Arian Christianity in 376), which led to Arianism being
a religious factor in various wars in the Roman Empire. In the west,
organized Arianism survived in North Africa, in Hispania, and parts
of Italy until it was finally suppressed in the 6th and 7th
centuries. Grimwald, King of the Lombards (662–671), and his young
son and successor Garibald (671), were the last Arian kings in
Nestorians and the
Church of the East
The Church of the East (Nestorians) held the doctrine that Christ had two natures, the Man Jesus and the Divine Son of God, or Logos, rather than one unified person. This doctrine was preached by Nestorius (386–451), Archbishop of Constantinople. This view of Christ was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. At the Council of Chacedon (451) the Nestorians were finally excommunicated by imperial decree and fleeing prosecution devoted themselves to the Christianization of Central and East Asia.
Spread of Nestorians and the Church of the East along the Silk Road
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Syriac became the lingua franca along the Silk Road. In the 7th century the Nestorians reached China and established a community which flourished under imperial Chinese protection in the capital Changan until the 9th century. It is not commonly known that the mother of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his household were baptized Nestorians.
Stele in Changan (635-846 AD). A stele, written in Chinese and
Syriac, documents the acceptance of a Nestorian Christian community
in Changan (781 AD). At the top of the tablet, there is a cross.
Calling God "Veritable Majesty", the text refers to
Genesis. Nestorians had reached China by 635. The Nestorian Stele
grants the Syrian Nestorians specific rights in the capital of the
In the 9th century Tang Emperor Wuzong (840-846) persecuted all foreign religions, including Buddhists, Manicheans, and Nestorians, which spelled the official end of the Nestorian communities in China.
Another branch of the Church of the East, the St. Thomas Christians, embarked from Aksum (Ethiopia) on the much sailed route to India, and St. Thomas the Apostle founded and built a Christian Church in Kundurgallur (Muziris, Kerala) in 52 AD – the first Christian church outside the Levant. There existed a Jewish community there, and in 629 AD they were joined by the earliest Moslem congration before the death of Prophet Muhammad. All three communities still exist today in Kerala.
Manicheans, the Followers of
Nestorians were a split-off from orthodox, imperial Roman
Christianity, the Manicheans
were its formidable competition in the third and fourth century.
Mani, their founder and “prophet”, was born 216 AD in Mesopotamia (Iraq), which was then part of Sassanid Persia. He argued that the teachings of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus were incomplete. Calling his revelations the "Religion of Light", he contended that it was applicable to the entire world. Manichaean writings indicate that Mani received his revelations when he was 12 and again at 24.
Mani declared himself to be an "Apostle of Jesus Christ". Manichaean tradition claimed that he was also the reincarnation of the historical Buddha, Lord Krishna, and Zaroaster.
Mani's teaching dealt with the existence of evil by postulating a dualistic world view: a powerful, though not omnipotent good power (God) was opposed by the semi-eternal evil power (Satan). Man, the world, and the Soul were seen as the battleground of these forces: the Soul defined the person, but it is under the influence of both light and dark. This contention plays out over the world as well as the human body—neither the Earth nor the flesh were seen as intrinsically evil, but rather possessed by both light and dark. The Manichaean worldview explained the existence of evil with a flawed creation. God took no role in forming it, the world was the result of Satan striking out against God. Evil would be made powerless by the Messiah’s Second Coming.
The spread and success of Manichaeism was seen as a threat to other religions, and it was widely persecuted in Hellenistic, Christian, Zaroastrian, Islamic, and Buddhist cultures. Under pressures of the Zaroastrians, the king of Persia had Mani executed in 274 or 277.
Recto and verso of a Manichean manuscript written in Sogdian, Khotcho, 10th cent., Mus. für Indische Kunst, Berlin
Manichaen monastic communities continued to spread through both the
east and west. They reached Rome by 280 AD, flourished in the Fayum
area of Egypt in 290 AD, and followed the Silk Road into China in the
8th to 10th century. In fact, some of the most beautiful Manichean
manuscripts were found in their monasteries in Khotcho in the Turfan
depression. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 AD during
the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD) was a Manichean before he converted to Christianity in 387, shortly after the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had issued a decree to persecute all Manichaeans in 382 AD. After nine or ten years of adhering to the Manichaean faith St. Augustine became a fanatic prosecutor of Manichaeism. Modern scholars have pointed out that Manichaean ideas influenced Augustine's thinking, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of the faithful into elect, hearers, and sinners, and his hostility to the flesh and sexual activity.
Manichaen concepts remained a sporadic and intermittent presence in the west - Mesopotamia, Africa, Spain, France, Northern Italy, and the Balkans for a thousand years, and flourished in Persia, Northern India, Western China, and Tibet into the 10th century.
The Gnostics – The Nag Hammadi
Gnosticism, from the Greek word “gnosis,” knowledge, is primarily a Christian phenomenon. To date, no pre-Christian gnostic texts have been found, and gnosticism as a unique and recognizable belief system is typically considered to be a second century (or later) development. Prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945-1975 Gnostic writings were primarily known through the anti-heretical polemics of the Church Fathers. The 12 leather-bound Nag Hammadi codices, buried in a sealed jar, were found by local peasants The manuscripts, written in Coptic and Greek on papyrus, date to the third and fourth centuries. They may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery, and were buried after Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria condemned the use of non-canonical books in 367 AD.
Three stand out:
The Gospel of Thomas, is a well preserved early Christian text composed of 114 non-canonical sayings attributed to Jesus. Almost half of these sayings resemble those found in the Canonical Gospels, while the other half may have been added from Gnostic oral tradition. However, Thomas doesn't mention crucifixion, resurrection, or final judgement; nor does he display a messianic understanding of Jesus.
The Gospel of Philip is not related to the Canonical Gospels. It is an apocryphal “anthology” of gnostic teachings and reflections written between 150 AD and 350 AD. The text is perhaps most famous as an early source for the popular hypothesis that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. The Greek manuscript describes Jesus as Mary's "koinonos," or "companion," which may imply an intimate relationship.
The Gospel of Truth is generally considered one of the most poetic texts in the Nag Hammadi collection. It is both a great literary work and a gnostic exegesis on several canonical gospels. An online English translation is found here.
3rd–11th cent AD
With the Church in imperial Roman hands, monasticism began to play a
decisive role in preserving the orignal spirit of Christ' message.
Way into the 15th century it would continue to be an often
independent counterweight to the political aspirations of the worldly
Traditionally Christian monasticism began in the deserts of Egypt during the 4th cent AD. The immense changes in the Church that had been brought about by Constantine's acceptance of Christianity ended the position of Christians as a small group that believed itself to be the godly elite. In response a new form of dedication developed - influenced by the elaborate Manichean and Indian practices - to preserve the essence of the Christian message.
In the 3rd cent many Egyptian Christians went to the desert to pray and work and dedicate their lives to seclusion and worship of God. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, with St. Paul of Thebes (240-341) and St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356), the first anchorites, followed by St. Pachomius's (292-345 AD) cenobitic monasteries in the 4th cent.
Christian monasticism is in itself an assembly of lay members.
Originally, ordained clergy were not part of the monastic communities
(thus, monks relied on local parishes for sacramental ministrations).
However, if the monastery was isolated in the desert, as were many of
the Egyptian communities, they were compelled either to take in a
priest, or to have their abbot or another member ordained as a
priest. An ordained monk is called a hieromonk, and is now
generally a standard part of a cenobitic monastery.
From Egypt monasticism spread along the periphery of the Roman empire first to Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Carthage, Asia Minor, Greece, 6th cent Ireland and Britain, Gaul, Northern Italy, and Carolingian Germany.
In the West, the mosatic system broke down in the eleventh and twelfth century as religion became less of a preserve of the elite. In the East, monasticism continued to thrive even after the Great Schism of the eleventh century, becoming a touchstone and unifying center for Christians in the successor states to the Roman Empire, even after the Fall of Constantinople 1453.
Was there a Buddhist Connection?
Christ's teachings are sufficiently revolutionary in his Judeo-Levantine environment, that it has often been claimed, especially by Theosophists, that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity. Attention has been drawn to the many parallels between the Jatakas and the New Testament. The story of the birth of the Buddha was well known in the West, and possibly influenced the story of the birth of Jesus: Saint Jerome (4th century AD) mentions the birth of the Buddha, who he says "was born from the side of a virgin".
Historically, following Alexander's death in 323 BC the Diadochi (his successors) founded their own kingdoms in Central Asia: the Seleucid Kingdom, Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (3rd–2nd cent BC), followed by the Indo-Greek Kingdom (2nd–1st cent BC), and later the Kushan Empire (1st–3rd century AD). In all the majority of people were Buddhists. The Greek artisitc influence on Buddhist sculpture is undeniable. An exchannge of ideas from East to West, fom Buddhism to early Christianity is most sugestive.
Will Durant, noting that Maurian Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC) had sent embassies to Antioch, Alexandria, and Greece, speculated in the 1930s that they may have helped prepare the ground for Christian teaching. Nicolaus of Damascus claimed that in AD 13 he had met in Antioch an embassy of Sarmanaei (Greek: Σαρμαναίοι) with a letter written in Greek from the Southern India Pandya Empire. This embassy was accompanied by a sage who later, naked, anointed and contented, burnt himself to death at Athens. The details of his tomb inscription specified he was an Indian native of Barugaza (Gujarat). His accounts are also quoted by Porphyry (De abstin., iv, 17 ) and Stobaeus (Eccles., iii, 56, 141).
Metaphysically Buddhism and Christianity have inherent and fundamental differences at the deepest levels, beginning with monotheism's place at the core of Christianity and Buddhism's orientation towards non-theism (the lack of a creator deity) which runs counter to teachings about God in Christianity; and extending to the importance of Grace in Christianity against the rejection of interference with Karma in Theravada Buddhism. Another irreconcilable difference between the two traditions is the central Christian belief in the crucifixion of Jesus as a single event that acts as the atonement of sins, and its direct contradiction to Buddhist teachings. Elaine Pagels holds that although intriguing, the evidence of any influence is inconclusive.
The suggestion that an adult Jesus traveled to India and was influenced by Buddhism before starting his ministry in Galilee was first made by Nicolas Notovitch in 1894 in the book The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ which was widely disseminated and became the basis of numerous other sagas. Notovitch's tale was controversial from the beginning and was widely criticized. Once his story had been re-examined by historians, Notovitch confessed to having fabricated it.
Christianity in the Middle
This survey is not intended to be a shorter version of a History of Christianity. Where to stop? For further reading I attach a collection of sources for the next 1000 years with links to appropriate internet articles.
History of Christianity in the Middle Ages
Mission to Britain 596
Conversion of the Germanic tribes 7th-9th cent
Carolingian Renaissance 8th and 9th cent
Islam 620-15th cent
Iconoclasm 720-787 (842)
Conversion of Bulgaria 927, Kievan Rus 988
The Great East-West Schism 1050
Fall of Constantinople 1453