Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 3: The Rise of Christianity

Copyright ©2010, 2011 by T. Pavlidis

The Origins of Christianity

Christianity started small, as a Jewish sect. Before the Jewish revolt of 70CE Jewish sources describe Christians as Minim, i.e. heretics for believing that Jesus was the Messiah [LS1985, pp 51-61, Addendum to Chapter 3]. Sixty years later, after the Bar-Kokhba rebellion, Christianity appears as a separate religion. [ibid, p. 75]. We can only speculate about the reasons for that development.

The Oxford theologian C. H. Dodd has characterized the period 100-180CE as one when the Christian Church went through a dark tunnel [SA1997, p.13]. Christian theological writings from that period focus on developing a distinct identity from Judaism, Hellenism, and, particularly, Gnosticism [ibid]. The latter was a second century CE movement that emphasized knowledge (gnosis in Greek) as opposed to the Christian emphasis on faith [EB82]. The knowledge of the Gnostics was supposed to be esoteric obtained by divine revelation. While many of the Gnostic beliefs can be traced to Greek, Jewish, and even Zoroastrian beliefs, Gnosticism did not become prominent until after Christianity [EB82]. Most of the modern knowledge about Gnosticism is derived from Christian polemics against them and as a result it is limited. However, echoes of it appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls so the Essenes might have had an interest in Gnosticism.

A remarkable development of the period was the rejection of Greek philosophers by Christian apologists that was expressed as follows: "Anything correct in the treatises of the philosophers has either been taken from the Prophets or has been inserted there by demons in order to create problems for Christianity" [SA1997, p. 117 attributing the summary of ancient Christian views to the German theologian Adolf von Harnack]. This attitude was going to have enormous consequences and it is still held by some Christian fundamentalists today.

Even though Christianity became a separate religion, its connection to Jewish beliefs survives in its name that is derived from the Greek word for Messiah. The correspondence of the words is shown in the table below. The word Χριστος is related to the word χρισμα meaning unction or, metaphorically, approval. It should not be confused with the word χρηστος meaning virtuous.

The Word for Messiah
English Hebrew Greek
Anointed משיח Χριστος
(pronunciation) mashiakh Christos

We should add that first Christians (more precisely Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah) expected the end of the world to come very soon (there are statements in the Gospels that the kingdom of God would arrive during the lifetime of those present). Under Roman rule, living conditions in the land of Israel were at odds with Jewish religious practices and the belief that the end of the world was near had a certain appeal. The destruction of Jerusalem after the 70CE encouraged the belief that "the end of time was near". When the end of the world did not arrive as expected the belief on future life and the immortality of soul took the place of offering hope to the oppressed.

Why Christianity Spread

The classic work of Gibbon [EG] includes two long chapters (XV and XVI) on Christianity. Chapter XV lists five reasons for the spread of Christianity. (I) "The intolerant zeal of the Christians"; (II) "The doctrine of a future life"; (III) The miracles "ascribed to the primitive church"; (IV) The "pure and austere morals of the Christians"; and (V) "The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire." [EG, vol. 1, p. 431].

Gibbon's analysis of the first reason exhibits a negative attitude towards the Jews. In essence he claims that the Christians had the "intolerant zeal" of the Jews but not their "exclusivity". However, Gibbon is wrong about the "exclusivity" of the Jews because that is a relatively modern phenomenon as we pointed out in Chapter 2 (Section on Hellenism and Judaism). Therefore Gibbon's first reason is based on a false premise and leaves open the question why Christians were more successful than Jews.

The second reason is also disputable because other religions also promise future life, starting with the ancient Egyptians. The immortality of the soul was also accepted in Judaism after the Babylonian exile. Gibbon states that the immortality and pre-existence of the soul was accepted "from the philosophy of religion of the eastern nations" [EG, vol. 1, p. 452]. We can also dispense with the third reason because few if any people ever witnessed the miracles. Therefore the last two reasons seemed to be the most important.

Wright [Wr09, pp. 266-287] presents the following theory for the spread of Christianity. The large extent of the Roman Empire in the first century CE encouraged the migration of people from far away places into the major cities. These migrants sought the support of voluntary associations, some of them centered around a cult. This was similar to what happened in the United States in modern times. Christian churches, according to E. R. Dodds (quoted by Wright [ibid]), provided "the essentials of social security". According to Wright this is where the Christian emphasis on brotherly love proved useful providing a stronger bond amongst the members of a church than that provided by other associations. Paul of Tarsus was an organizational genius and Wright details how his action led to the spread of Christianity. In essence, Wright's reasons for the spread fit with reasons (IV) and (V) of Gibbon.

What was unique in Christianity compared to the pre-existing pagan religions was the hierarchical structure where different churches were supervised by a bishop and different bishops by a metropolitan. Gibbon asserts that the office the bishop was introduced before the end of the first century [EG, vol. 1, p. 470] and the office of the metropolitan before the end of the second century [ibid, vol. 1, p. 473). However, this organization may have older origins in the Jewish sect of the Essenes. Gibbon [ibid, vol. 1, p. 489] does credit the influence on the Essenes on Christianity but he lists only "their fasts and excommunications; the community of goods; the love of celibacy; their zeal for martyrdom; and the warmth ... of their faith."

It turns out that the Essenes had the office of bishop. According to information found in the Dead Sea Scrolls as described by Eisenman and Wise [EW92, pp. 215-216] the Essenes had the office of Mebakker that in Hebrew means Overseer. The Greek word for Overseer is Episkopos from which the English word Bishop is derived. Eisenman and Wise [ibid] point out that according to at least one document the Mebakker did act "as a kind of 'Bishop'". Thus we have similarity of both the functions and the name of the official. If we accept the hypothesis that Christianity started as an off-shoot of the Essenes, the office of the bishop was there from the beginning. Most likely, the Essenes took the office of the bishop from the Zoroastrians (see Chapter 1).

In short, the Christians were a well organized group within the Roman empire, truly a state within a state. The Roman emperor Maximin (308-313CE) was alarmed by the growth of Christianity and he recognized the importance of bishops so he tried to impose a similar structure on the old religions. "...the officiating priests of the various deities were subjected to the authority of a superior pontiff destined to oppose the bishop, and to promote the cause of paganism" [EG, Chapter XVI, vol. 2, p. 64]. However Maximin died soon afterwards and his reform of paganism was abandoned.

The appeal of a belief to a future life (after death) should not be discounted as a factor for the spread of Christianity since these were unhappy times for many people. The rule of Rome was oppressive and the civil wars that went on and off for nearly 150 years made matters even worse. The thought of an afterlife made it easier to suffer through the present life [JB83, pp. 163-214].

Developments in Rome

Starting with Nero, Roman emperors were hostile to Christians. This attitude is not surprising if we accept that the Christians were well organized and as such presented a challenge to an autocratic ruler. There were several persecutions, although some historians claim they were not as severe as the Christians themselves claim. Gibbon points out the "melancholy truth" that "the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other then they had experienced from the zeal of infidels" [ibid, p. 68]. (The rest of this Section relies on material from Burckhardt [JB83, pp. 43-70].

The Roman empire faced serious problems after the age of the Antonine emperors (see Chapter 2). A major issue was the power of the praetorian guard whose initial purpose was to guard the emperor. By the late 2nd century CE, they had become a power unto themselves deciding who was to become an emperor. It was worth noting that the office of the emperor was not necessarily hereditary. A new emperor was supposed to be nominated by the senate and confirmed by the army. Such an arrangement was open to abuse and in practice the general with the strongest army would become the emperor. There also a case when the praetorian guard auctioned the office of the emperor to the highest bidder. The praetorians received a large monetary bonus at the ascension of a new emperor so it was to their interest to have brief imperial reigns. They were unchecked in plundering wealth from the citizenry, a truly dreadful situation.

It was obvious that the system of emperor succession was not working and, finally, a new strong emperor decided to implement major reforms to ensure smooth succession. The emperor was Diocletian who took power in 284CE, a little over 100 years after the death of Marcus Aurelius. Diocletian was of rather humble origin, his parents were Greek slaves to a Roman senator but his father was a scribe, so were relatively "high status slaves". Diocletian's real name was Diocles, that in Greek means "phamed of Zeus". He was 40 years old when he became emperor after defeating the armies of other claimants to the throne. He Romanized his name to Diocletian and started a sequence of reforms.

The most important reform was to split the office of the emperor. There were going to be two co-emperors (Augusti) who would serve only for 20 years and then retire. They were also going to be two lesser emperors (Ceasars) that would succeed the emperors upon the retirement of the latter. This was supposed to solve the succession problem that had caused so much upheaval and bloodshed in the empire. In 286 he raised the general Maximian to be August of the West while Diocletian would be August of the East. Six years later they raised the generals Galerius and Constantius to the position of Ceasars of the East and the West respectively. Diocletian also had Galerius marry his daughter Valeria and Constantius marry Maximinian's stepdaughter Theodora. Constantius ruled Gaul and Britain; Galerius the Danube country and Greece; Maximian Italy, Spain, and Africa; and Diocletian Thrace, Asia, and Egypt (the countries that form today's Middle East). However, the arrangement contained the seeds of its own destruction because Maximian's son Maxentius was passed over.

The new leaders ruled from centers away from Rome and closer to the frontiers of the empire. Diocletian's court was at Nicomedia (modern Izmit in Turkey, about 60 miles south-east of Istanbul) and Maximinian ruled from Mediolanum (modern Milan). Constantius court was at Trier (Treves) on the banks of the Moselle river in what is now Germany and Galerius palace was in Thessaloniki, now capital of Greek Macedonia. However the emperors did not stay in their centers. Galerius led a long and victorious campaign against the Sassanids of Persian. Burckhardt [ibid, pp. 50-51] thinks that Diocletian's system of co-emperors may have been inspired by a similar systems used by the Sassanids. The arch of Galerius, parts of it still standing in Thessaloniki (camara), was erected to commemorate his victory over the Persians.

Diocletian increased the court ritual and he also tried to fix the finances of the empire by increasing taxes and by instituting an elaborate system of price controls. The edict setting maximum prices is a valuable historical document because, while it is hard to translate Roman prices into modern currency, relative prices offer insight into the values of the times. If we use the pay of a teacher of reading and writing as a unit, the pay of the arithmetic teacher was 50% higher and the pay for teachers of Greek or Latin or geometry was four times higher. The list also included price limits on wine and beer with variations depending on the quality of the products. [ibit, pp. 67-68] Not, surprisingly the price controls had the opposite effect of what was intended.

Diocletian is supposed to have initiated a persecution of the Christians at the instigation of Galerius in 303 but on the other hand he granted Christian priests freedom from taxation similar to that enjoyed by teachers and physicians [ibid, p. 70].

After 20 years of rule Diocletian retired in 305CE and convinced Maximian to retire too. Galerius and Constantius were elevated to the rank of Augusti but then the troubles started. Constantius died in July of 306 and was succeeded by his son Constantine. Constantine's mother Helena was Constantius concubine, so strictly speaking Constantine was an usurper [ibid, p. 263]. But he was popular with the army and that was what it mattered. Still Galerius gave Constantine only the title of second Caesar and appointed his old friend Severus as the second Augustus. He also appointed his nephew Maximinus Daia as first Caesar. Constantine's elevation encourage Maximian's son Maxentius to claim the post of his father and he succeeded in doing so with the support of the Praetorian guards.

It is beyond our scope to give a full account of the civil wars that followed except to note that Constantine relied on Christian soldiers and in 313 together with his co-emperor Licinious issue the Edict of Milan that proclaimed religious toleration throughout the empire. Eventually, he disposed of Licinious and in 324CE became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

Emperor Constantine

Once Constantine the Great (272-337CE) became the sole emperor, his first act was to move the imperial capital from Rome to the site of the Greek colony Byzantium and build there a new city, Constantinople. (The English name is a corruption of the Greek name Constantinoupolis meaning city of Constantine.) The change of attitude toward Christianity and the move of the capital were monumental acts and Constantine is truly a person who changed history.

The move of the capital reflected the increasing importance of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire and it was a less drastic act than it may appear at first sight. Rome had been losing status since the time of Diocletian who created provincial administrative centers and had his palace at Nicomedia, not that far from Byzantium (see previous section). The specific choice of Byzantium had to do with the advantages its geographic location that made very hard for an attacker to overtake the city. Indeed Constantinople survived many sieges until 1205 when it was taken by the Crusaders.

It has been customary to refer to the state that had as capital Constantinople as the Byzantine Empire. However that is a modern designation. The state continued to be called the Roman Empire until its end, when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453. The name even survived under the Ottomans when Orthodox Christians formed the Rom millet (religious community). The term Ρωμηος (Romios) meaning Greek is in use even today, although it has acquired a somewhat pejorative sense.

Constantine's support of Christians was not as sudden a change in policy as it might appear because his father, Constantius, had entrusted Christians with important positions. "The principal offices of (Constantius) were exercised by Christians" [EG, Chapter XVI, vol. 2, pp. 58]. The most likely explanation of the favorable attitude towards Christians is that Constantine saw then as a cohesive force for the empire.

After he became the sole emperor Constantine carried out major administrative and military reforms, in part to reduce the prospect of future rebellions. Like Alexander he increased the ritual of the court emphasizing the servitude of the subjects towards the emperor. Gibbon [EG, Chapter XVII, vol. 2, pp.89) uses the expression "titled slaves who were seated on the steps of the throne" to describe Constantine's officials. More than a thousand years later the Ottoman sultans who also had their capital in Constantinople made explicit that their high officials were their slaves.

The empire was divided into 116 provinces, each one too small to pose a threat of rebellion [ibid, p. 100]. Constantine also separated the civil from the military governance of each province, reversing a long standing Roman policy to have one governor with full powers [ibid, p. 106]. Gibbon writes that "The divided administration ... relaxed the vigour of the state, while it secured the tranquility of the monarch" [ibid, p. 108].

In the same spirit, the army was divided into three groups: Palatini (troops guarding the emperor), Comitatenses (mobile troops), and Limitanei (troops guarding the frontier) [ibid, pp. 108-109]. Furthermore the formidable Roman legions were significantly reduced in size and the recruitment of "barbarians" was expanded [ibid, pp.111-113].

Timeline of Christianity versus Developments in the Roman Empire

Additional Bibliography

[EB82] Article on Gnosticism of Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth edition, 1982, vol. 8, pp. 214-219.
LS1985 Lawrence H. Schiffman, Who Was A Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism, Ktav Publishing House, 1985.
SA1997 Σαββα Αγουριδη Ο Χριστιανισμος εναντι Ιουδαισμου και Ελληνισμου κατα το Β αι. Μ. Χ. Ελληνικα Γραμματα, Αθηνα 1997. A review of the early Christian fathers and the Christian apologists. It has neither bibliography nor index.

First Posted: January 6, 2010. Latest Revision: September 25, 2011.

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