Early Christianity and the Roman Empire

The Roman Catholic Church can be said to have had as much impact on European society as Rome itself. The rise of the Church, from anonymous Jewish fringe sect to persecuted religion to the official religion of Rome and finally to a controlling position in European culture during the Middle Ages involved a process of changes, the causes and implications of which are many and mixed. Today we will trace the growth of the Christian religion through the end of the Western Roman empire. We will look primarily at developments in its organizational structure, and in its Theological structure, in an attempt to explain its growth into the primary spiritual, and to some extent temporal, power in Medieval Europe.
Jesus was born somewhere between 4 CE and 6 CE. Joseph, husband of Mary, was apparently a carpenter, and Jesus may have learned that trade, though direct references to his practice of it are few, and mostly appear in the Apocryphal Gospels. Matthew and Luke make mention of a virgin birth, whereas Mark begins his account with Jesus baptism, and Paul never mentions this critical point.
In any case, it appears that Jesus was born into a time of tumult in Judea. Rome was in control of the area, and there was widespread Jewish dissent. A number of groups were active in protests at varying degrees of seriousness and violence. Several groups claimed that a "messiah" was imminent - someone who would save the Jews from Roman rule. Expectations of what this person would do appear to have been limited to the temporal realm, and to the expectation that he would bring about God's kingdom on earth - i.e. a Jewish state independent of Rome. This messiah, then, was supposed to be a revolutionary leader and military commander who would defeat the Romans and set up a Jewish state within his lifetime. Needless to say, when that did not occur, in fact, when Jesus turned out to be a pacifist with no interest in leading an army, many of the Hebrews were disappointed, to say the least. This partially explains why Barabbas, a small time criminal and murderer, was chosen over Jesus by a crowd feeling betrayed by a messiah (one of many who claimed that title) who did not fulfill their expectations when presented with the choice by Pilate on the eve of Passover.
Needless to say, when Jesus, with all of these expectations placed upon him, did not save himself from crucifixion in 27 CE, but instead died on the cross, even die-hard believers suffered serious doubt. It took some time, and an apparent resurrection of Jesus, before a new set of ideas about the meaning of messiah and "kingdom of God on earth" could be reached. Eventually, the followers of Jesus, led by Peter (Matthew, a "publican" or tax collector for Rome, was probably the only one of Jesus' disciples who could read and write), came to the conclusion that Jesus would return, within their lifetimes, to claim Jerusalem for God and overthrow Rome's rule in Judea. They were, at this point, a fringe Jewish sect, largely rejected by mainstream Judaeism. It apparently was not until the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, renamed "Paul," that the idea that Jesus may have been sent to save all humanity emerged.
Paul, a Pharisee and Hellenized Jew born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus, and living at least 25 years after the death of Jesus, apparently underwent a conversion experience while on the road. After that, he became an ardent supporter of Christianity, and began the work of bringing the message of Jesus to all people. Paul had never met Jesus the man, though he claimed to know Jesus as a part of the trinity. In any case, Paul's argument was that Jesus had been sent to the Jews because of chronic problems they had with breaking their covenant with God. Paul saw in this a problem similar to that of "gentiles," or non-Jews in the Roman empire, who also had their own idealized law(s), but continued to break them in the pursuit of happiness and wealth. If this was the case, Paul thought, why would Jesus come for just the Jews. Paul argued he came for all. This then was what really lit a fire under the creation of early Christian churches throughout the empire (although more often than not, a "church" was someone's home - usually a different home for every service, since Christians were already unpopular in Rome).
One of the first problems the Christian Church had to deal with in the world of the gentiles was the fact that it answered questions the Roman state religion did not - and this put it in direct competition with a number of other new religions, often known as "mystery religions," including the cult of Mythras, which claimed to answer the same questions. Those questions were the universal whys and hows of humankind, but brought down to an individual level: who am I? Why am I here? etc...

The organization of the early Christian church was critical to its survival as a religion, and became the basis of its structure into the Catholic period. Initially, Christianity's success was with the urban poor, and the uneducated. Its rites were apparently simple, and minimal at first. Entrance to the community came through baptism with water. After that, one could join in any of the Christian rites. This baptism removed the taint of original sin. The main ritual of early Christians was a gathering for a meal known as the agape, roughly translated, "love feast". After the feast, Christians would participate in the Eucharist, meaning "thanksgiving" - a remembrance of the Lord's Supper, in which unleavened bread and unfermented wine, believed to be transformed by God into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, were taken. The ceremonies performed by Christians also included the singing of songs of praise, and prayers.

The early churches were community affairs, with very little formal structure. As organization and communication, as well as the answering of questions and conflicts regarding Jesus' teachings came up, an organizational structure grew to handle them. The early churches were apparently administered by boards of elders known as presbyters (elders), and deacons (those who serve). By 200AD, as the Christian churches found more and more members, they began to accept the executive authority of bishops (episkopoi, or "overseers") - these bishops were elected by each individual congregation. As the need for communication grew, and differences of opinion between congregations surfaced, these bishops became the arbiters of Christian doctrine. They also began to extend their authority over the congregations of outlying towns and villages. "The Doctrine of Apostolic Succession" eventually increased the powers of bishops to the level of near kings in their congregations. This doctrine stated the church's belief that the powers Jesus had given the original disciples - to heal, etc., were passed from bishop to bishop through the ceremony of ordination. The bishops were considered to be the successors to the apostles - inheritors of the knowledge of Christ through their Apostolic ancestors.

The bishops maintained contact with each other, and as doctrinal questions arose, or the need to deal with heresy (any way of looking at Christianity that did not agree with the bishop's accepted system) came up, they might attend conferences. They also dealt with the civil authorities. The bishops' ability to maintain church solidarity even through the economic and social difficulties experienced in Rome was certainly an important element in Christianity's survival through a very difficult period.

In fact, beginning in the early years of Christianity's spread, Christians were persecuted. At first, the persecutors were Orthodox Jews, who saw Christians following Jesus as their Messiah to be an abomination. Their violence against Christians brought the Christians to the attention of the Romans, who were concerned because of the violence their existence was creating. The Romans initially had no concern with Christian beliefs beyond the fact that their existence created a problem in maintaining order in the empire. As long as Christians were considered to be Jews, their refusal to worship the state gods of Rome caused no problem, since Jews were the only Roman subjects in the empire to have been granted exemption from that requirement (see Cicero). However, it soon became clear that Christians were a proselytizing religion separate from the Jews. They attempted to convert non-Jews to their religion. Further, while they lived in the same places, and worked at the same occupations as other Roman subjects, their tendency to keep to themselves, and their refusal to allow others to see their ceremonies was considered anti-social. Romans, to whom civic participation was as natural as eating, saw the aloof Christians as "haters of human beings". As rumors of the Eucharist got out, the idea that Christians ate flesh and drank blood became the basis of rumors that they were cannibals. Those problems, combined with the fact that Christians continued to refuse to worship Roman state gods in festivals and on holy days made the Romans feel they were revolutionary, and perhaps would bring the wrath of the gods down on Rome. For this reason, the simple acknowledgement that one was a Christian, without any other proof of treasonous or criminal activities, was enough to bring a sentence of death in Roman courts. (Apology). However, most persecution early in Christianity's growth were done by citizen mobs, not the Roman government. This led to the martyrdom of some of the most important Christian saints, and galvanized the community to maintain its value systems. Those whose faith was not strong enough either left the faith, or never joined, making the Christian community one of unquestionable belief in its precepts.

The Catholic Church

As the church formed its organization, the emergence of congregations, bishops, and declarations of Christian dogma allowed the Christian belief to gel into a generally accepted body of ideas. Most people who professed to be Christian agreed on what they believed, and why they believed it. This body of beliefs came to be labelled as Catholic, meaning "universal" in Latin. Thus the Catholic Church means "The Universal Church". The ideas - or doctrine - of the Catholic church were held to be "orthodox" - correct. Any ideas that contradicted or disagreed with the orthodox doctrine were labeled heresy, and were quickly suppressed. This need to be certain that the general Catholic belief system was upheld against heretics created the need to more and more clearly state the Catholic doctrine. That lead to a growth in theology, beginning with the compilation of a "canon" that included the "Old Testament", "The Gospels", and the "Epistle of Paul". These books formed the basis on which the Catholic Church then based its theology - its philosophical interpretation of God's Word, and the direction that gave for human behavior. Further elucidation of the Bible, as this canon came to be called later in history, came from bishops and later converts to the Christian Church. Catholic Orthodoxy made the church the repository of Christian teaching, and the bishops the receivers of Christian knowledge. The church then decided on a set of statements that made clear the beliefs it espoused. This meant that now, beyond being baptized, participating in the Eucharist, and accepting Christ as Lord, one had to accept the statements of the Catholic faith, the canon of the Bible, and the authority of the church in order to be Christian. The church had organized itself in response to challenges to its authority as the body of believers.

The Pope, and Rome as the center of the Catholic Church, was an outgrowth of the system of bishops discussed earlier. As bishops extended their authority to outlying congregations, the bishop of Rome asserted its superiority over all others. This came partly from the fact that Rome was likely the biggest congregation in the Christian world. It also stemmed from Jesus' words to Peter, "Though art Peter (in greek Petros) and upon this rock (in Greek petra) I will build my church." ( See Craig, p.161) - Suggesting that Peter, the supposed founder of the Church in Rome, is the founder of Jesus' church. Additionally, Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome. It was these points that gave the Roman congregation's claim to primary status authority.
The Romans continued to persecute Christians throughout the late imperial era, claiming that it was Christians' refusal to participate in the state religion that had brought the barbarian invasions down on Rome, until emperor Constantine converted to Christianity prior to his death. Later, Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, the new official status in the Church brought new problems to be faced and solved. In the Eastern Empire, the power of the Emperors and their intelligence and political savvy made them unlikely to submit to the authority of their bishops, regardless of the religious authority those bishops claimed. For that reason, the relationship of church and state went a different route from the Western Empire, where the authority of the Bishop of Rome was enough to have emperor Theodosius pay humble penance for his sins after the bishop excommunicated him, presumably for challenging the authority of the Church. The church gained further legitimacy and authority in the minds of the Roman subjects of the West when, as Rome was sacked by barbarians, and the Emperor ran for Constantinople, the Bishop of Rome stayed, and used his authority and popular support to help the sufferers and negotiate with the new conquerors of Rome.

While the Bishop of Rome, later known as the Pope, did not exercise political control over the Western Empire, his moral authority, combined with the fact that Christianity was really the only common link between the fortified manors and towns of early medieval Europe during the period of barbarian invasions made him in many senses Europe's ultimate authority. It was his consent, in the middle ages, to a king assuming the throne that conveyed both God's blessing, and a common sense of authority that others of similar rank could accept as bringing temporal legitimacy as well. The view of the Pope as the sole interpreter of God's word, and as the sole authority through which earthly authority could be recognized gave the Pope unmatched if limited, powers in the affairs of Western Europe for centuries.