Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

A short history of Christianity

history misc

??The term ‘Christian’ was first used in Antioch in Syria around 35-40 AD to designate a new religious community there which included both Jewish and non-Jewish adherents and was marked out by it attachment to ‘Christos’, a Greek translation of the Hebrew title ‘Messiah’, used by Jews to designate their expected national savior. In this case it was applied to the prophet-teacher Jesus of Nazareth, executed in Judea, where the movement had originated, a few years earlier??

The paragraph above and all herein are sourced from The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnells, specifically from the chapter on Christianity written by Andrew Walls. It is a marvelous book, which I recommend. All miss-representations and inaccuracies are mine.

h2. Jerusalem 30-70 AD

Christianity started in Jerusalem, as a variation of Judaism. All its initial followers were Jewish by birth and followed Jewish custom. The marked difference from the rest of the Jewish faith was their following of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, know at the time to have been recently crucified. His followers claimed he had resurrected and was the Messiah, as predicted in the Hebrew Bible (called the Old Testament by Christians) – the rest of the Jewish faith held (and still holds) that the Messiah has not yet come.

The apostles, chosen during his life by Jesus as his closest followers, were the recognized leaders of the movement. Christianity fit into the framework of Jewish history and for many years the apostles confined their teaching to the Jewish.

It was written in the Jewish scriptures that one of the signs of the Age to Come would be that non-Jews (called Gentiles) would seek the salvation of God, and attempt to convert. Hence it was no surprise when Greeks from Antioch were attracted to Jesus, through the talk of Jewish believers.

The tradition method of accepting an individual into the Jewish faith required them to observe the Torah (detailed Jewish law) and (for males) to be circumcised. The followers of Jesus changed this, and simply required the individual to express faith in Jesus the Messiah. This understandably accelerated the spread of the new religion.

h2. Greece 70-500 AD

As the Greeks of Antioch were the first non-Jews to adopt this faith, and the faith now included both Jews and non-Jews, a name was required for the faith, so they became know as Christians.

The popularity of Christianity and the amount of Gentiles involved had already placed the new faith in Jerusalem on an insecure footing, and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD to the Roman advance effectively broke the link between Christianity and Jerusalem, and the faith became predominately Hellenic.

Christianity retained its link to the land of Palestine through the use of Jewish scripture (know as the Old Testament) and the idea of Jerusalem as the land of Jesus, but most of it’s followers now had never been to Palestine, and most inhabitants of Jerusalem were not Christians.

In Greece, the term Messiah, meaningful only in a Jewish context, changed to Lord. More crucially, Christian thinking entered into the intellectual discourse of Greek philosophy. Early Christian organization had been based around a synagogue. Now, influenced by Greek civic organization, they switched to a system of locally linked hierarchies each under a bishop. The bishops were seen as the successors of the apostles, and were seen as the ones to interpret the voice of God. They consulted regularly and helped keep ‘orthodoxy’, or ‘catholicity’ – a uniform standard of Christianity.

The Christians allegiance to Christ prevented them from participating in the veneration of the Roman emperor, and they frequently refused military service. The growing numbers of Christians in the third and fourth century brought about increasing persecution from the Roman empire which, for the reasons mentioned previously, viewed them as disloyal, potentially dangerous, and outside of their control.

h2. Rome 313-500 AD

All this changed dramatically when Emperor Constantine (after whom Constantinople was named) came to power in 313 AD. He at first tolerated then favored Christianity, and by degrees it became the state religion of the Roman empire.

Number of converts grew rapidly, attracted by the idea of moral improvement, the majesty and solemnity of Christian worship, the close relationships within the church (a factor which differentiated the followers of Jesus from the other Jews from the early days was their habit of dining together), and for some the presentation of Christianity as a coherent philosophy (evolved in Greece) offering what Plato declared as the true aim of philosophy; the vision of God.

The church of the Western Roman empire adopted Latin as the language of worship, while the Eastern Empire continued to worship in Greek. After the first four ‘ecumenical’ (world-wide) bishops councils, the Western church ceased to participate. This was the first visible split, which gives us today the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic versions of Christianity.

The Kingdom of Armenia had become a Christian state a few years before the Roman Empire, as had several small Mesopotamian states. By 500AD there were also sizeable Christian communities in south India, southern Arabia, the Sudan, the Nile valley, southern Africa and the Persian empire. Christianity’s stronghold was now in Rome, but it had already spread quite widely.

h2. Barbarians 500-1100 AD

By 500AD Christianity was closely coupled with the literary, intellectual and technological prowess of the Roman Empire, and spread with it. Dedicated people preaching the faith and ordinary people going about their daily lives both served this expansion, into Eastern Africa and significantly into the North of Europe. As the Empire crumbled Christianity lived on amongst the people. Charlemagne, King of the Franks spread it by force to the Saxons, and Olav Trygvason spread it to the whole of Norway as he assumed power over it. Often whole communities adopted it when their leaders did, and Christian rules got written into local law. In parallel, official and un-official church missions and holy men continued their work.

The switch from local gods and spirits to the God of what was becoming the Christian Empire was made easier by the technological and scientific advancements it was seen to bring with it (which came from the Roman Empire), the simplicity of its spiritual universe (only one God, and clear channels for him to communicate through), and the ease with which local practices could be mapped onto Christianity, allowing the symbols to change but the beliefs to continue (for example what had been called spirits were now called saints). Teaching and scholarship spread, primarily through monasteries, where the language was Latin and the subject was the scriptures.

The newer converts saw Rome as the source of Christianity, and Rome’s connection with Peter (leader of the apostles) gave it a special spiritual significance. Rulers such as Charlemagne pressed for a view of Christendom, the whole of Western Europe, as one Christian Empire under a ‘universal’ church based in Rome. The bishop of Rome (also called the Pope) was seen as the successor of the apostle Peter and earthly representative of Christ.

In the East, the Roman Empire still existed, based in Constantinople. The spiritual leader here was still the Emperor, and the language was Greek. This was being pressed from the south by the expansion of the newfound faith of Islam. The old heartland’s of Christianity, Egypt and Syria, had already converted, and Christianity lives on to this day there as a minority faith. Eastern Christianity spread north into Russian (founding the Russian Orthodox church in Kiev in 988) as it lost ground to Islam to the south.

Islam to the south inherited much of the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization, and by now the typical Christian was a northern farmer. The Christian stronghold was Europe. It was key in establishing literary and learning habits amongst the ex-barbarians of Europe, and in uniting them (although they still fought, they now shared a common faith).

h2. Western Europe 1100-1600 AD

With all of Western Europe under rule of law based on Christianity, and with Latin as the official language of learning, Christianity was seen as territorial. From this emerged the idea of a crusade to take back the holy land. These happened with varied success, but in 1204 Western crusaders looted Constantinople, firmly dividing Eastern and Western Christianity, and setting the stage for the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Turks in 1453. With that, the final vestiges of the Hellenic phase of Christianity disappeared. Ironically, at around the same time grew a renewed interest in studying the scriptures in their earlier Greek version (as opposed to the Latin translations).

The most important technological development of this period was the printing press. The wider availability of the scriptures in local languages, and the amount and extent of the corruption and manipulation that had spread in the higher levels of Christianity (which were often the higher levels of local power), brought about the Reformation period.

The Catholic, or conservative reformation, continued the view that the one and only true center of worship was the church of Rome, with the Pope at its head. The Protestant reformation held that salvation is by grace only, received through faith only, and the guide to it is the scripture only. They did not recognize Roman rule, and encouraged local, regional and national ‘Reformed’ churches. The Catholic view was a significantly softened version of the ‘three onlys’. Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64) were originally leaders of local reform movements.

A third and more radical reform movement, the Anabaptist movement, also dates from this period. They encouraged living outside the civil community and to a strict Christian way of life (according to Christian law as opposed to civil law). They re-created the image of the persecuted Christian and identified the church with its members rather than an institution or building.

A century of conflict between Catholic and Protestant ensued (the Anabaptists were a small minority). Eventually Southern Europe settled as Catholic, with Latin as the primary language of worship, and Northern Europe as Protestant, with worship in local languages.

To the East Christianity spread to Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia, and the fall of Constantinople shifted the center of the Orthodox church to Rome.

h2. Overseas expansion 1600-1920 AD

From around 1500 Spain, Portugal, France, Holland and England all acquired vast maritime empires. With the Western people went Christianity. The territorial model of Christianity, that the leader of the nation should enforce Christian rule, that Christian law was the basis for civil law, and the memory of the crusades, encouraged the view that territorial expansion meant the expansion of God’s kingdom.

In a spirit of crusading zeal, especially early on in Spanish America, local cults were forbidden and whole populations incorporated into Christendom (by force, inducement, conviction, settlement and intermarriage). Portugal, an over-stretched small country, had much more difficulty. It was in Portugal’s failure to convert its subjugated peoples that the missionary movement was born. This was a body of people whose role was to promote and illustrate Christian teachings over the new territories, but with no power to coerce. Missionaries mostly came from Catholic Europe and relied on the monasterial orders for their support. New orders, such as the Society of Jesus (the ‘Jesuits’) sprung up.

The spreading of the faith largely out of the control of national governments, often even out of the control of Rome meant that the new territories did not develop a link between church and state. The economic and political expansion of Protestant Northern Europe (much of this expansion being avowedly non-religious) extended this divide.

North America, particularly what became the United States, was settled by a variety of peoples, each bringing their local church, making the US a Christian pluralist society, with no state church. In particular the Anabaptists moved over in large numbers, and the vision of America as a virgin continent gave rise to new, ‘primitive’ versions of Christianity, attempting to recreate older models.

The large-scale importation of Africans through the slave trade to work in the plantations of Southern North America and the Caribbean meant these new Afro-Americans adopted Christianity. The interaction with traditional African religion gave birth to new religions such as Candomble, Umbanda, Santeria and Voodoo.

During this period Europe saw a gradual decline of the Christian faith. The Enlightenment, the option of a rational world view instead of a Christian one, and the increased importance placed on the individual (which in Christian circles produced Pietism and the Evangelical revival) meant that many were no longer following Christian teachings. Rational, non-Christian, often non-religious, movements of thought emerged such as Marxism and Humanism. Religion became a private choice rather than a state imposed rule.

h2. Today – from 1920

The decline in Europe continues to this day. The Eastern church almost vanished when Russia and the whole of Eastern Europe adopted a Communist system. Since the fall of Eastern Communism Eastern Europe has adopted a Western European model of free choice, which often means a rational and non-religious view. During the same period immigration brought Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities into Europe.

In Asia, the Philippines and Korea represent the bulk of the Christian population, who with the reduction of numbers in Europe comprise a more significant proportion of world Christianity.

In North American, despite the attraction of Afro-Americans for Islam, Christianity still has a very strong grip, with the United States as one of its strong-holds.

The second stronghold of Christianity is Latin America. Latin America still largely follows the Catholic model of church and state in allegiance imposed by the Spaniards, but in recent years there has been a strong growth in Protestantism.

The third and final stronghold of Christianity is sub-saharan Africa, with a phenomenal progression of followers, their numbers doubling about every twelve years. Here Christianity has adapted and mixed with local beliefs and customs and is quite different in appearance to its European incarnation.

h2. Tomorrow

Probably a decline in North America, the center of Christianity shifting south to Latin America and Africa, with the Pacific islands playing a part. But, as they say, and to stay with the theme, God only knows !