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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 9: Religion and the Roman Empire -- Christianity

Steven Muhlberger

Christianity was in origin a sect among the Jews, one of many. The first Jewish Christians were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah ("anointed one," in Greek "christos") foretold in scripture and precursor and agent of the Last Judgment. The idea that Jesus's teachings and person summed up the Jewish tradition, that he was in fact divine, had limited success in Palestine, a little more in the scattered Jewish communities in Greek cities, even more among non-Jews who had been sympathetic to Judaism. By the end of the first century, despite the fact that the end of the world no longer seemed imminent, small groups (ecclesiae, churches) of Christians were present in many Greek towns. Like the synagogues, Christian churches united a people who rejected all other obligations. Christians, after all, believed that they were the New Israel, the chosen people of the one God.

The strength of Christianity was that it offered both definitive answers to the religious longings of the age for eternal life and contact with the divine, and a strong community structure in which salvation could be worked out. Christian laws and regulation were not as detailed as the Jewish scriptural and rabbinical teachings -- an unusual degree of sexual discipline for men and fidelity between married couples were the key points -- but the Christian community was very clearly defined under divinely sanctioned leaders. These were the bishops, believed to be the successors of the apostles, who held both spiritual and material power over their communities. It was they who taught and defined Christian doctrines and discipline; they who admitted people to full membership and eternal life through baptism; they who could cast sinners into the outer darkness through excommunication. They also, with their deacons, controlled the common funds that were distributed as charity to members in need. The bishops, the deacons, and the presbyters (priests) owed their rank to ordination, the imposition of the Holy Spirit. The more dedicated were celibate (post-marital celibacy being most common). Unlike pagan priests, they formed a clergy -- an order set apart from ordinary believers by divine law.

The unity of Christian communities was often troubled by questions of belief and legitimacy. There was no overall structure that bound the churches together in practical matters. But each urban congregation (and almost all were urban) had a clear sense of its own identity. And every congregation believed itself to be part of a universal fellowship founded by God. And every congregation was open to new members -- not wide open, but more open than any comparable group.

How numerous the Christians were by A.D. 300 is a debatable point, precisely we will never have conclusive evidence. Were there more Christians than Jews, or less? We do know that Christian communities, though concentrated in Greek cities, existed in all Roman provinces. (Christians, like Jews, were also present in Babylonia and other countries east of the Roman frontier.) In some imperial cities, the Christian churches, despite occasional violent persecution by emperors determined to stamp out atheism, held considerable property and mustered noticeable numbers. In the capital itself in the middle of the third century, the Christian congregation was larger than any of the legally recognized guilds, with 155 clergy and 1500 dependent widows and orphans living on its alms. A recent expert has extrapolated this into a total Christian congregation of 30,000.

By 300 A.D. Christianity had still made little impact on the thin upper crust of society, those few who controlled every city and helped run the empire itself -- these were largely loyal to the old civic cults, and when they experimented it was not with rejectionist alternatives. But to many respectable families, those just outside the magic circle, Christianity gave a new community in which they could participate, in which their more modest wealth and influence counted for something -- as patrons of the Christian poor, as upholders of a chaste and "philosophical" family life. Christian churches were alternate communities in the larger, more diffuse, strictly hierarchical cities of later antiquity. Their future victory, for a dispassionate observer, might have seemed unlikely in A.D. 300. But the virtues that made that victory possible were well established. The Christians offered a compelling vision of community and divinely-sustained order to a battered empire hungry for a new ideal.

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Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.

Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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