1 The History of Early Christianity in the Roman Empire Marshall High School History Mr. Cline
2 * The Early Church Defined If you look up information on the history of Christianity, you may find things like, 'During the first century AD, Rome was rocked with the formation of a new religion. Its name was Christianity, and from its inception, the world has been radically changed.' Although parts of this statement are very true, there is one item that's a bit misleading. Christianity was not a new religion. In fact, the early Christian Church was firmly planted with Judaism at its very root structure. So, to be more accurate, we should really say, 'Rome was rocked by a group of Jewish believers who followed Jesus Christ - another Jewish man - and spread his message throughout the world.' To explore this a bit further, we're going to discuss the early Christian Church's ties to Judaism, or in other words, the faith of the Hebrew people. In order to do this, we will find ourselves diving into the Christian Holy Scriptures of the New and Old Testaments, the words held sacred by the Christian faith.
3 * The Early Church Defined To get things started, let's take a look at the beliefs of Christianity. At the cornerstone of the early Christian Church is the belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah promised throughout the pages of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Church believes that he gave himself as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, and that he rose from the grave to conquer sin and death for all who believe on his name. The New Testament book of 1 st Corinthians (a letter from one of Jesus apostles to the Greek city of Corinth) sums this up by saying, 'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.' Using this one single passage from the New Testament, we can see how very closely Christianity is tied to Judaism.
4 * The Early Church Defined Biblical Authors For starters, the author of this passage is the Apostle Paul. Not only did he pen these words, he penned over half of the books of the New Testament. In writing these books, he often reminded his audience that he himself was a Jew. In the book of Philippians (yet another letter to a Greek city), he penned these words about himself: 'If someone else thinks they have reason to put confidence in the flesh, I have more, circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.' In short, the Apostle Paul, credited for penning over half the books in the Christian New Testament, was a Jew. The early Christian Church's ties to Judaism don't end with Paul.
5 * The Early Church Defined Biblical Authors For starters, the author of this passage is the Apostle Paul. In fact, almost all the authors of the Christian Bible (save perhaps the text credited to the Apostle Luke) are held to be written by Jewish men. Luke was a Greek gentile from the city of Antioch in modern day Syria Furthermore, the entire Old Testament is the history of the Jewish or Hebrew nation, and Christianity holds its content just as sacred as that of the New Testament. This is plainly seen in the text from Corinthians we started out with. Let's take a look at it again. Notice how it reads, 'that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.' The scriptures this passage refers to are none other than the Old Testament Jewish Scriptures.
6 * The Early Church Defined Christian Authors Christianity's ties with Judaism go beyond their holy texts to their Holy God. Christians firmly believe the God of the Jewish Old Testament writings is the very same God of the New Testament. He is the God who offered reconciliation to himself through his son, Jesus Christ. This is clearly stated in the New Testament book of Romans, written again by Paul, a Jewish man. It reads, 'For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes - the Jew first and also the Gentile.'
7 As we have already mentioned, Christianity at its inception held the writings of the Old and New Testament to be their sacred texts. * The Early Church Defined Jesus and Christianity Perhaps the largest tie that binds Christianity to Judaism is the very fact that Jesus Christ was a Jewish man who practiced the laws and customs of Judaism. His followers even called him Rabbi on several occasions. In addition, the Christian New Testament acknowledges Christ's connection to Judaism in the Book of Matthew, which records Jesus saying, 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.' Ironically, Jesus Christ, the cord that tied the early Christian Church to Judaism, is also the point that divided them.
8 * The Early Church Defined Jesus and Christianity However, Judaism does not recognize the New Testament as sacred. Also, the early Christian Church believed that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise for a Messiah. Judaism did not and does not. Perhaps most important, the early Christian Church at its cornerstone believed that Jesus Christ was God come to earth. In other words, the Christian Church holds that God has three facets: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, all of which are God. This is known as the Trinity. Judaism did and does deny the existence of the Trinity, or the triune God.
9 * The Early Church Defined Jesus and Christianity Building on the belief in the Trinity, the early Christians believed, and the Jewish faith did not, that Jesus Christ came to earth to fulfill the Old Testament promises of salvation for anyone who believes on his name. * Two Persecuted Religions: Judaism and Christianity In the year 117 AD, the Roman emperor Trajan had expanded his empire to its greatest extent. The Roman Empire was the ultimate authority in the West, and amid all this military expansion, Trajan was in the middle of repressing two dangerous religions: Christianity and Judaism. Judaism was an ancient religion, far older than Rome itself. It had an established hierarchy and a racial and national identity.
10 By contrast, Christianity was a new, wild heresy followed by a relatively small group and effectively indistinguishable from the wide variety of mystery cults of the time. If you were to place bets on which religion would come out on top, most people's money would be on Judaism. Yet within less than 25 years, the Romans had effectively shattered Judaism. The Jews had been driven from their land, their temples destroyed, and their property seized. By comparison, Christianity quickly consolidated its influence. Over the next two centuries, it would spread across much of the Empire, and in 312 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, Christianity supplanted it.
11 Perhaps the most obvious reason why Christianity spread while Judaism did not was that Christianity wanted to spread while Judaism did not. * Two Persecuted Religions: Judaism and Christianity Essential Differences The Roman Catholic Church became the highest authority of its time, while the Jews remained a tiny minority scattered across the world, bereft of rights and reviled by many. Today, over a third of the world's population is Christian, making Christianity the most popular religion on Earth. By contrast, Judaism comprises less than 0.2% of the world's population, making it one of the least popular religions on Earth. Since both religions were systematically persecuted by the Roman Empire, why did Christianity thrive and eventually come out victorious while Judaism was reduced to centuries of persecution? The answer to this question lies in some rather significant differences between these two faiths.
12 Essential Differences Christianity is an inclusive religion. It seeks to convert people to the faith. In fact, the conversion of non-believers, or evangelism, is a central tenet of many forms of Christianity. By contrast, Judaism is an exclusive religion. It does not seek to convert anyone. This difference arises from the fact that Judaism is both a religion and a racial identity. Jews consider themselves to be God's chosen people. They trace their ancestry all the way back to the patriarch of their religion, Abraham.
13 Essential Differences According to Jewish myth, Abraham formed a covenant with God - that he and all his descendants would enjoy a special relationship with God. Thus, Judaism is a religion meant exclusively for the descendants of Abraham. Moreover, part of God's covenant with his chosen people was their promised land, located in modern-day Israel. Thus, the Jewish religious and racial identity was combined with the political identity of their land, Judea. By contrast, Christianity was open to every person of every race and had no nation of its own. The impact of these differences cannot be overstated. By combining their religious identity with their racial and political identity, Jews offered the Roman Empire an easy target in the form of the nation of Judea.
14 Essential Differences Romans were good at conquering and subjugating nations; after all, they'd spent centuries doing little else. By contrast, Christians were not associated with any particular race or land. Try as the Romans might, and they tried very hard at times, the Romans could not manage to destroy Christianity. It had no state, no center of power to strike at. The racial and political identification of the Jewish religion had a cultural side effect as well. Jews have always been easy to differentiate from their non-jewish neighbors. They have their own holy days, their own unique rituals, their own special diet, and they even have their own language.
15 Since the Jews wrote and communicated in their own special language, Hebrew, no one besides Jews really knew what was happening to them. * Two Persecuted Religions: Judaism and Christianity Essential Differences Moreover, their holy text explicitly forbids them to try to adopt the customs and beliefs of their non-jewish neighbors. Indeed, 'don't try to fit in' could be considered the moral of at least a quarter of the stories in the Torah. Furthermore, Jews are forbidden to marry Gentiles, or non-jews. This further emphasizes their separation from the rest of the world. This separation from the rest of society only grew more pronounced once the Emperor Hadrian drove the Jews from Judea in 135 CE, an act now referred to as the Great Diaspora. With their unique, exclusive culture and no home to call their own, the Jews became outsiders everywhere they went.
16 Essential Differences And since the Jews held themselves aloof from the culture and practices of their neighbors, few non-jews were inclined to care what happened to them. By contrast, Christians have historically sought to integrate themselves with non-believers. Early Christians adopted Platonic ideals to make their God more appealing and understandable to people of the time. They borrowed traditions, beliefs, and rituals from all over the Empire. Even once Christianity had achieved supremacy, Church leaders often chose to integrate pagan religions into the Church and redefine them rather than attempting to stomp them out. Yet perhaps the greatest advantage Christianity had over Judaism was the fact that Christians communicated with one another in Greek, which had been an international language since the time of Alexander the Great.
17 Essential Differences Thus, when the Roman Empire did something horrible to Christians, the whole world knew what was happening to them within a few months. And since the Christians had absorbed so many of the beliefs, ideals, and practices of their time, even non-christians were likely to view their plight with sympathy. Different Faiths, Different Strategies These differences between Christianity and Judaism affected the ways in which these two religions dealt with the Roman Empire. By combining their religion with their race and nationality, the Jews had to fight two battles at once: they had to fight for their right to practice their religion and they had to fight to protect their homeland from invading infidels. These two battles merged.
18 Different Faiths, Different Strategies The resulting conflict was the sort of holy war, complete with zealots and suicidal warriors, that modern-day Israel is fighting against today. Indeed, the term 'zealot' acquired its negative connotation during this very conflict between Romans and Jews. A couple thousand years ago, it was the Jews who were the zealots, fighting a losing war against a superior force with far more advanced weapons and technology. The original Zealots were members of a radical, warlike, ardently patriotic group of Jews in Judea, particularly prominent from A.D. 69 to 81, advocating the violent overthrow of Roman rule and vigorously resisting the efforts of the Romans and their supporters to heathenize the Jews.
19 Different Faiths, Different Strategies They would engage in what today we would call terrorism, and violent acts of civil disobedience in order to achieve their aims Moreover, because the Jews chose violent resistance, the Empire could just label these Jewish freedom fighters as violent political dissidents. The Jews' violent approach, combined with their exclusive religion, cultural separateness, and private language, meant that no one else in the Empire really knew or cared what the Romans did to the Jews except other Jews. For all these reasons, Judaism's choice of violent resistance failed. By contrast, Christianity's struggle was not a fight for political independence on the field of battle but rather something purely religious and thus harder to defeat.
20 Different Faiths, Different Strategies A Christian gained no brownie points with God for killing someone, but he could gain eternal salvation for being killed. Martyrdom, or dying for one's faith, was the one guaranteed way to get to Heaven, and the Bible is full of stories of Christians enduring horrific persecutions. Christians did not seek to overcome their Roman persecutors by strength of arms but by the strength of their convictions. The very fact that Christians were willing to die for their beliefs made people wonder what was so great about this new religion. Christians might be fed to lions in the arena or covered with pitch and burned alive for an emperor's entertainment (this practice of Nero's is actually where we get the term 'Roman candle'). Yet the more horrific the death, the greater the testament to the strength of their faith.
21 Different Faiths, Different Strategies And since Christians communicated in Greek, everyone knew about these atrocities. Even non-christians could not help but wonder at the conviction of these people to their faith. For all of these reasons, Christianity's choice of nonviolent resistance succeeded. A Side-By-Side Comparison In short, Judaism was a religion, but it was also a racial and national identity. This made Judaism an exclusive religion with its own unique ideals and its own language. The Jews did not want to be a part of the Roman Empire; they sought to break away from it.
22 A Side-By-Side Comparison The Jews sought to resist the Roman Empire through violence and lost. The world was largely unaware of the suffering of the Jews as they did not read Hebrew, and they were indifferent to this suffering anyway, since the Jews held themselves aloof. As a result, the Jews were easily labeled as violent, religious extremists to be attacked and dispersed. Anyone who bothered to think on their plight would assume that they had gotten what they deserved. By contrast, Christianity was not concerned with race or nationality, making it an inclusive religion. It shared many of its ideals and rituals with the people of the time and communicated in a common language.
23 A Side-By-Side Comparison Christians would happily be a part of the Roman Empire; they just wanted it to stop persecuting them. Christians sought to resist the Roman Empire's persecution through non-violence, and they won. The world was moved by the steadfastness of their faith in the face of such cruel oppression. Every martyr murdered by the Empire advanced the cause of Christianity. Indeed, over a few centuries, Christians eventually took control of the very empire that had once oppressed them. It is worth noting that while Christianity used pacifism and the free exchange of ideas on its rise to the top, it would abandon these noble practices and greatly restrict the flow of information once it gained the authority and backing of the Roman Empire.
24 A Modern Parallel For those of you who still don't quite understand the differences between these two religions and their tactics for overcoming oppression, we can see a clear modern parallel to this struggle in the American Civil Rights Movement. We need only juxtapose Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr. Like our two religions, crushed beneath the yoke of the Roman Empire, both men faced violence and oppression from a society that hated and feared them and their followers. The differences arise in how they dealt with that persecution. Like Judaism, Malcolm X's positions were based on racial identity and were therefore exclusive. Malcolm X spoke in terms of racial struggle and radical Islam and used ideas that exacerbated racial boundaries. He preached black supremacy and sought to break away from oppressive white culture.
25 A Modern Parallel Malcolm X rejected non-violence, spurring his followers to take any and all means to defend themselves. As a result, Malcolm X was labeled as a violent extremist. And when Malcolm X was assassinated, a lot of Americans, including many of his own followers, thought he had simply gotten what was coming to him. Now let's contrast that with MLK. Like Christianity, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s positions were based purely on religious and social ideals and were therefore inclusive. King spoke in religious terms that were familiar to his society and used ideas that transcended racial boundaries. King sought integration and fought segregation, but most importantly, King practiced non-violence.
26 A Modern Parallel As a result, King was considered a great man by his enemies as well as his supporters. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the public outcry was deafening. More importantly, King's cause was advanced by his death. Just a few days after King's assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of And four decades later, Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States. We will return to Christianity later when it becomes the dominant religion of the empire, but for now, let us look back on how the empire itself came to be and fared.
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