The first Christian fellowships put a great emphasis upon unity amongst one another, yet the odd thing is they seemed always to have been squabbling over what kind of unity they were to have. The oldest authentic documents we have concerning their beliefs, customs, and struggles are Paul’s letters. In these letters, he is frequently defending himself against some other messenger of the faith who has refuted his message, saying, “No, Paul didn’t tell it right. We have now to tell you the real thing.” So, it is clear from the very beginning, that there are different ways of interpreting the fundamental message. There are different kinds of practice, with many arguments over how “Jewish” are they to be; how “Greek” are they to be; how do they adapt to and penetrate the surrounding culture? There were also no uniform answers about the real meaning of Jesus death; was the resurrection in body or spirit only; what teachings of Jesus were most important, and what did they mean?
Paul’s conversion as an Apostle may date as early as three years after Jesus’ death, and no later than the year 35. He was in Damascus when he was called, according to his own witness. So it looks like there are already, within two to five years after Jesus’ death, Greek speaking congregations outside of Palestine, and very early in Antioch. There were also very early communities in Samaria and Galilee.
The Apostle Paul is, next to Jesus, the most intriguing figure of the 1st century of Christianity, and far better known historically than Jesus because of his many letters that have survived as primary documents of the era. There are many astonishing things about him. Paul’s mission carried Christianity through Asia Minor, and present-day Turkey, into Macedonia, and Greece, and before his life was over into Rome (although he did not found the Church of Rome). In his own time, he saw himself primarily as a prophet to the non-Jews, to bring to them the message of the crucified Messiah, and he does this in an extraordinary way. This is especially interesting because he began his career as one of the highest Jewish authorities. His impact has resounded throughout the history of Christianity through his writings which comprise about two-thirds of the New Testament.
In the writings of Paul we see for the first time the language that will become the hallmark of all the later Christian tradition. Indeed this is where we get much of the vocabulary that makes Christianity distinctive. The term “Christ” is a title. It’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messioc and they both mean exactly the same thing. They both refer to someone who is anointed for leadership by God. The term is identifying Jesus as a religious figure in a new way.
For Paul, however, the term “Christ” does not automatically signal a Christian frame of reference that everyone today would have recognized. The term Christ, Messiah, could have been used by any number of different Jewish people and still meant different things. So just to hear that term, even in the Syrian city of Antioch, probably wasn’t all that unique, and yet it must have sparked some interest. It is significant therefore that the Book of Acts tells us that the term “Christian” (which meant Christ’s men) was first coined in Antioch as a reference to the Apostle Paul and St. Barnabas, who were indeed Christ’s men. This could have been as much as ten years after the death of Jesus.
It is good to remember, however, that while we think of the term Christian in lofty and positive terms, at the time that it was coined it was probably a slur. It was probably thrown at these early followers of Jesus as some derogatory designation of them. It is typical with any new religious movement that the insiders may have their own self identity, while those outside label them with another term designed to exclude and repel. So when we hear at Antioch that they are called “Christians” we have to think of that more in the vein of them being called “Messianists” or “Christies.”
But Paul had his opponents — sometimes from the leaders of the Jerusalem church led by James the brother of Jesus. With great concern they cautioned the congregation of Galatia. “Wait a minute, Paul told you a very simplified gospel that makes it easy for you to become a member of this new group. But we know, after all, that if you’re really going to be a real Christian, you first have to be a real Jew and that means, you have to be circumcised and you have to keep dietary regulations of the Torah.” And Paul would reply, “No, you don’t understand how radically new this thing is, which God is doing here.”
Paul commands with unprecedented authority this Jewish school, this Jewish philosophy, this Jewish sect, and declares that its teachings are so important that the entire map of the world needs to be redrawn. As this happens the simple dichotomy of Jews and gentiles fades away and we no longer simply have a Jewish school arguing with other Jews about interpretations of law and theology. We now have a new map of the world. The teachings of Jesus have within them the secret to understanding the new cosmic order. The old distinctions between Jews and gentiles are now obliterated. That distinction has been supplanted by a new, more wonderful and beautiful idea in which we have a new Israel that will now embrace both Jews and gentiles. Through those who accepted the new covenant and the new faith we can see the beginnings of what might be called the emergence of Christianity as distinct from Judaism.
For some Christians, this never happens. They can’t bring themselves to say that God has thoroughly redrawn the map of the cosmos and has taken them out of the Jewish world and pushed them onto the stage of history. Others disagree with Paul on exactly how to read this new map and exactly what it means, and most importantly, where do the Jews fit in now, those Jews who are “being left behind.”… But, in any case, the Christian Church itself was now emerging as a new independent group by the middle of the 2nd century.
With this explosive spread of Christian churches it cannot be expected that everywhere, everybody was doing and believing the same thing, singing the same hymns and reading the same scriptures and telling the same story. So we have a beginning with great diversity, and the slow process, particularly in the second century, to establish a greater unity among the very diverse churches. Developing unity was already a process in Paul’s church. In fact that was his main motivation for writing letters, to insure that these newly converted Christians in Ephesus and Philippi and Thessaloniki and in Corinth have some unanimity in their beliefs.
Christianity, or one would rather say “Christianities,” of the second and third centuries were a highly variegated phenomenon. We really can’t imagine Christianity as a unified coherent religious movement. Certainly there were some religious organizations. There were institutions developing in some Christian churches, but only in some. And, this was not universal by any means. We know from the literature recovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, that Gnostic Christianity did not have the kind of clear hierarchy that other forms of Christianity had developed. They still clung to a charismatic leadership model.
There were also very different views of Jesus in the various types of Christianity. Perhaps the starkest contrast was among those who considered themselves as Gnostic Christians, and those who considered themselves Christians in the old Pauline view of things. On the one hand, Paul, and Pauline Christianity, would have placed all of the emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the saving power of that death and resurrection. Gnostic Christianity, on the other hand, would have placed its prime emphasis on the message, the wisdom, the knowledge, the gnosis (which means ‘knowledge’ in Greek)—the knowledge that Jesus transmits, and even the secret knowledge that Jesus transmits. So, on one hand, faith was held in the saving event of Jesus’ life and death, and, on the other hand, knowledge was held as the great source of adherence to a higher consciousness.
The second century was the age of definition before Christianity. Now that it realized it no longer was Judaism, or no longer was a form of Judaism it had to figure out well then, what is it exactly? What is Christianity? What makes it not Judaism? How is it able hold on somehow to the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), and still not be Judaism? This was one of the major questions confronting Christian thinkers, writers, and Church leaders of the second century. This was the great age of Christian diversity, sects, schools, and “heresies” of all kinds. It was only in the second century that we begin to see the emergence of what might be called orthodoxy, or something that might simply be called “Christianity” in a kind of uniform body of doctrines and text, that is to say the New Testament. The New Testament as a collection of texts is a product of the second century, as Church leaders decided which books were sacred, which books were authoritative and which ones were not.
By the third century of our era, we have something called Christianity with its own sacred books, its own rituals, its own ideas. But this is also the great age of confrontation with the Roman Empire. The third century was the great age of persecutions. The Roman Empire wakes up to realize that there is something new afoot, and from their perspective, sinister, in new groups that are threatening the social order and ultimately the political order of the Empire. And, the Roman Empire was correct. The Romans correctly intuited that the victory of Christianity would mean the end of the Roman Empire, the end of the classical world. When we think of persecution we see it, of course, from a Christian perspective. We see it as heroic martyrs confronting the might of Rome. The martyrs are indeed a spectacle of tragic devotion. Their sacrifices were magnificent demonstrations of Christian faith. On the other side of the coin, however, we must realize that the Roman Empire was doing what all bureaucracies do. It was trying to protect and to perpetuate itself.
The Romans tried to suppress Christianity but failed by such a staggering measure that in the fourth century, Christianity has become the state religion. By the end of the fourth century the newly official Christian Church of Rome is persecuting all non-Christian groups in the Empire! By the end of the fourth century it was illegal to practice any form of public worship other than Christianity in the entire Roman Empire. There is a great mystery here. How could there have been such an extraordinary reversal? Jesus was executed by the Romans as a public criminal and a threat to their way of life. Yet three centuries later he is being hailed as a God, as part of the one true God, who is the God of the new Christian Roman Empire. That is a remarkable progression of possibilities, an astonishing development in the course of three centuries. It’s hard to understand exactly how it happened or why it happened that way, but it is important to realize that Christianity of the fourth century is not the same as the Jesus movement of the first or even the second century.
This of course takes place gradually. It doesn’t happen everywhere all at once, in the same way. It’s a complex protracted process that must allow for variety. Early Christianity, by moving into different cultures, different universes of thought and religion in the ancient world also adopted numerous concepts from other religions, which enriched the early Christian movement tremendously.
Constantine & The Council of Nicea
The transformation of Christianity over the first 325 years of its existence is really a profound one. The one who started out as a messianic claimant, or a religious-political rebel, a victim of the Pax Romana, had by the time of the conversion of Constantine established the official religion of the Roman Empire. Even then, that’s not a simple transformation. It would take another hundred years before most of the Roman world really converted to Christianity. But still, with the conversion of Constantine, it was a very significant change, and that change was one that unfolds in several stages. What is originally a movement oppressed by Caesar, because it’s a competitor, eventually becomes a cult of the Lord Christ. With the conversion of Constantine it becomes an imperial religion.
One of the most surprising founders in the entire Christian tradition was the Roman Emperor Constantine. As a young man he was a successful General in the Roman army destined to become Emperor. But before he can attain that position he must gain victory over another successful General. As their struggle unfolded Constantine had a vision on the battlefield. Luckily for the Church, there was a Bishop nearby to interpret what the vision meant. Constantine never converted, at heart, to Christianity, but became a patron of one particular branch of the Church. It was not accidental that it was the branch of the Church that had the Old Testament as well as the New Testament as part of its canon. The significance of that is this: Inclusion of historical Israel as part of Christian redemptive history, provided an entire language for articulating the relationship of government and piety. It provided the model of King David and all the kings of Israel. Using this governmental concept the Bishop explained the vision to Constantine.
Moved by the power of his vision, Constantine did indeed conquer, and in a sense became the embodiment of a righteous King. He consolidated his power by conquering not only the west, but eventually also the Greek east. There were many more Christians concentrated in the eastern cities, which were the social power centers of that culture. Constantine had been given an amazing position of having a theology of government with which to consolidate his own secular power. And, it worked both ways. From the beginning of the Jesus movement, there were always problems negotiating the proper relation between the members of the movement, who owed their allegiance to a different Lord, and the powers of the state. There was no central organization at that time in church history, and a Bishop was not only the local officiating leader of a congregation, but its highest office as well. This made for diversity of faith and often serious disagreements. The answer had been provided and the opportunity for resolution was seized, as much by a few surreptitious, opportunistic Bishops, as by the Emperor.
After the union became an operative reality, those who propelled Constantine into victory would be given federal funding for sponsored committee meetings and urged to iron out differences of opinion about doctrine and creeds. Solving this problem was essential for the empire to seize control of the Church and for the consenting Bishops to obtain protection and legal state authority. But how could such agreement be accomplished when the great strength of early Christianity was its adaptive resilience, and rebellious defiance of all limiting structures? The resolution would come slowly and cautiously, as some of the eastern Bishops began to present the Emperor with a consensus of opinion on their ideas of true Christianity. Once he was confident that enforceable uniformity could be achieved, Constantine convened the Council of Nicea on June 19, 325. He did so at that time because he had just completed his consolidation of authority over the whole of the Roman Empire, which comprised the majority of the world at that time. Up until 324, he had ruled only half of the Roman Empire. And he wanted to have uniformity of belief as well—or at least no major disputes within the Church he desired to rule.
Some records state that 318 Bishops attended the Council and others say there were only 270 present. Either way, it was a small number compared to the thousands of Bishops leading congregations in the late Roman Empire. Specifically, the Council of Nicea was a response to a crisis that developed in the Church over the teachings of a presbyter or priest of the church in Alexandria. His teachings suggested that Jesus was not fully divine, that Jesus was certainly a supernatural figure of some sort, but was not God in the fullest sense. The Council of Nicea was called to mediate that dispute, and the Council did come down on the side of the full divinity of Jesus. But the Council did not limit itself to that mediation. All the major decisions of doctrine that have governed the conformity of Christian faith and practice for more than 1,600 years were established by the Council of Nicea. That includes the Apostles Creed so revered by most denominations (though no apostle ever pronounced it). Many decisions were made about the authenticity of scripture, and official interpretations of it were publicly manifest. Because their agreements were solid and enforceable, the Bishops were given their legal state authority and Constantine became the Emperor of the Church as well as Rome.
One of his first actions as Emperor of the Church was to authorize persecution of all Christians that disagreed with the newly established rules. The gnostic Christians were especially targeted. Christians who did not have the Old Testament as part of their canon were also targeted. The list of enemies was long. There was a kind of internal purge of diverse practices and beliefs as Constantine built a singular Church under to his personal authority.
The Bishops who were in agreement with the Council’s decisions were terribly grateful for so much imperial support and reinforcement. The benefits of imperial patronage were enormous. In the late Roman Empire the lines of power were clear and unquestionable. A Roman Emperor (who was not yet even a believer) was the absolute authority. Therefore, Bishops were able to take advantage of Constantine’s mood, and his curious intellectual interest in things like Christology, the Trinity, and Church organization. They were able to have Bibles copied at public expense. They were finally able to have public Christian architecture and big basilicas. Altogether there was a comfortable symbiotic relationship between the Empire and the Church even if certain points of integrity were seriously questionable.
Records plainly confirm that Constantine did not convert to Christianity as an exclusive religion. Clearly he was covering all bases. Constantine was a consummate pragmatist and a matchless politician. He gauged well the upsurge of interest and support that Christianity was receiving, and so he consumed it and exported it through his own rule. But what’s important to understand and appreciate about Constantine is that he was a remarkable supporter of Christianity. He legitimized it as a protected religion of the empire and patronized it in lavish ways. With Constantine, in effect the kingdom had come. The rule of Caesar now had become legitimized and under-girded by the rule of God. That was a momentous turning point in the history of Christianity.
The imperialization of Christianity can be seen in many Roman monuments where imperial ideology and symbolism, along with the trappings of imperial grandeur, are brought into and overlaid onto the Christian tradition. An excellent example of that is the apse mosaic in the Church of Santa Podenziana at Rome. Here, we have what seems at first glance to be a traditional scene from the gospels. Jesus is seated in the middle of his Apostles who flank him along either side. It resembles a Last Supper scene, except there are two women seated behind who are dressed like very noble Roman women. It’s probably a Roman version of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. The greatest change however, is in the portrayal of Jesus. Jesus is now in a very elaborate, expensive toga, seated enthroned in an imperial chair. This Jesus looks like the Emperor himself, and here he sits enthroned in front of a very elaborate cityscape behind. But, it’s not the city of Rome; it’s the new imperial city of Jerusalem. Behind him we see Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre that had only recently been completed in Jerusalem. Behind that is the rest of the new city of Jerusalem rebuilt for the first time, significantly, after it had been destroyed in the first revolt. So, Constantine’s imperial patronage of the Church is reflected in a variety of ways—in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, in the establishment of Christian monuments, and now in one more way: in the characterization of Jesus and his disciples. They blend perfectly with the Roman aristocracy and are part of the mainstream of Roman society. This is an imperial Jesus who had been transformed into the Lord Christ of Heaven, with the Emperor Constantine ruling in his name. Constantine had successfully founded the Church of Rome, and in this gesture has established the governing principle through which the authority of Heaven could be delegated to one human being.