Chapter 3: The Rise of Christianity

The Roots of Christianity

AMONG the most important cultural developments of the Roman imperial period is the rise of Christianity. The origins of the new religion can be understood from several perspectives. Christianity arose out of the specific conditions of Judaism in the first century AD. It spread largely on account of the cultural uniformity of the Greek east and the close ties between the Hellenistic world and Rome. At the same time, it must be understood that Christianity was one of several religious and intellectual movements that arose in the east and spread throughout the Roman world. Only in time would Christianity derive a special position, largely owing to the fact that a Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, would chose the Christian faith as his own.

From the third century BC onward, we see an influx of easter mystery religions in the Greco-Roman world. One of the first of these “new cults” was that of Sarapis, an Egyptian God. A private individual, acting on a dream, built a shrine to Sarapis on Delos, a holy island in the Aegean. The cult spread and became wildly successful in Greece and Rome. Other cults, such as that of Asclepius, were driven by “professional holy men,” noted for healing miracles. Certain philosophic sects, such as the Stoics and the followers of Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Diagoras, and Socrates, functioned along the lines of religious cults. Membership in these cults could be likened to joining a private club. The members shared common meals, performed private devotions, and arranged for the funerals of deceased members. The cultic organizations paralleled private social clubs, called collegia or thiasoi. For the average Greek or Roman, membership in such cults or clubs did not preclude participation in the official civic cults. They merely provided a more personal form of religious devotion.

One eastern cult that spread throughout the Mediterranean world in the last few centuries of the pre-Christian era was Judaism. Following the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon, the Jewish diaspora led to the formation of Jewish communities throughout the Greek-Speaking world. Alexandria was one of the largest, where the Jews lived in a politeuma, a separate legal community. Jews were not liable for military service in the empire, mainly because they could not fight on the Sabbath. They also were freed from making sacrifices for the emperor. Jewish religious life, outside of the formal ceremonies of the Temple, revolved around the synagogue. Synagogue is a Greek word  meaning “assembly.” Most early synagogues were located in private homes, and comprised a house of reading (bet sefer) where the Torah would be read, and a house of learning (bet midrash) where men would discuss the oral tradition, what would later be codified in the writings of the Talmud. There were some 480 synagogues in Jerusalem in the first century AD. In Rome, there were eleven, and a synagogue had been founded on Delos during the first century BC. The synagogues were often patronized by non-Jews, mostly upper-class women. Several prominent Roman ladies are known to have converted to Judaism. For men, however, strict compliance with the Torah made full conversion painful, to say the least. The spread of Judaism and the prominence of non-Jews interested in their religion helped ease the spread of the Christian religion, which arose in the tortured political and religious climate of first century Palestine.

After Pompey the Great conquered the remains Seleucid empire, its rulers began to intervene in the internal affairs of the Hasmonaean kingdom. Syria and Palestine were strategically important as the Roman frontier against the Parthian Empire, a Persian state that came to dominate Mesopotamia between 140 and 50 BC. In 55 BC the Romans overthrew the Hasmonaean dynasty, elevating the Ideumaean tribal prince Antipater to the post of “procurator” of Judea. Antipater’s son Herod (a Greek name) proclaimed himself king in 43. Augustus gave Herod extensive rights over Galilee in 27 B.C. and raised his sons in the imperial household in Rome. Herod’s kingdom more closely resembled the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Ptolemid and Seleucid emperors than the ancient Israeli kingdoms.

Greek became the official language of administration and culture in the Ideumaean kingdom. Indeed, Hebrew was used only for very formal religious observances by this time. The inability of many Jews to read Hebrew had resulted in the preparation of a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, known as the Septuagint, in the second century. When the Gospels and other texts that comprised the Christian New Testament were written, they were composed in Koine. The fact that Palestine was part of the Greek-speaking world had much to do with the spread of Christianity.

Shortly before the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., Yeshu bar-Yousef was born, the son of a carpenter. Although better known by the Latinized Greek name of Jesus  his Hebrew name hearkened back to who we know as Joshua, the military commander who led the Israelites across the River Jordan into the Promised Land. The land the Jesus was born into was rent with civil unrest, primarily because of growing dissatisfaction with Roman rule. There were also ruptures within Judaism between the rival sects of the Essenes, Hasidim, Sadducees, and Pharisees, not to mention a number of smaller fringe groups. The Jerusalem Talmud mentions twenty-four distinct Jewish heresies. Overpopulation, homelessness, and poverty were serious problems at this time, largely brought on by the redistribution of land that followed the reorganization of Palestine under Pompey, Herod the Great and Quintillius Varus, Governor of Judea after the death of Herod. The Roman administrators in Judea were widely unpopular. Between 6 AD and 66 AD, some fourteen men held the post of Procurator of Judea. Pontius Pilate (26-36) had one of the longest terms of office, but his efficiency made him all the more unpalatable to the Jews.

Jesus’ teachings, rooted in the political, socio-economic and religious controversies of the age in several respects marked a radical divergence from traditional Jewish thought. His message was well received in the poorer rural districts of Palestine, where political and economic upheavals had taken their toll on society. In the Hellenized city of Jerusalem, however, the Roman and Jewish elites, as well as most of society found Jesus’s teachings difficult and dangerous. What was perhaps most frightening to the authorities was his rhetoric concerning the “kingdom.” Among the various Jewish groups, the Sadducees and the adherents of the “fourth philosophy” were calling for a Jewish national revolt, while the Pharisees argued for close cooperation with the Romans. Any individual who seemed to speak of the creation of an independent kingdom was certain to be suspect in the eyes of the Jewish authorities in the Sanhedrin (again, a Greek word) and the Romans. Jesus was executed either by the Roman or Jewish authorities (and the Gospels are not at all clear on this issue) sometime between 29 and 33 A.D.

The establishment of a Christian church was accomplished by Jesus’ followers, most notably Peter and Paul. Peter was recognized as the chief of the apostles and founded churches in Antioch and Rome. He was crucified on the mons vaticanus in Rome during the persecutions of Nero in 64 A.D. Paul was an Hellenistic Jew, Paul being his Greek name, Saul his Hebrew one. He was educated in Greek philosophy and letters and on several occasions quotes classical authors in his letters. Paul initially persecuted Christians but converted around 34 AD, becoming the leading missionary of the new Church. In 48 A.D. Peter and Paul met with other apostles and decided to convey their message to the Gentiles (non-Jews) resulting in an abandonment of many Jewish customs. Paul made a total of four missionary journeys (37-50, 50-51, 51-57, 59-61) until he too was martyred in Rome.

The churches that Paul and other disciples founded generally had roots in the Jewish community. A good example is the church in Corinth. Corinth was a wealthy trading city and administrative center. The old city had been destroyed by Roman armies in 146 BC, but Caesar had rebuilt the city in 44 BC as a colony for his veterans and freed slaves. It had a diverse population, including many Jews. Corinth’s geographic position, its importance both economically and politically, and the diversity of its population, made it a strategic base for Paul’s mission. Paul’s visit to Corinth (50-51) followed the exile of a number of Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius. Seutonius tells us that the Jews of Rome were stirred up “by the followers of Krestus,” presumably the earliest historical reference to Jesus Christ. From Paul’s letters, we see that the church in Corinth was, like Synagogues, supported by wealthy patrons. Women played a prominent role in its administration. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper provided the two central ceremonies that defined the Christian community. Here and elsewhere, however, we can see tensions between the Christians and Jews. Paul’s letters represent this as a rift within what had once been a single community. As time passed, the differences became more pronounced, so that by the end of the first century, Christianity had fully emerged from Judaism as a distinct religion.

The Formation of the Christian Scriptures

THE teachings of Jesus were collected and preserved by his followers in the years following his death. The first assemblage of his sayings is known as the “old source” or Q (from German, Quelle = “source”). The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is thought by some biblical scholars to be the most similar in form and language to Q of any extent Gospels. The second century writer Papias of Hieropolis indicated that less than a third of the stories and parables of Jesus were recorded in the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel according to Mark is generally considered to be the oldest Gospel in the New Testament canon, and was written around the time of the destruction of the temple, ca. 70 A.D. Another tradition holds Mark to be an epitome of a larger, now lost, Gospel in the tradition of Matthew, composed for use in the Roman church. Such a theory would help explain why Mark knows nothing of the birth and childhood of Jesus. The Gospels of Luke, written in Greek, and Matthew, a creation of the Syrian church, were composed later and are based on Q with the addition of other material. Matthew in particular is notable for the extent of its reference to Jewish scriptures. The Gospel of John was most likely written in Ephesus and is of a very different character than the other three. It has some affinities to the writings of Jewish Platonists and Stoic, but also is deeply rooted in Palestinian Judaism. Among its targets were followers of John the Baptist who had not joined the Christian movement, Jews, and early heretical groups in Palestine and Asia Minor.

The four Gospels were all written after 70 AD: arguably none of them existed in their current form before 100, and some have dated our version of John as late as 170. The Gospels derive from two literary traditions. First and foremost, they come out of the traditions of Jewish religious writing. Indeed, there is no body of pagan religious literature even vaguely comparable to that of the Jews, and no religious of the ancient world was more text-based than Judaism. The authors of the Gospels necessarily possessed sophisticated exegetical skill, insofar as much of their product contains commentary on Old Testament material, as well as on the sayings of Jesus. With respect to Jewish scripture, it would appear that the authors or editors of the Gospels were often working with versions other than those handed down in the Masoritic Hebrew text or in the Septuagint. Such independent collections of scripture passages, called Testimonia, are known from Egypt and Qumran. The known Testimonia generally comprise collections of Messianic or eschatological texts, just the sort of material that made its way into the Gospels.

Jewish influence also reveals itself in the nature of the language of the Gospels, with its use of Semitisms. The author of the third Gospel appears to have closely followed the language of the Septuagint, a text whose style can best be termed “translatorese.” This reflects the second literary tradition that shaped the Gospels. Greek historical writing closely followed patterns of antique authors: the style of Thucydides was to be emulated by writers of political history. Luke was obliged by the same conventions to derive his language from that of the Septuagint, the oldest Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. All New Testament authors were somehow affected by current Greek style. While some critics have criticized their Greek as pedestrian, this is not really fair. It is best thought of as Fachprosa, the sort of no-nonsense technical prose used in all but the most affected works of literature and philosophy.

The gospels are compilations of stories, each of which is built around a saying (perikope) of Jesus, emendated and commented upon. It is generally supposed that the gospels were produced in stages. Raymond Brown has postulated five stages for the creation of the Gospel of John.[1]   In the first stage, a body of traditional material came into existence. The “author” of this collection would have been the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Note here that “author” and “writer” are not the same thing. At this stage, the Gospel material existed only in oral form, as a collection of sayings and teachings passed on by the eyewitness to other listeners. Stage two comprises a process of sifting and selecting material and molding it into a particular form and language. The individual sayings of Jesus had now been set into a narrative context, with references linking them to Jewish traditions. The first written version appears in stage three, where the tradition of the teacher/author is arranged and written down by a disciple/editor/evangelist. Stage four involves a second editing of the material, perhaps taking into account new material, derived from other sources. Stage five is the final reaction, undertaken by someone other than the original evangelist, probably in the mid-second century.

Paul’s letters to various churches along with other letters by early Christians make up the second portion of the New Testament. The authentic letters of Paul are in fact the oldest works in the New Testament canon, and were written in the following order: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (ca 50), Galatians (54/55), 1 and 2 Corinthians (54-56), Romans (ca. 57), Philippians (58/59, Colossians and Philemon (58). These letters follow the forms and style of Greek letters from their age, and were probably dictated to secretaries. The origin of some of these works is obscure, and it is clear that the epistles were been revised heavily after their original composition. The two letters to the Corinthians, for example, are considered by most scholars to comprise elements from five separate letters composed over perhaps a ten-year period.

In addition to the letters mentioned above, the New Testament includes four letters attributed to Paul, but written later. The letter to the Ephesians, written about 100 AD, appears to consist primarily of long excerpts from hymns and liturgical texts patched together into a single text. Only a fraction of the text is “Pauline” in style and vocabulary. Nonetheless, it provide important clues for understanding the early Church. Ephesians is one of the best indicators that a well formed Christian liturgy, distinct from Jewish ritual, was extant in the first century. The Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — are generally believed to have been written in the early to mid-second century. They deal with matters of church administration and reflect the development of stable institutions, such as the episcopacy, during the early second century. Other epistles include a series attributed to Peter and another to John. Both were most likely composed by their disciples, especially because we are told that Peter was illiterate, although their is some reason to believe that those of Peter might date to his lifetime.

The Apocalypse, or Book of Revelations, was supposedly composed by St. John during his exile on the island of Patmos and was included in the final version of the Christian Bible. Here again, while it remains in the same theological milieu as the other Johannine writings — the Gospel and the Epistles — stylistic differences, in particular distinctions between the letters contained in the Apocalypse and those attributed to John as separate works, indicate that it was composed by a different author within the Johannine tradition. The specific context for its composition was the destruction of the Temple and the Neronian persecutions. The Apocalypse stands alone among the books of the New Testament. As one recent scholar has noted “the author of the Apocalypse, despite his idiosyncratic grammar and style, may be the most textually self-conscious Christian writer of the early style period.” Certainly without this book, the Christian bible and the Christian religion would be very different indeed.

Although current editions of the New Testament end with the Apocalypse, during the second and third century, an additional set of material was widely accepted as canonical. These were the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the first generation of church leaders following the deaths of the apostles. The oldest of these works is a letter to the Corinthians commonly known as 1 Clement. Tradition holds the author to be St. Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome. It was written no later than 90 AD, and hence predates most of the Gospels. 2 Clement, though presented as a letter, is actually a second century sermon text, most likely from Alexandria. The letters of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (d. 110) are an important source of information on the early church, dealing in particular with the role of bishops. These circulated as a collection very early, and may have had an impact on the subsequent collection of Pauline and Pseudo-Pauline letters in their current form. A letter of Polycarp, along with a narrative of his martyrdom is also included, as well as the Letter of Barnabas, a vehement attack on Jewish beliefs. Two final works in this tradition should be noted. The Didache, or Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, contains the earliest descriptions of Christian worship, including the liturgy for baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Shepherd of Hermas is an apocalyptic work, comprising a series of visions and parables on the church and the end times. It was perhaps the most popular and well-known early Christian work, and it seems that the early Church fathers went to great pains to ensure its dissemination.

By the end of the second century, the canon of scripture was fairly well established. The works of the Apostolic Fathers continued to be included in the canon until the third and fourth century, but gradually dropped out. The Greek Septuagint was generally accepted as the orthodox version of the Old Testament. After 200 A.D. the spread of Christianity into Latin speaking quarters of the West and the decline of Greek in those regions necessitated a translation of the Bible into Latin. The authoritative Latin version of the Bible was prepared by St. Jerome (ca. 345-420). Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate, was based on careful study of Greek and Hebrew texts, and remained the standard in the Latin church until the twentieth century.

The Structure of the Early Church

BY the second century, the basic organization of the Church had been established. The Christian Church was an urban phenomena, and derived its peculiar structure from both the synagogues of the Jews and Roman funerary guilds and other organizations. The chief church in any city was presided over by a bishop, elected by the clergy and laity. He was assisted by priests or elders   and deacons. The bishops of major cities were known as metropolitan bishops, a term replaced with archbishop in the West during the high Middle Ages. A different form of Christian life was practiced by hermits and monks. St. Anthony led the first monastic community in the Sinai desert in the mid-third century. Monasticism was introduced into the West by St. Athanasius in the fourth century. Monks took over the role of the martyrs in the early Church as symbols of devotion.

The oldest church was that in Jerusalem, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, until 62 A.D. The church of Jerusalem preserved most of the customs of the Jewish religion. The leader of the church, called a bishop  or “headmen”  had extensive, monarchical powers and was drawn from the “sons of the house”, the blood relatives of Jesus. Eusebius relates how succession of bishops was determined:

After the martyrdom of James, and the capture of Jerusalem, which immediately followed (70), this report is, that those of the apostles and disciples of our Lord that were yet surviving, came together from all parts with those that were related to our Lord according to the flesh. For the greater part of them were still living. These consulted together, to determine whom it was proper to pronounce worthy of being the successor of James. They all unanimously declared Simeon, the son of Cleophas, of whom mention is made in the sacred volume (John xix:25), as worthy of the episcopal seat there. They say he was a cousin  of our Savior, for Hegesippus (fl. ca. 175 A.D.) asserts that Cleophas was the brother [-in-law] of Joseph.[2]

The church of Jerusalem survived the siege of 70 only to be destroyed during the Bar-Kokhba rebellion (132-135), a Messianic Jewish uprising crushed by Hadrian. The only surviving Jewish Christian group were the Ebionites, radical monotheists who rejected the teachings of Paul.

The Syrian church was longer lived and is now represented by the orthodox patriarchate of Antioch. Peter is generally considered the first bishop, but the church derived its character under St. Ignatius (d. 110), a disciple of John who wrote numerous letters to the early churches. Several important churches were also founded in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia, as well as in Rome. The Roman church merits special attention. Its origins go back at least to 44 AD. Tradition holds that both Peter and Paul fostered the church’s growth and that both disciples were martyred there. Rome early on had a special place in the Christian world. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Clement clearly sees himself as writing as a successor to Paul. The second century deacon Hippolytus wrote what is perhaps the oldest description of Christian liturgy in the West. From the earliest times, Rome was seen as a center of orthodoxy at a time when there were extreme variations of Christian belief.

Creeds and Heresies

FROM the very beginnings of the Christian church, the question of what constituted “correct” doctrine has been the subject of fierce debate. Especially in the first two centuries, the lack of a uniform canon of scripture, accompanied by the isolation of Christian communities, fostered the rise of numerous heresies. At the same time, the development of credal statements helped shape the basic standards of Christian orthodoxy.

There are three treat Creeds, or professions of faith, commonly used within Christendom. The Apostles Creed had its origins as a baptismal covenant, and dates to the third century, although the current definitive form appeared no earlier than 370. The Nicene Creed derives from that of the old Jerusalem church, and was adapted for use at the council of Nicaea in 325, then again for the council of Constantinople in 381. The Athanasian Creed (Quincunque Vult) is attributed to St. Athanasius (ca. 293-373) and represents an “authoritative compendium” of Trinitarian doctrine. All of these creeds follow a standard pattern: each contains three sections, dealing with three persons of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); each deals with both abstract issues of the faith and concrete questions of the church and the ritual. This format is found in what may be the earliest liturgical creed, found in Ephesians iv:4-6:

There is one body and one Spirit

One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism

One God and Father of us all,

who is above all and through

all and all.
Striking about this text is the recurrent use of the emphatic “one,” as well as the coupling of ritual and belief — faith and baptism. The “body” is generally held to be the church, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. The major distinction between this formula and later ones is that the order of principles is reversed: it begins with the Spirit and ends with God, whereas the other standard creeds proceed in the opposite direction. All creeds are held to represent the tradition passed down by the apostles concerning the nature of God, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The development of credal formulas can be seen in a number of second and third century texts, and almost always in the context of heresy. A third century work, the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles counterpoises the teachings of the Apostles and the Apostolic tradition to other beliefs, which it defines as heresies. Heresy  is distinct from schism in that implies teaching an erroneous or, to use the language of the Constitutions, blasphemous or “atheistical” doctrine. The earliest use of the word appears in I Corinthians xi:19: “for there must be factions  among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” In this case, Paul decries those who take the Lord’s Supper lightly. In other cases, his condemnation of “Jewish” practices identifies one of the early sources of Christian heresy: Jewish sectarianism. By the mid second century, however, Christian sectarianism no longer needed their Jewish brethren to sow “dissention and difficulties,” as Paul would say.

While the Constitutions identify Judaism as a source of Christian misbelief, one of the most virulent heresies of the early Church went too far in the opposite direction. Marcion taught the separation of law and gospel. He could not conceive how Jesus, a being of light and goodness, could have any connection to the Jewish God. The God who created this world, with its evil and “beggarly elements” — Marcion in particular was offended by the notion that Jesus’ God had anything to do with sex or childbirth, or such creatures as reptiles and insects — could not have been the father of Jesus Christ. Hence Marcion postulated two gods. One was the creator of evils, the god of the Old Testament. The other was the father of Jesus Christ. Both had promised a “son,” but while the former offered a political Messiah who, in fact, never did appear, the true “God” brought forth Jesus. This Father was a “previously unknown God, revealed for the salvation of all nations … a different being from him who was ordained by God the creator for the restoration of the Jewish state.”[3]   This God and his Son, moreover, were spiritual beings, not associated with the uncleanliness of the created world.

Marcion fully rejected any ties between Christianity and Judaism, but in so doing he lapsed from monotheism into dualism. As his arch-critic Tertullian (ca. 160-post 220) put it, “the heretic of Pontus introduces two Gods … One whom it was impossible to deny, i.e., the Creator; and one whom he will never be able to prove, i.e. his own god.”[4]   Marcion also had to reject not only the Old Testament, but any writings that were problematic for his own position. He only accepted Luke-Acts, along with some of Paul’s letters, declaring the rest of the New Testament, in particular the Johannine material, to be too Jewish. Such a position was clearly not tenable, and even while Marcion taught, there emerged a growing consensus on the New Testament canon. Marcion did provide a signal service to the early church, however. He forced it fully to come to terms with its Jewish past, and to make sure that dogma was consistent with both Old and New Testaments in their totality.

Marcionite Dualism was taken in an even more radical direction by the third century heretic Mani. Manicheism, along with Priscillianism, named after a fourth century Spanish heretic, taught that there were two Gods, the creator, who had made the imperfect and inherently evil physical world, and Christ, the eternal spiritual God. The powers of good and evil were equal and locked in a struggle of the cosmic order.

One of the most important movements was Gnosticism. It derived its name from gnosis  meaning “knowledge,” here signifying “hidden knowledge.” Gnostic theology argued that some of Jesus’ teachings had remained secret, hidden from all but a few disciples. In terms of its teachings, Gnosticism, taught the “cosmic redemption of the spirit through knowledge,” following Platonic and Stoic examples. This redemption was spiritual as most Gnostic writers, such as Valentinus, rejected the physical body as corrupt or even non existent. Some Gnostics explained redemption within the context of a bewilderingly bizarre cosmology. For Basilides, the basic aspect of God was non-existence: “the non-existent God made a non-existent cosmos of the non-existent.” He created a “seed” which contained a “tripartite sonship” wherefrom derived two “Great Archons,” one who made the Cosmos, and another who created the world. The Supreme God and the Creator were separate and distinct. Basilides also taught that, in relation to this tripartite seed, three kinds of substance came into being: material, psychic, and spiritual; represented by the three sons of Adam, Cain, Abel, and Seth. Spiritual substance has no need for salvation, while material substance cannot be redeemed. The goal of saving the “psychic” man lay in purification. The climax of Valentinian eschatolgy involved “not only the deliverance of the spirit from the tyranny of the flesh .. but the very destruction of the cosmos and of all matter.”[5]

As ought to be clear, Gnosticism’s worst enemy was its own esotericism. But the intellectual complexity of Gnostic teaching was attractive, and forced theologians to move away from simple moralism and deal with the problem of redemption in a more forceful manner. In particular, orthodox scholars, in their answer to the Gnostics, developed the notions of Grace that underlay the theology of St. Augustine. It should be noted that not all Gnostics were heretics. Indeed, most of their general beliefs were fully compatible with orthodox Christianity. It was only when they ventured into such subjects as the “cosmological descent of the soul” and then produced their own “Gospels” to prove their theories that they crossed the line.

The Montanists, named after the Phrygian prophet Montanus, were the most important of several groups which believed in the imminence of Christ’s return to earth. They also believed that the revelation of God’s word was continuing through the rantings of prophets who spoke in tongues. Speaking in tongues was respected in the church in Corinth, where Paul urged the faithful to treat such charismatic prophecy with caution. The problem of the second coming came to be an important aspect of early discussions of the eucharist. Against the claims of the Montanists and other millenarian sects, the orthodox Church adopted the Biblical notion that Christ was physically present in the bread and wine, removing the need for the spirit to manifest itself in prophecies or ecstatic fits. Montanism also became less of an issue as the church began to admit that Christ’s return might not be so imminent as they had previously thought. Finally, the development of a coherent doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the third century, along with its identification with the Church, made Montanism obsolete.

The Beginnings of Christian Theology

CHRISTIAN theology has its origins in the New Testament. The Gospels, with their exegesis of Old Testament material and of the sayings of Christ, are more theological texts than biographies, while most of Paul’s letters can be called theological discourses in epistolary form. Paul’s writings also informed the work of the Apostolic Fathers, in particular St. Ignatius. There is then a direct line of continuity connecting the creation of the New Testament with the theological writings of the second and third century. These continued the discussion and interpretation of the Gospel message in light of new problems and issues that arose over time.

The first important mainstream Christian theologian was Justin Martyr (d. 165) a Greek from Samaria. He studied at Ephesus under Stoic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Platonic scholars before converting to Christianity around 135. He wrote a number of apologetic treatises before being martyred in Rome. His two most important works are the Apologia and the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, written in the style of Plato. Among his most important contributions was the identification of Christ with the Divine Logos, the transcendent mind of God. Justin defined the Son as an outward expression (logos prophoikos) of the thought (logos endiathetos) of the Father. This Logos-theology, with its links to Platonism and Stoicism, provided the early church with its primary way for conceiving of the incarnation.

Justin’s use of Platonic and Stoic categories derived from his belief that Jews and Christians had a monopoly on divine revelation, and developed the notion that such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle as well as the Hebrew prophets had been “Christians before Christ.” Pagan philosophers had derived their ideas from the “seed of reason”  that had inspired both the Hebrew prophets and the writers of the Gospels. Justin, Aristobolus, Clement of Rome, and some other writers even went so far as to claim that Plato had read Moses, pointing out similarities between the Pentateuch and two of Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Phaedus. While such claims seem difficult to uphold, they spring from Justin’s basic conviction in the rationality of the Gospel against the irrationality of pagan myths. This theme was explored further by St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 211) in his Exhortation to the Greeks.

One of the major developments of the late second and third centuries was the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Justin and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (fl. 180), worked to clarify the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Using essentially a Platonic scheme, they understood the Father to be the transcendent God, defining the Son as God imminent. Irenaeus also was a noted heresiologist, and played a leading role in defining the canon of the New Testament. Origen (184/5-253/54) was a student of Clement of Alexandria and important early apologist. He developed his ideas on the Trinity through his application to theology of the Platonist tripartite division of the cosmos. The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, correspond to the Platonic categories of mind, matter, and soul. According to Origen, the Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father through the Son, a position held by the Eastern Orthodox churches but rejected in the west, although his teaching that the Father and Son were coeternal was accepted by both churches.

Origen also applied Platonic reasoning in his exegesis of scripture. For Origen, the Bible represented the incarnation of the divine logos as a written work. Each passage lends itself to three levels of interpretation. One can explore the literal or historical meaning of scripture, its moral significance, or its spiritual meaning. Origen also explored allegory, and tended to adopt a mystical interpretation of scripture. Origen wrote some the earliest Marian theology, claiming that Mary was granted perpetual virginity and was worthy of veneration as the Mother of God or God Bearer (Theotokos). Finally, Origen argued that free will was a basic aspect of the human condition, part of the “image of God” imprinted on man in the creation.

The first great theologian of the Latin West was Tertullian, the son of a Roman centurion from Carthage. Tertullian is chiefly remembered as an apologist, a lover of paradox, and an opponent of the use of classical philosophy. He believed that “heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy,” the “doctrines of men and of demons, produced for the itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom.” His distaste for philosophy gave rise to perhaps his most famous remark: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[6]   His largest work, Five Books against Marcion is a compendium of his theology, but he wrote many other smaller works on a variety of subjects, including idolatry, the soul, repentance, baptism, prayer, and martyrdom. Tertullian played a major role in the development of Trinitarian doctrine, and also wrote on the nature of God and Christ. He firmly upheld the impassibility of God. He also argued that two natures, one human, the other divine, were joined in Christ. One of the great ironies of Tertullian’s life is that despite his fame as an expert on heresy, late in life he became an adherent of Montanism.

The issue of the nature of Christ dominated theological discussions throughout the third through the seventh centuries. Arius (256-336) argued that if God were perfect, complete, fully divine and impassible it did not follow that Christ, who had earthly passions, emotions, and imperfections according to his physical nature, could not be fully divine. The doctrine of Arianism taught that Christ was a radiation from God, but subordinate; not of equal standing but a “lesser” manifestation of the godhead. Arius’s teaching were attacked by St. Athanasius (ca. 293-373). The Athanasian position, that Christ had a different nature than God, but that he was composed of the same substance of the father (homoousin) was adopted by the Council of Nicaea (325) and incorporated into the Nicene Creed. Athanasian dyophysitism was rejected by the Egyptian church, however, which claimed that God and Christ shared a common nature. This position, called Monophysitism, was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Arianism, Monophysitism, and a later heresy, Monothelitism (belief that God and Christ shared a common will) remained popular despite official censure well into the seventh and eighth centuries, contributing to serious divisions within the Christian community.

St. Augustine

THE foundations of western Christian doctrine were largely laid down by St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430). Augustine had been born in Italy and had originally been a Manichee. His reading of Cicero on friendship had a profound effect on his thinking, and in 383, while in Rome, he entered into a community organized in the home of a leading Manichean scholar. Several young men lived together, serving one another, sharing all in common, and practicing celibacy. Although he left this Manichean community to take up a position teaching rhetoric in Milan, Augustine’s experience with the communal life made a deep impression on him, laying the basis for his role in redefining western monasticism.

In Milan, Augustine came under the spell of St. Ambrose, and through his sermons, conversations with friends, and deep study of scripture, Augustine converted to Christianity in 386. He was baptized in 387 by St. Ambrose and the following year founded his first monastery in North Africa.. He established a second monastery after being ordained as a presbyter in Hippo in 391. Upon entering these houses, the initiates had to surrender their belongings, and then lived a life of prayer, fasting, discussion, and scholarship. Each member of the community became a seruus dei, a servant of God, and the duties of monks involved prayer and work — ora et labora. Augustine composed a rule to guide his monks, and hence sought a far more organized form of monastic devotion than that practiced in the East. In general, anchorite spirituality ran contrary to the communal and scholarly bend of Augustinian, and by extension, most Western monastic movements.

Augustine was named bishop of Hippo in 396, after which time he refined his theology. Through his theological writings, Augustine laid down the theological foundations of the western Church. His writings on the Trinity provided the basis for western doctrines and ensured a degree of doctrinal stability not found in the East. His treatise on Christian Doctrine served as a guide to exegesis. His major work was the City of God (413-426), written as a rebuttal to those who attributed the sack of Rome in 410 to the abolition of pagan worship. In this work, Augustine makes a crucial distinction between the worldly city and the Godly one:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. … The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, “I will love Thee, O lord, my strength [Ps. xviii.1]” And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God “glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise” — that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride –“they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man.” [Rom. i.21-25][7]

The city, then, and hence the Roman Empire as a whole, is merely a perverse reflection of the Godly city, twisted by mens’ pride and ambition, pagan vices which Augustine had little tolerance for; “for the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives.” The church is the city of God while it sojourns on earth, according to Augustine, and it is within that community that true freedom and security are found in obedience to God’s will. This notion provides the basis for western ecclesiology.

Crucial for the development of western theology was Augustine’s theology of grace. According to Augustine, grace was the creative and redemptive power of God. Grace is God’s freedom to act and an expression of his sovereignty. Adam, upon his creation, was endowed with a special grace, the ability not to sin. But Adam sinned, using the freedom of will that he enjoyed as the image of the Creator to disobey God. The result of the fall was original sin, which endowed Adam and his progeny with the inability not to sin. The fall damaged the nature of man, and necessitated the treatment of his soul. Christ, the incarnation of God’s grace, was the put on earth to restore man to a state of grace by taking on and dying for their sins. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual incarnation of imminent grace. Through the sacraments, Christians are continually imbued with the grace necessary for their salvation.

Augustine’s theory of grace was criticized from several directions. Manichees saw in his teachings on the fall the dualism between body and soul. To this, Augustine replied that it was not Adam’s physical body that was responsible for his sin, but his mind. The physical body, so to speak, was merely the executor of the mind’s desire to disobey. The Pelagians argued that Augustine placed too much emphasis on predestination and bound God to the sacraments of the Church. Augustine, while upholding that God was the source of grace, did allow that man remained free to either accept or reject God’s gift of salvation. The Pelagian argument, that man was responsible for his own salvation, was rejected by the fifth-century Councils. Nevertheless, throughout the Middle Ages, the debate between Pelagius and Augustine remained one of the thorniest problems in Christian theology.

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