|This essay is an original work by RationalWiki users.|
(see the page history for a list of the contributors)
It does not necessarily reflect the views expressed in RationalWiki's Mission Statement, but we welcome discussion of a broad range of ideas.
Unless otherwise stated, this is original content, released under CC-BY-SA 3.0 or any later version. See RationalWiki:Copyrights.
Feel free to make comments on the talk page, which will probably be far more interesting, and might reflect a broader range of RationalWiki editors' thoughts.
Contrary to popular belief Christianity did not begin suddenly with the birth of Christ. Rather it evolved as a result of the social and theological climate of its time.
Christianity owes much of its heritage to Hellenistic pagan religions, which distributed myths of virgin-born, died and resurrected savior gods. Furthermore "mystery" cults of the period offered properly initiated disciples the secrets to realizing paradise in the afterlife. Judaism in fact has a mythology of its own that had a significant influence on the formation of Christianity. Elements of Jewish mythology, to include original sin, judgment, apocalypse, and atonement, can be discerned from the writings of Jewish prophets. It cannot be denied that much of the origin of Christianity can be traced to Judaism.
As Jews were exposed to Hellenistic culture, the fusion of the two mythologies was reflected in the countless works of their authors. Two such literary products of the Jewish Hellenistic period were the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon. Considered part of some Old Testament canons and written a few hundred years before any recognized Christian writings, scholars can nonetheless identify messianic allusions and numerous other themes in these two books that were subsequently incorporated into those of the Christian New Testament canon as well.
The first efforts to be ultimately allowed into the New Testament were the epistles of Paul. Paul's theology, as inferred from his authentic letters, reflects a synthesis of Judaism with the mystery cults. From his works, one can surmise Paul's belief that initiation by baptism into death and resurrection with "Christ Jesus" allows one to escape the effects of sin. For further clarification, in Paul's own words, see Romans 6:1-10. Additionally, Paul, in Romans 16:25-26, mentions the "mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God." Conspicuously absent in this passage, as in all of Paul's philosophizing, is any sense that Jesus actually existed as a recent historical figure, despite Paul's having recorded these thoughts only 20 to 25 years after Jesus was alleged executed.
In fact the first New Testament book to relate any details about the deeds and teachings of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark, appearing roughly 40 years age Jesus' alleged death. However, the usefulness of Mark as a factual account is seriously questionable. The gospel makes no claim to have been written by an eyewitness and its traditional attribution to Mark, an assistant of the Apostle Peter, is doubtful. It demonstrably contains historical and geographical errors and internal inconsistencies. With its omniscient point of view and emphasis on miracles, it reads more like a work of fiction, even in contrast to works left by notable historians of the age.
An open-minded analysis of Mark reveals that every passage is a collection of verses taken directly from, or inspired by, Old Testament verses. Because of the author of Mark's heavy reliance on scripture, Christian fundamentalists have reached the backward conclusion that the older works actually prophesied the gospel events. Convincing evidence has been presented that the author drew upon Old Testament themes to create a fictional work for the sole purpose of imparting a moral. Additionally the Gospel of Mark appears to be based on oral tradition that preceded it. Furthermore, the curious references to understanding parables and the "secret of the kingdom of God" in Mark 4:11-12 may indicate influence of the mystery cults.
Three subsequently written gospels were also awarded canonization, each with a reasonably obvious theological agenda. Scholars are nearly unanimous in their belief that the gospels of Matthew and Luke were mere reworks of Mark and that that of John is strongly influenced by it too. It is worth noting the significance of this observation: nearly everything we know about Jesus is derived from a single story. In fact the followers of Jesus are described 17 times by use of the word "multitude" in the Gospel of Mark alone (KJV), yet there is not a single reference to Jesus written by a historian during his lifetime and all remarks by historians in the centuries immediately following appear to be based merely on oral testimony from Christians at the time.
Christian authors wrote prolifically during the 200 years or so after the Gospel of Mark to expand traditional knowledge of characters referenced within and to further particular theological points of view. Often books were fraudulently ascribed to perceived authorities in order that their contents would be better received, although some were considered inauthentic even in antiquity. During a period of approximately 300 years the books constituting the New Testament canon were settled on.
In reality, the choice of which books to canonize was a direct result of pressure within the fledgling Christian Church to adopt a collective and universal set of beliefs. To illustrate, there had been factions within the church that denied the existence of an earthly Jesus as well as those that believed in a Jesus of history but who was inferior to God. Due to various motives, several of these factions desired that their view be decided on as representing the official position. Ultimately the Roman emperor ordered doctrinal consensus within the Christian Church. Christian bishops convened councils to vote on the issues and subsequently issued creeds of faith. New Testament canonization would soon reflect the decisions of these councils as well.
To summarize, Paul and other self-proclaimed "apostles" were influenced by Jewish and Hellenistic mythologies, conceiving a "Jesus mystery religion." Subsequent authors expanded upon this philosophy by adding details of a historical Jesus. Those believing in Jesus' historicity successfully defended their position, and it eventually became accepted by the entire church. In other words, in the struggle to dictate Christian Church doctrine, history was determined by the winners.
The Origins Of Christianity
In the initial decades of the Roman Empire, at the eastern end of the
Mediterranean, a new religion, Christianity, emerged. Much of the impetus for this new religion rested in issues in the Jewish religion, including a
long-standing belief in the coming of a Messiah and rigidities that had
developed in the Jewish priesthood. Whether or not Christianity was created by God, as Christians believe, the early stages of the religion focused on
cleansing the Jewish religion of stiff rituals and haughty leaders. It had
little at first to do with Roman culture. Christianity arose in a remote
province and appealed particularly to the poorer classes. It is not easy, as a
result, to fit Christianity neatly into the patterns of Roman history: It was
deliberately separate, and only gradually had wider impact.
Christianity originated with Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet and
teacher who probably came to believe he was the Son of God and certainly was regarded as such by his disciples. Jesus preached in Israel during the time of Augustus, urging a purification of the Jewish religion that would free Israel and establish the kingdom of God on earth. He urged a moral code based on love, charity, and humility, and he asked the faithful to follow his lessons, abandoning worldly concern. Many disciples believed that a Final Judgment day was near at hand, on which God would reward the righteous with immortality and condemn sinners to everlasting hell.
Jesus won many followers among the poor. He also roused suspicion among
the upper classes and the leaders of the Jewish religion. These helped
persuade the Roman governor, already concerned about unrest among the Jews, that Jesus was a dangerous agitator. Jesus was put to death as a result, crucified like a common criminal, about A.D. 30. His fo lowers believed that he was resurrected on the third day after his death, a proof that he was the Son of God. This belief helped the religion spread farther among Jewish communities in the Middle East, both within the Roman Empire and beyond. As they realized that the Messiah was not immediately returning to earth to set up the Kingdom of God, the disciples of Jesus began to fan out, particularly around the eastern Mediterranean, to spread the new Christian message.
Initially, Christian converts were Jewish by birth and followed the basic
Jewish law. Their belief that Christ was divine as well as human, however,
roused hostility among other Jews. When one early convert, Stephen, was stoned to death, many disciples left Israel and traveled throughout western Asia.
Christianity Gains Converts And Religious Structure
Gradually over the next 250 years, Christianity won a growing number of
converts. By the 4th century A.D., about 10 percent of the residents of the
Roman Empire were Christian, and the new religion had also made converts
elsewhere in the Middle East and Ethiopia. As it spread, Christianity
connected increasingly with larger themes in Roman history.
With its particularly great appeal to some of the poor, Christianity was
well positioned to reflect social grievances in an empire increasingly marked by inequality. Slaves, dispossessed farmers and impoverished city dwellers found hope in a religion that promised rewards after death. Christianity also answered cultural and spiritual needs - especially but not exclusively among the poor - left untended by mainstream Roman religion and culture. Roman values had stressed political goals and ethics suitable for life in this world. They did not join peoples of the empire in more spiritual loyalties, and they did not offer many emotionally satisfying rituals. As the empire consolidated, reducing direct political participation, a number of mystery religions spread from the Middle East and Egypt, religions that offered emotionally charged rituals. Worship of gods such as Mithra or Isis, derived from earlier Mesopotamian or Egyptian beliefs, attracted some Roman soldiers and others with rites of sacrifice and a strong sense of religious community. Christianity, though far more than a mystery religion, had some of these qualities and won converts on this basis as well. Christianity, in sum, gained ground in part because of features of Roman political and cultural life.
The spread of Christianity also benefited from some of the positive
qualities of Rome's great empire. Political stability and communications over a wide area aided missionary efforts, while the Roman example helped inspire the government forms of the growing Christian church. Early Christian communities regulated themselves, but with expansion more formal government was introduced, with bishops playing a role not unlike Rome's provincial governors. Bishops headed churches in regional centers and supervised the activities of other churches in the area. Bishops in politically powerful cities, including Rome, gained particular authority. Roman principles also helped move what initially had been a religion among Jews to a genuinely cosmopolitan stance. Under the leadership of Paul, converted to Christianity about A.D. 35, Christian missionaries began to move away from insistence that adherents of the new religion must follow Jewish law. Rather, in the spirit of Rome and of Hellenism, the new faith was seen as universal, open to all whether or not they followed Jewish practices in diet, male circumcision, and so on.
Paul's conversion to Christianity proved vital. Paul was Jewish, but he
had been born in a Greek city and was familiar with Greco-Roman culture. He helped explain basic Christian beliefs in terms other adherents of this
culture could grasp, and he preached in Greece and Italy as well as the Middle East. Paul essentially created Christian theology, as a set of intellectual principles that followed from, but generalized, the message of Jesus. Paul also modified certain initial Christian impulses. Jesus himself had drawn a large number of women followers, but Paul emphasized women's subordination to men and the dangers of sexuality. It was Paul's stress on Christianity as a universal religion, requiring abandonment of other religious beliefs, and his related use of Greek - the dominant language of the day throughout the eastern Mediterranean - that particularly transformed the new faith.
Relations With The Roman Empire
Gradually, Christian theological leaders made further contact with
Greco-Roman intellectual life. They began to develop a body of Christian
writings beyond the Bible messages written by the disciples of Jesus. By the
4th century A.D., Christian writings became the only creative cultural
expressions in the Roman Empire, as theologians sought not only to explain
issues in the new religion but also to relate it to Greek philosophy and Roman ethics. Ironically, as the Roman Empire was in most respects declining, Christianity produced an outpouring of complex thought and often elegant use of language. In this effort, Christianity redirected Roman culture (never known for abundant religious subtlety) but also preserved many earlier literary and philosophical achievements.
Adherents of the new religion clashed with Roman authorities, to be sure.
Christians, who put their duties to God first, would not honor the emperor as
a divinity and might seem to reject the authority of the state in other
spheres. Several early emperors, including the mad Nero, persecuted
Christians, killing some and driving their worship underground. Persecution
was not constant, however, which helps explain why the religion continued to spread. It resumed only in the 4th century, when several emperors sought to use religious conformity and new claims to divinity as a way of cementing
loyalties to a declining state. Roman beliefs, including periodic tolerance,
helped shape a Christian view that the state had a legitimately separate if
subordinate sphere; Western Christians would often cite Christ as saying
"Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's."
The full story of early Christianity goes beyond the history of Rome.
Christianity had more to do with opening a new era in the history of the
Mediterranean region than with shaping the later Roman Empire. Yet important connections did exist that explain features of Christianity and of later Roman history. Though not a Roman product and though benefiting in part from the empire's decline, Christianity in some of its qualities can be counted as part of the Greco-Roman legacy.
Back to Main menu
A project by History World International
World History Center