Religious life in Roman Empire and Early Christianity

I. Religious Situation in Roman Empire in time of Christ

  1. Many people spiritually dissatisfied by available religions
  2.  Many people felt alone and weak in the enormous empire, which cared only about wealth and power
  3.  In response, new religions arose - the Mystery Cults
    1. Mostly based on Persian or Egyptian religion
    2.  Promised secret magical powers to followers
    3.  Often painful, expensive initiation rituals
    4.  Often exclusive to certain groups - most popular was men-only
    5.  Many viewed Christianity as a new mystery cult, though it was clearly different

II. Beginnings

  1.  Dates for Christ uncertain - 6-4BC - 33AD, roughly
  2.  Part of the Jewish tradition
    1. Charismatic faith healer
    2.  Claimed fulfillment of Jewish prophecies
    3.  Reflects different strains of Judaism 
      1. Pharisees
        1. virtue, benevolence, love and charity in ethics
        2. messianic hope for the establishment of a Kingdom of God on Earth
      2.  Essenes
        1.  apocalyptic withdrawal
        2.  strict adherence to Law, emphasis on purity
        3.  communal living, and ownership of property
        4.  importance of baptism and power of prophecy
        5.  charity work
      3. Zealots
        1. God only true ruler
        2.  No compromise with the Empire; called for and predicted the destruction of the Empire
  3. Second most important figure is Paul 6-67AD
    1. Hellenized Jew, Roman citizen
    2.  cosmopolitan
    3.  Used this background to travel, evangelize in Mediterranean
    4.  Organized early Christian communities
    5.  Took advantage of Roman roads, peace of empire, to travel widely
    6.  Dies in anti-Christian persecutions of Emperor Nero
III. Appeal of Christianity
  1. Truly egalitarian - all equal in eyes of God
  2.  Universal - anyone could join
  3.  Evangelical - actively sought converts
  4.  Offered hope and optimism in an unforgiving empire
  5.  Spirit of mutuality - obligation to help others
  6.  Strongly idealistic, while Roman empire cared only for wealth and power
IV. Christianity and Imperial Rome
  1.  Persecuted as a non-Roman religion
    1. Christians refused to honor Roman gods
    2.  Misunderstood as slave religion, as cannibalistic
    3.  Persecution worst under Diocletian, but by then had spread throughout much of Empire
  2. Legalized under Emperor Constantine
    1. Edict of Milan, 313 AD
    2.  This leads to Council of Nicae 325AD
      1. brought Bishops from all over Empire together
      2.  established what would be considered orthodox belief, what would not
    3. 367 AD - Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, is first to put together what is now accepted as the canonical list of New Testament books
  3.  Emperor Theodosius makes Christianity the official religion of Empire - 381AD
V. Organization of Early Church
  1. A. Because of persecution, could not have unified leadership before 313 AD
  2. Instead, depended on local leaders - Bishops - who organized on a regional level
  3.  Bishops over priests over lay believers
  4.  Often, because of isolation, many regional variations to Christianity
  5.  Council of Nicae finally brings unity
  6.  Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, 354-430AD
    1.  As Western Roman Empire collapsed, he defended Christianity against those who said it was responsible for collapse
    2.  Put Christianity on solid philosophical ground
    3.  City of God - church should focus on spirituality before political concerns
    4.  Encouraged spirituality and meditation - this leads to monasticism.
    5.  Christians should subordinate their will to the Church
    6.  Developed the idea of original sin, that humans are inherently sinful
    7.  Has much impact on medieval Christianity