1a - The Roman Age: 0-500 AD
- Socio-political Environment
- The dominant sociopolitical context of the early church was the Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”), established by Caesar Augustus which lasted ~200 years (27 BC–AD 180). Such peace and widespread ease of travel was made possible in a large part by the common language of koine Greek, which was spoken and understood among the upper class from Spain to India, from the Black Sea to Ethiopia.
- Moreover, an extensive system of Roman-built roads linked the urban centers of the Mediterranean world, which established it as an efficient economic hub in relation to the nations of the earth. Roman coinage has been found, and was thus commonly traded, from Scandinavia to Uganda to India.
- The Silk Road was the major trade route between Rome and the Eastern empires of Persia and China. Being centered in modern day Iran, the Parthian Empire (250 BC–AD 226) extended from the Euphrates River to the Himalayan Mountains and was dominated by Zoroastrianism. China had been unified under the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), which had widely adopted Confucianism.
- Israel was thus a nation at the crossroads of the world’s major empires and civilizations. This unique socio-political and economic environment allowed the early Church to flourish and expand rapidly.
- Religious Persecutions
- Many religions, including Christianity, were seen by Roman authorities as politically subversive. It was viewed as an “empire within the empire.” However, most early persecutions were local and sporadic, until the mid-third century:
- Decian persection (249-251) – all Christians were commanded to sacrifice to the emperor as a god (i.e. creator) and as “Lord” (i.e. supreme ruler). Jesus could be a god, but the declaration that he was Lord meant death.
- Valerian persecution (257-260) – the bishops were singled out, and in 258 death was decreed to all bishops, priests and deacons.
- Diocletian persecution (303-311) – systematically sought to eliminate the Church as a whole within 10 years. All imprisoned leaders were to sacrifice to the gods or else “be mutilated by endless tortures.”
- In all the persecutions, some fled, some died, and some simply rejected the faith. After the persecutions subsided, those who had became apostate desired to reenter the church, which raised a new issues and required appointed “confessors”.
- Christian Accommodation
- Constantine (272-337)
- Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine had a vision of the Chi-Rho symbol and heard a voice saying “In this sign, conquer.” In the following year, the Edict of Milan was issued, granting freedom of worship (cf. ownership of property) for Christians.
- In 324, Constantine became the sole ruler of the Empire and ushered in what is known as the “Constantinian Era.” In the following year, he called together a council of the bishops in Nicea to decree a unified statement of faith for the Empire.
- Early Monasticism
- Because of the 10-fold-plus growth in the Church throughout the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine, mixture of motive and purpose flooded the Church. Without persecution and difficulty, nominalism set in, and with the incorporation of Christoplatonic eschatology, the Church became increasingly formal and institutional in its leadership.
- Monastics retreated to the deserts in Syria and Egypt seeking a deeper spiritual and purer communal life. With a rough kind of democracy, it was a movement of lay men and women in communities of prayer, study and work—highly committed and accountable to each other.
- Though sometimes they became missionary in their orientation, it was not part of their original purpose of renewal, depth and discipleship, i.e. “spiritual survival.” However, the sobriety of their lifestyles often innately witnessed to the peoples around them.
- Theodosius (347-395)
- After becoming co-augustus for the East in 379, Theodosius I immediately set out to establish Nicene Christianity as the official state religion of the Empire. In 380, he issued an edict ordering that all subjects within the Empire should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (i.e. Nicene faith).
- In May 381, Theodosius summoned a new ecumenical council at Constantinople to impose on his subjects Nicene Orthodoxy, which resulted in the Constantinopolitan Creed. In a series of subsequent decrees called the “Theodosian decrees,” Theodosius progressively stamped out heresy and paganism by cutting off all financial subsidies, banning sacrifices, and destroying temples and artifacts.
- Fall of Rome – though the city of Rome had been temporarily sacked in 410, the Empire continued to withstand Germanic invasions until September 4, 476 when Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire was deposed by the Germanic general Odoacer.
- Montanus (c.150)
- Though historically Montanism is considered heretical, the only remaining accounts of the group are from their persecutors (whose corruption and carnality Montanus decried). Detractors accused Montanus of assuming the person of the Holy Spirit; however, most modern scholars agree that Montanus simply exemplified the general practice of religious prophets speaking as the passive mouthpieces of the divine.
- Montanus built a commune at Papuza in Phrygia (Asia Minor) sometime in the mid-second century and called for strict asceticism (i.e. fasting, prayer, abstinence, etc.). The movement focused on chiliastic eschatology and the immanent return of Jesus, and it was characterized by signs and wonders, dreams and visions, and prophesies.
- Joined by two women, Miximilla and Priscilla, “the Three” rejected the corrupt leadership of the Church and its “apostolic succession,” and thus they were quickly alienated and condemned. However, Papuza grew to a virtual city in which more than 6,000 people lived in an area spread out over ~30 acres of land. Montanist groups spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, and though Emperor Justinian destroyed Papuza in 560, Montanism persisted into the eighth century.
- Tertullian (c.160-230)
- Born and raised in Carthage, the son of a Roman centurion, Tertullian was a trained lawyer and self-proclaimed pagan. After a radical conversion (c.197), he began to write extensively on the faith and against heresy, especially Gnosticism. His strict asceticism and chiliastic eschatology attracted him to Montanism, to which he joined himself c.207.
- Ironically, most of his writings, which would later become foundational to Western theological traditions, were probably written after his conversion to Montanism. Tertullian became the teacher of Cyprian (d.258), bishop of Carthage and predecessor of Augustine, who in turn became the chief founder of Latin theology.
- Anthony (c.252-357)
- Anthony was born the son of well-to-do farmers in the region of Thebaid, Upper Egypt. After their death, when Anthony was about 18 years old, he heard a sermon on Mt. 19:21 and gave his inheritance to the poor. He moved outside of his town and lived in an old tomb for 15 years, fighting spiritual battles against the flesh and demons, before moving deep into the desert (~50mi south of Memphis) to a mountain fort for 20 years.
- A colony of ascetics gathered around him establishing a strict lifestyle of oral prayer, manual labor, fasting, vigils, and limited diet. He emerged in 305 and taught for five years (accompanied by multitudes of signs and wonders), before retreating back to the desert (~100 mi SE of present day Cairo) until his death at 105.
- Pachomius (c.292-346)
- Also born in Thebaid, Pachomius was from a pagan family, and at the age of 20 was swept up against his will into a Roman army recruitment drive. There local Christians would daily bring food and comforts to the inmates, which resulted in his conversion. After his release, he was inspired by Anthony and the anchorites, and while wandering in the desert, he came across the deserted town of Tabennisi and heard a voice say, “Stay here and make a monastery for many will come.”
- Other monks joined him, and by 321AD over 100 monks lived in simple buildings of sun dried bricks, much akin to army barracks. Pachomius went on to organize many of the cells created by Macarius the Egyptian (c.300-391), and by the time of his death in 346 there were 9 monasteries and 3000 monks looking to him as their abba.
- Martin of Tours (c.316-397)
- Born to a Roman officer in the army, Martin served as a soldier for several years, during which time he converted to Christianity. In 354, he was baptized, left the army, and sought direction from Saint Hilary in Poitiers, France. After visiting his parents in Italy, he took up the life of a hermit on a small island off the Western coast of Italy until Hilary called him back to Gaul to establish a monastery outside of Poitiers, which would become a renowned center of evangelization for the surrounding country districts.
- After Hilary died Martin was elected bishop of nearby Tours, which he reluctantly accepted. However, he refused the bishop’s palace and took up residence outside the city in a wooden hut, where ~80 disciples gathered around him. This led to the infamous monastery of Marmoutiers, which likewise became a center of renewal and missions accompanied by multitudes of signs and wonders.
- Apostolic Church (c.30-70 AD)
- Tradition says Peter preached throughout Asia Minor before being crucified upside down in the Neronian persecution (c.67-68). Andrew worked among the Scythians, north of the Black Sea, and Philip evangelized the Scythians, south of the Black Sea, as well as the Phrygians, before traveling to Carthage where he is known for converting the proconsul’s wife. Bartholomew also labored in Phrygia before moving to Armenia and onto India, this side of the Ganges. Matthew is said to have worked in Persia and Arabia before ending up in Ethiopia, and Simon the Zealot traveled throughout North Africa before going to Persia, where he was executed for not worshiping the sun god. Much tradition surrounds Thomas’ travels to India, and he is said to have gone to China before returning to India. Jude worked in Greece and Asia Minor, where John also was bishop of Ephesus, the only apostle to escape martyrdom.
- Tradition also holds that Paul was released from Roman imprisonment (cf. Acts 28) and traveled to Spain, France (Gaul), and Britain, before returning to Rome and being beheaded by Nero (c.67-68).
- Western Europe
- Accounts of Christian communities in Spain and southern Gaul begin to emerge by the end of the second century, most notably a local persecution in Lyons in 177 instigated by Marcus Aurelius, which Irenaeus (c.130-202) survived before being elected bishop.
- Several bishops in Spain are noted as martyrs in the middle of the third century, and by the time of the Council of Elvira in Spain (c.305), 36 dioceses were present, which represents a substantial and seasoned infrastructure.
- Little is known about early Christianity in Britain, except that Tertullian accounts for followers there (c.208). By the Council of Arles in southern France in 314, there are only three sees represented. However, this is the birthplace of Patrick (c.387-493), who went on to evangelize the entire island of Ireland.
- Born the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders at 16 and enslaved as a shepherd for 6 years. He escaped and returned to Britain in 411 and spent some time on the continent developing a ministerial career, i.e. the “Black Years” (c.411-32). Around 432, he returned to Ireland as a missionary bishop (with no see) after hearing the voice of an Irishman in a dream pleading with him to return to Ireland to share the gospel (though the Romans saw the Irish as “barbarians” who were unable to be evangelized).
- Patrick traveled to Ireland with an entourage of 12, and labored there for over 50 years. After gaining approval from the king of the tribal chieftains, Loigaire, Patrick began systematically moving throughout the island, preaching the gospel and performing miracles without number. By the end of his life, various sources attribute to Patrick the consecration of 350-700 bishops and 3000-5000 priests.
- Northern Europe – At the end of the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons claimed that Christianity had reached the Germans on the other side of the Roman border of Gaul. However, for the most part Northern Germanic tribes remained unreached until the fall of the Roman Empire.
- Eastern Europe
- In 251, Gothic armies under king Cniva raided the Roman provinces of Moesia and Thrace, taking a large number of predominately female prisoners, many of whom were Christian. Numerous raids followed and Gothic conversion to Christianity was relatively swift.
- The Scriptures were translated into the Gothic language by the grandson, Ulfilas (c.311-383), of one such female Christian captive from Sadagolthina in Cappadocia. Ulfilas later spent time in the Roman Empire before being consecrated bishop of the Gothic race by Eusebius of Nicomedia (c.341).
- He evangelized among the Goths for 7 years, in present day Romania, before fleeing from severe persecution with a community of his disciples to the Roman province of Moesia. There he spent the rest of his life training missionaries, reducing the Gothic language to writing, and translating the Scriptures.
- Large numbers of Goths converted with the conversion of Gothic chieftain Fritigern (d.380), and after the Council of Constantinople in 381, many Arians (including disciples and successors of Ulfilas) were forced to become missionaries under the “Theodosian decrees.” They converted many leaders who reappeared in Europe with the fall of Rome.
- Although initially a scattered minority, Christianity “was unquestionably spreading across the great continent of the East as vigorously as it moved westward into Europe.” During the first few centuries of Christianity, the most extensive dissemination of the gospel was not in the West but in the East, as the Parthian Empire (250 BC–AD 226) and those surrounding it were in many ways more favorable for the growth of the church than in the Roman world.
- The kingdom of Osrhoene (c.132 BC–AD 216) was established after the disintegration of the Seleucid monarchy. Its capital, Edessa, was strategically located on the main trade routes of the Fertile Crescent and was easily accessible from Antioch (capital of the Roman province of Syria, third largest city in the Mediterranean world, and the original launching point for the mission to the Gentiles). Thus, Edessa became the hub of a missionary movement that gradually spread throughout Mesopotamia, Persia, Central Asia and China.
- Eusebius (quoting the Doctrine of Addai, which he reports to have found in public archives in Edessa) recounts St. Addai, one of the Seventy Apostles sent by Jesus in Luke 10:1, and his disciple Mari. King Abgar V of Edessa (c.4 BC–AD 50) was sick and sent for Jesus to come and heal him. After the resurrection, the Apostle Thomas sent Addai (Gk. Thaddaeus) to preach the gospel and heal the king, with the result that the city, and eventually the whole kingdom, was won to the Christian faith.
- Armenia was won to Christ by missionaries from Cappadocia, which itself was won by evangelists such as Gregory the Wonderworker (c.213-270), renowned for their signs and wonders.
- Gregory the Illuminator (c.257-331) is known as the father of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which remains one of the oldest state churches in the world. Gregory was born in Armenia but was raised and educated in Roman Cappadocia. He returned to his own country to preach the gospel when he was about 30, and after a time of imprisonment, he healed the king of Armenia, Tiridates III, who immediately declared Armenia to be a Christian nation (c.301).
- Eusebius, Jerome, Rufinus and Gregory of Nazianzus all state that Thomas was the father of the church in Syria, Persia and India. Like Paul, this rapid early expansion was made possible because of the extensive synagogue system throughout Mesopotamia (synagogues having originated during the Babylonian captivity).
- One of the great apostles of Persia was St. Mari, the convert and disciple of St. Addai. From Edessa, Mari was reportedly sent as a missionary to Seleucia-Ctesiphon (on the Tigris River near modern day Baghdad, later to become the capital of the Parthian Empire), which in turn became a center of missionary outreach (and later the patriarchal seat of the Assyrian Church, c.310). From Seleucia, Mari and others pioneered work throughout the region of Adiabene to the north, including its capital Arbela, which would become another major hub of learning and monasticism in Eastern Christianity.
- The Chronicle of Arbela reports bishops in Arbela from 104 AD, and by 225 there were more than twenty bishops throughout Persia. Moreover, it says that Christians had already penetrated Arabia and Central Asia, stretching as far as northern Afghanistan. Bardaisan of Edessa (c.154-222) also wrote in his Book of the Laws of Countries that Christians could be found as far east as Pakistan and India.
- When the Roman Empire became Christian, its arch-enemy, Persia, began to systematically persecute Christians, moving them to segregated areas, heavily taxing them and martyring tens of thousands. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, networks of monasteries preserved Christian life and provided the primary agents of mission across Asia.
- According to Syriac text Acts of Thomas (c.200) and oral tradition in India, the Apostle Thomas took the sea route to India, arrived in Kodungallur (on the Malabar Coast) in 52 AD, and traveled north to the Kingdom of Gudnaphar, where he eventually converted and baptized the king. From there he moved throughout India performing many signs and wonders before his martyrdom in Madras.
- The Mar Thoma Church (among the Nasranis people) continued on as a small minority in the sea of Hinduism in southern India, but their being treated as a separate caste by Indian rulers (and their continued use of Syriac liturgy) greatly hindered their ability to evangelize those around them.
- According to The Travancore State Manual (Trivandrum, 1906), Thomas of Cana, a merchant and missionary from Edessa, brought over 400 Persian Christians to Kodungallur in 345 to escape the persecutions of Shapur II.
- Alexandria was an economic and intellectual hub in the Roman Empire, boasting a population of around 300,000 during the time of the apostles and one of the largest libraries in the known world. It was also home to the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine (cf. Septuagint, c.250 BC), and it was to here that the apostle Mark is said to have traveled after the execution of Peter in Rome, establishing a church and enduring martyrdom in 68 AD. By the 3rd century, the Bible was translated into the Egyptian language, Coptic, as the deserts began to be filled with monks and hermits.
- According to the Scriptures, Cyrene, west of Egypt, was a home of many Jews and early Christians. However, little else is known about Cyrenian Christianity (other than a bishop, Zopyros, who was present at the Nicene Council) until the bishop of Ptolemais, Synesius (c.373-414), accounts for 6 bishoprics in the area in 410.
- Northwest Africa (modern day Tunisia and Algeria) was the cradle of the Latin-speaking Church with its center in Carthage, established centuries earlier by Phoenician traders. It is known as the “church of bishops” because every town and village sported its own bishop, with over 70 in attendance at a regional council in Carthage around 230 AD.
- Roman Africa produced three major theologians that, more than any others, determined the trajectory of the Western theological tradition, Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-230), bishop Cyprian of Carthage (c.210-258), and bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430).
- Carthage is also known for its history of martyrdom, which began in 180 under the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. In 203, under Septimus Severus, the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas occurred, and their inspiring account (likely recorded by Tertullian) began to spread throughout the Empire.
- Church historians Socrates Scholasticus, Sozemius and Rufinus of Tyre all say that the Ethiopian eunich Phillip converted (cf. Acts 8:26-38) was a member of the royal court and in turn converted the queen of Ethiopia, Candace.
- Little else is known about the church in Ethiopia until the brothers Aedsius and Frumentius (c.320-383) shipwrecked in the Red Sea and were brought as slaves to king Ella Amida. They gradually gained favor with the king and queen and their son, Ezana, who greatly encouraged the spread of Christianity throughout Ethiopia. Frumentius went on to be appointed bishop of the Ethiopian church in 341 by Athanasius (c.296-373).