- Category: History 103 Week 3
- Published on Saturday, 29 December 2012 04:30
- Written by Dr. Eric Mayer
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The Rise of Christianity and the Decline of Rome
This period of history has several stages. First what happens is the decline and fall of Rome or what was known as the city of Caesars. Another stage concerns the national history of the Jews, the appearance of Jesus in the middle of a Jewish insurrection against Roman colonialism, and the eventual impact of his teachings.
During this period Greek-Roman civilization began to be fused with Germanic institutions and ideas.
During this period of cultural fusion, the Christian church furthered this process that would lead to the important cultural achievements of the European
When Caesar Augustus was laying the foundations of Rome’s imperial greatness, events were also taking place in the Roman province of Judea.
After its conquest by Alexander the Great Palestine was first rule by the Ptolemies and then by the Seleucids.
After their return from Babylon in 538 BC the Jews in Palestine had created a theocratic community based on the Torah, which was the law of God as revealed to Moses.
Religious life centered on the Temple at Jerusalem and the most powerful figure in this society was the high priest who was assisted by the Sanhedrin which was the high court for the enforcement of God’s law.
The Hebrews were a tightly knit community and even Jewish groups outside Palestine were linked to the Temple for informal worship and instruction in the Scriptures.
The synagogue first arose during the Babylonian exile and outlived the Temple to become the heart of Judaism.
It also influenced the forms of worship in the Christian church as well as the Moslem mosque.
The Greeks had an important impact on the Hebrews. Most Jews outside Palestine spoke Greek and a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures became a necessity.
Greek influence contributed to factionalism among the Jews in Judea and eventually this led to an internal struggle between the Maccabaens and the pro-Greek Sadducees who were favored by the King of the Seleucid empire.
In 168 BC the Seleucid king intervened and ordered the Temple be dedicated to Zeus.
The Jews saw this as blasphemy and defilement of their temple and rebelled and under their leader Judas Maccabaeus they re-dedicated their Temple to Yahew and in 142 BC won their independence from the Seleucids.
Judas and his next successor were high priests, but later members of the family had themselves enthroned as Kings, who became corrupt. Factionalism then increased and civil conflict erupted and it was in the midst of a civil war that the Romans intervened in Palestine.
Actually one Jewish state appealed to Rome for aid. Pompey intervened and ended the civil war in 63 BC, by making Judea essentially a Roman protectorate.
Mark Anthony appointed Herod the Great as King of Judea and he ruled from 37 to 4 BC. Herod erected many magnificent buildings and rebuilt the Temple on a lavish scale.
But to the majority of the Jew Herod remained a detested tool of the Romans and they thought of someone who embraced Judaism only to remain in power.
After his death Judea was made into a minor Roman province and was ruled by Pontius Pilate from AD26 to 36 when Jesus was crucified.
The Jewish people remained unhappy and divided under Roman domination. And while the Jews believed that someday a messiah would come and liberate them and create a new nation of Israel, many Jews lost hope in this political messiah and instead thought of the messiah as a spiritual leader who would lead all the righteous, even the dead to a spiritual kingdom.
Another group of Jews known as the zealots didn’t want to wait and instead advocated a political revolution to drive out the hated foreigner.
This revolutionary movement, or movement of liberation theology precipitated a clash with the Romans.
In AD 66 collective violence flared into open insurrection when a group of zealots massacred the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.
After a five month siege Titus destroyed most of the city except for one wall in the temple complex which became known as the wailing wall.
Legend has it that the wall was cemented with the tears of angels which would keep the stones in place forever.
The complete destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 spelled the end of the Hebrew state, though the mountain fortress of Masada held out for two years.
Yet the destruction of Jerusalem did not destroy the religion of the Jewish people and it was passed down through oral tradition for centuries.
In 1947 two boys discovered in caves many clay jars containing ancient manuscripts in caves near the Dead Sea.
Nearby was the monastery built by the Essenes. The buildings were inhabited from the 2nd century BC to AD 68 when the monastery was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish revolution.
Most important for historians is the fact that many of the Dead Sea Scrolls date from the 1st century BC and contain the Book of Isiah which suggests that the current version of Isiah in the Bible is accurate.
Christianity bears the clear imprint of the founder, Jesus of Nazareth and it has been speculated that he may have been before the time of Herod’s death.
The fame of Jesus’s teaching spread as he and his 12 disciples traveled from village to village throughout Palestine.
When he came to Jerusalem during the time of Passover he was welcomed by huge crowds who thought that perhaps he was the messiah.
But Jesus was concerned with a spiritual, not an earthly kingdom and he had no intention of leading a nationalistic or revolutionary movement against the Romans.
When the leaders of the Jewish liberation movement saw this they turned against him and all his enemies came forward, especially the moneylender who he had denounced and other people who saw him as either a trouble makers or someone who could divide the movement against the Romans.
He was betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples and was condemned by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy for he proclaimed that he was the son of god.
Pontius Pilate charged him with treason for claiming to be the king of the Jews.
He died on the cross, and his martyrdom actually helped the Christian movement.
Immediately following his death reports spread that Jesus had spoken to his disciples. But at first there were few converts among the Jews in Palestine, but in the lands outside where there were Jewish communities Christianity began to make some headway.
The problem with Jesus was that as long as he was regarded as the Messiah, which required that his followers follow Jewish law the new religion could have no mass appeal.
But Saul would be the one to solve this problem. Saul was a Jew who had been raised in Tarsus, and considered that Christians were blasphemers against the Law and he actively persecuted Christians.
But one day on the road to Damascus he fell down and had a vision and the Lord spoke to him.
Saul after the experience Saul changed his name to Paul and became one of the greatest Christian missionaries.
Paul taught that Christ had been the son of god who had died to atone for the sins of the human race.
Acceptance of this belief guaranteed salvation for all.
After covering 8000 miles teaching and preaching Paul was beheaded at Rome in AD 65 as was Peter the founder of the church of Rome during the reign of Nero.
But by this time Christian communities had been established in all the important cities in the Roman empire.
Now the Roman government tolerated any religion that did not disturb the status quo and Christianity was perceived as a subversive doctrine to both the society and the state.
The Christians refused to participate in the worship of the emperor and to Christians there was only one god and it was to his authority that they swore allegiance.
Also Christian formed a secret anti-social group or state forming within the state and this was seen as a great threat to social and societal cohesiveness.
Many were pacifists who refused to serve in the army.
In the first 2 centuries AD persecution of Christians was sporadic, but by the 3rd and 4th centuries it became much more systematic as the empire weakened.
The worst persecution was under the Diocletian emperor from 303 to 311.
By 311 the emperor Galerius recognized that persecution had failed and was actually backfiring on the Romans and he issued an edict of toleration making Christianity a legal religion.
In 313 the next emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan which legalized Christianity throughout the empire. He also granted may privileges to the church, but waited on his deathbed before receiving baptism.
By this time over 1/10 of the population of Rome were Christian and the emperors who succeeded Constantine except for one were Christian.
By 379 under the rule of Theodosius I Christianity became the official religion of the empire, and now pagans were persecuted and even the Olympic games were suppressed.
In the immediate years following Christs death there was little formal organization of the Christian movement.
The earliest converts thought that the world was going to end very soon with the second coming of the lord and therefore there was no need for formal organization. Every person needed to make ready in their hearts for the coming of the Lord.
But by the second century there was a formal, hierarchical organization within the church.
The most important development was the rise of the Bishop of Rome to a position of preeminence in the hierarchy of the church with the title of Pope or father in Greek.
Rome became the center of the Christian faith for it was the largest city in the West, the capital of an empire and had an aura of official respect that was transferred to the Pope or bishop of Rome.
In terms of the cosmology of the Christian church there were may debates, but one of the most important debates began over a belief called Arianism. This issue focused on the relative position of the three persons of the Trinity—God the father, God the son and God the holy spirit.
The view that the father and son were equals was argued against by Arias a priests in Alexandria who believed that Christ was not fully god because he was not of a substance identical with god.
He had been create and was not coeternal. This controversy became so serious that in 325 Constantine was forced to convene a council at Nicaea to resolve the problem.
The council branded the idea of Arias as a heresy—which was a doctrine contrary to the official teachings of the church.
Christ was declared henceforth to be of the same substance of god.
The liturgy of the early churches was very plain and consisted of prayer, scripture reading, hymns and preaching.
As the church grew in influence it made its official dogma clear that religion and christianity was not a private thing as it had once been for the early Christians but now to enter the kingdom of heaven it was essential that one participate actively in the church.
This took place between the 2nd and 5th centuries.
Since most of the early clergy were intellectuals they maintained that there was no conflict between Greek philosophy and Christianity.
In the West three great church fathers stand out. 1.) St. Jeorme made possible the Vulgate translation of the bible into Latin and in a revised form is still the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.
2. St. Ambrose who established the model bishopric and became the Bishop of Milan and was the first to assert the Church’s superiority over the state in spiritual matters.
3. Finally St. Augustine was probably the most important of the three for at the age of 32 he found the meaning of life through Christianity and related this process through one of the most famous autobiographies ever written the Confessions.
Augustine’s thought is usually divided into three major areas: God and the soul, sin and grace and the church and the sacraments.
God was believed to exist in the soul of every human and that human soul could only be saved through the grace of god. Also individuals were chosen by God to receive divine grace.
A human soul could not receive god’s grace unless that person participated in the church and received the sacraments. And finally Human weakness could be overcome with the help of the sacraments of the church. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 AD.
These people were known as the secular clergy, but there was also the regular clergy, because they lived by the rule within monasteries.
The monastic way of life had been around for a long time before the advent of Christianity.
One of the most famous for our purposes was the monastic work of St. Benedict who around 529 led a band of followers to a hill between Rome and Naples and founded the monastery of Monte Cassino which had originally been the site of a pagan temple.
Here he composed an order or monks who would serve as an example for the rest of the Christian world.
The Benedictine monks took three basic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Abbot.
Benedictine Monasticism was to be the most important and most civilizing force in Western Europe between the 6th and 12 the centuries.
As the Christian doctrine spread throughout the world in the 3rd century, The Roman world was beset by anarchy and foreign invasion.
By the 3rd century the emperor’s title had been replaced by dominus et deus lord and god and the Principate had been replaced by the Dominate.
The empire was clearly in a prolonged economic decline. The economy had ceased to grow and had become static. In the early days the army had more than paid for itself with the booty of rich conquests. But in the final decades all the wars were not wars of conquest but rather defensive wars and the army had become a financial liability.
Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius in 180 but due to his cruelties, excesses and neglect of affairs he was strangled in 192. Civil war followed his death until Septimus Severus unified Rome under his personal army.
In 235 he was murdered by his own mutinous troops and again Rome was plunged into civil war.
In the rural sector more and more land became concentrated in fewer hands during the 3rd century as small farmers abandoned their lands and the number of impoverished tenant farmers grew as did their debt burden.
These tenant farmers began to be tied to the land due to their debts and this was a first official step towards serfdom and the social economic pattern of the Middle Ages.
The constant civil wars dislocated trade and undermined the prosperity of the cities. There was tremendous inflation due to the deficit spending of the government.
In order to pay the armies the currency and coinage was constantly devalued by reducing its silver content to less than 2% of the coin and people lost confidence in the debased coinage.
Finally even the government refused to accept its own money for the payment of taxes.
The empire was reconstructed under Diocletian who ruled from 285 to 305 in what was a undisguised oriental despotism.
Diocletian became an autocrat and the Senate had about the same power as a city council and the position of emperor was transformed into an almost god-like figure in his show of wealth and splendor, and people had to bow before him.
The bureaucracy was greatly enlarged as were the regional and local administrative units. The provinces were reduced in size and more than doubled in number.
The provinces were grouped into 13 diocese each under the control of a vicar. The diocese were then grouped into four prefectures each under the command of a prefect who served the emperor.
Finally a large secret police was created to keep tabs on the people and especially the Christians and it was under this regime that the Christians were severely persecuted.