How did a small group of disciples take Christianity to the whole world? How did Christianity become so wide spread, but so fragmented? Why are there so many denominations and so many different beliefs of the same book? What happened? Christians seldom ask these questions. And more rarely do people bother themselves with history. “All we need is the Bible”. “History is for scholars”. These are some of the popular notions of the day.
As the famous adage goes “Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it”. This quote has proven true, time and time again, in my personal studies, as most of the erroneous doctrines that cling to our Faith, are not new concoctions, but ancient ideas which have been handed down to us through tradition. They are passed down from parent to child, from teacher to student, from priest to layman – being taught, learnt and retaught without question.
It is my belief that each and every Christian should have, even a basic knowledge and understanding of how we have inherited the faith we believe in. We did not get these teachings straight from Yeshua(The biblical name of Jesus), His disciples, Paul or any of the 1st apostles – rather we inherited what we know through a series of events through history, which has thrown our faith off-course from Biblical truth. Knowing what has happened in between today and the 1st century church, would help us look at the Scriptures in new light, and would also help us understand why things are, the way they are.
A recent research indicated that half of the Christian population is Catholic with more than a billion followers, while 800 million were Protestant and 260 million were Orthodox. While I have enormous respect for each and every Christian denomination, I may not agree with everything that each of them teach. This “history lesson” (if I may call it so) is in no way an attempt to take a stab at any particular tradition. It is strictly a list of events that have shaped the outlook of today’s Christianity.
Boiling down hundreds of important events in history into a single post, is a task that is next to impossible, which can only be achieved at the cost of clarity. Because of this reason, the current study will be broken down into 6 parts, making it readable for many. Each of these events carry a brief description which will provide you with the gist of the incident. While this description might not provide all of the details, it has been purposely kept short. Each of the events which have been chosen for display, are incidents that have had an effect on the outcome of today’s Christian faith in one way or another.
While no two people would agree on a list of the absolutely important events in Christianity, this is an attempt to simply give you a better understanding of the history of our faith. If you believe that there is an important event missing on this list, please comment with the reason why you think it would have affected the outcome of today’s Christianity, and I will add it in after review.
2000 years of Christian History – Part I – 30AD – 300AD
I have started at the point of the Crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus’ biblical name), even though this is not the starting point of the Church or our faith. For a timeline from Creation upto the Assyrian & Babylonian exiles please go here.
(Please note that most of the following indications of timings of specific events are approximations agreed upon by most historical scholars)
30: Crucifixion/Resurrection of Yeshua
35: Stephen martyred; Paul converted
46: Paul begins missionary journey
48: Council of Jerusalem
57: Paul’s Letter to the Romans
64: Fire of Rome; Nero launches persecutions – In the dominant empire of Rome, more and more people were embracing eastern religions such as worship of Mithras, Dionysus, Isis, Cybil and the like. While some of these religions were outlawed, Judaism had a protected position, and Christianity was not seen as a separate religion by the romans or Christians for that matter. It was seen as a sect of Judaism(Acts 28:22) that believed Yeshua was messiah -nothing more. The rift between Judaism and the sect of messianic believers were widening by AD 64. With a fire that broke loose on some of the wards in the working-class section, many people died, being brought under control after 6 days. Nero is said to have blamed the Christians for setting the fire, vowing to hunt them down and kill them. Many Christians were crucified, set on fire, mauled by dogs in the arena – their bodies lining the roman roads. But this was only the start of the persecution.
65: Peter and Paul executed
70: Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus including the 2nd temple – With Judea in revolt, Emperor Nero sent a decorated general named Vespasian to recapture Jerusalem. Vespasian quickly recaptured Galilee, Transjordan and Idumea, but was called back to Rome at the death of Nero, before he could capture Jerusalem. Vespasian appointed his son Titus for the job – and according to Jewish historian Josephus, when the romans broke into Jerusalem, Titus wanted to preserve the temple, but his angry soldiers burned it to the ground, killing some of the Jews, while selling others as slaves. This was the end of the Jewish state, and the beginning of the 2nd Exile. Christians who lived in Judea had fleed to Pella and Transjordan heeding Christ’s warning (Luk 21:20-24) and were seen as traitors by the Jews, as they refused to fight for Jerusalem.
90: The curse recited against heretics and Nazarenes in the synagogues – With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, all Jews relied on the synagogues, led mostly by the Pharisaic sect. One of the key acts at this time in the synagogues was to recite a 18 part blessing known as the Amidah – and the leadership added another part to this recitation known as the “Birkat haMinim” – which was a curse against “heretics and nazarenes(Acts 24:5 – the believers in Yeshua) – effectively driving out the Christians from the synagogues. The recitation exists in various forms, one of them being “For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noẓerim(hebrew for nazarene) and the minim(hebrew for heretic) be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant”. This drove a wedge between Jews who believed in Christ and Jews who didn’t, effectively breaking all ties with them.
95: John writes Revelations from the island of Patmos
135: The Bar Kokhba Revolt – The last of the Jewish revolts against the Romans would drive the Christians to end any and all ties with the Jews, giving rise to teachings of Antisemitism. The revolt would start because of Emperor Hadrian, who first promised to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but then wanted to build a temple there to Jupiter instead. A prominent Jewish rabbi is said to have named Simon Bar Kokhba who led the revolt, as the Messiah. Christians who dismissed Bar Kokhba as Messiah and refused to fight with him were said to have been killed as per reports of Eusebius. Not only did this event break bonds between Christian and Jew, the Roman provinces of Syria and Judea were merged together under the Emperor Hadrian, who renamed it as “Syria Palaestina” (where we get the name Palestine today) – leading to the existing conflict in the middle east.
145: The rise of Marcionism – The teachings of “Marcion of Sinope”, which were later labelled as heresy, were many. One of his critical teachings was that the God of the Old Testament was jealous & wrathful, being different to the God of the Gospel, who was quite unknown before Christ and is only love and mercy. He further rejected Christ as the Jewish Messiah, and is credited by Tertullian for separating the New Testament from the Old. He was finally excommunicated from the Church, but his teachings and following remained for more than 300 years afterwards.
150: Justin Martyr writes “Apologia” – Addressing the then Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius who was indifferent to the Christian faith, Justin wrote a work which aimed to explain his beliefs in a logical way. Using Greek thought, he explained “Christ as Logos(the word)”. He agreed with Plato on God being holy and separate from evil humanity, and called Christ a part of God, even though separate – as a flame lit from a flame. These ideas would fuel the development of the Trinity doctrine later in the Church. Justin was later arrested, tortured and beheaded earning him the name Justin “martyr”.
155: Polycarp martyred – Roman authorities had developed the idea that the Emperor was divine, and he was being worshiped by Romans everywhere alongside other gods. The Christians worshiped quietly and in secrecy in their homes at this time, and saw this as idolatry refusing such acts. One such authority of the church in Smyrna was Polycarp. He is reported to have been put to be burnt alive, but was not hurt by the flames being finally killed by stabbing. Such reports were treasured at the time, and it made followers celebrate the lives and deaths of the martyrs. In the centuries to follow many would start celebrating these saints, which became part of Christian tradition.
172: Montanist movement begins – Founded by a certain Montanus in Phrygia, was a movement which was focused around prophecy. Eusebius speaking about Montanus records “And he became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning”. The movement was labelled a heresy.
180: Irenaeus writes Against Heresies – Gnosticism which believed in secret knowledge, was also a prevalent heresy of the day. Fusing Christian terms with concepts from Greek Philosophy and asian religion, they taught the world was evil and was governed by angelic powers and that God is distant to this world. Salvation, they said, could be attained only through special secret teachings that they who were Spiritual, knew, being superior to regular Christians. Irenaeus wrote an enormous work against this heresy, aptly named “against heresies”, disproving Gnosticism while appealing to the Authority of the Apostles who had taught in public, keeping nothing secret. He declared the Bishops as the successors of the Apostles, enhancing the respect paid to Bishops as guardians of the faith.
196: Tertullian begins writing – While Greek was perfect for philosophizing, Tertullian was one of the first writers to use Latin instead of Greek, with a practical, moral oriented style. While Greek Christians squabbled over the divinity of Christ and His relation to the Father, Tertullian – a Roman Lawyer, came up with “God is one substance, consisting of three persons” – drawing inspiration from the Roman Law Courts. Disturbed by the bishops’ claim of having power to pardon sins he later joined the Montanist movement.
215: Origen begins writing – An amazing scholar, Origen produced over 2000 works in his lifetime, trying to relate Christianity to science and philosophy. Adopting ideas from Plato, he believed in the preexistence of the soul before birth, teaching that man’s position in the world was due to his conduct in a preexistent state. He also denied the material resurrection, finally being excommunicated by bishop Demetrius of Alexandria. Though the Roman and western churches excepted this excommunication, the Eastern churches did not – gaining him the reputation as the father of Orthodoxy as well as father of heresy.
230: Earliest known public church buildings built – Built in a Roman city in Syria, the Dura-Europos house church is the earliest identified church building in existence. It is a normal domestic house converted for worship with wall-paintings as decorations, and stood close by to the Dura Europos synagogue, which have many similarities between them.
248: Cyprian elected bishop of Carthage – A renowned orator and teacher of Rhetoric, Cyprian became bishop of Carthage in 248. In an ever fragmenting church, he used the authority of the bishops to unite the church – writing a work named “On the unity of the church” he said that the church is the bride of Christ, and that there can be only one bride. An individual, he said, cannot be saved outside the church. Since Christ established the church on Peter, all bishops were successors of Peter and should be obeyed. Not only should they be obeyed, he implied that the spirit worked through them. He also promoted that the mass was a sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood.
270: Anthony takes up life of solitude – Selling all his possessions and donating the money to the poor, Anthony withdrew from the world and lived for a while in a tomb, moving to an abandoned fort where he lived for 20 years without seeing a human face. After his death, a cult following grew around him, portraying him as the ideal monk. A young companion of Anthony’s would start the practice of communities of monks living together – and his ideas of a truly religious person withdrawing from the world, abstaining from marriage, family and worldly pleasure would go unchallenged till the Reformation.
284: Changes to the Roman empire under Diocletian – One of the most brilliant Roman emperors, Diocletian, restructured the imperial power of the empire by dividing it into East and West. He decreed that each side would have an Emperor and Caesar (Vice Emperor) who would serve 20 years in power one after the other. This breaking of the empire would result in the division of the Roman Church into Roman/Western Catholicism and Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy making 2 of the dominant denominations in Christianity today.
303: “Great Persecution” begins under Diocletian – Even though persecution against Christians in the Roman empire was normal, under emperor Diocletian a great persecution began. As per his orders, Christian scriptures and places of worship across the empire were destroyed, and Christians were prohibited from assembling for worship. Many were arrested, tortured and killed, but the persecution was unsuccessful in eradicating Christianity. In less than 10 years this persecuted faith would turn into the preferred religion of Rome, having both positive and negative effects on the faith itself.
Conclusion – 30AD – 300AD
In a short span of 300 years, the faith that originated in Judea, having a majority of Jewish followers would completely become separated from its roots, being led by Greek thought and roman minds. Though the church was persecuted heavily, the number of followers grew, becoming a wholly gentile church with it’s base changing from Jerusalem to Rome. Not only did this faith which was regarded as a sect of Judaism shed any connection to its origins, antisemitic views were also on the rise. The church which was now centered on Rome, though fearless in the face of persecution, had already inadvertently added their own interpretations, traditions, thoughts and ideas which were now being embraced by more and more followers, changing the faith and the course, set out for it.