A very Concise Introduction




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Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer which likewise began as oral tales.


The Rise of Christianity

Christianity, of course, arose out of Judahism, the religion of Judea. The earliest sources we have for Christianity are the letters of Paul and references to Yeshua, Jesus, contained in the writings of the Romanised Jewish historian Josephus (the authenticity of which have long been questioned by scholars). The synoptic gospels or good news of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and the very hellenised, influenced by Greek philosophy, gospel of John with its emphasis on logos, appeared wrote after the destruction of the Judean Temple and were likely written between 74 and 95. The tradition that they were written by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, by the way, isn’t found until the first half of the second century in Papias’s Interpretation of the Sayings of the Lord and probably is more myth than history.


Some scholars argue that an early sayings of Yeshua source, oral and then written, circulated among early Christians in the years before Paul. They call this source Q after the German word quelle or source. Whether it really existed and was used by the writers of Matthew, Luke, and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, is another matter since the only evidence for Q are the sayings of Jesus in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.


So what do we know about early Christianity and its messiah or Christ Yeshua or Jesus? We know from the earliest Christian sources, the letters of Paul, that the earliest brand of Christianity was Jewish and that what distinguished Christians from Pharisees, one of the major Jewish religious groups or sects of the first century CE in Palestine. We know that these Jewish Christians were distinguished, for the most part from the Pharisees, by their belief that Jesus was the messiah because he rose from the dead. We know that Paul had a conversion experience of the “risen Christ”, an experience he equated with the Apostles—Jesus’ close disciples—which granted him, he claims, the same authority as the earlier apostles such as Peter and John. We know that Paul felt he was “called” to convert the Gentiles to the “good news” We know that for Paul this good news taught that Christ had risen and set men free and that Jewish laws— the law of circumcision and the laws of avoiding certain types of meats, were no longer in effect, at least for “gentile” Christians. We know that Paul and others were spreading the gospel across Judea, Syria, Anatolia, Greece, and even Italy. And we know that early Christians were apocalyptic.


Judaism and Christianity Go Their Separate Ways

It was only after the destruction of the second Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70 CE that Judaism and Christianity began to separate and develop in distinct ways. After their defeat at the hands of the Romans (the Jewish Revolt of 66 to 70) many Jews were forced or chose to leave Judea yet again, and they began to settle particularly in and around the Mediterranean world. It was in this Jewish Diaspora that Judaism developed. This Talmudic Judaism may have originated before the Diaspora but it really flowered in the Diaspora as the Mishnah (complied around 200), the Jerusalem Talmud (redacted at the end of the fourth century), and the Babylonian Talmud (third to fifth centuries) took shape creating, in the process, Talmudic Judaism, a form of Judaism that would come to dominate, for a variety of different reasons, Jewish life particularly in the West down to today.


At the heart of Talmudic Judaism was the belief that Jews were God’s chosen people, that they had covenanted with the one God, after some debate and compromise, to be his people and to follow and study his 613 commandments in his Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh, the Jewish holy book, the Jewish Bible.


After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century Jews increasingly experienced prejudice, legal discrimination, limitations on what they could do to make a living, and increasing persecution in the Roman Empire. Because Christians were forbidden to engage in financial transactions requiring usury, the making of loans, Jews were channeled by Christian powers that be increasingly into finance and banking. During the Crusades Christian holy warriors pogromed Jews in the German speaking lands. During and after the twelfth century Christian powers that be required Jews to live in ghettos.


The French Revolution would change some things for Europe’s Jews. After the French Revolution the Jews of France were emancipated and allowed to leave their isolated ghettos. The Jews of the German speaking lands and later Germany left their ghettos and became the most assimilated Jews of Europe. It would be in Germany that an Enlightenment form of Judaism developed, Reform Judaism.


Things really didn’t change much for Jews in the eastern parts of Europe. In 19th century the Jews of the Russian Empire were forced to live in shtetl’s, kind of rural ghettos, in rural regions of the Russian Empire and forbidden to travel, at least legally, from them to other parts or places in the Russian Empire.


Despite emancipation in the West and Central Europe persecution of Jews and discrimination against Jews continued throughout Europe. Thanks, in part, to this persecution and discrimination many Jews left Europe for the settler societies of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina where persecution and discrimination may have been less intense than in Europe but was hardly absent.


What changed twentieth century Judaism was the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel, the Jewish nation, in 1948. The Holocaust, of course, saw the genociding of some six million Jews. Many Jews fled a Europe that seemed inherently inhospitable for the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and, of course, Israel.


Today there are around 15 million Jews. In the United States there are three main Jewish “denominations”: Reform Judaism, liberal or Enlightenment Judaism, Conservative Judaism, moderate Judaism, a middle way between liberal Reform and conservative Orthodox Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism, a conservative or traditionalist form of Judaism that claims to hew close to Talmudic traditions. In the UK there is Reform Judaism, Liberal Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, and Conservative Judaism. There are also a significant number of secular Jews. Needless to say all of these forms of Judaism are products of the modern world.


Early Christianity

Christianity arose, as I mentioned earlier, in Palestine. Very early on in its history it began to spread across Rome’s Mediterranean empire. The new Christian faith was at first persecuted by the Romans—Christians, apparently, would not take Caesar as a god before their God. But it continued to grow. Christians like Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and his student Origen (185-253) would blend Christianity with Greek philosophy, helping produce, in the process, a Christianity that seems to have been quite far from its original roots in Pharisaic Judaism. This Hellenised Christianity was the Christianity that spread across the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and into Rome.


But Christianity did not spread unimpeded across the Empire. The 250s saw a particularly virulent persecution of the faith by the Roman powers that be and by the Roman masses pumped up on fears of Christianity spread by Roman demagogues. The faith didn’t perish, however. By 304 probably 10% of the population of the Empire was Christian.


Very early on Christianity took on hierarchical form. There was a clergy at the top who were supervised by the more powerful bishops and a laity at the bottom. By the fourth century the most important bishops of the church were the bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, Jerusalem, and Rome. Later, after the Emperor Constantine established the Empires new Capital in Constantinople, the former Byzantium, the bishop of the new imperial city would become one of the important bishops of the church as well.


Christianity’s fortunes would change forever in 312. Tradition has it that in that year Constantine, before his victories over his rival at the Milvian Bridge near Rome, had a vision or saw an apparition of a cross over the sun and heard a voice saying “conquer in this sign”. After he decorated the shields of his soldiers with this Christogram, Constantine won a decisive victory over his rivals for power in the Empire. In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan granting Christianity—as well as other religious faiths—official recognition throughout the Empire (http://home.snu.edu/~dwilliam/f98/milan/). In addition to toleration Christianity regained property which had been confiscated from it over the years and its clergy were given exemption from state obligations. Christian churches could now organize as legal entities.


Constantine was not done with church politics, however. In 325 he called a church council which was given the job of hammering out the “orthodox” doctrines and laws of the church. In 325 the bishops of the church met at Nicaea to do just this (http://www.fordham.edu/ halsall/basis/nicea1.txt). The bishops were able to create orthodox Christianity by marking it off against “unorthodox” forms of Christianity specifically, Arianism—the notion that only the father was pure god. Arianism was condemned as a heresy by powers that be at Nicaea. The notion that god conceived himself before he gave birth to himself, that the father preceded and produced the son, in other words—the doctrine of consubtantiation—became the orthodox banner of the orthodox Christianity created at Nicaea.


Western Christianity

By 391 Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Proving that the new boss is much like the old boss church leaders immediately set about doing unto others as those others, they thought, had done unto them. They attacked pagans and set about destroying pagan temples. The church also continued to try to undermine heresy within at church councils at Ephesos in 431 (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/ephesus.html) and Chalcedon in 451 (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/chalcedon.html). Monophysitism, which held that the flesh of Christ was divine, was condemned, as was Pelagianism, which held that after conversion one’s sins were wiped away and that one could follow the will of god without hierarchical guidance.

For the writings of the Early Church Fathers see… http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html


The prominence of Christianity in the Empire meant greater prominence for Christian thinkers. One of the most influential Christian thinkers was Augustine of Hippo (http://www.augustinian.villanova.edu/writings/index.html), who lived from 354 to 430. Drawing on the dualism of Neo-Platonism, the revival of Plato, and Aristotelian teleology, the notion that there was a first mover to everything, Augustine argued that all humans were fallible and that it was impossible for humans to do good without god’s grace. His famous treatise De civitate Dei/City of God is one of the first attempts at a Christian systematic theology. His Confessions is one of the earliest Christian conversion tales. In the former Augustine distinguished between the perfect heavenly city of eternal happiness and the imperfect earthly city of fire, war, famine, and sickness, which, despite its imperfectness did point toward the city of god.


Thinkers were not the only Christians gaining prominence throughout the Empire. Saints, celibate workers of wonders, dedicated prayers and fasters—all who had tenuous ties to the developing hierarchical “orthodox” Christian church—were becoming models of virtue for many Christians elite and non-elite. Many devout Christians sought out saintly heroes like St. Antony so that they might intercede with god on their behalf. After they died many Christians held on to their bones, their relics, and their clothes thinking that these too might serve as conduits to god’s grace. At first saints were sometimes buried on the estates of the wealthy. Increasingly, however, as the church hierarchy became more powerful, bishops took charge of the holy relics of the saints.

For saint’s lives see… http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook3.html.


By the 6th century monasteries became important and prominent particularly in the Western of the Empire. Monasteries seem to have began in Egypt and spread throughout the Empire from there. One important early Christian monastic community was the Benedictines, an order named after their founder St. Benedict who wrote the rules for his order around 530 and 540 (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/rul-benedict.html). On Monte Casino in what is today Italy the Benedictine monks gave up lives of wealth, family ties, and worldly offices in order to lead a daily life of devotion, prayer, psalm chanting, worship, labour, and bible reading. Increasingly monks would be seen by Christians in general as the embodiment of Christian virtue. In the 9th century the Carolingian powers that be would make Benedictine monasticism the norm throughout their realm.

On Mediaeval monasticism see… http://www.faculty.de.gcsu.edu/~dvess/ids/medieval/benmon.html


Over time Christianity’s numbers would grow throughout Europe. In time it would provide what we today call Europe with a sense of identity and a name, Christendom.


Eastern Christianity

Once Christianity became the official religion of the empire the Church helped put an end to gladiatorial contests, helped put an end to the Olympic games, and helped close down gymnasia because of its opposition to nudity. Theatrical performances involving nearly nude women remained legal, however, as did segregated public baths. On other fronts the Church’s discomfort with warfare was reconciled with the demands of the state as the doctrine of war as a necessary evil became part of Byzantine ideology. It remains a part of Orthodox ideology today.


It took some time for Orthodox Christianity to develop in the empire. The incubators of Orthodox Christianity were the church councils. The Emperor Constantine himself called the first church council at Nicaea in Anatolia in 325. The Council concluded that Christ, the Son of God, was of one substance with God the Father and thus was not a part of God’s creation. The Nicene Creed, which incorporated this view of Christ into it, would set the standard by which Orthodox Christianity would be defined forever afterwards.


Other church councils would further delineate what constituted Orthodoxy in the Church in the Eastern Roman Empire and in the West. The Council of Constatinople in 381 concluded that God is one substance but three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Council of Ephesus in 431 concluded that since Christ is one person his mother, Mary, should be venerated as the Mother of God. The Council of Chalcedon in 449 concluded that when he became human Christ developed a second nature and thus had two natures, one human and one divine.


The conclusions of the Church Councils were considered authoritative by many, but not all Orthodox Christian leaders and many, though not all, Orthodox Christian laity. As a result Arians, who didn’t believe in the full divinity of the Son, Nestorians, who believed that Christ’s human and divine natures were separate, and Monophysites, who believed that the incarnate Christ had only one nature that was both human and divine, became “unorthodox”. Defined as “unorthodox” Nestorians fled to Persia while Monophysites continued to dominate the church of Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, and Armenia


The Eastern Roman Empire was a theocracy something symbolized by the proximity of Church, the massive and symbolically central Church of Hagia Sopia, and state, the nearby imperial palace, to each other. In many ways the imperial cult was simply replaced with Christianity. The Emperor, who dominated the Church, was supposed to lead a holy life according to Christian belief. The Emperor’s subjects were supposed to follow his lead. “Orthodoxy” itself, just like the Eastern Roman Empire, was hierarchical. Bishops stood at the pinnacle of the Orthodox hierarchy. By the fourth century the four, the bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, Jerusalem, and Rome. Later, after the Emperor Constantine established the Empires new Capital in Constantinople, the former Byzantium, the bishop of the new imperial city would become one of the important, if not the most important, Orthodox bishops of the church as well because of his role in the imperial capital.


With the Orthodox faith set by the Orthodox councils Orthodox Christianity soon developed its own specific practises to go with its specific beliefs. By the fifth century the Church had its own distinctive liturgy, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (http://www.byzantines.net/liturgy/liturgy.htm). The Eastern Church also developed its own distinctive Church music, its own distinctive monastic communities including its most famous monastic community at Mount Athos in Greece (bishops could only come from the Orthodox monastic community), and its own distinctive meaning system with icons at its centre.


Icons were, if not the most significant than one of the most significant symbolic and representative Christian forms in the Empire, one that was deeply grounded in Byzantine spiritual life. Icons were considered by Byzantine Christians to be incarnations of the heavenly world. They were intended to transport believers from the mundane world into the heavenly world by giving them glimpses of the heavenly things to come.


Byzantine churches made this ideology material in their very structure. Believers stepped from the mundane world into the church and were, it was believed, transported from the mundane realm of the everyday to the spiritual realm through the icons in the church be they the icons on the iconostasis, the icon screen at the front of the church, or the great icons in the dome and the apse, the Christ
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