Christianity - The First Four Hundred Years


I remember watching a very good PBS Frontline documentary aired in 1998 on the formation of Christianity. They start off by saying that this is an epic story of the rise of Christianity. And it is an epic story. The documentary explored the life and death of Jesus. Numerous sects of Christianity were discusssed, all with their own differing beliefs as well as the eventual outlawing of the religion by Rome due to the Christians refusal to commit sacrifice to the pagan Gods, which led to their persecution of Christians and then the eventual remarkable acceptance or Christianity by Emperor Constantine and the Roman Empire.

The triumph of Christianity is actually a very remarkable historical occurrence. After Jesus' death and resurrection the Christians were persecuted. Most Christians know the story of St. Paul who was Saul before his conversion to Christianity by encountering Jesus after his death. Saul had been assisting the capturing and murdering of Christians. Yet after two or three centuries these Christians had somehow taken over the Roman Empire as Christianity became its official religion. Truly a remarkable occurrence. Christians believe it was the hand of God at work and it was proof that the basis of Christianity was founded on truth. It also can be a sign of the power of faith and why Christians have been willing to be put to the death rather than deny their faith in Christ.

Historians have tried to piece together what happened that caused this remarkable change in Rome. It is not hard to see that evil works in ways that may not seem logical to the heart-centered person, but to a person of the mind it makes all the sense in the world. If the emperors could not force the Christians to worship their idols and give up their Jesus, well it made sense that the best way to control them was to take control of the religion. Yet maybe it is not all of the picture but just part of it. What happened to Constantine is truly extraordinary in the Roman world.

Christianity begins with the followers of Jesus, whom they believed was a holy man, one who did remarkable things that some would call miracles. Jesus was a Jew and most of his followers were as well. The early Christians were not Christians, but Jews who were following Jesus. They followed the Jewish customs, but they differed in whether to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the one promised who would come. When Saul/Paul, a Jew, was converted to Christianity many gentiles had started to believe in this holy man who had died and came back from the dead. The Gospels talk about the difficulty in how to handle the Jews and the gentiles mixing together. Paul often had to be the definitive word to settle their differences.

Paul established Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire, including Europe, and beyond - even into Africa. He teaches that the old distinctions between Jews and gentiles are now obliterated. They have been supplanted by a new and truer and more wonderful vision in which we have a new Israel that will embrace both Jews and gentiles. This is no easy task. Imagine suddenly leaving behind all your beliefs and customs to adapt to a new spiritual leader who everyone believes is the prophesied Messiah. But what do you leave behind and what do you accept as the new customs? This did not happen overnight or in one place. Thus many differences and schisms arose that the early church fathers had to deal with.

By the second century Christians and their leaders were trying to define what is Christianity. What makes it not Judaism? How could it on the one hand hold on to the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) and still not be Judaism? This age had many diverse Christian sects. There were major questions confronting church leaders and the different sects.

It was in the second century that historians began to see an emergence of some form of orthodoxy, with some uniform body of doctrines and text, that we now know as the New Testament. The church began to put together the books they believed were sacred and authoritative to the new religion.


By the third century there is something called Christianity with its own sacred books, its own rituals, its own ideas, but this is the great age of confrontation with the Roman Empire. This is the century that has become known in Christianity as the great age of persecutions, where the Roman Empire now wakes up and realizes that there is something challenging their control, and threatening the social order and ultimately the political order of the Empire. The fledgling church had remained small yet its adherents were being persecuted particularly under tyrannical Roman emperors like Nero (54-68), Domitian (81-96), under whom being a Christian was an illegal act, and Diocletian (284-305). Many Christian believers died for their faith and became martyrs for the church, which only helped to spread the faith as something very special that people were willing to die for it.

The Romans, it is believed, intuited that the victory of Christianity would mean the end of the Roman Empire, and it was. The Romans tried to beat down Christianity but failed. By the fourth century Christianity becomes the state religion and by the end of the fourth century it is illegal to do any form of public worship other than Christianity in the entire Roman Empire. Historians see this as a mystery and an extraordinary reversal. Jesus is executed by the Romans as a public criminal and a threat to the social order, and somehow three centuries later Jesus is being hailed as a God, as part of the one, true God who is the God of the new Christian Roman Empire. Yet this new Roman Christianity is not the same as the Christianity of the first and second centuries.

Constantine the Unexpected Hero of Christianity

When a Roman soldier, Constantine, won victory over his rival in battle to become the Roman emperor, he attributed his success to the Christian God and immediately proclaimed his conversion to Christianity. This is his story taken from the World History Chronology:

His conversion happened during a war against his brother-in-law and co-emperor, Maxentius. According to the historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, before the crucial battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine was convinced that he needed divine assistance. While he was praying for such assistance, God sent him a vision of a cross of light at midday, bearing the inscription "in hoc signo vinces " ("in this sign you will be victorious"). That night he had a dream that reaffirmed his earlier vision. God told him to use the sign he had been given as a safeguard in all of his battles. Thus, Constantine converted to Christianity and ordered the symbol of his Savior's name (the intersection of the Greek letter chi and rho) to represent his army. Constantine was victorious in the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and he continued to wear the symbol for Christ against every hostile power he faced.

After Constantine's dream he asks a bishop to interpret what the vision means. First he becomes a patron of one particular branch of the church that has the Old Testament as well as the New Testament as part of its canon. This branch includes the story about historical Israel as part of its own redemptive history. It has the model of King David and the kings of Israel. Under this model the bishop explains the vision to Constantine.

Constantine goes on to conquer not only the West, but also the Greek East whereupon he consolidates his own secular power under the theology of government where many Christians have groups of social power. It becomes a win/win for him and the bishops because now they have financial support from the government. He funds the building of churches, makes Sunday a Christian day of worship, abandons paganism and begins to rebuild Jerusalem with beautiful basilicas and make the city revolve around the places where Christ had suffered, buried, and had been raised. The great basilicas represented a new Jerusalem.

Yet also one of the first thing he does is start to persecute those Christians who are outside the Christians around him, i.e. the Gnostics. Constantine also intervenes in church disputes on the nature of Jesus. He then needed to establish exactly what the Christian faith was and called the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD which formulated and codified the faith. He presided over the Council of Nicaea with 300 bishops attending, which was the first major ecumenical council. This was the Arian controversy about the nature of the divinity of Jesus. The Council issued an official statement of creed affirming Jesus' complete divinity, and the decision was enforced politically by Constantine. It was at this council that they drafted the Creed of Nicaea, which was the predecessor to the Nicene Creed, still used by many Christian denominations today.

Constantine did not completely give up his paganism, and some doubt his conversion. Nevertheless, he had a profound effect upon the unity of the Christian faith. It would take another hundred years before most of the Roman world really converted to Christianity. The Council of Chalcedon held in 451 was the last council held while the Roman Empire was intact. It gave rise to the Nicene Creed which Christians still say today to affirm their belief in God, Christ and his church. When Rome fell in 476, it meant that Western and Eastern Christians were no longer under the same political rule and differences in belief and practice arose between them.