By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The earliest converts to Christianity were attracted for a variety of reasons. Some were Hellenized Roman citizens—members of the Jewish communities that existed in most major cities of the eastern Mediterranean, including Rome, who had already begun to adopt their lifestyles and beliefs through contact with other cultures.
Christianity and other Cults
Christianity spoke to ordinary cosmopolitan Romans, of many cultures and ethnicities, who saw Jesus as a teacher living by stoic principles or as the human embodiment of Ahura Mazdā, the good god of Zoroastrianism. Others were already devotees of mystery cults, like the very old cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis or the newer worship of the warrior god Mithras, popular among Rome’s professional soldiers. Both of these—revolving around stories of sacrifice, death, and regeneration—would have prepared their adherents to embrace the worship of Jesus.
In fact, it was largely for the benefit of these former polytheists that early Christians began to practice elaborate initiation ceremonies such as baptism—a ritual purification common to many ancient traditions and exemplified among Jews in the ministry of John the Baptist.
Yet there were also significant differences between these emerging forms of Christianity and other mystery cults, which stressed the rebirth of the individual through spiritual transformation—whereas Christianity emphasized the importance of community and social equality. Women were thus extremely prominent in early Christian churches, not only as patrons and benefactors (a role long played by Roman women in religious cults) but as officeholders, deacons, and even (at least in some places) priests.
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Christianity with No Orthodoxy
However, for nearly three centuries after the death of Jesus, small Christian churches formed, evolved, and often died out in relative isolation. Communication among them was difficult and dangerous—especially after the middle of the 2nd century, when imperial policy toward seditious groups became more intolerant.
This means that early Christianity grew organically; it was not designed as a system, it had no orthodoxy because it had no absolute teachings. Every Christian community had limited access to any of its foundational texts and no shared understanding of how to interpret them. Some churches had a few of Paul’s letters; others had later, noncanonical letters like those of Barnabas or Ignatius.
Some had bishops, priests, and other officeholders; some had only a handful of acolytes. Some counted women as their leaders; others disapproved of women in authority. Some had come under the influence of Neoplatonism, the Roman form of Platonic philosophy; or Manichaeism which, like Zoroastrianism, was a dualistic teaching that the world was governed by two equal but opposing forces of good and evil, not a single God.
Transformation of Christianity
In every respect, then, the Roman emperor Constantine’s opportunistic and rather arbitrary decision to adopt the Christian faith in 312, before a crucial battle, transformed the Christianity of the previous three centuries. It had to reinvent itself as an orthodox set of rules, a religion, and protect itself against heresy. Rituals and doctrines that had been formulated to suit the needs of small, scattered communities now had to be reconciled.
Why? Because Constantine’s conversion soon ceased to be a personal choice—a heresy, if you will. Because the emperor was, by a tradition stretching back to Augustus, the pontifex maximus, or high priest of the Roman state, Christianity was reinvented as the state religion of the empire. As such, it inherited the state bureaucracy and hierarchy. It authorized the state’s laws. This new Roman Church—this early medieval Church—could no longer rub along on an ad hoc basis. Its officials, now aligned with the imperial state, needed to agree on a shared set of beliefs.
They needed a shared set of scriptures and a chain of command. And all of these fundamental structures had to be hammered out in a painful effort to reconcile the varieties of Christianity that had been separate for so long.
Christians of the 4th century
The degree to which the Christians of the 4th century were able to unify around so many controversial topics, and so quickly, seems pretty remarkable. They had to, as the newly Christian imperial state had to show that it could systematize and centralize; it had to show that it could define and enforce something new—orthodoxy.
In the past, again since the time of Augustus, the official and unifying religion of Rome had been the worship of the emperor as an embodiment of the state; but that was no longer reconcilable with the monotheistic worship of the Christian God. Under this new regime, the emperor was no longer the divine embodiment of the state, but the head of the church.
Edict of Milan
Did Constantine foresee any of these implications in 312, when he claimed victory over his rivals for imperial authority at the Milvian Bridge? He later claimed that the Christian God had guaranteed him victory in hoc signum, ‘in this sign’: the Chi-Rho, the first two letters of the word Christos. In gratitude for this improbable success, the emperor showered benefits on the Christian communities of Rome and patronized the construction of churches throughout the empire. He also forced his co-ruler Licinius, who governed the eastern half of the empire, to join him in promoting religious tolerance when they met at Milan in 313.
The resulting Edict of Milan guaranteed freedom of worship to all Rome’s citizens, Christian and non-Christian. But it was already apparent that Christianity was the favored faith of the imperial family and thus the pathway for anyone with political ambitions. Almost overnight, Christians had ceased to be members of an illegal and often despised cult and had become affiliates of a prestigious and profitable religion that was suddenly attractive to the ruling classes. Indeed, the word thereafter used to describe non-Christians, pagani, refers to dwellers in the countryside, pagus, implying that only ignorant rustics would refuse to embrace the material and political perks of Christianity.
Common Questions about the Organic Growth and Transformation of Christianity
For nearly three centuries after the death of Jesus, small Christian churches formed, evolved, and often died out in relative isolation. Communication among them was difficult and dangerous—especially after the middle of the 2nd century, when imperial policy toward seditious groups became more intolerant.
When the Roman emperor Constantine’s adopted the Christian faith in 312, Christianity had to reinvent itself as an orthodox set of rules, a religion, and protect itself against heresy. Rituals and doctrines that had been formulated to suit the needs of small, scattered communities now had to be reconciled.
The Edict of Milan guaranteed freedom of worship to all Rome’s citizens, Christian and non-Christian.