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Early Christianity

General Essay on Early Christianity

Christianity arose some 2000 years ago among the Jewish communities in Palestine at a time when Palestine was occupied by the Roman empire. The presence of the Roman empire on Jewish soil represented yet another occupation of the Jewish homeland by a powerful foreign empire. The sufferings of the Jews at the hands of foreign oppressors was assuaged by the belief that a Messiah, or saviour, would arise and restore the Jewish nation to the glories it had enjoyed under King David.

Among the many Messianic groups that were thrown up at the time of the Roman occupation was one led by Jesus of Nazareth, a wonder-worker who attacked the Jewish authorities of his time. Put on trial for sedition, he was executed by crucifixion.

Jesus' death did not represent the end of the new movement. His disciples, believing that God had risen Jesus from the dead, proclaimed the resurrection and the beginning of a new age. The most important early convert, Paul of Tarsus, carried the Christian message to various parts of the Roman empire. Paul himself probably died in Rome in about the year 64, a victim of the persecution of Christians in Rome instigated by the Emperor Nero.

The persecution of the Roman Christians represented the beginning of periods of persecution against the church during which times many Christians would bear witness to their faith through martyrdom. This persecution came to an end with the conversion to Christianity of Constantine, the ruler of the western half of the empire, and the subsequent official recognition of Christianity as a legal religion. In 324 Constantine unified the whole empire under his leadership and in 330 moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the site of ancient Byzantium. Constantine called his capital New Rome, but it came to be known to posterity as Constantinople.

The reign of Constantine provides the focal point around which the chart is constructed. The vertical line in the centre separates those movements that appeared before Constantine established his new capital and those that appeared afterwards. The earliest of these, Gnosticism, is represented by a broken line to indicate, firstly, the uncertainty of the date of its origins and, secondly, that not all Gnostics identified themselves as Christians. The Marcionite movement, which emerged in the middle of the second century, has sometimes been described as Gnostic. However, its relative similarity to mainstream Christianity and its prominence in the early church justify it being located separately and treated as a movement in its own right.

Montanism and Donatism represent attempts to create a pure church untarnished by compromise with the world. Montanism arose in Asia Minor around the year 170 and was inspired by the belief that Montanus and his followers were prophetic mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit. Donatism was a schismatic church that emerged in North Africa in the 4th century, defined by its refusal to accept the ordination of bishops who had abandoned their faith during the persecution of the Church under Diocletian (284-305).

Monarchianism and Arianism were theological movements which sought to explain the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity. Monarchianism, which was at its height during the 3rd century, put forward a variety of interpretations that were designed to affirm the unity of the Godhead. Arianism also sought to preserve the unity of the Godhead through the claim that the Son was a creature rather than co-equal with the Father.

Constantine's reign coincided with the period of the Arian controversy. To resolve it Constantine set up a council of bishops at Nicaea in 325. The Council of Nicaea affirmed the full divinity of the Son and condemned Arianism. This was followed in 381 by the Council of Constantinople which affirmed the full divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The establishment of these creedal formulas did not, however, bring peace to the church. During the 5th century the church was shaken by disputes concerning how the relationship between the divine and human aspects of Christ was to be understood. At the centre of the dispute was Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who, according to his opponents, held that there were two persons in Christ. At the Council of Ephesus of 431 Nestorius was condemned and deposed.

Those who supported Nestorius' position established an independent church which came to be known as the Nestorian Church. From the Nestorian Church there emerged another group of churches known as the St Thomas Christians. The St Thomas Christians, which are located on the Malabar coast of south-west India, are believed to have been established through Nestorian missions.

The condemnation and deposition of Nestorius did not settle the christological conflict. A further council was called at Chalcedon in 451. The Council of Chalcedon decreed that Christ was truly God and truly man, two natures in one person. This decision was unacceptable to the churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia and Syria who claimed that Christ had only a single divine nature expressed in a human form. These churches broke away from the mainstream church and came to be known as monophysites, a term deriving from the Greek word mono (one) and phusis (nature). In the 17th century some of the St Thomas Christians associated themselves with the Syrian Orthodox Church, thus creating a fifth monophysite group.

The Benedictines are the most important of the early monastic communities. They follow the rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (c.480-552), which is based on the four principles of study, communal life, prayer and obedience.

The horizontal line at the bottom indicates the great schism between eastern and western Christianity. The tensions between the Greek speaking eastern churches, based around Constantinople, and the Latin speaking western churches base around Rome, culminated in the 11th century over the issue of the relative importance of Rome and Constantinople within the Christian world. The church in Rome claimed seniority over the church at Constantinople. The Constantinople church, however, refused to acknowledge the authority of Rome, a decision that led both churches to excommunicate one another in 1054. This schism has never been healed.

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