Historical Overview

The emergence of Christianity from a localized offshoot of Judaism, the religion of many Semitic nations in ancient Palestine, to the predominant religion of the vast Roman Empire with its episcopal center in Rome took place broadly in the time period between Alexander the Great and Constantine, from 330 B.C.E. to 330 C.E. The period from 330 to 31 B.C.E. is known as the Hellenistic period, one of the most important cultural intersections of the ancient Mediterranean. From 330 B.C.E. until 200 B.C.E. was its heyday, but after 200 B.C.E., Alexander's successors in Egypt, Palestine, Syrian, and Asia reasserted their native cultures in a newly formed pan-Hellenic world. The Roman period extended from 163 B.C.E. through the age of Constantine into the early fifth century although Rome did not control the Mediterranean world until Octavian conquered Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. Thus, when Jesus the Galilean taught and preached in the early first century C.E., it was in a Semitic world largely influenced by pan-Hellenic culture, education, and philosophy and ruled by Roman government and laws. At that time, the polytheistic Greco-Roman world contained innumerable gods and diverse religions, all implicated to some degree in the political and cultural structures of native populations: the Greek pantheon and Hellenism, the Roman pantheon and emperor worship, mystery religions and their various rituals and rites, Gnostic beliefs, and, most importantly, Judaism, which was uniquely characterized by monotheism, a strict moral code, and its body of sacred scripture. This chapter will discuss the essential historical background for the understanding of the events leading to the emergence of Christianity in first-century Palestine and its expansion to a fourth-century Rome that had been transformed from the capital of the ancient Roman Empire into a "new" Jerusalem.

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