In these five essays we have traced the foundation and spread of Christianity, which began in the first century c.e. as a small sect of Jewish followers of Jesus, considered the Messiah. Jesus was born in the early years of the Roman Empire in Judea, where the Herods ruled as client kings of Rome. The Jews resented their Roman overlords and the Herods, their puppet client kings, and that resentment festered into open conflict. A growing divide between the new Christian sect and the more traditional Jews exacerbated the antagonism between the Jews and the Romans. Many Jews considered the Christian Jews heretical, especially as their sect began to accept converts from among the gentiles who did not have the same devotion to the Torah and Mosaic law. Paul, a Pharisee who was originally one of the traditionalist Jews who persecuted the Christian Jews, was converted dramatically (he believed that he experienced a theophany) to Christianity while traveling on the road to Damascus from Jerusalem. From that time, Paul began to preach the word of Jesus. He has been called the apostle to the gentiles because he extended his mission beyond the Jews in the area of Jerusalem and traveled to synagogues all over the empire. These kinds of antagonisms and open confrontations between Christians and non-Christians have resurfaced many times in subsequent centuries of church history, most significantly in the wars between Muslims and Christians, and in the hostilities between Jews and Christians and among rivaling Christianities.
By the end of the first century c.e., the church had grown enormously. It had definitively split from Judaism and, according to legend, the apostles Peter and Paul had traveled to Rome where they jointly ministered and preached the new religion of Christianity. Christians were monotheists who believed that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God the Father to die for their sins; they could worship no other god. Their long period of struggle with, and persecution by, the Romans stems from this belief. Christian doctrine forbade them to worship the gods of the state that, according to Roman religious belief, safeguarded the state's and the emperor's well-being. These struggles between the Romans and the Christians resulted in sporadic and systematic persecution, especially under Diocletian from 303-313 c.e. Similar confrontations and religious persecutions in the church have reemerged since that time, and, in some cases, these "holy wars" have engendered similar violence.
In 313 c.e., Constantine, the first "Christian" emperor, issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity. Almost immediately, doctrinal controversies plagued the church. One of the earliest of these controversies was called Arianism after the presbyter Arius, who first argued that the Father had created the Son and that, therefore, the Son was not coeternal with the Father. This teaching was antithetical to the orthodox belief that the Father and Son were of the same substance and coeternal. When Theodosius assumed the throne in 379 c.e., his first edict unequivocally required that the entire empire practice orthodox Catholicism as it had been defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 c.e. He pointed to Pope Damasus of Rome, the apostolic see of Peter and Paul, as an example of this orthodoxy. Theodosius' unilateral legislation in church matters set the stage for the medieval and modern conflicts concerning the separation of church and state. Moreover, his claim that the Christianity of Rome in the person of the pope was the only orthodox practice anticipated debates concerning the primacy of Rome and the infallibility of the pope that still confront the church hierarchy.
By the time Theodosius gave legal sanction to Christianity in 391 c.e., Rome was the episcopal see of the new Christian capital and the polytheistic religions of antiquity were cultural rather than religious phenomena. In the historical period called the Renaissance, the Christian church appropriated the classical pagan heritage into a program of didactic Christian art. This blending of pagan and Christian iconography when coupled with the church's political and religious dominance recalled the fourth-century controversy between the pagan and Christian aristocracy and anticipated the Protestant Reformation.
Indeed, these same controversies that we have traced in these chapters—conflicts between Christians and other religious groups, competing theological doctrines among different Christian sects, tensions between the church and secular rulers, the primacy of Rome, and the cultural heritage of antiquity—survive in various ways in the late antique, medieval, and modern church. This chapter will consider some of the consequences of these early conflicts as they reemerge in the medieval and modern church.
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