A New Judaic movement
The followers of Christ brought some new movement in action which spread quite naturally beyond the confines of Palestine. Their group found adherents among the Jews of the dispersion, and at an early day also among the Gentiles as well. Many of the latter had already come under the influence of Judaism, and were more or less completely in sympathy with Jewish religious principles.
According to the early disciples, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and had significance only in relation to the expected Messianic kingdom. At first, they had hoped to see that Kingdom into realization when Christ Jesus was still by them. After his death, they were first disillusioned, but after they got enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they understood that Kingdom was something to come into the future. To establish that kingdom was Jesus his one great aim, and they had to become partners in creating the possibility for getting people ready to enter that kingdom here on earth. Thereforen the people had to come to know Jesus but also his heavenly Father, the One and only One True God.
A kingdom to look for
The kingdom of which the early disciples were talking was interpreted by the apostle Paul as righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost (Rom. xiv. 17), a new principle of living, not a Jewish state. But Paul taught also, on the basis of a religious experience and of a distinct theory of redemption (see McGiffert’s Apostolic Age, ch. iii.), that the Christian is freed from the obligation to observe the Jewish law. He thus did away with the fundamental distinction between Jews and non-Jews or Gentiles.
The transformed spiritual life of the believer expresses itself not in the observance of the Jewish law, but in love, purity and peace. This precipitated a very serious conflict, of which we learn something from the Epistle to the Galatians and the Book of Acts (xv. and xxii.).
With regard to the doctrine of certain laws that should no longer be obeyed, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding over the years. Some clergymen began to teach that one did not have to obey any laws at all because one had been cleansed once and for all by Jesus’ shed blood. For those preachers people had not to do any works any more because they were saved forever.
Other fundamental principles of Paul’s failed of comprehension and acceptance, but the belief finally prevailed that the observance of Jewish law and custom was unnecessary and that in the Christian Church there is no distinction between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Those Jewish Christians who refused to go with the rest of the Church in this matter lived their separate life, and were regarded as a heretical sect known as the Ebionites.
Travellers and people seeking for a better life
In the first and second century, there was a constant coming and going of Jews from all quarters who went up to keep the Passover and other feasts at Jerusalem. The great Roman empire stretched from the island of Britain as far as Persia and Ethiopia, and people from all parts of it were continually going to Rome and returning. All the commercial activity brought merchants travelling from country to country on account of their trade. Having contacts with people of different faith and ideas they also often had lots of time thinking about what they saw and heard. Also soldiers were sent into all quarters of the empire and were moved about from one country to another. And from these things we may get some understanding of the way in which the knowledge of the Gospel would be spread, when once it had taken root in the great cities of Jerusalem and Rome. Thus it came to pass, that, by the end of the first hundred years after our Saviour’s birth something was known of the Christian faith throughout all the Roman empire, and even in countries beyond it; and if in many cases, only a very little was known, still even that was a gain, and served as a preparation for more.
Christianity, with its one God, and its promise of redemption and a prospect of a life without end in a peaceful kingdom, based upon divine revelation, met as no other contemporary faith did the awakening religious needs.
Throughout the ages, man has searched for a more glorious life than they had to go through here on earth. Constant work and regular suffering made many seek refuge in a faith that promised much better.
It can be said that the teachings of the Jewish group “The Way” not only appealed to Jews, who had already heard their prophets speak a great deal about that world, but now non-Jews could also feel appealed to join the movement, which was also open to them.
Above all, the first and second century, was a time of great social unrest. With its principle of Christian brotherhood, its emphasis upon the equality of all believers in the sight of God, and its preaching of a new social order to be set up at the return of Christ, it appealed strongly to multitudes, particularly of the poorer classes. That it won a permanent success, and finally took possession of the Roman world, was due to its combination of appeals. No one thing about it commended it to all, and to no one thing alone did it owe its victory, but to the fact that it met a greater variety of needs and met them more satisfactorily than any other movement of the age.
Contributing also to the growth of the Church was the zeal of its converts, the great majority of whom regarded themselves as missionaries and did what they could to extend the new faith. Christianity was essentially a proselytizing religion, not content to appeal simply to one class or race of people and to be one among many faiths, but believing in the falsity or insufficiency of all others and eager to convert the whole world. Moreover, the feeling of unity which bound Christians everywhere together and made of them one compact whole, and which found expression before many generations had passed in a strong organization, did much for the spread of the Church.
Identifying himself with the Christian circle from the 2nd century on, a man became a member of a society existing in all quarters of the empire, every part conscious of its oneness with the larger whole and all compactly organized to do the common work. The growth of the Church during the earlier centuries was chiefly in the middle and lower classes, but it was not solely there. No large number of the aristocracy were reached, but in learned and philosophical circles many were won, attracted both by Christianity’s evident ethical power and by its philosophical character (cf. the Apologists of the 2nd century). That it could seem at once a simple way of living for the common man and a profound philosophy of the universe for the speculative thinker meant much for its success.[Upon the spread of the Church during the early centuries see especially Harnack’s Mission und Ausbreitung des Christenthums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten. An interesting parallel to the spread of Christianity in the Roman empire is afforded by the contemporary Mithraism. See Cumont’s Les Mystères de Mithra (1900), Eng. tr. The Mysteries of Mithra (1903).]
Heretics and Persecution
But it did not win its victory without a struggle. Superstition, misunderstanding and hatred caused the Christians trouble for many generations, and governmental repression they had to suffer occasionally, as a result of popular disturbances.
Thirty years after Herod’s time another cruel emperor, Domitian, raised a fresh persecution against the Christians (AD 95). The Gospel had now made its way among the great people of the earth, as well as among the poor, who were the first to listen to it. There is a story that the emperor was told that some persons of the family of David were living in the Holy Land, and that he sent for them, because he was afraid lest the Jews should set them up as princes, and should rebel against his government.
It was during Domitian’s persecution that the youngest of the apostles was banished to the island of Patmos, where he saw the visions which are described in his “Revelation.” All the other Apostles had been long dead, and the apostle John had lived many years at Ephesus, where he governed the churches of the country around. After his return from Patmos he went about to all these churches, that he might repair the hurt which they had suffered in the persecution. In one of the towns which he visited, he noticed a young man of very pleasing looks, and called him forward, and desired the bishop of the place to take care of him. The bishop did so, and, after having properly trained the youth, he baptised and confirmed him. But when this had been done, the bishop thought that he need not watch over him so carefully as before, and the young man fell into a vicious company, and went on from bad to worse, until at length he became the head of a band of robbers, who kept the whole country in terror. When the apostle next visited the town, he asked after the charge which he had put into the bishop’s hands. The bishop, with shame and grief, answered that the young man was dead, and, on being further questioned he explained that he meant dead in sins, and told all the story. St John, after having blamed him because he had not taken more care, asked where the robbers were to be found, and set off on horseback for their haunt, where he was seized by some of the band, and was carried before the captain. The young man, on seeing him, knew him at once, and could not bear his look, but ran away to hide himself. But the apostle called him back, told him that there was yet hope for him through Christ, and spoke in such a moving way that the robber agreed to return to the town. There he was once more received into the Church as a penitent; and he spent the rest of his days in repentance for his sins, and in thankfulness for the mercy which had been shown to him.
John, in his old age, was much troubled by false teachers, who had begun to corrupt the Gospel. These persons are called “heretics”, and their doctrines are called “heresy” from a Greek word which means “to choose”, because they chose to follow their own fancies, instead of receiving the Gospel as the apostles and the Church taught it. This would happen continuously and still happens today, because people love to find their own favourite ways.
Simon the sorcerer, who is mentioned in the eighth chapter of the Acts, is counted as the first heretic, and even in the time of the apostles a number of others arose, such as Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander, who are mentioned by the apostle Paul (1 Tim. i. 19f; 2 Tim. ii. 17f). These earliest heretics were mostly of the kind called Gnostics.[ from the Greek gnōstikos (one who has gnōsis, or “secret knowledge”)] They emphasised personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) above the orthodox teachings of the apostles. some of those heretics thought that there was a hidden God and a malevolent lesser divinity. From some of their teachings, the idea that more than one god was involved in the creation of the world also arose. Thus, a lesson was learnt that the world was created by a demiurge or satanic power — which they often associated with the God of the Old Testament (Jehovah) —and that there is total opposition between this world and that God. Redemption was viewed as liberation from the chaos of a creation derived from either incompetent or malevolent powers, a world in which the elect are alien prisoners.
The apostle Paul may have meant those false teachers especially when he warned Timothy against “science” (or knowledge) “falsely so called” (1 Tim. vi. 20). Their doctrines were a strange mixture of Jewish and heathen notions with Christianity; and it is curious that some of the very strangest of their opinions have been brought up again from time to time by people who fancied that they had found out something new, while they had only fallen into old errors, which had been condemned by the Church hundreds of years before.
When the Nazarene master teacher ascended into heaven, he left the government of his Church to the apostles. We are told that during the forty days between his rising from the grave and his ascension, he gave commandments unto the apostles, and spoke of the things belonging to the kingdom of God (Acts i. 2f). Thus they knew what they were to do when their master should be no longer with them; and one of the first things which they did, even without waiting until his promise of sending the Holy Ghost should be fulfilled, was to choose Matthias into the place which had been left empty by the fall of the traitor Judas (Acts i. 15–26).
In the Gnostic Christian tradition, Christ is seen as a divine being which has taken human form “in order to lead humanity back to the Light.” It is one those heretic teachings we can find today in many main churches. Gnostic writings flourished among certain Christian groups in the Mediterranean world until about the second century, when the Fathers of the early Church denounced them as heresy. But later on several of such false teachings as God having come down in a human form became widespread. However, Gnosticism is not a single standardized system, and the emphasis on direct experience allows for a wide variety of teachings, including distinct currents such as Valentinianism and Sethianism (one of the main currents of Gnosticism during the 2nd and 3rd century ). In the Persian Empire, Gnostic ideas spread as far as China via the related movement Manichaeism, while Mandaeism is still alive in Iraq, Iran and diaspora communities.
Internal struggle and external resistance
Like the apostles had warned for the false teachers, so their followers tried also to go against the heretics. Early church leaders encouraged the destruction of Gnostic texts. Most evidence for the Valentinian theory comes from its critics and detractors, most notably Irenaeus, since he was especially concerned with refuting Valentinianism.
The big problem for the true followers of Jesus Christ, however, was that the false teachers could charm people with much more attractive things, which made them gain more and more followers, also because their false teachings also allowed or integrated more traditional things like the pagan festivals.
No systematic effort was made by the imperial authorities to put an end to the movement of followers of Christ, the Jewish sect “The Way“, until the reign of the Roman emperor Decius (249–251), who instituted the first organized persecution of Christians throughout the empire. It was because those Christians did not want to bring sacrifices “on behalf of” (Latin pro) the emperor, not to the emperor, since a living emperor was not considered divine. Their refusal to offer a sacrifice for the emperor and the Empire’s well-being by a specified date made they risked torture and execution
Decius’ policy of suppression was followed by the 3rd century Roman emperor Diocletian (284–305 ce) who wanted to restore efficient government to the empire after the near anarchy of the 3rd century. For him the twists between Jews and those who claimed to be followers of the Nazarene also had to be restricted.
Because he believed that he had come to power through divine will, as revealed by the “fateful” boar, he regarded himself and Maximian as “sons of gods and creators of gods” what the Jews and followers of Christ disputed. Under Diocletian, the empire took on the aspects of a theocracy.
The end of the reign was darkened by the last major persecution of the Christians. The reasons for this persecution are uncertain, but various explanations have been advanced: the possible influence of Galerius, a fanatic follower of the traditional Roman religion; the desire to restore complete unity, without tolerance of a foreign cult that was seen as separatist and of individuals who were forming a kind of state within the state; the influence of anti-Christian philosophers such as Porphyry and governors such as Hierocles on the scholarly class and on the imperial court; the fear of an alienation of rebellious armies from emperor worship; or perhaps the disturbances provoked by the Christians themselves, who were agitated by doctrinal controversies. At any rate, some or all of these factors led Diocletian to publish the four edicts of 303–304, promising all the while that he would not spill blood. His vow went unheeded, however, and the persecutions spread through the empire with an extreme violence that did not succeed in annihilating Christianity but caused the faith of the martyrs to blaze forth instead.
A growing church granted toleration
In spite of all opposition the Church steadily grew, until in 311 the emperor Galerius upon his death-bed granted toleration (see Eusebius H.E. x.4, and Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, 34), and in 313 the emperors Constantine and Licinius published the edict of Milan, proclaiming the principle of complete religious liberty, and making Christianity a legal religion in the full sense (see Eusebius x. 5, and Lactantius 48. Seeck, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, xii. 381 sq., has attempted to show that the edict of Milan had no significance, but without success).
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