At some time during the ten years in which Pontius Pilate is administering the small Roman province of Judaea, he reluctantly authorizes the death by crucifixion of a religious agitator in Jerusalem.
This would have gone unnoticed by historians, for there is no trace of it in official records, but for the fact that the man’s followers campaign energetically in his memory. Some forty or fifty years after the event they write down, in the Gospels, their account of what happened.
They say that the crucified man was known to the authorities as Jesus of Nazareth, and that he was killed for claiming to be the King of the Jews – a political affront in Roman terms and a religious one to the Jews. But to them he is Christ, a word with the same meaning as Messiah (‘anointed’).
They say also that he spent the last years of his life in Galilee and Jerusalem working miracles, mainly medical in kind, and preaching that the kingdom of God will soon come – and that only those who repent of their sins and follow him (for he is himself the son of God) will enter this kingdom.
The first Christians: AD c.29-35
The followers of Jesus, soon to be known as Christians, also say that on the third day after the Crucifixion his tomb was found to be empty. He had risen from the dead, and this resurrection and victory over the shame and apparent finality of his death is felt to be profoundly encouraging.
People hearing the story begin to join those who knew and loved Jesus. The good news of what he has promised spreads from Jerusalem to similar groups of enthusiasts in nearby cities such as Damascus and Antioch.
In the first years after the Crucifixion the apostles, led by St Peter, find administering the little Christian community in Jerusalem an increasing burden. It distracts them from their tasks of prayer and preaching. It is not reasonable, they say, ‘that we should leave the word of God and serve tables’.
So they arrange for the election of seven men (the same number as the elders in a Jewish synagogue), who will be responsible for all practical matters concerning the small Christian community.
The first martyr: AD c.35
The first named of the seven is Stephen. He thus becomes identified as the leader of this troublesome sect which teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, whose second coming will involve the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
As the focus of official Jewish hostility, Stephen is taken outside the city walls and is stoned to death. He is the first Christian martyr.
The mission to the Gentiles: 1st century AD
One of the witnesses of Stephen’s violent death, bestowing on it his full approval, is a keen upholder of Jewish orthodoxy – Saul of Tarsus. More familiar now as St Paul, he becomes after a dramatic conversion the first great Christian missionary.
He introduces to Christianity one startling new element, as he travels through Turkey and Greece. The early Christians are all Jews. But Paul now begins to convert people of non-Jewish descent – known collectively as Gentiles.
Gentile converts to Christianity face one very real problem. They are joining a Jewish sect, and to be Jewish involves circumcision – an unappealing rite of initiation for any adult male convert.
Their dilemma poses, in an oblique way, a crucial doctrinal question: is the new religion to be just for Jews or for everyone? The issue is discussed at a gathering of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem in about the year 50.
Both Peter and Paul are in favour of relaxing the requirements for Gentiles, and their arguments carry the day. It is agreed that circumcision and the full Jewish dietary restrictions are not compulsory for Christians. A letter to this effect is sent to all Gentile Christians.
When it is read out aloud to each assembled community, the Gentiles ‘rejoice for the consolation’. It is a turning point for the growing church.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul: AD c.62-64
Early Christian tradition states that both Paul and Peter meet their deaths in Rome during the 60s, becoming the two saints most associated with the city. Paul may have been executed as a result of the charges laid against him, since Luke says that he lived in Rome for two years – till about 62.
But if Peter comes to Rome and is martyred there, upside down on a cross as tradition states, it is more likely that he is a victim of the first persecution of the Christians, carried out by Nero after the fire of Rome in 64. This traditional link between St Peter and Rome underpins the subsequent status of the papacy.
The spread of Christianity: 1st – 3rd century AD
It is significant that Christians are now sufficiently numerous in the capital of the empire to attract persecution. Only about forty years have passed since the reported death and resurrection of Jesus.
During that time missionaries for the new faith, among them Paul, have been carrying the message along the well-worn trading routes of the Roman empire. They repeat to each new audience the sayings and miracles of Jesus, in an oral tradition which will soon be captured in written form as the Gospels. And among the everyday bustle and traffic of the empire, this ‘good news’ continues to spread.
The early Christians are intensely aware of being different from others. Like the Jews, they are chosen. The fourth pope, St Clement, writes in about AD 100: ‘God chose our Lord Jesus Christ, and us through him to be a special people.’ They are a tight and supportive group. Indeed the charity given to poorer members is part of their appeal. An early Christian writer, Tertullian, claims that pagans often make the comment ‘See how these Christians love one another’.
But most of the comments from Roman writers, heard from early in the 2nd century onwards, are Decidedly hostile.
As a group inclined to secrecy, for fear of attracting hostility, the first Christians leave little physical trace of themselves. Indeed what traces they have left are mainly hidden signs. A mysterious arrangement of letters, the ROTAS square, suggests that there are already Christians in Pompeii when disaster strikes in AD 79. And the fish, in its Greek form of ichthys, is another treasured secret.
But if the early spread of the faith is largely invisible, its success can be judged by the extensive structure of authority which the church has in place by the 3rd century.
A widespread church: 3rd century AD
By the mid-3rd century there are about 100 bishops spread throughout Italy, each in his own see. The most important see is Rome, for which precise figures survive.
In the year 251 the church in Rome has on its books the bishop (in other words the pope), 46 priests, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, 52 exorcists, readers and doorkeepers, and the very large number of 1500 widows and paupers being ‘fed by the grace and kindness of the Lord’.
There are flourishing sees, too, in other parts of the empire. Carthage, famous already in Christian circles as the home of the writer Tertullian, now has another distinguished Christian author in a position of prominence; Cyprian, a convert in about 246 from a rich pagan family, is chosen to be bishop of Carthage in 249. He dies for his faith in 258, half a century after Carthage’s most poignant pair of early martyrs – Perpetua and Felicity.
Alexandria is another important see in north Africa. It too produces an important early theologian and biblical scholar, Origen.
In Europe, Lyons is a major centre from early times. The Christians of Lyons feature in history sooner than most because they are savagely persecuted (the precise reason is not clear) in 177 by Marcus Aurelius, who orders them to be tortured to death.
Even Britain, further removed from both the Christian and imperial centres of power, is becoming organized by the middle of the 3rd century. When a council at Arles is called, in 314, three British bishops attend – one from London, another from York, and the third either from Colchester or Lincoln.
Christian murals: 3rd century AD
By the 3rd century the Christians are also leaving extensive physical evidence, not only of their presence but also of their ideas and practices. One example is in the eastern extremity of the empire, at Doura-Europos. Here there has been unearthed the earliest known house adapted for Christian worship.
The building, a simple one from the 1st century AD, is adapted for Christian use in 232. Only fragments of the murals survive, but they include such Gospel images as Christ carrying a sheep (the Good Shepherd), the paralytic taking up his bed and walking, and St Peter walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee.
More detailed evidence of Christian ritual survives in Rome’s famous catacombs. These are underground burial chambers, used by members of the various communities of the capital – pagan Romans as well as Jews and Christians.
In the first half of the 3rd century the Christians decorate the walls of their tomb chambers with New Testament scenes and with depictions of the Eucharist, the ritual communal meal at the centre of the faith. Members of the Christian community are shown sitting round a table together to break bread, and to share their food and drink, much like later Christian representations of the Last Supper.
A persecuted sect: AD 64-303
Persecution has been an intermittent danger to Christians ever since Nero and the fire of Rome in 64. Later it often occurs without warning in localized areas – Lyons in 177, or Carthage in 203. But it is never a policy of state until the mid-3rd century, when the emperor Decius – attempting to restore to the crumbling Roman state something of its earlier confidence – decrees that everyone shall publicly sacrifice to the Roman gods.
This represents a major threat to the Christian communities. The edict costs them many of their best leaders (the bishops of Rome, Antioch and Jerusalem are martyred for refusing to comply), while morale is equally eroded by the example of those who cave in to this pagan demand.
A few years later the emperor Valerian intensifies this policy of persecution, outlawing any assembly of Christians for worship and executing many bishops and senior clergy. In 258 another pope is martyred; so is Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage.
But Gallienus restores religious toleration in 260. For nearly half a century the church enjoys a period of calm in which it can grow in strength and in numbers. The calm is shattered in 303.
From persecution to imperial preference: AD 303-324
The emperor Diocletian, tolerant of Christians for almost twenty years after coming to power in 284, suddenly decrees in 303 that all churches are to be destroyed, all sacred texts and precious liturgical vessels confiscated, and meetings for worship forbidden. It is the beginning of a brief period known in Christian history as the Great Persecution.
The story goes that an immediate cause is the failure of the Roman soothsayers, at a solemn ritual in the emperor’s presence, to find any of the usual signs in the entrails of the sacrificed animals. They claim, in their own defence, that some Christians secretly made the sign of the cross during the ceremony – with inauspicious consequences.
More probably the reason is a belief, fuelled by Diocletian’s energetically pagan co-emperor Galerius, that the traditional virtues of Rome are threatened by Christianity. The persecution escalates later in 303 with the arrest of all Christian clergy (the prisons cannot accomodate them, and many are released). In 304 all citizens of the empire are ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods on pain of death.
The persecution is only carried out consistently in the east, where Diocletian and Galerius rule. In Spain, Gaul and Britain, ruled by Constantius, no Christian is executed. And soon, with Constantine (the son of Constantius), the pendulum swings decisively in favour of the Christians.
Battle of the Milvian Bridge: AD 312
A mysterious decision by Constantine in October 312 can be seen now as one of the great turning points of history. He is camped just north of Rome, about to do battle with his rival for control of the western empire. He decides that his men shall wear on their shields a Christian symbol – the monogram known as the Chi-Rho, formed from the first two Greek letters of the word Christ.
Constantine wins the battle of the Milvian Bridge. His rival dies fleeing back over the Tiber when a bridge of boats collapses. In Constantine’s mind he has won this crucial engagement in alliance with the god of the Christians. The results are dramatic.
Formally acknowledged by the senate as the Augustus of the west, Constantine immediately takes steps to favour the persecuted Christians. He restores confiscated church property and offers public funds to churches in need. In AD 313 he arranges a meeting in Milan with Licinius, one of two claimants to the title of Augustus in the east. He persuades him to follow the same policy.
Later in that year Licinius defeats his rival in the east. He too now proclaims a policy of religious toleration, offering compensation to the Christians for the wrongs done to them.
Within a year or two of suffering severe persecution, the Christians suddenly find themselves a favoured group within the empire. They win tax concessions, and Roman basilicas are constructed for their use as churches. There are career advantages within Constantine’s administration if one is a professing Christian. Conversions follow.
But Licinius is less fully committed to the cause. In 320 he reverts to a mild persecution, dismissing Christians from the army and the civil service. Constantine marches against him, in 324, and again the Christian banner is victorious. Licinius surrenders after a defeat near Byzantium. A year later he is executed on a charge of attempted rebellion.
The first churches: AD 312-337
Concrete evidence of the new status of Christianity is seen in the emergence of the first church buildings. The change is most visible in Rome, the strongest Christian community. Until now, in spite of the size of the congregation of Christians in Rome, worship has been conducted discreetly in private houses. Suddenly churches become public buildings, city landmarks as prominent as the temples of the pagan cult.
Some of the churches evolve from the private houses already in use for worship; one such example is SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome. Others in the capital city are new and more striking foundations.
Constantine establishes three important churches in Rome. One, intended to be the city’s cathedral, is sited immediately beside his own Lateran palace – already presented to the Christians as a residence for the pope. This church is St John Lateran.
The other two churches of Constantine in Rome are built in honour of the city’s two martyrs, Peter and Paul, on the supposed sites of their graves. One is outside the old city and is called S. Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls). The other, in the Vatican, is St Peter’s. Both have since been rebuilt.
A new Rome: AD 330
Constantine, now in firm command of the entire Roman empire (the first man for a long while to be in that position), is planning another initiative as significant as his adoption of Christianity. Immediately after the defeat of Licinius he sets about rebuilding Byzantium as a Christian capital city – one in which pagan sacrifice, the central rite of imperial Rome until this time, is specifically forbidden.
The city is ready by AD 330 for a ceremony of inauguration. Byzantium acquires two new names – New Rome and Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The Roman empire, within eighteen years of Constantine’s first victory, has a new religion, a new centre of gravity and a significant change of culture.
Carthage and Donatus: AD 313-316
With the reckless enthusiasm of a convert, Constantine flings himself from the start into the various controversies dividing the Christian church.
The first issue, confronting him as soon as he wins power, has more to do with ecclesiastical politics than with heresy. The church in Carthage is squabbling over who shall be its bishop. A puritanical faction claims that the official nominee was a collaborator with the Roman authorities during the persecution of AD 303. They propose in his place a cleric by the name of Donatus, and in 313 they appeal to Constantine.
Constantine asks the pope in Rome and three bishops to look into the matter. They find against Donatus, whose followers appeal against the verdict. The emperor, wishing to appear open-minded, summons more than 300 bishops to Arles to consider the case. They too find against Donatus. In 316 the Donatists appeal directly to Constantine himself. He upholds the finding and orders that Donatist priests be removed from their churches.
Persecution provides martyrs and martyrs nourish sects; the Donatists will remain a thorn in the side of the north African church for the next three centuries. But Constantine has acquired a dislike of dissent. And soon he is confronted with a far more disruptive schism in Alexandria.
Alexandria and Arius: AD 323-325
The heresy associated with the name of Arius, a priest in Alexandria, is the most significant in the history of Christianity. It concerns the mystery at the very heart of the religion – the Trinity.
The problem for the early church has been that the Gospels talk of God and of Jesus (who describes God as his Father) and, more occasionally, of the Holy Spirit. But they do not explain how they relate to one another. All three seem to be divine, and yet – as a sect of monotheistic Judaism – early Christians know for sure that they worship only one God. How can this be? The concept of the Trinity, three in one and one in three, gradually emerges as the best answer. But it begs many questions.
Only if the three are equal can they be aspects of one god. Yet if God creates Jesus, he clearly has some sort of priority. On the other hand if God does not create Jesus, he can hardly be his Father. This is the problem which concerns Arius, who asks in particular whether there was ever a time when God existed but Jesus, as yet, did not. He concludes that there was such a time (‘there was when he was not’). Jesus is therefore less than fully divine.
Even so, Arius agrees that it is right to worship Jesus. This reopens the door to polytheism, and in 323 the bishop of Alexandria dismisses his troublesome priest. The dispute rapidly escalates. In 325 Constantine intervenes, summoning a council at Nicaea.
Nicaea and orthodoxy: AD 325
More than 200 bishops, mainly from the eastern parts of the empire, arrive at Nicaea for the council. They meet in Constantine’s palace, and the emperor himself presides over many of the discussions. His authority is purely political; though an undoubted supporter of Christianity, he has not yet been baptized.
The alarming presence of the emperor helps the bishops to reach a conclusion more emphatic than is justified by the range of their opinions. The crack opened wide by Arius seems to be firmly closed when it is announced at Nicaea that the Father and the Son are of the same substance (homo-ousios in Greek).
The doctrine that Jesus Christ is ‘of one substance with the Father’ features in the Nicene Creed – the statement of belief agreed at Nicaea which eventually becomes the shared faith of nearly all Christian denominations. It specifically denies the doctrine of Arius, who, along with many of his supporters, is sent into exile from Nicaea. For good measure the council adds a resounding list of Arian ideas which are anathema.
But heresy is not so easily stamped out, particularly on such a perplexing matter. The bishops at Nicaea would be astonished to learn of the future spread of Arianism, carried improbably far and wide by Germanic tribesmen and remaining an affront to the orthodox for another three centuries.
The Nicaean bishops would also be surprised to know how assertive one of their own kind would be, in relation to a Roman emperor, before the end of the century. In 325 imperial support for Christianity is still a new and somewhat improbable privilege, not much more than ten years old. Moreover the powerful ruler who gave it, and who could equally well take it away, is among them at Nicaea. It would take a very bold bishop openly to criticize the emperor Constantine.
And it still takes a very bold bishop, sixty-five years later, to criticize the emperor Theodosius – a strong ruler who uses the power of the state to impose Christian orthodoxy, after a period of pagan revival and persistent heresy.