The birth of Christianity: How a Jewish carpenter's son became a subversive threat to Roman rule
Saturday 14 February 2009
In the midst of this hurricane of indulgence, exploitation and violence there was a miraculous moment of calm. As if it were the eye of the imperial storm, almost exactly halfway through Rome's dominance of the Mediterranean world, a son was born to a Jewish carpenter and his wife in a place called Bethlehem, a town situated just south of Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.
Like the Buddha some 500 years before, Jesus was an enlightened charismatic who made a virtue out of poverty and lectured on the benefits of non-violence. His message was simple: be peaceful; love your neighbour as yourself; if someone strikes you on one cheek do not hit back but offer them the other; do not worship false idols such as money or material possessions; and, above all, be humble – for one day the meek will inherit the earth.
Jesus' followers saw him perform miracles and came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God as prophesied by Isaiah and others in the Jewish Torah. One of the most deeply held Jewish beliefs was that, at the time of the covenants between God, Abraham and Moses, the Israelites were identified as God's chosen people. Yet here was a man whose followers claimed he was King of the Jews and who offered the prospect of eternal salvation to anyone who believed in him, regardless of their colour, race or creed.
Jesus was given over to the Roman governor of the province of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, as a heretic, and, despite Pilate's misgivings, he was condemned to die on a cross like a common criminal. His body mysteriously disappeared three days after being incarcerated in a tomb and his disciples began to see visions of him. They wrote about these miraculous events, which they called the Resurrection, and believed it was their divine mission to spread the good news about the son of God coming down to Earth and dying on a cross so that everyone who believed in him might have everlasting life. They set about establishing a Church in his name. The early Christian Church developed a huge popular following because it filled a spiritual vacuum inherent in the materialistic, brutal and unequal society of the Roman Empire. Its main appeal was to non-Jewish poor people, women and slaves. Everyday life in the Roman Empire was proof enough for these people that the pantheon of Greek/Roman gods had nothing much to offer in terms of spiritual nourishment or hope for the future. The idea that the son of God came to free them and offer them eternal salvation in his Kingdom of Heaven sounded a lot more promising.
Another community attracted towards Jesus's teaching were those keen to establish a new hierarchy to resist the seemingly infinite power of Roman society. Greek thinkers who followed the idea of a universal force of nature first put forward by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle found the concept of a single universal God who was open to all people rather compelling. The biggest problem for them was how to reconcile this all-pervasive divine force with a carpenter's son from Galilee whose followers claimed he was the incarnation of God.
The problem wasn't finally settled until after Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire by the Emperor Galerius in 311CE in a desperate bid to contain the increasing threat the new religion posed to Rome's imperial authority. In the end the idea of a Trinity provided the answer. It combined the Jewish God of the Old Testament as the Father, with the person of Jesus Christ as his Son, and the divine platonic or natural force pervading all things as the Holy Spirit.
The idea of the Trinity still marks out Christianity as distinct from other religions. This doctrine was finally ratified and codified into an official creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325CE, under the auspices of the first truly Christian Roman Emperor Constantine – who is said to have converted before the Battle of Milvian Bridge (in which he defeated his rival Maxentius) in 312CE .
In 330CE, Constantine established a new capital for the eastern portion of the Empire which became known as Constantinople (now Istanbul). Here he promoted Christianity by building churches and he forbade pagan temples. Despite this, most of his imperial staff remained pagans, showing that whatever his own beliefs, Constantine was a tolerant ruler.
But Roman religious understanding was not to last long. One of this empire's final legacies was to throw out all notions of religious freedom and instead adopt Christianity as a compulsory state dictat. This act, sanctioned by Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379CE–395CE), turned the brief light of toleration into a fury of indignation against all non-Christian faiths. Under the influence of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Theodosius outlawed all variations of the Christian faith except for the Trinitarian beliefs set down in the Nicene Creed. Bishops who disagreed were expelled, many of them fled to the more tolerant Sassanid regime in Persia. Traditional Graeco-Roman paganism was outlawed too. The eternal flame in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins disbanded. In their place came the Christian world's first law against witchcraft. Finally, in 393CE, Theodosius abolished the highly cherished Olympic Games, since, he claimed, they were a relic of the pagan past.
The Roman Empire finally collapsed due to a variety of destabilising forces – including invasions by Germanic tribes, the arrival of the Huns from the Mongolian steppes and resistance by the early Christians. Historians usually date its fall to 476CE when the Germanic chieftain Odoacer deposed the last Emperor of the Western Empire, Romulus Augustus.
What made Roman civilisation so remarkable in the classical world was its ability to survive so long, despite its addiction to a constant pump of economic growth needed to feed the appetites of its ruling class. It ruthlessly suppressed the poor by enlisting them as soldiers, or as slave labourers for its engineering projects. It controlled its huge populations through mass-entertainment programmes and propaganda. It exploited the Earth's natural resources when further military expansion proved impossible, and it hijacked a minority religious sect to incorporate a new state religion with a fierce intolerance for anything its leaders deemed as heresy.
Such tactics became powerful templates for the future. They were subject to repeated reincarnation in various guises, initially across the fractious lands of Europe and the arid deserts of the Middle East, but later throughout the entire world. Thanks to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the relationship between human civilisations and the nature lurched into a new phase that helped set the stage for the beginning of the modern world.
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