HIST 101 Lecture Outline (Spring 2023 – Week 8)

HIST 101

Week 8

The Rise of Christianity in a Roman World, 40 BCE – 300 CE



From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, Part 1 of 2 (Frontline PBS, 1998, 1:49:42 hrs; start at 4:30 min.):



Cultures, pp. 223-243 (The vitality of Roman religion; the Jesus mystery; a crisis in tradition; ministry and movement; what happened to his disciples?)

Roman religion:

The deification of Roman rulers began with the Senate’s deification of Julius Caesar after his assassination in 44 BCE, and Augustus’s dedication (in 29 BCE) of a temple in his honor at the east end of the Forum, on the site of Caesar’s funeral pyre. During the following 300 years, almost half of the state temples were dedicated to deified emperors. Among them was the Pantheon, built by Hadrian in honor of “all gods,” including deified emperors (exteriorinterior in 18Cinterior today).

The Roman state religion adopted new gods and new religious practices from other cultures, including the “mystery” or salvation religions that worshiped Cybele, the “Great Mother” (Magna Mater), from Asia Minor (Anatolia); Isis, from Egypt; Mithras, possibly from Persia; and Sol Invictus (the  “Unconquered Sun”), possibly from Syria. Some of the  new cults (veneration of individual deities or sacred persons, such as the cult of Isis, or the cult of Mithras) also produced spiritual or ethical texts, not merely collections of rote prayers or rituals.

The origins of Christianity

The main source for the life of Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE to c. 30 CE) and the activities of his earliest followers is the New Testament, which contains 27 books, all written in Greek between 50 and 140 CE:

50-58  CE    7 authentic Epistles (letters) of Paul
68-95           4 Gospels, traditionally attributed to Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John
70-100         12 later Epistles, traditionally attributed to Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John
80-85           Acts of the Apostles, traditionally attributed to Luke
92-96           Revelation (or Apocalypse), traditionally attributed to John
120-140       2 final Epistles, traditionally attributed to John and Peter

Jesus and his close circle of followers lived their lives as observant Jews in a Judaea that was ruled in part by a dynasty of Hellenized Jewish puppet-kings (the Herodians), but controlled by Rome. The Herodian kings, who were detested by the people, associated themselves with the hereditary Temple priests and their political allies, an aristocratic party or sect called the Sadducees, who supported Temple ritual and the literal reading of scripture. Their main political opponents were a party or sect called the Pharisees, who were commoners, supporters of rabbinical law and “oral Torah” commentaries, and believed in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and the coming of the Messiah, who would restore the freedom of the Jewish people.  A third sect, the Essenes, lived in isolated groups, led ascetic lives, and believed that the apocalyptic end of the world was imminent.

Judaea was a political tinderbox, and the Romans were edgy. An itinerant Jewish preacher, John the Baptist, prophesied the coming of the Messiah, urged people to repent, and performed baptisms as a sign of spiritual rebirth. After John was arrested and executed by one of the Herodian kings c. 27 CE, his followers turned to Jesus of Nazareth, who began a public ministry of preaching and miraculous healings, assisted by a group of twelve companions called his Apostles or Disciples. In his teaching and preaching, which emphasized love over ritual observance, Jesus antagonized both the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and he embraced the designation of messiah, the earthly savior foretold in the Hebrew Bible, and also claimed the title of “son of God.” This alarmed both many Jews and the harsh Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. The Jews accused Jesus of blasphemy; Pilate had him crucified (c. 27-30 CE) as a dangerous criminal who had claimed to be the “king of the Jews.”

Jesus’s companions and followers fled into hiding, but three days later began to proclaim his resurrection from the dead, and his apostles, led by Peter, who had been designated to lead by Jesus before his crucifixion, began to preach Jesus’s message. They were joined sometime later by Saul, who had been a zealous persecutor of the Jesus movement.  Saul was a Jew and Roman citizen from Tarsus in Anatolia who had studied in Jerusalem with the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. Sent by the high priest to Damascus to track down followers of Jesus, Saul had a dramatic vision of Jesus (whom he had never seen in person), and thereafter became a passionate apostle and missionary, changing his  name to Paul, and helping to broaden the apostles’ evangelism to include gentiles as well as Jews. Seven letters (“epistles“) written in Greek by Paul between 50 and 58 CE to various Christian communities, are the earliest-written portions of the New Testament. Both Peter and Paul were executed in Rome in the 60s CE. (In 2006 archaeologists tentatively identified a tomb in the 4th-century Roman church of San Paolo fuori le mura as Paul’s tomb.)



From Jesus to Christ: part 2 of 2 (Frontline PBS, 1998, 1:51:24 hrs):



Cultures, pp. 243-253 (Christianities everywhere; Romans in pursuit; philosophical foundations: Stoicism and Neoplatonism)

Sources, pp. 106-118 (Josephus, The Jewish War; Pliny the Younger, Letters; Celsus, “Against the Christians,” and Origen, “Against Celsus;” the Nicene Creed; Minucius Felix, refutations of charge that Christians are cannibals; the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas; St. Augustine of Hippo, on the Gospel of John)

Before the Great Revolt (66-73 CE), and after:

By the 50s CE Paul was writing, in Greek, to Christian communities in Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor (Anatolia). Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome in 64 CE indicates that by then the Romans no longer considered the Christians to be Jews, who were exempt from worshiping the Roman state gods. After the Great Revolt of the Jews in Judaea against the Roman empire, the divide grew between the followers of Jesus and the Jews. The four Gospels, all written in Greek after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Mark, c. 70-73; Matthew and Luke, c. 80-90; John, c. 90-95), reflect this widening divide in their increasingly harsh  references to the Jews. For example, in Matthew (3.7-9), John the Baptist addresses the Sadducees and Pharisees as “You brood of vipers!” and in John (8.42-44), Jesus says to the Jewish leaders: “You are from your father the devil.”

Stoicism and Neoplatonism:

The philosophies of Stoicism and Neoplatonism flourished in the Roman empire, and were influential in many of the “mystery” religions and in  early Christianity. Stoicism emphasized the importance of self-discipline, service to the community, and calm acceptance of one’s fate. Neoplatonism, deriving from the teachings of Plato and his students, saw everything in the material world as imperfect versions that emanated from the ideal versions in the heavens. Influential Neoplatonists included the Delphic priest and historian Plutarch (46-120 CE), whose works included a collection of essays on ethical matters (Moralia); and the early Christian theologian Origen (185-254 CE) and his younger, pagan contemporary Plotinus (204-270 CE), who saw souls as migrating out to the physical world from a divine center, and then returning to it, purified.


Primary sources:

Josephus (37-c. 100 CE), The Jewish War (c. 75 CE):  Josephus was a senior Jewish officer at the beginning of the Great Revolt, but surrendered in 67 to  the Roman general, Vespasian, who the next year became emperor. Josephus then served as a translator for Vespasian’s son Titus (who led the Roman forces in Judaea after his father’s return to Rome), and later wrote a book about it all. Here he describes the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the famine within the city, the burning of the Temple, the fall of the city to the Romans, and the huge number of residents and refugees killed there.

Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE), Letters: Writes to Tacitus to describe his uncle’s death during the eruption of Vesuvius (which buried Herculaneum and Pompeiisome dead); writes to Trajan to describe his  handling of trials of Christians, and to report what he has learned about the Christian faith and its spread. (This is the first known pagan discussion of Christianity.)

Celsus (2nd cent. CE), Against the Christians:  The Greek philosopher Celsus’s arguments survive because the Christian theologian Origen (c. 184-c. 253) quoted them (in Against Celsus) in order to refute them. Celsus’s accusations included: Jesus and his followers used sorcery; Jesus invented the story of his birth to a virgin; Jesus’s mother was denounced by her husband for her adultery; Jesus learned sorcery while working as a servant in Egypt, and then returned to Judaea and proclaimed himself a god; unlike other mystery cults, which invite only those of just and upright and unpolluted life to enter and participate, the Christians invite sinners to join them; Jesus claimed to be the son of God, but his god did nothing to save Jesus from crucifixion, whereas the Greco-Roman gods would surely punish anyone who insulted them.

The Nicene Creed: Two versions (original and later). The original version was issued in 325 CE by the Council of Nicaea to refute the widespread Arian heresy (promoted by a priest called Arius) that the Trinity was hierarchical, and not co-equal, consubstantial, and co-eternal. It was later updated to reflect doctrinal decisions on further issues.

Minucius Felix (2nd cent. CE), Octavius: Denies the charge by pagans that Christians sacrifice babies, and says that the Romans themselves kill unwanted infants, commit abortion, sacrifice humans to their gods, eat sacrificial animals which themselves had eaten humans, and even prescribe the drinking of human blood as a treatment for epilepsy. Also denies the pagan charge that Christians engage in incestuous orgies, and says that they are virtuous when it comes to sex, and valorize celibacy, and that it is the Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and the Romans themselves who commit incest, as do their gods.

Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (text of c. late 1st to early 2nd cent. CE, from manuscript fragments 0f 130-250 CE in Greek):  A non-canonical gospel,  which survives in full in an Egyptian manuscript written in Coptic c. 340 CE. It consists of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, and says that his disciple Thomas wrote them down. Although almost two-thirds of these sayings are also in the canonical gospels (MarkMatthewLuke, and John), the Gospel of Thomas was condemned as unorthodox and apocryphal by a number of early Christian theologians, including Origen.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), sermon on the first epistle of John and the importance of love:  Augustine was a celebrated preacher as well as the early church’s greatest theologian. Here Augustine says that, while no one can always be praising God aloud, everyone can praise God constantly by living a life of charity, piety, chastity, and sobriety, but that the most important thing is to live in love.