My Early Christianity Journey: The Starting Point

20 Nov

WARNING! Everything in this post may be wrong!!!
(I just want to be clear)

This post, or at least the inspiration for it, started while I was on campus for an immigration seminar a few weeks ago. The 25 or so of us in the room were unaware that both the time and location for the seminar had been moved, very likely because it had never been announced (I was later told there were six people at the actual seminar — I wonder why). While waiting I began thinking of how I was going to be reading on Christianity and before we began talking among ourselves about whether this was going to happen (even a sign on the door of the room would have fixed this situation) I jotted down a few notes about what I thought of Christianity and its evolution.

I was just looking at these (during a bout of early morning insomnia so I suppose that should get some credit as well) and thought it would be interesting to save them so I could look at them a few months or even a couple of years from now and see how my thinking has progressed. But handwritten notes sometimes disappear when I go into one of my housecleaning frenzies (these typically take place about twice a year) and while I could type them into a word processor document, where’s the fun in that? So I figured if I posted things here I’d a) have a record and b) not be able to weasel out of realizing what massive misconceptions I once had.

Now I’ve read a bit on Christianity. It wasn’t too long after I began this Medieval thing that I figured out I’d have to know something about it to have a clue about what was going on. I have a decent number of primary sources but need a bunch more. So I’m not completely clueless. But I have a feeling that quite a bit of what I know ain’t so.

Is it smart to post about your ignorance? I have no idea, but I’m about to do it. Usually I try to be careful about being able to support, with evidence (or at least by referring to something someone promotes as evidence), what I post. This will not be the case here. I have books on my shelves, which I have already read, where I’ve forgotten much of the content and I have deliberately avoided consulting any of these in writing this post, to the point of, for example, not looking up the date of Constantine’s developing a dual Christian/Pagan prayer for use by the Roman Army. Anyway, here are some thoughts I have as of now, November 2011, before I begin reading the 37 books on Early Christianity on my bookshelf, along with however many more I end up buying. I’m going to concentrate on characteristics of certain periods and some watershed moments. And I’m going to write as if these are cast-in-the-wall-I-believe-them truths even though I don’t generally write that way even about stuff (medieval stuff anyway) I’m much more familiar with. And some of them are concepts I’ve not seen elsewhere, such as Constantine’s Pagan background and its impact on the conversion of Christianity to a religion which placed much greater importance on space than it had previously — these ideas are beyond tenuous right now. I suppose I should add a second warning that this will be long.

Also, I intend to make no reference whatsoever to my personal belief system. This is unimportant (though as with anyone, my personal biases will inevitably color my perspective). If I want to discuss my beliefs, I will do so with people much closer to I than those reading this blog, regardless of how highly I regard many of you. I don’t think I’ve ever deleted a constructive comment (to date my deletions have been if the poster is linked to something like getviagraonlinedotcom). However if someone posts a comment which wants to take this in a “religion is a crock” or “Christianity is evil” or “Only God can save us” direction I will delete it as soon as I see it. This will not be about modern spirituality. I suggest, if you really want to talk about this, find some close friends and sit down and have a conversation. This will hold for any such comments anywhere, not just in this post. I’m not going there and neither is this blog.

I’m plugging a bunch of internal anchors/links into this so when I return to this some months from now I can find what I put where. There are a lot of them because I have a lot of concepts in this. I think it will read better if you ignore them the first time you read this. Besides, they give a false impression that you can divide concepts and examine them independent of each other, which you can’t. Also, as you begin reading please feel free to open a comment box and add other areas you think I’m missing and need to look at. I know I don’t know much about this and would love input from those of you who are knowledgeable. Just be warned – if what you post gets me looking closely at something you’ll get the blame/credit in my followups! Enough babbling — let’s get to it.

The Church before the 4th Century

Early Church and Space

Early Christians as Philosophers

Constantine’s Conversion

Issues Initially Facing a Divided Church

Enforcing Orthodoxy

Constantine and His Impact on the Church and Space

The Influence of Julian

Ecumenical Councils

Monasticism and Asceticism

The Development of Hagiography

The Merovingians

Eastern Developments


Prior to 300 the Church, starting out as an underground sect of a minority religion, was a collection of fairly loosely organized, related groups geographically located primarily in urban clusters throughout the Empire. While most of these clusters did communicate with one another, the lack of any sort of rigid social structure and hierarchy meant that Christian worship looked very different from one place to another, a situation which would cause a great deal of conflict later.

Christianity was not at all vested in locations of worship. In fact, one of the defining characteristics, testified to by early writers, including the Bible, was how, in contrast to paganism, Christianity was not vested in things and places. Things and places were neither worshiped nor revered where paganism had various items and temples which were considered holy. Christianity was vested in its people. A church was its congregation, a brotherhood of members. Place mattered little and much, likely most, worship took place in members’ homes, quite often among groups but frequently in private ritual. Of all objects of reverence(this term presents difficulties here), other than Christ and the Apostles, the most significant were the martyrs, people. Of course Christ was the ultimate martyr but many others followed during the various persecutions and conflicts. However even here, initially, martyrs (other than Christ, his disciples and Paul) were not revered in the same manner as later became common for saints, but as figures of honor who had paid the ultimate price as defenders of the faith. The evolution of martyrology will be an interesting concept to explore.

During the first three centuries AD most of the leading Christian minds were philosophers. Christianity appears to have been another philosophical branch which averred that the true deity responsible for the world was Christ and the Christian God. Those involved in these debates were individuals with a strong philosophical background, quite frequently trained rhetors. The arguments for Christianity, along with, for example, arguments for Platonism were conducted in a logical, reasoned, enthusiastic manner. Clearly these arguments were strong as a substantial minority of the population of the Empire (nobody can put a figure on that beyond an educated guess but around 15-20% is the figure that most appeals to me right now) was Christian by the beginning of the 4th century.

Constantine’s “conversion” initiated a chain of events which resulted in massive change. I’ll take a moment to speak of Constantine himself. While Eusebius paints him as a model of Orthodoxy (whenever I use Orthodoxy I’m going to use it in the context of whatever became the official belief or practice of the Church, or was at that time) many of his actions indicate otherwise. Constantine came from a Pagan background, which I think helped influence many of the subsequent characteristics of Christianity. I’ll cover some of them below. However, for example, the Arch of Constantine, commissioned in 315, three years after Milvian Bridge, contains no Christian symbology but includes references to Pagan Gods. Later (I’m blank on the year — early 320’s I believe) he instituted a new army prayer which would be perfectly acceptable to Pagans and Christians. He favored Christianity but he was quite tolerant and many of the doctrinal struggles which took place during the two decades following Milvian Bridge were areas where my impression has been that he likely thought, “What’s the fuss/big deal with this?” In particular this seems true for Arianism.

Because of the Church’s initial loose structure, entire segments of Christianity were virtually their own Church and followed different doctrinal beliefs. These belief differences were quite often in only one or two areas but these were often critical, such as regarding the nature of Christ. Manichee/dualism sects which adopted Christ as a central spiritual figure (typically later than this period but I wanted to plug it in here anyway) exhibited even more profound differences, for example, to drastically oversimplify things, having the world of matter being evil and created by a being which, if not precisely the devil, was at the very least not a benevolent God.

To me, Arianism and Donatism, and possibly the Coptic Church in Alexandria, at the time of Constantine’s conversion were already vibrant, functioning, nearly independent Churches. I do not believe that Arius himself created Arianism or that he was anything more than the foremost among a large number of adherents who had been in place for some time. Donatism may have been a bit younger, though I’m not certain of that, but even if this group had developed in response to Diocletian, their stricter, more rigorous system basically had become the North African Church by Milvian Bridge.

The result of this was a period of substantial, sometimes violent conflict of enforcing Orthodoxy. The Nicaean supporters were most numerous and eventually their beliefs became accepted as Orthodox however there were a LOT of people who believed differently and it took a long time for this to be worked out. One of my major differences with a framework for teaching Christianity recently proposed by Walter Goffart is that while Early Christianity did have a period of significant violence, the bulk of this violence was not focused on the conversion of pagans but in enforcing Orthodoxy among heretical groups. This would change with Justinian but it wasn’t until that point that forced conversion of non-Christians became a sustained official government policy. Prior to that it was enforced Orthodoxy and even that went in fits and starts with some Arians as Emperor.

This leads me back to Constantine and some characteristics of Christianity which, if not directly attributable to him, were strongly influenced by him. Constantine and his mother strongly influenced the development of Christianity in several areas. Of course Constantine’s involvement in the development of doctrine created a precedent which came to be more important in the East than in the West. However I believe Constantine’s background as a Pagan influenced the transition of Christianity to a religion which placed a strong value on the identification of places as sacred. He instituted a program of building Christian places — monuments to Christ and the Christian God — something the religion had never had before. Helena’s discovery of the One True Cross and the building of a sacred placed infused with holiness due to the fragment, provided a major impetus to the practice of finding relics and designating places as sacred by building them as a place to house such items. In fact, for a period of time Churches couldn’t be consecrated without a relic. This also began the conversion of Christianity from a religion which was often practiced in private places using rituals which, while related to one another were not always identical, to one which was practiced largely in public spaces, under the auspices of an approved representative of the Church, and using a standardized set of rituals and symbols.

I should add that I don’t believe you can attribute all of the monument building to Constantine’s Pagan background. The Tetrarchy and Diocletian had been involved in a massive monument-building effort, much of it proclaiming the greatness of Rome and the Tetrarchy itself. Constantine was a direct heir to this and transferring this monument building to his new favorite religion cannot be attributed only to his religious background. I don’t know if it is possible to quantify which influence was greater — I suspect not — but I think both were in play.

Emperor Julian represented another watershed moment. To that point Paganism and Christianity had coexisted fairly peacefully. While some financial support for Paganism and Pagan rites had been withdrawn and even transferred to Christianity, Paganism was allowed to continue, generally without interference. Pagan temples and holy places were not actively destroyed but, if no longer used, allowed to decline. Julian’s ability to so disrupt Christianity in less than two years, and his restoration of Pagan places, showed Christian leaders a new danger. Following Julian’s death, while Paganism itself was allowed to continue relatively unhindered (for a couple of decades anyway, until Theodosius), the use of Pagan places, and in particular acceptance of abandoned shrines and temples, was not. Christians became much more aggressive in restricting Pagan use of spaces and either destroying or taking over abandoned places, particularly from the time of Theodosius. Paganism continued to be practiced for another couple of hundred years and Pagans continued to hold high office in the Empire at least through the early fifth century (to be honest I think we’ll be able to push this into the early sixth looking at some of Theoderic’s high officials in Ostrogothic Italy and individuals who appear to have been pagans such as Procopius in the East) but their lot had become much more difficult.

The Ecunemical Councils were important, in particular for working out doctrinal issues. Quite a bit of conflict occurred over matters of faith such as Mia/Monophysitism and issues such as the Three Chapters. As you read this you’ll see that this is a particular weak area of mine at the moment but conflicts such as occurred in Eastern cities such as Alexandria or Antioch often occurred due to doctrinal disagreement (though issues such as the primacy of Rome and the perception of heavy-handed “outsiders” likely had a lot to do with this). And the Three Chapters Controversy seems to have been more important than I once thought. NOTE: Schism and Church Councils are something I read a fair amount on and knew substantially more about at one time. Unfortunately much of this was before my note-taking phase and I’ve forgotten most of it. But the books are still here.

In the middle of all of this was the rise of monasticism and asceticism. I have this loosely held belief that this received a great deal of impetus with the suppression of the more rigorist North African Churches. As it was no longer acceptable for people to officially practice these stricter forms of worship, individuals and then later groups went off on their own. This is something I really want and need to explore — the rise of monasticism — and I have a bunch of books on it.

I’ve been fascinated by hagiography for a long time. Once Christianity became an approved religion, opportunities for martyrdom virtually ceased. To that point martyrs were considered to have achieved the pinnacle of earthly Christianity, as individuals who had displayed the “purest” demonstration of belief in giving up their lives, or at least withstanding torture, in defense of the faith. However opportunities to die for Christianity had virtually ended. Aspects of hagiography and a portion of the impetus for asceticism and monasticism rose from people continuing to want to suffer for their faith. The concept of the spiritual desert and bloodless monasticism seems to me to have evolved from this desire for martyrdom. Virginity, particularly female virginity, had always been prized among many ancient sects, including Paganism (Vestal Virgins anyone?), however this also became a portion of the “desert” where people could experience sexual martyrdom for their religion as well as the more traditional view of becoming a bride of Christ (these two motivations were interrelated).

Personally, I believe that hagiography was a merging of martyrology and panegyric. Hagiographical conventions adopted their general structure from panegyric and their motivation from martyrdom accounts. Of course while the structure came from panegyric, the content did not as panegyric generally took place while the subject was alive, or at the very least shortly after death, as for a funeral oration, while much hagiography involved people who had been dead for a significant period of time so they were less dependent on recounting events which could be at least somewhat verified. The Lives of Antony and Martin seem to have been extremely influential in the development of hagiographical conventions but I will likely discover more sources for this.

Moving later, the Merovingians actively worked to reduce the authority and power of the Church however without realizing it, their desire to similarly reduce the development of an entrenched aristocracy which might threaten the Royals served to strengthen the Church. The Merovingians insisted on approving ecclesiastical appointments and could overturn wills donating property to the Church. However they donated plenty of property themselves and provided grants of immunity which helped the Church become a powerful member of the landowning aristocracy in its own right, an aristocracy which the Carolingians would later partner with.

In the East, beginning in the 5th century the Patriarch of Constantinople began to assert more authority resulting in a later situation where the Patriarch almost seemed to be a co-Emperor. Note: There are so many components of this and other Christian developments in the East that I know I don’t know. For example, did the Roman tradition of mob influence as a component of rule have something to do with religious developments, and how much? How about the (likely) higher level of literacy in the East? Different social class structures? Threat and uncertainty in the wake of the Arab Conquests? So much I don’t know.

Justinian’s aggressive, violent, militant conversion of pagans in the sixth century spelled the effective end of paganism. This was the first extensive, long-lasting (there had been prior brief efforts which had never lasted very long) forced conversion and it had its impact.

As you can see from the above, I am certain there are things I believe right now that are quite wrong and there are areas, such as an in-depth knowledge of the impact of the various Church Councils, Eastern developments (I’m interested in the East but to date the bulk of my reading has been on the West) and the cause of and result of schism are, not quite nonexistent, but extremely thin. There’s also a place in here — somewhere — for a discussion of the transition where leading Christian authorities no longer came from a classical, philosophical background but I’m not sure this fits in its own category as this took place over a long period of time, gradually. I think it should instead be looked at from a perspective of how this influenced other developments. And if I started to write about the impact of all this on secular life and society I’d end up with 10,000 words.

If you’ve gotten this far and read the whole thing, I congratulate you on your endurance. I suspect that as I get into my reading I’ll pull bits and pieces from this to compare them to what I’m learning. This will likely be of interest to nobody but me but this is my blog and me is who it is for, first and foremost, so I won’t apologize for this. And as I’ve said before, I think this will be fun.


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7 responses to “My Early Christianity Journey: The Starting Point

  1. Lucas

    November 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    To give you a couple of quick answers to some of the eastern churches stuff: for the imperial church in the light of the late sixth and seventh century crises, take a look at the "Imperial Church" chapter in Haldon's 'Byzantium in the Seventh Century'. The whole book is a slow and tedious read, but immensely informative and very scholarly. What he basically argues is that following Justinian there existed a closer relationship between orthodoxy, law, and the success of the empire on earth. Since the emperor was God's vice-regent on earth and the power to make laws was vested in him, he could also interfere in church affairs. (It is from concepts such as this that the idea of Byzantine caesaropapism arises, although this idea has no credence anymore, as a quick skim through Byzantine history will reveal that the state never completely monopolized the church and sometimes the church fought back very effectively. Take a look at my 'Art History and Quadrigamy' post for an example of that.) The Roman world by this point still had not developed an effective division of authority between emperors and patriarchs, and conflicts broke out almost incessantly. Justin II, Maurikios, and Herakleios tried very hard to bring the eastern churches back into communion with Constantinople because it was tied directly into beliefs about the health of the empire. The Persian conquests and entry of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans challenged this worldview: we begin to see an increased interest in violently repressing "deviant" forms of Christianity and the assertion of imperial Christianity. God and the state became very closely tied together, and Herakleios' issue of a silver coin with DEUS ADIUTA ROMANIS (May God help the Romans) seems to perfectly reflect the desperate attitude brought on by these losses. These ideas are also reflected strongly in the documents preserved in the 'Chronicon Paschale': they were designed to read out from the ambo in the Hagia Sophia and proclaimed Christian victory in the east. Herakleios' wars against the Persians also seem to take a decidedly more religious tone, but whether this is on account of the distant source material tainted with Herakleian propaganda is a difficult question to answer. The real difficulty for the Romans came with the victory of Herakleios. That just vindicated their views on the relationship between God and the state, and these views would be challenged to even more desperate levels during the Arab Conquests. Iconoclasm is, I believe, entirely ted into the breakdown of these worldviews and challenge to imperial authority that the Muslims presented. It was an attempt to re-assert imperial control over the church and bring God's favour back on His Chosen People, the Romans. What made iconoclasm so controversial was that a number of the iconoclast emperors were spectacularly successful in the field: both Leo III and Constantine V had a number of military success on both fronts. This contributed to the return of iconoclasm in 813 after it had been overturned since 775. When one looks at those years, it is easy to see why iconoclasm could easily return: an empress who blinded her son ruled (and she was also militarily unsuccessful), an emperor had been killed in battle and his successor mortally wounded, and constant defeat by the Bulgars under Michael I. Regarding the mob rule, take a look at Jenkins' 'Jesus Wars'. It's popular history, but he writes a lively, readable, and accurate account (and the one aspect of his book that I know quite well from outside research is Nestorius, and he takes advantage of all the most recent scholarship on that topic) of the clash of the great patriarchates at the end of the empire. Some of his conclusions regarding the Arab conquests are bunk, but the whole of his book is excellent. Peter Brown also discussed the role of the mob in his 'Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity' briefly, but I'm guessing you've read that book.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    November 20, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Thank you Lucas. Briefly, I think we may be able to go back a bit further for the origin of Patriarchal involvement in governance though of course I need to read much more to become informed about the precise manner in which this evolved. I think a key moment may have come in 457 with the crowning of Leo by Anatolius (after being raised as emperor on soldiers' shields which is an interesting discussion in and of itself). This was a pretty good indicator that the Patriarch was going to play a larger role.As for how I'm going to be reading, I'm starting from the end of the 4th century which will involve Ambrose, Jerome, Symmachus, Libanius, Rufinus, etc., and work backwards. Once I get done with that I'm going to flip back forward to the early fifth and go East. That seems to be the point where we can effectively talk about two Empires again and it wasn't long after that when we can also talk about two churches. I've read a bunch on the West in the 5th-7th centuries (though the pickings are slim sometimes), only a little on the East though I have a decent number of the sources.So it may be a while, but I will get there.

  3. edmund

    November 21, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Hi Curt, I discovered your blog recently and am already a big fan.I'm starting to think seriously about pursuing some studies in this direction myself, even though historical Christianity and its development is such a huge and intimidating task. Some of the most interesting material I've read about Early Christianity so far has had to do with Christian-Jewish polemics and interaction. The process of distinguishing between Christianity and Judaism was a long and torturous one, and I think there's a lot to be learned about either itself by studying their historical interactions and struggles.In this regard, I'd recommend getting Robert Chazan's "Fashioning Jewish Identity" and reading the relevant bits (principally the first two chapters) as well as the first chapter of "Alienated Minority" by Kenneth Stow. At the very least, picking over the relevant chunks of these two works' bibliographies might be interesting. I also think, from the purely intellectual side of things, that you might want to study Neoplatonism (I know I do!). Though constituted at first as a response to Christianity and other Eastern mystery cults, some of its core precepts eventually came to be the basis for Catholic theology.Anyway, there's a bunch of unsolicited advice. I'll be keeping a careful eye on this project of yours, primarily for guidance in launching my own similar endeavor sometime soon. Thanks!

  4. Curt Emanuel

    November 21, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Edmund, thanks for your comment. One of the most interesting dynamics in Christianity from between about 80 and 130 or so AD when it came to grips that it was not going to be accepted by Judaism and was going to have to break out on its own. Paul certainly didn't get very far with his efforts though I suppose he at least kept being allowed to make his case.Edward Watts has a book on the Athenian School of Neoplatonism which I have my eye on. The Origen-Porphyry exchanges will be interesting to explore and that involved more than just the two of them (Iamblichus?) – I have Lactantius' Divine Institutes here somewhere.I always thought it was a shame all we have of Porphyry are fragments. I figure somewhere in all of that there's got to be someplace where he says, You gonna pay attention to Origen? The dude cut his own nuts off! How can you take advice from someone like that!I'll keep a look out for Chazan and Stow.I figure you're well past this Edmund but I'll throw it out for the benefit of anyone else who's reading. IMO Frend's The Rise of Christianity is still a very sound, substantive book and a great introductory overview. It's my standard recommendation for the first thing for someone to read on this – though only if you're serious as it's over 1000 pages.

  5. Curt Emanuel

    November 21, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    BTW, if you're interested in either (or both) Scheck's Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen's Commentary on the Romans or Christianity's Quiet Success: The Eusebius Gallicanus Sermon Collection and the Power of the Church in Late Antique Gaul by Lisa Kaaren Bailey I might have a copy available. The Scheck book's still shrink-wrapped.

  6. Veri-Tea

    December 4, 2011 at 7:44 am

    This is fascinating and I look forward to reading and learning more!


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