History of Christianity
From 301 to 600 CE
The history of the primitive Christian movements
(30 to 300 CE)
is described in a separate essay.
During the Ante-Nicene Era (about 170 to 325 CE) many religious movements
were active in the Roman Empire:
Christianity, Greek Pagan religion, Judaism, Mithraism, Roman Pagan religion, various
secret mystery religions, etc. Religious tolerance was widespread
throughout the empire, but it was only granted to those adults who had fulfilled
their civic duties. Many points of conflict developed between the
Roman authorities and the growing Christian movement, including:
||As part of one's civic duty, each adult was expected to sponsor a sacrifice in the Roman
temple once per year. Many Christians refused to do this because it would force them to
acknowledge the legitimacy of Pagan Gods.
||Adults were expected to acknowledge Caesar as the Son of God and Savior.
Many Christians would not submit to this either.
||Christians ignored some Roman laws. For example, the state refused
to recognize marriages between a free person and a slave; Christians
allowed such marriages.
||A small minority of Christians were so keen on hastening the end of the world and the
arrival of the Kingdom of God that they set fires to encourage the second
coming of Jesus. Some Roman authorities labeled the entire Christian
movement as a bunch of arsonists.
||Lies spread that Christians engaged in orgies during
their communal means and made human sacrifices of infants.
As a result of these conflicts, Christians were intermittently
persecuted in various parts of the Empire.
The fourth century CE:
||301 CE: Armenian tradition states that Gregory the
Illuminator (c. 257 - c. 337) persuaded the King Tírdat III, the king of
Armenia, to convert to Christianity. The king then made Armenia the
first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion. Some sources
say that this happened in 311 CE. The Roman Empire itself did not
officially adopt Christianity until 380 CE, under the Emperor Theodosis.
||313 CE: The years of Christian persecution came to an end. Emperor Constantine (289-337 CE) issued the Edict of Milan
which formally established freedom and toleration for all religions, including
Christianity. Contrary to many people's beliefs, Christianity was not made the
official religion of the Roman Empire at this time. That happened later in that century. 5
Both Arius and Athanasius had large, evenly matched followings among the bishops.
Emotions ran high. The
council, under intense pressure from Emperor Constantine, resolved its deadlock by a close vote in
favor of Athanasius. The dissenting bishops were offered two options: to
sign the settlement at Nicea or be exiled. The bishops produced the Nicene Creed, which declared that Jesus
Christ was "of one substance with the Father." This did not immediately
settle the question of the divinity of Christ; many bishops and churches refused to
believe in the council's decision for decades.
bishops granted to the bishop of Alexandria [in Egypt] papal authority
over the eastern half of the empire, and to the bishop of Rome they
granted papal authority over the western portion of the empire."
||330 CE: Emperor Constantine decided to build a "New Rome"
on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium (now at Istanbul,
Turkey). It was called Constantinople. It became the center of the
largely Christian empire. 5 By this time, the church had evolved from a small,
scattering of congregations to a geographically widespread church under the authority of many bishops.
||341 CE: Many now believe that Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire
through the evangelical efforts of the early church during the fourth century
CE. The evidence seems to show that this is not true; "The Greek-Roman
world was not...converted to a new religion, but compelled to embrace it."
The Emperor Theodosian issued a series of decrees or rescripts in the years 341,
345, 356, 381, 383, 386 and 391 CE. They effect of these
orders was to "suppress all rival religions, order the closing of the
temples, and impose fines, confiscation, imprisonment or death upon any who
cling to the older [Pagan] religions." 2 The period
of relative religious tolerance in the Roman Empire ended as Pagan temples were
seized and converted to
Christian use or destroyed. Priests and Priestesses were exiled or killed. Christianity
and Judaism became the only permitted religions. In Spain, bishop Priscillian, who
taught some Gnostic beliefs was the first person to be condemned as a heretic
and executed by his fellow Christians
on religious grounds. The church used the power of the
state to begin programs to oppress, exile or exterminate both Pagans and Gnostic Christians.
By the end of the century, Pagan temples had been either destroyed or recycled for Christian use. Pagan
worship became punishable by death. But government toleration was not without its cost. The Emperor Constantine and
later political rulers demanded a major say in the running of the church and in
decisions on its beliefs.
According to most religious historians, church authority had became concentrated in five bishops or patriarchs
located in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome.
Although they were officially given equal status, the Bishop of Rome was
considered by many to be the first among equals, mainly because the governing of
the Roman Empire was centered in Rome. 4 In
contrast, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter was
the first pope during the first century CE and was widely acknowledged to be the
head of the Christian Church.
||381 CE: At the Council of Constantinople, the earlier council's decision on the
deity of Jesus was confirmed and Arianism was formally declared a heresy. They also
voted that Holy Spirit was the third Person of the Trinity. Almost all of the churches
abandoned Arianism after this council.
Near the end of the century, the Roman Emperor "Theodosius decreed that the doctrine
of the Trinity was to be the official state religion and that all his subjects
should adhere to it." 5
Siricius, who reigned from 384 to 399 CE, became the first bishop
of Rome to be called Pope (father).
The fifth century CE:
||431 CE: The Council of Ephasus was called to debate the
precise nature of Jesus. Again,
there were two main competing belief systems:
||From the city of Alexandria, scholars developed the Alexandrian school of thought
||Promoted the allegorical interpretation of the Bible -- that
it contained hidden meanings.
||Emphasized the divinity of Christ.
||Recognized that Jesus had both a human and divine nature, tightly united.
||Within the city of Antioch, Nestorius and other scholars developed the
||Rejected an allegorical interpretation of the Bible.
||Emphasized the humanity of Jesus.
||Saw the two natures of Jesus as being loosely connected
The council excommunicated Nestorian and declared his beliefs (Nestorianism) to
The Virgin Mary's status was elevated from the mother of Jesus to "theotokos", the
mother of God.
||440 CE: Pope Leo I became the Bishop of Rome -- a post
that he held for 21 years. He maintained that the pope
was highest ranking of the Christian bishops.
||451 CE: Emperor Marcian called the Council of Chalcedon
to resolve still another debate about Jesus.
The traditional belief that Jesus had both a divine and human nature was being challenged
by Monophysitism, an outgrowth of the Alexandrian school. Their followers believed
that Christ had only a single divine nature. The council rejected that belief. In their Chalcedonian
Definition, they affirmed that Christ had two natures, human and divine.
These were without confusion,
without change, without division, without separation." This formulation has
survived as the traditional belief to the present day among almost all branches of
Christendom. The East Syrian (Nestorian) church and the Oriental Orthodox
Christian church disagreed with the council's decision, and split off
from the rest of Christianity in the first major schism from Pauline
A minor, little known, statement of the Council was Canon #15:
"No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after
close scrutiny." 1 This is believed to be the last time in church history that the ordination
of women was mentioned as a routine practice, until modern times.
During the 5th century CE,
various Germanic tribes invaded Rome and destroyed much of the Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, the church centered in Rome successfully converted the
invaders to Christianity. Authority within the church was coalescing
around the Bishop of Rome in the west and the Patriarch of
Constantinople in the east. Divisions between the two power centers in
the Christian church gradually intensified.
Gnostic Christianity's membership went into a steep decline.
The sixth century:
Article, "National Catholic Reporter", 1996-NOV-15
Joseph McCabe, "A Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference
on religion, philosophy, ethics and science," Gryphon Books (1971).
Excerpts appear at: http://www.christianism.com/
G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects,
Religions and the Occult," Zondervan, (1993), Pages 59 to 72.
David Levinson, "Religion: A cross cultural dictionary,"
Oxford University Press, (1996). Topics: Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman
"Constantine, the first Christian emperor," Antiquity
Online, at: http://www.fsmitha.com/
"Second council of Constantinople - 533 A.D.," at: http://www.piar.hu/
"The Conversion of the State: Gregory the Illuminator, T'rdat III and
the Pagan Wars,"
Copyright 1996 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2007-JUL-18
Author: B.A. Robinson