A brief overview of the
Orthodox Church's early history
The origins of the Orthodox Church can be traced back continuously to the earliest Christian
movement. So can the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Community, and many
other Christian faith groups. Each has their own belief system about their
origins. The following is based on the historical record,
rather than on any one group's beliefs.
||The first century CE:|
Circa 30 CE: Founding of Christianity: Christianity was founded
by Yeshua of Nazareth, now generally referred to as Jesus Christ -- a Greek
translation of "Messiah." After preaching mostly in Judea for
three years (according to the Gospel of John) or mostly in the Galilee for
one year (according to the other three canonical gospels) he travelled to Jerusalem
just before Passover.
After having committed aggravated assault in the Temple he was
convicted of treason or insurrection in Palestine by the Roman occupying
forces. Yeshua was executed there, sometime in the late 20's or early
30's CE. His followers formed the Jewish Christian
movement under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus.
"brother" in this context has been interpreted by
the Orthodox Church as referring to one of Jesus' step-brothers fathered by Joseph in a previous
marriage. 1 The Roman Catholic Church interprets "brother" as cousin, a close male relative or friend of the family. Most Protestant churches interpret "brother" as an actual brother.
The Jewish Christians viewed themselves as a reform movement
within Judaism. They organized a synagogue, worshiped and brought animals
for ritual sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple. They viewed Jesus as a
prophet and rabbi, but as fully human and not as a deity. They observed the Jewish holy days,
practiced circumcision of their male children, followed kosher dietary
laws, and practiced the teachings of Jesus as they interpreted them to be.
Many were killed, enslaved, or scattered during the Roman attack on
Jerusalem in 70 CE. The movement struggled on for many decades, but
||Circa 36 CE: Pauline Christianity: Saul,
a Jew from Tarsus, experienced a powerful religious conversion on the
road to Damascus, in Syria. Later, as Paul, he became the single most important Christian
leader from about 36 CE until his execution in the mid-60's. He largely created
a new Christian movement, containing many elements of Paganism from
various sources -- mainly Greek but also including Roman, Egyptian, Persian, etc. He including the concept of Jesus as "The Word", as a
god-man, and as the savior of humanity. Paul abandoned most of the Laws
of Moses and rejected many of the Jewish behavioral rules that Jesus
and his disciples had followed. Paul taught that God
had unilaterally abrogated his covenants with the Jews and transferred
them to the Pauline Christian groups.
Paul went on a series of missionary journeys around the eastern
Mediterranean in what is now Orthodox Church territory. He attracted many Gentiles (non-Jews) to his movement. Paul
organized churches in many of the areas' urban centers. He and his movement were in continual theological
conflict with the Jewish Christian movement centered in Jerusalem. Paul ran afoul of Roman
law, was arrested, and was transported to Rome where he was held under
house arrest. He was executed there about 65 CE. Paul's churches survived
his death and flourished.
Christian groups typically met in the homes of individual believers, much like home churches
do today. There was no central authority, no standard style of organization at the local level, no dedicated church
buildings or cathedrals. The Greek words episkopos (bishop, overseer), presbuteros (elder, presbyter) and poimen (pastor,
shepherd) were originally synonymous terms which referred simply to the leader of a group of believers.3
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) was their holy book; the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) had not been
assembled. By the time that Jesus' original followers (now called Apostles) died, most of the
Christians in the world were Gentiles following Pauline Christianity.
Another competitor to Pauline Christianity was Gnostic Christianity -- a philosophical
and religious movement with roots in pre-Christian times. Gnostics combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian,
Greek and Syrian pagan religions, as well as from astrology, Judaism and Christianity. They claimed to have secret knowledge
about God, humanity, and the rest of the universe of which the general population was unaware. They believed that the Yahweh
of the Hebrew Scriptures was a defective, inferior Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. He was viewed as fundamentally
evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion and prone to committing genocide. They viewed Jesus as a deity in human form, but
not a human. They tolerated different religious beliefs within and outside of Gnosticism. Some Gnostics formed separate
congregations; others joined existing Pauline Christian groups; still others were solitary practitioners.
|Second and third centuries CE: Pauline Christianity continued to spread across the known
world. It started to develop a formal theology, a set of doctrines, and an unofficial canon of writings some of which were later
to become the Christian Scriptures. Much of this development of dogma was in response to frictions between the Pauline and
Gnostic branches of the early Christian movement. The Apostolic Fathers had replaced the
original apostles by this time. They included a
number of teachers and bishops: e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Polycarp, Tertullian. A hierarchical
organizational structure called the "monarchial episcopate" developed in which the individual
congregational leaders recognized the authority of their area bishop in matters of doctrine and faith.
There was considerable friction between the Christian movement and the Roman Empire. Christians were viewed as
because they did not believe in multiple gods and goddesses. They were viewed as
irresponsible citizens because many refused to
sacrifice in the Pagan temples. Christians came under intermittent and serious oppression.
|Fourth century CE: The years of Christian persecution came to an end in 313 CE. Emperor Constantine (289-337 CE)
issued the Edict of Milan which formally established freedom and toleration for Christianity.
Unfortunately, Jews lost many rights with this edict.
There was no single individual who spoke for all of Christianity. The only way in which the Church could
resolve conflicts in
belief and practice was to have all of the bishops assemble at a council to debate and vote. The first such meeting
was the Council of Nicea, held in Asia Minor (now Turkey) during
325 CE. Only 318 bishops out of the approximately 1,800 Christian
bishops then in existence attended. Most came from the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. 2
Much of the debate at this and subsequent councils dealt with the precise
nature of Jesus and his relationship to Yahweh and the Holy Spirit.
Circa 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 empire. 2
By this time, the church had evolved from a small, scattering of congregations to a geographically widespread church under
the authority of many bishops.
Later in the fourth century,
Emperor Theodosian issued a
series of decrees or rescripts 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." 3
The period of relative religious tolerance under Paganism in the Roman Empire ended as
non-Christian temples were seized and converted to Christian use or destroyed.
Priests and priestesses were exiled or killed. Pauline Christianity and
Judaism were the only permitted religions. To follow another faith group
was an offense punishable by death.
Church authority had became
concentrated in the five bishops or patriarchs located in Alexandria,
Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. At the ecumenical council of
381, Rome was given the lead position, followed by Constantinople and then
Alexandria. Their ranking followed the secular status of the bishops'
cities in the Roman Empire. Each of the five patriarchs was totally
sovereign within his sphere of jurisdiction. 5
Fifth Century CE: In 451 CE, the Council of Chalcedon was called to resolve still
another debate about Jesus. The East Syrian (Nestorian) church and the
Oriental Orthodox Christian Church disagreed with the council's decision
that Christ had two natures, one human and one divine. They split off from
the rest of Christianity in the first major schism from Pauline
Also during the 5th century, various Germanic tribes invaded Rome and
destroyed much of the western Roman Empire. The church centered in Rome
successfully converted the invaders to Christianity. Authority within the
church began to coalesce 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.
||Sixth century CE: Emperor Justinian called The Second
Council of Constantinople for 533 CE. He invited equal numbers
of bishops from each of the five patriarchal sees: Alexandria, Antioch,
Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. The Bishop of Rome at the time, Pope
Vigilius, saw that many more bishops from the east than from the west
would be present; he refused to attend.|
The eastern and western branches of Christianity continued their process
of separation and alienation. This was caused by a variety of factors:
The Slav invasions in the Balkans.
The religious language in the west was Latin, while the eastern
church used Greek. Leo IX, bishop of Rome, suppressed Greek in the West shile Patriarch Michael Cerularius suppressed Latin in the East. Bilingual theologians became increasingly rare.
The Eastern churches encouraged national languages for the
whereas Roman Catholicism insisted on Latin.
||"While the intellectual thought of Eastern Christianity was
driven by Greek teachers, Western Christianity came to be dominated by
the teachings of Augustine of Hippo." (354 - 386 CE) 4
"Although the two regions belonged to the same church, they became
increasingly remote from each other." 4
The formal split, called the East-West Schism or the Great Schism did not occur until 1054 CE. A delegation from Rome went to Constantinople, insisting that he recognize the Bishof of Rome as the head of all Christianity. Patriarch Cerularius refused. When the smoke cleared, the delegates of the
Roman Catholic church had excommunicated the Parriarch, and the Patriarch had excommunicated the delegates.
Among the reasons cited for the schism were the practices of the
Orthodox church of:
Not fasting on Saturday.
Beginning Lent on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (instead of
Ash Wednesday itself).
Allowing priests to be married.
Allowing priests to administer confirmation, rather than reserve this function to bishops.
||Rejecting the inclusion of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed.
Roman Catholics generally recites a modifiedversion of the creed which
declares that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father "and the
Son." Eastern Orthodox churches follow the original version
which did not include reference to the Son.
According to Wikipedia:
"The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches formally separated along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political and geographical lines. ... The Crusades, the Massacre of the Latins in 1182, the capture and sack of Constantinople in 1204, and the imposition of Latin Patriarchs made reconciliation more difficult. This included the taking of many precious religious artifacts and the destruction of the Library of Constantinople."
"On paper, the two churches were actually reunited in 1274 (by the Second Council of Lyon) and in 1439 (by the Council of Florence), but in each case the councils were repudiated by the Orthodox as a whole."
"In 1484, 31 years after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, a Synod of Constantinople repudiated the Union of Florence, making the breach between the Patriarchate of the West and the Patriarchate of Constantinople final."
"In 1965, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople nullified the [mutual] anathemas of 1054. Contacts between the two sides continue: every year a delegation from each joins in the other's celebration of its patronal feast, Saints Peter and Paul (29 June) for Rome and Saint Andrew (30 November) for Constantinople, and there have been a number of visits by the head of each to the other. 6
Although discussions are currently underway to bring the two churches closer into unity, little progress is being made.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Did Jesus have brothers?" at:
"Constantine, the first Christian emperor," Antiquity Online, at:
Joseph McCabe, "A
Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference on religion, philosophy, ethics
and science," Gryphon Books (1971). Excerpts appear at:
David Levinson, "Religion: A cross cultural dictionary," Oxford
University Press, (1996). Topics: Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman Catholicism.
Aristeides Papadakis, "History of the Orthodox Church," at:
"East-West Schism," Wikipedia, as modified on 2010-JUN-07, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
Copyright © 2000 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-AUG-30
Latest update: 2010-JUN-07
Author: B.A. Robinson