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A brief overview of the
Orthodox Church's early history

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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 group's origins. The following is based on the historical record, rather than on any one group's beliefs.

bullet 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.

The term "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 eventually disappeared.

bullet 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.

bulletSecond 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 Atheists 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.

bulletFourth 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

bullet 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 Christianity.

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.

bullet 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.

bullet Subsequent centuries: The eastern and western branches of Christianity continued their process of separation and alienation. This was caused by a variety of factors: 
bullet The Slav invasions in the Balkans.
bullet 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.
bullet The Eastern churches encouraged national languages for the liturgy, whereas Roman Catholicism insisted on Latin.
bullet "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:
bullet Not fasting on Saturday.
bullet Beginning Lent on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (instead of Ash Wednesday itself).
bullet Allowing priests to be married.
bullet Allowing priests to administer confirmation, rather than reserve this function to bishops.
bullet 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.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Did Jesus have brothers?" at:
  2. "Constantine, the first Christian emperor," Antiquity Online, at:
  3. Joseph McCabe, "A Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference on religion, philosophy, ethics and science," Gryphon Books (1971). Excerpts appear at:
  4. David Levinson, "Religion: A cross cultural dictionary," Oxford University Press, (1996). Topics: Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman Catholicism.
  5. Aristeides Papadakis, "History of the Orthodox Church," at:
  6. "East-West Schism," Wikipedia, as modified on 2010-JUN-07, at:

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Copyright 2000 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-AUG-30
Latest update: 2010-JUN-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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