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Christianity and the Roman Empire
August 12, 2004
Christianity has become one of the largest religions in the world. It is a religion that began in the Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago with the death of Jesus Christ. Where it began, however, is not what make Christianity unique. The most startling part about this is that it began in the Roman Empire , the very empire that crucified Christ, and within 400 years, was the only religion allowed. How did this happen and how did it shape the Roman Empire?
To understand the magnitude of the rise of Christianity, you have to understand the world at the time of the Roman Empire. It is not uncommon for an empire to have an â€˜officialâ€™ religion. Through the years, conquering armies often brought the religion of their empire to their newly acquired territories. What makes Christianity and the Roman Empire unique is the mentality of the Romans of the time. The time during Christâ€™s life was in a period known as Pax Romana, or â€˜Roman Peaceâ€, which lasted from the beginning of the reign of Augustus in 27 B.C. until almost 200 years later. Pax Romana was an attempt to bring peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire. Augustus, who was then the emperor of Rome, had halted the expansion of the Empire, â€˜cleansedâ€™ the Senate of nearly 200 â€˜questionableâ€™ members, leaving 800 who were loyal to Augustus. He also reduced the size of the military, paying soldiers with 20 or more years of experience to be loyal to the Roman state, not their commanders and stationed the army in the surrounding provinces instead of Rome (he had created the Praetorian Guard to be his bodyguards; these were Roman citizens who were better paid than a Roman legionnaire). This made the area around the Mediterranean stable economically and nearly self-sufficient. (History Guide, 2004)
Another factor in the stabilization was the Roman businessmen who formed social units in many of the cities in the Mediterranean, which brought Roman rule along with it. Realizing the need for local governmental control, provinces and client kingdoms were established by the Romans. One of these kingdoms was Judea, which was under the rule of Herod the Great, who ruled until his death in 4 B.C., also about the time of Christâ€™s birth. After his death, a decade of turmoil ensued until finally Pontius Pilate was appointed the first governor of the province. (Jews and the Roman Empire, 2004)
One of the problems with Pax Romana is that the Empire still followed many of the laws and customs they had for many years already. This included a religion that believed in many gods, who were often fighting and playing tricks on one another, with humans often caught in the middle. Roman entertainment was centered around brutal gladiatorial contests, violent public executions of those seen as a threat to the Empire and a long line of emperors with serious personality issues and violent tendencies. Herod, the king of Judea prior to Christâ€™s birth, was a ruler along the lines of the Roman emperors. Herod used his brutality and ambition to bring him success, as well as always being on the Roman side of everything. As a result, Judea was politically independent. One of the great things Herod did for Judea was to order the construction of many beautiful buildings, including the Temple at Jerusalem.
Judea was largely Jewish in population and much of Jewish life centered around the temple, specifically the Temple in Jerusalem. There were two major holidays in the Jewish religion of the time, with the biggest being the Passover. The Passover is a holiday commemorating Moses and the Jewish slaves deliverance out of Egypt. During Passover, many Jewish families made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice at the Temple. It was during the Passover in 33 A.D. that Jesus came to Jerusalem. Tradition had Jews arriving a week prior to Passover to begin cleansing themselves, which is about the time that Jesus entered the city and began preaching in the Temple and observing the scene around him. All Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple at least once in their lifetime and offer a sacrifice. This sacrifice was a lamb that was given to the High Priest, who actually made the sacrifice on behalf the family, as he was the only one allowed into the inner part of the Temple where the sacrifice was performed. The Temple was believed to house the most holy item in the Jewish religion, the Holy of the Holies, more commonly known as the Ark of the Covenant, the vessel that was said to contain the remains of the Tem Commandments. Only the descendants of Aaron were allowed to view the Holy, and as a result, only one of his descendants could be a High Priest. A Jewish family in the Temple would buy a lamb from a money changer to give to the High Priest for sacrifice. (Temple Culture, 2004)
It was at this time that Jesus went into the Temple and began chasing all of the money changers out. There are many possible reasons why he did this but the end result is what matters. It raised the ire of the Sanhedrin, or city council, the majority of whom were Sadducees. Sadducees were Jews who read and followed only the five books of the Old Testament written by Moses. These books are what are known as the Torah. To the Sanhedrin, the money changers were very much a part of the Temple and they did not like the things that Christ had been preaching about in the Temple. The Sanhedrin were also jealous of Christ and saw him as a threat. (A Guide To The Passion, Catholic Exchange) As a result, Jesus was charged with being a heretic and committing blasphemy. To the Sanhedrin, these were very grievous charges and they didnâ€™t have the power to properly punish Christ. Thus, he was taken before Pilate, who was told of the charges and viewed Christ as challenging the peace of Rome and Roman authority. There was only one way the Romans dealt with those who they saw as challenging the Empire and that was with swiftly and violently. (Arrest and Execution, 2004)
One of the most violent forms of punishment was known as scourging, or whipping. Although the Bible doesnâ€™t go into detail, scourging was known to be quite violent. In fact, it very nearly killed Jesus. One of the favored devices was called a flagrum, which was basically a flail with several strips of leather that caused welts and even gashes in the one being whipped. At the end of the strips were either lead balls or pieces of sheep bones that caused further damage. (A Guide To The Passion, Catholic Exchange) While the Sanhedrin were appalled by the results, they demanded more. Pilateâ€™s only recourse was death. Christ was to be crucified, something reserved for slaves and non-Roman citizens because it was so humiliating. Crucifixion was used to send a message that anyone that tried the same thing as the person being crucified would meet the same fate. Pilate knew Christ had many followers and wanted no more problems. To further the message, Pilate had a sign nailed to the cross that read â€˜Jesus Christ, King of the Jewsâ€™. After all, if crucifixion was for slaves and non-Romans because of the humiliation, the fact that a â€˜Kingâ€™ was being executed this way seemed the perfect way in Pilateâ€™s mind to send a message to Christâ€™s followers.
These events only served as a catalyst for the rise of Christianity. And it was not an easy rise. Over the next several hundred years, the Jews, as they were still known, would continue to be persecuted by the Romans while growing in size. In fact, in 40 A.D., just a few years after the death of Christ, Christians were only seventeen one thousandths of one percent of the earths total population at the time (by 350 A.D., they accounted for 56.5 percent of the population, or nearly 34 million; it is believed that this rapid growth is also a reason for the Roman Empireâ€˜s adoption of Christianity). (Starks, 1997, p. 7) The abuse and persecution would become so bad that there would be a revolt against Rome in 66 A.D. The Jews had become tired of corrupt governors getting rich off them and a riot occurred that damaged the Caesarea. When the Jews refused to pay for the damage, the governor demanded payment from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was the last straw for the Jews, who then revolted. The revolt would last until 70 A.D., mostly due to the assassination of Nero in Rome in 68 A.D. The new emperor, Titus, would send troops back to Jerusalem and lay siege to the city for two years. When the Romans entered the city in late 70 A.D., they began killing anyone they found and burned Jerusalem to the ground. The scene would be repeated at the Jewish mountaintop stronghold of Masada when the Roman general, Flavius Silva, entered. Nearly 60 years later, the Romans would put down a second revolt led by Bar Kochba, who wanted to reestablish the Jewish kingdom of Jerusalem. Another factor in the second revolt was that Kochba wanted to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem, which had been destroyed in the first revolt, while Hadrian, the new Roman emperor, planned to build one there to Jupiter. (Jews and the Roman Empire, 2004)
The years would pass quietly with Christianity going from a sect of Judaism to itâ€™s own religion with itâ€™s own sacred texts, rituals and beliefs. During the third century, the Romans would again begin their persecutions. The Romans were also fighting amongst themselves for control. During this time, a general named Constantine had a vision that was interpreted by a Christian bishop. Constantine begins to follow a branch of Christianity that has the Old and New Testaments as the foundations of their beliefs. As a result, Constantine forms a relationship between government and religion, much as King David had in Israel. When the bishop explains the vision to Constantine using Davidâ€™s rule, Constantine decides to become like David. While he still persecuted Christians who didnâ€™t believe as he did, Constantine also began a great task, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which focused on the areas where Jesus had been in the city. The bishops took advantage of Constantineâ€™s desire to know more about Christianity and were able to get Bibles copied at the expense of the citizens. Constantineâ€™s ego was further stroked by the historian, Eusubius, who proclaims Constantine had been endowed with wisdom and a mission to vindicate the church by God himself. Constantine also convenes the Council of Nicea to settle a dispute on the divinity of Christ. He is further helped by the fact that Jesus said, â€œWeâ€™ll render unto Caesar that which is Caesarâ€™s and render unto God that which is Godâ€™s.â€ With that in mind, there were now two thrones side by side, one for the emperor and an empty one for Christ. Christianity had become the state religion. (Legitimization Under Constantine, 2004).
By the end of the fourth century, Christianity is the only publicly authorized religion with Jesus being part of the one true god of the Roman Empire. While it would be easy to point out that it was the Hand of God at work, there is another factor that must be remembered. Constantine never truly converted to Christianity. He continued on in the Roman tradition of killing and other immoral practices. By the time the Roman Empire realized that Christianity was a threat, it was too late. The Romans simply did as many before them had done and that was to do what was necessary to survive. Constantine simply recognized the map of the world was about to be changed and changed with it.
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