Research Paper Early Christianity

Paul M. Blowers, Emmanuel Christian Seminary

Kate Cooper, University of Manchester

Geoffrey D. Dunn, Australian Catholic University

Paula Fredriksen, Boston University

Andrew S. Jacobs, Scripps College

Charles M. Stang, Harvard Divinity School

Pier Franco Beatrice, University of Padua

Denise Buell, Williams College

Daniel F. Caner, University of Connecticut, Storrs

Andrew Crislip, Virginia Commonwealth University

George Demacopoulos, Fordham University

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, University of California, Santa Barbara

Harold Drake, University of California, Santa Barbara

Benjamin H. Dunning, Fordham University

Chris Frilingos, Michigan State University

James E. Goehring, University of Mary Washington

David G. Hunter, University of Kentucky

Robin M. Jensen,University of Notre Dame

Nicola Denzey Lewis, Brown University

Morwenna Ludlow, University of Exeter

AnneMarie Luijendijk, Princeton University

Wendy Mayer, Australian Catholic University

Michael Penn, Mount Holyoke College

Pierluigi Piovanelli, University of Ottawa

Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Loyola University Chicago

Claudia Rapp, University of Vienna

Caroline T. Schroeder, University of the Pacific

Kristina Sessa, Ohio State University

Christine Shepardson, University of Tennessee

Dennis Trout, University of Missouri

Early Christians faced intermittent persecution from roman officials. During the early centuries C.E., Roman authorities launched a series of campaigns to stamp out Christianity, since most Christians refused to observe the state cults that honored emperors as divine beings. Paradoxically, imperial officials viewed Christians as irreligious because they declined to participate in state-approved religious ceremonies. They also considered Christianity a menace to society because zealous missionaries attacked other religions and generated sometimes violent conflict. Nevertheless, Christian missionaries took full advantage of the Romans’ magnificent network of roads and sea lanes, which enabled them to carry their message throughout the Roman empire and the Mediterranean basin.

During the second and third century C.E., countless missionaries took Paul of Tarsus as their example and worked zealously to attract converts. One of the more famous was Gregory the Wonderworker, a tireless missionary with a reputation for performing miracles, who popularized Christianity in central Anatolia during the mid-third century C.E. Contemporaries reported that Gregory not only preached Christian doctrine bit also expelled demons, moved boulders, diverted a river in flood, and persuaded observers that he had access to impressive supernatural powers. Gregory and his fellow missionaries helped to make Christianity an enormously popular religion of salvation in the Roman empire. By the late third century C.E., in spite of continuing imperial opposition, devout Christian communities flourished throughout the Mediterranean basin in Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and north Africa as well as in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Gaul.

As Christianity became a prominent source of religious inspiration within the Roman empire, the young faith also traveled the trade routes and found followers beyond the Mediterranean basin. By the second century C.E., sizable Christian communities flourished throughout Mesopotamia and Iran, and a few Christian churches had appeared as far away as India. Christians did not dominate eastern lands as they did the Roman empire, but they attracted large numbers of converts in southwest Asia. Indeed, alongside Jews and Zoroastrians, Christians constituted one of the major religious communities in the region, and they remained so even after the seventh century C.E., when the Islamic faith of Arab Muslim conquerors began to displace the older religious communities.

Christian communities in Mesopotamia and Iran deeply influenced Christian practices in the Roman empire. To demonstrate utter loyalty to their faith, Christians in southwest Asia often followed strict ascetic regimes, inspired by Indian traditions, they abstained from sexual contact, refused fine foods and other comforts, and sometimes even withdrew from family life and society. These practices impressed devout Christians in the roman empire. By the third century C.E., some Mediterranean Christians had begun to abandon society altogether and live as hermits in the deserts of Egypt, the mountains of Greece, and other isolated locations. Others withdrew from lay society but lived in communities of like-minded individuals who devoted their efforts to prayer and praise of God. Thus ascetic practices of Christians living in lands east of the Roman empire helped to inspire the formation of Christian monastic communities in the Mediterranean basin.

After the fifth century C.E., Christian communities in southwest Asia and the Mediterranean basin increasingly went separate ways. Most of the faithful in south west Asia became Nestorians– followers of the Greek theologian Nestorius, who lived during the early fifth century and emphasized the human as opposed to the divine nature of Jesus.

Mediterranean church authorities rejected Nestorius’s views, and many of his disciples departed for Mesopotamia and Iran. They soon became prominent in local Christian communities, and they introduced a strong organizational framework to the church in southwest Asia. Although they had limited dealings with Mediterranean Christians, the Nestorians spread their faith east across the silk roads. Nestorian merchants took their faith with them on trade missions, and by the early seventh century they had established communities in central Asia, India, and China.

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