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Lesson summary: Early Christianity

Key terms

Jesus of Nazarethfounding figure of Christianity in the early first century CE; in Christianity, Jesus is believed to be the son of God and the savior of humankind.
Paul of Tarsusan early convert to Christianity; many of Paul’s writings became the basis for the Christian religion.
missionarya person who goes out and tries to spread a religious belief; early Christianity was spread by missionaries as well as merchants.
persecutionharassment and punishment of people for holding certain beliefs or having certain traits
DiocletianRoman emperor in the late third and early fourth centuries CE who actively persecuted Christians
ConstantineEmperor of Rome who, in 313 CE, issued the Edict of Milan that made it legal to practice Christianity in the Roman Empire
Council of Nicaeaa meeting of Christian leaders called by Constantine in 325 CE to establish agreed-upon, or orthodox, beliefs of Christianity
Edict of Thessalonicaissued by Emperor Theodosius in 380 CE, this made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and helped to spread the religion to most of the regions controlled by Rome

Key dates

c. 4 BCE—c.30 CEProbable lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth
c. 30 CE—67 CEPaul of Tarsus' career as a promoter of Christianity
284—305 CEReign of Diocletian, during which there was formal persecution of Christians
313 CEEdict of Milan makes Christianity legal in Roman Empire
325 CECouncil of Nicaea determines Christian orthodoxy
380 CEEdict of Thessalonica makes Christianity the official religion of Roman Empire

Key themes

Culture: Religions often spread via trade and communication networks. In the Roman Empire, extensive trade and road networks helped Christianity to spread among small groups. Later, the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion, which gave Christianity political, as well as cultural, power.
Social structures: Religious beliefs often both impacted and were impacted by legal, political, and social structures. In the case of Christianity, early believers had to make sure their new religion did not conflict with the official policies of the Roman Empire. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, political and legal structures came to reflect Christian beliefs.

Review questions

  • How did the existing networks of communication and trade in the Roman Empire help Christianity spread?
  • How did Christianity alter the social and political structures of the Roman Empire?
  • How does the rise and spread of Christianity compare to other early religions, such as Judaism or Hinduism?

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