Medieval Europe + Byzantine
Early Christianity, an introduction
Two important moments played a critical role in the development of early Christianity:
1. The decision of the Apostle Paul to spread Christianity beyond the Jewish communities of Palestine into the Greco-Roman world.
2. When the Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity and became its patron at the beginning of the fourth century
The creation and nature of Christian art were directly impacted by these moments.
The spread of Christianity
As implicit in the names of his Epistles, Paul spread Christianity to the Greek and Roman cities of the ancient Mediterranean world. In cities like Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Rome, Paul encountered the religious and cultural experience of the Greco Roman world. This encounter played a major role in the formation of Christianity.
Christianity as a mystery cult
Christianity in its first three centuries was one of a large number of mystery religions that flourished in the Roman world. Religion in the Roman world was divided between the public, inclusive cults of civic religions and the secretive, exclusive mystery cults. The emphasis in the civic cults was on customary practices, especially sacrifices. Since the early history of the polis or city state in Greek culture, the public cults played an important role in defining civic identity.
As it expanded and assimilated more people, Rome continued to use the public religious experience to define the identity of its citizens. The polytheism of the Romans allowed the assimilation of the gods of the people it had conquered.
Thus, when the Emperor Hadrian created the Pantheon in the early second century, the building's dedication to all the gods signified the Roman ambition of bringing cosmos or order to the gods, just as new and foreign societies were brought into political order through the spread of Roman imperial authority. The order of Roman authority on earth is a reflection of the divine cosmos.
For most adherents of mystery cults, there was no contradiction in participating in both the public cults and a mystery cult. The different religious experiences appealed to different aspects of life. In contrast to the civic identity which was at the focus of the public cults, the mystery religions appealed to the participant's concerns for personal salvation. The mystery cults focused on a central mystery that would only be known by those who had become initiated into the teachings of the cult.
These are characteristics Christianity shares with numerous other mystery cults. In early Christianity emphasis was placed on baptism, which marked the initiation of the convert into the mysteries of the faith. The Christian emphasis on the belief in salvation and an afterlife is consistent with the other mystery cults. The monotheism of Christianity, though, was a crucial difference from the other cults. The refusal of the early Christians to participate in the civic cults due to their monotheistic beliefs lead to their persecution. Christians were seen as anti-social.
Essay by Dr. Allen Farber
Want to join the conversation?
- "...Paul encountered the religious and cultural experience of the Greco Roman world. This encounter played a major role in the formation of Christianity."
This could easily be read as "...Christianity was predominantly man made", could it not? That is not to say that other religions were "divinely inspired" and Christianity was not, but merely that Christianity was yet perhaps another "man made" creation. Is this not proof?(3 votes)
- Yeah, you could read it that way.
As a believing Christian, I resisted the idea that my religion came from anywhere other than "direct from God" for the longest time. Eventually I began to recognize the parts that were formed in varied cultural contexts, both during the formation of the Bible and across the many centuries since. I'm comfortable with that now.(13 votes)
- what does 'cults' mean? I have no idea! Help!(5 votes)
- cult - n. a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.(8 votes)
- What is monotheism?(4 votes)
- This is late but seeing as there is no other reply: monotheism is the belief in a single deity. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the 3 main monotheistic religions.(3 votes)
- I am confused about what distinguishes a mystery cult from any other official religion. Can someone please explain it?(3 votes)
- The activities/ceremonies of the mystery cults were kept a secret from all but the initiated, whereas there was not this secrecy with the other religions.(5 votes)
- In "The Spread of Christianity" section you use the term "Epistles" to describe Paul, one of Jesus's followers. It should be "Apostles". Epistles are books of religious communications etc.(1 vote)
- From the author:Thank you for your comment; here the author is referring to Paul's letters (Epistles) not the Apostles.(5 votes)
- Can someone please explain to me (briefly) what differs between the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican Christian beliefs?(1 vote)
- There was one church. At about 450CE the African and some of the central Asian churches broke with the One church over issues about the nature of Christ. So, then there were two (or more) churches (look up Nestorian, Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity). In 1055 for political and cultural reasons, the original ONE church split again. The eastern half claimed to be "Orthodox" (to have the true faith) and the western half to be "Catholic" (to have the universal faith). In the 16th century, the northern part of the western Church (starting in Germany and France) became the home of many protests over matters economic, political and religious, like the nature of the gospel (the evangel). Out of that came the group of churches which identify themselves as Protestant and Evangelical. Since then, though Orthodox churches resemble each other (however, the Russian, Green, Romanian and other Orthodox churches are not one church, but several separate national ones) and Catholic churches resemble each other, and those in fellowship with the bishop of Rome (the pope) are indeed a single church, no matter in what nation (other Catholic churches, like the Old Catholic church in the Netherlands and at least one other Catholic group in the Philippines, for example, are independent Catholic church), there are thousands of groups which may or may not recognize each others' validity, but hold to their own forms and specific understandings.
There's no simple answer.(4 votes)
- Where can I find a good source for more information on these civic religions and mystery cults and how they were practiced? What was Paul's experience with them like?(2 votes)
- well if you want to know more about paul you can look in the bible the book of act's mostly(3 votes)
- Can the author show examples and development of painting and other art manifestation of christian art before Constantine?(1 vote)
- why is it that religion wasn't fully legal til the fourth century and what was done to people who serve their god.(0 votes)
- Well, if that is so, then Jews, from whose Bible the first commandment comes, would have been persecuted for the same reason. But persecuted as Jews were in the Roman empire, and still are in the 21st century, it wasn't because they didn't worship Caesar. Christians were persecuted occasionally and locally, but not consistently or in all places in the Roman empire. It seems that when a local governor needed a group to persecute, the Christians were convenient because they DID break the law about worshiping the emperor, their religion was weird, and they were everywhere. So, if you needed a scapegoat, there was one at hand.(3 votes)
- Why was it called a mystery cult? That doesn't make any since to me. Even though it's been explained I still don't understand considering that it was Christianity.(1 vote)
- In the study of religion, there's a "class" of religions from the Mediterranean era during the Hellenistic and Roman times known as "Mystery Religions". FIRST, you have to understand what those were. THEN look at Christianity as it was understood by outsiders (people who were NOT Christians) during that era, and you may come to understand how THEY, at THAT time, grouped Christianity with these Mystery religions.(1 vote)