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Christianity in the Roman Empire


  • Christianity developed in the province of Judea out of Jewish tradition in the first century CE, spread through the Roman Empire, and eventually became its official religion
  • Christianity was influenced by the historical contexts in which it developed

Beginnings of Christianity

Christianity developed in Judea in the mid-first century CE, based first on the teachings of Jesus and later on the writings and missionary work of Paul of Tarsus.
Originally, Christianity was a small, unorganized sect that promised personal salvation after death. Salvation was possible through belief in Jesus as the son of God—the same God the Jews believed in. Early Christians debated whether they should only preach to Jews, or if non-Jews could become Christians, too. Eventually, Christianity gained followers not only from Jewish communities, but from throughout the Roman world.
Stop and consider: How might the fact that Christianity developed out of Judaism have affected its spread?

Christianity and Rome

In the decades after Jesus's death, the Apostle Paul wrote many letters that are now part of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Paul was a Roman citizen and sent these letters to small communities of Christians living throughout the Roman Empire. The letters show us that Paul and his fellow Christians were still figuring out exactly what being a Christian meant. Issues related to the exact relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and between Christianity and the Roman government, were prominent topics of discussion.
Stop and consider: What do Paul's letters tell us about Christianity in the mid-first century CE?
Choose 1 answer:

Judaism had received the status of a legal religion in the Roman Empire with formal protections. Although Christianity developed out of Jewish traditions, it had no such legal protections. Christians were occasionally persecuted—formally punished—for their beliefs during the first two centuries CE. But the Roman state’s official position was generally to ignore Christians unless they clearly challenged imperial authority.

Rome becomes Christian

In 313 CE, the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which granted Christianity—as well as most other religions—legal status. While this was an important development in the history of Christianity, it was not a total replacement of traditional Roman beliefs with Christianity.
In 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, which was a gathering of Christian leaders to determine the formal—or orthodox—beliefs of Christianity. The result of this council was the Nicene Creed, which laid out the agreed upon beliefs of the council.
In 380 CE, the emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity, specifically Nicene Christianity, the official religion of the Roman Empire. Most other Christian sects were deemed heretical, lost their legal status, and had their properties confiscated by the Roman state.
Stop and consider: How did the Roman Empire shape early Christianity?


The Roman Empire did not become Christianized overnight. Roman religious beliefs changed slowly over time. At the time the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, Christianity was still spreading. It is also important to remember that Christianity itself did not appear suddenly or fully-formed. Christianity grew out of Jewish traditions and was shaped by Roman cultural and political structures for several centuries.
To take one lasting example, the head of the Roman Catholic Church—the Pope—takes his title from the old Roman office of pontifex maximus—the high priest. Roman culture was not wholly replaced, but was often repurposed as it came into contact with other peoples and cultures.
Christianity was deeply influenced by both Judaism and Roman cultural institutions. We can't fully understand the development of the Christian religion without putting it into these contexts!

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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Bennet
    In 313 CE, if the Edict of Milan did not absolutely replace traditional Roman beliefs with Christianity, does it mean that Rome still viewed Christianity as one of the various ways of fortifying their state through religion?
    (18 votes)
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    • spunky sam green style avatar for user History Helper
      Before the Edict of Milan, Christianity was forbidden by the Roman law. The practice of Christianity could result in execution or other severe punishments. But as the Christian religion began to gain popularity and influence both in society and government, the Roman Empire allowed the religion to be practiced freely. Along with the old Roman religion, Christianity was allowed since the Edict of Milan. But eventually, Christianity would become the only allowed religion in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380.
      (30 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user cicichan35
    In 380 CE, the emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Did the emperor made Christianity the only official religion to practice? Why did he do that? I know in China, the Han dynasty made Confucius the only religion to unify and centralize the state, was it the same case with Christianity in Rome?
    (11 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user blconley
      I believe it was not made to be the only religion. Rome was built on a polytheistic view, so they believed in many gods beforehand. I believe them establishing Christianity as their official religion was like country's official religions today, it's the religion that is most widespread, but not the only one practiced.
      (0 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user kolter
    why though
    (8 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Austin M
    What traditions did Christianity grow out of?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The Roman Empire was large. There were many traditions within which Christianity developed. For example, in the region of what is now southern Lebanon, there was a powerful religion based on legends of Ishtar and Tammuz (a mother and son). Some of that got into eventual Christian veneration of Mary and Jesus. In Greece there were temples to Apollo, the sun god who drove a fiery chariot across the heavens. Many of these were eventually converted into churches dedicated to St. Elijah, a Hebrew prophet who is associated with Jesus, and who rose to heaven in a whirlwind and chariot of fire. Certain mystical practices and beliefs of Christianity in the time of the Roman Empire are associated with trends in Egypt (also a part of that Empire) at the time. Aspects of Christian ecclesiastical heirarchy can be seen as comparing to the structure of the Roman imperial government.
      When, eventually, Christianity became accepted across the empire, the design of church gathering places was similar to the design of Roman Imperial architecture.
      (5 votes)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user 29lenkowch
    Why is everything so unorganized? I have to answer a sheet of questions for school but I can't find anything that I need to answer them.
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nghi Nguyen
    Why did Christianity leave Rome?
    (7 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user artabor
    Did Constantine at one point in time have a dislike for the Chrisitans?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user midnight
    What is a list of challenges that Christianity had to face in the roman time?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      During the Roman Empire, before Christianity was made into the official government religion (which eventually happened), the adherents of Christianity had to face the difficulty of being misunderstood and feared. Like members of minority religions in all countries in the world today (say, Muslims in Burma, Hindus in Sri-Lanka, everybody-but-Hindus in India, Muslims in the USA, Christians in France, etc.) Christians way back then had to face the problem of being a minority group in a culture that wasn't ready to accept them.
      (4 votes)
  • purple pi teal style avatar for user RainbowMammoths44
    Did the persecution of Christianity before it was endorsed by Constantine cause Christians to leave Rome to escape that persecution, therefore beginning the spread of Christianity?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Christianity was spreading freely Eastward and Southward without any Roman interference long before Imperial endorsement began. Roman persecution may have had a hand in the spread of Christianity, but don't neglect the many Christian churches in Central Asia, Arabia and Africa where spread and influence had no relation to anything going on in the empire.
      (6 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user bob
    did romans hate christians.
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Christians broke the Roman law under by believing that the emperor was nothing more than a man. However, persecution of Christians was never empire-wide. In different places and for different reasons over a few centuries' time, local governors persecuted distinct groups of Christians for particular reasons. It was about local politics. And, no, "hate" wasn't part of it. That kind of language became common American speech after a certain former president was elected. We need to stop using that kind of language.
      (3 votes)