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?
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!
Want to join the conversation?
- 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?(14 votes)
- 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.(28 votes)
- 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?(10 votes)
- 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)
- Why did Christianity leave Rome?(7 votes)
- Because people who left Rome brought their religion with them and other people became Christian.(1 vote)
- Did Constantine at one point in time have a dislike for the Chrisitans?(3 votes)
- He probably didn't care one way or the other, until it was politically beneficial to him to make a choice, then he dithered around for a while before deciding to "approve".(7 votes)
- 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)
- 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)
- Why did the Romans dislike Jesus so much? I thought that they were catholic.(3 votes)
- The Romans didn't have a particular hate for Jesus. The gospels recount that even the roman governor of Judea (Pontius Pilate) wanted to free him because he didn't deem his actions worth of capital punishment. However, Jesus teachings seem to have altered the social climate of the time, and many people asked for his execution, leaving the Romans with few options, fearing a revolt if they angered the people. After the crucifixion of Jesus there was still too much social unrest in the province, and a revolt sparked in 66 a.d. after which the Romans ended destroying Jerusalem. The Romans were not catholic at first. It was not until 313 a.d. that christianism became a tolerated religion in the Roman Empire, and not until the end of the fourth century a.d. that christianism came to be the official religion of the empire.(5 votes)
- so did romans have a choice to be christian(5 votes)
- Everybody has a choice to be what they want to be, this is true in matters of religion, politics, and even gender. I lived in Taiwan for many years. During my early years there, it was a military dictatorship. Many people pretended to respect the dictator even though they chose to despise him. Today many people pretend to believe one religion or another while choosing to believe nothing at all. And in terms of gender, many people pretend to adhere to one, while in the closet with what they know to be true for themselves.(1 vote)
- What areas have Christianity spread to by 1200 C.E. ?(3 votes)
- Christianity was mainly contained in Europe during this time, with virtually all of western and central europe following it. Places that followed Christianity still did exist outside of Europe though, most notably the kingdom of Axum, which was located in present day Ethiopia.(4 votes)
- At11:47Did the Roman's accepting Christianity have anything to do with the transformation of Christian traditions?(3 votes)
- After the Roman acceptance of Christianity there were changes in Christian traditions. These mostly came after Christianity was officially allowed.(3 votes)