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Christianity in the Roman Empire

Overview of the changing relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity from the time of Jesus to the reign of Theodosius.

Video transcript

- [Narrator] As we've talked about in multiple videos, Christianity is a religion that grew out of the fringes of the Roman Empire. It starts as a Jewish sect in Judea and Galilee with the teachings of Jesus and his early ministry. But it's important to keep in mind that at the time of Jesus's crucifixion, around 30 C.E., he only had, at most, we're talking about in the hundreds of followers. But in other videos, we talk about his apostles who start spreading the faith, not only to other Jews, but also to non-Jews, to gentiles. We talked about Emperor Nero and his famous purges of Christians, in particular, you have the famous Roman Fire, or The Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. that Nero blames on Christians, and he uses this to do significant purge in Rome. Many historians believe that the apostles Peter and Paul were killed during those purges. This is a painting of Nero using Christians lighting them alive to punish them for that fire. Now, other imperial acts that continue to have a significant effect on this very early Christian church. We talked about the destroying of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and that's under the reign of Vespasian. And this of course is a very significant event for the Jewish people, but it also has a significant effect on Christianity, because remember Christianity was really centered at Jerusalem. It was a sect of Christianity, or it was, it got its start as a sect of Christianity, but now, with the destruction of the temple, the Jews were dispersed from Jerusalem, and so were many of these early Christians. And so the centers of Christianity became throughout the empire, places like Antioch. And you continue to have a discomfort with Christians especially as they became more and more in number, and they started to have more and more power. And here you have these people who refused to obey the Roman gods, to do their rituals, to worship the Roman gods, and remember, even, there was emperor worship here. And the issue was more so than even the Jewish people, who, to a certain degree, kept to themselves, these Christians were missionaries. They were spreading their faith to Roman citizens. Families were being split apart, where some decided to become Christians and no longer follow these Roman practices. And so you have these various persecutions, and these various purges, and they get more and more significant as you go into the second and even to some degree in the third century as Christians become more and more prominent and more and more in number. Remember, they have this missionary zeal, and it really becomes a significant purge under the reign of Diocletian. In previous videos, we talk about Diocletian. He's the one that famously split the empire between east and west, but he's also famous for his purge of the Christians. The most extreme state-sponsored purges of Christians in the Roman Empire. But what's interesting is right after, or shortly after those purges, we're talking a few decades here, the next empire that would, the next emperor who would have reign over the entire Roman Empire, would be Constantine, and at least relative to Christians, he would be the opposite of Diocletian, because as he's trying to consolidate his power in 312 C.E., you have the famous battle at the Milvian Bridge outside of, or entering into Rome. And in this battle, Constantine, he sees a vision of the Christian cross centered on the sun, and he thinks that that is a sign that he should fight under the cross. And he gets the symbols painted on his soldier's shield, and he's victorious. This date, 312, Milvian Bridge, The Battle at Milvian Bridge, is viewed as the beginning of Constantine's conversion to Christianity, viewing it as his chosen faith. In 313, the Roman emperor, or the empire, issues the edict of Milan, which officially makes Christianity OK. It legalizes Christianity, which is a big deal, because these folks have been persecuted all this time. They haven't been worshiping the Roman gods. Then in 325, Constantine goes even further, and he convenes the council of Nicea, where he brings the bishops from all of Christendom together, to start having a more unified belief system. They come up with a Nicean creed. A lot of the debate is whether Jesus, as son of God, should be considered equal to God or as God or a little less, as being the son, maybe if he is the son, maybe there was a time where there wasn't a son, and there was just God, but the Nicean Creed says no, they are one and the same, these two things are equivalent. And then Constantine, on his death bed, famously gets baptized, and becomes a Christian, the first Christian emperor of this gigantic Roman Empire. And so you can imagine, you have more and more followers of Christianity, but now, this is, so to speak, prime time. The emperor of the Roman, the emperor of the Roman Empire has converted to Christianity, and it's a legalized religion. And then that gets even more momentum when we get to the end of the fourth century. Emperor Theodosius, who is Christian, under him, it becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire, the same empire that at one point, Christianity was illegal, and it was being persecuted, now it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Theodosius, I mention him in other videos, he was incidentally also the last emperor to rule over both Eastern and Western Roman Empires. So you have this empire that starts off very anti-Christian, actually in the beginning, they don't really take much note of what's going on in Judea and Galilee, but more and more, they start to persecute them. But we go a few hundred years into this, and it becomes a Christian empire.