History Summarized: Spread of Christianity
Posted By Lewis Heart on September 2, 2019
If you live in the northern hemisphere and have stepped outside as of late, you’ve probably realized that it’s colder than the farthest reaches of space. That’s because it’s winter. Hopefully this isn’t news to you, because if it is, you need to stop watching this immediately and brush up on your Magic School Bus as fast as you possibly can. Assuming we’re all on the same page and know how seasons work, you’re probably enjoying the holiday season, and if you’re a Westerner, odds are the biggest one for you is Christmas. You’ve probably decorated a tree, hung up lights, unwrapped enough presents to furnish a Viking funeral, or maybe just watched that one episode of Stranger Things on loop for three days straight. The thing is, you probably already know that none of these were original Christmas traditions way back in the day, and if we’re really trying to go for authenticity here, we shouldn’t be doing any of this in the winter at all. But you know what, to just explain what Christianity is and how it got to where it is now, I think we need to back up and start from the beginning. Yes, The Beginning. The Gospel of John starts with: “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now what’s all this about the Word? What does that even mean? While we’re at it, how is the Word with God and also God? Why do the other three gospels start completely differently? Also, where does Jesus come into this, and wasn’t he Jewish? My point is that there’s certainly a lot of questions that come up here, and Christianity is rife with this kind of historical and theological intrigue. Despite how widespread it is in our world, it seems like the history of Christianity is almost universally glossed over or mythologized. But the fact of the matter is there’s solid and well documented history here, and I think it would do us a world of good to be educated on it. I won’t talk about Jesus’s life because you all know the highlights already. Instead, I’m going to talk about how the development of Christian doctrine is heavily influenced by its political, historical, and philosophical context. We start in the 1st century AD. The time period containing the growth of early Christianity is a fascinating time historically, as the newly formed Roman Empire was having a grand old time expanding into the Levant. The relationship between Romans and the history of Judaism is easily its own video but for the time being let it suffice to say that they really, really did not get on all that well. I will though explain that Roman religion was defined by inclusivity – shocker, right – well, the Romans believed that they had to do what they could to secure what’s called the pax deorum – the goodwill of the gods – and they were totally cool with doing whatever they needed to do to get it. That’s why their pantheon is full of gods, and every time they conquered some new territory the top of their to-do list is either finding a way to incorporate these new gods by adding them to the pantheon as is or combining them with an existing Roman god. Acquiring this pax deorum was absolutely essential to the welfare of Rome, so religious life went hand in hand with politics. It was similar to the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven: if they lost the divine double thumbs up, their empire would crumble, and nobody wanted that. (Well, nobody Roman.) It’s not that the church and state weren’t separated, it’s that the church was the state. Now baby Christianity was very much the opposite, in that instead of trying to blend into the Roman pantheon and the politics thereof, Christianity insisted that it remained separate, distinct, and unique. To put it simply, the premise of holding on to their unified identity above all else is single-handedly the reason for Christianity’s staggering success as well as the reason for nearly all of the problems it would have throughout history and even today. Now Rome was no slouch when it came to religious toleration, believe it or not. Most Romans partook in what we call mystery religions — groups that met to practice quasi-secret rites in order to worship particular gods – and there were tons of them. Think of any pagan god. There was probably a mystery cult specifically for them. And Rome was eventually more or less on board with it because the Romans knew that no matter what a citizen did or which god a citizen worshipped the most in private, when it came to them as a collective of citizens they were always on board with the full Roman pantheon and were right there helping Rome keep its precious pax deorum. Now here’s the trick. Christianity’s desire to be separate and do their own religious thing apart from Roman state helps explain why the Christians were so fiercely prosecuted. If Christians didn’t conform to the Roman religion, or at least accept it in addition to their own personal devotion to Christ, Rome saw itself as being robbed of pax deorum and as a result doomed to fail. Most of us today will agree that persecuting a religion or its people simply for their beliefs is totally wrong, but if you look at it through Rome’s perspective, it does make sense why they saw Christianity as such a threat to their state. From their perspective, just by holding on to their beliefs, Christianity was disrespecting the very gods that let Rome maintain its empire at all. So this led to a slew of persecutions throughout the next few centuries, but no matter how hard Rome tried, Christianity didn’t stop. In fact, persecution probably made Christianity even stronger. It’s that whole martyr thing at the core of the religion. Think of it as “If Jesus died for our sins, we need to hold fast to our belief in him, despite how badly we’re being persecuted. He suffered through it and so can we.” There are certainly a multitude of things about Christianity that were appealing, and the afterlife is for sure on that list, but Christianity may have struck where other religions failed because of its emphasis on overcoming challenges through unity and the strength of faith in the face of open persecution. All this was going on for a few hundred years; the New Testament is slowly getting codified as Christianity tries to figure out exactly what it is. The main conflict was between the influences of Judaism and Hellenism. Jesus was Jewish and so are most of his early followers. Christianity was originally very much an offshoot of Judaism, and that’s no surprise since there were a whole bunch of them running around at the time, like those guys who made the Dead Sea Scrolls. Anyway, it’s kind of why the Hebrew Bible ended up becoming the Old Testament. Christianity was, at least way back then, fundamentally Jewish, and was building on a solid framework of Jewish beliefs. The problem was that there was also a heavy push to be more Greek. If you look at the places where Paul sends his letters about how great Jesus was, you’ll notice that more than half of them are Greek places, and of course Greek was the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world thanks to our old friend Alexander the Great. But that’s another story entirely. To solve this vexing problem about where to go and what to do, the early church took the bold stance of “¿porque no los dos?” and made itself Greek and Jewish. That’s probably one reason why the final codified version of the New Testament has four gospels, each written as to appeal to a somewhat different group of people. The gospels are almost a choose-your-own-adventure of religious teaching. Matthew spoke to the Jews by relating everything back to Hebrew scripture and showing how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy and laws. Mark spoke to the Romans by emphasizing Jesus’s actions as a leader to appeal to their whole imperialistic thing. Luke spoke to the Greeks by playing to their culture’s desire to live a happy and erudite life, and the gospel of John from earlier speaks to all audiences, but takes a hard right turn into serious platonic philosophy to show how Jesus was the divine reason itself incarnate. In fact, in Christianity’s first 500 years the vast majority of theology we see is profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy, and specifically Plato, and the importance he places on the Word – otherwise, you know, speech – Logos in the Greek – reason. According to John, Jesus is the physical manifestation of this divine reason. But to get back to one of our questions from the beginning, how was the Word both God and with God? That’s where the second big conflict comes in. Is the church to be Trinitarian or not? That is, are God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit the same thing, or is Jesus just a prophet sent by a God who was not actually his father? Here we see another geographical split. While the fight between leaning towards Greek or Jewish influence was more or less east to west, this Trinitarian split was more north to south. It’s all because of an early theologian by the name of Arius, whose advocacy of non-Trinitarian theology inspired a Gothic Christian missionary named Ulfilas to spread non-Trinitarian Christianity all around the Germanic tribes. Most of Southern Europe remained firmly Trinitarian. Non-Trinitarian Christianity, however, was a home run in the north, and brushing over a number of historical hiccups for the sake of time, a decent number of people were converted from both Paganism and non-Trinitarianism into Trinitarian Catholicism in a few centuries. Speaking of which, side note, the word “catholic” comes from the Greek words meaning “universal”. With that, let’s jump back in time to Rome. While all these philosophical debates were going on, Christianity was gaining ground within the Roman empire. The first big example of this is Constantine, who was born a pagan but raised by a Christian mother. Now Constantine wasn’t born as the heir to the whole empire. He had to earn that particular title by fighting one of Rome’s very peculiar 4-way civil wars which happened every now and again throughout the 3rd and 4th centuries. The night before a battle with the ruler of one such fourth of the empire which contained Italy and North Africa, Constantine had a dream in which he was instructed to paint the Christian Chi-Rho symbol, the first two Greek letters of Christ, onto his army’s shields, so he did and they won and in 313 he delivered the edict of Milan which legalized Christianity within the empire. So at this point paganism was still in charge but Constantine effectively said that Christianity can contribute to securing the pax deorum too. And this makes sense because, from Constantine’s perspective, Christianity absolutely delivered pax deorum by helping him win this battle and unite the empire. The important distinction to note here is that this decree only indicated Rome’s tolerance for Christianity. It didn’t become the official state religion until the emperor Theodosius made it so in 380 CE. From this point on my historical command becomes foggier and events stop happening quite as fast so the rest of this history will be in more of a vignette style. Since Christianity was now the official religion of the empire, it needed a new Roman makeover, so it would fit. This is the part where Christmas probably gets co-opted into one of at least two pre-existing Roman festivals. The evidence isn’t all there but the seasonal and thematic correspondences are hard to miss. Since historians actually have no original evidence at all that Jesus was born on December 25th, or any day for that matter, the Saturnalia and Sol Invictus festivals are our best bets for which ones got linked in. Our friend Theodosius made the brilliant decision to split the empire between his two sons, which had only been the cause of, oh, about, I don’t know, like five civil wars in the past century. [sigh] It’s not been a winning strategy so far by any stretch, but since it didn’t immediately blow up in everyone’s face I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one. While the empire was getting irrevocably cleaved between east and west, the church has slowly but surely been drifting farther apart along those same lines for centuries. There really is no way to properly simplify this, but I also don’t want to get on too much of a tangent here. Suffice to say that any ideology will tend to conform to the culture it inhabits with time. In the case of Christianity the Roman west ended up taking it in a different direction than the predominantly Greek east. Differences ultimately involved issues like how monks should cut their hair, how to calculate when Easter should be celebrated and the more complex question of Jesus’s nature. Was it all divine or both human and divine? That is, was it in Jesus’s very nature to be able to sin? On one side, the monophysites – Greek for “one nature” – they said no, it’s only divine, it was impossible for Jesus to sin. The other side said that Jesus’s nature was both human and divine, so he could sin, but didn’t. Debates like this were all the rage in the first millennium of Christianity and most of them ended up with one brand of Christianity being deemed unorthodox which means they were anathematized, expelled from the church, and in effect condemned to burn in the eternal fires of hell. Reminds me of middle school. And remember, this is all just for having a different point of view than the central church did. The church took maintaining a uniform orthodoxy very seriously, but I mean, hey, whatever floats your ark, man. [bird chirping] I thought that joke was hilarious. The split between the eastern and western churches grew and grew and grew until they were so separate that both sides stopped responding to the other’s text messages entirely. This mutually assured silent treatment is known as the Great Schism of 1054, the point where the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split up for good. You know the saying, if you can’t beat them, pretend like they don’t exist. When the split happened a young boy named Odo was 12 years old. Fast forward 14 years and our little Odo became Pope Urban II. Three years into his papacy he saw a golden opportunity to end this recently formed schism. The Byzantine empire had lost a major battle along with a sizable portion of Anatolia. It’s important to note here that the church in the west had formed what’s called the Papal States in central Italy in 754, which was really just a formal recognition of the political power the pope had enjoyed in the region for over a century already. What this means is that just like our old Roman government that saw church and state as one entity, the papacy in the seventh odd century had become as much a political position as it was a religious one. The pope was running the civic business in Rome for some time at this point in history and it had also since picked up a nice little swath of territory. If you ask me, I think it’s actually really neat to see the Catholic Church emulating Rome in this way. Back to the point. Pope Urban saw a brilliant opportunity to help out the Byzantines and get their land back for them in the hope that Byzantium would recognize the benefits of sticking with the pope and Catholicism and that all that business of splitting off was just a phase. Basically Urban wanted to do the Byzantines a solid favor and have the Orthodox church repay it by running right back into the pope’s loving arms. This “favor” lasted for a few hundred years, and we today call it the Crusades. You may recall that Dante’s Inferno devotes several passages solely to bemoaning the state of the church. – For those keeping score, that’s so far a handful of popes and one major city that Dante’s blaming for the sorry state of the church. – Well, tellingly, another two hundred years later we have the Borgias, the holiest of holy families. (He said overly sarcastically.) And given that little tangle of a family tree can be considered devout, it is no surprise that at this point in history enough people are bothered by not just the Church’s debauchery, but the heavy politicking to do something drastic. Cue Martin Luther. Our pal Martin Luther’s main objection to the church was the common practice of selling indulgences. You can check out Red’s series on Dante’s Divine Comedy for more on this, but the idea is that if you sinned, you can repay the church to cut down on the amount of time your soul has to spend in purgatory before ascending to heaven. Essentially, give the church money and your sins won’t count. Martin Luther thought this and a bunch of other stuff was way wrong, but after he got no traction inside the church, he set about creating his own offshoot branch of Christianity that abstained from priestly hierarchies entirely and believed that everyone should read the Bible. Since a lot of Europe was kind of thinking the same thing as Martin Luther, and since the new invention of the printing press half a century before made large-scale communication a breeze, protest-ant-ism — Protestantism as it was called, get it – spread rapidly through the north. Soon enough you had entire communities, towns and cities rejecting hierarchies and basking in their ability to all read the Bible together and come to their own conclusions. This was all well and good until there were so many people coming up with their own interpretations that each person believed was totally right and that everyone else, especially Catholics, were obviously dead wrong, and then you get fighting – a lot of fighting. Eventually small revolts here and there gave way to entire nations breaking away from the pope and going on to do their own thing. That means now proper armies are killing each other over religion. Whoa, wait Guys – aren’t we all here because we love Jesus? No? You mean we have to make sure that our super-niche version of following and praising the same person as you is the right one, and to prove it we’ll literally kill you? Or just kill you because we have political beef with you and see this is a good enough time as any to take out our otherwise secular aggressions? Yeah, seems legit. In all seriousness, the absurdity we’re seeing here is a byproduct of the very thing that let Christianity become so powerful and widespread in the first place: the determination to hold to one’s own beliefs in the face of persecution and any external force that seeks to invalidate it. See, it’s an admirable concept and probably the reason it survived its early history, but like anything rooted in stubbornness it leads to tension. It was functionally a Christian civil war broke out because all sides were so dead set on their own interpretation. What you got was a collision between multiple immovable objects and the end result was a lot of collateral damage. It’s also interesting to note that Christianity didn’t inherit this trait from Judaism. You see, an intrinsic part of the Jewish belief system was that the Torah was meant to be debated over. It was almost its own form of worship for rabbis to just convene and argue for hours at a time over the meaning of these texts. I’ll go into more detail when I cover Judaism in its own video, but basically it was an accepted and fundamental part of the culture to present individual interpretations of sacred texts and debate their respective merits with the understanding that there was unlikely to be one right answer. Now, to be fair, what Christianity did have was a system of ecumenical councils, councils where bishops would gather to debate on matters of doctrine. However at the end of each council the bishops would vote on which side would be adopted as the official belief. So the proud tradition of debate lives on! Sort of, because at the end of the day Christianity is still pretty solidly rooted in that idea that there’s one interpretation of the texts, even if that one interpretation takes some discussion to get to. That said, the verdict of the council was overturned now and again, but this tradition of ecumenical councils nevertheless institutionalized the pursuit of one doctrine. This is another iffy consequence of that same strength of belief that carried Christianity through centuries of conflict, albeit sometimes self-induced. It’s the trade-off between strength and flexibility and Christianity is nothing if not strong. Fortunately though, when you do get big huge multinational wars popping up over the issue, eventually everyone gets it out of their system, and by the turn of the 18th century there was a huge outpouring of religious toleration from governments and between people, because everyone just kind of got tired of killing each other over this. Pretty much everyone walked away from the Reformation wars with the conclusion that “Yeah, it was pretty terrible. I think I’m just gonna let those guys do their thing and I’ll go do my own thing in my own church. Good deal, good deal.” It’s thanks to the fact that everyone calmed down and got on that whole diversity of thought bandwagon that we ever got the Enlightenment in the following century at all, which is almost universally accepted as being a very good thing. People just stopped caring about everyone else’s religion and the public discourse and popular culture turned more to matters of politics, economics, sociology, science and philosophy, which is why the Enlightenment was the intellectual powerhouse it was. It’s because of all this that we went back to the good old days, you know, when wars were fought for sensible reasons like politics and territorial disputes and centuries-old grudges between two countries that should probably just make up and kiss already. You know, sensible reasons. To recap our history. Christianity survived the harshest possible circumstances under Roman persecution, tailored their beliefs to appeal to multiple cultural demographics, reconciled one doctrinal dispute but split the church over another and capped it off with one big civil war of sorts. After which everyone got along and lived happily ever after, or maybe I just stopped caring after 1800, but who’s keeping track? Oh… Hey, sophomore year high school European history class. I totally remember you. You’re the one with the wars right? Christianity had a hard time figuring itself out for one key reason. Here’s the thing. You never see religions with belief systems as disparate as say, Judaism and Buddhism arguing with each other, because, well, there’s so little overlap between them to argue about in the first place. It’s compare and contrast instead of “I’m right, you’re wrong”. When it’s two competing sects of one religion, though, there are specific things to disagree on, and you get much more pointed arguments, as we saw with Christianity, and as I touched on in Judaism, though it’s much less of a right-wrong binary there, but that’s for its own reasons. I like to think of it as an uncanny valley of religion. It looks similar to ours, it acts similar to ours, but it’s not. It’s somehow wrong. And we want to fix those tiny little things so they can be right and be like us and we can all be happy together, but they want to do the same thing to us because to them we’re in the uncanny valley and we need to be fixed. This is the fundamental unfortunate side effect of one of Christianity’s greatest strengths, for all the good it’s done, and please don’t think I’m underselling the importance of the orphanages, schools, hospitals and medical missions Christianity has consistently been a huge proponent of for centuries. I think if we start from the platform that we all have a lot to learn about each other, we can do way more good than if we just assume we already know everything about everything. No one is completely right. I think sometimes the only option is to agree to disagree on certain things and respect the other person’s opinion. It’s not going to make everyone happy, because being disagreed with feels kinda ughh, but being happy all the time is less important than being good to people. Wasn’t Jesus’s big lesson all about occasionally turning the other cheek? You know, love thy neighbor. Give a hoot, don’t pollute. It’s all right there in the gospels people, come on! In summation, Christianity has done a lot of amazing things for civilization in the past 2,000 years, but to understand why and to make the most out of it we need to learn how it succeeded and where it failed if we’re to make progress now. You know what they say about learning history, right? Well, what they usually say around this time of year is “Oh, God, I need to learn three months worth of history or I’ll fail this final” which in its own way is a nice example of the whole doomed to repeating thing But I digress Anyway, now that all that is out of the way, go and get back to playing with those gifts you got from a fourth century saint with an affinity for women of the night who dropped your presents down a shaft meant for fire. Man, Christmas is weird.