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Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


At the beginning of history, religion was tribal, each tribe had its gods and its ways of worshipping them. It is still like this to-day in many regions of the earth. But even in the antiquity, when great empires as the Persian were created a certain coalescence took place. About 2000 years ago the Roman Empire included all the Mediterranean countries and the predominant culture was Greek. Not only in the Eastern provinces such as Syria and Egypt, but also in Rome, Greek was the predominant language even if Latin was mainly used in Roman Africa and in the Western provinces. The root of the Latin literature, however, was Greek. In consequence the Greek traditions concerning the gods and heroes influenced the whole empire, even if local cults were still in use, and even spread to many regions. For instance, the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis was adopted all over the Greek world, in different forms, however. In the same way, the Phrygian Mother of the gods and its beloved Attis were worshipped as far as Rome. Non-Greek cults tended to be Hellenized and the native deities were identified with a Greek deity and worshipped under a Greek name. It was not the case of Isis and Attis who retained their native names. The ancient cults of the city of Rome went on, but they lost much of their importance and were confined to the Romans. There was little jealousy among these religions. As long as a man honoured and worshipped the gods of his city, he was free to associate himself with the believers of Isis, Attis or any other deity, Greek or foreign. The only cult obligatory was the worship of the Roman Emperor and his Genius. The worship could differ from region to region, but any refusal to perform it was treated as a punishable disloyalty. Only the Jews were not tolerant towards the other religions. Their number was quite large and their influence enormous in all the Roman Empire. They refused to worship any power but their own God who had created heaven and earth and proclaimed Israel as His People. The Roman government exempted the Jews from worshipping their Caesars; they could pray for him instead of praying to him, and this aroused strong antipathy in their regards as well as a strange attraction. Each synagogue had attached to it a number of non-Jews who found the Jewish god more attractive that the pagan religions. Many people would have become converts if it was not for the obligation of circumcision that deterred many Greek men. Women, on the opposite, became converted in larger number.The Jewish religion was different in many ways from the other creeds existing at that time:

  •  First of all, the Jews had only One God who was worshipped as a person, whereas the polytheist Greeks’ Gods were replaced by one Universal Power whose Divine Power was remote from the individual. The God of Israel had the Oneness and the universality of the Greek philosophic God but with a human approach
  • Second the time-process had a value for the Jews and it had none for the Greeks. The realisation of the Divine Purpose began with the Creation, went on through many Acts of God to the conquest of evil, in the future, and the arrival of a new world with God as the unopposed King. The Greeks’ schools thought that the time-process was an eternal recurrence leading nowhere. Plato and Aristotle taught that human life will go on for ever on earth and that each human civilisation will finally perish by some natural catastrophe such as fire, flood, earthquake, …, to be succeeded by another built-up by the few survivors. In the same way, Stoicism held that the universe, that was created by the condensation of the Divine Fire, would be destroyed by it one day in the future, to be followed by other universes following the same course for ever. In such a universe the wise man would not be concerned very much by time and he would find peace in the contemplation of static timeless ideas. No other religion in the Roman Empire had the same attitude as the Jews towards the time-process. To find the same approach we have to go outside and look, for instance, at the Persian Zoroastrianism. Even now it is not known whose part of their religion, the Jewish or the Persian, borrowed from the other, or if they developed independently
  • Third, this Purpose of God in history requires a Divine Community, a “People of God” chosen by one of his “mighty acts” that will be followed by many others along the history of this Community
  • Fourth, these dealings of God with Israel were recorded in a sacred literature that grew with time, the most important of their writings are to be found in the Old Testament whose value is above all other writings of that time, with the exception of the Greek and Latin literature. The level of the documents from the Nearer East (Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian) that reached us is definitively lower. For a Greek, the translation of the “Septuagint” would be of the same level as his own literature, even if he would probably disagree on the content.

A large part of the poor Jews living in Rome used the Greek language. In 50 AD a man called Chrestus (meaning “good or kindly” in Greek) and his followers created some civil disturbances in the Synagogue of Rome. Tacitus called him Christus or “smeared” in Greek. Smearing the head with oil, to the Jews, was part of the old coronation process of the kings. Christos, also known as Messiah in Palestine, was the expected King who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Tacitus stated that this Christus was a criminal who was executed in Judea under Pontius Pilate (procurator of Judea from 26 to 36 AD). His followers, called “Christiani”, formed a secret society that had spread from Palestine to Rome. They carried their rites behind closed doors and those included, according to some sources, orgies of promiscuous sexual intercourse and ritual cannibalism. The Romans hated these secret societies since the suppression of the Bacchic cult in 186 BC that had crept into Rome, and whose supposed rites, in addition to committing crimes and comploting to burn Rome, were similar to those described above. We will of course never know if these terrible accusations had any truth in them, but many of the members of the Bacchic movement were put to death. As a result, secret societies were thought to serve as a cover for hideous crimes and behaviour. And once more, in 50 AD, Rome was the seat of a new secret society whose members were known as Christiani. It is only natural, based on the previous experience with the Bacchic, that the State would try to suppress them too. Nero declared that the Christiani had tried to set the city on fire. The Governor of Bithynia and historian, Gaius Plinius or Pliny, was ordered in 112 AD to apply the Law on the Christiani who were now numerous in his province. But before doing it Pliny talked to them and he found, to his surprise, that their religion did not fit the popular picture of the Bacchic-type of secret society. All they did, as he wrote to Trajan, was to meet on a particular day before day-break and sing a hymn to Christus as a god, to swear not to commit any crime such as theft, adultery, fraud, and breach of trust. They would also eat ordinary food together, but he found them hard headed, and unprepared to renounce to their beliefs and rites.

We, of cause, know more that Pliny what those Christians, who had left the Jewish community, believed at that stage. Most of them were Gentiles with Hellenistic tradition. Christians and Jews were in open opposition, even if the man who is acknowledged as the founder of the Christian Church, Jesus, was a Jew. His first Jewish disciples had accepted Him, when he was still a wandering preacher in Galilee, as the Anointed One, the expected Messiah who should overthrow evil and establish the Kingdom of Israel’s God. That the Messiah should suffer, be crucified and die was unpredicted. The disciples, following what Jesus told them, believed that he was at the same time the Messiah and a Servant who suffers death on the cross on behalf of the people. His death was not the end since we know that his principal disciple, Peter, saw the Lord alive on the third day after the crucifixion, an experience that was repeated by other disciples in the next months. After the apparitions had stopped, or had become rare, Jesus was believed to be “in heaven”, “at the right hand of God”. Only his disciples believed that he was the expected King, the Master whom, they believed, would come back in full glory, probably during their lifetime. He would be visible by all the people, punishing the sinners, and bringing His people into the eternal Kingdom of bliss.

For the next forty years after the crucifixion, and until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jesus’ followers formed a community in Palestine centred on Jerusalem, and not on Galilee anymore. Their language was Aramaic and they followed the Jewish law and rituals. They were known as “Nazoraeans”. The Sadducees tried to suppress them, mainly because the followers of Jesus were saying that they had delivered the Messiah to the Roman Gentiles to be killed. As they behaved properly, they were soon left alone, except during the times of persecution. The Nazoraeans had different practices from the Jews. One was the baptism as a rite of admission to the community. This community was open to the Gentiles as preached by John the Baptist; Jesus and his disciples had been members. It is not clear if the community of John the Baptist survived in Palestine after Jesus’ crucifixion, or if Jesus himself continued with the ritual of baptism as introduced by John. It seems (John 4:1,2) that Jesus did not baptise but that his disciples did, and that they continued doing it after his death, apparently as the result of a direct order from the Lord after his resurrection (Matthew 28:19). The Nazoraeans kept John’s practice of baptism but for a different reason, that is, to bestow the Divine Power of the unseen Lord on men in the name of Jesus. Another difference was linked to the communal meal when the bread broken and distributed to the participants was said to be the broken body of the Lord, and the wine passed around was his blood. This tradition had been introduced by Jesus at his Last Supper according to Paul and Mark.

Important changes occurred between the year 30 AD, when only the Nazoraean community existed in Jerusalem, and the year 64 AD when the Greek Christian community in Rome suffered great loss at the hand of the Romans.

These changes started about 10 years after the crucifixion when members of the Jerusalem community left Jerusalem to preach to Gentiles living in other Hellenistic cities, and admitting them by baptism to the Christian Church. It was in Antioch that the name Christiani was first given to the followers of the New Way. Paul of Tarsus, an ex-Pharisee and a known persecutor of the Nazoraeans in Jerusalem, was one of the first to start forming these non-Jewish communities in some cities of the Roman Empire in 40 AD. He became a Christian after he saw and heard Jesus talking to him on the road to Damascus. By 60 AD most cities of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece had its “ecclesia” composed of members called “Believers”, “Brethren” or, better, “Christians”. There were already some communities before Paul arrived there in 59 or 60 AD but he was the best known missionary, although not the only one. The religion of these Gentile Christians of Greek culture was, of course, different from that of the Nazoraeans. Their religion was based on Paul’s specific teaching that is known to differ from the Nazoraean faith, or even from Jesus’ teaching. How different it was we do not know because, if Paul’s teaching is well documented, we do not have any original writings from the primitive Jerusalem community, except those rewritten by the Gentile Christian church. This is also true of the words and actions of Jesus as described in the Gospels. From Paul’s writings we know where he differed from the Nazoraeans, but we are unable to discover the points on which they agreed. The first controversial question regarding the admission of the Gentiles to the Christian Church was related to how much these Gentiles were supposed to observe the Jewish Laws. The admission of Gentiles to the Jewish faith was not a problem in itself, if they agreed to follow the Law and accepted to be circumcised. The leadership of the Jerusalem community had been given to Jesus’ brother, James, and it is known that he followed the Jewish Laws. It is Paul who asked for accommodation with the Law for the members of the Gentile Church. Peter, the main Apostle, and James, agreed on that request with a few exceptions. Other members of the Nazoraean community were not so open minded and this led to some conflicts between the two branches of the Christian Church. Paul justified himself by saying that he had received his order directly from the Lord and that, as a result, he considered himself to be an “Apostle” with the same rights as the others. Again, Peter and James agreed. (6)

Very soon the Greek Christian communities grew so much that they became fully separated from the Synagogue, and the Jews could not anymore eat with them. We now have a Church that is quite different from what Jesus and his Apostles had imagined. This new Church that grew out of the Jewish society prepared itself to conquer the world. The simple teaching of Jesus that all men are children of the One father has been distorted and complicated by Paul. However, it is also true that it is Paul who said that all men, without distinction of races and nationalities, could become members of the Christian Church and be the sons of God. Jesus never thought that his church would supplant the old Jewish church and that Gentiles could join it without having to accept the Mosaic Law. He even implied quite the opposite and his Apostles, after his death, never imagined that uncircumcised Gentiles would one day become members. Of course this does not mean that Paul was superior to Jesus; when he proclaimed the equality of Jews and Gentiles in front of the new Church he is credited to have been inspired by Jesus in Heaven. Another aspect of Paul’s preaching that cannot be found in Jesus’ discourses is the proclamation that Jesus was the Divine Being who assumed a human body for the love of men. From this, again, we cannot assume that Paul was above Christ. We must remember that what is important is not so much what He preached but what He was and what He did. Moreover what His followers said is supposed to have been inspired by His Spirit. It is normal that Gentiles who became Christians brought with them new ideas that were part of their environment, and not part of Jesus’ teaching. Most Gentiles were Greek, or belonged to the Greek culture, whereas Jesus and his first disciples were Jewish and spoke Aramaic. No other Pagan culture however taught, at that time, that the Divine Being came on earth to suffer and die for the salvation of the people, or to eat God’ body and drink his blood. It is known that the primitive Christians from the Jerusalem Church were upset when Paul said that Gentiles could join without following the Jewish Laws, but there is no proof that Peter or James ever mentioned that Paul’s teaching was new or different from Jesus’ words. We cannot know if the primitive Christians believed that Baptism was linked to re-birth, or if they interpreted the bread breaking and the wine drinking with the body and blood of God. It was the belief of the Gentile Christians that the Divine being had come on earth for love of men (if this was a historical fact or not has no importance). The interpretation given by Paul of Jesus on the cross is far more important that the Sermon on the Mount; in the same line, what Jesus was and did is more important that what he said.

If there were any differences between the old Nazoraean and the new Gentile Churches, the old Hebraic beliefs kept their importance. For the Christians too, God was still unique, the Father in Heaven, and the Creator of the Universe. The time-process was still the expression of a Divine purpose going from Creation to the final triumph of good over evil. Like the primitive Nazoraeans and the Jews, the Christians thought that the end of the world was near, and they expected that Jesus would come back soon. Of course, as time went by, this expectation lapsed but it never disappeared completely, at least until the nineteenth century. Recently people have been thinking that the end is not so near but that it will happen anyway, one day.

Of course some of the acts, deeds and events of Jesus’ life accepted as part of the doctrine and believed without reserve by the Christians were not acceptable to the Jews; for instance, what happened in the last days of Christ is interpreted differently by them. The Jews believe also that God loves his people as a shepherd loves his sheep (Ezekiel 34: 11,12), but for them, it does not mean that He went as far as coming on earth to serve, to suffer, and to offer Himself for the salvation of men. This is not a small difference, and it should not be minimised. There are also many common beliefs between the Jews and the Christians such as the time-process marked by unique events of religious significance. The difference between Jewish and Christian beliefs was formalised in the second century, but it would be wrong to assume that this means that the Christian creed had changed from a Hebraic faith into a Greek mystery-religion. Christianity, as well as the Hebraic faith, is based on statements that certain unique events took place, or will take place, at certain given moments of the time-process to lead to a final great goal. That is the Hebraic attitude to the Universe, adopted by the Christians, whereas the Greek and the Romans thought this the time-process was an eternal repetition leading nowhere. This difference explains why so many educated Greek left their religion to become Christians.

The third characteristic of the old Hebrew religion was the belief that the Divine Purpose in the time-process was present in an elect “People of God”. The Christians took over this belief from the Jews, but they disagree on which community should be known as the People of God. For the Christians it was not the old people of Israel, but a new congregation known as “ecclesia”, or New Israel, made up of people of all races, and whose Law was the “Law of Christ”. The Christian Church was the continuation of Israel but with many and important changes. The Gentile Christianity kept the belief of the old Nazoraean Church that the Holy Spirit entered into the converts through faith and baptism. The spirit penetrating the members of the Ecclesia was so closely associated with Jesus Christ that they formed a close community derived from Jesus. In other words, each member of the Ecclesia was, in some way, a “member of Christ” keeping Him alive. This was a new Christian concept unknown to the Jews.

The fourth characteristic of Judaism had been its possession of sacred and authoritative scriptures. The Christians kept the old Jewish scriptures as if they were their own. The Christian bible starts with the Greek “Septuagint” version of the Jewish Old testament. Other books written by the Jews in the last two centuries BC, but not recognised by the Synagogue, were taken over by the Christians. They are what the Protestants call “Apocrypha”. the Christians agree with the Jews that the Hebrew scriptures had been inspired by God but, against the outcry of the Jews, they claimed that they now belonged to the Christian Church, the true continuation of Israel. The laws included in the Jewish scriptures created a problem when Paul said that the Gentiles did not have to follow them. He turned the difficulty by saying that they had become obsolete after the Messiah’s death.

At that time only a few people had a copy of the Sacred Scriptures, and they knew of their content only through communal reading of the Greek Old Testament on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. But the sayings of the Lord could not be of lower authority that those of the Old Testament writers. In consequence, the Gentile churches promoted the writing of what the Lord said and did, as it was remembered through the traditions and legends of that time, so that it could be read by the assemblies of the believers together with the Old Testament. A large number of papyrus scrolls containing various versions of the sayings and doing of the Lord must have been in circulation. The writings made for the largest churches were copied for the smaller ones. However already at the end of the first century AD, the three documents most widely used were the synoptic Gospels:

  • The Gospel according to Mark used by the church in Rome, and written by John Mark on the base of the oral teaching of Peter
  • The Gospel according to Matthew used in Antioch
  • The Gospel according to Luke coming, according to one tradition, from Achaea or Corinth

These last two Gospels are based on Mark’s writing as well as on an earlier collection of Jesus’ sayings, later lost, known as Q (from the German word Quelle or source) and possibly translated from an Aramaic original written by Matthew, one of the Twelve Apostles.

A fourth Gospel from Ephesus appeared around 100 AD. The author is assumed to be John the Apostle who lived to an old age, or better, John from Ephesus who had known Jesus when a young boy, and later closely associated with John the Apostle. In a certain way this Gospel is based on the memories of one of the Twelve.

By the middle of the second century these four documents had received the blessing of the Christian Church and they were the ones mostly read in the churches of Asia Minor and in the West. The other documents were soon forgotten.

Letters addressed to a local church by prominent teachers attached to other churches, or itinerants, were also read at communal assemblies. Paul wrote many such letters (sometime they were addressed to many churches for instance Paul’s “Epistle to the Ephesians”) but he was not alone. The document known as the “First Epistle from St. Clement” was written around 96 AD from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth. Many of the most important letters were copied and largely distributed to many other churches. It is generally the case for Paul’s letters. A certain number of the most important letters found their place later on in the New Testament while others did not. The “Epistle of St. Clement” did not, but the almost contemporary “Epistle to the Hebrew” and the later “Gospel according to John” did. At the beginning of the second century AD there was not yet a collection of Christian writings recognised as Divinely inspired, with a clear line between the books in the canon and those left out. At that time Christians had not yet the “New Testament” as we know it to-day. The Bible then contained only what became to be described as the “Old Testament”. It became urgent to have a well-defined collection of officially recognised documents as some authors, claiming apostolic authority, put in circulation writings supporting heretical views. (6)

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