Christianity Rise And Triumph Of

A History Christianity

Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi

The Rise And Triumph Of Christianity

The Rise And Triumph Of Christianity

Through the long centuries that witnessed the decline of the Roman Empire

and the invasions of the Germans, an increasingly powerful force became

evident in the Mediterranean world. The Christian religion's long and arduous

struggle for converts eventually led to victory over Roman and German alike.

Some older historians have singled Christianity out as the most significant

cause of Rome's fall. Most scholars today would not agree with that earlier

judgment, but none would deny that Christianity played a vital role in the

transformation of the classical world into the new civilization of medieval


Post-Exilic Jewish Nationalism

When the Principate of Augustus was laying the foundations of Rome's

imperial greatness, events were taking place in the distant Roman province of

Judea that would one day alter the course of Western history. Following the

conquests of Alexander the Great in the Near East, Palestine was ruled first

by the Ptolemies and then by the Seleucids. Since their return from exile in

Babylonia in 538 B.C., the Jews in Palestine had created a theocratic

community, based on the Torah, God's Law, originally revealed to Moses and

contained in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), and

later supplemented by the teachings of the prophets and the writings of

priests and scholars.

Religious life centered on the Temple at Jerusalem, which echoed with the cry "Hallelujah" ("Praise Yahweh") in thanksgiving for Yahweh's gracious

dealing with his people. The most powerful figure was the high priest, who was assisted by the Sanhedrin, the high court for the enforcement of the Law.

Since there was no distinction between civil and religious law, the

jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin covered all aspects of Jewish life.

The Hebrews, the "People of God," were tightly knit; even Jewish groups

outside Palestine were linked by spiritual bonds to the Temple and to a law

they believed to be divinely inspired. But, unable to participate in the

services of the Temple at Jerusalem, the Jews of the Diaspora (the

"Scattering") met in local synagogues (from the Greek word for "assembly") for public worship and instruction in the Scriptures. In the long run, the

synagogue, which probably first arose during the Babylonian Exile, outlived

the Temple to become the heart of Judaism. Ultimately, it influenced the forms of worship in the Christian church and the Muslim mosques.

During the Hellenistic Age, Greek influences were constantly at work

among the Jews. Most Jews outside Palestine spoke Greek, and a Greek

translation of the Hebrew Scriptures became a necessity. Called the Septuagint (Latin for "seventy") from the tradition that it was the work of seventy scholars whose independent translations were miraculously identical, it was produced at Alexandria in the third century B.C.

Greek influences contributed to factionalism among the Jews in Judea.

Eventually, one extremely pious group came to blows with the aristocratic

pro-Greek Sadducees, as they came to be called, who were favored by the

Seleucid rulers of Palestine. This internal conflict gave the Seleucid king an

opportunity to intervene, and in 168 B.C., seeking to Hellenize the Jews,

he ordered the Temple dedicated to the worship of Zeus. Viewing this decree as a blasphemous defilement, the Jews rebelled. Under their leader, Judas

Maccabaeus, they rededicated the Temple to Yahweh and in 142 B.C. won their independence from the Seleucids.

Although Judas and his immediate successors contented themselves with the title of high priest, later members of the family were known as kings. In time these rulers became worldly and corrupt; factionalism flared up again,

resulting in persecution and bloodshed. It was in the midst of a civil war

that the Roman legions first made their appearance.

Roman Occupation Of Palestine

Adopting the practice habitually followed by eastern Mediterranean

states, one Jewish faction appealed to Rome for aid. Pompey, who was then

completing his pacification of Asia Minor and Syria, ended the civil war in 63

B.C. by making Judea subject to the Roman governor of Syria.

Eventually, Herod the Great, a half-Jewish, half-Arab leader from Edom

just south of Judea, rose to power as a tool of the Romans. Appointed by Mark

Antony, Herod served as king of Judea from 37 to 4 B.C. He erected a

magnificent palace, a theater, and a hippodrome and rebuilt the Temple on a

lavish scale. To the Jews, however, Herod remained a detested usurper who

professed Judaism as a matter of expediency. Soon after his death, Judea was made into a minor Roman province ruled by governors called procurators. The best known procurator is Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36), under whom Jesus was crucified.

The Jews themselves remained unhappy and divided under Roman domination. For centuries the prophets had taught that God would one day create a new Israel when righteousness prevailed under a God-anointed leader, the Messiah. In time, many Jews lost hope in a political Messiah and an earthly kingdom and instead conceived of a spiritual Messiah who would lead all the righteous, including the resurrected dead, to a spiritual kingdom. But a group of ardent Jewish nationalists, called Zealots, favoring the use of force to drive the hated foreigner out of "God's land," precipitated a fatal clash with the Romans. The atmosphere had long been poisoned by such incidents as the following, reported by the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus:

The people had assembled in Jerusalem for the Feast of

Unleavened Bread [Passover], and the Roman cohort stood

on guard over the Temple colonnade, armed men always being

on duty at the feasts to forestall any rioting by the vast

crowds. One of the soldiers pulled up his garment and bent

over indecently, turning his backside towards the Jews and

making a noise as indecent as his attitude. This infuriated

the whole crowd, who noisily appealed to Cumanus [the

procurator] to punish the soldier, while the less restrained

of the young men and the naturally tumultuous section of the

people rushed into battle, and snatching up stones hurled

them at the soldiers. Cumanus, fearing the whole population

would rush at him, sent for more heavy infantry. ^4

Destruction Of Jerusalem

In A.D. 66 violence erupted into war after the Zealots massacred the

small Roman garrison at Jerusalem. After a five-month siege of Jerusalem in

A.D. 70, Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, laid waste to most of the

city. What came to be called the "Wailing Wall," a small part of the Temple

complex, remained standing. The story is that it was protected by angels whose

tears cemented the stones in place forever. It was later prophesied that a

third Temple would be erected on the site when the Messiah came. (The Dome of the Rock, a mosque built by the Muslims, has occupied the site since the

eighth century A.D.) The wholesale destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70

spelled the end of the Hebrew state, although the fortress of Masada near the

Dead Sea held out for two more years. The Jewish dream of an independent

homeland was to remain unrealized for almost nineteen centuries, until the

Republic of Israel was proclaimed in 1948.

Development Of Jewish Religious Thought

The destruction of Jerusalem did not destroy the most important single

aspect of Jewish culture - its religion. Through centuries of suffering,

captivity, and subjugation, the Jews had been taught by a succession of

prophets and priests to hold to their covenant with Yahweh and to safeguard

their religious inheritance.

In the centuries just preceding and following the birth of Christ,

Judaism exhibited much vigor. While the aristocratic Sadducees, who controlled

the office of high priest, stood for strict adherence to the written Law, or

Torah, the more numerous Pharisees believed that, with divine guidance, human

beings could modify and amend the Law. The Pharisees accepted the belief in

personal immortality and the kingdom of heaven. From their ranks came the

rabbis, scholars who expounded the Law and applied it to existing conditions.

The "oral law" propagated by the Pharisees became the core of the later

Talmud, the great commentary on Jewish law that laid down in the most detailed way a code of daily living for Jews. Moreover, following the destruction of the Temple and the end of the high priesthood, the rabbinical schools of the

Pharisees did much to ensure that Judaism would endure.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls added greatly to our knowledge of

another Jewish sect, the Essenes. While exploring caves around the desolate

western shore of the Dead Sea in 1947, two Bedouin boys came across several

clay jars containing long manuscripts wrapped in linen. Later, many more

scrolls were found in other caves. Nearby were the ruins of a monastery built

by the Essenes "to separate themselves," as the scrolls state, "from the abode

of perverse men." Occupied between the second century B.C. and A.D. 68, the

monastery was destroyed by the Romans during the great Jewish revolt. Prior to

its destruction the Essenes hid their manuscripts in the caves.

Some scrolls are portions of the Old Testament dating from the first

century B.C. and thus are about a thousand years older than the earliest

previously known text. Biblical scholars have been thrilled to read the Book

of Isaiah in such an ancient manuscript and to discover that the version now

in use is virtually unchanged.

Those scrolls that describe the Essene sect in the first century B.C. -

that is, just prior to the appearance of Christianity - have been said to

constitute "a whole missing chapter of the history of the growth of religious

ideas between Judaism and Christianity." ^5 Some scholars have attached much

significance to common elements in the beliefs and practices of the Essenes

and early Christians. (John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus and whom Jesus

viewed as the chosen herald of a God-given message, may have been a member of the Essene sect.)

The Essenes' founder, a shadowy figure known as the Righteous Teacher,

suffered persecution and perhaps martyrdom late in the second century B.C. The

sect considered itself the true remnant of God's people, preached a "new

covenant," and waited patiently for the time when God would destroy the powers

of evil and inaugurate His Kingdom

Similar views concerning the transition from the "Old Age" to the "New

Age" were held by many other Jews as well as by Christians. For the

Christians, however, the gap had been bridged. The Messiah had come, and his

resurrection was proof that the New Age had arrived. "The New Testament faith

was not a new faith, but the fulfillment of an old faith....Lines of continuity between Moses and Jesus, Isaiah and Jesus, the Righteous Teacher and Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus should occasion no surprise. On the contrary, a biblical faith insists on such continuities." ^6

The Life And Teaching Of Jesus

Whatever its parallels with the Essene sect - including baptism and a

communal meal - Christianity bears the unmistakable imprint of the personality

of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Biblical account, he was

born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod; therefore he may have been born

by the time of Herod's death (4 B.C.) rather than in the year that

traditionally begins the Christian era. After spending the first years of his

life as a carpenter in the village of Nazareth, Jesus began his brief mission,

preaching a gospel of love for one's fellow human beings and urging people to

"Turn away from your sins. The kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 4:17).

The fame of Jesus' teaching and his "mighty works" - miracles such as

casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead, and walking on the

water - spread among the Jews as he and his twelve Apostles traveled from

village to village in Palestine. When he came to Jerusalem to observe the

feast of the Passover, he was welcomed triumphantly by huge crowds as the

promised Messiah. But Jesus was concerned with a spiritual, not an earthly,

kingdom, and when people saw that he had no intention of leading a

nationalistic movement against the Romans, they turned against him. His

enemies then came forward - the moneylenders whom he had denounced, the

Pharisees who resented his repudiation of their minute regulations of daily

behavior, the people who considered him a disturber of the status quo, and

those who saw him as a blasphemer of Yahweh. Betrayed by Judas, one of his

disciples, Jesus was condemned by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy "because he

claimed to be the Son of God" (John 19:7). Before the procurator Pontius

Pilate, however, Jesus was charged with treason for claiming to be the king of


"Are you the king of Jews?" he [Pilate] asked him. Jesus

answered, ... "My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my

kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep

me from being handed over to the Jews. No, my kingdom does not

belong here .... You say that I am a king. I was born and came

into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth.

Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me."(John 18:33-38)

Jesus was condemned to the death that Rome inflicted on enemies of the state -


With Jesus' death it seemed as though his cause had been exterminated. No

written message had been left behind, and his few loyal followers were

disheartened. Yet in the wake of his martyrdom, the Christian cause took on

new impetus. Reports soon spread that Jesus had been seen after his

crucifixion and had spoken to his disciples, giving them solace and

inspiration. At first there were few converts within Palestine itself, but the

Hellenized Jews living in foreign lands, in contact with new ideas and modes

of living, were less firmly committed to traditional Jewish doctrines. The new

faith first made real headway among the Jewish communities in such cities as

Damascus, Antioch (where its followers were first called "Christians" by the

Greeks), Corinth, and Rome.

The Work Of Paul

The followers of Jesus, like their master, had no thought of breaking

away from Judaism. They sought only to revivify their faith spiritually and

ethically. Because they adhered to the requirements of the Jewish law, with

its strict dietary requirements and practice of circumcision, the new message

could not attract non-Jews. Largely through the more liberal and cosmopolitan

preachings of Paul, this obstacle was removed. Because of his influence, Paul

has been called the second founder of Christianity.

Born Saul, of Jewish ancestry but a Roman citizen by birth, and raised in

the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, he possessed a wide knowledge

of Greek culture. Saul was also a strict Pharisee who considered Christians to

be traitors to the Sacred Law and took an active part in their persecution.

One day, about A.D. 33, on the road to Damascus, determined to wipe out the

Christian community there, Saul had an experience that changed his life. In

Saul's own words:

As I was traveling and coming near Damascus, about midday a

bright light suddenly flashed from the sky around me. I fell

to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, "Saul, Saul! Why

do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" I asked. "I am Jesus

of Nazareth, whom you persecute," he said to me. The men with

me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was

speaking to me. I asked, "What shall I do, Lord?" and the Lord

said to me, "Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be

told everything that God has determined for you."(Acts 22:6-10)

Saul, henceforth known by the Roman name, Paul, turned from being a persecutor into the greatest of Christian missionaries.

Paul taught that Jesus was the Christ (from Christos, Greek for

"Messiah"), the Son of God, and that he had died to atone for the sins of all

people. Only faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ was necessary for the

salvation to Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) alike. The Jewish Law was


A man is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ,

never by doing what the Law requires .... So there is no

difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free

men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ

Jesus. (Galatians 2:16, 3:28)

After covering 8000 miles teaching and preaching, Paul was beheaded at

Rome about A.D. 65 (as was also Peter, founder of the church at Rome)

during the reign of Nero. By this time Christian communities had been

established in all important cities in the East and at Rome. Paul performed a

very important service to these infant communities of believers by instructing

them, either through visits or letters, in the fundamental beliefs of the new

religion. He served as an authority by which standardization of belief could

be achieved.

Persecution Of The Christians

The Roman government tolerated any religion that did not threaten the

safety or tranquility of the Empire. Christianity, however, was perceived as a

subversive danger to society and the state. Christians were notorious in their

refusal to offer sacrifice - even a few grains of incense cast upon an altar -

to the state cults on behalf of the emperor. Although not required by law

before the troubled third century, this was considered an essential patriotic

rite uniting all Roman subjects in common loyalty to the imperial government.

To Christians, however, there was only one God; they could sacrifice to no

other. In the eyes of the Roman officials, this attitude branded them as

traitors and "atheists." In addition, the Christians seemed to be a secret,

unsociable group forming a state within a state - "walling themselves off from

the rest of mankind," as a pagan writer observed. Many were pacifists who

refused to serve in the army, and all were intolerant of other religious sects

and refused to associate with pagans or take part in social functions that

they considered sinful or degrading.

During the first two centuries A.D., persecution was only sporadic and

local, like that at Rome under Nero. But during the late third and early

fourth centuries, when the Empire was in danger of collapse, three organized

empire-wide efforts were made to suppress Christianity. By far the longest and

most systematic campaign against the Christians, who now comprised perhaps one tenth of the population, was instigated by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to

311. The death penalty was stringently enforced for those who refused to

sacrifice to the Roman gods. But the inspired defiance of the Christian

martyrs, who seemed to welcome death, could not be overcome. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" became a Christian rallying cry.

Official Recognition And Acceptance

In 311 the emperor Galerius recognized that persecution had failed and

issued an edict of toleration making Christianity a legal religion in the

East. Two years later, Constantine's Edict of Milan granted Christians freedom

of worship throughout the Empire.

Constantine accepted baptism when near death, and his successors were all

Christians, with one exception. In his brief reign (361-363) the scholarly

emperor Julian, Constantine's nephew, who had been raised a Christian,

renounced his faith and sought to revive paganism; as a result, he was branded

the Apostate. Julian did not persecute the Christians ("Those who are in the

wrong in matters of supreme importance," he wrote, "are objects of pity rather

than of hate," ^7) and his efforts to revive paganism failed dismally. On his

deathbed he is supposed to have said, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean."

The emperor Theodosius I (379-395) made Christianity the official

religion of the Empire. Henceforth paganism was persecuted, and even the

Olympic games were suppressed.

A famous victim of this new persecution was the woman Hypatia, who in 415

was killed by a Christian mob in Alexandria. By the age of twenty-five she had

become famous throughout the eastern half of the Empire as a lecturer on Greek

philosophy. Her popularity aroused the resentment of the bishop of Alexandria,

who had already led a mob in destroying the homes and businesses of the city's

Jews. He now incited a mob to abduct Hypatia. She was dragged into a nearby

church and hacked to death. This display of fanatical intolerance shocked

Christian leaders throughout the Roman world.

Reasons For The Spread Of Christianity

In its rise to preeminence, Christianity competed with the various

philosophies and religions of the day. The philosophies were becoming more

religious and other-worldly, however, which made it easy for their adherents

to accept a Christianity whose doctrines, as we shall see, were becoming more

philosophical. During the early Empire, most Roman intellectuals had embraced

Stoicism, which, unlike Epicureanism with its unyielding materialism, had room

for God. The dominant philosophy of the third century, Neoplatonism, rejected

human reason and taught that the only reality is spiritual. The soul's

principal objective is to escape from the material world and, by union with

God, return to its spiritual home.

The popular mystery religions that the Romans had imported from Greece

and the Near East during the troubled last century of the Republic, gave

spiritual satisfaction not provided by Rome's early ritualistic forms of

worship. These religions included the worship of the Phrygian Cybele, the

Great Mother (Magna Mater); the Egyptian Isis, sister and wife of Osiris and

also viewed as a Great Mother; the Greek Dionysus, called Bacchus by the

Romans; and the Persian sun-god Mithras, the intermediary between the great

Lord of Light, Ahura Mazda, and mere mortals, whose sacred day of worship was

called Sunday, and from whose cult women were excluded. Common to all the

mystery religions were the notions of a divine savior and the promise of

everlasting life. Their followers found Christian beliefs and practices

familiar enough to make conversion easy to achieve.

But Christianity had far more to offer than did the mystery religions.

Its founder was not a creature of myth, like the gods and goddesses of the

mystery cults, but a real historic personality whose lofty ethical teachings

and whose death and resurrection as the divine incarnation of God were

preserved in detail in a unique record, the New Testament. Shared only with

the Jews was the Christian concept of God - the omnipotent, jealous, yet

loving God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the God of all humanity. Moreover,

Christianity was a dynamic, aggressive faith. It upheld the equality of all

people - rich and poor, slave and freeborn, male and female. (Women were among Jesus' audiences, and Paul's letters give much evidence of women active in the early church. One of Jesus' helpers was Mary Magdalene. According to the

so-called Gnostic Gospels, which were declared heretical in the early fourth

century and ordered destroyed, "Christ loved her more than all the disciples."

^8) Christianity taught that a loving Father had sent his only Son to atone

for human sins, and offered a vision of immortality and an opportunity to be

"born again" cleansed of sin. Its converts were bound together by faith and

hope, and they took seriously the obligation of caring for orphans, widows,

and other unfortunates. The courage with which they faced death and

persecution impressed even their bitterest enemies. In time, a church

organization was created that was far more united and efficient than any of

its competitors.

Church Organization

The years immediately following the death of Jesus passed with little

organization in the Christian movement. Viewing the present world as something

that would end quickly with the imminent Second Coming of their Lord and the

Last Judgment of the living and the dead, the early Christian converts saw no

necessity for organization. But after it became clear that the Second Coming

had been delayed, a definite church organization began to emerge.

At first there was little or no distinction between laity and clergy.

Traveling teachers visited Christian communities, preaching and giving advice

where needed. But the steady growth in the number of Christians made necessary special church officials who could devote all their time to religious work, clarifying the body of Christian doctrine, conducting services, and collecting money for charitable purposes.

The earliest officials were called presbyters (elders) or bishops

(overseers). By the second century, the offices of bishop and presbyter had

become distinct. Churches in the villages adjacent to the main church, which

was usually located in a city, were administered by priests (a corruption of

presbyter), who were responsible to a bishop. Thus evolved the diocese,

a territorial administrative division under the jurisdiction of a bishop. The

bishops were recognized as the direct successors of the Apostles and, like

them, the guardians of Christian teaching and tradition.

A number of dioceses made up a province. The bishop of the most important

city in each province enjoyed more prestige than his fellows and was known as

an archbishop or metropolitan. The provinces were grouped into larger

administrative divisions called patriarchates. The title of patriarch was

applied to the bishop of such great cities as Rome, Constantinople, and


Primacy Of The Bishop Of Rome

A development of outstanding importance was the rise of the bishop of

Rome to a position of preeminence in the hierarchy of the church. At first

only one of several patriarchs, the Roman bishop gradually became recognized

as the leader of the church in the West with the title of pope - from the

Greek word meaning "father."

Many factors explain the emergence of the papacy at Rome. As the largest

city in the West and the capital of the Empire, Rome had an aura of prestige

that was transferred to its bishop. When the Empire in the West collapsed in

the fifth century, the bishop of Rome emerged as a stable and dominant figure

looked up to by all. The primacy of Rome was fully evident during the

pontificate of Leo I the Great (440-461), who provided both the leadership

that saved Italy from invasion by the Huns and the major theoretical support

for papal leadership of the church - the Petrine theory. This doctrine held

that since Peter, whom Christ had made leader of the apostles, was the first

bishop of Rome, his authority over all Christians was handed on to his

successors at Rome. The church in the East, insisting on the equality of all

the apostles, never accepted the Petrine theory.

Foundations Of Christian Doctrine And Worship

While the administrative structure of the church was being erected,

Christian beliefs were being defined and systematized. We have seen that this

process of fixing Christian doctrine, or dogma, began with Paul, who stressed

the divinity of Jesus and explained his death as an atonement for mankind's

sins ("Christ died for us" Romans 5:8).

In time, differences of opinion over doctrinal matters caused many

controversies. One of the most important was over a belief called Arianism. At

issue was the relative position of the three persons of the Trinity - God the

Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The view that the Father and Son

were equal was vigorously denied by Arius (256-336), a priest from Alexandria.

He believed that Christ was not fully God because he was not of a substance

identical with God and, as a created being, was not coeternal with his

creator. The controversy became so serious that in 325 the emperor Constantine

convened the first ecumenical church council, the Council of Nicaea, to

resolve the problem. (This was the first of nine "world" councils in early

church history. They decided matters democratically by a majority vote of the

attending bishops, who were themselves elected. The modern world's democratic ideal may stem as much from Christianity as from democratic Athens or republican Rome.) With Constantine presiding, the council branded Arian belief a heresy - an opinion or doctrine contrary to the official teaching of the

church - and Christ was declared to be of the same substance as God,

uncreated, and coeternal with him. This mystical concept of the Trinity,

without which the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation - God becoming

man in Christ - would be undermined, received official formulation in the

Nicene Creed.

The liturgy of the early churches was plain and simple, consisting of

prayer, Scripture reading, hymns, and preaching. Early Christians worshiped

God and sought salvation largely through individual efforts. Following the

growth of church organization and dogma, however, the church was believed to

be the indispensable intermediary between God and humans. Without the church, the individual could not hope for salvation.

The development of the church's dogma owed much to the church Fathers of

the second through fifth centuries. Since most of them were intellectuals who

came to Christianity by way of Neoplatonism and Stoicism, they maintained that

Greek philosophy and Christianity were compatible. Because reason (logos in

Greek) and truth came from God, "philosophy was a preparation," wrote Clement

of Alexandria (d. 215), "paving the way towards perfection in Christ," the

latest and most perfect manifestation of God's reason. Thus Christianity was

viewed as a superior philosophy that could supersede all pagan philosophies

and religions.

In the West three church Fathers stand out. The scholarship of St. Jerome

(340-420) made possible the famous Vulgate translation of the Bible into

Latin. In a revised form, it is still the official translation of the Roman

Catholic church. Jerome also justified Christian use of the literature and

learning of the classical world. Why should not the Christian take what was

good from the pagans, he argued, since the Hebrews had taken "spoil" from

Egypt when they fled from Egyptian bondage. (Exodus 3:22)

St. Ambrose (340-397) resigned his government post to become bishop of

Milan, where he employed his great administrative skills to establish a model

bishopric. By reproving the actions of the strong emperor Theodosius I and

forcing him to do public penance, St. Ambrose was the first to assert the

church's superiority over the state in spiritual matters.

St. Augustine (354-430) was the most important of all the church Fathers.

At the age of thirty-two, as he relates in his Confessions, one of the world's

great autobiographies, he found in Christianity the answer to his long search

for meaning in life. Before, he had shared the doubts of men "who rush hither

and thither, to this side or that, according as they are driven by the impulse

of erratic opinion." Now, "by the pity, mercy, and help of God" he had come to

anchor in Christianity. "What man shall teach another to understand this?"

Augustine asks. No one can teach him; he must come to it on his own after much

travail: "This must be asked of you, sought in you, knocked for at you; thus

only shall it be received, thus shall it be found, thus shall it be opened to

us." ^9 Here Augustine echoes the view expressed by many church Fathers, that

"Christians are not born, they are made."

As bishop of Hippo in North Africa, St. Augustine wrote more than a

hundred religious works, which blended classical logic and philosophy with

Christian belief and became the foundation of much of the church's theology.

The Regular Clergy

So far we have discussed the secular clergy, who moved through the world

(saeculum) administering the church's services and communicating its

teachings to the laity. But another type of clergy also arose - the regular

clergy, so called because they lived by a rule (regula) within

monasteries. These monks sought seclusion from the distractions of this world

in order to prepare themselves for the next.

The monastic way of life was older than Christianity, having existed in

Judaism, for example, among the Essenes. Christian ascetics, who had abandoned the worldly life and become hermits, could be found in the East as early as the third century A.D. In pursuit of spiritual perfection by denying their

physical feelings, they tortured themselves and fasted to excess. In Syria,

for example, St. Simeon Stylites sat for thirty-three years on top of a pillar

sixty feet high. His disciple then beat his record by three months.

As a more moderate expression of asceticism, Christians in Egypt

developed the monastic life in which, seeking a common spiritual goal, they

lived together under a common set of regulations. St. Basil (330-379), a Greek

bishop in Asia Minor, drew up a rule based on work, charity, and a communal

life that still allowed each monk to retain most of his independence. The Rule

of St. Basil became the standard system in the Eastern church.

In Western monasticism the work of St. Benedict (c. 480-543) paralleled

St. Basil's efforts in the East. About 529, Benedict led a band of followers

to a high hill between Rome and Naples, named Monte Cassino, where they

erected a monastery on the site of an ancient pagan temple. Here he composed a rule that gave order and discipline to Western monasticism. Benedictine monks

took the three basic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the abbot,

the head of the monastery. Unlike Eastern monks, the daily activities of the

Benedictine monks were closely regulated: they participated in eight divine

services, labored in field or workshop for six or seven hours, and spent about

two hours studying and preserving the writings of Latin antiquity at a time

when western Europe suffered widespread illiteracy. Benedictine monasticism

was to be the most dynamic civilizing force in medieval Europe between the

sixth and the twelfth centuries.

Women played an important role in establishing the new monastic style of

Christianity. In Egypt, an early fifth-century bishop declared that 20,000

women - twice as many as men - were living in desert communities as nuns. In

the West, several fourth-century biographies of aristocratic women describe

how they turned their villas and palaces into monasteries for women of all

classes and remained firmly in control of their institutions. These

communities became famous for their social and educational services, in

addition to providing a different way of life for women who were unwilling to

conform to the usual pattern of marriage, motherhood, and subordination to


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