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Christianity in the Roman Empire
Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ (Greek for "the anointed"), is at the center of one of the world's
great religions, Christianity. The Jesus of Christianity is a miracle-worker, a prophet, a teacher, and the
savior of souls. The historical Jesus is harder to pin down, as the available sources were more
concerned with him as the messiah than they were with details of his life. Scholars today continue the
difficult task of poring over the sources and reconstructing, as best they can, the life of Jesus. For
some, he emerges as a revolutionary, to others a profound religious teacher, but whatever their
stance, no scholar denies the incredible impact the life and work of Jesus has had on subsequent
The birth of Jesus traditionally begins in the first year CE, though scholars now believe that he was
actually born in 4 BCE. His father, Joseph, was a carpenter. His mother was Mary. According to
Christian doctrine, Mary became pregnant through the agency of the Holy Spirit, not through normal
means of conception. Thus, Mary is often referred to as the "Virgin Mary." The importance of the
"virgin birth" lies in the belief that Jesus was sent into the world by God to save souls, but that Jesus
was to live as any other person, going through the life cycle as all humanity does. Thus, Christians
believe Jesus to be fully God and fully man.
The childhood of Jesus, and indeed much of his life, remains obscure. The Gospels, four biblical books
that focus on Jesus and constitute the main source for him, were little concerned with his day-to-day
life. For these authors, it was the mission of Jesus that took priority. In general, the outline of his early
years as the Bible tells it runs thus: Soon after his birth, the family fled Bethlehem for Egypt to avoid
the "slaughter of the innocents" under King Herod the Great, who feared that Jesus as the new "King
of the Jews" might prove a threat to his rule. When Herod was dead, the family returned and settled
in Nazareth, where Jesus spent most of his life.
None of the authors of the Gospels explain these years in detail. At times, they merely say that Jesus
grew in grace and readiness for his ministry, and at others, they offer stories that echo older tales and
help link the prophesized life of Jesus with sections of the Old Testament that foreshadow him. The
return from Egypt, for instance, in some ways echoes the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt during the
"Exodus" (the time when the Hebrews, under the leadership of Moses, left a life of slavery in Egypt for
the Promised Land). Other examples highlight the precocious knowledge of the young Jesus. For
example, in the book of Luke (2:41-52), a 12-year-old Jesus discusses religious matters with the rabbis
(teachers) in the temple and impresses them with his vast knowledge. Jesus most likely taught in
Aramaic, though he probably knew some Greek as well. It seems clear that he received a basic
education, as many of his teachings display a thorough grounding in the Old Testament.
There is far more information about the ministry of Jesus. While scholars have long argued the length
of time Jesus preached and the geographical extent of his ministry, it seems clear now that Jesus'
career started in his early thirties, spanned about three years, and took place predominantly in Galilee
and Judaea. The turning point was his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, an itinerant
preacher who taught that people should repent of their sins. According to Christian tradition, John
recognized the divinity of Christ and refused to baptize Jesus, but Jesus told him to do it so prophecy
might be fulfilled.
Once baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, and God spoke from the heavens. Afterward, Jesus
went into the desert and fasted for 40 days, during which he was tempted by Satan to abandon his
mission. However, in receiving the Holy Spirit, Jesus was armed to defeat the devil and succeeded in
triumphing over temptation. Now ready, Jesus began his ministry, attracting disciples along the way,
12 of whom were especially close to him (the "apostles").
The core of Jesus' message was that people should love God and their neighbors. The two "Great
Commandments" did not replace the 10 given to Moses or the laws of earlier prophets but "fulfilled"
them, meaning that earlier proclamations all led to these two commandments. Jesus used parables,
or metaphors, to teach, always using examples that anyone could understand. He also healed the sick.
Jesus' teachings, in and of themselves, were not offensive, but his reputation and avowal that he was
the Son of God rankled the Hebrew priesthood. Christians believed that Jesus was the long-awaited
messiah, one who would save their souls. Many Jews believed, however, that the prophesied messiah
would be a political savior, not a spiritual one, and Jesus sought to save souls, not free Israel from the
yoke of the Roman Empire.
In time, Jesus was accused by the sanhedrin (the priestly body of the Jews), brought to trial, and
condemned for blasphemy. As they did not possess the authority to execute Jesus, being subjects of
Rome, Jesus then went on trial before the Roman magistrate, Pontius Pilate. In the end, Pilate found
no fault with him and gave the people a choice—they could free either Jesus or Barabbas, another
There is no direct evidence that the practice of freeing a prisoner at Passover ever occurred, but
tradition holds that the crowd picked Barabbas. Jesus was then scourged, humiliated, and crucified.
Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead three days later, and then was
taken up into heaven, all of which he was meant to do in order to free humanity from original sin.
Within a few years, the apostles had taken Jesus' message all over the Roman Empire, and in time, the
empire itself became Christian.
While historians continue to debate the details of Jesus' life, and theologians continue to discuss his
mission, it is clear that Jesus did live and preach in Palestine. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus
and the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus, to name only a few contemporary witnesses, all
attest to the existence of Jesus. Even with these accounts, the historical Jesus remains elusive.
Christianity and the Roman Empire
During the reigns of Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, in the province of Judaea there lived a
man known as Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings became the foundation of a new religion:
In the first three centuries after Jesus' death around 33 CE, Christianity grew from a small, oftenmisunderstood splinter group of Judaism into a widespread and formally recognized religion
throughout the Roman Empire.
The Early Growth of Christianity
Early Christians were intent on converting others to their faith. They were especially successful in the
region the Romans called Asia (between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, from Antioch in
the east to Ephesus in the west) and in North Africa. Under the direction of Jesus' closest associates,
who called themselves "apostles," missionaries spread his teachings to Jews and non-Jews and
established organized religious communities across the Roman Empire, from Cologne (in modern-day
Germany) to Egypt and from Carthage (in North Africa) to Edessa (in modern-day Turkey).
The first Christian communities were well organized and gave followers a supportive social structure.
Jerusalem served as the central point of administration until future Roman emperor Titus destroyed
the city in 70 CE. After that, Christian communities outside Judaea became vital for the maintenance
and growth of the new religion.
Christianity appealed to people at various levels of society, especially those who were excluded from
positions of power and prestige: the poor, women, noncitizens, and slaves. Christianity preached
justice and love for all people, and its communities provided food, medicine, clothing, and shelter to
everyone. Following Jesus' death, his followers preached his message with increased zeal. Converts
saw their own suffering reflected in the suffering of Jesus, and Christianity promised them a life after
death that would offer refuge from that pain.
Roman Persecution of Christians
During the first three centuries of Christian history, the Roman government often viewed the religion
with suspicion. Other conquered religious groups had generally integrated into Roman culture by
agreeing to request a blessing for the Roman gods from their own god or gods. Christians refused to
do so, however, and many were killed because they failed to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods.
The first large-scale persecution of Christians occurred in 64 CE, when Emperor Nero blamed them for
the Great Fire of Rome, which destroyed much of the city. Persecution continued sporadically over
the next two centuries. Between 303 and 311, the emperors Diocletian and Galerius systematically
persecuted Christians in an effort to restore the values of the original Roman state, including pious
worship of the Roman gods. However, on his deathbed in 311, Galerius admitted that the persecution
had been unsuccessful and issued the Edict of Toleration, which ended imperial abuse of Christians.
The Shift from Pagan to Christian Empire
The emperor Constantine I became the Christian Church's greatest patron when he definitively
assumed power in 312, after a series of civil wars. He publicly attributed his success to the power of
the Christian God. He ordered the construction of Christian churches on a grand scale, granted more
lands to the Church, and gave Christian leaders the authority of civil judges. Most significantly, he
made an agreement with his coemperor Licinius that resulted in the Edict of Milan (313 CE), which
proclaimed official toleration of Christianity in the Roman Empire. As a result of that shift in Roman
policy, Christianity flourished and became increasingly integrated into Roman culture.
Constantine made sure that Christianity would provide a strong, unified source of support for his
government when he presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325. Some serious theological
disagreements had developed among different groups of Christians, and Constantine organized the
council in order to impose unity on the potentially divisive factions. Bishops (Christian leaders with
authority over certain geographical areas) from all over the empire came to the council. They adopted
a statement of faith called the Nicene Creed, which clarified the idea of the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus,
and the Holy Spirit) and rejected a type of Christianity called Arianism. Constantine exiled the teacher
of Arianism, a priest from Alexandria named Arius, as well as two other bishops from Libya who
refused to approve the Nicene Creed.
Christianity as a Unifying Force
Under Constantine's rule, Christianity began to replace Roman paganism as the unifying cultural force
in the empire. Moreover, many traditional Roman practices became intermingled with Christian
beliefs. For example, those who had venerated such goddesses as Ceres transferred that veneration
to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Furthermore, festivals that had once been part of Roman
culture became associated with Christian celebrations.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Roman Catholic Church remained the
dominant social force in Europe for many centuries. In the east, Constantinople remained the
Christian capital of a wealthy and powerful state, the Byzantine Empire, for a thousand years.
Christianity grew from a splinter group of Judaism in an obscure province of the Roman Empire into a
worldwide religious, social, and political force that continues to exert its influence throughout the
world today.
"Christianity and the Roman Empire (Overview)." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 5
Oct. 2014.
Edict of Milan (313 CE)
The Edict of Milan, promulgated in February 313 CE, established the toleration and equality of all
religions within the Roman Empire. The proclamation by coemperors Constantine I and Licinius
decreed specifically that Christians could no longer be brought before judges, persecuted, tortured, or
killed simply for being Christian. It granted them legal status and the right to create churches for
worship. It also declared that previously seized property could be reclaimed by Christians, at the
expense of the Roman government if necessary. The Edict of Milan did not establish Christianity as the
official religion of the Roman Empire; however, because only Christianity was mentioned, the edict had
the effect of downgrading the status of paganism in the empire. Below is the text in its entirety.
When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus fortunately met near Mediolanum
(Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we
thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations
pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to
the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any
Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all
who are placed under our rule. And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we
thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the
observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the
Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor
and benevolence. Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all
conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the
Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and
openly, without molestation. We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that
you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious
worship. When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we
have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the
sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases;
this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.
Moreover, in the case of the Christians especially we esteemed it best to order that if it happens
anyone heretofore has bought from our treasury from anyone whatsoever, those places where they
were previously accustomed to assemble, concerning which a certain decree had been made and a
letter sent to you officially, the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim
of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception. Those, moreover, who have obtained the
same by gift, are likewise to return them at once to the Christians. Besides, both those who have
purchased and those who have secured them by gift, are to appeal to the vicar if they seek any
recompense from our bounty, that they may be cared for through our clemency. All this property
ought to be delivered at once to the community of the Christians through your intercession, and
without delay. And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which
they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them
as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law,
you will order to be restored, without any hesitation or controversy at all, to these Christians, that is
to say to the corporations and their conventicles: providing, of course, that the above arrangements
be followed so that those who return the same without payment, as we have said, may hope for an
indemnity from our bounty. In all these circumstances you ought to tender your most efficacious
intervention to the community of the Christians, that our command may be carried into effect as
quickly as possible, whereby, moreover, through our clemency, public order may be secured. Let this
be done so that, as we have said above, Divine favor towards us, which, under the most important
circumstances we have already experienced, may, for all time, preserve and prosper our successes
together with the good of the state. Moreover, in order that the statement of this decree of our good
will may come to the notice of all, this rescript, published by your decree, shall be announced
everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, so that the decree of this, our benevolence, cannot
be concealed.
"Edict of Milan (313 CE)." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.
1. What does the text mean when it refers to “the historical Jesus”?
2. Complete the following graphic organizer:
Jesus of
3. Who did Christianity appeal to? Why?
4. Give an example of Roman persecution of Christians:
5. Give one example of how Constantine promoted the Christian religion:
6. How did Christianity intermingle with traditional Roman practices?
7. Describe the change in geographic distribution of Christianity from 300 CE to 600 CE:
8. What was the Edict of Milan and how did it benefit Christians in the Roman Empire?
9. Refer to the text of the Edict of Milan. Copy a line that refers to freedom of religion in the Roman Empire:
10. Based on what you read, why did Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire?