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The Rise of Christianity (5.4)

Chapter 5 Section 4


Early in the Pax Romana, a new religion, Christianity, arose in a distant corner of the Roman empire. At first, Christianity was one of many religions practiced in the empire. But the new faith grew rapidly, and throughout the A.D. 380s and 390s it was gradually made the official religion of the Roman empire.

Renaissance painter Raphael depicted the cross appearing above Constantine (right); the fish and the cross (far right) were early Christian symbols.

As it gained strength and spread through the empire, Christianity reshaped Roman beliefs. When the Roman empire fell, the Christian Church took over much of its role, becoming the central institution of Western civilization for nearly 1,000 years.

Early Empire Includes Diverse Religions


Within the culturally diverse Roman empire, various religious beliefs coexisted. Jupiter, Mars, Juno, and other traditional Roman gods remained important. However, a growing number of people looked elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment.

Rome Tolerates Diversity

Some people turned to the so-called mystery religions, which emphasized secret rituals and promised special rewards. One of the most popular of these was the cult of Isis, which started in Egypt and offered women equal status with men. Roman soldiers favored the cult of the Persian god Mithras, who championed good over evil and offered life after death.

Generally, Rome tolerated the varied religious traditions of its subjects. As long as citizens showed loyalty by honoring Roman gods and acknowledging the divine spirit of the emperor, the government allowed them to worship other gods as they pleased. Because most people were polytheistic, they were content to worship the Roman gods along with their own.

Divisions Arise in Judea

By 63 B.C., the Romans had conquered Judea, the southern part of Palestine where most Jews of the time lived. To avoid violating the Jewish belief in one god, the Romans excused Jews from worshiping Roman gods. Among the Jewish people themselves, however, religious ferment was creating deep divisions. During the Hellenistic age, many Jews absorbed Greek customs and ideas. Concerned about the weakening of their religion, Jewish conservatives rejected these influences and called for strict obedience to Jewish laws and traditions.

While most Jews were reluctantly willing to live under Roman rule, others, called Zealots, were not. They called on Jews to revolt against Rome and reestablish an independent state. Some Jews believed that a messiah, or anointed king sent by God, would soon appear to lead their people to freedom.

A Jewish Rebellion Is Defeated

In A.D. 66, discontent flared into rebellion. Four years later, Roman forces crushed the rebels, captured Jerusalem, and destroyed the Jewish temple. When revolts broke out again in the next century, Roman armies leveled Jerusalem. Thousands of Jews were killed in the fighting, and many others were enslaved and transported to various parts of the empire. Faced with the destruction that resulted from the rebellions, growing numbers of Jews decided to leave Judea.

Although the Jewish people were defeated in their efforts to regain political independence, they survived in scattered communities around the Mediterranean. Over the centuries, Jewish religious teachers called rabbis extended and preserved the Jewish law, and Judaism survived.

The Limits of TolerationThe Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in A.D. 70 (above left) was a massive assault against revolt.

Jesus Proclaims His Teachings


As turmoil engulfed the Jews in Palestine, a new religion, Christianity, arose among them. It began among the followers of a Jew named Jesus. Almost all the information we have about the life of Jesus comes from the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Early Christians attributed the writing of these accounts to four followers of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Jesus Proclaims His Teachings

As turmoil engulfed the Jews in Palestine, a new religion, Christianity, arose among them. It began among the followers of a Jew named Jesus. Almost all the information we have about the life of Jesus comes from the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Early Christians attributed the writing of these accounts to four followers of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Jesus Begins Preaching

Jesus was born about 4 B.C. in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. According to the Gospels, he was a descendant of King David of Israel. The Gospels say an angel told Jesus’ mother, Mary, that she would give birth to the messiah. “He will be great,” said the angel, “and will be called the Son of the Most High God.”

Growing up in the small town of Nazareth, Jesus worshiped God and followed Jewish law. As a young man, he may have worked as a carpenter. At the age of 30, the Gospels relate, he began preaching to villagers near the Sea of Galilee. Large crowds gathered to hear his teachings, especially when word spread that he had performed miracles of healing. Jesus often used parables, or short stories with simple moral lessons, to communicate his ideas. He recruited 12 of his disciples, or close followers, to help him in his mission. He called these 12 the apostles, a name that in Greek means “a person sent forth.” After three years, Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem to spread his message there.

Jesus Teaches New Beliefs

Jesus’ teachings were firmly rooted in Jewish tradition. Jesus believed in one God and accepted the Ten Commandments. He preached obedience to the laws of Moses and defended the teachings of the Jewish prophets. However, Jesus also preached new beliefs. According to his followers, he called himself the Son of God. Many people believed he was the long-anticipated messiah. Jesus proclaimed that his mission was to bring spiritual salvation and eternal life to anyone who believed in him.

Jesus emphasized God’s love and taught the need for justice, morality, and service to others. According to Jesus, a person’s major duties were to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus also emphasized the importance of forgiveness.

Condemned to Death

Some Jews welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. Others regarded him as a dangerous troublemaker. Jewish priests, in particular, felt that he was challenging their leadership. To the Roman authorities, Jesus was a revolutionary who might lead the Jews in a rebellion against Roman rule.

The Gospels state that Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples. He was then arrested by the Romans, tried, and condemned to death by crucifixion. In this method of execution, which the Romans often used, a person was nailed or bound to a cross and left to die. Jesus’ crucifixion threw his disciples into confusion. But then rumors spread through Jerusalem that Jesus was not dead at all. The Gospels report that his disciples saw and talked with Jesus, who had risen from death. The Gospels go on to say that Jesus, after commanding his disciples to spread his teachings to all people, ascended into heaven.

The Message of Christianity Spreads


After Jesus’ death, the apostles and other disciples did spread his message. At first, they preached only among the Jews of Judea. Some Jews accepted the teaching that Jesus was the messiah, or the Christ, from the Greek word for “anointed one.” Soon, they were called Christians. Gradually, these disciples went to preach in Jewish communities throughout the Roman world. According to tradition, the apostle Peter established Christianity in the city of Rome itself. But Paul, a Jew from Asia Minor, played the most influential role in spreading Christianity.

Paul Spreads Christianity

Paul had never met Jesus. In fact, he had been among those who persecuted Jesus’ followers. But one day Paul had a vision of Jesus speaking to him. He immediately joined the Christians and decided to spread Jesus’ teachings to gentiles, or non-Jews.

Until this time, Christianity had remained a sect within Judaism. The work of missionaries like Paul set Christianity on the road to becoming a world religion. A tireless traveler, Paul journeyed around the Mediterranean and set up churches in Asia Minor and Greece. In letters to the Christian communities, he explained difficult doctrines, judged disputes, and expanded Christian teachings, emphasizing that Jesus had sacrificed his life out of love for humankind. Paul asserted that those who believed Jesus was the son of God and complied with his teachings would achieve salvation, or eternal life. His letters became part of the New Testament.

Christians Are Oppressed

Rome’s tolerant attitude toward religion was not extended to Christianity. Roman officials found the Christians disloyal to Rome because they refused to honor the emperor with sacrifices or ask the traditional gods to protect the Roman state. When Christians met in secret to avoid persecution, rumors spread that they were engaged in evil practices.

In times of trouble, persecution increased. Some Roman rulers, such as Nero, used Christians as scapegoats, blaming them for social or economic ills. Over the centuries, those Christians who were killed in periods of persecution became known as martyrs, or people who suffer or die for their beliefs. According to tradition, both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero.

The Message Appeals to Many

Despite the attacks, Christianity continued to spread throughout the Roman world. Jesus had welcomed all people, especially the lowly, the poor, and the oppressed. These people found comfort in his message of love, as well as in his teachings of equality, dignity, and the promise of a better life beyond the grave.

As they did their work, Christian missionaries like Paul used ideas from Plato, the Stoics, and other Greek thinkers to explain Jesus’ message. A religion that incorporated the discipline and moderation of Greek philosophy appealed in particular to educated Romans. The unity of the Roman empire also eased the work of missionaries. Christians traveled along Roman roads and across the Mediterranean Sea, which was protected by Roman fleets. Early Christian documents were usually written in Greek or Latin, languages that many people across the empire understood.

Even persecution brought new converts. Observing the willingness of Christians to die for their religion, people were impressed by the strength of Christians’ belief. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the [Christian] Church,” noted one Roman.

Rome Accepts Christianity

The persecution of Christians finally ended in A.D. 313, when the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. It granted freedom of worship to all citizens of the Roman empire. By the end of century, the emperor Theodosius (thee uh doh shus) had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire and repressed the practice of other faiths.

© Pearson Successnet


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