Christianity started humbly as a Jewish sect in Roman-dominated Palestine, but it grew to become a continental and world religion in the middle ages. Certain qualities in Christianity were responsible for this radical outcome. First, Jesus’ message represented a radical departure from traditional religions at the time.
Furthermore, the early Church remained zealous about their calling to spread the message. Several social and cultural features attracted the Gentiles to the faith. However, this growth changed dramatically in the middle ages when the Roman Catholic Church took up political responsibilities.
Jesus’ message was a ‘revolution’ during those ancient times. He claimed that he was the messiah. He added that he was the only way that Yahweh would restore the Israelites to their former glory (McManners 9). The Israelites had gone through numerous trails and tribulations. Jesus claimed that he would save them from these afflictions.
They would realize their complete liberation through him. This was something that other notable Israelites had never claimed before. Furthermore, Jesus stated that he was the son of God and that he had come to die for other people’s sins. In the past, Israelites made atonement for their sin through animal sacrifices.
However, when Jesus came, he claimed that he would save them from their sins through his death. He articulated this during the Passover feast in the temple. At the time, Jesus said that, through his death, he would do for Israel what they could not do for themselves. Jesus’ message was something akin to a revolution because it represented the presence of God among the Israelites.
Before this, God had sent other messengers to deliver information to the Jews, but this time, it was God himself who was living among the people. The Israelites believed that God manifested himself through the use of the Torah, divine wisdom, and the temple, but with Jesus’ entry, a different manifestation took effect. His work was also symptomatic of this very message.
Jesus’ message was not the only thing that caused a lot of controversy among the Jewish population. The Jews and the Romans had numerous political, social and religious reasons why they opposed this man. They thought of him as a threat to the Roman Empire. During Jesus’ death, Pilate was Judea’s ruler; he felt responsible for the maintenance of peace in this area.
Since the Jewish authorities wanted him dead, he felt obligated to obey their wishes in order to maintain peace. The Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus because he seemed to have contradicted the Ten Commandments. The first law states that the Israelites were to have no other gods other than Yahweh. The Sanhedrin had not listened to Jesus’ message well, so they assumed that he was blaspheming. The Israelites called Jesus the King of the Jews during his last years.
This made the Sanhedrin jealous because he seemed more popular than they were. Furthermore, Jesus told the Jewish people that he would destroy the temple and build a new one. When the Jewish priests heard about this, they felt threatened because they realized that their authority would not be necessary. In order to preserve their position, they needed to eliminate this person who would invalidate them. Therefore, the Jewish leaders requested the Roman authorities to kill Jesus.
After Christ’s death, the controversies did not end there; almost all quarters persecuted the early Christians. In certain instances, it was the Jews; in other scenarios, it was the Romans. The latter group had developed a distaste for Christianity owing to political and social reasons. In Romanic eyes, religion was not a separate entity from politics. They saw it as a way of preserving the sense of well being and order in the Roman Empire.
Therefore, if another part of the empire tried to separate itself from the rest of the group, then this would spark hostility from the natives. They regarded Christianity as a serious threat to the unity of the Roman Empire. The Romans regarded Christians as antisocial because they had their own customs and practices. For instance, they spoke of the love feasts as well ‘drinking Jesus’ Blood’ and eating his body.
These seemed like odd behaviors to the Romans who believed that the Jews were cannibals and immoral people. In fact, in the 2nd Century, the Romans accused Lyons martyrs of Oedipian intercourse and other orgies (Frend 7). One lawyer even stated that they had engaged in incestuous acts. Ignorance led to these misconceptions, but the Christian’s mysteriousness also contributed.
The Roman Empire experienced some problems in the fifth Century. At this time, its people believed that they were in trouble because the gods were angry at them. They blamed Christians for making these continuous changes in their lives. The Romans called the Christians atheists because they had rejected the deities of the Roman Empire. The Romans always believed that delineation from the gods was a source of bad luck, and this took effect for many years to come.
Despite the persecutions and horrific punishments, the Christian faith still spread so quickly. This occurred because Christianity was open to non Jews. In the beginning, the Christians tried to change the Jews, but it was only they after opening up to the rest of the world that they started expanding so quickly.
The Gentiles accounted for the highest number of converts at the time. Nonetheless, these groups liked certain qualities found in Christianity. First, Christians disregarded the need to follow strict dietary laws or even practice male circumcision. Consequently, the Gentiles felt that they would fit into the group rather well. The most significant feature of Christianity that caused the Gentiles to consider it was its powerful message. Christians affirmed that they had come to bring salvation to the full human race.
They did not care whether one was a servant or a master; all one needed was to believe in this God. At that time, society had various classes; consequently, the oppressed members felt that they would belong in this new faith. Christianity also grew quickly because it was not substantially different from pagan religions of the time. For example, the Egyptian goddess called Isis was quite similar to Mary because Mary was the mother of Jesus, who was also God.
Christians chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth on the 25th day of December rather than 6th January because the Christians at that time related to a pagan holiday. Many of them would join in the pagan celebrations even though they did not profess to their beliefs. Additionally, the Christians recognized the use of the rabbit and the egg during Easter. They borrowed this from another pagan practice.
Contrary to Romanic expectations, the persecutions of Christians also contributed to the spread of Christianity. Instead of shunning this religion, many followers felt that it was quite honorable to die for what one believed in. Consequently, they embraced this possibility of death by claiming that it was a way of proving their worth before God. The church’s structure had a role to play in the development of the church.
This organized structure contributed to further expansion of the religion. Lastly, Christianity grew quickly because of the missionaries involved in spreading the Gospel. In those early centuries, there was relative peace and stability. This aided the missionaries in their work because they could travel by sea to different corners of the world (McManners 44).
The Church continued to grow, and started to become massive in the middle ages. However, because the church had taken on a political dimension, it started departing from the original teaching of the messiah. From as early as five hundred and ninety BC, the Roman Catholic Church declared the Pope as the servant of servants.
Submission to the Pope was imperative for salvation. When one opposed the ruling of the Roman Catholic Church, then that person would be excommunicated. Furthermore, they claimed that one would lose one’s soul. The Church started loosing its belief in salvation by faith in Jesus.
From 14C AD, the Roman Catholic Church disregarded Augustinian teachings and embraced the Pelagius teaching. One would gain salvation through submission to the church and external obedience. The concept of living a faith-based life was not significant. Issues of sainthood came up; they claimed that one could reach sinless perfection through continual reception of grace.
If one had not reached this level of perfection upon death, then one would go to purgatory. Some individuals even started to worship the saints as they acted as mediators between man and God. However, this differed from Christ’s teaching because Christ talked about justification; He died in order to justify believers by faith rather than sanctify them. The clergy became extremely powerful at the time. In addition, the Church introduced indulgences where priests would offer their services for sale.
For instance, when one committed incest, one would pay five goats. They even had prices for murder, burglary, and deceit. All these activities contradicted the message of free salvation and forgiveness of sin as taught by Christ. The Roman Church controlled philosophies, morals, education, politics and religion itself. The middle ages were a dark time for Christianity because the faithful forgot fundamental Christian doctrines.
The Christian faith is one of the most resilient churches in the world. It started with Jesus’ rejection and death; thereafter, the Romans persecuted the early Christians. However, its unique message drew the Gentiles to the church and accounted for its quick spread. The middle ages epitomized the distortion of the Christian message through excessive corruption of Christian doctrines by the Roman Catholic Church.
Frend, WIlliam. “Persecution in the Early Church.” Christian history, 27.3(2000): 7
McManners, John. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Madrid: OUP, 1999. Print.