How Christianity Rose to Dominate Europe

How Christianity Rose to Dominate Europe

Humble Beginnings
Amongst the Roman-Ruled Jews

Christianity would
grow to dominate Europe by the 5th century AD, but its humble beginnings
can be traced to the adjacent continent of Asia, in a backwater of the Roman Empire
known as Judea.
It began as a small Jewish movement in and around Jerusalem, which
purported that the Son of God (Jesus Christ – the “anointed one”) had
lived and preached among them during the early 1st century. Followers
claimed that his new “gospel” (a.k.a. “the way”) corrected the
corruptions which had infiltrated Judaism throughout the previous
centuries, showing the true way to salvation (by believing in and
following the teachings of Jesus).

Christianity
first materialized as an offshoot of Judaism (i.e. “reformed Judaism”), centered around the
Hebrew prophesies of a Jewish messiah. Just as Judaism was viewed
primarily as a religion for the Israelites, Christianity was also
initially viewed as a religion for “God’s chosen people” (as
the Israelites viewed themselves). This original
understanding is reflected by various passages in the New Testament
which ascribe to Jesus instruction that prohibits Jewish followers from
introducing the gospel among the “gentiles” (i.e. non-Jews).

The prevailing
viewpoint among the earliest Christians was that the gospel was
God’s gift to the Jews, to help perfect them as a
people, to escape their captors (the Romans in this case), and to help
usher the Kingdom of Heaven to the earth, which was to be located in Jerusalem
with Jesus at its throne.

According to New
Testament writings, the apostle Peter understood that the gospel was to
be confined to the Jews. However, Paul of Tarsus would enter the scene,
and successfully challenge this notion, marking an important
transitional point for Christianity.

(Continued Below)


Spread Beyond
Jerusalem to the “Gentiles”

The earliest-dated
writings of the New Testament are the Pauline Epistles, as agreed upon
by most secular and Christian scholars. Paul, after his renowned
conversion story on the Road to Damascus, wrote several letters during
his missionary travels throughout the Greco-Roman world from about 36 –
60 AD, thanks in large part due to the advanced road system within the
Roman Empire.

According to
scripture, Paul and Peter contended with one another concerning whether
it was appropriate to proselyte among the Gentiles. Peter, the head of
the Christian movement, and his followers believed that in order for a
Gentile to become Christian, they must first convert to Judaism.
Converted Gentiles and Jews should then continue to uphold the Torah and
all the laws and rituals that Judaism entailed, including temple rituals
and practices.

Paul argued that
Jesus had fulfilled this law, and that it was no longer necessary to
observe the laws and rituals of Judaism. Paul and Peter arrived at a
compromise, where Jewish converts would continue to practice the Law of
Moses, while Gentile converts would not be required.

During the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD, it was determined that
Gentiles would be accepted by all Jews into the Christianity movement,
and that certain Jewish practices were not necessary for their
inclusion, especially circumcision.

This brand of Jewish Christianity largely died out
as a result of this, as the new idea of a religion independent of
Judaism eclipsed
the original Jewish-centric creed. The fate of Jewish-Christianity was sealed with the
slaughters and deportations of Jews in Jerusalem, between 70-130 AD, in response to the
Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire. Jewish Christians were largely located in and
around Jerusalem. Therefore, the majority were killed or deported,
essentially uprooting Christianity from among the Jewish settlements
in the Palestinian region.

As Jewish
Christianity dwindled into extinction by the 2nd century, it was the
Gentiles that took the mantle of Christianity, continuing the struggle
against Roman persecution in order to survive as a religion. First,
Christians were seen as a sect of the Jewish religion, which was
disdained in the Roman Empire, as it conflicted with the worship of the
Greco-Roman Gods. Christians and Jews were also known for their zealous
revolts. Furthermore, many in the Roman Empire believed that
Christianity offended the Greco-Roman Gods, which is why Paul and Peter
were blamed for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, leading to their
martyrdom.

On the other hand,
Christianity offered many attractive doctrines for Romans, especially
those trapped among the lower rungs of Roman society, such as peasants
and slaves. This segment clung to the idea that despite their inevitable
sufferings in this life, the poor and the meek would gain equality (and
even superiority) in the next life. As a hopelessly oppressed people in
the Roman Empire, Christianity provided them with optimism.

Even many in the
middle and upper classes found favor in Christianity, due to many of its
altruistic teachings, along with the fact that Christian doctrine
encouraged slaves to remain faithful to their masters. Christianity also benefited from other
conceptually-similar mystery
religions that preceded it. Thus, many of the
converts were predisposed to believe in such concepts as a single God,
and a transcendent/incorporeal (“spiritual”) aspect to life.

Persecution only
seemed to validate the message of Christianity for its followers,
serving as a parallel with the crucifixion of Christ. Consistent with
Christian writings, those with power on earth would oppress the meek and
the poor. But the humble servants of Christ would be compensated for
their sufferings in the next life.

However, Christians
would remain a fringe religion in the Roman Empire until becoming
legalized in the 4th century. It flourished more strongly in the east
amongst the Greeks than it did in the west amongst the Italians. Yet, it
was within the Italy, the heart of the Roman Empire, where Christianity
would be catapulted toward ubiquity.

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Christianity’s Big
Break: From Fringe Religion to Official Religion of Rome

Christianity’s climb
to dominance was sparked by a single event – the conversion of Roman
Emperor Constantine I. Constantine was embattled in a bitter civil war
to retain the emperor’s throne. Before the decisive battle against his
brother-in-law and chief rival in 312, he was said to have claimed to
experience a vision where Christ appeared unto him, instructing him to
place the sign of Christ on the banners carried by his troops. He did
so, and his army proceeded to demolish that of his rival, securing his
position as emperor. He credited the Christian God for the victory, and
proceeded to give favor to Christianity over all other religions in the
massive Empire.

Almost overnight,
Christianity was propelled to the status of global, theological
powerhouse. Roman citizens and subjects converted in droves, as
Christians were afforded special tax breaks and other amenities not
available to any other religious affiliations. Despite its favored
status, other religions were now outlawed by Constantine. It would not
be until later in the 4th century (380), when Christianity would be named the
official state religion of Rome, illegalizing all other models of
worship. This would ensure the conversion of nearly everyone under Roman
control, covering much of Europe, West Asia and North Africa. Failing to
convert typically elicited deportation or execution.

Refinement While
Under Roman Leadership

In addition to
promoting Christianity within the world’s largest empire at the time,
Constantine also forced various Christian leaders to unify the diverse
doctrines that had evolved since the inception of Christianity. Although
this process seriously curbed any semblance of religious freedom within
the movement, it succeeded in centralizing the power structure of the
church, strengthening its influence.

The First Council of Nicaea (in
modern Turkey) was called by
Constantine in 325, with the purpose of resolving these common doctrinal
controversies. The primary point of contention of the day concerned the
nature of Jesus Christ. Arianism argued that Jesus was created by the
father (therefore a separate being), while Orthodoxy contended that the
Father and the Son were of the same substance. Orthodoxy was the
majority view going into the council, and emerged as the only accepted
doctrine upon its conclusion.

Arian priests that
continued to preach the “separate substance” theology faced execution or
exile from the Roman Empire. This marked the beginning of the end of Arianism as a mainstream doctrine. Although this branch of Christianity
would survive, even to this day, and even competing with the Roman
Catholic Church in the early Dark Ages, it would always remain a fringe
sect within Christianity.

While the most
pressing doctrinal controversy was rectified in Nicaea, there were still
a large number of Christian texts floating around, many of which
contradicted one another. In order to bring an end to the confusion,
church leaders commenced the Council of Rome in 382 to determine which
books should be canonized, and included in the authorized scriptural
collection (later known as the Bible). A variety of factors were
considered in selecting texts, including doctrinal congruency and
authenticity. Other more arbitrary factors also came into play. For
instance, it was determined that four gospel texts had to be included,
no more or no less, to represent the “four corners” of the earth.

Even though doctrinal
inconsistencies had been resolved, there was not a set hierarchy within
Christendom throughout the remainder of the 4th century, and halfway
through the 5th century. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon was convened
to establish a defined hierarchy, or a centrally-operated Christian
church. Christianity had traditionally been stronger in the east, in
Bishoprics such as Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople.
But the Church headquarters was awarded to the Bishopric of Rome, with
the Bishopric of Constantinople recognized as second in power.

It was generally
understood that Peter, the head of Christendom upon the death of Christ,
was the original Bishop of Rome. Therefore, it stood to reason that the
Roman Bishops represented the true Apostolic Succession as the true head
of the entire Christian movement. In addition, Rome was the epicenter of
the Roman Empire, so basing the Christian Church in Rome enabled close
coordination of political and ecclesiastic leadership. With this
decision, the loosely-organized and decentralized “Christian Church”
became the highly-centralized Roman Catholic Church.

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Increased
Authority and Control During Medieval Times

Upon the collapse of
the Western Roman Empire in 476, secular authority broke down throughout
the former Roman Empire Western and Central Europe. As invading Germanic
tribes took control of former Roman lands, the rule of law became
virtually non-existent. The Roman Catholic Church organizational
apparatus remained intact though, causing the Christianized masses to
look to the Church first and foremost for guidance during this chaotic
time. Thus, the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church
continued to grow.

However, other
hallmarks of Roman life dwindled, including education. This only served
the Catholic Church even more, as it was relied upon for knowledge of
the world, as clergy were typically among the rare few that became
literate and educated. Naturally, they primarily imparted only
faith-promoting religious knowledge, not wanting to distract its
congregations from the path to salvation.

The Catholic churches
also served as libraries for secular literature, including non-religious
philosophical writings, such as those from Greek philosophers. This
material was not shared with congregations, becoming largely forgotten
during the Dark Ages. Many (perhaps most) of these writings became lost
during the Medieval times. Critics accuse the Catholic Church of
intentionally purging these non-religious writings, but there is little
to no direct evidence of this. Many books were lost due to natural
perishability of books, and barbaric raids (such as the Huns), contributing
to the Dark Ages by inhibiting illuminating worldly knowledge.

In a very real sense,
the Catholic Church became the “information highway” of the Middle Ages,
controlling the message dispersed to the masses, and thereby strongly
influencing beliefs, attitudes and actions. In addition to “pagan”
philosophies, many other fields of knowledge were suppressed, such as
science, technology, etc.

The Roman Catholic
Church not only controlled the flow of information, but they also had a
strong say in secular politics, becoming “kingmakers”. Kings that
aligned with the Church gained an advantage with the large, Christian
populations left behind by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Most
Germanic kings learned this quickly, adopting Christianity soon after
conquering former Roman provinces. The Ostrogoths converted after
conquering Italy, the Franks converted after conquering Gaul (roughly
approximate to modern France), and the Visigoths converted after
conquering Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal). Doing so enabled each
to consolidate rule in their new kingdoms, gaining support amongst their
new subjects.

In addition to
lending their approval of a new ruler, the Church also aided kings and
rulers in several other ways. For example, monasteries provided public
relations support on behalf of the king. In exchange, the Church was
given lands, and clergy were appointed to influential positions in the
King’s court, giving the Church a voice in policy.

The Church helped
create laws during the Dark Ages throughout Europe as a result,
including forced worship and conversions, increased tithes, and
repression of anti-Church influences. Kings also benefited by more
advantageous trade partnerships with fellow Christian kingdoms, etc.

During the Middle
Ages, virtually all of Europe became Christianized, either through the
Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodoxy Church based in
Constantinople (Eastern Roman Empire), with the Roman Church being more
powerful and influential overall. By this factor alone, the pope became
even more powerful.

When a nation dared
defy the Church, as the German “Holy Roman Empire” did in the 11th
century, the pope proved capable of even raising an army to defeat
insubordinate kings and emperors.

East-West Split
(Schism)

Also in the 11th
century (1054), the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy Church
(Constantinople) officially split, excommunicating one another. Although
the seeds of division were planted centuries previous to official split
in 1054, the hard break was primarily a result of claims of primacy and
jurisdiction, where both Churches battled for supremacy. The Roman
Church sought to retain control over all of Christianity. The Eastern
Church attempted to rise to the status of equals, which was largely true
in practice, as the Eastern Orthodoxy did serve as the supreme authority
in the Greek world.

There were also
doctrinal differences, such as that surrounding the icon controversy.
The creation of religious imagery (statues and paintings) was an
important part of worship among the Greek Christians. However, this was
considered heresy by the Roman Church in the Latin world. This
hotly-debated issue served as another point of divergence between the
two churches.

After the split, the Roman and Eastern
churches would both grow
powerful within their respective spheres. However, the Roman Catholic Church would gain the advantage after the Eastern Orthodoxy church
came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. This would result in the
widespread subdivision of Eastern Orthodoxy (Greek, Serbia, Russian,
etc.), and the rise to superiority and power of the Roman Church by
comparison, although the successor Eastern Orthodoxy churches are still
prominent today.

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Crusades: The
Zenith of Church Power

After the East-West
schism, the Byzantine Empire (the continuation of the Eastern Roman
Empire by the Greeks after the fall of the Western Roman Empire based in
Italy) had lost most of Anatolia (modern Turkey) to encroaching Muslim
armies. Byzantine solicited the Roman Catholic Church to drum up support
to fend off the advancing Muslims. This, along with the fact that
Christian pilgrims visiting Muslim-controlled Jerusalem were being
targeted by acts of violence, prompted the pope to lend his support.

The pope offered any
willing participant a remission of their sins by joining the cause,
attracting large crusader armies under papal influence. The crusades
began in 1099 as Roman Catholic soldiers commenced their march around
the Mediterranean. The death toll was high for Christians and Muslims as
the Crusader army captured cities on the way to Jerusalem. When
Jerusalem was captured, Muslim and Jewish residents in the city were
slaughtered, including women and children.

The crusader
mentality was also unleashed upon other parts of the world, such as
Northern Europe, which was still largely pagan. Christian armies
(primarily German) preemptively invaded these people, forcing them to
convert to Christianity under the threat of extermination.

The crusader
mentality was that Christianity must displace competing ideologies, such
as Islam, Judaism or paganism. It led to widespread acts of senseless
violence, wars, and severe persecution against those from other faiths.
For example, Jews throughout Europe were increasingly targeted during
the crusader era, as anti-Semitism
boiled over. The religious fervor engendered by the crusades sank
religious tolerance to a low point, making Jewish communities throughout
Europe an inviting target.

Violence directed at
Jews became common, with entire Jewish communities slaughtered in the
worst of cases. The crusader era rekindled a legacy of anti-Semite
persecution in Europe, which would last until World War II, culminating
with the Holocaust.

In addition, the
crusades actually weakened the Byzantine Empire instead of bolstering
it. Byzantine was not as enthusiastic about campaigns into the Middle
East, to the frustration of Roman Catholic soldiers, who felt their
Eastern Orthodox counterparts undermined their efforts. This tension
came to a head in 1204, when the Roman Catholic soldiers turned their
hostility against their fellow Christians, capturing the Byzantine
capital of Constantinople, and surrounding territories.

The Greeks would
eventually regain the heart of their empire by 1261, but would be
irreversibly damaged. In which case, Byzantine was ripened for
destruction when the Ottoman Turks began advancing into Europe a century
later. This enabled the Muslim Ottomans to conquer the Byzantine Empire
beginning a century later. With the Greek world under control, the
Ottomans would succeed in devouring the rest of the Balkan peninsula,
subjecting most of Southeast Europe to its control for the next five
centuries.

The crusading escapades
would also be used as an indictment against
the Roman Catholic Church centuries later during the Protestant
Reformation, convincing many that the church was not the moral authority it
has claimed to be throughout Roman times and the Dark Ages, where it
essentially monopolized Christianity. The Protestant Reformation, which
began in earnest in the early 16th century, would end the strict
centralization that had characterized Christianity since the 5th
century.

Slow, Gradual
Erosion of Christianity’s Influence

As the crusades were
slowly winding down by the early 1300s, with the Christians having lost
their final foothold in the Middle East in 1291, Europe was stricken by
famine and pandemic disease (Black Death). This marked the gradual
decline upon the grip Christianity held on the people of Europe.

When the Church
proved powerless to stop the series of widespread plagues that
devastated all of Europe, people began to question papal authority, and
even the validity of Christianity itself. More people would turn to
critical analysis, which would play a part in coming of the Renaissance
that would begin by the 1400s. These philosophical revolutions would set
Europe on the path toward becoming gradually less religious, a trend
accelerated after the world wars of the 20th century.

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