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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: February 2015

1 - How Christianity came to power


The Word of God [Jesus Christ] … is the Lord of All the Universe; from whom and through whom the king, the beloved of God, receives and bears the image of His Supreme Kingship, and so steers and directs, in imitation of his Superior, the helm of all the affairs of this world.

So wrote Eusebius (c. 260–c. 339), bishop of Caesarea, in celebration of thirty years of imperial rule by the Roman emperor Constantine. Three centuries had passed since the death of Jesus. Eusebius had reason to rejoice. Under Constantine Christianity had changed its status from being a cult within the mighty Roman empire to being an officially tolerated religion. Encouraged by Christians such as Eusebius, Constantine had readily accepted the status of deputy of Christ. With the blessing of the ‘Supreme King’ in the heavens, his ambition to become supreme king on earth was gaining new impetus and legitimacy.

One of the most skilful, powerful and ruthless of the Roman emperors, Constantine had harboured ambitions to unify and expand the Roman empire even before his ‘conversion’ to Christianity in 312. During the course of his long reign – from 306 to 337 – his commitment to Christianity increased until it became the favoured religion of the empire. The reasons appear to have been political as well as personal. Christianity offered something unique in the ancient world: an exclusivist, universalist, monopolistic monotheism focused on a single all-powerful God. Roman religion was generally pluriform and tolerant.

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An Introduction to Christianity
  • Online ISBN: 9780511800863
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Further reading
The context of early Christianity
Until recently, early Christianity tended to be the preserve of church historians, and late antiquity of classical historians. By bringing the two into relation with each other, Peter Brown revolutionised scholarship in this area. His The Making of Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) offers an engaging introduction to a classical world that both resists and incorporates Christianity. Gillian Clark's Women in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) offers an accessible treatment of its subject. In Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), Richard Valantasis has gathered together a useful collection of primary religious texts, including Christian ones
Earliest Christianity
The New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders has helped further understanding of the historical Jesus by placing him in the context of Palestinian Judaism. See, for example, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Allan Lane, 1993). Dominic Crossan's somewhat controversial The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991) is another influential attempt to sift what can be known about the historical Jesus, and offers a useful three-fold chronological scheme for categorising earliest Christian writings. Paula Friedrikson's From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988) offers a balanced survey of the different ways in which the earliest Christian communities interpreted Jesus. Wayne Meeks's The First Urban Christians (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983) sets Paul and the Pauline communities in sociological context and offers a vivid and concrete portrait of these early Christian groups. Richard Valantasis's introduction to, translation of and commentary on The Gospel of Thomas (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) serves as a useful starting point for engagement with early Christian apocryphal literature
‘Heretical’ groups
Walter Bauer helped change the way we view early Christianity by arguing that it was ‘heresy’ that came first and ‘orthodoxy’ that followed. See his pioneering study Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1971), which, though not an easy read, repays the effort. Giovanni Filoramo's A History of Gnosticism (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990) offers a comprehensive and detailed overview of the phenomenon. A more popular treatment can be found in Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980). Henry A. Green's The Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1985) offers a thoroughgoing sociological treatment of gnosticism. Rowan Williams contextualises the Arian crisis in Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987)
The development of Catholic Christianity
Eusebius' History of the Church (or Church History) is available in a number of translations and editions, including Penguin Classics (1965). It is an easy and enjoyable read. There are many accessible accounts of the early church; Stuart G. Hall's Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (London: SPCK, 1991) is one of the best. Ramsey MacMullen's Christianizing the Roman Empire (ad 100–400) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984) and W. H. C. Frend's Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965) consider the often hostile relations between Christianity and paganism. For wide-ranging anthologies of early Christian documents see J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to ad 337 (new edition, London: SPCK, 1987), and J. Stevenson (ed.), Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church ad 337–461 (new edition, London: SPCK, 1989). William R. Schoedel's Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985) illuminates the emergence of the Catholic form of Christianity
The growth of asceticism and monasticism
Peter Brown's The Body and Society (London: Faber, 1990) considers the development of asceticism and monasticism in the early church from Paul to Augustine, and is the classic work in the field. David Brakke's Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995) influenced the final section of this chapter. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is available in a number of translations, and is still compelling as living spiritual literature as well as a historical document. E. A. Clark's Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1986) was a pioneering work on women and asceticism, and Susannah Elm's ‘Virgins of God’: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) builds on such work