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A Brief Account of Ancient Christianity in the Midst of Plurality of Religion

Brett Nichols

Posted on March 29, 2020 19:01

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A Brief narrative of the plurality of Rome in relation to Christianity between Caligula's rule and persecution of Christians in A.D 37 to 41 to and Constantine's drawing of Christendom in A.D. 311.

In the Ancient Period, religious pluralism was as vast as the cities that existed in Rome. In the growth of Hellenism, the Roman culture held an openly polytheistic mindset and allowed the ideas of various cultures influence on their own–both religious and philosophical. There were few parameters in the disallowance of religion, therefore any new types of thought were welcomed into the fray to be understood and potentially scrutinized by the community.

In Egypt, the people worshipped Osiris and Isis, which would seemingly bring fertility to those who prayed to them. Another belief was of the cult of Mithra, which was of "Indo-Iranian origin," and its majority of followers were usually found in the army. Interestingly, many biblical accounts reveal these pagan beliefs, such as the encounter that Paul has with the audience in the theatre in Acts 19:27-41.

These are only a few examples that were added to the belief system within the Empire during the Roman reign. Considering there was such an extensive amount of mythology that the Romans had collected from the many cultures they had conquered and assimilated, it is of no surprise that these ideas are difficult to separate from the cultural history of the people themselves.

However, not all religions were accepted, as most of their beliefs were monitored by the ruling emperors, such as the notorious Caligula, who began his rule in the early Ancient Period in approximately A.D. 41. He restricted Jews in their worship and resulted in brutally torturing and murdering them. Those who believed in the Jewish God were criticized as "atheists" because the God they worshipped wasn’t in a visible form or an image. 

In the midst of the persecution, many years after Caligula, there were emperors who also helped bring peace in this period. One famously known as Constantine the Great began his rule in the mid to late Ancient Period in A.D. 311 or 312 and eventually made Christianity the official Roman religion.

Constantine made Christianity famous, believing that building the empire on this faith rather than the pagan methods that other emperors used would make Rome the greatest that it ever was. While his methods were questionable to say the least, particularly for the autonomy of the Roman people at large, his decision gave Christians the freedom to practice their faith and doctrines openly. However, with new-found freedom came a new wave of the Christian beliefs that were mixed with pagan tradition which unsurprisingly caused discord in the church regarding doctrine.

This diverging of belief would soon lead to the creation of the Christian councils to weed out false doctrines, the formation of the creeds and the canonization of scripture. Despite history being fraught with conflict, Christianity still stands strong today.

References:

Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Chp 2; Chp 13.

Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Folk Religion. (Penn: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998)

Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2010).

Brett Nichols

Posted on March 29, 2020 19:01

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