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Religion Library: Christianity

Early Developments

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Christianity began as a Jewish messianic movement in Jerusalem in the 1st century of the Common Era. Enjoying the advantages of travel and communications afforded by the relative calm of the Pax Romana, missionaries carried their message of resurrection and salvation throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, including Italy and Rome, the seat of the empire.

During these first few decades after the death of Jesus, Roman law regarded the new Christian movement as a Jewish sect. Thus the Christians, like the Jews, were exempt from the legal requirement to worship the Roman emperor as a god-like figure. To acknowledge the emperor's divinity, a participant offered a pinch of incense on an altar to the emperor. Most educated Romans viewed this as a merely symbolic act, but in the popular imagination this token ceremony was thought to appease the gods who were responsible for the empire's peace and prosperity. Both Jews and Christians considered this an act of idolatry.

As Gentiles increasingly filled the ranks of these early Christian communities, Christians as a group lost their legal status as Jews. Their refusal to offer incense invited accusations that they were atheists and unpatriotic. By refusing to honor the gods of Rome, Christians aroused fears that the gods would punish Rome. This led to suspicions, rumors, and waves of persecutions. By the start of the 2nd century, being a Christian was punishable by death.

Nevertheless, Christianity continued to spread and attract new converts. Christians were known for their hospitality and philanthropy. They shared their possessions and established networks of care for the poor and for widows and orphans. Unusual in Roman cities and towns, Christianity's communal life and social generosity drew attention and converts to the movement.

Christians were also known for their care of the sick, including plague victims, and their respect for the bodies of the dead. The ancient world had little in the way of medical knowledge and treatments. It was commonly believed that sickness was caused by evil spirits, or demons, so exorcisms were common. The Christian practice of "laying on of hands" was one such form of healing.

Major Roman persecution of Christians
Domitian81-96 CE
Marcus Aurelius161-180 CE
Decius249-251 CE
Diocletian284-305 CE

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