Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Early History of Eastern Olympian Churches (70-451)

1. The Illegal Period (70-313)
Jerusalem and its loss of significance
From AD 30, Christian Jews competed with Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes to have the normative understanding of Judaism. Then, in AD 66, Jewish leaders of Judea chose to rebel against Roman control.

Tradition tells us that Christian Jews in Jerusalem chose to avoid the rebellion by leaving not only Jerusalem but the province of Judea altogether. They moved north to the city of Pella (in today's Jordan).

Tradition also tells us that during the rebellion Johanan ben Zakai, a leader of the Pharisees, also left Jerusalem. He moved to Yavne (Jamnia) and, under his leadership, a new Sanhedrin or Jewish Council was created there.

In 70, Roman legions ended the Jewish rebellion in Judea by destroying Jerusalem and its temple dedicated to Yahweh. With that destruction they also ended the existence of the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenses.

After 70, Pharisaic Judaism developed into Rabbinic Judaism which did become the normative understanding of Judaism.

We may understand the year 70 as the date marking a new era in early Church history as well. First, Jewish leaders understood Christianity to be a religious movement with beliefs, values, norms, stories, and goals distinct from their own and irreconcilable with them. After that, one had to choose either to remain a Jew or to become a Christian. The option of being a Christian Jew disappeared.

Second, after 70, Christian Jewish leaders, once of Jerusalem and then of Pella, lost their importance to Christianity. With its move to Pella, that first assembly of people devoted to Jesus lost its historical significance. Pentecost was over and the Spirit had moved on.

Emergence of Alexandria and Antioch
By 100, that significance passed to the churches in Alexandria and Antioch in eastern Olympia.

Persecution of Christians
The Roman state officially recognized Judaism as an ancient and legitimate religion. It did not extend this official recognition to Christianity during its first 300 years. Consequently, during those centuries, the Roman state subjected Christians to persecution varying from local to universal and from annoying to deadly.

Jesus, of course, was executed by a minion of the Roman state in AD 33. Nero, however, was the first Roman ruler to persecute people devoted to Jesus. Nero's persecution, while brutal, was not empire-wide or of long duration. It was limited to Christians in Rome in the year 64.

The most universal and deadly persecutions of Christians by the Roman state occurred during the reigns of Decius (beginning in 250 and ending 18 months later), Valerian (257-260), and Diocletian (303-311).

In all, between 33 and 313, the Roman state executed about 2,000 people for being Christians.

2. The Early Establishment Period (313-451)
Edict of Milan (313)
In 313, Constantine and Licinius, rulers of the western and eastern halves of the Roman state respectively, met in Milan (then capital of the western half). They decided to stop the persecution of Christians and to officially recognize Christianity as a legal religion. Tradition tells they announced their joint decision in the Edict of Milan.

Constantine followed official recognition of Christianity with a strong favoring of Christians. Christians got hired by the Roman state more frequently and advanced more rapidly than non-Christians. Being a Christian became the new normal. Churches became wealthy.

First Ecumenical Council (325)
In 325 Constantine organized the first ecumenical, or empire-wide, gathering of church leaders in Nicaea (52 miles, 97 km southeast of Constantinople). He wanted these leaders to develop a shared understanding of the nature of God the Son and his relationship with God the Father. An Alexandrian priest named Arius believed that God the Son differed in nature from God the Father, was subordinate to God the Father, and came into existence through God the Father's first act of creation. An Alexandrian deacon named Athanasius believed that Father and Son were identical in nature, equal in divinity, and had existed together from all eternity. The assembly of leaders favored the understanding of Athanasius. Their summary of it forms the first part of what today is known as the Nicene Creed. Constantine exiled Arius to eastern Alpinia.

The increasing power, wealth, and conventionality of the Church was not greeted as good news by every Christian. St. Anthony (ca 251-356) had already championed the abandonment of the world for the spiritual rigors of the desert of Egypt. He had also been the first to organize a colony of like-minded hermits into a loosely affiliated worship community. With the Constantinian compromising of the Church after 313, monasticism became a mass movement.

In 317 a man named Pachomius, born in Thebes in 292, was one more individual who went to live as a hermit near Anthony and to learn from him. In 324 Pachomius responded to the voice of God calling him to establish the first Christian monastery in which participants would live and pray together, share possessions, and accept the leadership of an abbot. He started it on an island of the Nile in southern Egypt.

In 333 Athanasius, a church leader in Alexandria and strong opponent of Arius at the Council of Nicaea, came to visit Pachomius and his community. He wanted to ordain Pachomius a priest but the monk refused.

Pachomius died in 348. Basil, a later leader of the churches in Caesaria of Anatolia, visited his monastic community around 358 and was quite impressed. When Basil returned to Anatolia, he started his own monastic community and wrote his thoughts on what he'd learned from the communities of Pachomius, and others in Levantia and Egypt, in his Small Asketikon. This in turn influenced the development of Western monasticism after it was translated from Greek to Latin and then read and used by Benedict of Nursia.

Edict of Thessalonica (380)
In 380, Gratian and Theodosius 1st, rulers of the western and eastern halves of the Roman state respectively, jointly issued the Edict of Thessalonica. Now Christianity was not only legal but was declared to be the only legal religion of the Roman state.

Second Ecumenical Council (381)
The next ecumenical council was called in 381 by Theodosius and was held in Constantinople itself. At this assembly, church leaders added a summary of their best understanding of the Holy Spirit to the words about Jesus discerned at Nicaea in 325. This led to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed which affirms that God the Holy Spirit is identical in nature to God the Father and God the Son and so is also co-equal and co-eternal with them. With this affirmation leaders established the Trinitarian understanding of God as normative within the Church across Olympia. Today's Nicene Creed includes their words about the Holy Spirit.

Persecution of wrong Christians and non-Christians
Upon becoming the last sole ruler of the whole Roman state, west and east, in 392, Theodosius started persecuting non-Trinitarian Christians in addition to non-Christians.

Emergence of Rome and Constantinople
Church leaders in Alexandria and Antioch had served as Christianity's most important ones since the loss of Jerusalem's leadership in AD 70. By 400, church leaders in Rome and Constantinople increasingly challenged their authority for the very Olympian reason that Rome was and Constantinople became the capital city of the Roman state.

Third Ecumenical Council (431)
In 431, this assembly of Christian leaders from across Olympia met to discuss how Mary, the mother of Jesus, might rightly be spoken of. Clement of Alexandria believed she should be called Theotokos: “the woman giving birth to the one who is God.” Nestorius of Constantinople (educated in Antioch) thought she should be called Christotokos: “the woman giving birth to the one who is the Christ.” The council took place in Ephesus, traditional home of Mary in her later years, in a church named after her. The assembled leaders chose to call Mary the Theotokos.

Following the council, Nestorius was exiled and those committed to his understanding of Mary were persecuted. Many of them moved east into Mesopotamia. At that time Mesopotamia was controlled not by the Roman state in Constantinople but by the Persian state in Ctesiphon (about 20 miles or 32 km southeast of today's Baghdad). Churches there had been in existence since the early days of Christianity. Those churches welcomed the Nestorians.

Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) and the decline of Alexandria and Antioch
In 451 the fourth widely inclusive meeting of church leaders convened in Chalcedon—a city just across the Bosporus from Constantinople. There they discerned a priceless way of summarizing the biblical witness to Jesus. Their “Chalcedonian Formula” affirms that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, without separation, without confusion, and in that right order. As it turned out, this is also the best way of understanding the relationship between God and human beings in general. It also works well in describing any relationship, say between husbands and wives, where both unity and difference need to be affirmed.

The Chalcedonian Formula, however, was rejected by church leaders in both Alexandria and Antioch. With their rejection of it, they historically marginalized themselves. That left the church leaders of Rome and Constantinople to fight one another, in a very Olympian way, for supremacy.

After 451, churches recognizing the leadership of Alexandria or Antioch became what today are called Oriental Orthodox churches (rather than Eastern Orthodox churches). These include the Coptic Orthodox Church (primarily in Egypt) and the Syriac Orthodox Church (primarily in Syria).

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.