At the time of the birth of Jesus Judaea and Galilee were separate political entities. In 37 BCE the Roman client king, Herod the Great (74/73–4 BCE), was proclaimed by the Romans to be the ‘King of the Jews’ with authority over Judaea, Galilee and Samaria. During this period Herod ruthlessly suppressed popular revolts, courted Roman patronage, and embarked on an ambitious programme of public works in Jerusalem. But the general population was deeply resistant to his romanizing and hellenizing tendencies. The Galileans refused to accept his authority, and formed a resistance group, called the Zealots. On Herod’s death in 4 BCE his kingdom was divided between his three sons. Jerusalem and Judaea were under the authority of Archelaeus, who proved himself incapable of dealing with his Jewish subjects. In 6 CE the Romans brought the province of Judaea under direct rule. Jesus came from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, which was ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Antipas, who also ruled Peraea. In this prosperous region, where the population was predominantly Jewish, the economy was based on agriculture and fishing. Herod’s third son, Philip, ruled the territory north and east of the Jordan until his death in 34 CE. In the east, the Decapolis was a league of ten Greek cities, which functioned as autonomous city-states.
The Ministry of Jesus
The Christian concept of a ministry encompasses a journey through which someone demonstrates their faith. Raised in Nazareth, Jesus worked as a carpenter before his baptism, and recognition as the Son of God, at Aenon on the Jordan Jesus’s ministry began with his baptism by John the Baptist and is considered by most scholars to have ended with the Last Supper in Jerusalem. The exact timeframe of the ministry is uncertain, although most estimates place its start between 27–29 CE. Within the three years of Jesus’s ministry, numerous important biblical events occurred across Roman Judaea, with clear details and locations mentioned in the Bible. The overall ministry is split into distinct sections. The Galilean ministry, which comprises three phases, documents Jesus’s journey around Galilee, during which he recruited his first disciples and the twelve apostles, culminating with his feeding of the 5,000 (near Bethsaida) after which he walked on water, and the Transfiguration occurred upon a mountain near Caesarea Philippi. This is followed by the Later Judean ministry and the Later Perean ministry during which Jesus travelled to Jerusalem and was acknowledged as the voice of God. The final ministry in Jerusalem documents Jesus’s arrival in the city and the Last Supper. As Jesus entered the city the Sanhedrin (assembly) of the Jewish church elders had determined he must be eliminated. He was tried and sentenced by Pontius Pilate and crucified by the Romans, perhaps in April of the year 30 CE. The Christian holy day of Pentecost commemorates the disciples’ meeting in Jerusalem 50 days after the resurrection. Endowed with the gift of tongues, they set out to preach the gospel: the inception of the Christian Church.
The Journeys of St Paul
Saul of Tarsus, born in Asia Minor, was both a Jew and a Roman citizen, who was brought up as a Pharisee. He responded to the emergence of the Jesus movement by becoming an enforcer of pharisaic orthodoxy, travelling from synagogue to synagogue, preaching the persecution of Jews who believed Jesus to be a Messiah. Travelling to Damascus on such a journey in c. 36 CE, Saul was struck blind and heard the voice of Jesus ask why he was persecuting him. This transformative experience made him a Christian, a transition he marked by changing his name to Paul. A decade later, he began travelling to preach the Christian message. Paul’s first missions were in Syria, Cyprus and Cilicia in the vicinity of his home town of Tarsus, and he went on to travel in Greece and the Levant. He had trained as a tent-maker and used his trade to work his passage. Hugely resilient, he attributed his survival of beatings, shipwrecks and imprisonment to the power and grace of God. Paul exploited to the full the vastly improved freedom of travel and communication provided by the Pax Romana to seed a network of Christian outposts, which he knit together with his copious and impassioned correspondence.
Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who preached the persecution of Jews who believed Jesus to be a Messiah, converted to Christianity in c. 36 BCE. He travelled widely to preach the Christian message, and his later journeys took him to the Levant, Anatolia and Greece and as far afield as Italy, Sicily and Malta. After commencing his mission, he returned to Jerusalem a total of five times and was forced to assuage the criticisms of those who believed that Christianity should not be taught to Gentiles. On his final visit to Jerusalem, Paul was arrested, apparently for accompanying one of his converts into an area of the Temple forbidden to Gentiles. He was able to use his citizenship to persuade the Jewish authorities to transfer his case to Rome and made his final journey there as a prisoner. The circumstances of Paul’s death remain a mystery. He was imprisoned in Rome in 64CE, when the Emperor Nero purged the Christians, whom he held responsible for the Great Fire that had ravaged the city. Some accounts claim that Peter was crucified, and Paul beheaded during these reprisals; others, more speculative, that Paul managed a final mission to Spain before returning to Rome and execution.
The Spread of Christianity
The spread of early Christianity was not rapid, yet in just a few hundred years it grew from a small, often persecuted sect to the dominant western religion. Widespread preaching from apostles such as Paul (it is said he covered 10,000 miles in 30 years) allowed Christian teachings to be heard by many; the poor and desperate were particularly receptive to the Christian promise of eternal life. Yet Christians faced persecution, most notably under Nero in 64 CE after the Great Fire of Rome. The spread of the Christian message, however, did not waver and much of the persecution was short-lived and isolated. By 200 CE the Christian movement was sizeable, with perhaps 150,000–200,000 Christians throughout the empire. Many of the missionaries were merchants who spread the gospel during their commercial travels. Alon g wit Rome, the major centres were Antioch and Alexandria. As the faith grew, the Christian church became more organized and a turning point came when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 CE. Free worship was tolerated and there was a general shift towards a Christian Roman Empire. Constantine did not merely protect the church: he asserted his authority over it, in particular by convening the Council of Nicaea (4325 CE) which ruled against Arianism (see below)
Early Christian Sects
The Christian church was highly fissiparous and many local Christian movements ended up being condemned and expelled by the “catholic” or “universal” church. The Ebionites, descendants of the original Jewish Christians, regarded Jesus Christ as the Messiah but rejected the doctrine of his divinity and the virgin birth. Gnosticism was a dualistic movement that emerged from Platonism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. The most enduring of the dualistic movements were the Manichaean followers of the third century Persian profit Mani, whose radical opposition between matter (evil) and spirit (good) profoundly challenged Christian orthodoxy. The rigorous perfectionism of the Donatists, and the rejection of clergy they deemed to be compromised, provoked a schism in the church in Carthage in the early fourth century CE. Arius’s easily comprehensible doctrine maintained, simply, that Jesus Christ could not be “co-eternal” and of the same essence as God the Father because “if the father begat the Son… it is evident that there was a time when the Son was not.” Arianism flourished amongst the Germanic tribes.
The Council of Chalcedon
In 451 CE, the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian Church convened in Chalcedon, Turkey. It was here that over 520 bishops met to agree on the doctrinal canons of Christianity. These included the Nicene Creed: God is the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, a view accepted by the entire Christian Church. However, the Chalcedonian definition of Jesus Christ as two separate natures, with two wills, divine and human, was rejected by the Churches known as the Oriental Orthodox, under Alexander, Antiochia and Hierosolyma, who refused to repudiate their belief that Jesus Christ was two natures but one will. The creed that Jesus Christ is two distinct wills was driven by the Church under Constantinople and accepted as doctrine by the Churches of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This schism created dangerous tensions within the Byzantine Empire, with each side considering the other to be heretics.