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CHRISTIANITY: THE BEGINNING

In The Acts of Perpetua and Felicita, three men and two women willingly walk into an arena where wild beasts are ready to kill them. After suffering beastly wounds, the survivors are willingly led out of the arena, and killed by sword. What was their crime? What gave them the courage to remain firm in the face of such peril? The answer to both of these questions would be Christianity. This is just one case out of hundreds and hundreds where people have willingly become martyrs for their beliefs. Two hundred years earlier, a man named Jesus would start the movement, now known as Christianity, which is only growing bigger and bigger with each passing century. Many kings and great rulers have attempted to halt and annihilate the movement, and even today, some many people deny the very existence of Jesus, and God himself. Despite of all these predicaments, millions upon millions of believers stay faithful to the movement. As a person who believes in God, Jesus, and the Christian movement, I have taken it upon myself to learn more about the history of this fascinating story and the man behind it all. In the course of my research, I have discovered many things I knew and many things I didn’t know. As result, I have found a new, deeper appreciation for my beliefs, and a new and deeper respect for Jesus, the martyrs who died after him, and everything they stood for. So, who was Jesus, what is Christianity, and how did this all start? Jesus was born in Bethlehem in about 4 BC to Mary and Joseph. “His initiation onto the world stage begins with his baptism by John the Baptist” (Collins & Price 24). After that, Jesus began gathering disciples and spreading the Gospel all around Palestine from about AD 27-30. Most of Jesus’ followers weren’t learned scholars, but regular fishermen. Together with his disciples, Jesus also went around performing many miracles, such as healing the blind, deaf, sick and lame. Jesus caught the attention of the scribes and Pharisees of the time, who viewed him as a threat to their authority. They took Jesus’ rebukes offensively, but what angered them the most was Jesus’ message that he was God’s son; the promised Messiah (Collins & Price 24-27). Jesus’ claim, of being God’s Son, led him to be accused of blasphemy. In around 30 AD, Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, betrayed Jesus, who was ultimately led to his crucifixion (McManners 21). At the command of King Herod, Jesus was tortured and crucified (Crossan 491). For his network of followers, Jesus’ death did not mean the end. According to early Christian writings, Jesus resurrected. One interpretation speaks of Jesus physically rising from the grave and appearing to his core disciples, some women followers, and other witnesses. Another account speaks of Jesus being freed from his physical limitations and being spiritually present for his people at all times and places (McManners 21-22). From this point forward, the body and soul were inseparably joined in the Christian idea of salvation. The human body was no longer viewed as a useless tool to be discarded, but as an instrument that be used to elevate to higher levels of spirituality and morality. The ascetics and martyrs of the early Christian movement also gave further meaning, depth and importance to the acts of Jesus. The sacrificial acts of the Christian ascetics were done to slowly but surely reveal the self to its own state of imperfection. Once the passions of the flesh were brought under control, the being’s realignment to God’s will was able to be achieved (Herring 71-72). Historically, Jesus is first mentioned within two centuries after his death in letters by Tacitus and Josephus; two aristocratic historians. Tacitus was a Roman, and Josephus was Jewish. In most letters written by Tacitus, Jesus’ execution, and the Christian movement, continuation and expansion are all mentioned (Crossan 10-12). Crossan quotes one of Tacitus’ letters: About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place had come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (12). People who applied Jesus’ teachings to their lives paved the pathway for many Christians to come (Bass, 27). For the first church, faith that Jesus was God’s anointed prophet and Messiah was fundamental. To early Christians, Jesus wasn’t the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth, but rather the pinnacle of a long story in the making through the unique prophecies and enlightenment given to Israel’s prophets in the Old Testament (McManners, 22-23). Motivated by the teachings and examples of Jesus’ disciples, the first Christians elected church leaders to govern their societies and push forward the movement. These church officials also had the duty of preaching and passing forward the faith (Collins & Price, 37). Christianity has proved successful because it has changed the lives of many in this chaotic world. Ancient Christianity developed in a large geographic area in different cultures, and over a long time. Throughout the first five hundred years of its existence, Christianity was understood as a way of life here and now; not as a religion, mysterious belief, or promise of eternal life after death (Bass 26-27). As time passed, Baptism became a formal ceremony in Christianity. Candidates were immersed in water, then dried off and anointed with olive oil. This symbolically represented the idea that the person was dying during the immersion and resurfacing as a resurrected, new creation. Being a Christian meant being part of a community that bridged the gap between heaven and earth (Herring 1-3). “At the heart of the faith of early Christianity was the idea of change” (Herring 1). For some Christians, the price they had to pay for their faith was suffering and death (Herring 4). Christianity angered the protectors of Roman religions. To these “protectors,” Christians were part of a social group that upheld its own laws and its own models of behavior, and were considered a wicked faction with secretive rites and practices. Christian traditions were viewed as extreme and socially divisive, and therefore Christians were ultimately seen as revolutionary traitors of the state (Bass 27). Other pagans who first brought up the Christians, historically, were Pliny and Suctonius; Roman authors who also held government positions. These men, along with Tacitus, considered Christianity a superstition, and looked upon it very negatively. In that time, Christians were considered mischievous, evil, and immoral. They were arrested and executed for their beliefs. The only way a Christian was pardoned, was if they renounced their beliefs, cursed Jesus, and worshipped a pagan god (Crossan 3-5). Oral tradition was used to pass on Christian-related materials during the forty years between Jesus’ death and Mark’s gospel in 70 C.E., and continued to be used thereafter (Crossan 49). Christianity started the process of breaking down and renovating Judaism. The writers of the New Testament had evidently gone through great measures to show that Jesus and the Christian movement symbolize the fulfillment of Judaism rather than its annihilation. This is why the New Testament is full of many quotes, allusions and echoes from Jewish scriptures; the Old Testament. Mainstream Judaism refused to accept this perspective. Over time, the dissimilarities between both religions were highlighted more than their resemblances, which in part led to the steady division of the two faiths (Herring 10-11). Saint Paul, a conservative Pharisee who at one point persecuted the early church, was converted after being confronted by a vision of Jesus, and went on to help deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles (McManners 23). Paul, along with other missionaries, established churches in many cities including Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth (Collins & Price 32-33). The recognition of Gentile Christians without an obligation that they keep the Mosaic Law appeared to the rabbis as an extreme tolerance, and the church and synagogue finally separated in about AD 85. The Roman government was the main persecutor of the Church. The example was put in place by Nero in 64 AD. In 250 AD, Emperor Decius commenced his short reign with a vicious and deadly attack, especially on bishops. Nevertheless, by 250 AD Christianity was openly infiltrating the higher classes of Roman society (McManners 41). “It was by the aid of these causes—exclusive zeal, the immediate expectation of another world, the claim of miracles, the practices of rigid virtue, and the constitution of the primitive church—that Christianity spread itself with so much success in the Roman empire,” (Crossan 1). In the midst of discrimination, lack of knowledge, and aggression by those who persecuted Christians, the church had to present a solid defense of its doctrines and way of life. The writers who took on this challenge are sometimes called the apologists; those who explain their beliefs instead of apologizing. Their goal was to offer a rational explanation to people more familiar with Greek philosophy and convince the Jews to recognize Jesus as their Messiah (McManners 46-47). Born in around 100 AD to pagan parents, Justin Martyr is one of the most famous apologists. He tried out different philosophies before being baptized circa 130 AD. He opened up a school and taught Christian philosophy in Rome during the AD 140s and 150s. Martyr strived towards providing philosophical explanations for Christian doctrines. His first of two apologies was addressed to Emperor Antonius Pius circa 151 AD. His second apology was addressed to the senate in Rome in 162. He defended the church against accusations such as unlawful sexual conduct, cannibalism, and lack of patriotism. The reality that Justin Martyr was allowed to speak to the emperor and the senate regarding such matters demonstrated the significant place Christians were assuming a bit over a hundred years after Jesus’ death. Unfortunately, Justin was executed by the emperor Marcus Aurelius around 165 (Collins & Price 46). Later in the century, perhaps between 180 AD and 185 AD, the Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, wrote his very influential treatise Against the Heresies. He declared that the legacy of the apostles, visible throughout the world, is alive in every church and can be recognized by all who desire to see the truth (Herring, 25). Irenaeus was against Gnosticism and any unorthodox belief that didn’t appeal to “the Rule of Faith” (Collins & Price 47). Augustine, a Christian convert and the bishop of the city of Hippo in North Africa, became known as the leading theologian of Constantinian Christianity. His queries shaped Christianity in the West for over a thousand years. His hard work and dedication is evident by his thousands of pages of theological theories regarding the church, Christian living, politics, and the nature of God. In 421 AD, Augustine summed up his ideology in The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love. Albeit he wrote a lot about just war, heresy, original sin, the doctrines, and destiny, the older Augustine went back to the main idea of early Christianity: “This love embraces both the love of God and the love of our neighbor, and ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,’” (Bass 78-79). After almost 250 years of persecution, Christians were finally allowed to worship in public for the first time in 311 AD. Constantine became the first Christian emperor, and a supporter and defender of the church (Collins & Price 58). “By the 430s AD, the cultural and religious divisions between Christian bishops and pagan senators had seized to divide” (McManners 65). Christianity became the religion of most of the people dwelling in Rome. Constantine’s nephew, Julian, attempted to revive paganism in Rome, but failed. In 437 AD one of the last aristocratic pagans allowed himself to be converted right before his death. During the last 20 years of the fourth century, a fair number of cities around the empire suffered from riots incited by Christian extremists. By the mid 500s AD, there were not many pagans left in Rome (McManners 65). The volume and rank of the church and its nature were transformed in the fourth century. First, as the church grew in riches and numbers, it started to build grand churches and brilliant liturgies to celebrate in them. These changes started to bring about issues concerning abuse of money and power. The worst part was probably when the church united with the state. The government began to use force to advance orthodoxy and reprimand heresy, which commenced a bloody tradition that has continuously stained Christian history until recent times (Collins & Price 64). Today, as Paul had preached in Corinthians, faith, hope, and love intertwined represent the tradition of the church; the greatest of these being love (Bass 310). Christianity strives to return humanity to its perfect condition illustrated in Genesis, when God made man in his image. By succeeding in this, the gap between heaven and earth will be sealed (Herring 1-2). In the course of my research, I’ve confirmed that Jesus’ purpose was to establish the Church. Whenever I think of the word “church,” I indeed also think of faith, hope, and love. I think of church as a place where people go when they’ve hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn; a place of redemption. I believe the church is deeply rooted in today’s society, and will not be going anywhere anytime soon. The story of Christianity is perhaps one of the greatest love stories ever; a story that is still in the making. It is fascinating how the life and death of one man, Jesus, can perpetually affect the course of history so much so, that history has been divided into the eras before and after his life. Up to this day, people are still converting, and completely changing their lives based on his sacrificial actions. In the far future, I believe people will still be proclaiming Jesus as God’s Son, and reaching to him for salvation. Albeit Christianity is one of the most prominent religions of today’s world, I still believe it is a bit misunderstood and not fully accepted. Nonetheless, people have willingly given up their lives for it. The fact that Christianity is still around shows that it must be doing something right. Some people make Christianity out to be a complex fairytale, but in reality it is all quite simple: God is love.…...

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